Updated: Dec 27, 2022
In the Name...
Last week, I began with a joke about an atheist's religious holiday being April 1st and one of you, who shall remain nameless, suggested an atheist's favourite Christmas movie – “Coincidence on 34th Street.”
Well, this is the season of Christmas-themed movies and there are a lot of good ones out there. But, if you were going to make a movie about the first Christmas, what would you include, aside from the obvious birth of Jesus? You could add a love story about Joseph and Mary with all the ups and downs of their relationship. You could also bring in the common man by writing the background stories of the unappreciated shepherds as they struggle through life, trying to make a living. And you could toss in the innkeeper for good measure and make him a comic relief character, sort of a Les Mis "master of the house.”
You’d use special effects, of course, as you could do all sorts of things with angels. And finally, you could conclude your epic film with the arrival of the Wise Men who followed the star to that little town of Bethlehem.
Sounds good, doesn't it? Did we leave anything out? Joseph, Mary, Jesus, angels, shepherds, innkeeper, Wise Men. Well, what about John? John? John who? John the Baptist? Hold on. What does he have to do with the story? I've never seen him in a nativity scene. Besides, he was only six months old when it all happened. He wasn't even there.
Well, true, John may have been left out of that first Christmas, but he keeps reappearing every year in the lectionary readings during Advent. Every year his unkempt and uncouth figure dominates December in church. Unlikely he may be, but, that crying Baptist is, for us, a Christmas character, a character, in fact, who makes Christmas more than just a good time.
In the Gospels, John is presented as the physical embodiment of the prophets of a past, and almost forgotten, generation. He intentionally dresses the way the ancient prophet Elijah is described in the Bible - rough camel hair cloak and a leather belt. Today we say that "image" is everything, but, it was no less true 2,000 years ago. John wanted people to look at him and think of Elijah. In the popular Judaism of the day, there was an expectation that before God would bring in the messianic age, setting all things right and restoring the fortunes of Israel, the sign of that would be the return of Elijah. John's image signifies to the people that the hopes, the dreams, the aspirations of Israel were about to come to fruition.
And John was no ordinary preacher. His walk, his talk, his heart, his soul, said "Prophet of God" in flashing neon lights. Where he went, people followed. When he spoke, people listened. He was a blast from the past doing what prophets of old had always done - calling the people back to the covenant.
By the way, it's interesting that today we think of prophets as future-tellers, but, in fact, if they did predict something, that wasn't their main job. The prophets did not appear before the people to tell them what God was about to do in the future. The prophets appeared before the people to remind the people what God had done in the past and tell the people what God expected them to do in the here and now. And, first and foremost, the prophets called the people to return to the covenant.
God had established a covenant with the people in the desert after they left Egypt. He promised that if they obeyed his laws, he would bless them. They were not to serve other gods. They were to defend the cause of the poor, the widow, and the orphan. The nation of Israel was to be the model nation that worshipped God in spirit and in truth and preserved justice for everyone.
But, Israel had forsaken that covenant. They worshipped other gods. They took advantage of the poor and ignored the suffering of the widow and orphan. And far from being a model, they had become indistinguishable from any other nation. So it was that John emerged to call the nation to return to its moral and spiritual heritage with a message so simple it can be summarized in a single word, "Repent.” Repent. Turn around.
That doesn't sound much like a holiday message, does it? Imagine getting a card that says, "Merry Christmas. May you repent of your sins." I dare you to put that on someone's card.
But, that's what Christmas is all about and not just in religious terms. Consider how you'll prepare to entertain guests this holiday season, and you will prepare since we don't expect people to just “drop in” much these days. Schedules must be coordinated and things must be done.
Our usual holiday preparation involves two distinct, but equally important, components; cleaning - hoovering carpets, dusting furniture, keeping bath and kitchen facilities shining; and decorating - the lights, garlands, trees, ornaments, a Nativity scene.
A lot of cleaning and decorating goes on at this time of year and our Advent observance should also include the same components - cleaning and decorating - but, for our souls and our lives. Self-examination is the cleaning of the soul, and we should be spending some time on that. How have we been living? How should we be living? And so God wants us to redecorate our lives. He wants us to take up some new habits, a new lifestyle, a new way of living in keeping with his Word and example, in keeping with our claim to be his covenant people.
The annual appearance of John reminds us that not only is our house dirtier than we thought, but, the situation is more serious than we imagined. To convey the importance of his plea, John uses the image of a tree that does not bear fruit. Who among us keeps a dead tree on our property because we think it looks good? Why should God be different?
That's the second startling image of God in two weeks. Last week, we were shocked to hear God referred to as a thief who steals the things we value above him. This week God is presented as an impatient arborist who destroys those not producing the fruits of repentance.
Each year countless families unpack Nativity scenes and put them on display to quaintly commemorate a long ago event as they get on with the real business of the season, celebrating themselves with family reunions and saccharine memories of times past. They become so immersed in their self-consuming activities and self-affirming activities and self-laudatory gift-giving that they have no time to consider that the child laid in the manger is the same person who grew up to be the King nailed to the Cross.
John the Baptist, health food diet and all, warned the old Israel that unless she changed, she would not be ready to receive her king. Two thousand Christmases later, are we of the new Israel any readier? When the Lord returns will he be able to harvest from our branches the fruits of righteousness or will he cut down our barren limbs for firewood.
Someone once said that John the Baptist takes all the fun out of Christmas, but I disagree. John's simple message, if we heed it, enables us to experience the true joy of Christmas; the true joy which comes from cleaning and decorating the house where God lives, the temple of the Holy Spirit - ourselves, our souls and bodies.
In the Name...