As we prepare our hearts for Advent, I invite you to listen to the Christmas Story.
“Once upon a time, a decree went out from Caesar, in August, that everyone should be taxed so that the deficit would not get too big. Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem. Mary rode on a donkey named Rudolph, who was embarrassed to be seen carrying an unwed mother. He blushed so at the thought that his nose glowed red. Upon arriving at Bethlehem, they could not find a place to stay (It was, after all, the Christmas season, and the press of tourists was crushing). As they knocked at the door of the last inn in town, the innkeeper pushed back the shutter and threw up the sash. His figure appeared so nimble and quick. They knew in a moment his name must be Nick. Meanwhile in a field nearby, seven dwarfs who were shepherds were startled to hear a group of angels singing Handel's Messiah. At the end of the concert, they were told to stand up and to go to Bethlehem. So off they marched to the beat of their friend, the little drummer boy. When they arrived at the stable, they met Joseph, Mary, the child and a man made famous in song, Round John Virgin.”The Christian Century magazine published that commentary on the secularization of Christmas in 1986. In the article, the author, Michael Martin, asked, “What if most of what people knew of Christmas was what they heard in Christmas songs and in fables told to children? Worst of all, what if all they knew about the Christmas celebration was how we actually live it?” What might the Christmas story sound like if it were told incorporating all the various myths, misunderstandings and attitudes that in fact saturate our celebration?
The author suggests that we mistake the true meaning of Christmas with the "Celebration of Santa Christ," the "Sweet Baby Syndrome," or, possibly, the "Mercantile Messiah Motif."
Santa Christ is the jolly god who lives far, far away, and is only mentioned once a year. Actually, all mature people know that he doesn’t really exist; but he’s a convenient excuse for celebration.
The Sweet Baby Syndrome celebrates the lovable infant in his crib, smiling and cooing. He doesn't make any demands on anyone; he just lies there and looks innocent. He spends most of the year in the closet with all the other Nativity scene supplies. But, once a year, we get him out, dust him off and say, “What a sweet baby.” Of course, we always put him back on the shelf when the New Year begins.
The Mercantile Messiah proclaims that Christmas is all about buying. The advertisements say “Christmas is all about giving, so let us sell you something that you can give to somebody else, and you will be saved.”
The challenge with Santa Christ, the Sweet Baby and the Mercantile Messiah is that they come and go but they never transform anyone. They don’t reveal much about God. They don’t bring the lasting hope, love, joy, and peace the world needs. Jeremiah longed for a different Savior. Jeremiah knew that the people needed to inventory their lives and get rid of everything that did not reveal the true nature of God. He proclaimed a costly coming of the Messiah. God says, “The day will come, says the Lord, when I will do for Israel and Judah all the good things I have promised them. In those days and at that time I will raise up a righteous descendant from King David’s line. He will do what is just and right throughout the land. In that day Judah will be saved, and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this will be its name ‘The Lord Is Our Righteousness.’” Jeremiah 33:14-16
I invite you to listen to another Scripture reading – This from the mouth of Jesus as told by Mark. The disciples ask about future time of destruction. They want to know what to look for when the end is near. Jesus says,
“At that time, after the anguish of those days,Stop for a minute with me and think about it. What does it mean when Jesus says to us that there is a day coming when the Son of Man will come to us in a cloud with power and great glory? What can these words mean in the midst of a busy life, a hectic life, a crazy life?
the sun will be darkened,
the moon will give no light,
the stars will fall from the sky,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then everyone will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds with great power and glory. And he will send out his angels to gather his chosen ones from all over the world—from the farthest ends of the earth and heaven. Now learn a lesson from the fig tree. When its branches bud and its leaves begin to sprout, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see all these things taking place, you can know that his return is very near, right at the door. I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass from the scene before all these things take place. Heaven and earth will disappear, but my words will never disappear. However, no one knows the day or hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself. Only the Father knows. And since you don’t know when that time will come, be on guard! Stay alert! The coming of the Son of Man can be illustrated by the story of a man going on a long trip. When he left home, he gave each of his slaves instructions about the work they were to do, and he told the gatekeeper to watch for his return. You, too, must keep watch! For you don’t know when the master of the household will return—in the evening, at midnight, before dawn, or at daybreak. Don’t let him find you sleeping when he arrives without warning. I say to you what I say to everyone: Watch for him!” Mark 13:24-37
. . . a life where our kids expect to be driven here and there and ask for things that we may not be able to afford?
. . . a life where our employers expect us to work overtime,
. . . and our clubs, our church, and our sports teams ask for hours we don’t have?
What do these promises about the future mean when we are caught up in trying to do all we can do right here and now in the present - what do they mean when we are struggling to live one day at a time - when we are trying to be all things to all to many people? What do they mean when we watch the news or read the paper and discover that senseless horrors continue throughout the world; that crime and starvation and terrorism and war and earthquakes and floods abound and indeed seen to be increasing?
To me, they mean that I should rejoice, that I should arise and watch and pray.
The promise of Christ is that the future is not going to be like the present. On that day, evil will perish and that a new heaven and a new earth will come upon us – a heaven and earth of everlasting peace and justice, joy and love. Sometimes I think, “What are you waiting for, Jesus? I am ready now. We need your loving justice. We need a new start. We need you to come and validate the work we do to make the world a more compassionate and human place.”
It can be easy to get so caught up in the worries of life that we are unprepared for the coming of the Savior. Let me ask you, what one or two things do you tend to be so focused on that lose your context? What types of situations flood you with worry and cause your stomach to twist in knots, and your mind to lose perspective on the big picture?
When I was growing up in the 70's and 80's, I was sure I was going to die a slow death from the fallout of a nuclear war. There were two superpowers: the Soviet Union and the United States. We each had nuclear weapons. We each were held back from launching them by the certain knowledge that the other superpower would launch theirs ... but we knew that couldn't last forever. As children, we asked ourselves whether it would be better to try to survive a nuclear blast, or just be at ground zero during the attack. We decided it would be better to be near the blast, so we wouldn’t live to see the aftermath. When I was in high school, there was a television miniseries called The Day After that gave voice to what most people my age believed would happen before we had the chance to see old age. By mistake or intention, someone launches their weapons, and we launch ours, and the world ends -- fire, followed by ice, with famine and unspeakable global destruction. Maybe I worried too much, but that anxiety provided the backdrop to much of my childhood and adolescent years.
Our worries may not be on a global scale. The toughest distractions are the personal ones. For instance, sometimes I become so focused on my work, I tend to lose sight of my place in the big picture. I can spend hours before the computer, and then rush around doing visits and getting ready for meetings and then going to them - that I forget what it is that I am proclaiming. I can miss my family’s joys and what it is God is actually doing all around me.
What about you? Do you ever feel lost in today -- lost in the concerns that this moment brings? Has your life been taken over by one worry or another so that you can’t appreciate the wonderful things happening around you? Do you ever lose focus on what message your words and work are sending to others?
The world is filled with problems, both global and personal. There will always be something that challenges our faith. Jesus tells us that things like warfare, floods, famine, and our crumbling creation are signs that point toward a better future. Jesus reminds us that personal worries can be more distracting problems around the planet. Those personal events are dangerous because they are subtle and sneaky. All of the sudden we're trapped, feeling sorry for ourselves, working harder, focusing on one part of life, that we miss the bigger picture.
That’s why Jesus tells us to be alert. To watch. To pray. To not be so caught up in the everyday things that we fail to look around and see the presence of God’s Reign with all its hope and promise.
Jeremiah and Jesus tell us about the signs of the coming of the kingdom so that we might ready ourselves for it. A righteous Branch has sprouted from David's line; and he will do what is just and right in the land. Look, listen, and prepare for Jesus to come. What are you waiting for? Let’s spend this Advent in hope, in righteousness and in love, knowing that just as so many of promises of God were fulfilled at the birth of Christ, so many more will be fulfilled as we watch, as we wait, and as we participate in God’s work. Rejoice. Watch. Pray. Arise.