Thursday, December 17, 2009

What Then Should We Do at Christmas?

Luke 3:7-18 is the Gospel for the 3rd Sunday in Advent

Each Christmas, we get spellbound by Luke’s telling the story of our Lord’s birth. He’s the only one of the four Gospel writers to tell the story, I mean the full one, the one we like to hear, complete with shepherds, angels, and assorted barnyard creatures.

What would people think if, on Christmas Eve, we substituted for that second chapter of Luke today’s portion from the third chapter?

Can’t you picture our two churchfuls of people, many of them on annual visitation, hearing those immortal words, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

Here we are, on the third Sunday in Advent, when the lighting of the pink candle seems to say, “Lighten up!”--and that’s what we get: “You brood of vipers!” But we’re tough. We can take it. I mean, John the Baptizer’s version of Christmas. But is it the one we want to hear?

Why am I calling this stirring passage John’s version of Christmas? Because he’s preparing the way of the Lord, the Messiah who comes in God’s name. For St. Luke to give us this chapter 3 right on top of his Christmas story in chapter 2, it must be that he’s showing us how John the Baptizer’s confrontational message teaches us why this baby Jesus is born, and what difference it should make in our lives that he has come to us.

As brash and bold as John’s words are, it was with such exhortations that “he proclaimed the good news to the people.” In chapter 2, Luke puts good news in the voice of the angel, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” Can’t you hardly wait to hear those quintessentially Christmas words come from the sweet high voice of a child in our Christmas pageant?

Step across into chapter 3 and Luke puts good news in the voice of fearless John who raises everyone’s self-expectation, as well as stirring-up their expectation of God. In chapter 2, we see what God does in Bethlehem of Judea: sheer grace, gift. In chapter 3, the central question is “What then should we do?” What behavior, what ethical choices might be in keeping with such grace, such gift?

What, then, should we do?

General unrestrained merry-making? No, that would be what you do if you’re first-century Romans keeping the December feast of Saturnalia… inspiration for American office Christmas parties…

Run yourself into the ground, sacrificing your own health and happiness to meet the expectations of others? No, that too is based on pagan ideas about it being good to suffer in the flesh in order to meet the demands of the spirit.

Shop until we drop? Assume that more is better, that salvation is a matter of raising our own standard of living? For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone might make the month of December the most expensive, acquisitive, and wasteful extravaganza on the face of the earth?

What then should we do?

“Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” Do we turn the Feast of the Nativity of Jesus into an Olympic competition in retail spending because, when we get right down to it, we are so afraid of the dark? And so afraid of death? Do we surround ourselves with things that have color and radiance and glitter because otherwise December drags us into a dark night of the soul? Do we turn Bethlehem into bedlam because we lack the patience and courage to go deeper with God into our own spiritual journey? Is it easier to change dark December than it is to undergo the change of heart that is invited by the word “repent”? Isn’t the only way to the new light through the darkness?

And that is where John’s Christmas message begins. Perhaps before we can deal with the question, “What then should we do?”, we must ask, “Of what do we have to repent?”

Susan K. Bock offers some answers in a confession litany she has written for Advent. She starts by saying to God, “Emmanuel, we want to believe you are with us dwelling in this and every moment,” then completes the story by the response she gives the people, “But we pine for the past and rush toward the future.”

“We want to be found wide awake, alert with love, as you appear in this and every moment,” she prays again, and has the people answer, “But we slumber through and laze away the miracle of ordinary days.”

“We want to wait for you alone, with desire and hope,”… “But our trust fails, our longing grows cold, and our hope dims.”

“We want to make room in our hearts, a safe and warm place, for you to be born,”… “But we close our hearts, and harden them to you and your people.”

She ends her confession—and it could be ours—by praying, “We confess our failures at love,”…and has the people respond, “We are sorry; we ask your forgiveness.”

In a similar way, John the Baptizer must have brought the people along to recognize their need to prune away some of their own darkness, and to recognize as fruitless some of their own branches (their values, their habits, their priorities): “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees,” says John rather mystically and confrontationally, as he makes his case for the incarnation of God in Jesus, the birthing of the Messiah in our midst, as being all about the fruitfulness of love.

“Then what must we do?”, we ask.

“Share what you have,” he answers. You have two coats? Do you need them both? Give one to someone who has none. That’s his answer to every one of us, everyman, everywoman, everychild.

Then some special cases step forward. Tax collectors, asking what they should do. “Don’t gouge the public,” he answers.

Soldiers ask the same question. “Don’t bully people into paying you bribes, learn to live within your means.”

They called him Teacher, suggesting how important John would be in preparing the way for Jesus our Teacher.

Put yourself at the feet of either teacher, John or Jesus, and put to him your question about your own special case. What do you hear him say, as…

Teachers and writers come to him, asking, “What should we do?”

Investment bankers come to him, asking the same question.

Medical doctors come to him…what about us?

Lawyers… clergy… artists come to him…and us? What should we do?

Parents, grandparents, children come to him… What about us?

In common among all John’s answers are certain ways of being: Be generous in your sharing. Be fair and just. Be respectful and thoughtful.

And those traits, which we see made flesh perfectly in Jesus our teacher, are among the traits we commit ourselves to when we make and renew our baptismal covenant. No wonder that they could be the right traits of a Christmas celebration that truly honors the Messiah who has come.

Some may be dreaming of a white Christmas. John the Baptizer calls us to a generous Christmas, a fair Christmas, a respectful Christmas. May such be ours, by our own choice, in response to the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.