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I remember the first time I really thought about Christmas outside of that relatively narrow window between Thanksgiving and New Years Day. I was around eight years old, and it was sometime in August.
Those of us who grew up with TV commercials in the New York market will surely remember the August TV ads for the now-defunct electronics store "Crazy Eddie's." The ads always went: "Crazy Eddie's Christmas Sale--in August! Crazy Eddie can't be beat, with prices so low he's practically GIVING it all away! Crazy Eddie: his prices are INSANE."
If you didn't get the point, the man was wearing a Santa cap and would take a little Christmas tree and start waving it around wildly before finally throwing it over his shoulder into a giant pile of boom boxes.
So...maybe it was Crazy Eddie who first got me thinking about what Santa might be up to in August.
In any case, one day, I think in August, I asked my father something like, "What is Santa doing now?"
"Santa?" he said.
"Doing now?" he said.
"Well," my father began, matter-of-factly, "at this point he's probably pretty much done with fabrication and assembly except for some end line testing for the electronics. But he'll need to get that wrapped up pretty soon...."
"...Mostly, he's probably confirming routing and scheduling with his different distribution centers and trying to get them squared away for return flow..."
"...And if he's doing o.k. with that, then he's probably trying to work on procurement and supplier networks for next year's Christmas because that all needs to arrive by January 15 or the elves won't be able to get their act together, and he'll start off prepping for next Christmas already behind the 8-ball before he and Mrs. Claus are even back from Florida...."
This is a true story.
Let us just say that, when it comes to answering his son's questions, my father has always been one to set the bar...high.
Certainly, it was a clever answer. But more to the point, what made it a good answer was something else. Because without ever saying it, what lurks behind that kind of answer is a question in its own right. And the question is this. It asks: just what kind of answer were you expecting? Just what were you hoping to hear?
And that's a great question--and a profoundly spiritual question--for us to ponder, and it's a question that is especially important for us to ponder in the weeks before Christmas.
What are we looking for?
Maybe you heard that question in today's Scripture, too. That's what Jesus asks the crowd--and asks them not once, but three times.
First, Jesus says, "What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?"
And then he says, "What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes?"
And then one more time, "What then did you go out to see? A prophet?"
What then did you go out to see? What are you looking for?
Jesus asks these questions because John the Baptist, who is already in prison, already at the end of his own ministry, has sent his followers to ask Jesus, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?"
And so, clearly, after all that he's been through, John knows what it is--John knows who it is--that he's been looking for.
And even prison, it seems, will not stop John's searching.
Like so many in the birth narratives of Jesus--people like Simeon and Anna in the Gospel of Luke, or even the magi--the faithfulness of John's searching has become a school for holiness. Because that searching has shaped him. It has prepared him.
And so in this short message that John sends out, it's clear he knows--he knows--what it is he's looking for.
Jesus knows it, too.
He knows it so well that he doesn't say some easy "yes." He doesn't say, "Tell John I've arrived. I'll take it from here."
The answer Jesus gives is the answer you give to someone who's already been shaped--already prepared--by years of searching.
Jesus says, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them."
Jesus is saying that what is happening speaks for itself if only we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear.
So when Jesus turns to the crowd and asks them, "What then did you go out to see?" he's asking a question that the Gospel means to ask all of us, too.
What kinds of things are we looking for in these days?
I have a dear friend being treated for an aggressive cancer--one of those cancers that comes out of nowhere and changes everything. And she's fighting bravely and has a lot to live for, but she's a doctor, and so she doesn't need someone to tell her that it's unclear if she will prevail.
And what she's looking for is not some wonder drug or even a miracle--though she'd gladly take either one.
What she's looking for is the energy to be part of Christmas this year--to be with her family, to make the cookies, trim the tree, sing the songs, make the crèche out of Legos that her kids have been making faithfully for fifteen years.
That's what she's looking for.
I know somebody else with a son in the Marine Corps--a son deployed overseas; and while her first choice would be to have him home with her, she's said that she'd settle for redeployment somewhere a little safer than where he is right now.
She is so proud of him. But she is so very scared for him. And so she's looking for some way to believe that something not so very dangerous might fall into place in the next few months.
That's what she's looking for.
At Christmas, so much of what we lay before the manger are hopes we have for even the smallest taste of redemption or the smallest sip from the cup of blessing.
A way to bring up something hard to say without getting shut down. The courage to pursue a dream that's been on our heart for ages--the courage even just to try. The heart to seek forgiveness for what we've done or the heart to forgive another and find a way forward together... somehow.
Is what we really want so different than a world in which "the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them?"
I don't know about you, but I think that's exactly what we want.
What we want is the very world that becoming aware of the presence of God reveals.
What we want is the very world that John the Baptist had been looking for his whole life long.
Christmas and its responsibilities can make us crazier than Crazy Eddie--that ad I used to see all those years ago.
In all our preparations, let's not forget that question Jesus asked the crowd so many more years ago.
What is it that you're looking for?
What's the gift behind the gifts you're giving this year? What's the hope behind that generous giving?
Whatever those hopes may be, may you find them unwrapped and waiting in Bethlehem, calling you to give tidings of great joy.
Let us pray. God who comes to be with us and who abides with us always, guide us in our giving and our receiving so that we may know what it is to be loved and to love. In Jesus' name we ask it. Amen.
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