Tradition and Spirit

Audio Currently Unavailable

The lure of tradition at this time of year is well nigh irresistible. It overwhelms everything else in these days. People who hate snow find themselves dreaming of a white Christmas. Unbelievers are swept up in piety. The usually oblivious begin to imitate the generous. I admit to loving Advent wreaths and Christmas pageants, trees, decorations, cards, and family rituals. Tradition has an enormous and positive power over us in these days. I have no plans to resist it, and I do not want to suggest any resistance to you.

But I do want to raise a point about the limits of tradition. Tradition is a good thing, a piece of truth, but it's not a very big piece. Tradition is not anywhere near the whole story of what God is doing among us. Tradition cannot begin to express what is really going on. We are all about to disappear under an avalanche of traditions. Before we go under, I would like to think with you about what the Gospel for this morning says about the limits of tradition.

The Gospel story is about John the Baptist. He has been preaching out by the Jordan River causing quite a stir. People came to try to make sense out of him. They had established certain categories for people like him. Tradition said that he could either be the Messiah, the Anointed One of God, or he could be Elijah. In the Hebrew Scriptures, Elijah was carried up into heaven on a chariot and did not die, so he was always available to come back to be the prophet who would precede the end of the world. The people asked John the Baptist if he fit into one of their traditional categories, and John replied simply, "I do not fit into your boxes. God is doing something well beyond the bounds of tradition, and there is one coming after me who will make toast out of all your little boxes anyway."

Tradition is a way of wrapping up the truth in little packages. It is a way of taking a tiny piece of the truth and isolating it carefully and lovingly. Tradition is to truth as a bottle of water is to a great river. The water in the bottle came from the river. It is part of the river. It shares all the chemical properties of the river. In a way, it is the river. But the real river is, in fact, miles of life tumbling across the land. The real river is eddies and rapids, swimming holes and fishing holes, muddy banks and rocky bottoms. What is in the bottle is just a little tiny piece of it and not a very complete piece at that. The traditions of Christmas--the star, the manger, wise men, shepherds, Mary and Joseph, even the baby Jesus--are just little tiny pieces of what God is doing. The action of God is vast and sweeping. The people in the Gospel who were trying to figure John out using the traditional categories were trying to catch the Spirit in a tradition. We do the same thing at Christmas time. We want God to fit into our traditions. It's like trying to catch a river in a bottle. It simply cannot be done.

The Spirit of God at work in Advent and Christmas is far more than our traditions can embrace. For one thing, traditions are predictable. The Spirit is not. Traditions are comforting. That is why we keep coming back to them. The action of God is often disturbing. Traditions tend to affirm things that we like about ourselves. But the Spirit is always challenging and changing our lives, sometimes even things that we like the best. Tradition has a way of being isolated from life. That's the reason the great traditions of Christmas that seem so compelling in December often make little difference in our lives in January. But the Spirit is all about the connectedness of life.

Tradition does not know how to relate the softness of the season to the hard realities of living. The Spirit holds them in an uncomfortable but constant connection. Tradition tells us what the angels said to the shepherds in their field at night. But it has no idea what the angels are trying to say to gang members watching over their turf by night. Tradition knows about the wise men, but it does not know what to say about the murder of the babies in Bethlehem brought about by the magi's innocent inquiry to Herod. Tradition basically ignores Jewish life under the Romans, so it does not know what to say about those who suffer in occupied countries in territories. Tradition makes the flight into Egypt romantic, but it is silent about the refugees stumbling back and forth in misery across our world today. Tradition celebrates loving households, but it has not a clue about violent ones or tense ones or sad ones. Tradition speaks of certainty; the Spirit speaks of ambiguity. Tradition speaks of simplicity; the Spirit speaks of complexity. Tradition speaks of wonder. The Spirit pushes us toward doubt. Tradition calls us to happiness, which is fun. The Spirit leads us to joy, which is deeper, better, harder.

The people came to John and said that over a thousand years they had worked out certain possibilities, certain traditional categories for the Spirit of God. And they asked John to fit into one of them. And John says to them, "I do not fit into your boxes." Later on, a Pharisee will come to Jesus--Nicodemus by name. And he will say, "I like what you're saying, Jesus. Please fit it into something I have thought about before." Take your truth, your Spirit, and whittle it down so it will fit into one of the traditional boxes of thought that I have in my mind. And Jesus will say, "Nicodemus, the truth is like the wind. You cannot put the wind in a box. If you do, it's just air. And what I'm talking about is wind. It is not just air."

Like our predecessors, we come to this time of year with wonderfully crafted boxes of tradition. Jesus and Mary and Joseph all set out in the Christmas pageant, Jimmy Stewart on the video, Johnny Mathis on the CD, Kwanzaa, evergreens, Hanukkah, Santa Claus, turkey, music, laughter, gifts and fun. And we say, "God, we would like for you to fit your truth into some of these fine boxes." And they are fine boxes indeed. I love them! I imagine that you do as well. But the answer is the same as that given by John and by Jesus. The truth of God will simply not fit into the traditions of Christmas. It's bigger than that.

I have no misgivings about the goodness or the power of Christmas traditions. I love them and I intend to immerse myself in them. I do not expect to feel guilty about it for even a moment, and it may even make me a better person. But I do hope to hold in the back of my mind the fact that the traditions we hold so dear are to the work of God as a bottle of water is to a mighty river.

In the days ahead, may you enjoy the bottled water of tradition and may God grant you a glimpse of the mighty river of the Spirit from which they come. Amen.

Let us pray.

Lord God, you have enriched our lives with your Spirit and you have blessed us with the gift of memory to shape traditions honoring that Spirit. Help us to remember the difference between that which reminds us of your gift and that which is your gift that our lives might be continually enriched through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Audio Currently Unavailable