Churches all across the country are pairing that austere reading from Matthew's Gospel today with a much more hopeful passage from the 11th chapter of Isaiah, which you might recognize, begins, "A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse." It describes the coming of the Messiah as a time when "the wolf will lie down with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the kid, the calf and lion and the fatling together, and a little child will lead them."
If you don't hear the contrast and perhaps even the tension in these readings today, then I'm not sure you have really heard them. We hear the promise that God makes to the descendants of Abraham in the reading from the Prophet Isaiah - that God will act and send new life, healing, and restoration to the people through the royal line of King David. And this new life will be characterized by gentleness and putting right what has gone wrong.
And in Matthew's Gospel, we hear the words of John the Baptist, that startling figure who, after years of there not being a prophet in the Land of Israel, strides out of the desert wilderness, acting and carrying himself just as the prophets of old. John the Baptist calls on the whole people to repent, to turn, to rethink the direction of their lives and of their nation and to return to God and the power of God's Law, God's Torah. And, even more surprisingly, John makes it clear that he is the emissary of the coming promised Messiah, the one promised in the words of the Prophet Isaiah. The people of the land are coming to him, flowing out of the cities and the towns, being washed, baptized by him in the River Jordan (symbolically re-entering the Promised Land and beginning again in their commitment to the Law of God). And in the midst of this national reformation, he makes it clear that he's not even worthy to be the most menial servant (less than a slave) to the one who is coming.
But this is not the same vision of the coming Reign of Christ that is described in Isaiah's vision. There is no comfort and succor here in John's words. There is wrath and division. Even the already divided leaders of the people are condemned by John the Baptist, because they appear to be trying to escape the consequences of their decisions and their turning away from God's expectations about how they are to lead God's people.
Like I said, there's a tension here. Happy Holidays to us all!
Speaking about tension, and about that Holiday season, how are you doing navigating Advent and secular Christmas? I come from a liturgical church that has a tradition of keeping Advent in a particular way, a way that tracks closely to the language that John the Baptist uses in the Gospel today, and not like the language that Isaiah uses to describe the advent of the Messiah. When I was in seminary back in the eighties, I was taught that this way of keeping Advent was a specific decision that was made in part to be a corrective to what was thought to be the over-commercialization of Christmas. And if you think about it, you can sort of see what that's referring to.
At some point this Fall, while the Halloween candy and decorations were still on display, the Christmas decorations were also put out, and the holiday hype began. When I was working at a store in the seventies, we waited till the Halloween costumes were put away before getting out the Christmas things. But even then, it felt like we were jumping out too far ahead. By the time Christmas came, I was so ready for Christmas to be over that even though I loved it, I had had all of it that I could stand.
Given all that, it makes sense for churches and congregations to try to reframe the holidays, at least in church and make the focus on the ancient traditions of Advent - as an intentional correction and a reframing of meaning. And before we had children, that was something that I could get behind, too. Though, truth be told, it was easy for me then as I was either a grad student or a college instructor pretty much all through that part of my life. December then wasn't about holiday parties; it was about final exams and grading. It was about judging the work that had been done for the entire semester. And, what with how exams and grades worked, I was generally up to my elbows in academic judgment till just before Christmas Eve. I was that guy who was frantically shopping for my wife's Christmas present on Christmas Eve. I didn't have time or the spirit to think about Christmas until then. Like I said, Advent made sense to me in a visceral way in those days.
But then we had children. And I discovered something. A three-year-old doesn't understand about the Church's need to stand in differentiated principled critique of commercial culture. A three-year-old wants a Christmas tree like every other house has - and a tree with blue lights and blue bows just won't do for her.
Given everything else that was happening in our lives back then, I chose the better and wiser course and gave in. We started putting up a tree and hanging outdoor lights earlier and earlier in December. I learned pretty quickly it's easier to decorate the house when the weather cooperates and take the first mild day in December to put things up. It's just so much more pleasant than trying to do that in a cold driving rain on a dark and overcast day.
So, it was on a mild, early December day, when I was serving a church in Bethlehem PA, America's Christmas City, that I had an epiphany that suddenly helped me make sense of the tension between joy at the coming of the King and the need to soberly prepare for the coming of Jesus in the clouds.
A wise man would think to check the icicle lights that his daughter had picked out for Christmas decorations before he hung them from the second story gutter of his house. Actually, a truly wise man would have also made sure to have a tall ladder so that he could safely hang them from below instead of scooting around on his bottom on the edge of the roof, clipping said lights to the gutter. But as my wife will tell you, sometimes I'm not the wisest of men.
So, there I was, up on the roof, something that required a number of complicated maneuvers to accomplish, when I discovered that I had a strand of lights clipped in place that just wouldn't light up when plugged in. My wife, who generally watched my yearly effort from the safety of the ground, offered to run out to the local store and pick up another strand. I told her to hurry as it was already getting dark, and I was starting to get cold. But it would be easier to have me wait on the roof for her to get them and then toss them up to me than it would have been for me to climb down and then climb back up again.
Now, all this took place on a Saturday afternoon. I was preaching the next day, if not on this text, then on something very similar. So, as I sat down on the roof and watched my wife drive off in the dusk, I decided I would think through my next day's sermon while I waited. I like to be efficient in my use of the time - but not so efficient that it occurred to me to have my sermon finished before Saturday night.
There I was sitting on my roof, looking at the darkening sky, seeing lights begin to twinkle in the sky and on the neighbor's houses, peering into the gathering gloom waiting for my love to return bringing more lights to repair the ones that were broken and needed to be replaced, when I suddenly understood.
This must be what the early believers were imaging when they began to keep Advent. Someone they loved very much, to whom they had pledged everything, was not present to them but had promised to return, and when their love returned, all manner of things would be right. And because they longed for that return, and the restoration of all things, they imagined that they would climb up on the tallest thing they could find, peering longingly into the gloom so that they would be able to see their love's return as soon as possible.
And in that moment, Advent, and the way we keep Advent, made sense to me.
Imagine if instead of being afraid of God's judgement, instead of being afraid of the end of the present order, you longed for it with all your being. You'd be longing for a world in which there was finally perfect justice, in which the marginalized were restored to dignity and full participation. A world in which sickness and death were unknown. A world in which all the wrongs we lament finally came to an end and a perfect, just, and equitable world ruled over by the lamb who gave his life for each of us was the head. That's a world for which climbing up on the roof and peering into the darkness is worth it. And I'd light candles and decorate to anticipate its coming. And I'd warn people who were prospering now that there was going to be a change and they should rethink their relationships with others in preparation for the return of the King.
That moment on the roof, John the Baptist's cry and Isaiah's promise made sense to me. The decorations I was hanging weren't negating the meaning of Advent, they were highlighting the hope that the Season of Expectation brings. Not fear, but longing. Darkness, but knowing that light is breaking in. Not a winter of death, but trees of green even in a cold world where the living ones have fallen asleep.
I heard the Baptist's cry of warning with delight. Maybe not as much for me as for the people for whom it promised redemption. The Gospel truly became Good News for me that night.
Ever since that evening I have understood the holidays differently. They are a time of expectation, and longing. And Advent, with its stern lessons, is something to be celebrated and folded into the joy of Christmas, because the coming of the Lord Jesus will bring transformation, restoration, and justice to all who are in need or want. These days I can say with passion and joy, Come quickly Lord Jesus. We long for your appearance. Come renew and heal the world. John the Baptist's words warn of wrath and judgment, but they also echo the birth pangs of the new reality that will break in upon us all.
May we bring that good news to our neighbors now and always. Amen.