Hurry Up and Wait: Message
Every year around this time, we see news stories and facebook posts and tv coverage of the “War on Christmas.” There’s a story about whether or not you can say “Merry Christmas” anymore or if you must say “Happy Holidays.” People urge us to remember that “Jesus is the reason for the season,” and warn against “taking Christ out of Christmas.” Maybe you’ve even been frustrated by the secularization of the season. I certainly get frustrated by the consumerism, the commercialism, as if spending more and more money will somehow bring us a more joyful and meaningful experience celebrating the birth of Jesus. But I wonder, as we reflect on this season, what might happen if we worried less about how others might try to “take Christ out” of Christmas, if such a thing were even possible, and wondered more about how we, how you and I can produce any evidence that we’re working to put Christ into our preparation for Christmas. We can’t control what other people do, much as we might like to. But we are, in fact, totally responsible for our own behavior. And so, when it comes to Christ in Christmas, we have to ask: Are we putting Christ in? Rev. Robb McCoy writes, “Nothing can take Christ out of Christmas as long as I strive to be Christ in Christmas.” And that’s his sort of slogan for the season: “Be Christ in Christmas.” He tries to think of tangible, meaningful ways that he can act and live and interact as Christ in Christmas, and urges us to do the same. How can we be Christ in Christmas?
Last week we talked about our role as messengers. I asked what others would know from us about Christmas, about Jesus, about God, with us as the messengers. We’re the messengers of God in these days, the ones tasked with sharing the message, the good news. What kind of messengers are we? Today, we turn our attention to making sure we know exactly what our message is. What is the message that we’re delivering? Last week we looked at John the Baptist, messenger, announcing Jesus’ pending arrival, and today, we’re right back with John again. But this time we look to Luke’s gospel for a little more insight on the message that John was sharing.
As our text opens, crowds are coming out to John to be baptized. Baptism like this was a cleansing ritual, practiced in many traditions. It signified renewal, a fresh start. So folks are coming to John to be baptized. But he’s not exactly warm and welcoming when he sees them: “You brood of vipers!” he hells. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” He goes on to say that the crowds should not expect to rely on their Judaism, their families, their history, their cultural identity, to give them a free pass from responsibility. “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” In other words, yes, God has had a special relationship with God’s people. But that doesn’t give you the freedom to do anything you want. You still have to hold up your part of the relationship, the covenant. John continues forebodingly: “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
John obviously catches the attention of his audience – they begin asking him what they should do. He replies to them, to tax collectors, to soldiers – whoever has two cloaks must share, whoever has food must share, whoever has power , whoever has money must be fair and just. The people are filled with expectation at John’s words, and they wonder whether John himself might not be the messiah they are waiting for. But he insists he is not: “I am not worthy to untie his sandals,” John says. But, he leaves them, and us, with a compelling images of the messiah. “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” A winnowing fork was a farming tool used to toss wheat into the air, so that the wind would catch the good grain and separate it from the useless chaff. Our passage concludes, “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”
Is John’s message “Good News?” There’s such an underlying tone of threat, between the vipers, the ax, and the winnowing fork. And yet, obviously his message was compelling enough to have crowds flocking to him to be baptized, ready to say: I’m changing things in my life starting now. John is sharing with the crowds, with us, his vision of what the messiah will be. In fact, John will eventually have to send word to Jesus to find out if he really is the messiah, because Jesus certainly acted differently than John was expecting. John sees judgment, just as surely as Jesus comes with salvation – a bit different in emphasis. John has a picture of the messiah that is his own – but the good news still comes because of the core of what John is preaching, as we read last week: Repentance for the forgiveness of sins. What John is preaching, at heart, is that all this preparation is for one who is coming who has the power to free us from the consequences of our sins, one who has the power to cancel out the results of our messes. And that, certainly, is good news. Remember, way back to the summer, when we talked about what the good news was Jesus was talking about. He came preaching about God’s kingdom, God’s reign, how it was here and present and not far off and unattainable in this life. Good news. So both John and Jesus preach the same action in light of this arriving kingdom: Repent. It means literally: change the direction of your mind. Change the direction of your life from all the other ways you’ve been wandering, and head in God’s direction fast, because God’s realm is right here, and you don’t want to miss out. A good message.
John tells us, though, that we need to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” In other words, baptism and saying you “repent,” you’re starting fresh is great – but let’s see some signs that will show that we’ve actually heard – and lived – the message we’ve received. He gives some examples – to tax-collectors, to soldiers, to anyone who asks – about how they, even those who might normally be shunned or disliked or excluded – they – everyone – can bear the fruit of repentance. And not only does John urge the crowds to prepare for the kingdom of God’s imminent arrival by acts of repentance that make room for God, but also those very acts of repentance, preparation, and renewal are in themselves signs of God’s kingdom. Whenever I think of John the Baptist I always think of that phrase “the proof is in the pudding.” The little proverb is actually a shortening of the original saying, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” It means that you can tell how good a pudding is not by describing but by actually eating it! Nothing will prove the goodness like eating it will. That’s what John means about fruit – we can describe our transformation all we want. But nothing will prove that our lives are transformed better than our actually transformed lives. Nothing will better demonstrate that we’re Christ followers than our actually following Jesus. And so, then, nothing will better help us be messengers of the Christmas message than actually being the message with our very lives. Be Christ in Christmas.
As Christians, we celebrate what is called incarnational faith. Incarnation means for us first of all the event of Christ’s birth – God became human. It means embodied. Jesus is called God-with-us, Immanuel. As the gospel of John puts it so beautifully, “and the word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” Our faith is embodied in God incarnate. Jesus is God-in-the-flesh, come to live among us. We celebrate it as a sign of God’s great love for us, that when we failed to get the message in so many other ways, God made the message tangible, made God’s own self into the living embodied message in Jesus Christ, the light of the world.
But our incarnational theology doesn’t end there. It isn’t just that Jesus is the light of the world. The gospels tell us that we, then, as followers of Jesus, are the light too. We’re the light of the world, meant to shine for others to see, so that they might see Christ within us. We are the body of Christ in the world, the hands and feet of Jesus in the world. We are the body of Christ, the embodiment of Christ, in fact the incarnation of Christ that lives in the world today. We’re not just the messengers. We embody the message. We have the potential, the power, the responsibility to be Christ in Christmas.
Here’s the amazing thing. When we seek to be Christ in Christmas, which is exactly what we incarnational folks are supposed to be, called to be, created to be doing, we are not only the messengers of this good news. We actually embody the message itself. If we are Christ in Christmas, we become living, breathing, walking and talking messages of good news. And when we do that, when we live and breathe the good news, there’s no way we can miss the meaning of Christmas. Friends, if you find yourself worrying that we’re losing our grasp on Christmas, the best thing you can do is look into your hearts, and see if you find Christ there. Is the light of Christ shining from you? Are you not only a messenger, but the message? When people meet you, talk to you, interact with you – and by people I mean all the people – are they seeing Christ in you? If they do, we won’t have anything to lament! Be the message. Be Christ in Christmas. Amen.