Advent 3 – Year C
St. James’s Episcopal Church
December 13, 2009
Oh Lord, uphold Thou me that I may uplift Thee. Amen
The problem with Advent is that before we can welcome Christ as our honored guest, newly born each year, we have to deal with John the Baptist. William Willimon, the former Dean of the chapel at Duke University, says that John the Baptist reminds us of boundaries we must respect and gates we must pass through. At Duke, Willimon told his students, “If you are going to graduate, you must first get past the English Department. If you are going to practice law, you must pass the bar. If you want to get to medical school you must survive Organic Chemistry.” Likewise, “If you want to get to the joy of Bethlehem in the presence of Jesus, you must get past John the Baptist in the desert.”
John to me is like the Secret Service agents who go around in advance of the President to check things out. When President Carter came to my church back in the 70’s, I remember the Secret Service being there days ahead checking out every square inch of out parish. They searched from the undercroft to the bell tower. They looked through all the closets and in all the offices. They even searched the sacristy, much to the Altar Guilds disdain. In a similar way, John comes to us first, before we welcome Jesus, and proceeds to look in the closets and drawers and under the rugs of our hearts in an attempt to expose the very things we are trying to get out of sight. “You brood of vipers”, he calls us. “Repent!” In essence he says, “I know you have things you are trying to hide, I know about your sinful ways, you had better come clean because the Christ is coming and His winnowing fork is in His hand.” John puts on no pretensions, he is real and raw and “in your face”. But John has a job to do and he sets about doing it – confronting all of us who are trying so hard to get in the right frame of mind to celebrate Christmas. It is as if he says, “You don’t have to like me, and you don’t have to invite me over for Christmas dinner, but you do have to deal with me because I am here before the honored guest.”
I think John does us a great service during this time of year for several reasons. First, John holds up for us the truth that if we are to properly receive the Christ child into our hearts then we cannot just hide our sins, our short-comings, our fears and our worries like stashing dirty laundry under the bed. Instead, we must dig them out and hold them up in an act of real repentance. John wants us to come clean about the truth of our sinful natures. He wants us to own up to the fact that far too often we are greedy, selfish, small minded people who think more about our own needs then we ever think about the needs of others. He d
oes this because if we are going to really receive the Christ child then we first have to let go, repent, of our sins. To really understand the joy of what is about to happened, we first have to realize how much we need it. In other words, before we can understand the power of forgiveness Christ brings we must first come to terms with our deep need for forgiveness. Christ came into the world to offer us a new relationship with God and we have to clear the rubbish out of the way so that we can embrace that new relationship.
Second, John reminds us that Jesus is not interested in our party personas. He is not interested in the image we try and portray. He is not interested in dealing with us merely as the smiling, well adjusted, well put together people that all of us in one way or another try to project on the world. Rather, when the Christ child comes, He wants to meet us with our guards down, with our pockets hanging out, with all of the sadness and secrets that have been stuffed away in the closets of our hearts, dumped all over the floor for Him to see. He seeks to greet us as we really are, with all of our doubts and fears laid out right next to our hopes and our dreams and our positive attitudes. Because only then can He really affect us, and only then can He really touch our souls.
One of the things that saddens me about the days surrounding Christmas is this assumption that everyone must be happy during this time of year. And if you are not happy then there certainly must be something wrong with you. This mind-set is a great misunderstanding of what lies at the heart of the Gospel. It is also a primary reason more people take their own lives during this time of year than at any other. If you are already depressed, sad, or lonely, then the pain must be excruciating during a time of the year when you are supposed to feel especially joyful and positive.
For many people the Christmas season is a wonderful time. It means days of love and laughter and being surrounded by family. And that is as it should be. Still for others, it is a season of real ambivalence. On the one hand, they may have a hint, a taste, of the joy and hope of the season. On the other hand, that taste may be bitter sweet. I am thinking especially of people who are ill, people who have someone they love who is ill, people who have lost their jobs and see no opportunity on the horizon for employment, people who have a looming crisis in their lives, people who have lost someone very dear to their hearts. For these folks, Christmas can be wonderful for what it is, while at the same time quite sad because of what it used to be and now is not, or perhaps no longer can be. I think for many at least some part of Christmas is bittersweet.
And that is O.K.! In spite of what our culture may tell us about how we ought to feel during this season, it is very OK to feel quite ambivalent. Because what John proclaims as he comes crashing into our Christmas preparations is that as sinful human beings we are not to stash away our difficulties, our pain, our feelings of loneliness and loss, or our sins. Rather, we are to lay them all out on the table because Christ is coming. Jesus Christ – the God made man who fully understands what it means: to be separated from someone you love, to feel all alone when the world around you seems so happy, to feel the weight of responsibilities that you think might crush you.
You see, there is no sadness we have known that Christ has not known before us. There is no loss that we have experienced that Christ has not already embraced. There is no sin we have committed that Christ cannot forgive. And there is no joy we have known that Christ does not hold out for us to know again. Don’t hide these things from Him like dirt under the rug. Don’t feel embarrassed by them like the closet we hope no one will open. Instead, dig them all out and give them to Him as part of who you are. Repent of those things that you can, and lay at His feet those things about which you can do nothing. Because to our Lord these are gifts as precious as the gold and frankincense and myrrh given by the wise men.
This is the good news and real joy of Christmas. By His birth and life Christ invites us to come and be his guests as children in his kingdom. His invitation reads, “Come as You Are” – weak or strong, sad or joyful, content or confused. And the only gift we need bring is ourselves, with all of our weaknesses fully intact. Because we are the gifts He most wants to receive. Amen.