Today we begin by taking a look at two famous figures of the Christmas season, two people we hear about every year at this time. The first . . . is Santa Claus – yes, in a church service!
Santa Claus is a happy man, “jolly Old Saint Nicholas,” who dresses in a bright cheery colorful suit, all red and white. Santa doesn’t turn away from a fine meal or favorite goodies, apparently; he’s also been described as “plump,” and many people have to use a carefully-placed pillow or two to dress up like him. In fact, he sort of represents the good foods we all indulge in at Christmas time – the candy canes and Christmas cookies and egg nog and, according to one song, “figgy pudding,” whatever that is. At this time of year, we share in Santa’s fondness for goodies.
Santa lives in a pretty cold part of the world, but his house is a nice one; we always see a warm fire built there, and gingerbread and cocoa, and an equally-jolly Mrs. Santa Claus, who apparently has no first name of her own, brightening the room. Santa lives in a nice cheery home. And Santa seems to like people. He sits a lot of them on his lap between Thanksgiving and Christmas; he waves to them from parades; he isn’t shy. In a way, he represents the many parties and get-togethers we like to participate in at Christmas-time, when we socialize with people. In fact, in general we could fairly say Santa likes to indulge in the good life: fine food, comfortable home, fancy dress, socializing. All the things we like to do at Christmas.
Santa has a pleasant attitude toward life. His most famous saying is probably “Ho Ho Ho,” and his second most famous, “Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.” He is jolly, laughing and smiling easily, warm and friendly, taking pleasure in other people and in life in general. Santa sees the good in life, and in fact is known for looking for the good: looking for all the good little boys and girls, so he can give them presents. And you know what? I don’t think I’ve heard of any real person ever having been declared “bad” by Santa Claus. Did you ever know somebody who really did get only coal for Christmas, no matter how bad they’ve been? Me neither. Santa always sees some good.
So Santa is a pretty popular guy. Santa’s coming is welcomed at Christmastime; everybody wants Santa to come. With Santa Claus, Christmas, the observance of Christ’s coming, is a cause for great joy and happiness; there’s nothing bad about Christmas, from a Santa Claus point of view.
We like Santa Claus.
Now, the other famous figure who appears between Thanksgiving and Christmas was just featured in our second Scripture lesson. He’s most commonly known as John the Baptist. We know a few things about him, too. Instead of a bright cheery red suit, John wore a camelhair cloak and leather belt. Instead of enjoying and representing fine foods and goodies, and eating lots of them, John lived on locusts and wild honey. Instead of a nice fireplace-gingerbread-Mrs. Santa Claus home, John lived out in the wilderness. Instead of seeking out people at malls and parties, John withdrew to be by himself, living a solitary life. Overall, in fact, he could be described as an “ascetic,” a person who denies themselves pleasures and fine food, comfortable homes, fancy dress, and parties – the opposite of one who indulges in holiday treats.
John the Baptist is not “jolly.” It’s hard to imagine a “Ho Ho Ho” ever passing his lips (which may be what comes of eating locusts). And he doesn’t seem to see good in everybody; instead he speaks of their sins most of the time, the bad things they’ve been doing. He even asks people to come forward and admit how bad they’ve been. Instead of bringing gifts, John brings threats; “The ax is lying at the root of the tree, and every tree that does not bear good fruit is about to be thrown in the fire . . . the chaff is about to be burned with unquenchable fire.”
What he warns of is much more frightening, in fact, than a stocking full of coal. So John isn’t everybody’s favorite person. We read that some people tend to avoid him instead of welcoming him – like King Herod, who didn’t like what he said.
With John the Baptist, we’ll hear shortly, even Christmas, the event of Christ’s coming, is not necessarily joyful, or cause for celebration. John isn’t . . . Santa Claus. As Laurie said when I bounced this idea off her, “About the only thing they have in common is they both wear fur.” And Rev. William Willimon asked people one time to imagine a Christmas card with wild-eyed John the Baptist on the cover, crying, “You brood of vipers!” It would probably not be a best seller.
John the Baptist, the anti-Santa Claus, is a figure we hear about before Christmas each year because the period before Christmas is Advent, and Advent has to do with preparing for our observance of Christ’s coming, and John had a message about how to prepare. That message is summarized in Matthew 3 verse 2: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Repent. Think about what you’ve been doing wrong. Confess it. Be sorry for it. Promise to never do it again. That’s John’s instruction for how to prepare for Christ’s coming: repent, and change your life as needed.
John gave a sense of urgency to that message by saying the kingdom of heaven was coming very soon, and by describing what would happen to those who did not repent before it came: he described the wrath to come. He explained that claiming Abraham for an ancestor by itself did not save anyone. He said the ax was poised at the base of tree, about to chop, about to get the tree cut down and thrown into the fire – and the tree, it was understood, stood for anyone who had not repented and begun doing good. John even promises a more daunting figure to come: one with his winnowing fork in his hand, ready to separate wheat, the good stuff, from chaff, the bad stuff, and burn the chaff in unquenchable fire. Obviously, if you’re “chaff,” if you have not repented and changed your life, the coming of this figure is not cause for celebration.
John said, “Repent!” And if you don’t repent, “Beware.”
Ho Ho Ho, indeed.
So is John’s message what defines our job during Advent? Is that what this season is for, for Christians to prepare by warning each other to “repent or else”? Is that what Christmas’s coming means?
John’s message, obviously, is one worth heeding. It wouldn’t be found in Scripture if it were not. It’s found, in fact, three times, in three gospels. So the questions is not “Is John’s message worth paying attention to?” It must be, for us who take Scripture seriously. The message of “Repent,” of looking at our lives and seeing what must be changed, is one we must acknowledge.
A better question, perhaps, then, is: “Is John’s message complete?” Is that all there is to our job at Advent, to preparing for Christ’s coming? Is Advent only a matter of “Repent or Else”? Or is John’s message here like this story we read in the book of Acts, after the church has been started by the disciples?
Once there were two Christians named Priscilla and Aquila, who sometimes worked with the Apostle Paul. One day when they were in the town of Ephesus, they heard an enthusiastic and charismatic preacher named Apollos speaking in the synagogue about the Lord. He was very good. But Apollos, they soon realized, had a notion of baptism which only include a John the Baptist understanding of baptism – namely, be baptized in order to repent and be washed of your sins. Apollos hadn’t heard that baptism also means “You have been saved by Christ,” and “welcome to the church,” and “The Holy Spirit wishes to do great things through you.”
So Priscilla and Aquila set about completing the education of Apollos; they started with the John the Baptist message he already had, and filled in the blanks, completed the story. Later on, Paul would have the same experience when he met a bunch of Apollos’ early converts; they too knew only the message of “repent,” not the entire good news of Jesus’ resurrection and saving of all who believed. John’s message only began those disciples’ understanding.
Well perhaps John’s message works the same way with regard to our Advent preparation; perhaps “Repent or else” is not all there is to our job at Advent, but just a piece, to be completed. Even John, after all, eventually had to have his image of Jesus expanded and made complete, after Jesus’ arrival. Jesus once sent him a message, we read in Matthew 11: “Tell John about all I do, about people being healed, the dead being raised, the poor getting good news.” I’m not just a chaff-burner, a winnower, a punisher of those who haven’t repented. It’s more, and better, than just that.
John had to have the message of “Repent or else” supplemented with other information – and so do we. Repenting is part of our job at Advent, but it’s not the whole thing.
Where then, do we find more of the Advent message, the rest of what we’re supposed to do this season? Well, the answer may surprise you. Many Christians have come to a conclusion about the Bible that goes something like this: “There are two parts to the Bible, the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament is a book of history that talks about a God of anger and judgement. The New Testament is the part that tells the Good News, about God’s love.” Old Testament: angry God. New Testament: loving God.
Well, listen to a few phrases of our New Testament lesson again: “You brood of vipers! Flee from the wrath to come. The ax is lying at the root of the trees, ready to cut them down; they will be thrown into the fire. The Messiah’s winnowing fork is in his hand; he will burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.” That’s the New Testament lesson, through John.
Now hear again the Old, from Zephaniah: “Sing aloud. Rejoice and exult with all your heart. The Lord has taken away the judgments against you. The Lord is in your midst; you shall fear no more. God will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in love. God will save the lame and gather the outcast. God will bring you home.” That’s the “angry” Old Testament speaking.
It is Zephaniah, like other Old Testament prophets, who helps complete the message of “Repent” which John brings us each Advent. Preparing does not mean only “change your sinful ways or else.” Preparing also means look forward to the coming of the Lord; know that that coming is good news.
- “The Lord has removed your judgments,” Zephaniah writes; Advent means “know that you are forgiven.”
- “The Lord is in your midst; do not fear,” Zephaniah writes; Advent means God’s coming is to be welcomed, not feared, as one would fear and angry tyrant.
- “God will rejoice over you and renew you in love,” Zephaniah writes; Advent means it’s a loving God who comes, taking joy in people.
- “God will save the lame and outcast,” Zephaniah writes; Advent means a compassionate God comes, one who helps us with our weaknesses.
- “God will bring you home,” Zephaniah writes; Advent means good things happen when the Lord comes.
- So “sing aloud,” Zephaniah writes. “Rejoice and exult with all your heart.” And that’s part of our job at Advent too.
The Lord who comes at Christmas wants us to change those behaviors which are sinful, as John said, but he is also a Lord who will accomplish our forgiveness, and love us, and be compassionate toward us, and take away our fear. Rejoice that God will be in our midst. That’s all part of our job at Advent too.
The Old Testament tells us so.
Apollos, that preacher in Acts, did not have it all wrong before Priscilla and Aquila got a hold of him. He is described as eloquent, well-versed in the Scriptures, enthusiastic, and accurate. But after they instructed him, after they supplemented his knowledge of John’s message with the full complete good news, he is described as “one who greatly helped those who had become believers,” one who powerfully showed that Jesus is the Messiah. By then, he was fully prepared.
The complete story does include John’s message of repentance, but a complete picture of Advent preparation includes the joy of people who have been forgiven, who welcome the Lord into their lives, who know the God of love that New and Old Testament describe.
So “Rejoice, rejoice; Emmanuel will come to you, O Israel.”
Let’s pray: God, thank you for the entire message that comes to us this season through Scripture – that you do come wanting us to live better lives, but that you do so in love, prepared to forgive, prepared to offer us wonderful futures. Lead us to repent, and rejoice, in your compassion, forgiveness, and love. Amen.