There is only one culture war at play at Christmas, and that is between Christianity and its actions.
Scripture:Matthew 3:1-12 The Message (MSG)
While Jesus was living in the Galilean hills, John, called “the Baptizer,” was preaching in the desert country of Judea. His message was simple and austere, like his desert surroundings: “Change your life. God’s kingdom is here.” John and his message were authorized by Isaiah’s prophecy: Thunder in the desert! Prepare for God’s arrival! Make the road smooth and straight! John dressed in a camel-hair habit tied at the waist by a leather strap. He lived on a diet of locusts and wild field honey. People poured out of Jerusalem, Judea, and the Jordanian countryside to hear and see him in action. There at the Jordan River those who came to confess their sins were baptized into a changed life. When John realized that a lot of Pharisees and Sadducees were showing up for a baptismal experience because it was becoming the popular thing to do, he exploded: “Brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to make any difference? It’s your life that must change, not your skin! And don’t think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as father. Being a descendant of Abraham is neither here nor there. Descendants of Abraham are a dime a dozen. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire. “I’m baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. The real action comes next: The main character in this drama—compared to him I’m a mere stagehand—will ignite the kingdom life within you, a fire within you, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He’s going to clean house—make a clean sweep of your lives. He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.”
A Voice in the Wilderness
Repent… turn back from your wicked way… and buy more things. Embrace the way that we are told to honor Christmas. By supporting the economy and buying more things. I mean the moment Halloween is over, at 12:01 a.m., on November 1st, our phones, tv’s, radio, and all forms of advertising outlets are flooded with products that we must have for the holidays. We are reminded that it is time to buy. Forget Thanksgiving, that forgotten holiday where we take a moment to pause and give thanks. For what really matters is the Friday after Thanksgiving, where we are asked to dispense all those calories eaten in a frenzy of shopping at “bargain” prices that we will never see at any other time of the year. Well except Cyber Monday-- and really any other new special day developed by Amazon and other retailers so that you feel like you are getting that deal. But let us go back to the meaning of Christmas, to the cultural wars that the media has created that pins those anti-Christ people, against the good Christians who are supposed to embrace the all-American Christmas. One that is sold to us with commercials of a variety of gifts under the Christmas tree for one person, which in numbers are enough toys and materialistic items to fill the hands of 20 or more children at an orphanage. Or better yet, the commercials that targets the insecurities of our materialistic and image obsessed culture that shows you the happiness and pride of a father or a mother whose spouse decided to make the huge financial decision of buying a luxury car, just to surprise them on Christmas morning. Never mind that the American middle class is fading… or that there is not enough money to pay the mortgage or that in 30 years of so, their house might be underwater or burnt down in a huge forest fire due to climate change. No, if you are a good Christian, if you want to keep Christ in Christmas and beat those other people who are attacking our way of life, then you must save Christmas, not with your actions, but with your wallets.
This is obviously an attempt to bring humor into the perceived culture wars and the realities of materialism that we live in today. However, it is one that does not really deviate from the truth of the matter. And the truth is, that when it comes to Christmas, Christians remove the Christ out of it, the moment that we let our unhinge capitalism use one of our most sacred holidays as a ploy to get us to buy things that we do not need, and to buy lots of them so that our kids and others around us, can feel a sense of security and pride. Yet, the humor of it all… is that we are using a holiday that celebrates the birth of a baby, born in poverty, conceived out of wedlock, and forced to become an immigrant, because of the specifics of his birth. We have turned the story of Christmas, which is the story of the birth of the One that has been prophesied by the prophets of old and by his own cousin, into a ploy that serves to help the empires of our time, instead of challenging them as, it did in the first century of the Common Era. There is a voice calling out in the wilderness, but this is not the voice of materialism and unhinged capitalism, instead, this is the voice that is coming from the innermost place of our human soul which stirs inside of us a feeling, that there is something very much wrong with the direction in which this world is heading. This is that still speaking voice that continues to make those who are comfortable, uncomfortable, and brings hope, peace, joy, and love to those who are at the end of their ropes. And it is that voice, that small voice inside of us all, which encapsulates the true meaning of Christmas and the power of the prophetic imagination that imagined that moment in human history. And in that voice, we are called to look into our lives and identify the deadwood in our souls. For there is One that we are waiting for in this season of advent, as John said, who will come to ignite the Kingdom life inside us all and that is that baby that was born to turn the world right side up.
So, the questions for us today is, what voice do we hear as we wait to celebrate the birth of Love?
The Calling of the Wilderness
The Christian theological imagination utilizes the Hebrew Bible as the source for our theological understanding of who Jesus is and what his ministry is all about. In many Christian traditions, the norm is to project Christ backwards into the Hebrew texts and construct a false reality that believes that the prophets of old were all speaking of the birth of Christ coming from the pre-exilic imagination of the Jewish people. This, however, is not needed, nor it is fair to impose that theological perspective on our Jewish brothers and sisters. For the reality is, that Jesus and the Disciples Jewish identities carried with them the fullness of a prophetic tradition that envisioned not only a break in human history but a new world and a new humanity that embraces the messianic expectations of a people almost 600 years removed. For at that time, the great trauma of the Hebrew people, one that was filled with conquest, loss of identity, loss of homeland, and forced deportations to Assyria and Babylon, created a narrative that would not only give us the Hebrew Bible, but would also create a theological reality that took God out of the hands of the few and into the hands of the many. A reality that imagined humanity itself as a living representation and reflection of the Universe itself and endowed with the full essence of the One. Therefore, as the Prophets of Old like Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Amos, and Isaiah felt in them the overwhelmingness of being able to see the world as it could be in comparison to the world that is. They transformed that pain into a hope and a promise that saw the introduction of a God that was no longer separated from the human condition but one that was fully alive at the very core of the human spirit, calling us to change from the inside out.
Many Voices One Path
In our scripture reading this morning, we see Jesus’s cousin, John the Baptist, setting the tone for his ministry to come. Historically, John was part of a religious order that believed that the Apocalypse was imminent to those living in his time. That is why he preached of repentance, a word that is used by the prophets of old, who also asked the people of their time to turn back towards the vision of God for all humanity. In John’s case, his message was one who called on the people of his day to rejoice that the Kingdom of God was not only near, but that it had arrived. His tone is one of joy and power, where he is asking anyone that would listen to change their lives and become baptized with water so that they can become cleanse or symbolically die to the life that they held and therefore embrace the newness of life which is God’s Vision for all of Humanity. John’s aggressive tone towards the religious elites of his time, is one that points out the hypocrisy of those who cling on to titles and rituals, and love to use name-dropping in order to make themselves look better or take on the appearance of being more spiritual than others. John however can see through their shallowness and reminds them that their ritual act of baptism is meaningless unless they are willing to truly change their lives from the inside out. You can sense the tone of his ministry and his own expectations as he talks about the One who is to come who will not only change the eternal realities of people but will start the transformational process by inspiring change at the deepest core of the human soul. John was using his own prophetic imagination to remind those who followed him, that he is only a tool for change but that the one who would take on the mantle of the Christ, the One who would become a reflection of a fully awakened human, will be the one to breach the separation between humanity and the divine by awakening inside of us the fullness of our humanity.
The Inward Path
So therefore, as we await the coming of this promise, as we await the birth of a child that will reflect the fullness of the Universe itself. We are reminded that Advent is much more than a countdown but that it is also a time of deep contemplation and renewal. Advent is one of two consecutive times in the Christian calendar, that asks us to take the inward path into our soul and sit there in the tension of that journey. For Advent, like Lent, was designed as moments of contemplation, as we await and celebrate moments of great transformation in the course of human history. One is the countdown to the birth of a child that will make the world right sit up and whose ministry would evolve the state of the human condition and the other a countdown to the shift of divine consciousness, as that same fully awakened human, through the spirit of nonresistance and love, ignites the very fire that John was prophesying about in the hearts of those of Jesus touched and inspired. So, this Advent season, I ask all of you here this morning, to take the words of John to heart and submerge yourselves into the darkest crevices of your own existence. When you are alone at night or when you find yourself daydreaming in the car as you are stuck in traffic, do not allow yourself to become distracted by the noise of this world. But instead take a moment to stop, to think, and to go inward into yourself. Take a moment to sit in the tensions of your greatest fears, disappointments, sadness, and grief. For in doing so, you can embrace those feelings fully and without reservations, allowing you to go deeper into them and evolve away from the things that are not allowing you to live your best life, for they serve as loops that take you away from the Christ at the core of your existence.
The Outward Journey
And once you are there, once you are at the very bottom of your existence, as we all journey together during this time of Advent, allow yourself to feel the feelings that exist there. Cry and laugh with the closest people in your life. Forgive those who you have not forgiven, let go of anger that has lost its original intent and meaning and allow yourself to shed the noise and grind of this past year. Take on the call of John seriously, allow Christ to cleanse your soul with the fire that is hope, peace, joy, and love. To do so, will allow you individually to begin your outward journey, with the bright light that is the Christ at the core of your existence. A light that will shine brightly in all that you do during this time of Advent and one that is sure to change your outlook as we close out this year and start anew. For you have embraced the truth, that in Christ, you are now a new creation, and through the awakening of the fullness of your humanity, you will begin to also change the realities of those around you. You will become kindlers of fires in the hearts of those you touch this season. Small fires that will start their own journey inward, as they will also begin to hear that small but thunderous voice, that calls all of us from the wilderness. And says—Repent and believe that the Kingdom of God, the Vision of the Indescribable One for all of creation is here. And it is a reality that exist inside every single one of us today.
Dismantling the Culture Wars
So, this Christmas season, I welcome all of us here this morning to look beyond the four walls of this sacred space and reflect the light of Christ this Christmas to all of the people that you come into contact with. Allow the true meaning of Christmas to be expressed in the way that you treat others this month. Don’t play into the noise of the culture wars and say Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas to all, for you are part of a living movement that continues to transform people from the inside out. Don’t fall into the traps of consumerism but take on the tradition of gift giving as an act of love and also give back to those who will have nothing this holiday season. Go through your contact list and remember those who you know who this Christmas will be alone, whether because they have no family or they have been rejected by the ones they do, and open the doors of your own celebrations to them, as long as it does not cause you any stress or discomfort. But above all, as we continue to countdown the birth of the One who will be called the Christ, be still, and do not be afraid to meet and lean into the darkest parts of yourself, so that the fire of the One, who sets our world right side up can burn the deadwood inside your soul. Allowing the vines of your authentic self, to grow out freely from the fertile grounds of your divine core.