Thanks goodness Luke tells a story worthy of a Christmas pageant. Imagine a children’s pageant with no shepherds abiding in fields; no angels lighting up the skies – they’d have nothing to announce; no stable, sheep or cows, no lowly couple or newborn babe in a manger. That would be John’s Christmas pageant. Imagine his story blocked and staged: Eerie smoke swirls in a soft light. A deep voice booms: “In the beginning was the Word – and the Word was with God and was God. Through the Word comes life – a light for all people that overcomes darkness. And the Word became flesh and moved in with us.” Stage lights go up; a boy plaid bath robe is encircled by a cluster of similarly bathrobe costumed boys. Why it’s John the Baptist and minions turned interrogators, sent by Jerusalem’s clergy leaders.
Inquiring minds want to know, “Who are you?” “Don’t know what you’re thinking, but I am not the Messiah,” replies John. He says he’s not Elijah or Moses, but he is like Isaiah crying out from the wilderness, getting folks ready for something big headed their way. He’s evasive – won’t answer directly, which makes him seem like a present-day politician of either party. And even more “in your face,” John says the one he heralds is here already and, “You wouldn’t know him if he stood in front of you,” meaning they are too blind to get it – not the smartest thing to tell anxious clergy. But then John is a prophet who speaks God’s mind, and that can get you killed in this world, even by good, God-loving, God committed believers.
Nice, a bit edgy – but not warm, inviting Christmas pageant material, is it? John doesn’t even inspire a Christmas carol. Think Star Wars – beginning in a time before time – a mystical Word invading this world – becoming one of us, making eternal light known.
The meaning of Christmas no longer grabs our attention or startles us. I recently read an article by a writer who loves Jesus and Christmas. She says the Christmas season we create gets in the way of what God’s doing and wants to give us. “Do Christians really think the son of God is the reason for reduced-price waffle-makers and winter wonderland scenes at the mall?” Even in other countries with virtually no Christian population people decorate homes and apartments like we do – for our holidays – minus Jesus.
A minister friend remarked to our rabbi friend: “The Jews need to market Hanukah – make it into a big celebration with gifts and cards, like we do with Christmas.” Rabbi Friedman’s response: “Now why would we want to mess up Hanukah like you’ve done with your Christmas?”
Let’s be honest. Cultural Christmas doesn’t carry incarnation’s luggage: God dwells now in our flesh with us. You don’t hear that much outside the church. I love all that goes on this time of year. I am all for the culture’s happy family togetherness, sipping hot cocoa by a crackling fire, staring at twinkling lights, and listening to Lady Gaga sing “Silent Night.” I like presents, fattening dips, eggnog, joy and good will. I like for people to find their hopes and fears met through all the years. It’s just not what God coming to be with us means. Too bad so many find what they set hearts on and get isn’t what lasts and they truly want. That’s why we need someone like John. We are like the anxious, searching interrogators – thinking we know what we want, yet blind to what we most need. Come on, Jesus isn’t really the reason for the season. He’s become an asterisk.
John comes into the wilderness of our blindness, wandering, the emptiness, futility and brokenness, our discontent – to point to one whose coming overcomes darkness, who indwells us with eternal life and light. John lifts us into a larger story surrounding our little lives, a story we might otherwise miss. After all, even when Jesus arrives, his closest know he is special, but that’s about all. Christmas means God has come in our flesh and moves in with us – which is larger than thinking divine intervention happens when we find our lost car keys or a parking space at the mall this Christmas. God with us is not just chirpy optimism, either. The world and our lives are a mess. The startling news of Christmas is the God of creation comes to live among and within us. John points us to His coming.
It takes practice to have faith and trust that God’s Word has already overcome the darkness, because honestly that’s often hard to believe. God has come to indwell hearts waiting to be lit with divine life and love for others. If we sit on our pews, waiting for God to do something, we’ll be left behind. Like John, we point others to the light – light that now dwells in us. That’s who we are, O “Christmas of God” people. We are people of courage and hope, living differently because that light shines in us – divine unconditional love giving to all joy, peace, patience – leaving judgment and conclusions to God – empowering us to love those we’d otherwise reject, relieving us of the pride to think we know all – or need to fix anyone.
Week after week, we gather – tell and listen to the story, pray, sing, point to the Word, eat bread, drink wine – baptize, light candles, give thanks in all things. God’s good news, the Word dwelling with us, is for everyone if it’s for anyone. We keep telling and rehearsing the story so God can shape us into who are made to be. Our role is to point and serve making the way plain for the one who has come and forever is with us, Emmanuel, God with us.