Preachers love this time of the year. Because we get to take pot shots at people, for all the crummy priorities folks have during the Christmas season.
We complain because you spend too much money on Christmas presents … while we ourselves are walking the mall and enjoying shopping for our loved ones. We whine about the Christmas decorations on your lawn that we think are way over the top … even as we admire the decorations in our own homes and offices. We warn you against excessive eating, drinking and partying … as we mix hot toddies with our families when they come into town. In short, preachers around the world love to pound you with the sin of over-commercializing Christmas … even as we too, contribute to the glut of holiday excess. It is our favorite topic … and it shows up in our sermons, our newsletter articles, in our meetings, and in our conversations. It gives us a chance to remind you that your priorities are all out of whack … and to ponder how we should all do a better job of preparing for Jesus’ arrival into our lives. It’s OK, you can shake your head in agreement … we know how we pastors act during the Advent season … and it isn’t pretty.
So, for a change of pace, I’m going to suggest to you that I think we preachers make a huge mistake by targeting “commercialism” as the problem of the Advent/Christmas season. I don’t really think our problem is one of thinking that a giant inflatable Joseph and Mary communicates the meaning of this season. I think our problem is just the opposite … namely that we are yearning for something of substance at this time of the year, but we find ourselves struggling to wrap our hands around it. We sense that this season promises a one-of-a-kind spiritual experience. But that we cannot seen to connect to it. And so, we surround ourselves with “stuff” … we shop like there is not tomorrow … we consume our time with events … so we don’t have to confront our inner emptiness, that leads us into the wilderness. And we hope that these distractions will allow to catch a glimpse of the magic of the season. And then, even when the miraculous happens, and a God moment breaks through the clutter of your mind and the kitsch on your front lawn … and embodies something significant about Jesus’ birth … we are still at risk of missing it. The problem is not that we ignore the mystery and magic of the Christmas season. The problem is that we are blind to it as it stands right in front of us.
If my premise is true, then the preaching of John the Baptist is in fact still just what the doctor ordered, two thousand years after John first spoke these words. Because John talks about repentance – the word is metanoia in the Greek language. Metanoia is a word that means “to change your way.” Literally to “change the direction in which you are going.” John the Baptist suggests to us that we must leave the path on which we are currently traveling … and strike out on a new path. And he points us to Jesus as the person who can point us to that right path through his words and deeds and ministry.
Now for a long time, the Christian church has been talking about this “change of direction” to which the season of advent summons us. We use lots of words to describe it … and a variety of images to picture it. But I want to share with you one tradition that I suspect will be unknown to many of you – simply to get your attention, in the midst of a world that is flooded with decorations and seasonal gimmicks. It is an obscure German tradition called “The Advent Buzzard. It begins with a hangar … bent into a bird’s body shape … that has a black stocking stretched over it … a white glove pulled on top for the head … and a button sewn on that glove to serve as the buzzard’s eye.
The Advent Buzzard is then hung in a prominent place in the family household where family members and guests will regularly pass. Every time you pass the buzzard, you take a swat at the creature, and recite these words from Romans chapter 13, verse 12 … “I renounce the forces of darkness, and put on the armor of light.”
Robert Hershey, in a book entitled Advent Landmarks, in which I found this old custom, writes these words as commentary:
A psychologist would tell us that this is a crude way of acknowledging the struggles within us. The educator would add that this physical gesture is an instance of learning through action. A preacher would suggest that there is a symbolic significance in this effort to strike a blow for a new life. And they would all be right. There are two comings of Christ to which Advent points. The one in the Advent in the babe in Bethlehem; the other is in the advent of our hearts.~~Robert Hershey, in a book entitled Advent Landmarks
It is a picture … admittedly a crude one … of what the change of direction that John the Baptist calls for might look like in our lives.
The problem of course, is that it may not be enough … though we may slap away at the old buzzard, even as we slap away at our sin … we will most likely not be able to fashion the kind of change which John the Baptist says is necessary for us. Because, along with the change in perspective that John asked of his followers … he also talks about a change, which God brings into our lives. And it is a severe change that God brings …. The axe being laid to the root of our lives … a baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire … a winnowing fork on the threshing floor of the world. In short, God changes our ways by killing us … or at least killing the sin that is within us. God seeks to destroy all those things that stand in the way of our relationship with God and others. And it is work that only God can do.
One of our great Lutheran preachers of the modern era was the late Richard Jenson. A college and seminary professor … author of a number of books on preaching, and the host of the radio program Lutheran Vespers in the late 20th century … Jenson always embodied a clarity around how God might best use people like you and me in our own church talk. In his first published book, Touched By the Spirit, Jenson wrote these words about repentance:
The daily baptismal experience has many names. It may be called repentance. Unfortunately, repentance is often understood as an “I can” experience. “I am sorry for my sins. I can do better. I can please you, god.” So often we interpret repentance as our way of turning toward God. That cannot be. Christianity is not about an individual turning to God. Christianity is about God turning to us. In repenting, therefore, we ask the God who has turned toward us, buried us in baptism and raised us to new life, to continue his work of putting us to death. Repentance, at its heart, is thus an “I can’t” experience. To repent is to volunteer for death. Repentance asks that the “death of self” which God began to work in us in baptism continue to this day. The repentance person comes before God saying, “I can’t do it myself, God. Kill me and give me new life. You buried me in baptism. Bury me again today. Raise me to new life.” That is the language of repentance.~~Touched By the Spirit, Richard Jenson
It is a message that stands in direct opposition to our cultural obsession with claiming that we can do anything we set our minds to. It is a message that laughs at our arrogance in thinking that we are the authors and creators of everything good that exists in our lives. It is an Advent message … that champions the acknowledgement that our best hopes and prayers for goodness and grace are found in what God accomplishes in us, in spite of … and precisely because of … the brokenness in our lives.
Two Sundays from now a dozen or more persons will gather in this sanctuary and join in a worship service that acknowledges the pain of living in these “I can’t” moments. The Darkest Night is a service of healing and hope in the face of all kinds of losses in our lives … the loss of health, the loss of independence, the loss of a job, the loss of loved ones to death. The service is a reminder that in the midst of a season of celebration, there is often much sadness that does battle with the joy around us. It speaks to the challenge of opening Christmas cards during the day and reading words of peace, and goodwill to all … knowing that later at night we will lay our head upon the pillow and cry ourselves to sleep. Those who will gather on December 22nd for Darkest Night worship, are often people who most clearly understand what Advent repentance is all about. Because they have experienced death and loss reaching into their lives and grabbing them by the throat. And they understand the daily baptismal struggle of repentance and hope … the “I Can’t Faith Life” of which Richard Jenson reminds us.
So … this Advent season I invite you into a challenge. Recognize and celebrate the fact that we are always right to daily celebrate the birth of Jesus, and the transformation which our Lord has brought to the earth … and to our lives … however you may engage in that celebration. And engage in that challenge characterized by a daily rising to life, and a nightly lying down to the death of sleep. It is in that healthy rhythm of life and death, that place of vulnerability and openness, that God is able to raise you to life again in this world. Engage in the Christian’s proper response to this life-changing blessing … by always giving thanks to God … and by making that thanks concrete in the offering of our time, the sharing of our skills, and contribution of our dollars as thank offerings for this gift. The season of Advent … and the preaching of John the Baptist … and maybe even the Advent Buzzard … are reminders that both the gift … and our thank-offering responses to the gift … are the work of the Spirit of Christ within us. Amen.