Zephaniah 3:14-20; Luke 3:7-18
I generally add my voice to those decrying the commercialization of Christmas, although now I must admit that having a child makes all of it a lot more fun. Well, fair enough: commercialization is pretty awful. But even in some of our secular Christmas practices, you can see hints of a deeper spiritual reality. For instance: Silas has asked why he can’t tell Jessica and me what Christmas gifts he, with a little help, picked out for us. Did you ever think about that before? The wrapping is not just decoration. It is the creation of a secret, a mystery—something known to be un-known. It is a veiling. And only on Christmas morning will there be an un-veiling, a revelation of the gift. This is very theological language. Interesting. In the end, it’s the same toaster or what have you; but it turns out that the timing and ritual of the packaging is as essential as what’s inside.
Just like Christmas gifts, for the Bible what matters isn’t just the content; you need the wrappings and trappings: both expectations and fulfillments; veilings and unveilings; promises and deliverances. And just as the opening of the gift is not really the end, but a continuation and deepening of the personal relationship that is being reaffirmed in the gift—so the dynamics of revelation work continue on from the showing: Every fulfillment brings new expectations; every unveiling is another veiling; every deliverance opens up new promises.
And so we do well in Advent to revisit the expectations in the Bible that immediately precede the birth and manifestation or epiphany of Jesus as the Messiah. Besides quoting and using earlier biblical prophets, the gospels have their own built-in prophetic herald in the figure of John the Baptist. Historically, he’s a mysterious figure—each gospel puts a different spin on him, and we have few other accounts of him that could establish who he ‘really’ was. Luke’s account is typical of the gospels: John the fiery prophet of dire warnings, calling people out of the corrupt Jerusalem to once again find God in the dessert wilderness and to mark repentance by the unusual ritual of baptism. But it’s a slightly odd portrayal of John, and to me a little humorous. On one hand John is excessively harsh in his message. To the crowds who have taken the controversial step of coming out to see him, John says, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” John didn’t get the memo about, “Wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” He warns them to repent and bear worthy fruit, for God’s ax is ready to chop us down and throw us into the fire.
But then when the various groups of people ask him what to do, his prescriptions, found only in Luke, are rather bland. If you have two coats, or extra food, give some away. Well, ok. To tax collectors, those conspiratorial sell-outs to Rome, he says, ‘collect only what you are supposed to.’ And to soldiers, those threatening representatives of Roman occupation, he says, don’t extort money, and be satisfied with your wages. ‘Ouch.’ Mostly John’s message is, “Don’t do anything obviously nasty.” (I hope people aren’t offended if I find irony in Scripture—it is an inspired but also a very human book.) I think closer historical and literary investigation might show that Luke is up to something interesting here, but to me it looks like a whole lot of huffing and puffing but not much that blows us away. I get the same effect with the end of our reading: John concludes with a harrowing picture of the coming Messiah, who will be even more fire-and-brimstone than John. He will gather the wheat, but burn the chaff with “unquenchable fire.” And then Luke adds, “With many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”
Amusing irony aside, it’s really instructive to see Jesus’ herald, John the Baptist, make some wild guesses as he attempts to set his hopes for judgment and repentance on the coming One. But it may turn out, surprisingly, that once we unwrap the package, Jesus is both much meeker than John expects him to be, and—something we often overlook—much more demanding and radical than John’s “You better watch out, you better not cry.”
But John isn’t alone in having trouble pinning down the Coming One. We also make some wild and blind guesses about who this Jesus is, even though we’ve been living with him for our whole lives. We can hardly help making Jesus either too extreme, or too tame. We certainly can’t boast before the prophets of old, because we should know better. Indeed, we should not be surprised to be surprised by Jesus. He is one with God, after all, and God embraces the whole of things in a way that always looks impossible to us.
Zephaniah’s prophesy is a classic example of a beautiful and peaceful expectation for the coming of the Lord, who he says “is in your midst.” “He will renew you in his love.” And as if to enact that coming, Zephaniah (probably in fact a series of different authors and editors) switches to the first person: “I will save the lame and gather the outcast.” It sounds so remarkably prescient of the mighty acts of Jesus. And then, speaking probably to Jews exiled from Jerusalem, concludes: “I will bring you home” and restore your fortunes. It’s a beautiful and optimistic hope of restoration and justice. But read the rest of the book: This lofty and heartening prediction comes after some of the harshest prophetic denunciation of Israel to be found in the whole Bible: “The great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast; the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter…That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom….” And so on. It seems that the book of Zephaniah, no less than John, thrashes about between despair and serenity about what will happen on the Day of the Lord. Of course, none of the prophets fears the coming of God; they all welcome and await it eagerly, because for the faithful—as opposed to the false children of Abraham—God will liberate and vindicate. For the faithful, apocalyptic prophesy is never gloomy—it is a welcome end to a desperately bad situation. So I suppose the question is, do the prophets and we expect the coming of God’s chosen one to be a universal blessing, or a very decisive judgment that will shake the world to its foundations.
We do well to open ourselves to this full range of hope and expectation, for it’s so easy to domesticate and normalize the coming of Jesus. We easily latch on to the sweet baby Jesus, to comfort and joy, but it’s harder to grasp the King of Kings who evidently poses a massive threat to Herod, and the winnower who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.
This week we light the third Advent candle of Joy, which strikes me as the most personal and intimate of the Advent expectations—the others being hope, love, and next week, peace. And so it seems fitting to ask, what is it deep within us that robs us of joy? What are we in bondage to that cuts us off from joy, leaving us prone to the opposite of joy? Would that be sadness? I don’t think so. Sadness is the opposite of happiness. But joy can exist amid both happy and sad experiences. I want to suggest that the opposite of joy is wariness and guardedness. The joyful love life, come what may; the wary are desperately concerned about what lies around the corner. The joyful are generous and welcome the stranger; the guarded suspect the stranger. The joyful welcome the future and what is coming; the guarded fear change, and wish more than anything to secure what they already have and cut their losses.
The forces that lead us to be wary and guarded are many and complex; we could look carefully at our current culture and gain much insight. But I think the roots of it run deep into our primal humanity—and so the liberation from being guarded and wary, or just fearful, must likewise begin deep; “the ax is lying at the root of the tree.” I think the root of it lies in our finitude. We—we human beings– experience ourselves as limited, fragile, vulnerable; we experience our powers as limited, and waning with age or sickness. We see and feel the ravages of time—symbolized as Father Time or the Grim Reaper around the New Year. Above all, we perceive our death as a threat to everything. It’s almost a natural reaction, then, to seek to secure our possessions, our health, our access to those who bring us pleasure. (Almost natural, because some remarkable souls I’ve known do not seem to react this way; some cultures and religions resist this attitude, while others promote it, and interestingly, it is an attitude is missing in the depiction of Adam and Eve.) It’s almost natural, when we know ourselves to be finite, to want to add and add and add to the limited animal we are: to add possessions, to add years, to add power over others, to add layers of protection and security; and of course that makes no sense unless you willfully ignore your mortality. It’s almost natural to regard others are potential threats, competitors, those who would take away what I have, since my resources seem finite.
It’s worth pausing to consider our present geo-political moment. Fear, wariness, and guardedness are the order of the day. The US is just one of many nations who are shutting down and closing up in response to fear: France, Poland, Hungary, and others are electing anti-immigrant, xenophobic governments. There is a growing tide of anti-Islamic feeling in the west, which is not concerned to distinguish mainstream Islam, the religion of some personal friends of mine, from the idolatrous parody found in ISIS and Al Qaeda. I’m not sure how much I should attempt to call all this out. Let’s be clear: nothing is more loathsome than the idolatrous architects of global fear, the murderous terrorists. But I can’t help but note as others have that the jingoistic, anti-Islamic reaction is exactly what the radical Islamists hope to create, to further turn the west against Islam and hasten some grand battle that they imagine their god of death will win for them. But at the root of this whole struggle is what I am talking about today: our finitude, our vulnerability, which too easily makes us wary and guarded rather than generous and welcoming. We experience the ramifications in our global struggles just as much as in our personal struggles. And there is something here that needs God’s salvation, globally and personally.
It’s hard to be finite human beings, especially because we can see the limits of our own life, and see beyond them. Unlike other animals, we can imagine being more powerful, more attractive, longer-lived. And it’s almost natural to seek some way to transcend or escape the limits of our finitude and vulnerability. Some of these are filled with wonder and humane feelings, approaching a truly divine joy: we immerse ourselves in the beauties of nature, of music and art, of a good novel or poem; we help others or work for the betterment of our communities; we lose ourselves in the arms of a lover, or the warmth of friendship; or in local or national festivals. Some other ways are dubious, to my mind (you’ll note my biases), and amount to experiences of happiness that are fleeting and take us nowhere: we hone our skills in the thrill of competitive games; or we create elaborate terrariums of organized sports, watching elite athletes struggle and compete to accomplish a contrived victory; we feel the rush of controlled brushes with death, from horror flicks to bungee jumping and whatnot; we exercise power in buying, shopping, or making others do our bidding; we ritually lose ourselves in cheap thrills or thoughtless, escapist entertainment. And some are tragically destructive: we consume and abuse other people, feeding off of their destruction; we drink or drug ourselves into escape. We use religion, too. Sometimes we use religion more like immersing ourselves in beauty or in a lover’s arms; sometimes we use it more like a drug. Even while these attempts range from joyful to hedonistic to masochistic, in all of them we can espy some good, however warped and twisted, that God intended for us, just as finite creatures.
But only to a limited extent do we seem able to enjoy what comes, what we have, what our finitude allots to us—in common with all creatures. We also want to be invulnerable. We want to escape sickness and death. We want those limited goods that we enjoy to go on in perpetuity. And we naturally and not wrongly direct these desires, these hopes to God. We want to be sheltered and protected by God. We want share in God’s invulnerability, for we imagine God to be invulnerable. And sometimes we just want to be God, as we imagine god: the mightiest, most powerful, longest living, ruler of all—a person like us but unlimited. But in that case, we are probably dealing with an idol of our imagination, with something we imagine from this side of finitude as the opposite of finitude and vulnerability.
We might be in for a rude surprise on Christmas morning, when that present is unwrapped and revealed: it might not be present we were hoping for. The surprise of Christmas will be more or less of a delight, depending on what you have prepared yourself for. If you are preparing to become like a mighty and invulnerable god, the fact that we have already set an empty cradle in the middle of our crèche might make you think twice.
What we hope for and need is a sense of true joy that takes us out of ourselves while we remain firmly embodied, in the mortal flesh, of our everyday lives. What we need is to participate in something incorruptible and eternal that makes us more honest and accepting of our vulnerability, rather than denying and hiding from it. I’m not convinced the world of art, community service, sports, relationships, and certainly not drugs, can alone show us the way. But my hope is that the Coming One will begin us on a journey to find transcendent joy amidst our vulnerability. And that joy will liberate us from possessiveness, from guardedness, from being turned inward, and turn us outward to God and to God’s world.