Advent 2 • 4 Dec 2016

Isaiah 11:1-10
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12

Rev. Chris Udy

We know we’re well into Advent,
and that Christmas is very close
when, every year,
someone somewhere decides
to launch a pre-emptive strike
against pageants and carols and trees and cards -
and there’ll usually be a Christian
who responds by railing against Santa
and the commercialisation of Christmas
and reminding everyone who’ll listen
that ‘Jesus is the reason for the season’.

There’s something about Christmas
that can irritate the cynic in us.
For some it’s the expense -
Economists like Ross Gittins
say Christmas presents are a monstrous waste,
because they’re rarely what we need
or what we’d choose to buy for ourselves
and that we’d be much more economically responsible
if we simply exchanged envelopes of cash.
But then we’d put the wrapping paper makers
out of business
and lose all the fun of trying to return a gift
without implying that the giver has no taste.
For some it’s the sentimentality;
the sugary sweetness
of Carols by Candlelight
and the hypocrisy of people
who hardly talk to each other
for eleven months of the year
suddenly desperate to exchange the family news
and wishing everyone a Merry Christmas.
For some it’s the religiosity -
all those angels and virgins and talk about God
makes them extremely uncomfortable -
especially if the God being talked about
isn’t the same as the one they don’t believe in.

So every year, around about now,
we hear a story about someone, somewhere,
acting like the grinch -
who, you’ll probably remember,
is a character in some of the Dr Seuss books -
especially one called ‘How the Grinch stole Christmas’.
The Grinch is a grumpy, bitter, green-furred creature
who lives out in the wilderness -
in a cave high on a wind-swept mountain
above the village of Whoville.
Dr Seuss says the Grinch has a heart
“two sizes too small”,
and in his raging jealousy at their happiness
he decides to relieve the Whovillers
of their Christmas gifts, their ham,
and all their decorations,
in an effort to “prevent Christmas from coming”.
Obviously he’s unsuccessful,
and Christmas arrives despite him,
but when he hears the citizens of Whoville
singing Christmas carols
even without their presents and tinsel,
he encounters transforming truth –
and I quote from the book:
“Maybe Christmas,” he thought,
“doesn’t come from a store.”
“Maybe Christmas…perhaps…
means a little bit more!”
And what happened then?
Well…in Whoville they say,
That the Grinch’s small heart
Grew three sizes that day!
And the minute his heart
didn’t feel quite so tight,
He whizzed with his load
through the bright morning light,
And he brought back the toys!
And the food for the feast!
The Grinch
carved the roast beast!”

There is something in our psychology
that harbours a niggle
about the way we prepare for Christmas.
And my psychological hero, Karl Jung
would say that we need to pay close attention
to the people and things that irritate us,
because the things we judge and condemn in others
are usually things we won’t admit about ourselves.
The bright lights of Christmas cast shadows,
and often deep truth and necessary wisdom
lie in the places we find most confronting.

Every year, on the second Sunday in Advent,
we also read about John the Baptist,
who is the Biblical version of the Grinch.
His fur isn’t green,
but it does come from camels,
which probably made it very rough
and fairly smelly.
He eats locusts and wild honey -
which is a diet apparently high in protein,
and very low in fat,
but it can’t have been much fun -
and he lives all alone at the margins of life -
out in the wilderness.
When John finally appears in Judea
he’s full of bitter condemnation
and angry threats.
“You brood of vipers!” he says,
“Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
“Don’t you dare presume
to say to yourselves,
'We have Abraham as our ancestor';
I tell you, God is able,
from these stones,
to raise up children to Abraham.”
“I baptize you with water for repentance,
but one who is more powerful than I
is coming after me;
I am not worthy to carry his sandals.
He will baptize you
with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
His winnowing fork is in his hand,
and he will clear his threshing floor
and will gather his wheat into the granary;
but the chaff he will burn
with unquenchable fire.”

John the Baptist
is one of the shadows of Christmas.
We usually look more deeply into the shadows
when Christmas Day is over -
on the first Sunday after Christmas,
but John appears in Advent,
and we need to respect who he is
and what he says -
not because he’s right -
obviously the angry, punishing Messiah John expected
never arrived;
the one who came after him was Jesus,
who comes with light and grace,
not fire and condemnation,
and who makes every child born
not only a child of Abraham,
but a child of God -
but we have to pay attention to John,
because whenever we, as a society,
celebrate anything,
when the majority of any community -
or any population -
get caught up in any kind of shared celebration,
we often make life more difficult -
more painful, more isolating -
for those who aren’t mainstream -
we reinforce the difference
of people who don’t have reasons for celebration.
We need to be aware of people like John,
people who don’t fit:
who have no families to give presents to;
people who can’t afford special food or decorations;
people who may have good reasons to be wary
when society says -
‘everyone should act like this’,
or look like this, or believe like this.

John represents the stranger within us -
both those cynical inner voices -
our inner prophets -
and those who live as minorities
in our cities and suburbs
and towns and congregations.
We need to be aware of them,
attentive to them, respectful of them,
because they often remind us
of continuing injustice,
or prejudice, or grief -
and they help us see that -
even while we celebrate,
there’s still something incomplete;
there’s work that’s yet to be done;
we haven’t yet achieved
the goal we’re celebrating.

So we read about John the Baptist,
and we respect those voices
within and among us
expressing their disquiet.

A few years ago the response to their concern
might have been
to ban all mention of Christmas;
outlaw pageants and silence carols
wish each other ‘Happy Holidays’,
and only put up neutral decorations -
but thankfully we’re learning a different way.
Hospitality doesn’t mean
that we deny the truth about who we are
or that we mask and hide
the things we value and believe in.
Hospitality does mean
that we are welcoming and inclusive
of those who are not be like us.
I learned a new word this week – ‘zimzum’.
It’s a Hebrew word
that describes what God did in creation:
contracting and withdrawing
to make a space for life and freedom.
Hospitality involves ‘zimzum’
it means we make a space
for those we respect and care for;
we give them choices about what they say and do.
Hospitality also means
that we encourage their celebrations
and accept their hospitality in return.

Today we practice hospitality -
both here at the Lord’s table,
and in a moment as we dedicate
the gifts for the Christmas Hampers.
Next Saturday
we’ll gather for our Christmas party,
and we hope that -
even though we’re not providing
locusts and wild honey,
we can still be welcoming and inclusive
of the grinches and John the Baptists
within us and among us
who remind us
that we still have some work to do -
we still have some conflicts to resolve
and some strangers to befriend
before we can whole-heartedly celebrate
the hope, and peace,
and joy and love of Christmas.