It’s hard to remember now, but back before the Tiger Woods “single car accident with possible wifely golf club rescue” story took over all print, broadcast, and electronic media, there were actually other things we cared about—and I don’t mean the couple who crashed the Obamas’ first state dinner. I mean things like healthcare legislation, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the state of the economy, and, yes, even Christmas! I am neither a golfer nor a follower of the sport—I tried hard to learn how to do it, but the golf gods decided to smile elsewhere—so Tiger Woods looms no larger in my consciousness than do, say, NASCAR drivers or WWF wrestlers. So I’m a bit surprised at the “All Tiger all the time” coverage right now. I just hope when the time comes my wife Kathy has the presence of mind to rescue me from a smashed up car with a blunt instrument.
Part of the job of a preacher, though, is to help us all focus on the important stuff that is going on, and for us Christians, of course, the most vital looming event in our lives is the coming of Christmas. And what better way to focus on Christmas than the shopping frenzy of Black Friday? Last weekend, when we were in California for Thanksgiving, the Los Angeles Times carried a story called “Black Friday: Wal-Mart in Upland Temporarily Closes after ‘Fighting Inside’” [Los Angeles Times, 11/27/09]. The story told of how police were called to the store at around 3 a.m. to help the staff deal with about three hundred people who were fighting each other and store workers, tearing into shrink wrapped packages, refusing to line up. After the police arrived, expelled the shoppers, and restored order, they caught several trying to sneak back into the store through the lawn and garden section. “It was scary,” one worker said.
What better way can you think of to prepare for the coming of the Prince of Peace than to go down to Wal-Mart and knock some heads together? Although there is a humorous side to this story, I don’t bring it up to be flip. Remember that a year ago, at a Long Island Wal-Mart, a 34-year-old worker named Jdimytai Damour was killed when a frenzied mob broke through that store’s doors and trampled him to death. I’m sure that at least part of this frenzy stems from the high rate of unemployment and the desperate desire for bargains that people feel will enable them to give gifts to their families and friends at Christmas. People are hurting financially, emotionally, and spiritually. They worry that there is not enough to go around.
But the very fact that Christmas itself has become an occasion for fear, outrage, anxiety, and depression tells us that we are all very much off course. Even those of us who are not in desperate financial straits still shrink at the approach of some of the excesses of the season we’re in. We feel, somehow, that it’s up to us to make this season “perfect” (as Martha Stewart might say) for ourselves and for the people we love. For some of us, that perfection is tied up with getting the season’s hot toy. For others of us, that perfection involves a flawlessly decorated and served gathering or event. For still others, perfection consists in merely surviving a day inside with people you can only stand to be with a couple of times a year. What saddens me about Christmas as we celebrate it is that we have turned it into a problem to be solved rather than a festival to be enjoyed.
One of the great blessings of the Christian life is the season of Advent—the four weeks that lead up to Christmas Day. Advent asks that we prepare for the coming of Christ at Christmas—and that coming moves backward and forward in time. Christ came at the first Christmas, Christ will come at the end of time, and Christ comes to us NOW. While the rest of the world frenzies to the beat of the “Christmas Season” (which actually began around Labor Day), you and I have been given the gift of Advent, a time to watch and wait for something extraordinary which is coming toward us NOW.
In today’s Gospel, we hear the first reference to the ministry of John the Baptist, who, as Luke tells us, appeared in the area around the Jordan River and proclaimed a baptism of repentance and the forgiveness of sins. The most famous thing that John says is actually a quotation from the prophet Isaiah:
"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
'Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"
[Luke 3.4-6, Isaiah 40.3-5]
John is talking, of course, about the coming of Jesus and his ministry. He is a voice crying in the wilderness, making the paths straight and the rough ways smooth in preparation for the One who approaches. He preaches a Baptism of repentance and the forgiveness of sins so that we may greet with joy the One who will be born in Bethlehem. The Church has traditionally thought of Advent as a penitential season, not quite Lent, but a time of cleansing and preparation. It is a time for us to attend to the voice of one crying in the wilderness. It is a time for us to make our own paths straight and our own rough ways smooth. We are making ready a place in our minds and hearts for the One who is coming toward us.
And that understanding of Advent as a time of gift and quiet and preparation brings me back to the frenzies of Black Friday and our own drive to over-achieve in our celebrations of Christmas. When we listen to that voice crying in the wilderness, I hear two words being spoken to us in the here and now about how we can—individually and together--prepare the way of the Lord.
First, to each of us as individuals: Christ is coming toward you NOW. This means many things, but perhaps the deepest thing it means is that you are worth enough to God and Jesus for this whole immense drama of salvation to take place. Each of us, to some extent, dwells in an internal and external wilderness, and each of us needs to hear that the One coming toward us does so in love and blessing and peace. There are many reasons people overdo it at this time of year, but at least one big one is a nagging fear of worthlessness. Maybe if I give the perfect gift, serve the perfect dinner, put on the perfect party—maybe then I will matter and be accepted. The first great truth of Advent and Christmas is that God is doing this whole thing for YOU. Christmas is about what theologians call the Incarnation—the coming of God into human flesh in Jesus Christ—and what the Incarnation finally means is that you and I matter. We are created in God’s image and endowed with God’s purpose and blessing. By taking on human life in Jesus, God says that everything we do and experience counts for something. If you are entertaining and giving gifts out of a deep sense of the abundance of God’s love for you, wonderful! If you are doing all that out of a sense that you have to earn something, then think again. You matter. You count. You are accepted. You are loved. That is what God’s voice says to you in the wilderness.
And God’s voice says a second word to us that we, all of us, need to hear together. It’s not only that God comes to us in our wilderness to tell us that we matter. It’s that there are others lost in this wilderness who need to hear that message. There are hungry, poor, sick people who need to hear that message. There are lonely, cynical, alienated people who need to hear it, too. If Christmas becomes only a celebration of our own preciousness—if we try to hoard and keep this blessing to ourselves inside our own small circles—then it’s only a pale parody of the real festival which God calls us to. The real, deep point about Christmas is that it’s a celebration of the crazy, wild, profligate abundance of God’s love for you, for me, for the world. One way we make the way straight for the coming of Christ is to knock down our own internal barriers which keep us from truly joyful living. Another way we make the way straight for Christ is to stand with and for those whose lives are characterized by scarcity. To the poor and the oppressed we reach out in generosity and advocacy and hope. To the lonely and alienated we open our hearts and houses and our churches of welcome and meaning and life. In community with all God’s beloved children we try, as Jesus did, to create a table fellowship where we can together enjoy the abundant life God means us to live.
The Black Friday Wal-Mart slugfest serves as a grotesque image of what Christmas in our culture can become—a crazed mob driven by fear, anxiety, and a gnawing sense that there just isn’t enough to go around. As a counterpoint to that image, today’s gospel gives us another one—that of a community crying in the wilderness, gathering us in a community of repentance and forgiveness, waiting expectantly for the next wonderful thing God might be about to do.
Christianity has always been a counter-force in every culture it has inhabited, from the Roman Empire to the present day. We have always been, as John the Baptist was, a voice crying in the wilderness. In a world obsessed with the material excesses of the season, you and I are called to be, as John was, voices crying in the wilderness, people preparing the way of the Lord in our own minds and hearts and houses and in the wider world we all inhabit. Prepare the way of the Lord. Make the pathways straight, the rough places smooth. You are so important to God that God comes toward you even now to grant you fullness and abundance of life. And all God’s people—especially the ones at the margins of illness, poverty, and alienation—are precious to God as well. Some One and something great is coming towards us. Let us pause and open ourselves up to it, so that finally we may, all of us together, give thanks. Amen.