This is my first advent preaching and I really wanted to talk about Mary, about how beautiful she is and how she’s joyfully, but humbly carrying God. I was going to make a bunch of poetic comments about the waters of her womb and the waters Isaiah talks about. I wanted desperately to avoid the Luke passage because it just doesn’t feel much like Advent. It’s offensively real and too close to the state of the needs in the world right now. I’d rather talk about beautiful perfect Mary, who never felt cranky or tired because, of course, she was carrying God. The more I avoided that rude John the Baptist, though, the more I realized how he was questioning the way I wanted Mary to be my muse I could sentimentally gaze upon. So, I’m reluctantly talking about John’s apocalyptic Christmas carol today.
Everything is out of control. John just came back from the wilderness, with a twig or two still in his cloak and the honey from last week crusting in his beard. He’s got one of those looks in his eye—the shaky determination of a student running to turn in a final paper after an all-nighter. He’s been urgently trying to baptize every person he sees around the Jordan because he saw something out in the wilderness. Call it a vision, a hallucination, a message in a bottle. Whatever it was, somehow he knew it was time to “prepare the way of the Lord” because the end was coming.
People begin to hear about this man and swarm to him. The crowd continues to grow and the baptisms are beginning. One man says, “I don’t know if he’s crazy or not, but I’ll take anything at this point.” Another whispers to her child, “John might be the Messiah. Just wait a little longer.” A soldier jokes, “I just came with my buddies to see the show, but this dude got intense way too fast.” Another person assures his wife, “After this, we’re going straight home, locking the doors, and preparing just like John said to do. The end is coming and we need to stock up for it.”
John looks to the crowds and greets them with an unlikely holiday greeting: “You brood of vipers! You snakes! The wrath is coming, so bear fruits worthy of repentance.”. The crowd pushes in a little closer to him, some standing up straighter, trying to look repentant or devout or maybe even pious, blinking their eyelashes innocently.
The way things were suddenly is ending because the Lord is coming, the Lord who will baptize with fire and gather the good wheat, but burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. The end is near and no one knows how to respond to this story John is telling.
This reminds me a bit of the snowstorms we had last year. For many of you, it may have not been a big deal, but for someone like me who grew up in Florida, this seemed like the end. Schools were closed, power was out, roads were icy. As soon as the snow began, I ran to the grocery store, thrusting water bottles, granola bars, and crackers into my cart, thinking that might allow me to survive a few days. Shelves were quickly emptying, the line wrapped around the store, and no one exchanged any pleasantries. This was serious, the snow was coming, and we weren’t about to waste our time helping other people’s family members and friends when we have our own to worry about. The rules were clear: empty the shelves–whoever gets the food first wins. Before the snowpocalypse, I felt the adrenaline surge: the impetus to defend, to prepare, to control.
The crowds filled with that same kind of adrenaline asked John, “What then should we do?” In reply to the crowds, John said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”
The crowd looks around confused, doubtful, and reluctant. How will this plan help us survive the apocalypse? John is making the worst suggestion. Things are out of control, and we know what we need to do: purify ourselves and cloister up in a safe place.
12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”
14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
What John tells the crowd and the tax collectors and the soldiers is all about a reorientation of relationships. It’s the opposite of what my impulses are: instead of closing down, it’s opening up. Instead of competition, it’s feeling the weight of another’s burden as my own. Tax collectors, known for taking money deviously for the empire and pocketing for themselves and soldiers who are trying to survive by threatening others for money are told to just stop doing that. This is not a “nice” thing to do and John’s not just talking about some vague “generous spirit of Christmas”. The funny thing is that this passage ends with John getting arrested by King Herod. What John is suggesting somehow stirred enough fear in Herod that he was considered a threat, somehow Herod felt insecure about all of this. His empire, after all, relies on this fear of scarcity in a competitive economic system to survive.
This John-Herod thing sounds too close to the ways that humans have been described recently. “What if they try to kill our children? How do we know they are honest? Will they just take our food?”
In Florida, where I’ll be heading soon, right down the street from where my grandparents live, two Muslim women driving away from a mosque were shot at. That attempt this week marked the 56th intimidation with a gun against Muslim Americans since the ISIS attack in Paris a month ago. Thousands of Americans this week were phoning in to their representatives with anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant advocacy. Many refugee service offices in North Carolina were on lockdown after receiving phone threats and hate mail from people whose fear of the loss of control was used as a weapon upon them by politicians and newscasters.
Some of my refugee friends through my internship got together to make breakfast for some people who were hungry. In the midst of the fear and anxiety, several of the new refugees decided that a response was not to hide out all buttoned up, but to serve breakfast because they heard people were hungry. One of my friends looked at me in an apron covered in bagel crumbs and said, “This is the best day I have had since I got here. We should do this again next week.” My Muslim friend reflected back to me living faith I have not felt much this Advent: in God, in humanity, in government, and even in facebook friends. My friend who prays to “God, the compassionate, the merciful” witnessed to me that I don’t have to escape clinging desperately to anything that provides a facade of security, of immortality. My friend already experienced a complete loss of any illusion of control of her life. In response, she is teaching me that it’s here and now that we can at least try to make homes within each other.
The word nostalgia literally means to “ache” for “homecoming.” Nostalgia comes from a wanting to return home, to something true and good. I admit that I feel an aching for home, but it is complex for me because I don’t have a very good sense of where that home is anymore. The relationships I have are dynamic and constantly changing. People are moving away. People who felt like home to me have died or changed. Maybe I’m the person who changed. Every time I try to describe what home is, it feels like sand just sifting through my fingers. Sometimes a commercial will tug at me and give me a hint of what I’m searching for: jolly old Coca-Cola Santa who can provide me an escape from my longing. A temporary escape from all of this longing for something I can’t even describe.
The ache for home only begins to be soothed when I stop isolating myself, hiding these fears about my homelessness. It’s whenever I am invited into someone’s journey and stumble along unsure of how to cherish carefully. It’s when I’m able to accept food when I need it and friendship when I least want it.
A journey of homemaking with anyone—strangers or friends—is a messy, complex, dynamic dance in risk taking. It takes more patience than the frenzy of mailing Christmas cards during the shopping season. Christmas cards are fun, I love getting pictures of my friends and family, and I love feeling remembered. Still, it’s hard to reconcile that I’ve never received a Christmas card sharing news of a painful medical diagnosis, a breakup, a rejection letter, a headstone inscription, a divorce, or unemployment. I’ve never received a Christmas card that reminded me that the ones I love have brokenness and weakness like I do. I just see their good parts and I miss them, the real them. I miss the way we could have a home in one another’s brokenness.
The joy of Advent is not just that we will finally feel at home with the smell of fresh pine or the overdose of cinnamon sugar cookies. The joy of advent is that God chose to make a home for 40 weeks in Mary’s cramped, dark womb. God entered human life not as some wise old sage, unaffected by lowly human desires, fears, and longings. God became human and really lived inside another human body filled with hormones, blood, guts, hunger and feelings. Real feelings, some even happening simultaneously: of anger and joy and sadness and confusion and amazement and fear.
This good unsentimental news that we hear from John today will rupture the fabric of the empire, will dismantle the driving force of an oppressive economic system, and will crush the unnecessary borders between creatures. After all, it was a call to unconventional homemaking radical enough to get him arrested.