Only ten days till Christmas, and we’re stuck with John the Baptist. As we go about our merry-making, John is a real killjoy. We don’t need a prophet or curmudgeon, we need jolly old Saint Nick, with sacks of presents, candy, and libations. But, there are times when you need to hear the bad news before you can embrace the good.
John the Baptist is a physician of the spirit – a heart surgeon – challenging our values and priorities, our way of life, dowsing our lifestyle with theological and ethical Lysol so we can get in line with God’s realm.
Sometimes we don’t think we’re sick but we are. We work hard, we go no stop from activity to activity, we live in accordance with our culture’s values…We’re doing all the right things, as far as we know and then John shows up, challenging our values, way of life, and personal and national priorities. John’s first listeners were not bad people – they were the privileged and elite of their society. They could afford to take a day off to hear the hippie preacher. Little did they know that beneath the novelty was a message that would cut them to the quick and give them the opportunity to change their lives and hear God’s voice for the first time since childhood.
Now, I can assure you that a pastor won’t last long if they call their congregants a brood of vipers and then challenge any sense of uniqueness they might have. In today’s language, John says “God can make disciples of anyone and God can rise up any nation as his chosen. Don’t depend on calling yourself a Christian, your American citizenship, or your retirement plan. Things are going to change and you better turn your life around.”
John preached a gospel of repentance. Good news about repentance, are you kidding? But, repentance can be good news – it means changing our ways, turning around and taking a new path, opening to a new set of values, that will stand the test of time. It means moving from disease to recovery.
Repentance is a form of spiritual decluttering. The day after Christmas, I will receive my first social security check. That’s good news – extra money in my pocket – but it is already a reminder of the passage of time. My body is not as forgiving as it once was. Having just had my annual physical: although the numbers are terrific, I know that I need to change a few habits if I am to age gracefully. I need to declutter my lifestyle and prune certain foods from my diet. At a certain time in your life, you realize you mortal. We can longer live in denial: as the author William Saroyan noted, “I always knew everyone was going to die. But I didn’t think it would apply to me.”
Our mortality often depresses us, but it can also be a call to repentance. You all know my daily prayer, “This is the day that God has made and I will rejoice and be glad in it.” But, there is a footnote, I also ask God to “wake me up so I can be faithful, so I can love, so I can cherish this one moment of life, this unique day in all its wonder.” Or, as a friend of mine, diagnosed with cancer asserted, “I didn’t become wise as a result of cancer, but I did learn not to mess around anymore. I live one day at a time savoring the life I have and letting go of what’s not important.”
That’s spiritual decluttering. I once asked an apple orcharder why he pruned his trees. His response was: so the light can shine in. Now, I’m not looking for a visible catastrophic second coming of Jesus. In fact, I think the doctrine has done far more harm than good, by turning people away from the miracle of this good earth to yearn for another life and by tempting us to wait for God to save us from our problems when we are responsible – by God’s grace – to do what’s in our power, to have the serenity and agency to change what we can.
Each moment, Christ’s comes. Each moment is an opportunity for decision – to bring greater joy or sorrow, beauty or ugliness, life or death to the world. We won’t be perfect, and sometimes our choices are limited, and the best choice at the moment may not be very good, but we can still choose the highest good, in our limitations and imperfections.
I suspect one of the reasons that Dicken’s “Christmas Carol” has stood the test of time is because it’s is really about us. In this holy moment, we can glimpse Christmas past and Christmas to come, and realize that we, like Ebenezer Scrooge, have a choice. We can choose to have small, cramped spirits, or we can open the windows of our souls to embrace the world in all its tragic beauty. We can repent and turn from loneliness to community, we can be on the side of the angels, loving fully, and reaching out, giving without thought of return.
Yes, its just ten days till Christmas and life is speeding up. But, we can slow down, look at our lives, prune away the clutter. We can discover the good news in John’s call repentance. We can rejoice in this one glorious day – today – and live a life one day at a time, devoted to love, care for the vulnerable, and large-hearted generosity. We can be born again to the spirit of Christmas.