3 Advent Year C: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9; Phil 4:4-7; Lk 3:7-18
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer
Sunday, December 13, 2015
And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise. -Zephaniah 3:19
My favorite television Christmas special is A Charlie Brown Christmas. Though Linus’s big monologue from Luke is in the middle of the show, it might better be entitled, A Charlie Brown Advent because throughout the show, Charlie Brown searches for the meaning of Christmas. In a way, that is what Advent is all about”taking time, asking questions, searching for meaning in order to celebrate Christ’s incarnation and prepare for his return. Charlie Brown doesn’t allow shame, guilt, or embarrassment to stop him. He presses forward not accepting the easy answers but asking the hard questions; not allowing privilege or the expectations of others dilute his own serious regard and intention to uncover the mystery of what it means for Christ to be present among us.
None of us can really say we understand Christmas. None of us really understands what it means for Christ to be present among us, though I think we have some ideas as to what it is not. Its not a big Eastern syndicate that everyone knows runs Christmas. Its not consumerism or commercialism; its not pageants or presents or even parties; its not the goddess Macy’s or Tiffany’s, nor is it the god of sporting events and hunting. It’s not even decorating or cooking. And yet, all of these things plague our season of Advent.
We’ve lost Advent in the secular world. But we haven’t lost it to Christmas, not the real Christmas anyway”not the Christmas that ushers in the incarnation of Christ nor the one that will premiere his second coming. No, we’ve lost Advent to a consumer society who would turn to a Santa for hope, asking for real estate or, at least, tens and twenties. We’ve lost Advent to the preparation of our homes and we’ve stopped preparing our hearts. We wrap ourselves in the trappings of a consumer driven season that cares little about the poverty of the incarnation; lax in our attention and focus to the great work God is doing all around us.
Charlie Brown recognizes this laissez-faire sort of attitude when he attempts to direct the Christmas pageant. He has a brood of vipers to work with who are more interested in dancing and their own privilege than actually taking time to understand or engage in the work given them”they are not bearing fruits worthy of repentance.
Charlie Brown and John the Baptist are not that very different. Both the Baptist and Brown are outcasts. Both recognize that people are inherently selfish and self-centered. Both question and even challenge society’s norms. Both are searching for and finding something deeper than the limited view of life the world has to offer. Both are concerned with a deeper truth, a salvific truth. That truth is not complicated or even that difficult to understand; it is a truth that is practical, basic, honest, and pastoral. And, because of its simplicity, it rarely meets our expectations much less our standards especially at this holiday season.
Its difficult for us to live into truth, to be real because our understanding of God is so often complicated by our own personal shame and guilt. We don’t understand God, so we can’t understand ourselves: after all, we are created in his image. Instead, we allow ourselves to get caught up in all the distractions of life. Because we do not understand incarnation, we lose ourselves to consumerism. Because it is so difficult for us to accept or allow poverty in our own life, we have a difficult time accepting or even allowing ourselves to engage in our own poverty of Spirit. Yet that is what the season of Advent is”to understand incarnation or to even begin to prepare for Christ’s return we must first admit our own poverty of Spirit”we must embrace our doubts and our darkness, not run from them or try to cover them up.
The salvation offered to us by God is ours for the taking. God’s gift to us is in his incarnation”his presence among us, his movements, his words, his actions in the form of Jesus Christ are the blueprint for our transformation. John foreshadows Jesus’ life and work with his own Gospel; the Good News for John is that we can repent and return, we can be transformed, we need only return to the simple practice of life that reflects a rejection of privilege and encompass others. We cannot live an expectant life as children of Abraham. There is no privileged status in heaven. The question is not faith versus acts. The answer is faith and acts”both are necessary for kingdom living.
The Good News is that faith and acts are not difficult, they are simply rooted in where we are now and the gifts we have been given to share. We cannot save ourselves, and we don’t have too. Jesus does that. There is no personal salvation. The many exhortations with which John proclaims the Good News is the message of forgiveness and the advent of new relationship. John reminds us that what we are doing here is about all of us and the way we understand and participate in the heavenly Kingdom is always in the context of community. It is only in our participation in the kingdom neighborhood association that we can possibly enjoy the benefits of salvation freely offered to us.
The problem with our approach to Advent is that we forget that we are waiting on a hero and instead each of us attempts to be our own hero”yet, we know there is one more powerful than any of us coming. In a world full of Luke Skywalker, Hans Solo, James Bond, and Katniss Everdeen can we uphold a non-heroic approach to Advent? Can we live a good and simple life that gives out of what we already have to a world that has not as we await our Savior? How different might this world look if instead of emulating power and heroism, we found that of all the Charlie Browns in the world, we were the Charlie Browniest?
I think that’s one of the reasons A Charlie Brown Christmas special speaks to me so deeply. The cartoon is one dimensional and simple, yet the last scene is powerful”the whole gang gathered around the ruined Christmas tree brings it to life together, joining their voices to hum and sing, offering redemption to Charlie Brown, to themselves, to the whole face of commercialism and consumerism that defines the season”even if for just one, brief moment. It is Charlie Brown and all the Peanuts at their finest because it is no longer about the individual, but the gathering of the community in common purpose”the image of round faces with their heads lifted toward heaven, mouths wide open in song that fills the screen.
This is the image of how we are made whole, how we share what we have, and how we take no more than what we have been promised. It is enough. It is the shame and guilt of one little tree transformed through our joining together, one with another, so that now, we shine the light of Christ into the world.
We get so caught up in our expectations of the coming of Christ; we forget Christ has some expectations of us. Even though the expectations we place upon Christ are divine and otherworldly, the expectations Christ places upon us, so eloquently stated by John in this passage of Luke, are pretty ordinary, even pragmatic, if you will”give a coat away, share your food, don’t cheat anyone, just do your job, and be satisfied with what you have. That is how we are transformed, that is how together, we shine the light of Christ into the world.
Charlie Brown invites us to be our authentic selves. He reminds us that it is not about winning money, money, money in the neighborhood lights and display contest, nor is it about big aluminum Christmas trees; its about being real, simply recognizing who you are and living into what you profess to believe. This is what it means to bear fruits worthy of repentance.
There are only two more weeks until Christmas and most of us will spend that time rushing around in search of the perfect gift, creating the perfect dÃ©cor, cooking exquisite food, and attending the social functions of the year; but maybe we should spend this short remaining time in a different way this year. Instead of rushing around attempting to create some culturally iconic version of Christmas, maybe we should slow down, take some time to prepare our hearts, our selves, our souls and bodies to rejoice in the salvation of the lame, the gathering of the outcast, the changing of our shame into praise for that is what the Lord promises us upon his return. And maybe, by taking the non-heroic approach and simply living into the life we have been given, we too will find the meaning of Christmas as we prepare our hearts to welcome a newborn king.