Now that Thanksgiving has passed, I have let myself start listening to WASH-FM at 97.1. They are the local “all Christmas music all the time” station. They started with the Christmas music in early November, and while I look forward to the music that was too early for me.
I look forward to the music for a lot of reasons. Most of it is familiar. I’ll hear the Harry Simeone Chorale, or Bing Crosby, or Nat King Cole, or Johnny Mathis singing songs that I grew up with. It brings back good memories – memories of listening to my parents playing those very same songs and those very same artists on the stereo on Sunday afternoons. Memories of going caroling with other members of our church and singing many of those same songs to people who were shut-in or lonely or sick. Memories of Christmas Eve services at church, when the choir every year closed with “Carol of the Bells” and my dad was the singer at the end who went down low to hit that last “dong.” Those are good memories, and I smile when they come back to me listening to the radio just as I smiled when I thought about them while typing this up.
I also smile because the music reminds me of the Advent and Christmas seasons. At our church growing up it was always the kids who got to light the Advent candles. I used to hope I would be on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, since that way I would get to light more candles than anyone else. Santa came to a church party every year and told the Nativity story and gave each of us an orange and a candy cane. Candles in the windows flickered with the draft of air that came in through the old stained glass windows. I’ve talked mostly about church, but there were family traditions too. The music and the memories all come together to make Advent, and later Christmas, a familiar time of faith and family; a time when I am transported emotionally back to a place and people that I can no longer visit in real life.
Our Advent verse today is a familiar one as well. John the Baptist appears in all four Gospels, and is mentioned in the book of Acts. The call to prepare for Jesus coming is one we hear around this time every year, with John wearing camel’s hair and eating honey and locusts and telling us to prepare the way of the Lord and to make straight the curvy and hilly paths before him. For those of us who grew up regularly attending church, there’s not a lot new here. It’s another familiar text, another familiar part of the Advent and Christmas season that may call up warm and comfortable memories.
If so, that would be too bad. It’s good that it’s a familiar passage, but not so good if it is a comfortable one.
From time to time I visit websites for other churches and the various Church of the Brethren districts and see what’s going on. The December newsletter of the South/Central Indiana district includes a national newsletter called “The Parish Paper.” It’s been around for years, and the writer of this month’s issue is C. Jeff Woods of the American Baptist Churches USA. One paragraph says, “The average life of a shopping mall or center built today is fifteen years. And if the shopping venue does not make a radical change at least half-way through their expected fifteen-year tenure, they may not even last that long! Geoff Colvin recently wrote that the most innovative companies today, ‘see their business as disruptors would see it.’ They never stop self-disrupting their own companies. For example, Amazon disrupted bookstores twenty years ago with their online selling model. Then it disrupted itself with the Kindle e-readers, replacing its own books-by-mail model. They have continued this disruption by opening and successfully operating brick-and-mortar bookstores, even while the traditional bookstore model continues to fail.”
Woods goes on to talk about the need for congregations to consider self-disruption, and reminds us that God sometimes will take care of the disruption whether we do or not. Woods notes that congregations that have been around for 100 years or so have had six or seven disruptions as the neighborhoods around them have changed. Duane Ramsey was the pastor here for 45 years; he used to say that he had not pastored one congregation, but several during that time as the people and the neighborhood changed again and again and again.
Despite all its familiarity at this time of year, John the Baptist’s message is a message of disruption. “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near!” Repentance isn’t just trying to do a little better; repentance isn’t cutting back some on whatever it is you repent of. Repentance is radical. Repentance is violent. Repentance is actively and quickly turning away from sin, not later, not a little, but now. At once. Repentance isn’t driving along on the highway to Hell waiting for the next place where you can safely make a U-turn after looking both ways. Repentance is slamming on the brakes and going into a spin that leaves you headed the wrong way into oncoming traffic. That’s what John is talking about.
“Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight,” says John. That sounds nice, doesn’t it? If you’ve driven those twisty, curvy roads through the mountains a nice straight road over a level plain sounds great; even if it’s not a level plain at least we can have gradual and gentle rises and falls instead of steep climbs and terrifying descents on a narrow twisted road.
But how do you get that level road? You tear out all the trees that are in the way. You dynamite through the mountain. You take a bulldozer to things. You kill animals and destroy farms and tear apart neighborhoods and eliminate the business that supports small towns along the way. You even raze the town in some circumstances. Again, John’s message is not one of comfort. John’s message is one of violence, of upheaval. John’s message is one of disruption.
What does John have to say about those who stand in the way of his vision? How does John address those who want to maintain the status quo, or who want to make gradual changes at the edge? How does John talk to members of the establishment who even say they are supportive of his message and want to help him? “You brood of vipers!” There’s no quarter for John. You’re either with him, or against him.
When I thought about disruption, the first song that came to my mind was from 1964. It was written by P J Fleck and the best-known recorded version is by Barry McGuire from 1965. It’s called Eve of Destruction. The first verse goes, “The eastern world it is exploding – Violence flarin’, bullets loadin’ – You’re old enough to kill but not for votin’ – You don’t believe in war but what’s that gun you’re totin’? – And even the Jordan River has bodies floatin’ (chorus) But you tell me – Over and over and over again my friend – Ah, you don’t believe – We’re on the eve of destruction.”
That song could be sung today, couldn’t it? It’s been updated many times over the years – the first time even before Barry McGuire recorded it. That’s John the Baptist’s message – except that he probably wouldn’t call you “my friend.” We are on the eve of destruction. We have got to stop. We have got to turn around. Now.”
That’s not just John the Baptist’s message. That’s the message of Christmas. We can get caught up in the familiar things of Christmas, the songs, the scents, the stores and the gifts and the decorations. Even as Christians, when we think about Christmas from a perspective of faith it is often sweet and kind and reassuring. “Silent night, Holy night, all is calm, all is bright.” A little baby in a manger – isn’t that cute. A more recent song, “Mary Did You Know?” falls into that same trap. It’s a sweet song that’s a little bit wistful as the singer asks if Mary really knew who her son was and what he would do. I like the song, but if we’re honest it’s pretty unbiblical. Of course Mary knew, if you take the Bible seriously. That’s the whole point of the Magnificat, of Mary’s song after learning of her pregnancy. The song also understates the reality of the situation. It plays up the sentiment, and plays down the danger.
Advent is a time when the world is on the eve of destruction. Things are so bad that only the most extreme measures will do. God is done with prophets. God is done with the law. God is done with the old covenant. None of those things have worked.
God is going to take matters into God’s own hands. God is going to come to earth personally. God is going to come to earth and declare the kingdom of God is here. God is going to invade. God is going to turn over the tables in the temple, literally and figuratively. There is no time to wait. We are on the brink. We are on the abyss. It is the eve of destruction. God is going to step in.
That is the message of Advent. That is, at least in part, the message of Christmas.
I’m going to continue to listen to WASH-FM and the Christmas music. I’m going to still get that warm feeling. I’m going to do Secret Santa at work and all the rest. I say that confessionally, because I honestly don’t know if I should or not. I honestly don’t know if participating in those culturalized aspects of Christmas make it easier or harder for me to be authentic about what Christmas truly is and what it truly means. That’s something I am going to have to struggle with as I stand on the edge of the abyss, as I consider the eve of destruction. That’s something we all have to struggle with as we reflect on John’s call to prepare the way. Amen.