The Trouble with Christmas

Preacher: Chris Bowman

Scriptures: Luke 1:68-79 & Luke 3:1-6

It is an honor to preach here at Washington City Church of the Brethren. You have been a good and faithful presence in the neighborhood over the years. Thank you for that! And thanks to Jessie for the invitation to preach, this second Sunday of Advent. Her work in preparation for this day helped reduce my fear, direct my energies, and establish a “hope” that is both glad and honest.

Thanks, Jessie, for that good work of preparation!

Secular preparations for Christmas got an early start this year. And, true to form, the world’s message was based on fear. Back in September, Fortune Magazine was [quote] “bracing for stock shortages and bonkers prices.”[1] In October, Bloomberg proclaimed, [quote] “Christmas at Risk as Supply Chain ‘Disaster’ Only Gets Worse.”[2] And last month? [quote] “Labor shortage hits Santa supply.”[3]

“The Great Resignation,” supply-chain disruptions, Covid Omicron, and inflation mean that Christmas is in trouble this year.

But think about it: it wouldn’t be Christmas if it wasn’t in trouble.

We forget that for Christians, the joy of Christmas comes because of the trouble. The Good News of God’s incarnation is in response to our problems, not our success. And when we forget the “trouble” that Jesus redeems, we miss the promise his birth represents. It’s disingenuous, for example, to sing of a savior while forgetting that we need one.

It’s hard to pray for light when we’ve become so acclimated to dark.

That’s why Advent — the preparation — isn’t just an historic event; it’s a current invitation. John the Baptist, back then, and his spiritual descendants today, remind us that “the preparation” and “the promised” are joined at the hip. The Christmas story and the Advent story are the same story. The preparation chapters help notice, name and welcome the incarnation of God’s love.

Yes, Christmas is unimaginable hope — A virgin birth; A King born in a stable; Non-violent grace swaddling a new world order; Kinship carved from covenant.

And to help us get ready for God’s ready help, the Advent season celebrates the gift of the promise as much as the product — Advent imagines the unimaginable. The messenger prepares for the Messiah — a heads-up to what’s about to happen; a warning to focus our gaze;   “a herald, forerunner in the way,” the old hymn says.

… like roto-tilling the garden before the seeds are sown;

Advent reminds us to watch for God’s messengers in partnership with God’s Anointed. They’re a package deal. Messengers reduce our fear, redirect our energies, and anticipate the coming hope with honest and glad expectation. The Messiah invites our embrace and participation in God’s saving, transforming, life-giving, self-giving love.

So, where does this word of preparation come from? How does it sound? And why does it matter?

Our Gospel reading has a fun little play on words about where the voice of preparation comes from. The voice is either calling from the wilderness or to the wilderness. In Isaiah, the voice cries to prepare in the wilderness. In Luke the voice comes out of the wilderness.

The beauty of this ambiguity is that both directions are relevant and right to different people at different times. Sometimes the cry comes out of the wilderness; sometimes the cry is into wildernesses.

We remember that biblical Wildernesses are both geographic AND metaphoric. Deserted places, desolate, outside the boundaries. They were places of disorder and danger, the home of brigands and wild beasts. They are dark nights of the soul, depression’s interlude, renegotiations outside the boundaries of comfortable acquiescence, invitations to physical, spiritual, or emotional relocation.

Wildernesses are places one goes through to get from where we were to where we need to be. Remember, in the book of Exodus, the wilderness is where the Children of Israel became the people of Israel. In Isaiah, the war refugees fled into the wilderness. And it was into the wilderness that Jesus was driven by the Holy Spirit to confirm and define his ministry through temptation.

Some look at the biblical specifics as authentication (“In the fifteenth year of … Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate governed Judea, and Herod ruled Galilee, and his brother Philip was over Ituraea’s Trachonitis region, and Lysanias ruled Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas….). But in biblical stories details that locate God’s redeeming Word in history but they’re never meant to trap it there.

The Advent Messenger’s Voice still cries to our details just as it did to theirs. Out of and into every wilderness, now as then, God provides a Messiah and a messenger.

And how does that cry of preparation sound?

It seems to me that the call from and for the wilderness is more like a poem than a checklist. It recalls beauty, value, and worth — more like a love-song than a stock tip. It invites us to be part of what God is up to more than an insider tip on how to beat others to the goodies.

It sounds like the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out, “in the wilderness Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 3:5 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; 3:6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

This isn’t some grand infrastructure bill or earth-moving project. It’s an invitation to observe, contemplate, and participate in God’s level playing field. To recognize and return (or as John the Baptist worded it, repent). The voice back then is the same here and now: Into and out of which wilderness are today’s messengers crying out?

There’s plenty to notice, after all. We live in a world where Justice has become politicized; self-defense is favored over self-giving; poverty is cast as laziness; greed has slipped off the list of deadly sins. Community takes a back seat to liberty.

In the middle of this troublous mess, Advent invites us to consider:

Which valleys need to be filled? Which mountains made low?

Where are the crooked places? Which ones are rough?

How is God calling us to a path, where ALL flesh will see salvation?

This matters because we miss the miracle too easily when we’re looking the opposite direction. At least that’s what happens for me.

In our modern culture, the very thing that Advent is designed to do is almost impossible to get done. Especially nowadays in the North American context, we’ve completely domesticated Advent.

Back in the day, the wait-ful-ness of winter’s barren trees invited us to consider the eb and flow of life. Nowadays, the barren, leaf-dropping trees in my neighborhood are filled with ribbons, reindeer, and lights so bright they can be seen from space.[4]

The Voice of Advent matters now as much as it did then. Where John the Baptist was counting down the days before Christ, we’re counting shopping days before Christmas. Where John cries out for a mountain-leveling God, our ears are filled with ho-ho-holiday shopping music. The very season created for self-reflective preparation is now consumed by distractions of biblical proportions.

We’ve turned wilderness into Walmart;

How does the song go? We’ve paved paradise and put up a parking lot.

Umm. Well, that illustration doesn’t really fit but it’s such a great song I couldn’t help myself; I got distracted for a moment.

But that’s kinda’ the point here. Right? We get distracted.

This is why Advent is so important. And it’s why John-the-Baptist-Sunday, is so relevant. That which we notice and pay attention to— the messengers we heed and the Messiahs we hope in — these become the heart of our stories and the worlds in which we participate and the life for which we petition.

The Messenger and the Messiah come together in the service of God. Together they invite a new reality knit together through the observation, contemplation, and creation of life. Writer and Poet Madeleine L’Engle talked about this in her poem Observe and Contemplate, which I’ll end with this morning. It was originally written in 1988 as part of Hugh and Madeleine’s Christmas letter.

Observe and contemplate.
Make real. Bring to be.
Because we note the falling tree
The sound is truly heard.
Look! The sunrise! Wait —
It needs us to look, to see,
To hear, and speak the Word.

Observe and contemplate.
The cosmos and our little earth.
Observing, we affirm the worth
Of sun and stars and light unfurled.
So, let us, seeing, celebrate
The glory of Love’s incarnate birth
And sing its joy to all the world.

Observe and contemplate
Make real. Affirm. Say Yes,
And in this season sing and bless
Wind, ice, snow; rabbit and bird;
Comet and quark; things small and great.
Oh, observe and joyfully confess
The birth of Love’s most lovely Word.
Madeleine L’Engle[5]





[5] (From Sold into Egypt: Journeys Into Human Being, (1989, Crosswicks, Ltd.),most recently published in Miracle on 10th Street and Other Christmas Writings(2019))

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