(A sermon preached by Jordan Hylden, candidate for ordination in the diocese of North Dakota)
I have my own list, and you almost certainly have yours. It is the list of things without which it cannot really be Christmas. Right at the top for me is Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole and the first Amy Grant Christmas album, not the second derivative one but the first authentic one. Of course there must be a tree, an Advent wreath, and an Advent calendar with little doors you can open every morning. There must be hot apple cider, gingerbread cookies, an enormous tin of three different kinds of popcorn, and for me there must be lefse, which is delicious and Norwegian and reminds me of home and my grandmother. There really ought to be snow, although since moving south I have allowed that Christmas can go on in its absence. There must be a viewing of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, as well as It’s A Wonderful Life on Christmas Day itself. I do not have to watch all of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, but if I catch a few minutes of the wood-mation Burl Ives snowman and the elf who wants to be a dentist, it’ll do. At some point I must read The Gift of the Magi, by O. Henry. And on Christmas Eve, someone must read the second chapter of Luke in the King James Version, and there must be a candlelight lessons and carols, and one of the carols must always be Silent Night.
You have your own list, I am sure. It is hard to say why each of these things must be there, but I think it has something to do with the old doors they open in the corridors of memory, the way these things have of collapsing time so that it is not simply now or ten, twenty, thirty, forty, or fifty years ago, but all of these times at once. They call up all of these memories, often of dear ones and times now lost to us, and place them alongside one of the church’s oldest and dearest memories, that of the birth of Christ, Immanuel, the God of grace who came to us in the midst of our many remembered loves and hopes, fears and sorrows and regrets: O Come, O Come Immanuel, and ransom captive Israel!
In the middle of all of our memories, Christ comes to us at Christmas. But the church does not allow us to remember the birth of our Lord without also wheeling out another, perhaps less welcome figure: John the Baptist. John the Baptist is probably not on your list of things without which it cannot be Christmas, but he is at the top of the church’s list. It is not hard to imagine why this has not exactly caught on. John the Baptist just does not seem to catch the Christmas spirit like Rudolph and Bing Crosby do. John-the-Baptist-mas would not make for a very popular holiday. But the church insists on him, so here he is all the same, last in the line of the Old Testament prophets, coming in from the wilderness to crash our Christmas parties, wild-eyed and bearded like a deranged Santa Claus, pointing his long and bony finger at us like the Ghost of Christmas Future and telling us to think on our sins, to repent, to prepare the way of the Lord.
Why is he here? Listen to what the Gospel of Luke says: in the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. Listen to what Luke is saying: the word of God did not come to anyone in Caesar’s palace or Herod’s court or Caiaphas’s temple, but instead to this strange nobody from nowhere called John, in the last place anyone would think to look. It did not come to the centers of power and success. It did not even come to the temple, to the place of holiness and righteousness. It came instead to the wilderness, to a man who had nothing and depended entirely upon God, and who preached a strange gospel that reminded us of everything we wanted to forget: of our faults, our shortcomings, our regrets and evasions, of the chains of vice we have forged for ourselves throughout life like Jacob Marley from Dickens’ Christmas Carol, of the chains we inherited from those who came before us, more chains than we have strength to carry any longer, dragging us down to the grave. What kind of gospel is this? Why is this man here to spoil our Christmas spirit? Why not just turn up the Bing Crosby to shut him out!? Why not cover up his bony, accusing finger with tinsel and send him away, back out into the wilderness where he came from? That’s what we tend to do with him, isn’t it? Christmas is a flood of memories, some of which we would rather not have, and at no other time of the year does the gap between our hopes and our reality become so stark. And so we throw up the holly, turn up the sappy old songs, tell ourselves sentimental old stories, cover over our losses and fears and regrets with garlands and wrapping paper and tinsel, or bury them under great big tins of sickly sweet popcorn and cookies. There can be bravery in this, like Auntie Mame facing down financial ruin by deciding that we need a little Christmas, right this very minute. But it is finally an attempt to avoid John the Baptist, to escape the wilderness. And none of us can escape the wilderness forever.
The church is wise to insist that it cannot be Christmas without John the Baptist. We need him to show us what we do not want to see, to bring us to where we do not want to go, to remind us of what we try so hard to forget, much like Ebenezer Scrooge needed the ghosts of Christmas past and Christmas future. But here is why Luke tells us that John the Baptist preaches good news. It is here, in the wilderness, that the word of God comes to John. It is right here, in the rooms of our memory we try so hard to keep closed, that we receive the promise of the forgiveness of sins and the gift of new life. We discover here in the wilderness that we do not have to hide these rooms from God, or from ourselves. In Christ, he comes to us here and shows us that we are loved by God and marked as his own forever. He comes to us as Lord of all creation lying in a manger, and tells us that none of our fears and losses are too small for his care. 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, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. He who began a good work among you will carry it to completion on the day of Christ Jesus. Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God. Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God, for God will give you evermore the name, ‘Righteous Peace, Godly Glory.’
Before Christmas this year, spend some time first in the wilderness. It is only there that we learn how deep the joy of Christmas really is. Amen.