December 12, 2021, The Inn: Housing The Holy: How Much Is Enough? (Joy), by Pastor David

Luke 3: 7-18 (CEB) Then John said to the crowds who came to be baptized by him, “You children of snakes! Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that is coming soon? Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives. And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, Abraham is our father. I tell you that God is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones. The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire.”

The crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” He answered, “Whoever has two shirts must share with the one who has none, and whoever has food must do the same.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized. They said to him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He replied, “Collect no more than you are authorized to collect.” Soldiers asked, “What about us? What should we do?” He answered, “Don’t cheat or harass anyone, and be satisfied with your pay.”

The people were filled with expectation, and everyone wondered whether John might be the Christ. John replied to them all, “I baptize you with water, but the one who is more powerful than me is coming. I’m not worthy to loosen the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out.” With many other words John appealed to them, proclaiming good news to the people.

Let’s take a moment to breathe & hear the music and the scripture, and to meditate for just a moment in this season of giving on what really gives us joy.

December 12, 2021 The Inn: Housing the Holy: How Much is Enough? (Joy)

In a meeting this week, a pastor friend said hello to the group by saying, “I’ve been nice!” Everybody laughed because we all knew what he was referring to Santa’s penchant for sorting out the good and bad - ‘he knows when you’ve been sleeping, he knows when you’re awake.” I’m fascinated at times by how songs, poems, images can infuse our public consciousness and effect what he believe and how we think. 

’Twas the night before Christmas’ for example, was written before our ideas of Santa Claus had solidified. Many of that poem’s images are central to the myth of Santa Claus. The idea of a ‘jolly old elf’ that was part of that poem is not really how we imagine Santa Claus any more - nor the tiny reindeer. Those dropped out.
Anyway, this idea of who’s been naughty or nice is pervasive, and a little bit insidious. I know it’s kind of cute thinking about the boy who worries he’s going to get coal in his stocking because he claimed the dog ate his homework last month. These were the memes of my youth - as influential as the memes that fly around the internet on Facebook - more influential really, because those images of Santa leaving coal in my stocking didn’t have as much competition. 

One of the competing images that did not take hold in many ways was the image of John the Baptist yelling at the people to “Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives.” He says, “Whoever has two shirts must share with the one who has none, and whoever has food must do the same.” We read about John the Baptist during Advent every year. He’s always a kind of forbidding figure, standing in the desert, yelling at people, telling us we’ve been naughty. 

“You brood of vipers!” he calls them, very inviting, not as appealing as the jolly old elf. No, John the Baptist is not the most joyful character. Hellfire and brimstone preacher, John insists that the people who come out to him from Jerusalem to be baptized, repent and change their lives. Every year, I get tired of him kind of quickly. I have to remind myself that he was saying something important - something for us to listen to, especially at this time of year, this time of excess and of commercialism. 

We need the church during this season to keep the advertising companies from taking over Christmas entirely. We need our community during this time to maintain the part of us that resists the message that we are never giving enough, never have enough, never help enough. John the Baptist may not help with that too much, but the one who is more powerful than him will. 

Let me tell you something: I grew up thinking Christmas was the best - because of all the gifts. All you got at Easter was some candy - and not even as much as you got at Halloween. I evaluated the holiday completely by what I would get.

Later, I thought Easter must be the most important holiday because of its centrality to Christian faith. Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection seemed like the more mature understanding of the core of our faith. Jesus showed that love is stronger than death and that makes a huge difference in how we live. 

Now, as you know, my favorite holiday is Pentecost, because of its emphasis on community and connection. But I have to say that my appreciation for Christmas has actually been growing over the last few years. I still dislike the greediness that Christmas encourages in our culture. I hope we can get past the naughty and nice dualisms. Still, I have come to think that Christmas is just as important if not more important than Easter. 
This is the time we celebrate the incarnation - God’s birth into our lives. This is the holiday when we recognize God in Christ in every baby, in every person. In this season we are called to make a place at the table for every child of the Living God. This is the time when we God’s love is what it’s all about, and that’s God’s love is enough - enough to live in joy, enough to be there for each other, enough to know we are blessed and called to be a blessing, enough to help us give away our second coat when we have extra.

You see, John the Baptist has an important message - much more important than a jolly old elf judging whether you are naughty or nice. John invites us all to recognize that we - yes, we all fall short of what God desires, and yet that God loves us as we are, and nudges us toward loving each other, in deeper and deeper ways. Sometimes maybe we need the ‘brood of vipers’ admonition to get our attention, but in the end it doesn’t help to beat ourselves up for all we haven’t done yet. We want to “Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives.”

Let me share a poem with you to close. It comes from a pastor I met many years ago. Steve Garnaas-Holmes, a United Methodist pastor in Vermont these days. I discovered that he writes poems and publishes them online regularly. They are always based on scripture. 

The Beloved is near.  Do not worry about anything,
                     but in everything by prayer and supplication
                     with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
           And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding,
                     will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
                           —Philippians 4.5-7

Skip your Christmas wish list, 
that gorgeous sweater, the latest device.
Go on. What do you most want? What do you want more than that?
If you got it, would you be satisfied— or is there something even deeper?
Now dwell on that. Stay with it. This is your true Christmas wish,
your deepest longing. Let it be earnest prayer. Carry it around with you.

Imagine your deepest desire is wrapped up in God’s 
and let that give you deep, deep peace. 
Don’t try to understand it: 
it’s beyond that. Just let it be.
God is holding this.