I remember one Sunday in church when my father was preaching.
He was getting all sorts of heated and passionate in the pulpit, you know, totally un-Lutheran in style. Back then sermons had three parts to them—the path was known and well-worn, and if you strayed from the path, it was odd.
He was just a few minutes in, already kind of heated, and a guy stood up in the congregation and said, “Now, hold on a minute!”
It was like all the heads were on a swivel as they turned to see Big Bill stand up in the middle of the congregation as he began to argue back with my father. I remember my 9-year-old self thinking, “Man, I wish I had some popcorn … finally, something interesting in church!”
There was a guy sitting near Bill who said softly but not too softly, “Be quiet, Bill. Pastor Pete’s on a roll!”
Bill started walking up the middle aisle with a sheet of paper in his hand that he was reading from, and that’s when we all realized it was staged and part of the sermon. Every adult sighed a sigh of relief, and every youth and child was crestfallen because it wasn’t as exciting anymore.
But the sentiment that was shared in the moment was all the same, at least among the adults: “Who is Bill to disrupt everything? Who is Bill to break from tradition?”
Which is kind of how I feel about John the Baptizer every year, beloved. “Who is this guy to interrupt our Christmas preparations?”
This guy doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the nativity scene.
Instead of the peaceful angels, the gentle shepherds and even the hopeful parents kneeling over their peaceful Christ child, John the Baptizer is a madman yelling from the fringes, “Prepare the way of the Lord! Everything that is a problem, God is fixing! Get on the work crew!”
John the Baptizer’s yelling breaks our silent night. He interrupts our festivities every year.
And it happens for good reason, friends.
Because we can get on a roll with this Christmas stuff, and soon the holiday becomes less holy. I’m not talking about a fake “war on Christmas” or anything like that. I’m talking about our human tendency to make things into something they are not.
I think we, especially Christians, tend to make Christmas into this time when we gather up all our hopes and put them into this perfect little scene, this little nativity scene, and it becomes this predictable, overly romantic, sentimental little practice that we do every year.
But if John the Baptizer reminds us of anything, it’s that Christmas is not sentimental—it is scandalous. The baby in the manger is interested not in playing Christmas but in making mountains of shame disappear, valleys of despair into reservoirs of grace. Jesus is interested in calling us to help God make winding breadlines of inequality straight paths to full stomachs, and rough prejudice into smooth love.
And we need John the Baptizer to disrupt our sentimentality, to call us back to this, or else we’ll sing, “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie! Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by; yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light, the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
We’ll sing that little carol and totally gloss over the fact that both the hopes (the sentiments) and the fears (the rough realities of life) are met in Jesus.
Both of them. Not just the hopes but also the fears.
And there is plenty of fear to go around.
John the Baptizer is a madman yelling from the fringes, “Prepare the way of the Lord! Everything that is a problem, God is fixing! Get on the work crew!”
How do we hold on to hope in these days when prices are rising, political vitriol is on a continued roll, wars rage in Ukraine and Yemen, and for every idyllic Christmas scene there’s one of utter despair?
COVID still lingers.
Gun violence wages as it turns out that weapons of mass destruction aren’t buried in the sands of the Middle East but are found in hands in classrooms and school hallways.
Clean water drenches lawns in parts of this country, but not a drinkable drop was found in Jackson, Miss., for months.
And this scene I began with, of good old Big Bill interrupting a sermon? I’d never try to do that these days as the scene would be more traumatizing than teachable with our collective nerves as shot as they are.
Yet here comes John the Baptizer again, with his wild-eyed wandering form, disrupting our hopes and our fears.
Every serene nativity scene should have John the Baptizer on the margins yelling at us, reminding us of this important truth: when it comes to God, it’s not just about our hopes but also about our fears.
Christmas is not just about hopes. It is about fears too.
The fears of the poor and marginalized.
The fears of the young parents out there, like those Mary and Joseph faced.
The fears of the underemployed and outcast, like those the shepherds encountered.
And even the fears of the magi, who in their wealth had trouble finding Jesus—they looked for him in the halls of power, when he was in the halls of hay.
The fears that you and I have, friends.
Every Advent calendar should be broken in some way, allowing for the radical scandal of Jesus to disrupt our lives just a bit and remind us that God attends to both our hopes and our fears.
And we keep hope by knowing that God in Christ attends to not just the beauty of the world but also the broken places.
John the Baptizer stands up in the middle of our Advent calendars, breaking their silent night, reminding us that hopes and fears are gathered together in Jesus.
Actually, it’s kind of funny: our Advent calendar at home is broken. We have this big one, given to us by a parishioner in Chicago, with hinged doors that open, big enough for little gifts to be put in them. The boys have played with it so much that door No. 18 broke off.
Though we could probably fix it, we haven’t.
Because it’s now this visual reminder that, just steps away from the serenity of Christmas, there is still some brokenness—which is the reason for Jesus in the first place, right?
The eloquent author L.R. Knost has this wonderful quote that spoke to me this week as I was thinking of how John the Baptizer breaks up our Christmas sentimentalism every year. She writes:
Do not be dismayed by the brokenness in the world.
All things break.
And all things can be mended.
Not by time, as they say, but with intention.
Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally.
The broken world waits in darkness for the light.
that is you.
John the Baptizer stands up in the middle of our Advent calendars, breaking their silent night, reminding us that hopes and fears are gathered together in Jesus, and points us back today away from the serenity of the nativity sets and the wonder of the sparkly lights to the broken world, not to bring us dismay—all things break—but to remind us of why God in Jesus shows up in the first place: to heal through intentional, extravagant, unconditional love.
And if we take seriously that God shows up in the flesh in the Christ child, we need to take seriously that Jesus, the light of the world, still shows up in that same way, in me and you.
I’m going to keep my Advent calendar broken.
Let’s all keep our Advent calendars broke enough, beloved, to keep us awake to the reason that Jesus shows up at all: to tend to our hopes and our fears. No, not just our Advent calendars, all our calendars.
God still answers the pain of the world, not with a war cry but with a lullaby.
And let’s get started with that intentional, extravagant, unconditional love thing.
No need to wait until Christmas. The calendar is broken, anyway, which makes every day Christmas and every day a moment for God to attend, yes, to our hopes but especially to our fears.
And that, ironically, gives some hope.