Good morning, Friends!
It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas! I know the weather is still warm here in North Carolina. And outside, it still looks like fall. But we are, in fact, moving slowly but steadily in the direction of celebrating the birth of Jesus.
Last week, our family a Nativity set from Haiti at worship. This morning, I’ve put up three Nativity scenes which were all made in Africa.
The one above I bought when I was in Kenya, 20 years ago. It’s carved out of a single piece of ebony wood. It shows the Holy Family, but if you look close, the faces are all African faces. They’re surrounded by sheep and goats. And they’re resting under an African acacia tree.
The one below is a statue of Mary, which my cousin brought back from West Africa when she was in the Peace Corps. You can see the tall, regal ebony grace of Mary. In front of her are some miniature African cooking pots, which I bought at a mission in Kenya run by some women.
The third one, below, appeared in a photo on the front page of the December newsletter. It’s a Nativity which Joyce found as a family Christmas present this year.
Mary and Joseph and Jesus are resting in a small cave, which would have been used as a stable.
Outside, there are shepherds and kings. Up above the stable are two angels. And all the figures have African faces.
They’re all displayed on a piece of cloth, which would have been used as a robe by a Maasai warrior, to protect him from wind and cold and sun.
The people who made these things weren’t just imitating Nativity scenes which they copied from American or European churches. They’re saying, “Jesus and his family look just like us. Because Jesus came to be one of us! God’s son is fully human, which means he looks like our people, too!”
This is what people do, all over the world. They paint and they carve and they draw Jesus to look like them, because in their hearts and minds, that’s who Jesus is.
We all do the same thing. We picture Jesus as just like us, but everyone else does that, too. Jesus came to save the whole world, not just our little part of it. That’s something we all need to remember – that Jesus came for everyone.
Last week, we read about some of the ancient prophecies which people thought and prayed about, during the long years they were waiting for Jesus to come.
Today, we’re moving up in time, to when people in Jesus’ own generation were told that the Messiah had finally arrived.
The spokesperson for this was John the Baptist. John was a cousin of Jesus, the same age as Jesus. John lived out in the desert for many years. He lived on whatever he could find out there. He wore coarse clothing made from camel hair.
He prayed. He watched the starts at night. He listened for the voice of God. He let the desert strip away all the noise of civilization, and all the craziness and falseness of the world.
It was a hard life, but it changed John into a prophet. When John came back, he had a message to share. And he shared it with a truth, with a passion, and with such an intensity, that people came by the thousands to listen to him.
And when people listened to John, their hearts were changed. They saw what they were doing wrong. Instead of blaming things on other people, they saw what needed to be changed in themselves. Let’s listen to the story of John.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:Luke 3:1-6
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord! Make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
And all people will see God’s salvation.’”
Right now, we’re all getting ready for Christmas. And that’s OK. We enjoy it! Christmas preparations take up weeks of our time every year.
But there’s a difference – isn’t there? – between getting ready for Christmas, and getting ready for Christ. I’m not saying that celebrating Christmas is wrong in any way. I’m just saying that sometimes there’s a difference.
When we celebrate Christmas, a lot of the focus is on tradition. The focus is on doing the familiar things that we love. And that’s all right! The music, the stories, the pageants, the decorations, the gifts – they’re all very special.
But the Scripture we heard today doesn’t mention any of that. John the Baptist didn’t know a thing about Christmas. John was all about getting ready for Christ.
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make the Lord’s paths straight. . .”
The whole idea John had, is that the way that Christ himself takes, and the way that people take to Christ, should be direct, open and unobstructed. John was calling people to a whole new kind of religion.
In the “open way” that John called for, there would be no barriers. There would be no complex commandments, no layers of history. There would be no religious jargon, no secret language, no hidden requirements. The way of God, and the way to God, would be simple, straight and plain.
John said that valleys had to be filled and that mountains had to be moved. John envisioned some pretty serious bulldozing of customs, expectations, and preconceptions.
When John was speaking, the Jews of his time had at least two thousand years of history. They were carrying all kinds of religious baggage around with them. Christians in our day have a couple of thousand years of baggage, too.
If John were preaching today, I think he’d say much the same thing. I think John would be calling for us to bulldoze just as much accumulated junk out of the way today, in order to clear the path for Christ.
That’s kind of a scary and exciting thought. What if we were to hear the message of John today, as the people heard it back in Jesus’ time? What if “preparing the way” is still important and necessary?
John said that his goal was that “all flesh” – which means not just human beings, it means the whole created, physical world – “all flesh shall see the salvation of God. . .”
What’s that mean? It means all the world – you, me, our families, our neighbors, our enemies. In all parts of our being – in our broken hearts, in our warped thoughts, in our unhealthy and un-life-giving actions.
And it means not just us, but the world around us. Everything – the earth, the sea, the sky, everything created, “all flesh” – shall see the salvation of God. We shall all witness it.
The creation and everything in it will be redeemed and restored to a new and right place. Everything will be given new life, by the One who gave it life to begin with.
That is what John is saying. That is what the coming of Christ is really about. The trash will be cleared out of the way, and we will all see it.
John also said to the crowds who came out to hear him and to be baptized by him, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” That sounds kind of like old-fashioned, hellfire and brimstone preaching. And maybe it is.
But maybe John’s saying, “See that the path we’re on? God says we’re headed straight for disaster. Keep up with all those things we’re doing? It’s not going to end well, and you know it!”
John’s message doesn’t have to be about fire in the sky, or upheavals in the earth. He could be talking about war. He could be talking about global disaster. It’s up to us to figure out what John was talking about, or how his warning applies.
Then John says, “Bear fruit that is worthy of repentance. . .” In other words, in what concrete and physical ways have we turned back or turned our lives around? In what ways are we truly willing to change?
How do we show that we have made a complete break with the road that’s leading to disaster? What are we actually doing to get off the train, and head back to where God wants us?
John says, “Don’t even begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor. . .’” Depending on the past isn’t going to help. If John were preaching to us today, I think he might say, “Don’t depend on Western civilization. Don’t look back to George Washington, or George Fox, or whoever.”
“God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. . .”
Just because we are the heirs of great people, just because we stand on some pretty impressive shoulders, doesn’t mean we’re going to be OK. God is able to raise up new people to take our place, if we don’t do the work that needs to be done in our own generation.
That is the uncompromising message of John.
The people in the crowd asked John, “What should we do?” And John gave some good examples of what needs to change. He said, “Whoever has two coats, must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise. . .”
Sharing more is part of what needs to happen.
Tax collectors came to John and asked, “What should we do?”
John said, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed to you. . .” He might have said, “If you really want to follow Christ, you might need to change your job.” Or he might have said, “If you have to go on with your same job, don’t make things worse for anybody.”
It says that soldiers asked John, “What should we do?” And John said, “Don’t extort money from anyone by threats or false accusations, and be satisfied with your wages.” Same thing.
But John’s main message was, “There’s someone coming after me. If you think I’m telling you to change, just wait! The guy who’s coming after me, I’m not even worthy to untie his shoes.”
John said, “Whatever I do, Christ will do better, deeper, and in a much more powerful way than me, with much more authority – and he’ll do it with love, with justice, with truth and grace.”
John said, “It’s not about me. It’s about God. It’s about Jesus. It’s about the Holy Spirit. It’s about a real God, who does real things, in our world, which is really God’s world.”
Then John said something about winnowing. “Winnowing” is something you do when you harvest grain. You cut the plant down with the grain still attached. You lay it down on a solid surface, and you whack the stalks with a flail to break off and separate the grain.
Then you take a pitchfork, on a windy day, and you toss it all up into the air. Good grain is heavy, and it falls back to the ground. The stalks are useless. They’re lighter, and the wind blows them away.
John says, Christ is going to do that. And it desperately needs to be done. Jesus separates the wheat from the chaff. Because there’s so much that’s worthless in our society and in our own lives, and we get so tangled up sometimes that it’s hard for us to tell the difference.
Jesus helps us to separate real values from phony values, our real struggles from our meaningless struggles. Jesus helps us to tell the difference between lies and truth. Jesus helps us to know the difference between false comfort and true, heart comfort, which is what we really need and long for.
And it says that what John shared with the people was good news. Did you catch that? John wasn’t scolding people. He was inspiring them. He didn’t say that Christ was coming to condemn anyone. He said that Christ came to set people free.
And that is one of the most important messages we can ever hear. That’s good news! Christ comes to set people free. Whatever has bound us, whatever ties us down, whatever holds us back, whatever shames us, whatever has left us broken or scared or unable to live.
Christ comes to set people free. Our minds and hearts, our memories and our futures, are set free from whatever has tried to destroy us. Jesus came to set us free, and lead us to life – a life that is so rich and so full, that it never ends.
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make the Lord’s paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, every mountain and hill shall be made low. The crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth. And all creation shall see the salvation of God.”
That is the good news. And that’s the real message of Christmas.