Watching the movie-length episode of Kath & Kim the other evening, I was somewhat grossed out by the scene where the appalling Kim lines up to sit on Santa’s lap. I don’t think Santa really enjoyed it either. I forget what Kimmy was asking for, for Christmas, in fact I think the main reason she did it was just because she could. Christmas, in Kim’s way of looking at things, is a time for maxing out on everything, over-indulging, getting your own way, behaving like a spoilt brat. Even more so than the rest of the year.
So the store Santas are out in force, and you’ve got two shopping weeks left. It’s a well-oiled drill for most of us, probably you, like me, have long since made a sort of compromise and decided which bits of the commercial overkill you’re going to buy into, which bits are just too over the top to bother about. You probably have your family traditions all worked out, the tree, where the decorations go, whether or not you put sixpences and threepences in the cake, do you buy presents for absolutely everyone in the extended family or where the dividing line is between who gets a real present and who just gets a calendar. And one way or another, we generally survive with maybe just one or two family members getting offended.
That’s the whole family obligation subtext of Christmas, the tradition that pulls us back to long-lost aunts and uncles and family members we’d rather pretend we didn’t have, just as inexorably as Joseph and Mary find themselves plodding off to Bethlehem for the two thousandth time on a broken-down donkey. And sitting alongside that we have the stuff yourself full and party hard tradition. Both of them, of course, are pushed along by the department stores whose real agenda is to persuade us that somebody, somewhere amongst our nearest and dearest really really needs a new Playstation 3. You can have it all, or if not, at the very least you should be buying it all.
Santa, of course, isn’t in the Bible, for which I personally heave a great big sigh of relief. But the one we do have in the Bible, the sort of reverse Santa for Christians who take their religion seriously, the figure who all at the same time heralds, promises and threatens us through Advent is of course John the Baptist. Just when you’ve got your Chrissy list worked out, just when you think Christmas is close enough to break out the first Lions Christmas cake and a bottle of Tia Maria, John the Baptist comes in, chewing on a grasshopper and smelling like an unwashed loincloth, calling you a viper.
‘Don’t even think about wishing me a merry Christmas’, John interrupts us. ‘What makes you think you deserve to be having such a good time?’ And here’s the confusing bit, especially since the whole idea is that he’s supposed to be baptising everyone for the forgiveness of sins – ‘don’t even bother saying you’re sorry – if you’re really sorry you’ll do something about it’.
And the people in the story that John is talking to – in Matthew’s version it’s just the Pharisees but in Luke’s version it’s the whole crowd – good Jewish mums and dads, good churchgoing folk who came all the way out to hear a good sermon and he tells them, ‘you pack of snakes slithering out of the way of the fire. Who warned you?’ The point is, they feel like they’re the good ones. You spend a perfectly good Sunday morning coming to church and sitting on a hard pew, and I call you a snake and tell you to mend your ways. That’s the first thing – who’s supposed to be doing the repenting here – us or the Pharisees, and if it’s us, what are we supposed to be repenting of?
In the story the people ask exactly that – ‘what do you want us to do?’ – and John gives them a straight answer, but see, it’s got nothing to do with what colour dove they’re supposed to sacrifice, or how many times they’re supposed to go to the Temple per year. It’s got nothing to do with how the pews are arranged or what sort of music we have in church, it’s got nothing to do with curtains or altars – it’s got to do with sharing what you’ve got with people who haven’t got any, it’s about giving shelter to people who are homeless or food to people who are hungry, it’s got to do with worrying a whole lot less about what you think you’re entitled to have done for you, and worrying a whole lot more about what you should be contributing to others. It’s simple, it’s confronting, and we can’t even say ‘well, that’s just John the Baptist’s opinion’, because Jesus picks up the same message right where John the Baptist leaves off. Do you stand convicted by those words? I know I do. If, as God’s people, we’ve started to feel complacent, if we’ve started to feel, ‘well, I’m an Anglican. I’ve been baptised and I come to church every week. I read my Bible and I say my prayers’, then John the Baptist’s telling off is just for us. God can make good Anglicans out of the bricks in the wall, so we don’t need to feel we’re that special. If we insulate ourselves so we don’t any longer feel indignant about the fact that too many people in our world don’t have enough to eat, then the telling off is for us. If we manage to get through our week without noticing that there are people in
In fact one of the very best ways that Christians can avoid the full force of John the Baptist’s telling off is by being holy. If what we hear is that all we’re called to is individual piety, if all that matters is our inner relationship with God, then we water down John the Baptist’s demand for justice and repentance. We hear it as the demand to be more virtuous. But repentance, John reminds us, is not real repentance at all if it’s just theoretical.
And if you don’t get it right, you get chopped down, you get chucked in the fire. It doesn’t sound very promising and I don’t know about you but for me, it’s a bit like pulling myself up by my own whiskers. I actually don’t think I’m capable of being as unself-centred as John wants me to be. Looking back over my ministry here, I find I can relate pretty well to Kim Beazley’s comment last week – ‘regrets?’, he said - ‘only about 4,332 of them’. My humanity does sometimes get in the way of God’s priorities, and realistically I know it’s going to keep happening. Being in love, as someone once remarked, means always having to say you’re sorry.
Did you feel that, today, the reading from Zephaniah sounded a whole lot more promising? Zephaniah sounds a lot like Santa’s boy, not John the Baptist’s – for Christmas this year, you get joy and laughter, dancing in the streets, you win the lottery and everyone else is going to barrack for you. Maybe you’re thinking I should’ve preached on that instead. But then you need to go home and read the 2 ½ chapters that came before, because what Zephaniah is really telling the people of Judah is that all this good stuff is going to happen on the other side of God’s judgement. And a pretty rigorous going over Zephaniah is predicting, too, invasion and exile and desecration of the
This last week, we’ve been seeing the images of bushfires burning out of control in NSW and Victoria. That’s the image that comes to my mind when I read John’s apocalyptic threats of being thrown into the unquenchable fire. For us in
That’s what John is offering us. More or less, he’s saying to us, this is what you’re in for. None of you can withstand what’s about to happen. Just 15 sleeps to go and God is going to break your door down.
And the crowds asked him, ‘What, then, should we do?’
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