December 11, 2016, Advent 3A
Luke 1:46-55; Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11
That’s What Christmas Is All About, Charlie Brown
I have long been a fan of Charlie Brown. Even as a child, I “got” him. I could understand where his perpetual frustration with the world and its inhabitants came from, because I felt it often myself.
My favorite of all Charlie Brown/Peanuts stories was, no surprise, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Even today I’m willing to hold that the existence of that show itself single-handedly justifies the existence of television. For one, I’ve always liked the music, even before I knew anything about Vince Guaraldi or how unusual it was to use jazz as an accompaniment to an animated TV show. But most of all, again, I “got” Charlie Brown’s frustration. At the dramatic climax, when the tree he selects has been laughed and hooted down, and he finally lets out his exasperated exclamation “isn’t there anyone who can tell me what Christmas is all about?”, well, I could feel where he was coming from. I knew what I heard at church, and I saw what went on “out in the world,” and they didn’t match.
Of course in the TV show, the absurdly philosophical Linus, having quickly memorized his lines under threat of violence from Lucy, takes center stage and recites the Christmas narrative from Luke (you can’t do that on TV today, that’s for sure!), and everyone is properly chastised; after one small setback the tree is decorated (not to mention miraculously filled out) and all ends well. Warm fuzzies are safely delivered, and everyone can go home happy.
When I see the scriptures offered by the lectionary for this third Sunday in Advent, I wonder if Linus has gotten things slightly wrong. Yes, Linus has given us a good summary—the best possible summary, you could even say—of what Christmas is. I’m not sure, though, if he—or we—necessarily get from that what Christmas is all about.
The reading from Isaiah 35 points to a day and a world we probably don’t recognize. It is a world turned upside down and inside out. A world in which the desert is blossoming abundantly is not the usual world of the prophet. Words like “wilderness,” “dry land,” “desert” . . . these are not places in the biblical landscape typically associated with rejoicing and blossoming. But the prophet keeps driving the images home:
“For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.” (Isaiah 35: 6b-7)
But there’s more; it isn’t only the wilderness being undone. We are also promised sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, dancing for the lame, and speech to the mute; even the infirmities and disabilities that afflict the body are turned around. And even more emphasized is something not associated with the wilderness, or the desert: safety.
Through this undone wilderness the prophet sees a road, one promised only to God’s people. No threats will be found there; no lions, no predators of any kind (which beats last week’s Isaiah reading, in which lions were reduced to eating straw). But this promise is ultimately capped by the image of the “ransomed of the Lord…joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” All this undoing and turning upside down has a point.
If the prophet promises an undoing, the words of the Magnificat are a virtual assault on The Way Things Are. The words out of Mary’s mouth exhibit no ambiguity at all. God looks with favor on the lowly servant. The proud are scattered in the “thoughts” of their hearts. The powerful are brought down, the lowly are lifted up. The hungry are filled, the rich sent away without. The reversal of the world’s ways, the ways we are accustomed to living and tolerating while getting through the day, cannot be more explicit.
If there is still doubt, Jesus echoes the very words of the Isaiah reading in his message to a weary, worried, wounded John the Baptist, languishing in Herod’s prison. One can hardly blame John for wondering. After all those years in the wilderness (which was distinctly not blossoming and flowing with streams in his experience), it had seemed so certain. Cousin Jesus, nondescript though he may have seemed, sure looked like he must have been the One, what with all those noises from heaven and things descending upon him.
But now, while Jesus was still preaching out in the countryside, John sat in Herod’s prison, a place people didn’t leave alive, and doubts crept in. Is this how it ends? Is Jesus really the One? Have I wasted my life just to lose my head to this corrupt so-called king? So he sends some of his disciples, maybe some of the very few left to him, and asks directly: Are you the One? Should I be looking for someone else.
Jesus’s answer seems anything but direct, unless you remember your Isaiah. Again, the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear. Plus as a bonus, lepers are cleansed and the dead are raised. And then the last, cryptic comment: “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matthew 11: 6). Is that a jab? Or something only John the Baptist would understand?
All of these witnesses proclaim in concert that the world as we know it is due to be overturned. A world in which the poor and lowly continue to be oppressed and impoverished, in which the powerful continue to lord it over the powerless, in which the rich are filled beyond gluttony and the hungry only get hungrier; this is not the world proclaimed in Isaiah, or the Magnificat, or the Gospel.
Is it a mistake to tie this world undone, turned upside down and inside out, to Christmas? I don’t think so. While it is no doubt tempting to sprint ahead to the babe in the manger, we do so at our peril. For one thing, we risk failing to understand exactly what we’re embracing. Even that babe in the manger makes no sense at all without the words from Isaiah, from the Magnificat, from Matthew. Look at it this way: when Prince William and Princess Catherine had their children, it wasn't at a feed trough, not with hospitals and palaces at their disposal. That’s not how it’s done among those of high status. Yet the One we call Messiah, Immanuel, Christ the King, was born in a nondescript setting in a nondescript town in a nondescript backwater of the Roman Empire. Nowhere near Rome, the seat of earthly power. Not in Jerusalem, the focus of spiritual authority. This cannot make sense to us without the images and contrasts drawn by Isaiah, by Mary. Even the appearance of this babe is part of a world undone. Herod in all his power could not stamp it out, though he tried, brutally. The Roman Empire couldn’t comprehend it.
For another thing, we run the risk of finding ourselves—dare I say it?—on the wrong side of this world undone. Very few of us think of ourselves as “rich,” or “powerful.” We are pretty good at casting our eyes longingly at those with more than us: more money, more power, higher status, a better car, a bigger house, you name it. But is it possible, just maybe, that we don’t always remember the poor, the hungry, the blind, the lame, the oppressed as being those blessed of God? Are we too comfortable, are we too much at home in a world where the powerful just get more and more powerful, the rich get richer and richer, and the poor . . . well, the Bible itself says they’ll always be with us, right? Are we too ready to accept that justice is a thing to be bought and sold? That the true meaning of the Golden Rule really is “he who has the gold makes the rules”? That the only way to cope with The Way Things Are is to play the game, grab as much gold and power as we can, and as for those less fortunate, well, tough luck?
If that way, The Way Things Are, has found so cozy and comfortable a home in us, then we’re in serious trouble. Isaiah’s blossoming wilderness, that desert with springs bursting forth, is forbidden to us. We become the powerful who, Mary warns us, are brought down from our thrones and sent away empty. If we’re at home with the way things are, then we have no part of God’s kingdom, the kingdom of heaven.
And this, Isaiah and Mary and even Jesus tell us, is what Christmas is all about. “Silent Night” and “Away in a Manger” are just noise if that babe in the manger doesn’t grow in us into the One Who undoes and throws down the powers and thrones we humans so adore. Without taking time to hear the stern rebukes of the prophets, we risk turning Christmas into little more than a too-cute idolization of a highly sentimentalized children’s story, something too easily accommodated to The Way Things Are and, frankly, something far worse than the crass over-commercialized boondoggle so many of us vocally deplore. That at least is a clearly false and sham “Christmas”; to trivialize the real thing, to try to take what Christmas is without the life-changing demand true Christmas makes of us, is something like an abomination.
So then, if Isaiah and Mary and Jesus may be allowed to bump Linus from his spotlight, what then do we learn? The desert blooms and flows with life-giving water. The blind see. The deaf hear. The lame walk and even leap (and dance too, I’ll bet). God’s people walk in safety. The lowly are exalted. The poor hear good news. The proud are scattered, the powerful dethroned, the rich denied. And those who are not offended at this undoing Jesus are blessed.
And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#88 O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (stanzas 1-4)
#106 Prepare the Way
#100 My Soul Cries Out With a Joyful Shout (Canticle of the Turning)
#88 O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (stanzas 5-7)