Here we go again, the annual roundabout of the weeks leading up to Christmas. Everything is lights, baubles, tinsel and happy muzak. There is good cheer, gifts, parties and the world certainly lightens up in these weeks. Perhaps it is the heat and humidity and the relaxing of everything because we can’t be bothered and there is the space (at least over the Christmas-New Year break) to do nothing but eat, drink and lie around. Of course, there is the rush, the activity of preparation that falls to some and there is frantic activity and stress in trying to ‘get everything right’. But right for what? For who? Why?
I sense something in the air, an expectation that underlies the rhetoric and festivities. Perhaps a hope that something might change but for the most part we are clueless of what that might be. I confess to deep frustration at celebrities and advertisements that profess to tell me what Christmas is really all about. Sure, they name some good things – family, friends, sharing, love – but they keep it superficial as if they want or need to define it carefully, so we don’t get to deep, to religious. After all we wouldn’t want to bring religion into Christmas, would we? Actually, I would prefer we didn’t get too religious about Christmas, whether ‘religious’ in our obsessive behaviour or religiously following a belief system that never penetrates to the reality of a changed life for which we yearn.
By the time we get to Christmas Day, the religious images that understandably prevail are of a cute baby in fluffy straw with cute animals and adoring parents. All is quiet and quaint. There is an angel above and sometimes the angel-chorus singing the heavenly version of the Hallelujah Chorus. A star radiates light and three kings on camels make a majestic appearance in the distance. A beautiful nativity that defines everything and keeps it neat and controlled. Jesus, as a baby, is our preferred version because he can’t talk or challenge us, as he does when older. So, these images disappear before Jesus has a chance to grow up into the counter-cultural, prophetic voice that challenges the world with an alternate path of love, justice and compassion.
We really don’t need ‘Silent Night’ and ‘Away in a Manger’, lovely as they are. We need the confronting, challenging words that will cut through our comfortable lives that leave us bored and tired or stressed from keeping up with everyone’s expectations in the hope that one day we’ll make it – somewhere! The truth is that the materialistic life we’ve been sold is a dead end. I read a quote from a Willie Nelson song, called ‘Tired’. It says:
I married Rebbecca back in seventy-seven
And I still love her and I guess she loves me too
We go to church on Sunday ’cause we want to go to heaven
Me and my family, ain’t that how you’re supposed to do?
But I’m tired, Lord I’m tired
Life is wearin’ me smooth down to the bone
No rest for the weary, ya just move on – And I’m tired
The song is about going through life and realising that we are tired. It is the same, day in, day out and we are growing tired. It is a bored kind of tired. Working the same job for years on end but feeling little meaning or hope. It is like those who build their big houses and then buy other ones and keep getting bigger and bigger or more and more. One day all of this wealth and property accumulation will mean something – BUT it won’t! That’s the point: life is not about material and physical realities alone – it is spiritual, deeply spiritual as well. Some of those cultures we look down upon understand this far more than we Westerners, with our cultured and enlightened world view. It is unsustainable, both in the limited resources of the earth and in our own humanity that yearns for something beyond, that is beautiful and soulful. That’s why we have all the mess and chaos, the rise of groups like ISIS, fear of asylum seekers, tenacious denial of climate change and the fear and violence that pervades. Add to this the pandemic of depression and suicide, loneliness and isolation and the angst prevalent within us and it all points to existential alienation – a lostness of spirit and being that leaves us tired and yearning.
This week, as with last week, we encounter the eccentricity of John the Baptist (Luke 3:7-20). His wild ranting in the desert places strikes to the essence of what it is we are missing through the Christmas season. As Christmas approaches his words shake the pot and stir everything up. They are not words that anyone much wants to hear, really (this includes most of us in comfortable churches). He confronts the religiosity and materialistic tendencies in his world. People who held to religious behaviours and belief systems, claiming what was right and wrong were told to get out of their pious lives and into the mess, living with compassion and justice. Basically, according to John, God didn’t care too much about people’s beliefs if they weren’t lived out in ways that were loving and just. Equally, to those who were wealthy and comfortable in material ways, he orders them to give away their wealth-accumulating schemes and be generous to those around them. Give away your stuff when you have more than you need. Don’t take advantage of people but act in love and justice. He speaks about giving away a second coat to someone who doesn’t have one. Generally, the second coat was especially for the Sabbath worship – God would prefer justice and compassion over religious piety.
John calls for repentance, another word we would rather avoid. It is about turning our lives around, reorienting them to the way of God, the way Jesus will embody. If you are tired, tired of the nonsense around you, tired of the routines that go nowhere, tired of believing things (religious or secular) that make little difference, then repent, turn around and try a new way. It won’t be an easy thing. Give up the work you don’t need and give time to people or a project that is lifegiving and rich. Spend time in quiet reflection taking in the beauty and wonder of the world. Take time to love others who are different and live with compassion towards people – doing things that will make a difference in people’s lives. Take up a cause and give yourself to something that works for justice. Sing a new song with your life and be thankful for what you have rather than believing you need more!
Open your eyes to the wonders that fill the world and experience God’s Spirit alive and breezing in and out of our lives inspiring awe, wonder and a sacred openness to life and people and the earth. For God’s sake, says John, (and for your own!) turn your life around and live. Open your eyes, change your hearts and start living, start loving and start responding to the people around you with compassion and justice – that is what Christmas is really all about!! If we miss John’s words, we will surely miss Christmas yet again and it will be another Groundhog Day, another year of the same. So, get with it and live!