The prophet John provides a bracing antidote to Christmas consumer chaos. (Listen.)
It’s the second week of Advent, a time of preparation, and many of us are indeed preparing. We’re negotiating with families over who gets Christmas lunch, and who gets only Boxing Day. We’re arguing over whether to buy presents for everyone, or just the kids, or no one. We’re wondering if we can do handmade or recycled gifts, knowing we’ve left it too late, and that an avalanche of plastic is heading our way. We’re ordering hams and Christmas puddings; we’re decorating the house; we’re making lists and checking them twice. We’re juggling end-of-year events, and wading through Santa songs and pre-Christmas sales.
And at the same time, we’re thinking about next year. We’re looking at what we’re committed to, and what else we can fit in. We’re taking on more hours at work; we’re planning dance lessons and soccer season and musicals and hockey; we’re squeezing schedules; we’re squeezing budgets; we’re squeezing relationships. Yes, we are preparing.
Into this dizzying whirl comes a primal roar from a prophet in the wilderness, cutting through our preparations like a knife. ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,’ John thunders, ‘make his paths straight.’ He offers a baptism of repentance to all people, and they confess their sins; he preaches the coming of the One who will winnow away the chaff and burn it in unquenchable fire.
Many of us here are recovering Christians. We are recovering from churches which preached judgement and condemnation, triggering feelings of fear and shame. We are recovering from feeling manipulated; we are recovering from threats of hell; we are recovering from bad theology. For many of us, ‘sin’ is a dirty word. It has been used to manipulate and threaten us; it has been used to make us compliant and afraid. The very word raises our hackles.
And yet, we are here. We are here, because we are exhausted. We are here, because we want something our frantic lives cannot give. We are here, because no matter how much we buy and no matter how hard we strive and no matter how much we do, there is still a great howling emptiness inside.
And so we are here, I suggest, to acknowledge and repent of sin. Not the sin of wagging fingers and gossipmongers, but real sin: the powers and principalities which drive us; the messages which cajole us; the noise which issues from every media outlet; the culture which shapes us: and all to persuade us that our value is in busyness and consumption; that there are no limits; that we can do everything and have everything and be everything to everyone.
It is sin which drives us to scramble and rush and purchase and arrange; it is sin which packs our schedules; it is sin which compels us to prove ourselves; it is sin which tells us we have no limits; it is sin which keeps us far too busy for the work of human flourishing.
Because sin leads to disconnection and estrangement: from ourselves, from each other, and from God. All this racing and striving and shopping and arranging chews us up and dries us out and leaves no time or space for relationship.
So take a deep breath. There is space here: to repent, turn back to God.
And imagine yourself a wilderness. You are far from the hustle and bustle. There are no dates in your diary, no Christmas parties, no end-of-year events. There’s no shopping. No friends, no relatives, no workplace, no school. There is no phone, no screen, no internet. Nothing to do; nothing to watch; nothing to buy. There is no social media.
Nobody knows where you are or what you’re doing; nobody ‘likes’ you; nobody comments. There is nothing but you and the singing of the wind; nothing to mask your essential loneliness. Take a deep breath, and exhale.
What is it like in the wilderness? Do you feel at home there? Or do you feel exposed?
What are you afraid of?
Now reflect on your life: the packed schedule; the demands of the world; all the ‘yesses’ that should be ‘no’. Think about your busyness; your need to be necessary; your desire to be liked. Think about all the ways you fill your time; all the ways you hide.
What drives you and drains you and tips you in false directions?
What increases your anxiety and raises your defences?
What diverts you from going deeper with God, with neighbour, with creation, or with yourself?
These are your sins.
In this spacious place, name them, claim them, confess them to the wind.
Let the Holy Spirit blow through you and breathe life into you.
Let Christ Jesus take away your sins and burn the rubbish of your life.
Now that the chaff is burned away, savour the freedom of the wilderness.
And wonder: What is left behind? Ω
PRAYER: Go and live into the freedom and challenge of the wilderness, the breath of the Spirit alive in you. Clear the way for the coming of Christ, that together we may see God’s glory revealed in human vulnerability and weakness. Amen.
A reflection on Matthew 3:1-12 given to Sanctuary, 8 December 2019 © Alison Sampson, 2019. Year A, Advent 2 (Advent 2A). Image credit: Johannes Plenio on Unsplash.
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Wow … bracing like a howling wind from the desert!
Howling winds can be very bracing! and cleansing and refreshing and restorative …
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