Do you ever get frustrated at the Post Office?
While waiting in line at the post office yesterday I was getting frustrated not only by the slow, socially distanced line snaking throughout the lobby and into the vestibule, but by the person at the head of the line with a big stack of packages to mail. Couldn’t the lines be separated so the people with packages go one way and the rest of us would have an Express Line? Couldn’t that person mail the packages in smaller batches over multiple days? Why right now when I have other things to do besides waiting?
And then, just as the last package at the head of the line was stamped, postage paid, and a receipt given, the woman with all of those packages turned and said to the rest of us waiting in line, “I’m sorry this took so long. We aren’t able to be with any family this year because my husband works at the hospital and is on call throughout the holidays. We’re having to send gifts instead of going ourselves. There isn’t much Christmas joy for us this year.” Then she walked out.
As you might imagine, my judgmental huffiness turned to ashes of remorse. It was one of those unwelcome experiences where my self-righteousness was shown for the ignorant fraud it is. Everything in preparing for this socially distanced Christmas seems to take more time, more energy, more consideration of others, and, well, more consideration of everything. For each of personally, for our families, for our churches, for our world…this is an awkward Christmas, isn’t it?
The Unexpected Gift of An Awkward Christmas
Though I served as a pastor for over 40 years, I always found the focus on John the Baptist in the Scripture readings for the second Sunday of Advent something of an awkward interruption. By the time December arrives, at least for a lot of congregations, the church sanctuary is filled with Christmas decorations, the choir can’t help but start an early celebration of the birth of Jesus, and Christmas Carols begin sneaking into worship several weeks before the date preferred by liturgical purists. We seem always ready to jump the gun on the festivities, don’t we? This year in particular “Christmas” started at least a month early!
But John the Baptist, with his in-your-face call to repentance, simply refuses to be part of the Ugly Christmas Sweater Contest or behave in any sort of holly-jolly way. Instead of coming in for the party, he calls people out to a place called “the wilderness.” And wilderness isn’t the place we would choose to be. It is a place of vulnerability, potential danger, loneliness, and finding we are not in control nearly as much as we might have imagined.
For the Israelites early on the wilderness meant leaving Egypt behind. The exodus was liberation from oppression, but it also meant leaving the familiarity of routines – as oppressive and unjust as those routines might have been. No wonder they would rather return to Egypt! In the wilderness they were casting their future wholly on the promises and power of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Without question it was the Lord who powerfully, miraculously delivered them from Pharaoh, but it was also the Lord who led them into the wilderness. The wilderness was a place of stark choices testing their devotion.
For Jesus himself the wilderness was the place of confrontation with the temptations to trade in his identity for personal popularity, his calling for worldly power, and his faithfulness for idolatry. Again, it was a place of stark choices. But the wilderness was not an accident, for the Scripture tells us that Jesus “was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where he was tempted by the devil for forty days” (Luke 4:1b-2).
John the Baptist preached that the place of preparing for the arrival of the Lord is in the wilderness. The people who listened and responded to him came out of the predictability of life in Jerusalem and into the wilderness to do business with God. In particular, he warned the religious people, those who regularly went to corporate worship, who knew the liturgical calendar, and who were pretty good at getting ready for religious festivals, that judgment was on the way when the Savior of the world arrived. To prepare meant to repent and live accordingly (Matthew 3:1-12).
For us the encouraging possibility is that this awkward pandemic season, which puts a hold on the regular and predictable Christmas traditions, might also provide the unexpected wilderness experience of stark choices during which our devotion is tested and the character of our faith can be attended to.
David Benner writes,
When it comes right down to it, there are really only two possible prayers that can be prayed. One is entirely natural, one is absolutely supernatural. Whether we choose to pray or not, one of these will be praying itself. The choice is not whether to pray. The choice is which prayer to pray.
The prayer that comes most naturally for all of us is “My name be hallowed, my kingdom come, my will be done.” This is the prayer of independence and willfulness. It is the liturgy of the kingdom of self. The prayer that goes against our nature and that can become our prayer only through the action of divine grace is the Lord’s Prayer. It inverts everything in the liturgy of the kingdom of the self – “thy name be hallowed, thy kingdom come, they will be done.” It is the prayer of surrendered autonomy and willingness. It is the liturgy of the kingdom of God.… It is a subversive prayer. It requests that life as we know it be overturned. (Desiring God’s Will: Aligning Our Hearts with the Heart of God. Intervarsity Press, 2005, pp. 33-34)
Perhaps this awkward Christmas is God’s invitation to release what is customary and familiar for a journey into the wilderness. The wilderness is where the integrity of our faith in Jesus can be tested, where an opportunity for repentance can be provided, and where our willingness to be part of God’s mission of redemption can be renewed.