Most folks of my generation will remember sitting down with the big Sears Roebuck catalogue in the weeks before Christmas, making a list of what we wanted from Santa, toys and games more than we could hope to receive. Then came long days dreaming of what would arrive under the tree, and finally the excitement of waking up on Christmas morning to discover what was there.
Our dreams are different now. The Sears Roebuck catalogue disappeared years ago. Nowadays our Christmas wishes, if we dare to wish at all, usually come out of the daily news, and they’re not about toys and games but about things deadly serious. Does anyone get excited any more about what gift might be ours, what gift is already ours, because of Christmas? And when will the morning come when we wake up to find it?
Today’s gospel reading (Luke 3:15-17) says “the people were filled with expectation” as they awaited a messiah. For Israel, the times were about as tough as they had ever been. They had not fared well in the shifting tide of geopolitics; fear and suspicion ran through the social and political fabric of the nation; everywhere there was a dark foreboding of a “wrath to come” (Luke 3:7).
And into that scene comes John, the one we know as the baptizer, calling for repentance (Luke 3:3), such a radicalizing of faith that people would go beyond claiming the name of faith and actually start living the faith they professed. It wasn’t enough to flee from the wrath to come, John said. Running away was not the answer. What would be required would be much more difficult. What would be required, he said, is a radical and complete change in life.
When I stop to think about John’s message, when I stop to think that the only meaningful, effective preparation for Christmas is not to redecorate my house but to reform my life, even I start to squirm. Billy Sunday, perhaps the greatest American evangelist of the early twentieth century, echoed John’s message when he warned that, “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you an automobile.”
Neither does going to seminary, being ordained, and serving as a pastor make me a Christian. I think the great danger – for me or for any of us – is not that I renounce the Christian faith or claim some other faith. The great danger, I think, is that I become so seduced and distracted by the challenges and comforts of living in this world that I settle for the familiar appearance of faith without the transforming substance of faith.
John Wesley had a term for people like that: the “almost Christian,” good people who lead moral lives; who practice kindness and generosity toward others; who volunteer in the community and go to church on Sunday; who try to avoid evil and do good. They’re people who have the form of religion without the substance of faith. They have taken up church membership without taking up their cross. They have been baptized by a church with water – United Methodist or some other – but have not yet been baptized by God with the Holy Spirit and fire (Luke 3:16).
For some who claim the name “Christian” – and sometimes, yes, I wonder if I’m one of them – there is a real Christmas to come, a new incarnation of God, not the so-called Second Coming but a coming of Christ again in particular, in power that transforms. How do I prepare for that Christmas? How do any of us prepare for it? We’re not going to prepare by reading Advent devotions, lighting candles or trees, or attending Christmas Eve celebrations. Or are we?
John Wesley was well along in his career as an Anglican priest when he saw in others a depth and vitality of faith he did not experience in himself, and when he asked how to get that kind of faith he was told, “Preach faith until you have it, and then preach faith because you have it.” In other words, fake it till you make it.
“What then should we do,” the people asked John when they heard his warning about what was coming (Luke 3:10-14)? How should we prepare for Christmas? And John answered: If you have two coats, give one of them to someone who has none, and if you have any extra food, give some of it to someone who is hungry. Don’t worry about the transforming baptism of Spirit you have not received; just perform the simple act of love that the moment invites.
To tax collectors and soldiers he said: Just do your job, but do it in a way that brings justice into play. Do what you can to do your work as fairly and morally as possible within the constraints of your situation, and be satisfied with where God has you. If you haven’t received the second baptism, do what you can with the first. If you’re an almost Christian, be the best almost Christian you can be until God makes you an altogether Christian through the second baptism.
Pray and prepare for something more from God, but don’t fret about what you’re not, don’t regret the depth of spirit you don’t have. Simply use the faith God has given you, and trust that God will give you more when the time is right. If you don’t have great faith to transform the world, use the little faith you do have for your own transformation. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”
During the run up to Christmas this year, I’ll spend less time with catalogues wishing for the games and toys of life and more time with the daily news, and with my neighbors, and with my secret heart wishing for the substance of life. Then I’ll light one more Advent candle, or join the caroling group tomorrow evening, or buy one holiday meal bag for a hungry neighbor, if that’s all I can do, trusting that in just such little out-of-the-way efforts some new something of Christ may be born into the world.