Comfort in the Wilderness – Rev. Amanda Wagner
December 7, 2014 (Second Sunday of Advent)
Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8
This week’s reading from Isaiah occurs at a critical time in Israel’s history. With chapter 40, Isaiah moves from talking about the past to looking toward the future. And the first words that he speaks to the Israelites in exile in Babylon are words of comfort. There is a way out, he says, a path forward. There is a promise of hope after so many have given in to a feeling of hopelessness.
But the way forward of which Isaiah speaks is not some magical new pathway. It is a familiar road that God through Isaiah tells the people to take. “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.” Though God is speaking words of comfort to the people of Israel, the comfort that God promises does not come without its own bouts of waiting and wandering in the desert.
Those words of comfort must have sounded strange to a people who had ceased to cry for home. They had become caught up in the Babylonian culture and had made a way of life for themselves there. After many generations, the Israelites had become such a part of Babylon that they didn’t even realize that they needed these words of comfort and reassurance. They were blind to their own need.
Today, we are not so different from the exiled Israelites. In many ways, we have in fact become blinded by the culture of a secularized Christmas. And so, at this time of year, we hear songs on the radio and get messages in our email inbox urging us to remember to “Keep Christ in Christmas.” Don’t wish anyone “Happy Holidays” we are told. Tell them instead, “Merry Christmas.”
It’s as though we’re waging a war against the secular culture, and I suppose in some ways we are. But it’s not the war we think it is. I keep hearing about this so-called “war on Christmas,” where folks are abbreviating the season as X-mas, literally removing the word “Christ” from Christmas. I used to be bothered by that as well, but then I learned that our letter “X” is also the Greek letter Chi, which makes “X” the first letter of the word “Christ” in Greek.
In other words, Greek-speaking Christians have been using the letter X to represent Christ for thousands of years. “Merry X-mas” is literally an abbreviation of “Merry Christmas,” and not at all a way to remove Christ from the phrase. But I digress.
The problem is that without even realizing it, this culture war we are fighting is just another sign that we have been co-opted by the very culture we are fighting against. We’re like the Israelites who after generations of living in Babylon don’t even realize how much they’ve assimilated into the Babylonian culture. In some ways I wonder if maybe we’re worse because we’re still telling ourselves that we’re fighting to keep the real “reason for the season.”
You see, we’ve been conditioned by our culture to begin celebrating Christmas as early as possible. The day after Halloween sounds about right, as long as we’re sure to stop for one day in November to give thanks for all we have before we embark on the great month-long buying spree to get all things new.
And all along we tell ourselves that what we’re doing is celebrating Christmas. But wait. Hold on a second. I thought that Christmas was the celebration of the birth of Jesus, the Christ-child. Now I don’t know. I wasn’t there. But I’m pretty sure that Mary wasn’t in labor for two months before giving birth to the baby Jesus. Not to mention that the Magi didn’t show up with their gifts until sometime much later.
But we can’t be bothered to wait until Epiphany in January to exchange gifts. And we don’t want to wait until Christmas Eve to put up the Christmas tree. So what do we do? We smoosh together three holidays (Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany), play with the dates a bit so that it runs from mid-November until December 26 (and not a minute longer because that would interfere with our New Year’s celebrations), and call the whole season Christmas, or rather, CHRIST-mas.
We really are kind of like the Babylonian Jews. We just had no idea. Until I was in seminary, I had no idea what the three different seasons meant and what I was losing out on by celebrating them all under the umbrella of Christmas.
If we really want to get back to our roots, to the true meaning of Christmas, we’d save all those wishes of Merry Christmas until December 24th. We’d recognize three distinct holidays or holy-days during this time. Advent, which began on November 30 and lasts until Christmas Eve. Then Christmas, which really does last for twelve days, through until the Epiphany on January 6th. That’s when the Wise Men showed up bearing gifts.
When we reorient Christmas as beginning on the evening before December 25th, then we can celebrate the season of Advent for what it is. These weeks leading up to Christmas are a time of preparation. Not preparation for gift-giving, but preparing our hearts, our minds, and our souls for the coming of the Christ-child.
There’s no shopping that needs to be done to prepare for Jesus. We only need to look forward in hope, surrendering ourselves to the peace that Christ is offering. Christmas will come whether or not the cookies are baked, the decorations are up, and the presents are bought.
Christ is coming and Christ will come whether we are ready or not. That is God’s promise to us and the reason for Isaiah’s words of comfort and assurance. No matter where we are, no matter what words we use to define this season, the Christ-child is coming.
“Comfort, O comfort my people.” Even in the wilderness of this secularized Christmas season, in this second week of Advent, we are reminded that the Christ-child is coming. The Light of the World is coming.
The Prince of Peace is coming, and at the same time the Prince of Peace is already here, already offering us the peace of the Advent season, if only we stop worrying so much about Christmas and start focusing on the gifts of Advent, the hope, peace, joy, and love that God offers during this season.
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.” Christ is coming and Christ is already here. That is a conundrum in which we can take comfort. And it is a conundrum that we are to meditate upon during this season of Advent.
So today, I wish you the blessed peace of Advent, or if you prefer, Merry Christmas, Season’s Greetings, and Happy Holidays. Amen.