The merriest of Christmases

Published 10:54 am Wednesday, December 19, 2018

by Charles Qualls

You Brood of Vipers, who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?”

If we simply read the lectionary text from Luke 3: 7-18, it might appear that John the Baptist needed some training in public relations. Perhaps in some more recent days past, one would have prescribed a Dale Carnegie course in the spirit of “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”

Here we were, humming along through Advent and ready to coast right in to Christmas. We are ready for all things warm, fuzzy and embracing. Generous hearts and encouraging spirits are what we want to be around. Instead, this Lukan text jolts us with its words. We would never see these embroidered on a throw pillow sold in a Christian gift store. They’ve never been on a Christian T-shirt.

Fact is, our gut reaction is to think that Jesus himself would never have said such a thing at Christmas or any other time. Yet, in Matthew’s gospel alone we’ll see the Christ call listeners exactly this a couple of times.

Speaking of Matthew, he tells this same story in his gospel. He gives us a little help with understanding why. You see, John the Baptist had seen the Pharisees and Sadducees come and get in the baptismal line. Luke omits that detail. John was about to have them walk into the Jordan and ask to be essentially anointed or cleansed in response to his preaching.

He wasn’t buying it. That makes this section a little easier to understand. Still, we wonder why we can’t get something softer and more “Christmassy” this close to Dec. 25.

A few observations. First, John’s main message had been one of repentance all along. Crowds were flocking out to see and hear him. He urged them to prepare themselves for the coming of a promised Messiah. In Luke’s telling, there follows this beautiful call and response. The people hear his indictment and ask what, then, they should do. All his answers urge them to take this new chance and produce fruit. Living meaningful lives, in other words. Living as decent people, in step with God’s highest hopes for Creation. To be just, ethical and fair people. 

“Repent” is a word we have come to associate with heavy and judgmental narrowness. That is, perhaps, because so many who have wielded this word in our times have done so with malice and legalism. In John’s time and language, the word simply meant “return.” As in, return to ways of living that you already know are what God wants. Be the person you know God made you to be. It is an invitation as much as a judgment. An urging as much as a condemnation.

Second, John’s reason for preaching a message of return was to point them on toward the arrival of One who had come to transform and to save. The Messiah brought about what John described as “the kingdom of heaven come near.”

This Advent, with Christmas now so near, we have the opportunity to heed John’s call. Once again, we’ll celebrate the arrival of the Christ. What should we do between now and then? John might urge us to consider that the best and most productive way to wait is to allow God’s intentions to transform our lives. The best and most productive way to anticipate or celebrate is to go ahead and be like the Jesus we wait to celebrate. We, too, must bear fruit.

You still have the days this season necessary to do something that gives another person the hope they need. You still have the opportunity between now and Christmas to spend your time in ways that matter, perhaps more than any other Christmas you’ve had. I can do something that makes someone’s life better. Cute rhymes aren’t really my thing. But this Christmas I still have time to heal a rift, give a gift or help someone’s soul to lift.

You want to talk about the magic of Christmas? If we return and live more closely to what we know God wants, we’ll get every much the same benefit as we give away. Maybe more. If you find a substantive way to make someone else’s Christmas a little better, even just a little more bearable, you’ll have a merrier one too.

You want to show up for a Christmas Eve worship service with peace in your heart? Live as you already know Jesus has taught us. Give lavishly, do more than you have to do. Be better than you feel like being. And, know that I wish you the very merriest of Christmases.

DR. CHARLES QUALLS is senior pastor at Franklin Baptist Church. Contact him at 562-5135.