The type of Christmas usually promoted is a peaceful one. Christmas specials have names like "A Country Christmas," "Rocky Mountain Christmas," or "A Blue Ridge Christmas." Tranquility, mildness, serenity are the images most people have and want of Christmas. But this is not what we find in Advent. 3 out of the 4 Advent Collects begin with the words, "Stir up our hearts O Lord." We're not looking to be lulled to sleep by softly falling snowflakes or moonlit mountain vistas. We come here praying to be shook up, to be rattled, to be stirred up. We come here seeking to be knocked out of our spiritual dullness, shaken out of our apathy for things eternal, jolted from the comfortable recliner of our sinfulness. We come in search of a RADICAL Christmas.
And we're not disappointed. In today's Gospel, we meet the radical John the Baptist. We're familiar with John the Baptist, and that's bad. We're so familiar with him that he's no longer radical to us. He's suppose to be out in the desert, dressed in camel's hair, chowing down on locusts. We're use to this radical. We're like the people I saw in a restaurant on Times Square in New York. It was an ordinary Saturday in June 1983. Yet walking past the window on the sidewalk was such an amazing collection of outrageously dressed people. But no one else in the restaurant paid any attention at all. This was normal to them, not radical.
Don't let John the Baptist be normal to you. He's not. He was radical even in his day. He dressed radically. People didn't normally wear camel's hair next to the skin; it's worse than wool. But John had no tunic, no inner garment, no prayer shawl. Nothing but the austere dress of coarse, itchy camel's hair, and a leather belt. John the Baptist dressed like those guys in cartoons carrying end-of-the-world signs. You couldn't help but notice him.
His actions were as radical as his dress. He lived in the desert. Luke 1 tells us he was raised there. His food was of the desert: grasshoppers and wild honey. All of this is radical. Our Christmas specials are filmed in remote but scenic places. The Jordan River valley is remote alright, but not really scenic. Having a Christmas special there would be like putting Kenny Rogers in Death Valley. And while you might think honey wouldn't make a bad holiday food, try serving grasshoppers, and I don't mean drinks.
John baptizing in the Jordan River is just as radical as living in the desert and eating insects. The Jews baptized, that is ritually washed things. They baptized the babies of those who converted to Judaism; they baptized cups, pots, and couches, and they daily baptized their hands before eating and their bodies after coming back from the market. The Jews did plenty of ritual washing, but they didn't use Jordan River water. An ancient saying about the Jordan is, "He who drinks of the Jordan drinks fever." John baptizing in the muddy, shallow, fetid waters of the Jordan is meant to be radical. See proper Jews coming from Jerusalem who were perpetually concerned with being ceremonially clean. Imagine pointing to the murky waters of the Jordan and saying, "Here's where you're to be baptized for forgiveness."
If you've somehow managed to miss the radicalness of grasshoppers for Christmas hors d'oeuvres, a 110 degree desert for a Christmas celebration, and a stagnating river for baptism, you certainly can't miss John's radical speech. He called the best of Jerusalem's political and religious society a bunch of poisonous snakes. He told them God already had His ax resting against their legs and at any minute was going to chop them down and throw their unfruitful butts into the fires of hell. He told these highbrow people who were so proud of their distinguished pedigree from Abraham that God could make Abraham children from the rocks they were standing on.
Do you understand? John wasn't talking to tax-collectors, prostitutes, or bums. He wasn't talking to the girls in the shadows on 6th Street or the people living in cardboard boxes, he was talking to people just like you. People in church for every service. People who studied their Bibles regularly, even daily. People who gave lots of money to the church. People who had been Lutheran forever. John told such people that they were snakes. He told people who had done many things for the church that they were unfruitful, dead trees that needed to be cut down and burned. He told them, "God could make rocks as good as Lutherans as you people are!"
John dressed, acted, and spoke radically. He did this to make one point: radical repentance is needed. John the Baptist would say, and I hope you're not offended, "To hell with your promises to do better." "To hell with your childish excuses that this person did that so you did this." "To hell with your pleas for another chance." "To hell with your teenage excuses that everyone is doing it." Yes, John the Baptist would say, "To hell with everything that gets in the way of radical repentance."
Radical repentance claims nothing but sins. Radical repentance sees nothing but it's own stinking pile of sins. Radical repentance says, "I'm the chief sinner." Radical repentance sees that the life of John the Baptist is the one it deserves: A life cut off from contact with men and the blessings of God, a life with only the barest of necessities, a life of the discomfort of camel's hair. Radical repentance claims to be a sinner who deserves to be punished right now and forever in eternity.
But there is more to a radical Christmas than deserts, grasshoppers, and repentance. Having a radical Christmas means having a radical Gospel. But because we celebrate the same Gospel Christmas after Christmas, this too has become ordinary. That's why we pray for the Lord to stir up our hearts during Advent. We need our hearts stirred so we might see the radical origins of this Gospel. It comes from the stump of Jesse, says Isaiah. The stump of Jesse is the nation of Israel, not in its golden days of David or Solomon, not during its world power days. The stump is the mighty tree of Israel after it had been chopped down by Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome. Nothing is left but a dead, decaying stump.
God had promised that a Redeemer, a Savior, a Messiah would come from Israel. God's people waited and waited. Long after Israel was too dead to produce anything, when it was a short, dead, rotten stump, all of a sudden a branch sprouted, and from this branch a rose. After centuries of being defeated, oppressed, and apparently abandoned by God, God does the radical thing of sending the promised Christ.
We need our hearts stirred this Advent that we might see the radical nature of Christ. Jesus is often pictured as a revolutionary bucking the status quo of His day, but this is not the way in which Jesus was a radical. Jesus is a radical in that He was absolutely, totally perfect. Being God in flesh and blood, there was no spot, no stain, no possibility of spot or stain in anything He thought, did or spoke. Jesus wasn't just better than us; He wasn't just a good Man. Jesus was absolute perfection in Body and Soul.
Jesus was radical. He was everything that God means us to be. Isaiah describes Him as a fruitful branch, full of the Holy Spirit, delighting in God, righteous and faithful every moment of every day in every situation. He was the delight of His heavenly Father. He was the beloved Son of His Father. There is nothing the Father would not do for His Son. The radical Gospel is that this perfect, beautiful Man, who is God in the flesh, was punished in your place. The ax that was laid against your legs was taken to His. The fires of judgment that should have burned you alive for eternity burned Him instead. The perfect, innocent, gentle Jesus was brutally punished instead of you. There you were standing before God, guilty of God knows what. The ax of judgement was swinging toward you, but instead of hitting you it hit Jesus.
This is the radicalness of the Gospel, but still our radical Christmas isn't complete. We have yet to see the radical effects of this radical Gospel. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then Isaiah provides us with millions of words by the pictures of animals he puts before us. You've seen TV shows which show the savagery of the animal kingdom. You've seen the brutality of the wolf, the leopard, the lion, and the bear, haven't you? Even when men tame them, they don't stop them from being meat eaters, do they? The lion tamer doesn't feed his lion carrots. The leopard isn't fed lettuce, is it?
Now see this: There's a wolf living with a tiny helpless lamb. There's a leopard and a goat not afraid to lie next to it. And how about over there? There's a lion with not just a calf but a nice fattened-up yearling. Right next to them can you see that cow? It's not afraid to be next to that gigantic bear. O and don't be alarmed at what you see over there. Over there is a baby right next to the hole of deadly cobra, but don't worry; the baby is totally safe. Even that young child over there putting his hand right into that nest of copperheads needn't make you worry. The snakes won't bite him. That's how radically different things are because of the Gospel.
That's what Isaiah is trying to picture for us. Isaiah uses the animal world to illustrate for us the radical effects of the Gospel, but the actual effects are really in our world, now. The Gospel, the free forgiveness Jesus won on the cross and distributes in the Sacraments, radically changes people. People you would think could never change are changed. Saul starts out as a hater, persecutor, and murderer of Christians. Christ touches him with His radical forgiveness and the wolf, the lion, the leopard Saul becomes, Paul, the tender shepherd of lambs.
The Gospel is radical, and so it does radical things. It brings us all the way back to the Garden of Eden. The picture of wolves and lambs, bears and cows getting along is a picture of Eden. That's what we lost when we sinned. But the Gospel brings us back in. Christ says, "Though your sins do make you unworthy of Eden, I forgive everyone of them. Come back inside here where I can take care of you. You need not be afraid."
Right there is the most radical result of the Gospel - not needing to be afraid. Can you even imagine that? It's in our fallen natures to be afraid of sickness, of terrorists, of disaster. It's in our fallen natures to be afraid of these things even as it is in the nature of a lamb to be afraid of a wolf and a goat to be frightened of a leopard. But the radical Gospel can remove even such deeply rooted fears. God's perfect love for you as shown in the Gospel casts out such fears. The radical Gospel quiets are nervous hearts by whispering to them: "Because of what Jesus has done, God has nothing but grace, mercy and peace for you." Yes, cancer still looks like cancer and terrorists still look like terrorists even as wolves look like wolves and leopards look like leopards. But Isaiah's picture of lambs safe with wolves, goats with leopards, and children safe among deadly snakes, shows us the Gospel's radical results; it results in you being able to play like a carefree child amid the cancer, the terrorists, and disasters of this life.
So, you go on dreaming of a white Christmas; you have your country Christmas; give me a radical one. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Advent II (12-9-01) Matthew 3:1-12