The gray skies and weeping clouds put a damper on the holiday busy-ness. The lights seem swallowed up by the pale glare of the day, as if they can’t quite pierce the gloom. The greenery festooned with red ribbon hanging on the fence is dull and dampened by the persistent rain. And yet. That’s the power of Christmas. Of Incarnation. Of God with us. There is always an “and yet.”
Dreary it may be, and yet there is joy. Underneath and back behind, there is joy. Persistent, transforming, sustaining joy. Christmas isn’t really about seasonal joy. It isn’t about extravagant commercial excesses either. At its best, it is a reminder of the joy that is ours always, a shot in the arm to our flagging spirits, or a kick in the pants to our bored complacency. At least it would be a kick in the pants if John had his way.
John was a pants kicker from the start. He did a high kick in Elizabeth’s womb when he heard Mary’s voice through the waters in which he swam. And he came out kicking, I’m sure. He kicked himself out of the house as soon as it was possible. He kicked it out in the desert, kicked over beehives to get the wild honey, kicked a tree full of locusts for snacks to munch on while he wandered around shouting at rocks and stones. He kicked a camel’s carcass for a coat to wear. Then he decided it was time to kick some sense into the people of God down by the riverside.
I don’t know about you, but I always smile a little bit at verse 18: “With many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” Really? There were more? More exhortations? What else did he say? What else did he kick? And good news? This doesn’t sound like good news. This sounds oppressive, finger-pointing, name-calling, previous White House occupant tweet level pain. How in the world can we say he proclaimed the good news? Except he did.
That’s the problem with good news. For the good news to be good news, it first has to be bad news. John understood that. John majored in that. He was a PhD level intellect in that needing the bad news to hear the good news thing. So, he let them have it. He poured it over them, like the water he splashed into their faces, shouting at them to wake up. He asked them to question their own motives. “What brings you here? You snakelets, still sucking on your egg tooth used to crack your way out of your shell. Still wet behind the ears, if snakes had ears. You don’t know what you’re doing. Mostly because you ain’t doing nothing! Except looking out for yourselves. You think you’re special; you’re nothing; you’re rocks in my shoe, stones I stub my toe on! You’re mulch, grass cuttings we leave to be picked up with the garbage!”
Chill, John. Please? Actually, they didn’t ask him to chill. They asked him, in a panic, “What then should we do?” And they panicked because they were afraid he was going to say, “run like hell!” or “You’re out of luck, bucko, bend down and kiss the grass goodbye!” So, they asked with fear and trembling. But he didn’t snarl or sneer. He didn’t tell them it was too late. When he answered in a way that made sense, groups of them came forward. “What should we do?” they asked in tag-team fashion. “What about us?” they echoed all along the riverbank. Tax collectors and soldiers asked him. Athletes and film stars, politicians and truck drivers, biker gangs and refugees – they all came in ones or dozens and asked him: “What then should we do?” And he had an answer.
“Bear fruit.” (No, not those kinds of bears!) Bear as in carry, as in show, as in live. That was his answer: live! What should we do? Live. But live rightly. Live, he told the soldiers, for justice. Don’t abuse your power; don’t threaten to get your way, to scare or coerce. And learn contentment, for heaven’s sake. Don’t keep wanting more and more and more. To the tax collectors, called by some the enemy of the people, he said, “live for mercy.” Don’t take more than the people can stand, more than you are supposed to take. Don’t rob, don’t steal, don’t wound with the stroke of your red pen. Care about the people over whom you have authority. To the crowd thronging the banks of the water he said, “Live!” Live in generosity, live in community, live as though you belong to one another because you do. Live as though you are responsible for one another because you are!
Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Worthy? As in earning it? If I do right, I’ll get what I deserve? No. No, no, a thousand times no. Bear fruit because you have repented. Because you have turned around and are now walking a new direction. Because you now know life and want to share it; because this life you have claimed—this joy from which you have drunk—is not meant to be kept inside, to be kept quiet. You’ve got to share it. You’ve got to shout it. You’ve got to sing it. Isaiah says so.
We don’t get a psalm this week; we get a song from Isaiah. Isaiah 12:2-6: “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. . . .”
With joy you will draw water – a daily task, mundane, necessary, one of many. Yet, there is a joy in it. Drawing water is about life, about living and sustaining. It is about cleansing, making new, dying, and being reborn. “I baptize you with water,” John says. So, you can start over. So, you can repent. So, you cannot be afraid. So, you can give thanks to the Lord. For life. For water. For even a gray rainy and dreary day that vibrates with Christmas presence.
But only if you pay attention. That’s the key. Only if you listen deeply. Then you can hear the raindrops singing praise as they patter across the leaves in the yard. Only if you look closely. Then you can see the light that proclaims presence even on the palest of days. Only if you live fully. Then you can taste salvation in the sweetness of the water that flows so freely. We are called, by John and Isaiah both, to be present in our worship and our living – even as we realize that worship is living and that to live is to worship.
And Zephaniah. Don’t forget Zephaniah, though almost everyone does. He joins the refrain, sings the do-wahs with John the B and Isaiah. “Sing aloud . . . shout . . . Rejoice and exalt with all your heart!” Wow, he’s really into it. He’s wanting to go home, to the home of God’s promise, the home of hope and kin-dom and peace. Sure, it will be a struggle, and there is work to do to get there, to even get close, but it is work that it worth it. It is work that is joyful, if we pay attention. That’s the call here in Zephaniah, and in Luke’s rendition of John’s song, and in Isaiah. We’re all singing of the joy of home. The home that Christmas is glimpse of. The home that we all long for. So, come, let us adore him. Fully present as we do. Fully alive, as we drink with joy the waters of salvation.