The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Third Sunday in Advent: Gaudete (Year A)
December 11, 2016
What traditions do you have in your family? What Advent traditions, or Christmas traditions? Maybe you have a tree that you like to put up. Or an Advent wreath. Or an Advent calendar even. I love Advent calendars—opening a little door each day of Advent, marking time moving towards Christmas. As a child lots of those traditions were bound up around Santa Claus—waiting for presents. How many more days till Christmas meant how many more days till presents.
A few years ago I was walking along Sixth Avenue in New York in the snow, I noticed that the window at TJ Maxx had a display of small creatures in red leggings and Santa hats – dozens and dozens of them – and a window sign that read, “Elf on the Shelf, a Christmas Tradition.” Now, does anyone have an elf on the shelf? They are endearing little figures, something straight out of a 1950’s fantasy. Some concerns about how clean-scrubbed the little elf is aside, I do have to admit that he or she is quite charming. And I am up for a good Christmas tradition anytime. So I phoned my mother and asked her, “Why didn’t we have Elf on the Shelf when I was growing up?” Her response was, “What’s an Elf on the Shelf?” Apparently, this Christmas Tradition business refers to the author’s Christmas Tradition which went mainstream about a decade ago when a book about it was written in the middle 2000’s. It really took off when the book was made into a TV special. Now my friends with young children seem to be posting about their elves on the shelf each day.
So the way the Elf on the Shelf works is this, as I understand it: the elf on the shelf appears on the day after Thanksgiving (never mind about Advent--close enough)—and he hangs out on a shelf, a table, a mantel—somewhere, keeping an eye out to see whether the girls and boys in the house are behaving--and the elf reports back to Santa Claus. The elf moves around each day, appearing in a new spot--and, don't quote me on this, because I am not an expert in what Christmas elves do or don't to--but apparently there is a correlation between elvish observation of good behaviour and the appearance of presents on Christmas Day. To put it simply, this elf is a snitch. Apparently Santa has outsourced his naughty and nice lists to this elf hanging out on your shelf. So be very careful. Be aware. And keep an eye out for him, and be sure to be good, because that's how you get presents. The elf on the shelf, friends, is judging you.
Over the last two weeks of Advent we have heard a lot about judgment. On Advent 1 we heard Jesus tell his disciples to “be ready for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour”—to watch and waitso as not to be caught unaware, swept away like those in the biblical flood. On Advent 2 we heard the prophetic voice of John the Baptist, calling “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” People were confessing their sins, being baptized by John in the Jordan river. John the baptizer proclaimed that Jesus “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire…. He will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
John has the sense that the world is about to change, with this first advent of the messiah, that things will change. In the words of the Magnificat, the hungry will be filled with good things, the humble and meek exalted. Those who repent gathered in, and the chaff left behind, burned with unquenchable fire.
Advent is a time for preparing to hear again the message of the incarnation—that God himself is with us—but it is also a time to prepare our hearts for that second advent, the idea that Jesus has come and will come—that the kingdom is now and is yet to come. The sorts of images John gives us, two in a field; two grinding meal; one taken and one left behind. Wheat gathered in, chaff burned with unquenchable fire. Those sorts of images have fueled one way of understanding about Jesus’ reign. They are very much in our popular notion of the “second coming as a time of judgment, of retribution even.
And so we can hear these words of judgment as a warning—as a threat. If you’re not good, the elf on the shelf will tell Santa, and you won’t get your presents. If you’re not good, you’ll be judged unworthy and burned like the chaff of wheat. A parishioner recently commented that that it can be hard in Advent to hear these words of judgment—that it sounds as though God is angry at us. That God is coming for us, to burn us up with unquenchable fire.
And maybe that’s some of what John was expecting—judgment, destruction, apocalyptic renewal—when he sent to ask if Jesus was the messiah. Because the reign of Jesus doesn’t look like that sort of destructive judgment, does it.
And so maybe John is not sure what to expect… Remember that this figure in camels hair has been proclaiming Jesus as messiah, the one who comes, since his days of baptizing on the Jordan river—in fact, he baptized Jesus himself! He knows who Jesus is. But now John, locked in prison by Herod, must have his own doubts. He has preached a fiery message of repentance—and John must expect this new era to be just around the corner; any moment the deluge, right? And yet things are uncharacteristically still. Are you the one, Jesus, “are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” John has said Jesus is the one—and yet here he is, asking again. Uncertain. Unsure.
Jesus’ reign doesn’t look like what John was expecting. Are you the one that is to come, Jesus, or shall we wait for another? What’s going on, John asks?
Most of the Advent collects, before the reformation, began with the word we hear today—Stir up—excita—(Stir Up Sunday, last Pentecost)--stir up your power, O Lord and with great might come among us. Get to it, Lord! We want to see something happen. Are you the one that is to come, Lord, or are we to wait for another?
Why is John anxious? Why are we anxious? Maybe it’s that Jesus doesn’t look like the same kind of judge as the elf on a shelf. And I’m serious about this. The elf on the shelf—or the elf at the north pole—things that our minds as children can understand—judge us. They decide who is naughty and nice, who is good and bad, who as behaved and who hasn’t—and they give gifts based on this list. Watch out for that elf on the shelf, friends. It is judging you. Sneaky little elf.
But Jesus, well, yes, Jesus knows you and me—really knows all of us. Unto him all hearts are open, all desires known, and from him no secrets are hid. But Jesus is different. The judgment that God promises is against the evil powers of this world—against sin and death—against the things that separate us from God, that separate us from life. He isn’t about the work of retribution… He is about the work of restoration. He has already given us the gift of himself. He is giving us that gift through his Holy Spirit even now. There is no danger of the gift being returned, taken back, or withheld. It’s already there. We just have to say thank you. To take it. To open our hands, open our hearts, and receive it. The work has been done. The restoration is happening. All we have to do is get on board. So of COURSE we want to repent—of course we want to change—to turn—to turn towards God, to receive that great gift of Jesus’s love—and then to shape our lives so that we love God with our whole beings—and that we share that love with everyone else. Yes, John, yes! He is the one! We want to repent—we want to be washed in the river—we want to be washed in his spirit! We receive his love! And we want to share that love with everyone we meet!
The sort of reconciliation that God promises in the incarnation is not about destruction but about renewal, new life. It’s not retributive but healing—not punishment but wholeness. And that’s what we hear in the lessons for this Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent. Again and again we hear of the life-giving power of God—of the flowering of the promised land when God brings God’s people out of bondage in Egypt into a land flowing with milk and honey—again in Isaiah the promise that the wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom—that the days of the Babylonian exile for the Jewish people will be ended and they will return to Jerusalem, restored to their land, restored to their lives with God. And in the gospel we hear it again in Jesus’s own words, when John asks, are you the one who is to come: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Jesus’s measure, Jesus’s claim of his own ministry is that it is restorative, life-giving, healing. That is the work of the incarnation.
Today we celebrate that new life promised in Christ—the greens are refreshed with roses, we wear different rose-colored vestments, in the words of the introit, we rejoice--Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete. The whole introit is that passage from Philippians 4:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And then from Psalm 85, the verse: Lord, you were favourable to your land; you restored the fortunes of Jacob.
That’s what God is up to in the mystery of the incarnation. Restoring the fortunes of Jacob. Restoring our own relationships with God. Restoring our own lives. Restoring all creation.
This is the day when we rejoice--when we stop our anxiety about getting it all right—when we lay down our anxiety about the Elf on the Shelf watching us—about God’s anger towards us--and we really celebrate the Grace of God. The gift given us in the incarnation—and the joy of reconciliation that is promised now and at Christ’s second coming—the union with God of wholeness, healing, joy, and love. Rejoice in the Lord always—especially now.
That’s what God is stirring up. That’s what God is up to. When faced with the knowledge of God’s great love, don’t you want to see the roses spring forth, to make a change, to turn towards God—to show God’s love, to show the face of Jesus, to everyone you meet?
In the words of today’s collect,
Stir up thy power, O Lord, and with great might come among us;
and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins,
let thy bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.