I don’t have to tell you that this is a busy time of year. But in case, you didn’t notice, it’s a busy time of year! Everyone has a to-do list they need to finish before December 25th arrives. Yet no matter how many things we check off of it, it mysteriously gets longer and longer. In fact, I’ll confess that one year I was wrapping my sister’s Christmas present as she was walking in the door. That’s cutting it a little too close!
There are cookies and special holiday treats to bake, trees, homes and churches to be decorated, and gatherings of families and friends to attend. There are big meals to prepare, community activities to enjoy, and shopping for Christmas presents. This flurry of activities can be fun, but it can also leave us feeling exhausted, both physically and emotionally.
The question we need to ask ourselves is “Why do we do this to ourselves every year and vow that next year will be different? Why do we set these impossible expectations for ourselves and our families that often leave us feeling disappointed when the holiday season is over?”
The easy answer is to say, “Well, everybody does it.” And so we climb on the gerbil wheel when Thanksgiving arrives and don’t give ourselves permission to step off of it until January 2nd. But that’s not a great answer, is it? Wouldn’t it be better for us to set aside everyone else’s expectations for this season and adopt a different rhythm and pace that is sane and life-giving for ourselves and our families?
It might sound a bit idealistic to say this. But we can pull it off if we’re very intentional about what we choose to do (and not do) during the month of December. We can elect to step off of the gerbil wheel and take a more leisurely pace, but it’s not easy.
I have a theory regarding why we let this flurry of activity get the best of us. Let me try it out on you and see what you think. Ever since the beginning of recorded history, and probably before this, every culture has celebrated their version of a festival of light that happens around the time of the Winter Solstice. As December days grow darker and darker, we distract ourselves with activities so we don’t notice it’s getting darker and darker. It’s a coping mechanism. It helps us to deal with seasonal depression. and that’s not a bad thing. In earlier times, it also gave us something to do since the agricultural year had ended and we had more free time on our hands.
But if we listen to what winter is trying to tell us we hear a very different message. Winter is telling us we should slow down. We should do our own version of hibernation. Since many of us literally require more sleep during the winter months. On a spiritual and emotional level, Winter a time for introspection and reflection. It’s a time to journey inward and contemplate where we are at this point in our life’s journey. It’s a time to set intentions for the coming year of things we would like to accomplish.
This is the natural rhythm of the season. But it also requires a lot of hard work on our part. It’s difficult to be introspective. It’s difficult to take a long, honest look at ourselves, and try to figure out what we need to change in order to make our lives happier and more fulfilling. So, instead of doing this challenging, soul-searching work, we take the easy way out. We climb up on the gerbil wheel year after year, and keep spinning round and round and round. My theory is that humans have been doing this for a very long time. It’s practically written into our DNA. Therefore, it’s a hard habit to break.
Thankfully, we Christians have the season of Advent, which calls us to adopt a different rhythm than the world around us. It calls us to slow our pace, so that we can make room in our lives for the Christ Child to dwell. It calls us to think about the kinds of changes we need to make in order to be the light of Christ our world needs us to be.
We see this alternate rhythm expressed perfectly in our gospel lesson where Luke contrasts two different ways of moving in the world. The first rhythm is that of church and state, and Luke’s not afraid to name names: The Church, or shall we say the Temple, is represented by Annas and Caiaphas who both served as the high priests, although not at the same time.
The State is represented by the names of Roman occupiers who had a tight grip on Israel: Tiberias, Pilate, Herod Archelaus (who is not to be confused with several other Herods in the New Testament), Herod Philip (who is referred to here and elsewhere as simply Philip), and Lyanias. These are the rule makers of 1st century Hebrew society. If they told you to jump, you jumped and asked them “How high”? They are the gerbil wheel I described earlier.
The second rhythm is that of John who spent his young adult years in the desert, away from these powers-that-be. He may have lived among the Essenes, a cloistered religious community located in Qumran near the Dead Sea. Like John, the Essenes also practiced a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.” However, John felt this message needed to be taken to the masses, and so they parted ways.
For many people, John seems out of place during the holiday season. His clothing was simple to the extreme: a tunic made of camel’s hair that was tied with a leather belt. You know that had to be uncomfortable! His diet was simple, eating locust beans and wild honey. (John was not a bug eater. But that’s another story for another time!)
Finally his message was simple “Repent so that the reign of God may be revealed in you.” Repentance means more than feeling sorry for something we did. It’s an action verb that implies we’re ready to do something new. It’s saying “no” to the gerbil wheel and yes to a new way of being present in the world.
This is why it’s important that we listen to John during this holy season. He may not be the best candidate for the cover of a Christmas card, but his message is something we need to hear. If we are ready to repent from our frantic pace and our endless to-do list, then John is our go-to guy! Repentance requires the kind of deep introspection I talked about earlier in my sermon. It’s letting go of one way of living, and embracing another. It’s allowing our citizenship in the kingdom of God to transform the way we act in the other kingdoms we inhabit, including church and state, work and play.
So how do we pull this off? What does it look like to step off of the gerbil wheel and follow John’s example of simplicity and inward change? Not surprisingly, this alternate rhythm looks a bit different for everyone. What we all share in common is the need to be intentional regarding what we do, or refuse to do, during the holiday season.
For example, I LOVE to bake Christmas cookies. It brings me great joy to bring to life old recipes that have been handed down to me from my grandmother and great-grandmother. It connects me to those departed saints in a way that is quite profound to me. Sometimes I bake with music playing, singing my favorite carols of the season. Other times, I bake in silence and use that as a time for introspection. When my holiday baking is finished, I love seeing the look on someone’s face when their favorite cookie is on the plate. I love to give Christmas cookies as gifts to our shut-ins, to my neighbors, and to other people in the community. This is an activity I should do during the holiday season because it brings out the best in me.
However, baking cookies may just not be your thing. It may be stressful and anxiety producing. It may make you feel like you’re an indentured servant in Santa’s Sweatshop. If this is the case, your pastor tells you DON’T DO IT! There are plenty of wonderful bakeries in our town who can do the job for you. You will bless them by supporting their businesses.
The trick to successfully navigating this holiday season, is being very intentional with the way we spend your time and energy. It’s important for us to know that it’s okay to say “no” every once in a while. It’s okay to step off of the gerbil wheel and adopt a slower pace even if it’s only for an hour or two. Take a friend or loved one out to dinner, and have a relaxing evening. Go shopping for a charitable organization such as Beloved House’s Street Medics. Have a glass or wine or a nice cup of herbal tea, and sit in silence in front of a sparkling Christmas tree or a roaring fire. Call up a friend we haven’t talked to in a long time.
The general rule of thumb is that if it makes us feel closer to God, and to others, then we’re doing the right thing. If it does the exact opposite, then we may want to consider making another choice.
Last week’s theme was looking at the ways Emmanuel brings justice to our world. This week’s theme is peace, (You know I’d get to it at some point or another!) The truth of the matter is that peace will not be found on the gerbil wheel of endless activities and responsibilities. It will be found when we create space in our busy lives for peace to dwell. This will not happen by accident. So let’s take some time to sit with John the Baptist this week, and see what he can teach us about how to observe this holy season. Amen.
Copyright ©2019 by David Eck