Nothing puts me in the mood for Christmas quite like reading John the Baptist lambasting the crowds. The opening verse of the lectionary Gospel this week is really shocking to our modern sensibilities. Last Sunday, during the sermon, I shared a little about the importance of greetings, and how greetings are really important to us in this season as we wish others Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Today we see another kind of greeting. Here comes the crowd, responding to John’s message, ready to do what he is prophesying and be baptized, and how does he greet them?! This is not how you treat people who are following your leadership, people who are agreeing with you, right? Can you imagine the Salvation Army bell-ringers calling people names as they drop coins in the red kettles?And yet, here he is, in his camel’s hair outfit, eating bugs dipped in honey, and yelling at people, right in the middle of the Advent readings. But his message is the Christmas message. John is busy reminding people that they have fallen short and missed the mark in the ways they deal with one another and the ways they relate to God. He warns them about thinking too highly of themselves, particularly when they try to bargain with God. They have no ground to stand on, instead they must be changed. They must be baptized, care for the hungry and the naked, and treat people fairly. The message of Christmas is that humanity fails repeatedly to do these things, but the good news is that God came to be with us, to teach us and enable us to live in new ways.
It’s easy to get caught up in the hype of Christmas shopping and advertising. Every year I am sure that I won’t get sucked into the mania, and every year it manages to at least get my attention, if not my dollars. John’s words in verse eleven can help balance those urges out, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ He follows this with words about contentment. Now that’s the Christmas spirit.