Malachi 3:1-2a; 4:1-6; Matthew 3:1-12

Byron C. Bangert

December 9, 2001

We were leaving the restaurant to return to our car on the Saturday night after Thanksgiving. There in the storefront window were the numbers: "Only 31 shopping days till Christmas." I thought to myself, "Could there be that many days still left? It seems like we're getting closer than that." But then I realized that Thanksgiving came early this year. There was still a week to go in November. And while once upon a time there was a distinction between the number of days before Christmas and the number of shopping days, that distinction holds no longer! Every day is a shopping day.

There is a new twist to the Christmas shopping season this year, however. One hears very little about the over-commercialization of Christmas these days. Now it has become patriotic to shop. Your country needs you to shop. The economy needs you to shop. Your fellow citizens need you to shop. It's the "unselfish" thing to do! Keep America strong! Or else the terrorists win!

For the first few years of my adult life, I was a student in divinity school, and way too busy to spend much time shopping. Then I became a pastor in the small southern West Virginia town of Hinton, and besides being too busy, there were mighty few places to shop. It was only when my family and I moved to Kalamazoo, MI, that the commercial excesses of the season really began to disenthrall. Our first year in Kalamazoo we found that the annual Christmas parade was held in November, and not just in November, but on November 3rd. I also discovered that some previous year a group of Kalamazoo College students had demonstrated against just this sort of thing. One of them carried a sign with a statement that was pictured in the newspaper: "If Mary and Joseph had started this early, they would have found room in the inn."

It strikes me that whoever wrote those words was more than a social critic, more than a moralizer and protester against the commercialization of our Christmas observances. It strikes me that he or she was a first-rate theologian! You see, it would have been a complete disaster for Christmas if Mary and Joseph had found room in the inn. It would have messed up the whole story. Think of it!--there could have been no visit by the shepherds--the proprietor surely would not have allowed it. And there certainly would have been no room for the ox and the ass, the lowing cattle and the gentle sheep. There would have been no straw, no manger, no stable smells and sounds. If Mary and Joseph had found room in the inn, it would have meant that Christmas comes to those who are able to plan ahead. It would have meant that Christmas is for those who carry American Express, Visa, or Discover Card. The whole meaning of Christmas would have had to be reconceived. --Or the Christ child would have had to be reconceived.

But Mary and Joseph did not start early, they did not call ahead for reservations, and there was no room for them in the inn. And so the Christ child comes in a stable, out in the cold, amid the smelly animals, under the starlit sky--but he doesn't seem to mind. He was not seeking an auspicious entry into the world.

Several years ago our best friends became pregnant with their second child. The doctor had performed a Caesarean section when Myra's first child was born, and to her disappointment the doctor told her this second baby would also have to be delivered in this way. For several months, therefore, we anticipated along with our friends the designated day on which the pregnancy was to be terminated and the baby was to be brought into this world. It was a date set near full term and in conjunction with the doctor's operating schedule. Myra went in for her last scheduled checkup two days before the date the doctor had given her for the delivery. But then the doctor concluded the appointment by saying to her, "See you tomorrow." Tomorrow? The doctor had told her the wrong date! Her mother-in-law wasn't arriving from Massachusetts until the morrow. All their plans had been made for the day after tomorrow. She was not ready yet. She was not fully prepared. In talking with her a few days later she told us, in her enthusiasm and excitement, "It was almost like having a real baby!"

Oh, the baby was real, all right! But what was also real was the unexpectedness of its arrival. Here Myra and her family and friends had been expecting for months, and then the baby came unexpectedly, as most babies do. She had been preparing for weeks, and then was caught unprepared. And it was good. It was wonderful. It was joy.

Mary and Joseph had a real baby, too. And they had known of its coming--or at least Mary had--for long in advance. You would have thought they would have been better prepared. You would have thought they would have started out early enough to secure a room in the inn. But what kind of story would that have been? It turned out better this way.

Christmas ushers us again into the realm of poetry and story, not of history as we have been taught to understand it. It was for the sake of the story that Mary and Joseph did not start out early. It was to tell us a truth--about ourselves and about the Christ. The truth is that this is how Christ comes into our world and into our lives--as one who is expected and yet comes unexpectedly, as one for whom we have prepared who yet comes with our preparations incomplete. And the truth is that one of the best things we can do is to "let it happen"--allow for the possibility, make a way for him to come, learn to expect the unexpected, make room for him in our busy and cluttered lives, be ready whenever and wherever and however he comes.

The Christmas story is poetry, but it is not only that. It is also politics. It is a statement of how God enters our world. It is a statement of where God is to be found. It is a statement of whom God comes to. Our texts this morning from Malachi and Matthew may not seem to be imbued with much of the Christmas spirit, but they are very important to our understanding of this Advent season. They help to articulate the judgment that is signaled by Christ's coming into the world.

"John [the Baptist]'s message," as noted by one biblical scholar, "was a message of fire-of impending judgment. He took up where Malachi left off, the last of the prophets in the Old Testament canon" [Frederick C. Grant, INTRODUCTION TO NEW TESTAMENT THOUGHT, 278]. The early Church saw John as the precursor and forerunner of the Messiah, the herald and messenger. Christ's coming implies a judgment upon the world. The smiling, gurgling babe in the manger will become the righteous judge; the sweet little Jesus child will be the winnower of people and nations; the poor peasant woman's son is to be the Lord of history and destiny. A way needs to be prepared, repentance must be forthcoming, for the world into which the Christ comes is a world far from ready to receive him.

We need the message of a Malachi and a John the Baptist to keep us from the fantasy, sentimentality, and romanticism with which we imbue the Christmas story. They remind us that it is not an altogether pretty world in which we live. Malachi speaks of getting rid of the evildoers. In our present context we might pause over his words a moment. Malachi is not making a reference here to Osama bin Laden, or al Qaida, or the Taliban. It is tempting to locate the evil somewhere else, to place the blame on others, to justify our own ambitions by destroying others. That is also a rather romantic view of the world--as if everything would be OK if we could just wipe out the evil in our midst. The evil that Malachi and John the Baptist rail against is an evil in which we have all had a part.

There is an awful lot of cleaning up and an awful lot of making good that is needed to save this world from destruction. An awful lot of tawdry human works will have to be burned up before the way is clear. There is a price to pay for our redemption. The present world order cannot be allowed to remain as it is. When we listen to what John the Baptist has to say, our situation sounds mighty grim indeed. And who can argue with him, or say that we was wrong?

But even John the Baptist, it seems, did not fathom the fullness of God's power and love. The sense of impending disaster that possessed the Baptist was, for Jesus, balanced by another, "an immediate awareness of the goodness and mercy of God, an insight into [God's] purposes, a realization of [God's] utter goodness, an anticipation of the character of [God's] divine reign which was about to be set up over the whole earth" [Grant, ibid., 154]. Donald Chatfield writes, ". . . the unexpectedness of God is finally more often on the side of mercy and reprieve than of judgment. Israel is carried off into Babylon; there faith grows, the synagogues develop, the early books of the Bible find their flowering, Psalms of depth are written . . , heights of prophecy are reached . . . John the Baptizer comes, threatening fire from an apocalyptic figure hard at his heels; and behold a preacher and healer, who submits to John's baptism, and breathes on his disciples to give them the Holy Spirit. The first Christians look for a quick catastrophic end; gradually the realization dawns that God is waiting so that more and yet more will have a chance to enter a new life" [WORD & WITNESS, 12-10-78].

The message of judgment, of need for radical human transformation, is integral to the Christmas story. In a very profound way we are called to repentance. But not simply on John the Baptist's terms. The appeal of God is made through a child in a manger. It is an appeal for us to enter into a world of wonder and mystery, a world also of humility and simplicity. We are beckoned to a world in which babies are more powerful and more important than kings, and shepherds are first to be favored with glad tidings. What keeps it from becoming a world of dreams and wishful thinking is our knowledge of what became of the child Jesus, and the consequent realization of what that might mean for us today. Mary and Joseph might have started earlier, they might have found room in the inn, the son of man might have had a place to lay his head, but that is not how the story goes. Looking back, we can see in the manger crib a foreshadowing of the cross.

Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr often observed, "If the divine is made relevant to the human it must transvalue our values" [APPLIED CHRISTIANITY, 30]. This is the truth of the manger in the stable. This is the truth of the shepherds and the animals and the baby Jesus in the hay. This is the truth of poor Joseph and Mary getting into town too late to find a place in the inn. The Christmas story calls us once again to a re-conception of the Christ.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti's poem, "Christ Climbed Down," expresses the judgment, the humility, the mystery, and the truth of the coming of the Christ into our world:

Christ climbed down

from His bare Tree

this year

and ran away to where

there were no rootless Christmas trees

hung with candycanes and breakable stars

Christ climbed down

from His bare Tree

this year

and ran away to where

there were no gilded Christmas trees

and no tinsel Christmas trees

and no tinfoil Christmas trees

and no pink plastic Christmas trees

and no gold Christmas trees

and no black Christmas trees

and no powderblue Christmas trees

hung with electric candles

and encircled by tin electric trains

and clever cornball relatives

Christ climbed down

from His bare Tree

this year

and ran away to where

no intrepid Bible salesmen

covered the territory

in two-tone cadillacs

and where no Sears Roebuck creches

complete with plastic babe in manger

arrived by parcel post

the babe by special delivery

and where no televised Wise Men

praised the Lord Calvert Whiskey

Christ climbed down

from His bare Tree

this year and ran away to where

no fat handshaking stranger

in a red flannel suit

and a fake white beard

went around passing himself off

as some sort of North Pole saint

crossing the desert to Bethlehem


in a Volkswagon sled

drawn by rollicking Adirondack reindeer

with German names

and bearing sacks of Humble Gifts

from Saks Fifth Avenue

for everybody's imagined Christ child

Christ climbed down

from His bare Tree

this year

and ran away to where

no Bing Crosby carollers

groaned of a tight Christmas

and where no Radio City angels

iceskated wingless

thru a winter wonderland

into a jinglebell heaven

daily at 8:30

with Midnight Mass matinees

Christ climbed down

from His bare Tree

this year

and softly stole away into

some anonymous Mary's womb again

where in the darkest night

of everybody's anonymous soul

He awaits again

an unimaginable

and impossibly

Immaculate Reconception

the very craziest

of Second Comings.

The Christmas story calls us away from all our distractions and pretensions back to the bare essentials. We have such a way of forgetting what it is all about: God trying to find a way into our lives, into our hearts. God entering into our humanity. We keep Christmas as if it were ours to keep. For weeks and even months we prepare ourselves for what we are going to do. Let us cherish the thought of what God has done and still unexpectedly might do.

Let us be open to possibilities we cannot plan. Let us leave room for events we cannot foresee. If Mary and Joseph had started out early, there would have been room for them in the inn. But then it wouldn't be Christmas. AMEN.