John the Grinch (Third Sunday in Advent)
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Last Sunday, as I returned home after Confirmation class, it had been a good day, but a long day. I was tired. My back was hurting a bit from hauling Blake around, but he also needed to go out for a short walk before bed. So, I got him in his chair and we headed out for what I hoped would be a short and quiet walk.
But just as I was closing the front door, I heard emergency vehicles. They were heading up the street, and it looked like there were several of them. The sirens were ear piercing, even from a distance. The lights were flashing. And I told Blake, this looked bad for somebody in the neighborhood.
But then, as I watched where they were headed, I realized it was worse than a 5 alarm fire – it was Santa! The one fire engine was all decked out with Christmas lights, Santa was perched on top (surely with ear plugs), and for what seemed like forever, this procession slowly wound its way in and out of the courtyards on my street, all the while never letting up on the sirens.
I could hear some kids down the street who were really excited! My retired neighbors across the street were, too, saying, “oh I gotta get my camera and take pictures!”
But I was tired. And cranky. And Blake was distracted from doing his business. And at that moment, I realized that I was the neighborhood Grinch!
You remember what really bothers the Grinch? In the classic animated holiday classic, he doesn’t like all the trappings and hoo ha that come with Christmas. He doesn’t like the food that everybody serves. But he REALLY doesn’t like the NOISE! It’s just too much. He’s tired and cranky and just wants to be left alone in peace and quiet with his dog! I was the Grinch!
Yet while it seems out of place for me to be the Grinch in a season like this, this Sunday, John the Baptist is the Grinch! As we get closer to Christmas, many of us feel like we should be getting ready for stars in the sky, angel choirs and even the excitement of secular things like Christmas trees and Santas.
But today, along comes John the Grinch, who ushers in the season with the salutation, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?!”
William Sloan Coffin, a famous 20th century preacher, once commented in a Christmas sermon, “Can you imagine getting a Christmas card from John the Baptist? ‘Merry Christmas from my house to your house, you brood of vipers!’”
Just as we’re in the final stages of trying to get ready for Christmas, John the Grinch appears and announces not, “Merry Christmas”, but “You brood of vipers … even now the axe is laid at the base of the tree … and the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire!” And then Luke adds this summary: “And with many other exhortations, he proclaimed good news to the people.”
So you gotta stop and wonder, “if all this Grinchiness is good news, what could possibly be the bad news?!” It just doesn’t seem like John the Grinch is the bearer of good news.
And yet, behind all this fire and brimstone stuff is an important (and even good news) message that often gets lost in all the grinchy grumpiness. John’s proclamation is, first and foremost, that God has decided to intervene in the history of the world. God is coming into our lives. God really is going to save us and the whole world.
And God’s decision for us is not up for grabs. It’s going to happen no matter what. God’s decision for us doesn’t depend upon our preparations. God’s decision for us cannot be undone by the world’s resistance. God has come, and is coming, because of God’s good and gracious will for us and for the world he created.
And that’s why even John’s “to do list” for the crowds is really just about getting ready to live into what God is already doing. After all, it’s pretty basic stuff – things they already knew and should have been doing already … (share your stuff, play nice with others, don’t call people names). None of these “preparations” bring about God’s kingdom. Instead, they’re things you do BECAUSE you know God’s kingdom is coming into your life…
You know, at the end of story of the “Grinch who stole Christmas”, Christmas comes anyway, even though Grinch resisted it. And Christmas came anyway, even though all the preparations of the Whos down in Whoville had been wiped out. And while the Grinch is a totally secular story about Christmastime, it alludes to an important Christian reality that John the Grinch makes clear.
John the Grinch reminds us that Jesus is coming, no matter what. Sometimes it’s easy to look around at the world and even the state of our own lives, and wonder what we need to do to save world, the country or ourselves. Sometimes, we too, get caught up in thinking that the most important thing is our own preparations or efforts to “be ready” for whatever may be coming down the pike.
And perhaps in those moments – maybe especially moments like these – we need a Grinch to yank us away from our preparations and ourselves, and to remind us that our hope is finally based on God’s good and gracious will for us, and not on our own preparations or success in making the world into the kind of place we want it to be.
And so John the Grinch reminds us that in the end, the history of the world is in God’s hands. In the end, there is hope because of what God is doing. And in the end, the only preparations that finally matter are the preparations that God is making to save us.