And the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
The days and weeks leading up to Christmas are full of strange characters. Santa Claus for one. And John the Baptist for another. It’s easy to imagine they have nothing to do with each other. To think Santa only hangs out at the North Pole waiting on Christmas to come. To think John only loiters around in the wilderness waiting on us to open our Bibles and hear him preach again. But the truth is these two inhabit the same ground in our lives, what we call the season of Advent: a season of preparing a way for Christ to be born in our hearts again.
And since this is so, I’m guessing the deeper invitation is to imagine Santa and John are working the same stretch of road, showing us how to live a Christmas life: a life of believing Love came down at Christmas to keep company with us.
As luck would have it, the feast of St. Nicholas was only three days ago. He was the fourth-century bishop who became the patron saint of sailors and children, and along the way gave his name to Santa Claus. Rumor has it Santa’s deeply grateful for the holy example of Nicholas, who, like him, had a habit of making secret gifts: putting coins in the shoes of poor children or, in the nick of time, rescuing sailors from treacherous seas.
Secret gifts are all over Advent and Christmas.
And here Santa has something to teach us. My youngest child used to want everything the television told her to want, especially at Christmas. Keeping vigil with the commercials that ran through Advent on children’s television programs, she wanted it all. Seeing one new thing after another, she’d say, “I’m getting that.”
Somehow she imagined it could all be hers for the asking. She’d say, “Mama, tell Santa I want a Polly Pocket Petshop, ‘kay? And one of those Tyco RC Racecars with a Marine Biology Barbie, ‘kay?”
I must’ve made a habit of smiling somewhere between yes and no, because eventually she quit asking and simply said, “Say, ‘We’ll see, Mama. Say, ‘We’ll see.’”
And so I learned to say, We’ll see.
It dawns on me, now, all these years later, that what really mattered to her wasn’t what Santa brought or didn’t bring, nor what she got or didn’t get. What mattered was to her was believing he would come and she would get something she wanted.
Hidden away in all our shopping is the hope we might get something we really want. Of course, we know shopping isn’t really the answer to what we long for underneath everything else. It isn’t an answer to our deepest prayers Or anyone else’s deepest prayers. It gives us something, but that something never lasts. Fortunately, we believe in better things that this year’s trending top ten toys.
The art historian Sister Wendy Beckett says, in the end, we “get what we believe in, [and] if we expect great things from God, we will receive them.”
Of course, she isn’t talking about presents under a tree. The “say, we’ll see” she’s after is the salvation of all life. And for Sister Wendy, as for you, that great gift begins with believing God came down to dwell with us as one of us in Jesus Christ. For Sister Wendy, believing is seeing. Not the other way around. Believing Christ came – believing Christ comes – changes how you see everything. Suddenly, from that belief, the world – our ugly lovely world – is where Christ is born this day and everyday.
There’s something of John the Baptist in that idea. For one thing, we meet John in the wilderness of Luke’s Gospel today. A desert place where it’s difficult to see anything. A place where the horizon grows so thin, you lose your sense of direction. A bewildering place.
And there, Luke says nothing at all about what John wears or what he eats. Matthew and Mark may tell you John wears animal skins and has an appetite for locusts served up with a side of honey, but Luke deletes all that and instead gives you straight up the words of the prophet Isaiah. As far as Luke’s concerned Isaiah is the calling card of the Baptist.
This tells you Luke isn’t all that interested in your seeing John. John himself isn’t interested in your seeing him either. What they’re after is your belief in the power of God, your belief that God has in fact done, and will do, great things.
So imagine being lost in the wilderness of your own life. Imagine John calling you to believe in impossible things: the valleys filled, the mountains made low, the crooked made straight, the rough ways smooth.
All his life, John the Baptist has believed in the probability of those words from the Prophet Isaiah, has believed in them so surely, they’ve become the way he sees. He looks for that kingdom. He expects it. All his life, he has believed “all flesh – all people – shall see the salvation of God.” And believing, he sees.
Believing Christ, John sees Christ. And seeing Christ, he serves Christ.
In next week’s gospel, whole crowds will go on to ask him, “What should we do?” And as if making a Christmas list, John will tell them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”
It’s the language of a child who believes the problems of the world can be solved with all the urgency of sharing what you have. Or the language of a man who knows believing is seeing. For a prophet like John, those who truly believe in Christ also make visible the love of God that all people may come to believe in the saving help of God on earth.
You know how unlikely that is in a world like ours. You know it’s easier to keep on naming and getting what you want. That’s not the salvation of God, though. The salvation of God is communal. And here we have to do a little repenting of what our world teaches us. The salvation of God is a communal gift. It is not a private gift. It is communal. A shared gift. You cannot keep it to yourself. It will always aim you toward the needs of other people. Toward all life.
In the homily George Bush gave for his father and namesake last week, he said, We cannot hope only to leave our children a bigger car, a bigger bank account, we must hope to give them a sense of what it means to be a loyal friend, a loving parent, a citizen who leaves his home, his neighborhood, better than he found it.
That conviction is why you leave a cookie out for Santa on Christmas Eve. You know he’ll come to your house weary, hungry, with miles to go. You know he’ll need not only your cookie, but the cookies of all who believe in him. So, this year, as you prepare for the gift of Christmas, say, “We’ll see.” And believing Christ, see Christ. And seeing Christ, serve Christ. That all may see the salvation of God.