A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 9, 2018 (Advent II, Year C)
Did you know, there’s a Christmas episode of the Flintstones? It originally aired on December 25, 1964, as part of the original cartoon series. In it, Fred gets a part-time job at Macyrock’s department store to help finance the family’s Christmas. Mr. Macyrock initially fires Fred for being his usual doofus self, but reconsiders when he learns that the store’s regular Santa Claus has the flu. Fred proves a natural at entertaining the children and by the end of his stint, Mr. Macyrock proclaims Fred as the best Santa they’ve ever had.
Oh, but that’s not the end of the story. On Christmas Eve, two of Santa’s elves, named Blinky and Twinky, appear to Fred as Macyrock’s is closing for the night. They explain to Fred that the real Santa Claus is sick and they ask him to help deliver presents to children around the world. As Fred steps in to save the day, we see him perched atop Santa’s sleigh shouting “Merry Christmas” in French, Italian, German, Dutch, English, and Swedish.
This is all very nice, until you do the math. And you think, “Wait a minute. The Flintstones took place in the Stone Age. That was two-and-a-half million years before Jesus was born in Bethlehem.” Fortunately, as a kid watching Saturday morning cartoons, this encroachment of reality never reared its head.
But as Christmas has become increasingly secular, it’s entirely possible to celebrate the holiday like the Flintstones: completely devoid of Jesus. You can celebrate Christmas without any sense of what it’s about or why it matters. Many of the people we know and care about do just that. They put up beautifully decorated trees and reverently place candles in all the windows. They gather friends and family for Christmas dinner, pulling out all the culinary stops. They revel in this most wonderful time of the year. This is all good and even holy in its own way. But, as with the Flintstones’ Christmas, there’s something missing.
It is into this scene, that John the Baptist shows up every year. Well, not to the town of Bedrock exactly, but it’s impossible to miss the point of this season when John breaks into our midst. John demands that we set some expectations for this season; expectations that transcend the external trappings of gift giving and menu setting and holiday decorating. John insists that we remember the purpose and meaning of what we are preparing to celebrate with the arrival of the Messiah. John urges us not to forget what the fuss is all about. John adds substance to the flash.
He does this with grand pronouncements and with action; with lofty words as the voice of one crying out in the wilderness and with a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As the forerunner of the Messiah, the one who points not to himself but towards the one who is to come, John reminds us that it is all about Jesus. That the inflatable snowmen and your mother-in-law’s fruitcake and stockings hung by the chimney with care all must, ultimately, point to Jesus. Otherwise, why bother? It’s all empty; it’s all meaningless; it’s all a Flintstones’ Christmas. Nice. Pleasant. But, in the end, hollow.
In this vein, John the Baptist stands firmly in line with the Old Testament prophets. This morning we hear from the prophet Malachi. And as John calls us to meaning in this season of Advent, Malachi was calling the people of Israel to meaning in worship. The people had gotten lax in their devotions, their rituals had become empty, they had failed to uphold the core of what mattered most: God’s relationship with God’s people. Malachi, like John the Baptist, was announcing God’s imminent arrival. And while this is exciting, it is not without cost.
That’s what Malachi is getting at when he uses the image of the refiner’s fire. With the processing of silver and gold, the impurities are burned away and something shiny and beautiful and valuable emerges. The same thing will happen, says the prophet, on the day that the Lord returns to judge the world. The evil that inherently resides in each one of us, will be burned away. That’s not always an easy process, indeed it is often a painful one. But the mercy and loving kindness of God endure. We are healed and made whole through the process. God’s entrance into the world is not something to take lightly, whether we’re talking about preparing for Christmas in our own day or looking ahead to that final judgment towards which the prophets point.
Now, the themes of purification and repentance and judgment don’t always make it onto your holiday playlist. No one’s hanging a cute refiner’s fire ornament on the Christmas tree next to the one of Snoopy in a Santa hat. But these are important themes for our spiritual preparation, as both Malachi and John the Baptist proclaim. During Advent we reflect upon both the first coming of Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem and his second coming in great glory at the end of the age. He comes as a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, yes, but also upon clouds descending. And it is our role to prepare our hearts through prayer and good works.
I guess the main difference between a Flintstones’ Christmas and a St. John’s Christmas is that we’re not just expecting Christmas, as if it’s merely a date on a calendar. We are expecting a Savior. That’s why this season of Advent is so important to our spiritual lives, why you are encouraged to be drawn deeply into it, why John the Baptist is making all that noise. Expecting a Savior means standing in the sure and certain hope that we will one day be set free from that which enslaves us. That the sin which clings to us will be burned off by the refiner’s fire of repentance. And we will be made whole, healed and forgiven and lifted up by God’s deep and abiding love. That’s what the impending joy of Christmas is all about.
Now, I’m not suggesting you ignore the external trappings of the season and simply navel gaze until December 25th. You can drive down Main Street after dusk and be enchanted by the twinkling white lights in all the windows; you can even head a town or two over if you want to experience some more colorful, flashing displays of holiday spirit.
But none of it has any rootedness unless you also spend time reflecting on the deeper themes of the season. When you do, when you engage in Advent worship, when you prepare for the arrival of the Savior with intention and great expectation, when you heed the words of the prophets, there’s just an extra jolt of joy that makes Jesus’ birth even brighter and more meaningful.
I’m still not sure why Fred yelled out “Merry Christmas” rather than “Yabadabadoo” from Santa’s sleigh in that Flintstones’ Christmas episode. These are the things that keep me up at night. But in the end I’m thankful to Fred, Wilma, Barney, Betty, Pebbles, and Bam Bam for helping highlight what truly matters this Advent. Even it’s by pointing us back to the message of the one crying out in the wilderness, the one who bids all flesh to see the salvation of God.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2018