Luke 3: 1–20 (NRSV)
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ ”
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
When we think of the Christmas season, two figures come to everyone’s mind: Santa Claus and Jesus. Sometimes these figures are pitted against one another, as in the phrase “Jesus is the reason for the season.” Occasionally, we make an effort to reconcile the secular and sacred by reminding ourselves that St. Nicholas, the figure on whom Santa Claus, was a faithful Christian who gave to others because of the gift of God’s son. We can probably all agree that Jesus is the real hero of the Christmas story and Santa Claus is an (often cheap) imitation of Jesus.
Of course, every story needs a villain, and the Christmas story is no different. Our cultural Christmas story has many of them. There’s Ebenezer Scrooge who was stingy with his money, paying low salaries and refusing to donate to help the poor. Marv and Harry of the Home Alone series, who attempt to thieve poor little Kevin McCallister’s house while he’s abandoned at home over Christmas vacation. There’s Burgermeister Meisterburger from Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Heat & Snow Miser from The Year Without a Santa Claus, and Jack Frost from Frosty’s Winter Wonderland.
But no villian defines the Christmas season for me more than that hairy green grump with a heart that’s two sizes too small—known as the Grinch.
The Grinch hates Christmas so much that he decides to go down to Whoville to steal every sign of the holiday: trees, lights, presents, and, yes, even the roast beast.
Because of Dr. Seuss’ children’s story, we use the term “grinch” to refer to anyone who tries to steal the joy of our holiday festivities. Christmas should be a season of giving, not taking, we argue. Nothing could be more contrary to the spirit of Christmas than those who wish to steal the trappings of the holiday.
As we understand it, Jesus gives the best gift of all at Christmas and the grinches of the world are theives who try to steal that joy from us.
But wait a minute.
What about what Jesus says about his advent in Revelation 16? “See, I am coming like a thief!” Or in Matthew 24, where Jesus charaterizes himself as a home invader. Notice what the apostle Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5: “the day of the Lord will come like a thief.”
Roughly paraphrased, the Bible says that Jesus is coming like the Grinch, unexpectedly sneaking into our homes to take our trees, lights, presents, and roast beast.
That’s not normally the picture we have of Jesus this time of year, is it? Jesus the grinch doesn’t exactly fit into our nativity scenes. Yet, in this advent season, as we prepare for the coming of Christ, we find ourselves grappling with this image of Jesus the thief.
This shouldn’t diminish for us the significance of the gifts that the Advent and Christmas season represent: the gift of God’s presence among us, the gift of family and friends, and the gift of hope for God’s future. This season is full of good gifts from God.
Still, when Jesus comes for the second advent, the final deliverance of creation, he will come to us not coming down our chimneys to drop presents in our stockings. Rather, Jesus will come to steal everything that belongs to the ways of sin and death and separates us from God.
Jesus will come unexpectedly as a thief to take away the junk of our lives so that we can finally grasp the fullness of life in God’s Kingdom.
To be clear, Jesus is not the kind of thief that comes to steal, kill, and destroy (John 10). Listen up. If you don’t take notice of this, you’re going to misunderstand everything else I say: Jesus does not work through the means of sin and death. Jesus does not take away our loved ones. Jesus does not destroy life or anything created through him. Jesus does not take from us those things that are truly precious. That is the work of what Scripture calls sin, death, and evil.
Rather, Jesus’ thievery is like the fire of Malachi 3, stripping away the impurities to find the precious element underneath it all.
Jesus will come to rob us of our illusions of control and desire for power; our greed expressed through consumerism, gluttony, and lust; our envy and desire for what we cannot have; and whatever holds us in the bonds of addiction and severs our relationships.
Advent reminds us that Jesus is coming to steal our sin, all of the garbage that we hoard and carry around with us.
In light of these texts, Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber suggests that rather than a Christmas list of the items we desire to receive, we should make Advent lists of the things we want Jesus to break in and steal from us.
See, there’s some sin in our lives we’re unaware of—those things we hold onto not realizing how destructive they are. We’re often blind to their power over our lives. Sometimes the exposure and removal of our sin is a bitter pill we have to swallow.
But also have those hidden sins, those things we’re ashamed of that we hide in our proverbial basements, trying to keep out of view. We know they’re there. We know how much they get in the way and make us feel guilty. We want to get rid of them. We just don’t know how.
The light of Christ that exposes sin so that it be taken from us can be uncomfortable and difficult, but it’s also the only way to healing.
What would you put on your Advent list? What could Jesus take from you that would cause you to live life more abundantly?
I think I really wouldn’t mind if Jesus came down and stole my smartphone. I might be upset at first, but after a while true healing would start to happen.
One way or another, Jesus is going to take those things from us that separate us from abundant life. The dark corners of our lives will be exposed in the light of Christ and Jesus’ hazmat team will come in to clean out what we’ve been hoarding in our lives all this time.
So the Advent season question is: how can we prepare for Jesus to clean out our lives? What can we do now to get ready for his coming? What gift can we offer to Jesus in order to prepare his way into our lives?
John the Baptizer presents us with the answer in Luke 3.
John is the voice crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Prepare for that great and terrible day of the Lord by “bearing fruits worthy of repentance.” Don’t be self-assured of your position in God’s kingdom, but show signs that God has made a difference in your life! Everything that doesn’t bear fruit is going to be cut down, removed, and thrown into the fire.
What can we do to prepare for the coming of Jesus like a thief in the night? John says “give up your claim on what you don’t need. Clean out your closets! Your neighbor doesn’t have a coat, but you have two! Your neighbor is starving, but you’re throwing away food! Voluntarily give up your impurity, everything that separates you from God and be washed in water for the forgiveness of sins!”
If Jesus is going to come and purify us and clean house anyway, what better way to prepare than to voluntarily give up our impurity to God. Hand over your sin to be washed in the water. Clean out the attics and the basements of your lives so that you might be healed for abundant life. Advent is the perfect season for a deep cleaning of our lives.
Isn’t that how healing often works—by the removal of things that cause damage?
We pray often for those afflicted with cancer, that the doctors will be able to remove the malignant mass from their bodies so that they may be made well. We pray for those who are drowning in addiction to be freed from the power of the drugs, that the drugs might be removed from their bodies that they might be cleansed. We pray for those who are making bad choices that the negative influences in their lives might be removed so that they can walk once again in the paths that lead to life.
Spiritual healing, preparation for God’s kingdom, comes through the removal of our sins. When we give up our pride and power, our lust and envy, and our greed and gluttony, we’re restored to wholeness.
Sometimes that healing can happen by the removal of physical objects from our lives. You’ve no doubt heard the teaching of Jesus that “if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out!” Jesus is obviously using hyperbole. He doesn’t recommend that anyone actually remove body parts. Yet, it is true that in order to be healed of a sin, we might have to cut something or someone out of our lives.
This pruning, in addition to healing us, might also lead to the healing of someone else. If we have two coats and give up one to a person in need, as John the Baptizer suggests, we have been freed from our excess and our neighbor has been made warm! If we have two servings of food and give one to a neighbor who is hungry, we have been freed from gluttony and our neighbor has been filled.
Austin Crenshaw Shelley wrote a piece in The Christian Century recently about how his grandmother put this teaching into practice. On every trip to the grocery store, she would buy things in pairs—one for her family, one for the food pantry and a family in need. She would tell Austin, “if we can’t afford two of something, then we can’t afford one.”
John the Baptizer doesn’t ask the impossible of those who come to be baptized. He makes reasonable requests. If you have two, give one up. If you’re a tax collector, don’t charge extra fees. If you’re a soldier, don’t try to make extra money on the side through extortion.
In teaching this way, John prepares the way for Jesus who will come like a thief in the night. “Let it go,” he proclaims, “give your sin, pain, fear, and excess up to God! Be healed! Be prepared for God’s kingdom!”
Here’s the problem. We’re tired of hearing the call to repent! I’m tired of preaching it! It’s uncomfortable, especially because I’m a hypocrite. I haven’t given everything up like John the Baptizer and Jesus’s disciples did.
Our human condition is that we want to cling to things! We’re unwilling to let go, even of things that we don’t need or are harmful to us.
To give an example, if I encountered someone who didn’t have a coat, I would hope that I would be willing to give mine up. We’d have to see in the moment. But what about the bigger things. Mallory and I wouldn’t voluntarily give up one of our two cars, at least not for just anybody. Someone would have to take one of them from us for us to learn to live without.
Nadia Bolz-Weber’s idea of an advent list is a good one, but I’m afraid that most of us wouldn’t write much on it. We like our stuff, thank you very much. We’re content with our sins.
That’s why Jesus has to come as a thief! That’s why the most important thing John the Baptizer did was point beyond himself to the one that was coming in power.
Only Jesus has the power to steal sin and death from our tight grip. Only Jesus can remove the pain, sickness, sin, and fear from our bodies.
Jesus may be a “grinch” sometimes, Jesus may come like a thief, but the good news is that God’s work is always aimed at healing and is always opposed to the thieves of sin and death.
In Jesus, God comes and power. God does what we cannot do! The Scriptures promise: God will purify us! God will burn our sin away, leaving the precious image of God within us to sparkle like a diamond!
God promises through Ezekiel, “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness.”
In response the Psalmist asks, “Create in me a clean heart O God, wash me thouroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.”
Even now, come Lord Jesus. Steal from us. Reveal to us the cleansing power of your love. Amen.
Nadia Bolz Weber, Accidental Saints, 59.