For Advent, I’ve been reflecting particularly on what it means to tell the Christmas story to my 4-year-old daughter. Particularly, as one for a preference for the Gospel of Matthew, how do I talk about the Massacre of the Innocents? This is the title given to the story of Herod ordering the killing of all the boys aged two and under in the vicinity of Bethlehem. In a way, I was pleased to see that the upcoming Sunday’s Advent lectionary text includes Luke 3:7-18. I am reminded that while our contemporary church has many valuable contributions to our communities, we have done our best to become the biblical characters we were raised to look down upon with such disdain.
Imagine the near rioting that would happen if the pastor in your church rejected a group who came to her and said, “Pastor, we have come to join the church. We want to be baptized!”
Yet this is exactly what John does, pointing out the insufficient evidence of their commitment. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” He says this as the first thing, there is no coddling or dancing around. There is no allegorical story taken from that week’s “Christian Stories for Easy Preaching Weekly” mailer. He begins with the cold, hard truth many of today’s believers could do well to hear from the pulpit: “God told you to widen the gate! Yet, you do everything you can to reject people, to shame people for their circumstances, instead of criticizing the system that harms them and benefits you based on nothing but your skin color, gender, sexual orientation, inheritance, geographical location! You want children caged and lie about the reasons they seek refuge!”
John’s second words are no easier: “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.”
A modern Pastor the Baptist would continue, “And now you are coming, demanding absolution and safety from judgment! Based upon what? The social lottery that is your birth? Blessing based upon no level of work or even choice you made? You deserve salvation based purely beyond any level of your influence but others deserve damnation for the social ills of no opportunity in a system designed to enslave them and disenfranchise their descendants?”
This Advent, I want to move my mind beyond my privilege. I want to think beyond my comfort, knowing not only that I have necessities but will celebrate my abundance with unnecessary gifts while sitting around a Christmas tree decorated with superfluous ornamentation in a home kept comfortably warm while the scents of gluttony waft through the house out of my oven.
Advent is historically seen as this time of waiting and reflection. But what do we even have to wait for given that to live a near-middle class life in America is to live beyond the luxury found in the wildest fever dreams of ancient kings? And much of the sin is so deep in the system we could do nothing of it? The tax collectors may come to us, but it is blood they have extracted from the children in the deserts at the bombs we bought for the protection of our luxury. But it is all so removed we neither need think of it nor act against it. And we demand of our pastors that they preach an empire gospel to us that defends the caging of children fleeing from violence and death to keep them away from us.
“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”
Do we not have enough coats? What are we waiting for? “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming… His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear is threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” And this is the good news.
This Advent, I’m asking myself to be honest about the consequences of my own birth and life and choices. I imagine Christ always wrestled with what it meant that the lottery of his birth meant a generation of firstborn boys were murdered. What does it mean to wait for the coming of the middle-class messiah when your children will live a life, like we do now, protected and secured by the starvation of children in Yemen? May we raise our children, like Christ, to dedicate their lives to the salvation of people not by worrying about how wide the gate is, but making sure we share our excesses with anyone we pass who has less along the way.
Kevin Ressler is executive director at Meals on Wheels of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and co-founder of the Lancaster Action Now Coalition. He attends Community Mennonite Church of Lancaster.