One of the ways that I choose to engage my brain cells is by listening to a variety of podcasts. It also helps to pass the time driving. One of my favorite podcasts is called “The Hilarious World of Depression.” It’s hosted by John Moe and he interviews comedians as they talk about their issues with brain health. I am going to pause right here and say that if I use the phrase “brain health” I mean it the same way I would use “mental health.” Anyway, week after week there is a different comedian and they talk about meds, in hospital stays, and on and on. All the cheery stuff that those of us with brain health issues deal with. This week’s topic was on how to handle the holidays when you have brain health issues. For many in this boat with me, the holidays aren’t always so cheery and bright.
And, as usual, the podcast got me to thinking about this week’s gospel reading. If you were here last week, it may sound very similar. And, quite honestly, you may hear some of the same themes that you heard last week. But, it’s still a good message, so don’t tune out. Anyway, as I listened to the podcast this week, I realized that so much of what we do in the name of “holiday celebrations” does anything but “make straight the way of the Lord” (1:23b). There is a lot of crying out that we need to “keep Christ in Christmas” but perhaps we should start by keeping Christ in Christian.
John, the character in our Gospel, self identifies as the “voice of the one crying out in the wilderness” (1:23a). He is not, unlike last week, identified as John the Baptist. But, we can assume by the way he is described and by his actions, that he indeed is John the Baptist. It’s just that in the Gospel of John, he is not identified that way. Are you confused yet? Don’t be. Same dude as last week, J-Bap, the ultimate hype man; different name. What is so interesting to me in his testimony, so early on in the Gospel, nonetheless, is that he confesses, makes proclamation, declares, who he is NOT. He says that he is not the Messiah. He says that he is not Elijah. He says that he is not the prophet. And the priests and Levites have the next logical question (which isn’t directly asked, by the way) of “so then….who are you?” And I started to wonder what it might look like for us to say “I am not” and how that might actually give us life, bring us life, and help us to make straight the way of the Lord.
I don’t know about all of you, but I am nowhere near ready for Christmas. The parsonage is a mess. I haven’t wrapped a single gift. I have no idea if we’re going some place on Christmas day or if we’re going to stay home. And, for many reasons, I am just having trouble getting into the spirit of it all. And maybe you’re like me. Maybe we need to declare some “I am not” statements that is going to actually end up freeing us from societal expectations. I am not going to go overboard decorating. You are not going to see us on television winning Christmas light competitions any time soon. 1-2 Christmas trees is enough! I am not going to go into debt. There is no reason for me to attempt to buy someone’s happiness. If someone isn’t happy now, me going into debt to buy them what I think is the perfect gift isn’t going to fix that. Those of you that have young children know the value is in the cardboard box, not the box the toy came in.
I am not going to go to parties where the temptation exists to self abuse with food and/or alcohol. If you struggle with food or alcohol, why put yourself in a situation where you’re going to be miserable. Additionally, if you’re a text book classic introvert, why go to a party where small talk is just going to drain you? I am not going to go to “celebrations” to have a meal with people I either (1) don’t like, (2) I only go to the celebration because I’m related to them, or (3) I’m not going to the celebration to be with people who may be abusive to me. Lastly, I am not going to make a ton of food. And before you let your family guilt you into doing something you don’t want to do (“but grandma, it’s not Christmas without your 19 step, 5 day process lasagna”) just hand over the recipe and say “then you do it!”
On the same note, if Christmas brings you life, energizes you, and makes you happier than any other time of year, perhaps your “I am not” statements can be something like this. I am not going to be “holiday shamed.” You want to go all out? You want to bake until you are blue in the face? You want your house to be seen from space? Do it. And don’t let anyone tell you that you are wrong. I am not going to let the grinches get me down. Additionally, and maybe most importantly, your last statement can be I am not going to get sucked into the Christmas wars. If you really love Christmas because it brings you life, then it shouldn’t matter if someone bought a better present than you, if someone’s cookies are cuter than yours, of if someone’s light display is better than yours. What freedom comes from these I am not statements! And I suggest all of these because no matter what, there is a lot (especially this time of year) that distracts us from making straight the way of the Lord.
But the most powerful thing we can remember is that we are not because Jesus is. Ya hear me? Let me say that again: we are not because Jesus is. Furthermore, here’s the good news, my beloveds, because Jesus is, then we don’t have to be! Because Jesus is who he is, then that means we don’t have to be Jesus. Sure, we can strive to be like Jesus. We can love like Jesus, serve like Jesus, heal like Jesus, visit the imprisoned like Jesus, protest like Jesus, and on and on. But because Jesus is Jesus then that means we don’t have to be Jesus, nor do we need to be Jesus.
Our job, once again, like John’s, is to point to Jesus. And if that means you need to incorporate some “I am not” statements into your daily life, but especially into your holiday celebrations, then please do it. I am giving you full permission to set your boundaries and tell people I am not. When the holidays get to be just too much, you can focus on just doing one thing: pointing to Christ. I joked earlier about keeping Christ in Christmas. But, how selfish are we that we think we can actually keep Christ out of anything? And in a season of fancy banquets and country club gatherings, the church needs to be the damn church, and not a social club. This needs to be the place where the broken and bruised can come and say “I am not, but Jesus is, and that’s enough for me.” Because Jesus is, this means we don’t have to be, we can’t be, and we won’t ever be Christ. But everything we do in life should instead point to the one who is greater than we, the one who is coming after us, Jesus. He is coming and we aren’t even worthy to sit at his feet, let alone untie his shoes. The most amazing thing is though that because he is Jesus, and we aren’t, we get to sit there anyway, at the foot of the master. We get to stand in the doorway of a barn, as he suckles on Mary’s breast, the savior of the world, still a baby. We get to stand in the shadow of the cross, as he forgives sins. And we get to do all this because we are not, but Jesus is, and that’s enough for us.