Our special guest star today is John the Baptist. He has a two-week run every year in our Advent lectionary. He’ll be with us this week and next, preparing the way of the Lord and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Since Advent is all about preparation for Jesus, it’s no wonder John is such a regular feature of the season. Now John is a pretty intense character – living out in the wilderness, eating locusts and wild honey, denouncing King Herod to his face – he’s not, you know, somebody you can count on to be a charming guest at your holiday open house.
But intensity and idiosyncracies aside, John isn’t, as he’s sometimes caricatured, a man who’s all about condemnation. What he’s proclaiming today is, once again, a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He’s not proclaiming that you’re a terrible person. He’s proclaiming the availability of forgiveness, and hinting that the One who will come after him – the One we know is Jesus Christ – he will have infinitely more to offer along those lines. I can wash you clean, John says, but when he gets here there’ll be a lot more than just forgiveness available.
John, I think we can safely presume, didn’t know all the details of what God would offer us in Jesus. He knew it would be something wonderful and new, and depending on what he meant by our being baptized, immersed in the Holy Spirit, he seems to have known that there was going to be a much deeper intimacy with God than had been possible before. But he didn’t, I don’t think, realize that God was going to shoulder the whole burden of our brokenness himself. How could he have? I’m not sure anyone has ever intuitively understood grace. We are so used to trying to earn our way that many of us have to hear the message several times before we even notice how different grace is than what the world tells us. The Gospel says “God has done it all” and somehow human beings go away having heard “Redouble your efforts.” The Advent prophecies say “Comfort my people! Do not fear! Every valley shall be lifted up! All flesh shall see it together! Those who sowed with tears shall reap with songs of joy!” and somehow human beings go away having heard “he’s gonna find out who’s naughty and nice.”
Of course, you can hardly blame us; in the world of messaging, the Gospel has a lot of competition. Particularly this time of year. For example, as of last month, 11 million of these have been sold. Have you met the Elf on the Shelf? If you somehow have managed to miss this phenomenon, The Elf on the Shelf began as a small self-published book in 2005, turned into a box set complete with toy elf, and has slowly but surely built up an ever-increasing dominance of secular family Christmas practices. There’ve been a lot of jokes about it, too, including alternative versions like, for Jewish kids, the Mensch on a Bench.
The story is simple, and hooks right into our human deafness to grace. So here we go: the Elf on the Shelf is essentially a surveillance professional – a jolly-looking one in Christmas colors, but still a surveillance professional – working for Santa. He or she moves into your house, makes notes of everything the kids do, and then magically flies to the North Pole each night to report back to Santa. How many naughty points? How many nice ones? Can Santa add another gift to the list, or should he subtract one for bad behavior? During sibling fights and temper tantrums, parents can point to the elf and say, “Do you want Santa to hear about this?”
Avoiding demerits because the elf is watching is one duty, but that’s not all. After the kids go to bed, when the elf is supposedly commuting back to the North Pole, the parents also have an obligation. They are supposed to move the doll to a new spot to prove it has left and returned overnight. So not only does the elf bring demands for the kids, it does the same for Mom and Dad.
And, as a blogger for the site Scary Mommy wrote, “every year the elf pressure gets more intense.” There are endless Pinterest boards with names like “238 best elf on the shelf ideas.” You’ve got to put in time to present your elf creatively each day – pose him in the freezer making a snowman with snow you collected and wearing a handknit holiday hat! Set him up for a luxurious bubble bath in the Crock Pot with carefully positioned cotton balls and miniature toiletries. Create a whole 1950s soda fountain where he can share a tiny milkshake with Barbie. So you’ve stayed up till 1am with the glue gun, and then come morning, the kids go on a hunt to find where the elf has situated itself. And once they do, they kick off another day of trying to be nice enough. To deserve gifts from Santa via good behavior.
Since Mark and I don’t have kids, I’ve never owned an elf until Amazon brought this one on Thursday. I gather I’m supposed to name him, so I hereby christen you Sermon Prop. I’ve never had an elf, and really I’d only heard about all of this randomly, until for some reason this year, 2017, in my friendship circles, Episcopalian mom after Episcopalian mom, and Episcopalian dad after Episcopalian dad, came to the end of their rope about the elf. Pleading for help on Facebook. Trying to call in reinforcements in the name of love.
These are parents who are doing what they can to raise their children as Episcopalians and to avoid sending mixed messages about what’s important. They want their kids to have fun with real home-based traditions for Advent, not get stressed out by things invented in the past decade or so. But most important, they want their kids to see the world as Christians so that they can live as Christians. And of course it’s pretty darn central to the way Christians see the world that Christmas and the coming of Jesus has nothing to do with what we deserve. Christmas is all about grace, about God’s determination to give us a love we didn’t earn – and to do, himself, everything that has to be done to make that gift possible. And so of course these Episcopalian moms and dads don’t want the Elf on the Shelf coaching their kids daily that that’s wrong, that the universe doesn’t work that way at all, that you get gifts for good behavior. They don’t want their family treating Christmas as if it were about moralism, because moralism just multiplies: You’ve got to be good, one of the nice people, not one of the naughty ones. Your room better be clean. The cookies better be just the way grandma made them. The tree better look like Martha Stewart. The party better be perfect. Get started deserving stuff.
Most of these parents have so far just said no, but of course everybody else has an elf. “Come on, Mom, why can’t we have an elf?” The cultural power of this little plastic creature has been driving my friends who are parents to despair. One mother said, “I have lost count of the number of times I’ve had to say to my children: We don’t believe that.” Some have suggested ordering the Elf on the Shelf package, but immediately hiding the book and coopting the elf doll for a more grace-oriented story. Others have wondered if the kids could be re-focused on finding the Wise Men each morning as they’re moved around the house on their way to the manger, and so on and so on.
I think my favorite response, though, came from Melody Wilson Shobe, a mom and a priest in Texas who chimed in on Facebook and actually provided the script she’s been using with her two girls. Melody wrote, “I usually say something like [this]: “Well, the Elf on the shelf is someone who watches everything a person does and reports back to Santa who is naughty and nice. So people who make bad choices or have bad behavior don’t get any Christmas presents. But that’s not what our family believes. We believe that Jesus was born on Christmas because God loves us so much that even though we sometimes make bad choices or have bad behavior, God loves us and wants to be with us. So we don’t keep track of who is naughty or nice. We celebrate Christmas by giving presents to one another regardless - just like God gave us Jesus.” And, she commented, the kids “usually get that that’s a better deal.”
That’s a better deal. Amen, Melody. Grace is always a better deal.
So particularly in this busy season, when the world around us is pushing us to drive ourselves to distraction trying to get the holidays right, and to prioritize everything other than what God is about to do in a helpless baby, I want to remember Melody’s script. I want to have her reminder at my fingertips the next time I am tempted to forget that grace is real, and that God has already done in Christ everything that needs to be done to set me and you and the world to rights. The next time I lose track of the Savior who sought out not overachievers, but the lowly and the undeserving. The next time I forget that nobody’s making a list and checking it twice, or at least nobody who has any power over me at all because I belong to Jesus. The next time those things happen, I’m going to give myself basically that same little talk Melody gives her girls, and I suggest you join me.
Because that’s not what our family believes. We believe that Jesus was born on Christmas because God loves us so much that even though we sometimes make bad choices or have bad behavior, God loves us and wants to be with us. So we don’t keep track of who is naughty or nice. We celebrate, regardless. We love, regardless. We give, regardless - just like God gave us Jesus. And you know what? That’s a better deal. Grace is always a better deal.