You better watch out

Advent 1 – 2015

Jeremiah 33.14-16, Ps 25.1-10,  1 Thessalonians 3.9-13,  Luke 21.25-38

Marian Free

 

May we who live between Jesus’ coming and Jesus’ coming again, live with expectation and hope, joy and anticipation, trusting in God’s promises to us. Amen.

You better watch out,

you better not cry,

better not pout –

I’m telling you why

Santa Clause is coming to town.

 

He’s making a list,

and checking it twice;

gonna find out who’s naughty and nice.

Santa Claus is coming to town.

 

He sees when you are sleeping,

he knows when you’re awake.

He knows if you’ve been good or bad –

so be good for goodness sake.

 

You better watch out,

you better not cry,

better not pout –

I’m telling you why

Santa Clause is coming to town.

 

On reflection it seems to me that this popular ditty completely misrepresents not only Santa, but the spirit of the Christmas season. When and how did a figure that symbolizes promise become symbolic of threat? The sentiment expressed is reminiscent of that of a stern, judgmental God who is constantly toting up a balance sheet in order to measure how we are performing against some standard that we can never reach. It brings to mind a story of a boy of six who, in January, was moving in the home of a foster family. The family were shocked and dismayed to learn that this child had never received a visit from Santa had – he had never been deemed good enough[1]. Santa had been used as a big stick not to bring joy to the child, but as a means of punishing him for real or imagined sins.  His mother’s love (represented by Santa) had to be earned.

The balance between responsibility and gift, gift and responsibility is not always an easy one to manage. Unconditional love does not mean that bad or irresponsible behaviour is overlooked but discipline does involve constantly finding fault. Parents and others have to find ways to deal with the tension – allowing the other to make mistakes, but sometimes calling them to account, ensuring that the other knows that although love will never be withdrawn there will sometimes be consequences for behaving in ways that are hurtful, dangerous or thoughtless.

Many of us are not good at living with the tension. We prefer clear guidelines that tell us that if we do action ‘a’ consequence ‘b’ will result.  That way we can measure our behaviour and that of others and we can inflict punishment on those who do not comply and be filled with self loathing when we don’t come up to a supposed standard.  Even people of faith are not good at living with the tension of a God who loves, but who also hopes that we will respond to that love.  When some people read the scriptures, they see only a harsh, judgement God and as a consequence live in a state of almost constant anxiety.

It is reasonably easy to understand how this comes about. The books of the prophets are filled with colourful descriptions of what God might do to an unfaithful Israel and today’s gospel provides a terrifying description of what we might expect to happen when the Son of Man returns. All this builds a convincing picture of a God who might be making a list and checking it twice.

The problem with this interpretation is that it fails to recognise, as today’s readings illustrate, that our scriptures are filled with tensions, contradictions and paradox. Promise and threat are recurring themes – God’s promise to be faithful, and the threat that things will go badly when we ourselves are not faithful. Our task is to hold the two in a healthy tension – to constantly allow the promise to soften and even override the threat.

The prophet Jeremiah speaks to a people in exile who may well feel that God has abandoned them as a result of their rebelliousness. Jeremiah urges the people not to despair and to trust not only that God is still with them, but that God will restore them. Today’s reading speaks to God’s promise to David – that there will always be someone to sit on the throne. God will raise up a righteous branch for them. Psalm 25 gently holds threat and promise together. It expresses a belief that if we throw our lot in with God, instead of standing on our own, our lives will be much richer and we will be more content. There is a hint of threat – this is how we must behave or else. Yet the overall tone is positive: “Be mindful of your steadfast love O Lord”. The Psalmist believes that if someone’s heart is in the right place then God will overlook transgressions.

A similar delicate balance is found in the passage from 1 Thessalonians. Paul’s joy that the community have remained faithful despite persecution, is balance by a perceived need to be blameless. Then there is Luke’s version of Mark’s “little apocalypse” – the description of the end. “People will faint from fear and foreboding.” “Be alert so that you may have strength to escape these things.” Yet, even here, though heaven and earth is shaken to its core, the readers of the gospel are urged: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Luke is writing to a community that is more settled than that of Mark, more resigned to Jesus’ coming being relegated to a distant future. Luke is anxious to combat backsliding, complacency or a relaxed attitude that would make the community unprepared for the coming of the Son of Man.

What can be the purpose of this apparently mixed message of both promise and threat? Are our texts just messing with us? Is God the sort of masochist who enjoys keeping us in a constant state of uncertainty as to God’s relationship with us? Neither is true[2]. I believe that the tensions and contradictions play a very important role in our faith journey, that we both need to hold God in awe and to believe in God’s unconditional love for us.

Without a certain fear of God, we might well become complacent, believing that our relationship with God requires no effort on our part. Without a certain fear we might act in ways that damage and destroy our relationship with God and discover that not only are our lives impoverished as a result, but that our behaviour causes harm to ourselves and to others. At the same time, if we allow that fear to overwhelm us, if our lives are determined by terror and a belief that God is trying to catch us out in some misdemeanour, we will forget how to truly live and will be guilty of failing to accept God’s gift of unceasing love.

Promise and threat – two great themes that run through the Advent season – the promise of Jesus’ coming again, the threat of consequences if we are not ready.

The themes of Advent inform the way we live out our faith – with absolute confidence in God’s love for us and a determination to live in such a way to deserve that love.

[1] I’m pleased to report that the foster family were so distressed by the situation that they organized with their local Rotary Club for “Santa” to make a special trip to their home just for that boy.
[2] At this point we could have a long academic discussion about the writers of the texts, the difference between the priestly writer and the scribal writer of the OT and so on, but there are times when we should look at the text simply as we have inherited and see what it says to us when it stands alone.

 

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