Sunday, December 13th, 2015 – Third Sunday of Advent
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scriptures: Zephaniah 3:14-20, Luke 3:7-18
Hymns: “Mighty to Save”, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”, “Good Christian Men, Rejoice”, “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear”, “O Hearken Ye”, “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly”, “The Birthday of a King”, “Joy to the World”
Krampus in the Manger
In almost every story of a hero, there is usually some sort of sidekick or acquaintance of the hero who is somewhat unhinged. At times, you may question the sidekick’s motivations. You may even question whether this sidekick is actually a good guy or a bad guy.
Think about it – Captain America had the Winter Soldier. Luke Skywalker had Han Solo. Frank Sinatra had Dean Martin. Abraham Lincoln had Secretary of State William Seward (he is, after all, the man who was lampooned for buying what was thought to be the useless expanse of Alaska).
And then there’s Santa Claus.
Now some of you may remember that, two years ago, when I came here to interview, I gave a children’s sermon on the Turkish Orthodox priest Nikolaos of Myra, the historical basis for Santa Claus. The original Nikolaos was sort of like a biker with a heart of gold – he went out of his way to provide gifts to children of impoverished families, but he wasn’t above throwing a punch at the theologian Arius for what he called heresy.
Obviously, the legend of Saint Nikolaos has evolved over the centuries, with the pugilist priest changing into the jolly old elf in the seventeen hundred and seventy-two years since his death. However, his mission has remained always the same – the kind man who secretly gives gifts to those in need.
But somewhere along the way, somebody decided he needed a sidekick. A really NASTY sidekick, at that. And of course, this nasty sidekick came from Enlightenment-era Germany, because that’s where most of the really weird stuff in this world seems to have its origins.
This particular sidekick goes by the name Krampus.
Krampus is a demon who travels with Santa Claus. When Santa reaches a town, while he’s busy giving gifts to the nice children and coal to the kids who weren’t as nice, Krampus is off tracking down the children who have truly been absolute little horrors over the course of the year, and once he finds them, he EATS THEM.
I mean, I get the idea that maybe kids who have been really bad need a little bit of discipline, but being eaten by a demon seems a little extreme, don’t you think?
But every story of a hero needs a Krampus, and Jesus’ story had one too. No, it wasn’t Judas Iscariot, believe it or not. Indeed, I would say that the Krampus of Jesus’ story is his cousin, John the Baptist.
Now, obviously, John the Baptist was not evil – though some people thought he was. Neither was John a demon – though some people thought he was. No, he was but a simple man. If I may quote the Christian band dc Talk’s classic hit “Jesus Freak”, he was a man from the desert with maps in his head; the sand that he walked was also his bed; the words that he spoke made the people assume there wasn’t too much left in the upper room. With skins on his back and hair on his face, they thought he was crazed by the locusts he ate. You see, the Pharisees tripped when they heard him speak, until the king took the head of this Jesus freak.
I will grant that it sounds better when Toby McKeehan raps it. It’s a pretty thorough description of John, though. Like I mentioned last week, he was a wild, desert-dwelling, locust-eating man who spent his time popping up and likely scaring the daylights out of the religious powers-that-be in order to tell them just how badly they were getting things wrong. When he wasn’t doing that, of course, he was baptizing people, thus the term “Baptist”.
In today’s Gospel passage, though, he had a little something for everybody, and not much of it was particularly pleasant.
As I mentioned last week, John had a few words to say at this point to the Pharisees, to whom he referred as a “brood of vipers”. Not a particularly pleasant thing, to have this prophet call you a bunch of snakes, regardless of how crazy the greater populace might’ve seen him as being. For reasons inexplicable to the Pharisees, people were paying attention to the words of John, and so when he called them vipers, it probably stuck in their craw a little bit.
But that’s the way Matthew tells it. As Luke tells it, John didn’t just save that criticism for the Pharisees. No, it was for everybody who came to see him. And quite frankly, for people of faith and good will, that was probably a little bit offensive. After all, they had been living their lives as good Jews would, according to the precepts of Moses, doing their best to do as God willed for their lives. To have this Nazarene show up and tell them that they were snakes was probably a matter of no small insult.
There was reason to John’s madness, though. The story here has us suppose that the Jewish people had been coasting for a while on the idea that, as the descendants of Abraham, their lives were blessed through the Abrahamic covenant – the promise that God had made to Abraham that his children would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. John, however, wanted to make sure that the people understood that God was more than capable of bringing about new descendants of Abraham if it was so desired – after, of course, God finished chopping down the apparently rotten trees that made up the Jewish people of the time.
Of course, the people asked John what on earth they could do to avoid the coming judgment, just as we might today. John’s response was simple: be good to your fellow man. He enjoined the people coming to see him to share their wealth so that those with nothing might have something. He commanded the tax collectors to not over-collect for their own profit – an offense that was fairly common in the time of John, as we would later see in the call story of the apostle Matthew and the well-known legend of Zacchaeus. He also warned the occupying soldiers of Rome to not abuse their power to subjugate the people of Israel.
It’s actually really quite amazing that all these people of means and power were interested in what John had to say. Perhaps it was fear. Perhaps it was curiosity. Perhaps it was their sheer discomfort with the unknown and their desire to see it removed as quickly as possible.
Speaking of which, now seems like as good a time as any to tell you about the time that Krampus ended up in my in-laws Nativity set.
You see, two years ago, after getting back to North Carolina and asking Santa Claus to send me a phone call from the Gower Christian Church pastoral search committee, Caitie and I headed to the little town of Asheboro to celebrate Christmas with her family. On Christmas Eve, while driving over to her aunt and uncle’s house, the topic of Krampus somehow came up. I explained Krampus to Caitie’s family, and while her sister, Emily, was absolutely horrified by this addition to the Christmas mythos, her father thought it was absolutely hilarious.
Fast forward to this October. The last Tuesday of the month, during the week before Halloween, Terri Johnson and I had sat down to plan out Advent and Christmas (yes, we plan these things out WELL in advance). For whatever reason, during the course of that meeting, I remembered how amused Caitie’s father had been by Krampus, so after Terri left, I went on Amazon and found him a Krampus Christmas ornament. Sadly, it did not arrive in time for me to send it back to North Carolina with Caitie’s family following her ordination, but it got to me a few days later and I sent it on to her family.
I didn’t hear much about it – other than that her father had gotten the ornament and was amused, but then, a couple of days ago, Caitie forwarded me this picture from her sister.
That is the Smith family Krampus Christmas ornament, sitting in a corner of the stable, looking over Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus. Upon seeing that picture, I remarked that I didn’t remember the gospel of Luke saying anything about Krampus.
You know, except in the person of John the Baptist.
John the Baptist was sent to bring discomfort to the people of Israel. They had grown complacent under the Roman occupation and the puppet reign of King Herod. God wanted them to wake up, see their lives for the sinful messes they were, repent, and return to lives under the law that they had been prescribed. After all, the Savior of the world was coming to them, and how on earth were they going to be prepared for Him if they were still living their lives in sin and idolatry?
Of course, as we well know, the people didn’t figure it out in time, instead choosing to assent to the crucifixion of the Messiah a few years later. I don’t think it’s fair to actually blame them for Jesus’ death – it was simply mob mentality, spurred on by the corrupted thinking of a few loudmouths who preyed on the worst fears of the people. You know, kind of like the modern American political system.
And so, the followers of Christ have spent centuries, even millennia, building, rebuilding, and building again the highway for the Lord in the wilderness of the world. At times, it can seem tedious and even futile, but we have to keep fighting the good fight. We have to maintain the good news of Jesus Christ as a witness to the world, showing the people that a Savior indeed showed up more than two thousand years ago, and His grace and salvation has been made available to all persons, no matter how righteous or sinful.
That is not always going to be the most comfortable thing. Along the way, we’re going to have to fight those who would call us fools for our belief in an unseeable God. We’re going to have to fight those who would mock our faith in a Savior whose story, quite frankly, challenges the suspension of belief required to read a comic book. And most insidious of all, we’re going to have to fight those within our own faith who have corrupted it to say that Jesus only came for the prosperous, or the people who share our political beliefs, or the people who look like us. The truth that Jesus Christ came for all people is universal and undeniable, but it’s a truth that we have to fight to show every day of our lives.
We have to learn to live with that discomfort, because as long as we’re living lives of faith, it’s going to be with us. And maybe that’s why Krampus was added to the story of Santa Claus – as a sign that it’s not enough to just say that you’re going to be good, but that you actually have to live that life, and it’s not always comfortable. We get uncomfortable with the idea of a soul-eating demon traveling with jolly old St. Nick on Christmas Eve, but sometimes that discomfort is what we need to live authentic lives of faith.
John the Baptist recognized that, and so the brood of vipers was born. Let us, therefore, heed the words of John as we prepare the way for Christ, because once we are baptized in the saving grace of Christ, we can no longer be vipers. From that day forwarded, we will ourselves be commanded to live like John, forever preparing in the wilderness a highway for our God.