This year, more than ever before, I have been struck by the paradoxes of Advent.
Two weeks ago, we began preparing ourselves to celebrate the good news of great joy about Christ’s first coming by hearing about how scary Christ’s Second Coming will be.
Last Sunday, the theme for the day was peace, and the gospel reading was all about repentance.
This morning the theme is joy, and mostly our readings are about joy. But then there is our gospel reading about the Baptizer. “John said to the crowds . . . ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’”
Not much joy there! After quotations like that one, the last line of our gospel reading sounds almost like a joke: “With many other exhortations, [John] proclaimed the good news to the people.”
We might be forgiven for asking, where is the joy in John’s preaching? What is John’s good news?
Last week, I read an apparently unrelated article that helps to answer those questions. The article was called “Four Rituals That Will Make You Happy, According to Neuroscience.” (Here is the link to the complete article: http://www.bakadesuyo.com/2015/09/make-you-happy-2/)
The article began with a counter-intuitive observation that explains part of the appeal of the Baptizer’s preaching. Apparently guilt and shame and worry all activate our brain’s reward center. That means, it feels good, at least in the short run, to feel a little guilt or shame or worry.
So when people heard John call them a “brood of vipers” and warn them about the wrath to come, they may well have felt a little shot of pleasure.
But John’s good news of great joy is NOT calling us a “brood of vipers!” Guilt and shame and worry are bad for us in the long run. Over the long run, guilt and shame and anxiety make us miserable, not happy.
Thankfully, God does not call us to lives of guilt, shame, or anxiety. Thankfully, God calls us to lives of love. God calls us to lives of abundance and grace. God calls us to live as God’s beloved children, freed from the burdens of guilt or shame or anxiety.
The real good news in John’s preaching lies elsewhere, and my article helps to show where.
One of the “rituals” recommended by my article is to label our negative feelings.
When we feel bad, the emotional centers of our brain are active. But we can step back and describe to ourselves what we are feeling. And simply thinking about our feelings, doing our best to label them, activates the thinking part of our brain, which in turn reduces activity in our brain’s emotional centers. As a result, our negative feelings become a little less intense.
When John calls his audience to repent, one thing he is asking them to do is name the parts of their lives that prevent them from experiencing God’s love. John is inviting us to name our wounds, those things that hurt us and keep us from flourishing.
The goal is not to feel guilty about our wounds. The goal is to consciously acknowledge our wounds, to name our wounds for what they are. That reduces their power over us by a little bit, and opens us up a little bit more to the healing power of God.
But we can do more than simply label our negative emotions. We can act. According to my article, making decisions makes us feel better. Apparently making a decision—virtually any decision— reduces anxiety and so feels good.
The decision does not have to be perfect. It just has to be good enough. As a neuroscientist quoted in my article puts it, “Good enough is [in fact] almost always good enough.”
Back to the Baptizer. People ask John what they should do. Some of them are tax-collectors. Some of them are soldiers. Remember, this is not the United States Internal Revenue Service or one of the branches of our military. These are people who collaborate with the Roman Empire in oppressing the people of Israel. Tax collectors and soldiers were the bad guys in John’s world.
So what does John ask them to do? We might expect him to demand that they quit their jobs and make really fundamental life changes. After all, John himself had abandoned ordinary society to live in the desert, dressed in animal skins and living on insects.
In fact, what John asks them to do is shockingly tame. Tax collectors should not collect more than their due. Soldiers should not extort money from civilians but instead be satisfied with their wages.
In other words, John tells them to act honestly as they go about their ordinary lives, even in their questionable occupations. That is not a very heroic demand. But it is something they can commit to doing. And, apparently, it is good enough.
We can translate that directly into our own lives.
This is the good news of Jesus Christ. We do not need to have perfect faith or love to be loved by God. We do not need to lives heroic virtue to be loved by God. Even those of us who feel most distant from God do not need to change everything to be loved by God. God loves us right now, just as we are.
And God invites us to take small steps towards becoming better.
We do not take those steps so that we can earn God’s love. We already have God’s love. But we can commit to small steps, and making that commitment helps us.
Deciding to take some small step enables us to live a little more like God invites us to live. Deciding to take some small step helps us to experience God’s love in our lives a little more consciously than we are otherwise likely to do. And deciding to take some small step makes us happier.
My article offered two more strategies that are less immediately relevant to John’s message, but that do point us forward to Jesus’. Neither is very surprising.
One is to ask ourselves what we are grateful for. Apparently, simply asking that question makes us feel better. Being grateful, even just trying to be grateful, stimulates all kinds of good things in our brains.
So when God invites us to cultivate “an attitude of gratitude,” God is inviting us to do something that makes us happy. Scientists can actually measure the positive impact of gratitude in our brains.
The last “ritual” that can make us happy is to connect with other human beings. A phone call helps. Face to face conversations are better. Touching is best of all. The point is to experience community, genuine communion, with other people.
Here is the take-away. Gratitude and Christian community are gifts from God that make us happy.
But that gets into the good news of Christmas. On this Third Sunday of Advent, we are invited to linger with John’s message. We are reminded to label our negative emotions for the wounds that they are. Simply doing that is already to take a healing step.
Then we are invited to decide on other small steps that we can take to conform our lives more closely to God’s will for us. If we can just do that, we will know more abundant life even now. And we will be a little more ready to greet Jesus Christ come in the flesh on Christmas Day.
My prayer is that we will all heed John’s Advent invitation.
In the name of the one who is to come. Amen