y friends, Christmas is only a week away and the signs of the season are all around us. Christmas lights have sprung up in front yards on every street. All the old holiday classics are playing on the radio. A gentle layer of white coats the ground with the perfect amount snow for a white Christmas. And once again, controversy rises up around Starbucks’ holiday cup designs. Christmas must almost be here.
For the past twenty years, Starbucks has released special designs for their disposable paper cups during the Christmas holiday season. They’ve featured a variety of designs and styles, from the abstract to the intricately drawn, with some nod toward the season. Sometimes they are snowflakes, or reindeer, or Christmas ornaments, or snowmen, and other times they are just red and green patterns.
All was fine with this, largely secular, litany of cup designs, until 2015, when disaster struck. That year, in an attempt to be more inclusive of the many traditions that also have holidays at this time of year, Starbucks released a holiday cup that was simply red. The backlash was quick and loud. Throngs of Christians took offense at the red cup, presumably because they mistook it for a Pentecost cup being used during Advent and Christmas.
Almost overnight, the so-called “war on Christmas” moved from being something talked about by a small group of people upset by the increasing secularization of a religious holiday to being something talked about by every person that the television news channels could dredge up. “Happy Holidays,” which used to be a perfectly acceptable greeting for this season, became politically charged and anyone who dared use it faced suspicious side-eye from a new class of militant Christmas warriors determined to enforce appropriate Christmas cheer.
Ever since then, the release of the new Starbucks design has become the unwitting opening volley of the seasonal War on Christmas. Starbucks has no desire to be a part of this new tradition, and they have attempted to appease the critics each year with new holiday designs. But they are no match for our ability to manufacture offense, and each year Christmas Warriors have found ways to take issue with the design.
This year, one of the cup designs features two disembodied cartoon arms holding hands with a message of spending time with loved ones this holiday season. Though it has received somewhat less attention than previous years, critics were quick to point out that one could not determine the gender of the disembodied arms and their clasping hands. With disbelief, they expressed their anger at this attempt by Starbucks to push a gay agenda upon the Christmas season.
As amusing as our annual pageant of Christmas outrage is, I believe that it is really just a proxy for a much deeper source of anxiety: the rapidly changing status and position of Christianity within the broader culture. As our bishop has pointed out many times, Christianity no longer enjoys the privileged position at the center of society that it once did. Gone are the days when Bible stories were used in public school classrooms. Gone are the days that stores were closed on Sunday mornings and no youth sports games were ever scheduled to conflict with religious services. Gone are the days when people would begin with the assumption that you were not only religious, but Christian.
In the place of this former Christendom, we face a world where not only do many people choose not to attend worship on a regular basis, but an increasing number of people have never attended church before. Clergy and church leaders are left grappling with programs to try and reach people who have no working knowledge of the faith. And instead of having our faith assumed by others, Christians are finding that they must actually profess their beliefs and be prepared to defend them to incredulous friends and family.
These are massive changes driven by complex generational shifts in culture and an overall increase in secularism in developed countries. Though some are quick to point out that this change in position for Christianity coincides with an increasing awareness and acceptance of other religious traditions, it would be a mistake to blame it on these other traditions. These shifts in religious practices extend beyond any one faith and are being felt by all. We simply hear about it more among Christianity because we are feeling the loss of the comfortable and easy position we once enjoyed on the top of society.
Perhaps it is not at all surprising that we long for a time that is now past, when our faith seemed easier, a time when being Christian meant enjoying a privileged place in society, a time when our coffee cups were unabashedly Christmas-y.
When we find John the Baptist at last, he is definitely not at the top of society. He is so far from the top, that he is all the way out at the edge of society, in the Judean wilderness, far from the cities and towns. Yet, even in this isolated and difficult location, throngs of people have come out to hear him, attracted by the message he proclaims. They stand around him now, in small groups, talking amongst themselves.
As we look at these people, we realize that they are not strangers. We recognize their faces, giving us furtive glances as we examine them. Yes, they are our neighbors, the people keeping the shops and small businesses, they are our family members. It doesn’t make sense, they are people we thought we knew, people whose beliefs we had assumed we understood!
As he approaches, it is without a holiday-themed coffee cup in his hand. The greeting he shares does not contain the words, “Merry,” or, “Christmas.” There is something different about him, something that we can’t quite put our finger on.
Is he the Messiah, come again, the one for whom we have waited? “I am not,” John signifies. Is he a prophet, like those of old in scripture? “I am not,” John clarifies. Is he a saint, like the ones we see in stained glass windows and icons? “I am not,” John specifies.
Who is he, then? “I am the voice calling out in the wilderness,” John testifies, “I am the stone crying out, because nobody else will, and the witness I give is this: The Word by which creation was spoken into existence has come among us, but you have not yet heard it. The Light of the World already shines in your midst, but you have not yet seen it. Christ is here, and he is our God.”
As anxiety provoking as it is to witness the end of Christendom, I do believe that we are blessed to be here, in this time and in this place, on the cusp of the new Missional Age. For too long, being Christian required nothing of us, there was no risk involved. All we had to do was show up at church occasionally, and nod along as the pastor spoke. We did not have to speak about our faith, much less explain our faith, because everyone we knew was Christian and everyone we knew assumed that we were Christian, too.
In Christendom, Christianity became little more than a moral code. It was a religion of convenience because it was convenient to be Christian. What was there to talk about? We kept our prayers to ourselves and our families, out of sight of the world. All we had to do was try and live good lives; all we had to do was be upstanding citizens. If we felt like advertising our faith, then a simple cross necklace, or a Christmas coffee cup, was all that was required, because everyone already knew what it meant. They were simple symbols that required no words, no testimony, and gave no witness.
But that will not suffice in the new Missional Age. The world around us hungers for the Good News. The world around us longs for re-connection with the divine. The world around us desperately needs God. The blessing of this new Missional Age is that we are called to be like John in the wilderness. As Christians, we are called to give witness to that Good News. We are called to tell the sacred stories, both the ones we find in scripture and the ones we find in our lives. We are called to speak the words that our world so desperately needs, that this is our God, that the promise has been fulfilled, and that Christ is already in our midst.
If we think that this witness can be accomplished by our coffee cup, then the coffee cup—whatever its design may be—is not the problem.
My friends, God is at work in this world, here and now, but the world does not yet see it. The word became flesh in Christ, but the world does not yet hear it. The Holy Spirit moves in our midst, but the world does not yet feel it. God gives us wisdom and strength to give witness and bring hope to a broken and hurting world. It is witness that cannot be given in silence. It is witness that cannot be offered from behind closed doors. It is a witness that cannot be proclaimed with easy symbols.
When we join with the Spirit that is already upon because God has already anointed us; when we bring good news to the oppressed, proclaim liberty to captives and release to prisoners; when we declare the year of God’s favor and comfort all who mourn, and spread liberally the oil of gladness, then we will have become like John, the voice in the wilderness. Then we will find great throngs of people coming to hear the Good News and to join in preparation for the Word coming among us.
Then we will find the ancient ruins rising up, we will see our cities repaired after the devastation of generations. Then we will know the Lord, who loves justice, who clothes us with garments of salvation. Then we will know the faithfulness of our God, who makes an everlasting covenant with us as sure as the earth brings forth its shoots, the God who causes righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.
Preached by Adam Yates