Year C, Advent 1 December 2, 2018 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Be on guard that your hearts are not weighed down…”
Our first taste of St. Luke’s Gospel is pretty serious. “…signs in the sun and the moon… and on the earth distress among nations… People will faint from fear and foreboding….” Not very Christmas-y, is it? Well the part about our redemption drawing near is, but there is a long way between here and there, that is what it is saying. One of the traditional messages of the First Sunday in Advent is recognizing the signs of the times. However, that message kind of clashes with the 15 km of LED lights I saw at Jerry’s the other day, and the “Jingle Bells” wafting through Hiron’s. They already have Stolen out at Hideaway! Stolen is a traditional German Christmas bread, it has marzipan in it, to die for (and lathered in enough butter to preserve it for months as it is, it is also likely a good thing to die from).
Christians live in two worlds, well, we should. There is a pretty wide gap between the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the culture in which we live. Our evangelical brothers and sisters talk more about this than we usually do, and we can learn something from them. Sometimes that comes out by feeling offended (if not persecuted) because their disposable coffee cup says “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” and that is just silly, but they do have a point. The values and virtues of our culture, our society are not in line with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They are not in very important ways. They never have been, particularly if you are not a white, male with means. In Advent, the contrast between the Commonwealth of God that we have been promised and the empires of mankind in which we live is particularly stark.
Don’t get me wrong, getting ready for Christmas is fun! The anticipation! The memories of our own childhood anticipation. The whole plot of the movie “The Christmas Story” is the anticipation of Ralphie for his coveted Red Rider BB gun with the compass in the stock. You can feel it. It is wonderful, the tree, decorations, gathering gifts, wrapping things, hanging stockings with care, tie-die toilet paper at Holiday Market. Did I mention Christmas Stolen? But… (here’s my humbug moment), it is Advent. The world and us in that world is in a different place than the Church would have us. Christmas is coming. Yay! But it is not here yet. Hmmmm… We are remembering that Jesus came! Yay! And we look forward to Him coming again, yay! But look at the cost of the incarnation: that precious baby in His mother’s blessed arms grows up and dies on the Cross, His mother at its foot. Hmmm… Our culture doesn’t have such complex messages for us. “More is better,” is more typical, “Indulge yourself, you deserve it.” Two worlds.
How do we bridge the gap between the world, our assimilation into that world, and the ideal that our Christian faith presents? In this season, the task of the church, as one commentator puts it, is to “help people shift their glance from the bright materialistic glitter of an American Christmas to the somber self-reflection on sin and salvation that these texts (and, I would add, this season) call us to.” Hmmm…
“Shift our glance…” That is a good way to put what we need to do (or at least gives us a good place to start). What we need to do is live more in alignment with the values of our faith than with the values of our culture. That is what we are called to do always, that is key Jesus teaching, and Advent presents us a clear and seasonally appropriate site of noticing that difference and practicing that shift. Does that all make sense?
First, though, we need to remember why Jesus came? We say it each week in the Creed, “For us and for our salvation He came down from heaven.” He came because we were suffering, perishing, dying. For whatever reason, it is hard, life. It is a struggle to live. The wee apocalypse in Luke, like the one in Mark, is a reflection on earth of the true nature of realty, which in Biblical language is spoken of as a cosmic battle in heaven between good and evil. There is a struggle, an endless battle going on. It is between good and evil, between light and dark, order and entropy, life and death. Living communities are locked in endless mortal combat. I have been at the hospital with someone a lot recently, and sometimes just the struggle to breathe is insurmountable… life is hard. And for whatever reason, with the free will that we have been gifted, it is too often easier to choose wrong than right, to do evil (or ignore evil) than to do good. (We call it Original Sin). That is the story of the world, it is just too easy to make the wrong choice, particularly as groups; we are dangerous in groups. But that is why Jesus came, to save us from us, from our sinfulness, from our separation from God. And it took from a girl bearing the promise of God in her womb all the way to that same promise being nailed to a cross until dead. And that story is not over, Jesus was clear about that, too. The fullness of time is yet to come. He is coming back.
That’s a lot. I mean, really, it is Christmas time, who wants to talk about all of that? It makes me think about the movie “Talladega Nights.” Will Ferrell plays a NASCAR star named Ricky Bobby; it is reasonably inappropriate, but hilarious. There is a dinner scene Ricky Bobby gets to praying, “Oh dear, sweet baby Jesus. Dear 8 pound, six ounce sweet baby Jesus…” and on and on until his wife blurts out “Enough with the baby Jesus, he grew up!” Ricky Bobby replies, “I like the baby version the best.” Who doesn’t? Our culture sure likes baby Jesus best. That’s my Christmas sermon: Jesus is the gift no one actually wants, not the actual Jesus at least. But sticking to sweet baby Jesus ignores not only the fullness of His birth, life, passion, death and resurrection, but also the reason He came in the first place, that the world, and we in it, are often a big fat mess, and we can’t fix it on our own. We desperately need help. We need saving, even. It is not all bad, but it is bad enough that we need help, we need saving.
So the world is saying Yay! have another slice of cake, and eat it, too! while Jesus Christ is telling us to shift our glance to “…somber self-reflection on sin and salvation…” at least before we enjoy the nog. (Because egg nog is a blessing, and His birth reminds us that the world is good and needs to be savored as well as saved).
So what do we do? We are pulled back and forth, and the cultural forces pulling us that direction is awfully fun, “Come to the dark side, we have cookies” and sure seems easier than the path marked “Way of the Cross.” Fortunately, we have some options.
One option is to give up, surrender and not in a holy Jesus way, but capitulation. Accept that resistance is futile. Thast menas not taking what we do here seriously (or not too seriously, none of that changing our lifestyles to accommodate our moral-religious obligations or anything). We can just go along with the cultural tides around us, that is what the vast, vast majority of us do. That’s not working out very well for anyone (well, except for 1% and their .01% overlords, it is working out exceptionally well for them). But, giving up is an option.
We could flee, isolate ourselves. The Essenes did that that, the folks who gave us the Dead Sea Scrolls. They were contemporaries of Jesus and saw a lot of the same problems He saw, and their solution was to leave. That was the way of the desert Father and Mothers, the early monastics. The cloister, the habit is still a refuge people flee the world to. The Amish do that. There is something to be said for isolation, though romance of the monastery is maybe brighter than the reality. Flight is an option.
Fighting is an option. The culture wars have been underway since the Moral Majority reared it head in the 80s. On the right they fight the (now) culturally accepted practices of abortion and marriage equality and Starbucks cups. I don’t agree at all with their arguments on those issues, but I respect that they are engaging the culture due, at least in part, to their religious convictions. I’d like to see more of us give that much in a fight for our religious convictions. There are a few out there, but far too few. There is a time and place to fight culture, but that is not for all of us, and it is not appropriate all of the time, but fighting is an option.
There is a fourth option, though. It is right there in Luke’s itty-bitty apocalypse. It’s about the same battle we are having right now, living in a world that is going one way while we know it needs to go in another. These are the signs of all times, and what are we to do? “…stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Apocalyptic stories remind us that we know how the story ends: God wins! Right? It all works out, in the end. The heroine gets the guy, finally. Happily ever after, eventually. So for now, stand firm. Be your full self, doing what you know you are supposed to do. Don’t worry about what little Johnny is doing, or what the Jones’ have in their driveway, or what the last pop-up window offered for sale with free shipping; take what you need, but not more. Give more than you receive. Measure your greatness by your service. Value kindness over being right. You know, be what Christians are supposed to be. That’s a way to live between these two world; that’s a way to live in the world, but not of it.
According to Jesus, central to standing firm is being alert, being attuned to the world around us. He says, “Be alert… Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life…” (Dissipation is intemperate living, self-indulgence). Be mindful, don’t be distracted. And in our consumptive culture, distraction is job #1. We have opportunities to numb ourselves with every form of mental and physical debauchery: drinking, drugs, pornography, consumption, we numb ourselves in so many ways… how much time are you spending on Amazon right now? Be alert. Be present. Stand firm. This is the kind of quiet resistance that Jesus is calling us to.
And we do that how? Well, funny you should ask, I’ve got a thought or two. Now, let’s not make more work for ourselves (whose got time with all the Christmas shopping. That’s a joke). It is Advent. Let’s harness Advent and our Adventide traditions to practice standing firm even when the cultural waves are breaking all around.
First off, it is December 2nd, more than a week after Thanksgiving and no Christmas tree here, no lights, no decorations are up at church. BECAUSE IT IS ADVENT! We have an Advent Wreath. We have Mary and Joseph making their pilgrimage. We have Marian blue. That is plenty. Christmas decorations go up for Christmas, or to be specific, after the 10:30 Mass on Advent 4, Sunday, Dec. 23rd. That is our greening of the church. It is wicked fun. So our common prayer and all the things we talked about last week, all of that church life together reinforces the message that it ain’t Christmas yet. This is a good place to notice the gulf between the world and the church.
Particularly if you have children in your life, holding back on Christmas decorations until Christmas would be both cruel and unusual. But we can make it into baby steps. An Advent Calendar. That is perfect. We have these cool ones on the back credenza, or make something. Or I just learned about Jesse Trees. These are a more scripturally informed kind of Advent calendar, very interesting and engaging looking. We are making Advent Wreathes after church, light it, say a prayer over it every night, or at least Sundays. Build up to Christmas, yes, but slowly. Go by country lane not autobahn.
We’re getting our tree this afternoon. Scandalously early, I know, but we do it in stages. Tree up and lights on on Advent 1. Plain ornaments go on on Advent 2. Popcorn and cranberry strings for Advent 3, and all the fun ornaments and the angel on top on Advent 4. The whole process is slowed down, stretched out, in tension with the swirling world around us. (We do the same for Christmas, no overwhelming Christmas day, but a little bit over the full 12 days). It brings it all down to a human sized observance. We find it helpful.
Shopping, don’t go crazy. What matters is you giving, not what you give. All the stuff can be so overwhelming, it might destroy our economy, but maybe try not to buy so much this year.
And it is the holiday season, so opportunities for “dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life” abound. From Netflix binges to plates of grandma’s fudge to “should I put another bottle of bourbon in the egg nog,” it is not a “just say no” moment (we are Episcopalian after all), but this is a good opportunity to practice saying “not as much.” (This is also a good time of year to notice the contents of your glass recycle bin and remember that everyone likes you better sober, especially sweet baby Jesus).
Those are just a few Adventide practices that might help you keep at least one foot in the Commonwealth of God while the other is stuck in the boot-sucking mud of the culturally affirmed way to get to Christmas. Don’t fight it. Don’t flee off to the convent. Don’t give up, give in and tuck in at the trough with everyone else, but rather stand firm and wait for Christ. He is coming. AMEN