Saturday, December 1, 2012

Are We There Yet?

I mention several not-for-profit organizations in this sermon. These are not necessarily offered as an endorsement (except in the cases of First Light, Jimmie Hale Mission, and Hiefer International, which I most wholeheartedly endorse), but serve as examples.

I also encourage you to consider ministries like Love Wins, The Eucatastrophe, Revolution NYC, and The Van Atlanta in your giving.

Luke 21:25-36

"There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."

Then he told them a parable: "Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
"Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man."

This is the Word of the Lord.

“Are we there yet?”

It's a pretty universally accepted truth that if you put kids in a car and go on a journey of any length at all, that question (or one of its variations) will be asked about a hundred times per hour per child. The excitement of going someplace, the anticipation of what awaits, and the tedium of long car rides are a pretty bad mix, so it's no wonder so many cars and SUVs come equipped with DVD players.

Now, as a child I'm sure I asked that question a lot when we went places, but I don't remember that. What I do remember is, when we were headed to one set of grandparents or the other, looking for landmarks that would tell me that we were almost there. When we went to Huntsville to see Grandma Hazel, my mom's mom, there would come a point after we passed the Jetplex that you could see, off in the distance, the very tip of a Saturn V rocket. The bigger and closer the rocket got the closer we were to Hazel & Hunt's.

When we went to Tuscaloosa, to my dad's parents' house, my landmark was the “Burger In A Hurry” at the corner of University Boulevard and 15th Street, it was a small building with a v-shaped roof and a big sign promising fifteen-cent hamburgers. That's where we turned, so I knew we were getting close to Hilda and Red's.

Though I may have asked, “are we there yet? How much longer?” and things like that, in fact when I looked at the signs around me, be it the jetplex or the rockets in Huntsville or the miles of kudzu and the long-since-closed burger joint in Tuscaloosa, I knew we were almost there.

This is the first Sunday in Advent, and the first Sunday in the liturgical church year. Thanksgiving and Black Friday came early this year, so no lingering turkey hangover or shopping fatigue. We're entering in to a wonderful season full of progressively building anticipation, waiting for the birth of our Savior and King! The Wise Men are scanning the heavens, the shepherds are moving their flocks through the fields, the angels are tuning their harps.

Yet we start this season of new beginnings with a discussion about the end of time – the words of a Savior not very far from the whip, the crown of thorns, and the nails.


Because Advent is not just about Christ who has come, but Christ who will come again.

It's a strange mixture, isn't it? On the one hand, the wise men, the manger, the tree and the ornaments, the gifts and the kids who wake before sunrise to see what Santa's brought them, peace on earth and goodwill toward humankind – and that question: are we there yet?

And on the other hand, signs in the heavens and distress among nations, fear and foreboding and a roaring, unsettled sea, horsemen and trumpets and bowls and a great, final Resurrection, where every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord… and are we there yet? How much farther?

Could it be that the message of Advent is not so much one of two arrivals, one past and one future, or of a great and glorious beginning and a cataclysmic and permanent ending, as it is about one thing: “God's passion, God's dream, for a transformed earth,” (to quote Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan)?

I'm not suggesting God’s passion and dream are simply for a transformed planet, some political Nirvana where wars have ceased and harmony prevails. That’s all well and good, but a political Nirvana is a place far too temporary for the purposes of an eternal Kingdom. No, a “transformed earth” is a world full of transformed people,  Kingdom dwellers whose needs have been met by God's people, and whose lives are defined and founded upon that Christ whose Advent we celebrate this season, that Christ who has come, who has died, who has risen, and who will come again.

Are we there yet?

When did the Christmas season become a time of stress and traffic jams, of holiday jingles playing and commercials running well before Halloween, of searching store after store for whatever the television tells us is this year's hottest gift, of endless shopping lists and of frenetic Black Friday sales that start on Thanksgiving night, where all we're left with on December 26th is frustration and exhaustion and credit card bills and a stack of gifts to return?

And maybe that’s not fair or accurate; maybe we end up on the 26th quite happy with how things turned out. The point I am making is that, for a very long time, we have been told and told and told that, in order to have the spirit of the season, in order to do Christmas, we must do commerce.

Not so. I want to suggest to you this morning that no matter what the media tells us, no matter how many commercials try to convince us otherwise, the Christmas season – Advent – is not about commerce, but about worship: “It starts with Jesus. It ends with Jesus.” Is this not the approach God had in mind for Christmas? “A season where we are called to put down our burdens and lift a song up to our God. ...a season where love wins, peace reigns, and a king is celebrated with each breath.”

John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg suggest that Advent is a season of repentant preparation – not “repentance” in the sense of being sorry you did something, confessing and promising to not do it again (as we seem to view it so often), but “repentance” in the original and correct sense of the word: repentance is where we change something. Where we work to make what is into what should be, yes, personally, but also in a larger sense – in the lives and experiences of those around us, and by extension, everyone on earth.

Are we there yet? I can't speak for you, of course, but for me the answer is “no.”
Can we get there from here? Yes!

I always hesitate when I am about to talk about meeting needs in society and in the world, because I don't want to preach an unbalanced message. In the same way that the Gospel is not just about our personal salvation and our personal growth and personal relationship with the Triune God, the Gospel isn't just about feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and speaking out for the marginalized. However, in a very real sense, what we believe internally, how we conduct our prayer life and direct our study of Scripture is both shown in, and informed by, our outward actions. People not only see what we believe in how we act, but the things we participate in with our time, our talent, and our treasure – whether positive or negative activities – impact how we pray, what we study, and even how we think about God. One always feeds the other.

With all of that said, Americans will spend a total of $465 billion on Christmas this year, an average of $854 each. Everything from clocks and ties and gift cards to toys that walk and talk and teach and entertain, and gadgets like iPhones and tablets and TVs and video game consoles.

None of this is bad, and for the most part, every dollar is spent in love. We see the giving of gifts as a way of demonstrating, to one degree or another, our love and respect for the recipient. Very few gifts are bought out of obligation, really. It would be far too easy for me to paint the act of Christmas shopping as an endless merry-go-round of giving presents because if we don’t, so-and-so person will be mad, or such-and-such family will never speak to us again, and so on and so forth. The reality is much kinder and far more nuanced. Though bombarded by advertising that attempts to cajole and entice and guilt us into spending more and more, when we give to our friends and family, we are most often motivated by our love for them, plain and simple.

But let me ask you: how many of the gifts we buy for others are things that the recipient really needs?

Let’s talk about “need” for a moment. Human beings need clean water. In sub-Saharan Africa, women spend something like forty billion hours just hauling water. Yet through groups like Living Water International, one dollar can provide clean drinking water for one person for one year.

Let’s talk about “need.” Right now in Syria, in rebel-held territories, hundreds of thousands of people are displaced, living in tents or in schools and other makeshift shelters, without enough food, no electricity or heat, no blankets. Government relief agencies can’t get to them. The refugee camps in neighboring countries are full, and running short on supplies as well, with winter setting in. It’s left to non-governmental relief agencies to somehow get supplies into rebel-held regions of Syria, to these struggling, war-torn families. One hundred and fifty dollars can provide four heavy, queen-sized blankets to Syrian refugee families through organizations such as “Life For Relief and Development.”

Let’s talk about “need.” Right now, there are something on the order of one point zero two billion people in the world without enough to eat. Twenty five thousand adults and children die every day from hunger and related causes. According to some estimates, as little as thirty billion dollars per year could eradicate – eradicate – global hunger! Does that sound like a lot of money? By my math, if every American redirected fifty-five dollars of their Christmas money toward the support of organizations addressing world hunger, we would meet that thirty billion dollar mark easily.

Advent is a season of repentant preparation –where we change something. Where we work to make what is into what should be, in the lives and experiences of those around us, and by extension, in the lives of everyone on earth. Warmth, clean water, food, shelter, hope.

Are we there yet?

There are people you and I know who will be happier to get a card saying that a gift was given in their honor than they will with any thing you would buy them. And make no mistake: what I am talking about is not a new idea, it is by no means an original thought. Wonderful, trustworthy organizations have been offering opportunities like this for years! Through Compassion International, $79 gives a family clean water for a generation. Through Heifer International, $20 can buy a flock of chicks or ducks or geese for a family, $120 buys a goat or a sheep. Meals at local shelters like Jimmie Hale Mission and First Light cost less than two dollars each. Jimmie Hale Mission, in fact, says that twenty dollars can provide overnight shelter for a homeless man, woman or child.

And in that space we create by giving a gift in someone’s name instead of buying them a present, we help a person or family we'll never meet to have a better life. And it is in that space where we can begin that repentant preparation, begin to more fully worship this amazing Christ of Advent, who for us and for our salvation came to earth, lived, died, and rose, and comes again.

Are we there yet?

No comments:

Post a Comment