Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Prepare --- Advent 1

Luke 3:1-6    (NRSV)
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
    and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
    and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

Today is the first Sunday of Advent.

Many of us have barely recovered from our turkey hangover
          or our Black Friday Shopping Spree ---
                   and many of you are gearing up for Cyber Monday.

And yet, John is crying out to us:
          "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight"

PREPARE --- The problem is --- most of us thought we were preparing by engaging in all the shopping over the weekend.

The story of Christmas is the story of the unspeakable
          in hot pursuit of the unimaginable,
                   and some would argue the unattainable.

It is the impossible --- made possible

For just a moment the familiar miracle of a baby's birth becomes a radically life-altering experience for a nation, a people, and a world.

The simplicity of that very first Christmas has become dangerously complicated in our "modern" world.

And this is much more than simply the overwhelming commercialization of Christmas that has taken place in our lifetimes.  Although that is a huge problem.

We seem to have lost the simplicity of that first Christmas in Bethlehem.
          We look for the complex and conspiracy in everything.
                   And because of that --- we miss the point.

Unfortunately, we have buried that Bethlehem birth with layers and layers of sentimentality that separates us from the incarnation.

The layers have gotten so thick and so deep that they threaten to block the message of unconditional love that the first Christmas proclaimed.

And before we get too angry at Madison Avenue and Wall Street's desire for us to spend --- spend --- spend -------------- we need to look at ourselves and see how we have contributed to the busy-ness of the season.

·         Certainly gift giving and gift buying keeps us busy
But let's not forget all the church related busy-ness
·         Decorating the Church
·         Cantata's
·         Children's Pageants
·         Dinners
·         Office parties
·         Christmas Caroling
All these things --- if we are not careful --- can crowd out the true simplicity of the season --- just as easily as crowded shopping centers and repetitively hearing "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer" can

But the worst offender may not be losing site of the manger for the mall.

The worst offender, may be inside us

During the time of St Francis, lepers were required to carry with them little bells which they had to ring to warn passersby - they did this instead of shouting "Unclean!"
          Can we hear the warning bells this Christmas?

Christmas has always had to compete with a multitude of messages since the church began celebrating it.

December 25th is the official birth date of Jesus.

But Jesus' actual birth date is never mentioned in the gospels.

The first reference to the Christmas festival comes in the fourth century, in Rome in 336 and December 25th was set as the date.

In the Eastern Roman Empire the main celebration was January 6th. (When we celebrate the Epiphany)

But I am sure you are aware that the date of December 25th was chosen in an attempt by the early church to co-opt the celebrations of the birth of Mithras.

December 25th was the celebration date of Mithras ever since the religion had been introduced to Rome by the returning soldiers of the Roman Legion.
Mithras was an Indo-Iranian god of light, but in the Roman cult Mithras became the invincible god of celestial light: the sun.
And so it was celebrated around the time that the sun begins it's return right after the winter equinox
The ceremonies were marked by a bull sacrifice, a sacramental communion of bread, water and wine, often conducted in caves or grottoes.

According to Pope Liberius the date of Jesus birth was set "to counteract the Saturnalia and the Mithraic ritual in honour of the birth of the sun."

I think we are still confused over what exactly we are celebrating.

Sure, We need celebrations of the sun.
We need celebrations of the nation.
But we need to not confuse and conflate all these celebrations into one.

Lionel Basney, an English Professor at Calvin College wrote in an editorial entitled "A Way of Doing Things,"
{That he identifies with} "the feelings of people who hate the [Christmas] holiday" - although he denounces the "hypocrisy" of the way we "bemoan the commercialization of Christmas while we accede to the commercialization of the rest of our lives."

Basney defines the problem as "the crime of Christmas. "

The real "crime of Christmas," he writes, is the way we "heap pretensions on its simplicity."

The real problem with the way we celebrate Christmas, Basney writes: is
"not that it distracts us from Christ, but that, Christ being inextricably involved in Christmas, it debases him. The Incarnation put the mystery of God's presence into our hands. We are left, then, with the work of culture. We are charged with making a life in which God can be with us. To defend Christmas, we must not only worship; we must rummage among our customs to find any that can help us. But what will they be?"

Basney suggests we start with some contact with nature -
"with snow, with the mud-brown, with animals. Nature is the one permanent participant in the work of culture with the power and strangeness to challenge our pretensions.... If you wish to imagine the stable outside Bethlehem, then, put away your cardboard creche, and hunt up a real barn and real sheep. ... it will not be made of nylon or cardboard or styrofoam. It will breathe and bleat and make its own statement on things.

"Deny the market your blessing for a day. If you need a wreath, go out and trim the spruce in the yard and make your own.

"Cook your own dinner. Cook the food your great-grandparents ate, if you can. Do away, for a day, with microwave pouches and tin-tray steaks. Slice your own vegetables and carve your own roast.

"Go out and cut your own Christmas tree - in the snow, if possible; or in the bare pasture. Let it gum up the carpet with sap and drip needles onto the presents. . . It will be a little remote, a little strange; it comes from outside. And that way it may impress you with some of the strangeness of the holiday, some of its essential refusal to be domesticated. For Jesus also came from outside; and the sheep, the spruce trees, and the snow, in their languages, call him master too." The Reformed Journal, 40 (December 1990), 2,5.

He seems to be suggesting that we do something that doesn't "make sense."

As novelist Madeleine L'Engle reminds us,

This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild
Had Mary been filled with reason
There'd have been no room for the child.

I can relate to William Butler Yeats when he wrote in his poem: "The Second Coming" this telling phrase
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Often I feel like I am slouching toward Bethlehem during the advent season.

Each year our trek towards Bethlehem begins in a slouch,
          develops into a droop,
and then suddenly -
          just before our spirits tumble from the season's burdens and weights -
we find ourselves rushing excitedly toward Bethlehem, posture erect, spirits high, anticipation mounting.

That happens because we have been surprised by God.
·         Sometimes, like Herod, we are surprised by fear.
·         Sometimes, like the Magi, we are surprised by wisdom from the ordinary.
·         Other times, like Mary, we are surprised by angels unaware.
·         Many times, like the shepherds, we are surprised by joy.
·         But always, like planet earth on that silent night long, but not that long ago, we are surprised by a God who is full of surprises.

Are we prepared?
          Are we ready?

Are we open to receiving God's surprises, which are around the corner of every hour of every day?

Are we open to being surprised by faith in the midst of dialogue with doubt;
·         energy when it seems you have used up the last ounce;
·         peace that passes understanding and misunderstanding;
·         patience that kicks in just when self-control keels over;
·         and hope that stands its ground against the multitude of the world's missiles and miseries?

The love of Christ:
That is the source of all Christmas surprises and true Christmas joy.

It is the simple center of the holy day/holiday which has become increasingly elusive as our festivities have become more frenzied and our lives more frantic.

Martin Luther understood the essence of Christmas in a way that is still compelling.

"He whom the world could not inwrap/Yonder lies in Mary's lap."

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