December 18, 2018

Another Look: Why Do We Love This Season?

Sagrada Familia, Samacchini

Another Look: Why Do We Love This Season?

Why do we love this season?

I would suggest that aesthetics have much to do with the answer to that question. The lead-up to Christmas and its celebration is made sensible to us by means of the things we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch at this time of year.

Spiritual truth comes out of the closet of the abstract and makes itself real to us through our bodily, sensory experiences during the holidays.

God in heaven becomes incarnate in Bethlehem. Word becomes flesh.

We shiver at the chill. We grow warm by the fire.

We smell the pungent dung of the stable. And fragrant bows from the pine.

The song of the angels fills our ears. And the voices of children.

Our gaze is transfixed upon a newborn Baby.

We relish the special feasts we share with one another, as the Baby suckles his Mother’s breast.

Gifts are exchanged, hand to hand, paper ripped open and flung aside amid squeals of delight and smiles, tears, hugs, acknowledged later with handwritten thank-you notes.

It is not simply the Christmas “spirit” but the lived experiences of Christmas that we treasure.

All of our traditions and practices, the idiosyncratic celebrations of our families, and the special events in our churches, schools and communities take place in space and time in the lives of boys and girls and men and women of flesh and blood. We hold up our candles in the darkness and await the moment when “the dawn from on high will break upon us.”

Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

(Christina Rosetti)

Hear this marvelous testimony from Eric Gill. Don’t get sidetracked and focus only on the specific path he chose (Catholicism), but hear the larger message he brings:

I became a Catholic because I fell in love with the truth. And love is an experience. I saw. I heard. I felt. I tasted. I touched. And that is what lovers do.

Oh, that we, in all our faith traditions, might learn this. There is no “spiritual” faith. What God has given us is bodies, by which we receive his gifts. The path leads from the outside in, and not vice versa. To reach our hearts, he took on flesh.

We instinctively know this in the season around Christmas.

My prayer is that we will know it in all the gracious seasons of life.

Monday with Michael Spencer: Letters from Santa

Monday with Michael Spencer
Letters from Santa (from 2006)

Several years ago, we began another tradition that has proven to be one of the highlights of Christmas for us: the reading of the unedited, uncorrected “Letters to Santa” printed in our local newspaper. The authors are local 2nd graders, and these letters, read dramatically, are absolutely the biggest laugh you can possibly imagine.

This year a boy asked for seven different kinds of carrots. Another child told Santa that last year’s situation of watching his brother get more toys simply couldn’t be repeated. They want lots of real guns, real four wheelers, and camouflage outfits. Second graders. This is Clay County, Kentucky, after all.

One child refused to write to Santa, instead writing to mom and dad and lecturing the teacher on the evils of believing in this sort of thing. (Some of my TR readers will be greatly pleased with this child.) Another child promised to leave spaghetti and sauce on the table, a real break from milk and cookies. I sense the influence of dad in that one.

Of course, most letters contained recitations of personal virtue and a summary record of good deeds. The words “very good” get quite a workout. One child said very 8 times in a row. OK. I get it.

On the other hand, a rare fellow said “Santa, would you check and see if I am on the naughty list? I think I am on the naughty list. I’m always getting into things I shouldn’t be getting into.” Now there’s a young person with the right idea.

I read these letters and I recall my own childhood. I vividly remember how Christmas would come and bring hope that, finally, dad would say yes instead of no. Finally, being poor wouldn’t be the reason I couldn’t have what other kids had. In that last week of the year, things would change and everything would be alright.

The myth of Santa Claus gripped me deeply and still affects me emotionally to this day. You see, there are other things in those children’s letters that I am not reading to you. If you know our area and culture, and if you read carefully, you will hear the story of poverty, broken families, absent parents, substance abuse and despair that lives in the hollers and off the highways of Appalachia. You will hear, in those letters to Santa, the human prayer that somehow, at the end of the year, all will be right again. That broken, ruined, imperfect lives will be touched with love and magic. Don’t we all know that letter? Don’t we all know that story?

We are, as human beings, an unfinished story, and we yearn for the last chapter to be written so that everything comes out all right.

We are a child without shoes, and we long to be clothed.

We are discordant notes, aching for resolution.

We are listening to the song of the angels, and we can hear the words “peace on earth,” but we cannot touch those angels and know that they, and their message, are real.

We are hoping, yearning, aching for a savior. Not often for THE savior, at least not most of us. But for a savior. For someone to come and say the cancer is gone. Someone to bring shoes, or a job. Someone to put us to bed without fighting, or let us hear the words “I’m sorry I hurt you.”

We are hoping that just beyond this life, we can touch another life. A life where so much isn’t wrong, and our hunger for happiness will not be constantly disappointed.

We are so close. So close we can see and hear and feel the perfect world in the faces of children, at weddings, when choirs sing, in movies and at meals. But we cannot reach that perfect world.

It is frustrating to not be able to go beyond the door; to be so close, yet so far.

Sermon Advent III: Good News?

Sermon Advent III: Good News? (Luke 3:7-18)

7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

• • •

When I first read this text this week, the question came to me immediately. In the final verse of today’s Gospel, we read that John the Baptist, in his preaching and exhorting, was proclaiming the good news to the people. That made me stop and re-read the text. So I read it again. And again. And each time I kept asking myself the question: “Where’s the good news here?”

This, after all, is a sermon that starts out with the preacher calling his congregation a bunch of snakes! He then tells them in no uncertain terms that their treasured religious heritage means nothing. And then he warns them that God’s about to come and cut down a lot of stuff they are invested in and throw it into the fire.

Some good news, huh?

So the crowd, taken aback by this message of judgment, asked John what to do. Normally, when proclaiming the good news, we would expect a preacher to call people to trust in God. We don’t believe people become righteous by doing good works. We teach that people trust God, become united to Jesus by faith, and then the good works flow from Christ’s life in us. It’s not what we do first of all that counts, it is faith, it is who we trust. Then that faith works itself out in loving actions toward our neighbors.

However, when you read the second paragraph of today’s Gospel, when the people ask John what they should do in response to his criticisms and warnings, he doesn’t talk at all about faith. Instead, he says, “Do this. Don’t do that.” Share what you have with the needy. Don’t be greedy and take more than your fair share from your employer. Don’t extort others for your own selfish gain. Be content with what you have.

I think we’d all agree that those are good things, right? No objection here to the moral teaching that John is giving. But is this good news? Lutheran tradition would call this law teaching. Law teaching is not the gospel. Law teaching comes before the good news. First we hold up before people God’s righteous standards. Then, when we all realize we fall short and stand in need of forgiveness and renewal, then we share the good news that Jesus died for our sins and rose again that we might be pardoned, cleansed, and raised to walk in newness of life with him. We call people to trust in Jesus, to be united to him by grace through faith, and then, out of that union, to live as we should.

Even when John gets around to talking about Jesus in the third paragraph, it is a rather daunting picture he paints of him. He portrays Jesus as a powerful harvester who will come to sort out the wheat from the chaff. Everything that doesn’t bear fruit is gonna get burned up. He is going to sort out what should be kept from what should be discarded.

At first blush, this all sounds pretty scary to me, and I’m not sure I would categorize it right away as “good news.” Nevertheless, note how the passage ends: “So, with many other exhortations, [John] proclaimed the good news to the people.”

What’s going on here?

As I thought about this, I remembered that the Old Testament is filled with statements that go like this: “Praise the Lord, for he is coming to judge the world in righteousness.”

Now I don’t know about you, but the prospect of God coming and judging the world with righteous judgment is not exactly something I’m looking forward to. There is a lot of bad stuff in this world — and there is a lot of bad stuff in me — and none of it is going to last a second when God comes to judge. The thought of God dealing with all of that makes me tremble.

But maybe that’s the point after all. Perhaps John and the prophets and the psalmists were on to something. Maybe they were announcing good news after all! This world needs to be made right. I need to be made right. We all need to be made right. What John is announcing here is that God is coming to make the world right, and maybe in order to do that, some destruction needs to take place before the construction of something new can happen.

We know this instinctively, right? Perhaps we want to build a new building where an old one now exists. We have to make a decision, don’t we? Can we merely renovate the old building, or would it be more cost effective and better to tear the old structure down and make something new from ground up? The destruction of the old becomes necessary for the building of the new.

Maybe what John is announcing here is the start of a whole new project in Jesus. God’s going to tear down the old and replace it all with something shiny and new. And when John tells the people to do good works like he does in this passage, perhaps he’s just telling them to start practicing for the new day to come, the new way of life that’s coming.

We like to think that God’s good news is all sweetness and light, but perhaps that’s not the case. Maybe God’s good news is more about the fact that God is going to do what it takes to make all things new. And that means some destruction as well as construction. That means some tearing down as well as building up. That means weeding out the bad stuff as well as incorporating the new stuff. That means that people like you and me must face up to changes that need to be made, setting aside things we cherish and hold on to, being willing to let go of our pride and self-righteousness and our need to be in control of everything.

Maybe good news means not only rising into newness of life, but also dying first.

John the Baptist talks about fire here, and this is a good metaphor by which to communicate this two-edged emphasis. We often think of fire as a destructive force. The recent fires in California, where human homes and lives were devastated come to mind. However, in nature, fire is a good thing, a natural part of the cycle of life. Fire makes a necessary contribution to the ecosystem. Fire is vital to the survival of many species. Fire not only destroys, it brings forth new life.

In forests, fire removes low-growing underbrush, cleans the forest floor of debris, opens it up to sunlight, and nourishes the soil. This reduces the competition for nutrients and allows established trees to grow stronger and healthier.

Fires also provide habitat and shelter to forest animals and birds. Fire clears out heavy brush, leaving room for new grasses, herbs and regenerated shrubs that provide food and habitat for many wildlife species.

Furthermore, fire kills diseases and insects that prey on trees and provides valuable nutrients that enrich the soil, as the vegetation that is burned becomes a rich source of nourishment for the remaining trees.

Forestry experts tell us that change is important to a healthy forest. Some species of trees and plants are actually fire dependent. They must have fire at regular intervals in order for life to continue. The destructive force of fire is actually designed to renew life! That which we instinctively view as bad news is, in fact, ultimately good news.

Praise the Lord, for he is coming to judge the earth! When Jesus comes, John tells us, he will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. This is the fire of renewal, the fire of purification, the fire of cleansing, the fire that brings life out of the ashes.

Good news comes in different forms, and here is one of those forms today. John’s preaching is the good news announcement that God is going to make the world right through Jesus, whatever it takes. Yes, it’s going to involve a coming firestorm, but when it is over, everything will be made new.

Isn’t that the good news we’re waiting to hear, really? One day, this old world and you and me are going to be made right and whole and new. So, go ahead, start practicing today. Show a little extra kindness. Learn to be content with what you have. Don’t treat others in a way that you would hate, if others treated you that way.

And brace yourself. God’s about to turn this whole world right side up. Amen.

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