Saturday, December 05, 2009

Lift Up Your Heads

Lift Up Your Heads
Jer. 33:14-16; Lk. 21:25-36[1]
I have a confession to make—I’m not a big fan of Christmas. You could say that I’m something of a cross between Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch. Well, almost—I wouldn’t steal Christmas from anybody, and many of you know that I can’t turn away anyone I believe to be truly needy. But I am pretty cynical about Christmas. Or at least the way we as a culture "celebrate Christmas." Kristi likes to tell the story of my first Christmas with her family. Now, in order to appreciate it, you have to understand that in Kristi’s family Christmas wish lists are serious business! But that had not been my experience. So when I made my first list for Kristi’s family, I came up with three items—three. And come Christmas day, much to my surprise, I got all three of them! That also had not been my experience! Needless to say, my Christmas lists in recent years have grown.
So while I do enjoy the whole family gift-giving at Christmas much more than I ever did, I remain fairly cynical about the way we as a culture “celebrate Christmas.” On average, we as a people have spent $900 per person on Christmas gifts over the last ten years. Now, that’s the average—and when you factor in people like you and me who spend more like $50 to $100 per person, it boggles the mind what some people spend! Even though economists estimate that the average this year will probably be about half that, we’re still talking about spending, as a people, over $150 billion—just on Christmas presents. All totaled, we will spend about as much “celebrating Christmas” as we will give to all charities all year long. That includes charities that fund “artistic” endeavors as well as those that help people with their basic needs. So I’m somewhat cynical about the way we “celebrate Christmas.”
Having confessed that, I hasten to add that I’m not cynical about the message of Christmas. It is the message of God’s unconditional love for all people. It is the hope that God’s reign will set things right and create peace and freedom for all creation. It is the good news that, “When we least expect it, and when there is no evidence for it, God's power comes into this godless world in ways the world itself could never predict or foresee.”[2] It is the promise that “I will wipe away every tear,” and “they will beat their swords into ploughshares,” and “I am making the whole of creation new.” The message of Christmas is something I passionately believe.
Ironically, I think that part of the reason why we seem to be so oblivious to the message of Christmas is because it’s not the language of doubt and cynicism, to which we are so accustomed, but the language of promise and hope. I think the message of Christmas gets lost to us because Biblical faith is a faith that is very much defined by promise.[3] Take the words of the prophet Jeremiah: in the face of a siege by the unstoppable Babylonian army, Jeremiah obeys God’s command to buy a piece of land as a tangible reminder that God would bring the people back and restore their fortunes (Jeremiah 32:43-45). And so “just when the future appeared darkest,” Jeremiah spoke in the name of Lord: “the days are surely coming when I will fulfill the promise I made to Israel.”[4] It was a promise of “a future of justice, freedom, reconciliation and wholeness.”[5] And the people of Jeremiah’s day didn’t get that message any more than the people of our day get it. But make no mistake—the message of Christmas is a promise—the promise of a future of justice, freedom, reconciliation and wholeness.
I think one of the things we don’t like about all that is that it requires watchfulness, as Luke reminds us. Or perhaps a better word for it would be “waiting.” Like it or not, “waiting” is the essence of our faith: “we wait for what God has promised: new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness will be at home” (2 Peter 3:13-14, TEV). You simply cannot take away the dimension of promise from the Christian faith. And that means you cannot take away the element of waiting.
But waiting for a promise to be fulfilled is not an easy task. Traditionally, the season of Advent is a time of waiting in stillness, being silent in the darkness as we await the coming of the light. But we don’t like waiting in stillness—it is uncomfortable. We want to fill the silence with chatter, or at least clear a throat. We fidget and shuffle papers—anything not to have to wait in stillness and silence. And yet there is a reason for the waiting; the stillness serves a purpose. It serves to focus our hopes on the heart of our faith—that God is in the process of creating for us all a future of justice, freedom, reconciliation and wholeness. And the stillness of Advent serves to prepare us for the real celebration of Christmas—not packages and parties, but the good news that in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, whom we call Christ and Savior and Lord, God began the process of fulfilling that promise.[6]
So I think observing the season of Advent—before we “celebrate Christmas”—may be one of the most important ways we can bear witness to our faith.[7] I think it is perhaps more important than ever, in the midst of all that we do to “celebrate Christmas,” that we observe Advent in a way that is consistent with the hope that God is in the process of creating a future for us all that consists of justice, freedom, reconciliation and wholeness. During this time of year it is the case that, as it is the rest of the year, we bear the most powerful witness to our faith and hope with what we do.[8] So I would encourage you to find ways to create room in your life for stillness—as uncomfortable as that may be—and to let the stillness move you to “lift up your heads, for your redemption draws near!”

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/29/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] James F. Kay, “Redemption Draws Near,” The Christian Century (Nov. 12, 1997): 1033. He continues, “If the future were not the promise of Jesus Christ but the predictable outcome of present trends, despair would overwhelm us. No trend points to the permanence of what we call heaven and earth. If trends predict anything, it is that death and dissolution bring an end to every human heart and hope.”
[3] Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 20: “Hope is nothing else than the expectation of those things which faith has believed to have been truly promised by God” (quoting John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.2.42 ); cf. also 16, 30-32, 40-44, 85-89, 102-54, 190-229.
[4] William Dyrness, “In Distress,” The Christian Century (Nov. 16, 1994): 1073. He adds, “Often in scripture the promises of God come in the most difficult circumstances, as if God intends that we not live by the certainties we see and know.”
[5] John C. Morris, “Anticipation,” The Christian Century (Nov. 22, 2000):1214.
[6] Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 26-27, 28, 30, 32-33.
[7] Joanna M. Adams, “Light the Candles,” The Christian Century (Nov. 28, 2006): 18: Advent is a time for “holding on for dear life to the reassurance that God intends to make the world right again.”
[8] Cf. Leonardo Boff, Passion of Christ, Passion of the World; quoted in Living Pulpit (Oct-Dec 1997): 38: “The reign of God, the eschatological liberation of the world, is already in process …. It takes shape in concrete modifications of actual life.”

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