What are you preparing for?
The season of anticipation has begun! Of course, you know what I am talking about, right? Star Wars! Surely you are aware that this film has already raised over $30 million in ticket sales and it doesn't even show for 19 more days. Not only that, but it is expected to gross $300 million – and that’s just ticket sales!
Now, far be it from me to add to this hype from the pulpit, but I think it is interesting to note what we value, culturally, as a human community. There is something about this story of good versus evil that connects with our own struggle. There is something in this story about the use of force and power and the role of sacrifice for the greater good that connects with what we value as human beings.
That is why we – in the church – take time every year to prepare for the story of what we believe is good and true and valuable. It is an ancient story about good and evil and the value of sacrifice for the greater good. This is, of course, the Season of Advent, and the story of the birth of Jesus of Nazereth – which we commonly call Christmas. A lot of money is spent on Christmas as well. Some estimate that we spend around $465 billion. In fact there’s even a news media campaign to encourage us to create 200,000 new jobs by spending $64 each on American made products.
It is certainly good to think about the way our actions impact the lives of others, particularly in the way we spend our money. Yet we must also consider how and what we are preparing for and proclaiming, which – according to scripture – is none other than the righteousness of God. In our rush to procure a perfect Christmas experience, there is great risk in missing out on the presence of the God who is with us. In many ways we have belittled and marketed the opportunity to proclaim Christ with the expectation that Christmas is just about being nice and spreading cheer – and not particularly about righteousness. Even the debates about Christmas greetings seem to forget why we say, “Merry Christmas.”
Sometimes I wish we could instead say, “Have a meaningful Advent!” We could, but I doubt we would get more than strange looks. Even those who know what Advent is might say, “That’s something you do at church, right? Christmas is what we do at parties, and on the radio, and in the mall!”
For so many of us, Christmas has become a mixed bag between the emotional experience of the end of a year, the memories of loved ones we either cannot or will not see, and the economic crutch of buying and selling gifts to express love, fulfill obligations, and otherwise complete the experience that we call Christmas.
And in the midst of this, we who follow Jesus have stories that we value. We have stories that we tell our children. We have stories that build traditions. We have stories that comfort us, confront us, and inspire the moments of our days with hope and anticipation.
Such were the words of the Prophet Jeremiah for a people who were assailed on every front. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had been conquered, and the King of Judah was desperately trying to reform the actions of a people that seemed to be turning to any God that might answer their desperate cries for help. Jeremiah’s words offered hope, even as his words acknowledged that the current king’s efforts were too little and too late. Jeremiah anticipated another chosen leader who would “execute God’s righteousness”, even though Jeremiah never saw the messiah he hoped for.
It makes me wonder what we are anticipating from God. What is on our Christmas list? What kind of messiah are we hoping for? Well, if the Prophet’s words be true, what we should expect is righteousness. In this context, righteousness has to do with governance – with the idea that all things are moving toward the completion of God’s will. Righteousness also means correctness. It means doing the right thing, even if it is against the rules.
One need only look to the women’s suffrage movement or the civil rights movement to see examples of breaking the rules for the greater good. I think it takes a longer view of history to determine whether our current debates about liberty and justice have panned out well, but you can be sure that in the end God’s will is what wins the day. In the mean time, we who follow Jesus, have to ask ourselves what is right and good. We who follow Jesus must remember that only God is righteous, and that Jesus came to demonstrate and “execute” the righteousness of God.
So then, Christian brothers and sisters, it is up to us to do the same. For we live in between the revelation of God through Jesus Christ and the expectation of his return. That is the good news of today’s apocalyptic gospel reading – we are promised that Christ will return! Scholars will debate the signs and wonders Jesus describes – and what is meant by a generation that will not die – until he does return. What matters most for you and for me is that he will return.
And in the mean time there will be those that experience tragedy that shakes the foundations of their lives, and you and I may experience them as well. And if these experiences disconnect us from one another or consume us with selfishness, then we are caught in a trap. It is only our ability to see God in one another – and through that vision act rightly – that we can make it through our trials.
Then we are able to see the value in one another, and we become so filled with joy that we can’t thank God enough for one another! That’s what Paul said to the church in Thessolonica, and it reminds me of a story a friend recently told. Max is a classmate from seminary who runs Street Life Ministries in Brookfield, Wisconsin.
He recently shared a story about meeting with a man who needed a coat. Max admitted his doubts and his expectation that the person would not meet him at the appointed time, but he went anyway. Here’s his story.
“I guess I've been doing this too long. I had this nagging feeling he wouldn't show. People have a bad habit of promising with their hope. I thought I'd drive the twenty minutes over there, and I'd wait...and wait...and he wouldn't show. But I went because of that nagging, itching hope down deep even in a tired soul.
And there he was. I think he was thinking exactly the same things I was. How many awful broken promises has this man faced in his time on the streets? In his difficult life?
When I opened up the box of brand new coats, his eyes lit up like a kid on Christmas morning. When I gave him that coat, I thought he was going to weep. ‘Oh! Thank you, Lord! Thank you, Lord!’ He said, ‘A couple of guys said I was a fool, that you wouldn't show up for me. I told them they were wrong. I told them you'd be here. Who's the fool now?!’
He took off his jacket liner and put the coat on. He was dancing. I told him he should put the old jacket liner under this coat. He said, ‘No, I'm going to bless somebody else with that, just like I've been blessed with this one!’ He gave me a hug, and kind of danced off.
I have been doing this a long time, and I am tired in my soul. Jaded isn't the right word. Just tired. So many losses. So many failures. I almost missed this day of visitation. But, I didn't. I saw it. I drank it in.
You and I have coats in our closets. Coats for this occasion and that occasion. But to this man, a good coat is the difference between some modicum of comfort and genuine misery. On a bitter cold night, it might be the difference between living and dying. It was clear that this man had prayed to God for a coat. Such a simple thing to you and me. But to him, it was everything. And the Lord heard his prayer. The Lord moved one man to buy these coats - something I could not have done. The Lord connected our paths on Saturday. And the Lord overcame my loss of belief in my fellow man and made me drive over there today, even though I was tired and wanted to go home. And through all of these things, the Lord answered that man's prayer. And that man knew it, and he was truly, deeply grateful. Seeing that was my blessing. And it was a holy blessing, indeed.”
There really are hundreds of stories like this going on right now. There’s the Secret Santa in Kansas city that gave money to the police and asked them to target cars with dents and damage to give out $100 bills. There’s the 12 year old boyfriend and girlfriend that set up a fund raiser to buy Christmas gifts for homeless children in their community.
And then there’s you – each of you with stories of grace and mercy to share. There’s you – some of whom have already purchased gifts from our alternative gift market - 1gifts that benefit farmers in developing nations through the Presbyterian Mission Agency and families with special needs through Evergreen Life Services. You have faithfully supported the CUPS Basket Ministry over the years, and you’ll do it again this coming Saturday!
And whether you are able to support our ministry together through prayer, financial generosity, or just the contribution of your time and effort, you are part of the story that God is telling through us! And someone will hear this story and say, “I just can’t thank God enough for you!” They may or may not come up with the other part that is in the letter to the Thessalonians – the part that says, “I can’t wait to see you so that I can restore your faith!” But maybe they don’t always have to. Maybe the verse we contribute can be enough to let God’s righteousness shine through.
As Walt Whitman said in his famous poem:
Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
May it be so with you, and may it be so with me – forgiven sinners that we are – as we prepare for the celebration of the birth of Jesus, and as we proclaim his return. And may God grant us a meaningful Advent as we glorify God the best we can with all that we have and all that we are. To this I say Amen.