Advent 3C 2018
The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan
In last week’s sermon, I tried to talk about sentimentalism as a stumbling block in the Church. At the 8:00 service, when we actually had people in the pew, I bored them silly with a long rant about this. The text was on John the Baptist calling us to repentance. Looking back I found I was the one who needed to be repentant, repentant about that particularly boring sermon! I am grateful for those who did brave the foot of snow and showed up to suffer through that realization with me. Those of you who usually attend the 10:30 service were spared by that snow storm.
So today I want to revisit my thoughts about sentimentalism and bring this gift to you more carefully wrapped.
The odd thing is that I started out trying to talk about joy and I got bogged down in this stuff about sentimentalism. But in these Advent lessons about preparing the way of the Lord through some self examination, we are meant to take a serious look at our selves and at our need for repentance.
I read a blog this week by an author who has written a book about his experiences visiting sites associated with the civil rights era murders. He specifically has written extensively on the murders of Emmett Till and Medgar Evars. He admits that this might not seem to be very seasonal and cheery to some readers and asks the obvious question, “Why dwell on such dark, tragic, and horrific things during the Christmas season?”
And he answers his own question this way, “Well, because it's not the Christmas season. Not yet. It's Advent now. Advent is the season of exile, a time of god-forsakenness. Advent is the season of longing and groaning. Like the slaves in Egypt and the exiles in Babylon, Advent is the season when we cry out for justice in the face of oppression. All that to say, Advent is the perfect time to dwell on such dark, tragic and horrific things.”
So, while I may come across as morose and too serious lately, that is the reason. We are now in the second week of this look at the story of John the Baptist in the Gospel of Luke so I am trying to live into John’s call for us to repent, which means to turn around, and to await the coming of the Lord - with faith.
The thought about sentimentalism is simple. It’s just that we tend to get sentimental about the days of old, of Christmases long, long ago, and of how we’ve always done things. The Israelites did that when they said, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor’ and John called them out on it. When we do this we can miss the point of the Gospel message which is to face the facts of our sinfulness and prepare ourselves for the challenges of the Christmas message.
That’s where it gets muddled. The Christmas message. We have come to understand this as only about the joy of Christmas, the joy of our salvation through the birth of God in Jesus of Nazareth. While this is the foundation of our joy, if we base our joy only in this fact, then we might miss the part about taking up our crosses to follow him.
Yes, praise and glory and rejoicing are our natural response to the birth of our Lord. Or, as Paul put it in today’s reading from his letter to the Philipians, “Rejoice in the Lord always; . . . Let your gentleness be known to everyone. . . . Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
But, if we skip over the repentance part, if we skip over the waiting part, if we rush into Christmas beginning before Thanksgiving, or Halloween, these few last weeks become just a big old party and we miss the opportunity to live into prayer, we miss this opportunity to live into the re-dedication of our souls to Christ and we risk missing the solemnity of awe - of that hushed amazement that comes when we wait and listen.
That would be sort of like receiving a gift and not reciprocating. And, well, we all know that’s just tacky!
When I was working as a full time therapist, I worked with felons (who came to my office from a half way house) about half the week and the other half of my time I worked with victims of domestic violence. The contrast was poignant.
The offenders were mostly men and the victims most women but not entirely. The men and women who were finishing up their prison sentences in the half-way house taught me a lot.
One counselee had served time for selling stolen goods. He was not a violent person, he had no interest in hurting anyone else. In fact, I found him to be a very caring and sensitive young man who wanted to provide for his family. But he had a sort of addiction to hustling stolen goods for money, of making an easy buck and getting away with it, of get-rich-quick deals that actually brought him more money faster than a legitimate job.
He chose this life, like most of the men in his inner-city culture, so that he could provide for his family. He didn’t see that this hurt anybody and he got a thrill from living this way, not just getting away with something illegal but rather getting a good deal and making a profit. If he could have afforded an education, he would likely have ended up on Wall Street making a legitimate living with this passion. In sessions with me he seemed to genuinely want to change and live differently. But, in spite of his struggle to change he was fearful that he could not change. And if he couldn’t change, he would end up back in prison.
After his session each week, my next client was a woman I had been seeing for a long time. She was not a criminal, she came to talk to me about the times in her life when she was victimized by others. Again, nothing violent or gory or worthy of tabloid news, but a struggling soul in search of a type of freedom, much like the prisoner who came to the session before her who sought freedom not just from his incarceration, but from his past, from his fear of change. She too was fearful of change and could not seem to allow herself to trust others because of her fear of being victimized yet again.
The contrasting experiences of these two individuals caused me to reflect on the perpetrator-victim theme in our larger society.
In both conversations with these sojourners, both the criminal and the victim, I found we used the same language to talk about the same goal. All three of us repeatedly used the word reckon.
Now, you may think we used the word reckon because we were in south Georgia at the time, but we weren’t using the word that way.
In both of these conversations I found myself advising my counselees that they should reckon with the past, that is, they should take a long hard look at the ways they had been living. Not so much to look at the sins of their pasts, but to reckon with the chains of the fears that kept them imprisoned. That is what they needed to let go of in order to move on, to live their lives, to enjoy their relationships and serve their God.
The use of this word seemed to come from beyond our knowing, somehow. It was inspired. It’s not a word I have used often. Sometimes, in our southern ways we’ll say something like, “I reckon I’ll go to the store now” but that is not the way we were using it in these meetings. So, I looked up the word reckon, and here is what I found: It is an ancient word in many languages that is at root about accounting.
The basic dictionary definition of Reckon is:
1. To count; to enumerate; to number; also, to compute; to calculate.
The dictionary I used for some reason used this quote as an example
“. . . then the priest shall reckon unto him the money according to the years that remain…” Now that is from the book of Leviticus (Lev. 27:18) and it is clearly about renumeration.
The second definition of reckon in this dictionary was this:
2. To conclude, as by an enumeration and balancing of chances; hence, to think; to suppose; -- followed by an objective clause.
The example given here for the word reckon was also biblical: “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” This is from Paul’s letter to the Romans. (Romans 8:18, KJV).
A third Biblical example the dictionary used for this word is also from Romans and a bit more familiar: “Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin.” (Romans 6:11)
John the Baptist came preaching a message of freedom for folks just like my counseling clients. And just like you and me too. It was all part of the plan, as we understand from the prophet Malachi, and the Gospel of Luke birth narrative stories. There is a story of John’s mother Elizabeth hostessing a visit from the mother of our Lord and of how John leapt in her womb that day. John would come first, the older cousin, the prophet, the road builder who would call on the people of Judea to repent, to turn around, to wake up, to reckon with their lives and their ways of living in order to be ready for God incarnate.
So, how do we do that today? How are we to reckon with our lives in our waiting and what are we waiting for?
We may each need to take some time away from the rush this season and ponder these things, like Mary pondered the manger scene in her heart later in the story. We might need to insist on some time away to pray and listen to the voice that calls us from the wilderness to reckon our lives. Because we are not waiting for Christmas, we are preparing for it.
When I was about 12 years old I received a gift from a friend early in the Christmas season and placed it carefully under our family tree. It was just after Thanksgiving, we had just put up a tree and there weren’t many other presents under there yet. I watched with anticipation as the presents began to pile up under our tree that year. I would shake them and spend hours wondering what might be in them, especially the ones with my name on them.
One day I couldn’t stand it and decided that no one would know if I opened just one present and then re-wrapped it and placed it back under the tree. I chose the one from my friend since she wouldn’t be around to see my fake surprise look on Christmas morning anyway and none of my family would care either way.
Well, the schemed worked! I snuck her gift into hiding, I opened it, saw the little bracelet inside, wrapped it back and acted surprised when I opened it again on Christmas morning. And no one cared or even noticed the difference! I got away with it! Except for the fact that I knew the difference. And I ruined Christmas for my self that year.
But I learned an important lesson: Waiting to receive the gift is a practiced opportunity for self-examination.
It is not so much about all the stuff under the tree. It is not just about the delight of Santa, and family gatherings, and holiday parties and baking and crafts and giving and receiving in honor of the greatest gift ever given, no it is not about even that as much as it is, this season, about Advent, about preparing ourselves for what may come rather than taking for granted what we already know, what God has in store for us. Advent is about reckoning our lives yet again, it is about repenting and preparing our selves and our souls in order to be ready for the Christ Child to come to us – not in order for Christ to reckon for us or lay straight the roads and the valleys for us – but we are reckoning our lives to prepare our hearts for the Prince of Peace to enter in. Then and only then can we carry the light of God into the world.