Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Ghost of Christmas Present

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 4:14-21:

Okay, we’re going to start with a trivia question.  We’re talking about Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, so does anyone know the Christmas carol that is sung in the story? It’s God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.  But we have begun using Dickens’ ghosts of Christmas as a lens through which to view our journey through Advent to Christmas.  Last week we looked at the Ghost of Christmas Past who takes Scrooge, appropriately enough, into the past to see a different vision of Christmas, a time in which he enjoyed the season and all that it brought, and we saw that the past does not determine the future, that the present and the future can also be changed, if we are willing to change.    Much of what we know as the “traditions” of Christmas were invented fairly recently, and that includes the laments about what Christmas has become and the cry to try and practice Christmas differently.
The next ghost that Scrooge encounters is that of Christmas present.  If you’ve ever read A Christmas Carol or seen a movie version, you may remember that the ghost of Christmas present is a large jovial fellow who is surrounded by piles of food and signs of abundance.  Even the ghost’s lamp is in the shape of a horn of plenty or a cornucopia.  If Dickens were to write the story today, this ghost may stay the same because he can be the symbol of the over-consumption which is so prevalent in Christmas present, but there is also a warning in this ghost’s visage.  Because even though he is jolly and laughing and surrounded by abundance, we are told that around his waist “is an antique scabbard, but no sword was in it, and the ancient sheath was eaten up with rust.”  Reminiscent of Jesus’ injunction not to put up our treasure where moth and rust will consume and where thieves can break in and steal, but instead to put our treasure in heaven.  And then Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  And I think it’s critical to note that Jesus does not say where our heart is that’s where our treasure is, but instead that what we treasure is where our heart will follow, that our treasure doesn’t follow our heart, but instead that our heart follows our treasure.  Definitely something to keep in mind this Christmas season.

And yet, we are not really told that we are to ignore everything of this world, to reject all fun and enjoyment, to go around basically saying to the world Scrooge’s famous phrase “Bah Humbug.”  That’s certainly how a lot of Christians approach the world.  Indeed one of the problems with some fundamentalists is that they’ve taken all the fun right out of their name.  I mean fundamentalist starts with fun, and yet all too many approach the world saying “bah humbug.”  And like we talked about last week, while John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus to come, he was probably not a lot of fun to be around, and yet Jesus was the opposite of that for the most part, he was enjoying himself, feasting with those around him, and since he could make a jar of salsa and bag of tortilla chips last an entire night and could even turn water into wine, he was also the life of the party.

And that is what we see the ghost show Scrooge, that his employee Bob Cratchit and his family, even though they don’t have a lot, even though Tiny Tim has a handicapping condition, what are they doing?  They’re feasting and enjoying themselves, they are having a good time in spite of everything else.  They are not letting their present condition limit them in any way because their treasure is not in the things of the world, like it is with Scrooge, but instead it is in their families and their time together, they understand much better than Scrooge what it is that truly matters, what holds true wealth and importance.  Even with Scrooge’s nephew, who certainly has more financial wherewithal than do the Cratchits, are gathered together, and it is about those who are there, with even with the hope that Scrooge might be with them, because that is what truly matters.  And yet scrooge doesn’t get it.  He once did, but he doesn’t anymore, and some of that is because he has gotten distracted by other treasures.  Indeed, after his nephew says Merry Christmas to Scrooge, he replies, “Merry Christmas! What right have you to me merry? What reason have you to be merry?  You’re poor enough.”  To which his nephew replies, “Come then, what right have you to be dismal?  What reason have you to be morose?  You’re rich enough.”  But it’s not about either the wealth or the poverty, it’s about recognizing what’s truly important and also recognizing that even in the midst of things we might not like, that we can appreciate it and have joy.

That is the candle we lit this morning, and you might have noticed that it is a different color, and there is a reason for that.  In the early church, the only special season was Lent, which was, and still is a time of prayer, fasting and repentance, and that was represented by the color purple which signified royalty, penance and suffering.  But Lent ends in joy and the celebration of Easter, and so on the third Sunday of Lent, there was a call for feasting rather than fasting, that even in times of darkness, that we could still have joy in our lives, which accompanied hope, that joy was not dependent upon what was going on in our lives, that we could always sustain joy because of the presence of God.  Because it also became tradition on that Sunday for the Pope to give out a pink flower, when the recognition of advent began, the tradition also arose to have the third Sunday of Advent, represented by joy, to also be accompanied by a pink candle, as a step out from the normal observation of Advent as it is during Lent

That joy is also represented, or at least is presaged, by the message we heard from the prophet Isaiah and the gospel passage this morning.  Remembering that Isaiah is writing in the midst of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, and the taking of Israel into exile, a very dark period for the nation, and so Isaiah gives this message of hope, that God is not done with them, that even in the midst of everything that God is still present, but even more that God is calling us to be present as agents of God as well.  And so it is perhaps not surprising that this is the passage that Jesus’ chooses for his first sermon, which really sets the model for what his ministry will look like and what it will be about.  Because the first thing we hear Jesus say is “repent, for the kingdom of God has come near,” and then he picks up the scroll and reads, “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  And that, Jesus says, has been fulfilled in their hearing.  This is a claim that God is present not just for those we think are blessed, but that God is present for everyone, that, in the words of liberation theologians, that God has a preferential option for the poor, or the bling, the captives those who are in such debt and despair that they need to be released by the year of jubilee.

Most of us want Christmas to mean more, to be more, to connect us to something different, to connect us to something deeper, and yet we’re not sure how.  Bruce Forbes, a professor of religious studies, says that “on the one hand, a number of Christians are introspective and self-critical, asking themselves if they have become so preoccupied with the decorations, gifts and dinner preparations that they have forgotten the “reason for the season,” the birth of Christ.  On the other hand,” he says, “some Christians complain about public actions and displays at Christmastime that do not acknowledge Christianity or Jesus….  In other words,” Forbes continues, “one concern is about whether my own personal Christmas observances are Christian enough, and the other concern is about whether society’s Christmas observances are Christian enough.”  Because we can’t quite figure out how to solve the first concern about our own celebrations, we seem to be spending our time focusing on the second.

A few years ago, a group of five women in Dallas put up a billboard which says “I miss you saying Merry Christmas,” and it was signed “Jesus.”  But what I imagine Jesus saying is how are you proclaiming the good news and to whom are your proclaiming it?  What is the good news that was proclaimed to us?  More importantly, what is the good news we are proclaiming to others?  We are worried about the person at the check-out counter who is ringing up items we don’t need paid for with money we don’t have saying Merry Christmas to us, and yet we live in a world where  today 16,000 children will die from malnutrition.  We live in a world where today 500 children will die as a result of war and violence.  We live in a world where today 4000 children will die from water-borne illnesses.  And we live in a world where millions of people do not know what it means to have peace, hope, joy or love, the themes of Advent

When Jacob Marley’s ghost visits Scrooge at the beginning of the story, Scrooge is shocked to see him tied up in chains and being told that it is because of how Marley lived his life, and Scrooge says, but you were good at business, to which Marley responds, “Business” said Marley, “Mankind was my business.  The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance and benevolence were all my business.  The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business.  .  What does the incarnation mean to us and what does it mean to the world?    “The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach the good news.”  Last week we heard John the Baptist say that he is only baptizing with water, but that the one who is to come will baptize with the Holy Spirit.  As baptized people who have been given the Holy Spirit, we too should be saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, is upon us, because he has anointed me, us, to preach the good news….”

But here is some good news, although you wouldn’t know it from watching the news, but unemployment is down, crime rates are down, pollution is down, education levels are up, life expectancy is up, and today, we have the lowest risk of being killed from war or violence in human history. 50 years ago, the US alone had around 30,000 nuclear warheads.  Today we have around 7300 and the Russian Federation has around 8000, and both those numbers are declining.  Today around 1 in 6 people around the world live on less than $1.25 a day, which is a travesty, and yet 25 years ago more than 1/3 of the world’s population lived at that level of poverty and in the intervening 25 years, the population has also exploded, which means that our actual numbers of people living in extreme poverty have dropped dramatically.  That is good news.  In this congregation, we have provided the resources to purchase nearly 200 anti-malarial nets, saving hundreds if not thousands of lives.  We have provided the resources to provide two schools in Kenya with clean running water.  We are assisting more than 80 families in need on the Westside of Albuquerque with food.  We are helping children to learn how to read, we are visiting people in hospitals, and we are reaching out in thousands of ways to help people to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.

The incarnation means that God entered into the world fully, so celebrating Jesus’ birth with some things of the world seems appropriate, but it does not mean giving everything over to the world either.  So as we look at our Christmas present, there are two questions I believe we need to ask ourselves.  The first is to ask, what would be lost if we stopped celebrating Christmas?  And second, what would be gained if we stopped celebrating Christmas?  When we answer those questions honestly then we will find what is at the heart of our Christmas celebration, and it will then allow us to begin to answer what we want Christmas to be for us and our families this year.

Advent is a time of waiting and preparing for God to transform the world through Jesus Christ, but it is also a time in which we recognize that God has already transformed the world through the birth of Christ.  It is a time of all-ready and not quite yet, a time of celebration and a time of repentance and preparation.  Christmas is not about whether we say Merry Christmas or not, but instead about choosing to live like Christ and proclaiming Christ to the world.  As we prepare to look to the ghost of Christmas future next week, let us make the Christmas present what we need it to be for us. Instead of being simply one more Christmas, just like last year or all the years before let us make this Christmas a time in which we see God’s incarnation as transformative and life-changing not just for us, but for the world, for the Spirit of the Lord is upon us.  May it be so my sisters and brothers.  Amen.

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