May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O God, our strength and our Redeemer.
It’s the first Sunday of Advent, and Christmas is exactly four weeks away. Perhaps you have already done some advance thinking about how to deal with the slightly complicated logistics of celebrating the final lighting of the Christmas candle on a Saturday night, and then dragging yourself back to church 12 hours later, barely after the last echoes of “Silent Night” have faded in the rafters here. The logistical challenge is compounded if you have children. Good luck getting them to Church on Christmas morning. Imagine their indignation: “Church on Christmas? That’s not fair!”. Children do unintentional irony so well.
The seeds of their indignation are sown by the folks who planted that fat “Toys R Us” catalogue in your Sunday paper, the same ones who shamelessly uprooted the boundary stake for Black Friday and replanted it firmly into Thanksgiving, even before your post-turkey tryptophon naps have worn off. More irony here: Having almost totally lost the celebration of our Savior’s birth to commercial interests, we have to mute our indignation about the loss of Thanksgiving, since it doesn’t even rate a mention on anyone’s liturgical calendar. More irony: it looks holier every year compared to Christmas.
So here we sit at the start of Advent, a season of expectation, longing and hope, hunkered down a few miles from the ground zero on Rt. 12A and squeezed between Black Friday and Cyber Monday. How do we deal with the fact that we are on dual tracks between the secular and the sacred, with both of them sharing the same goal of preparation for Christmas?
We’re up against the experts. All of us have firmly rooted fond memories of simpler Christmases in the past, and a lifetime of memories of music, sights, sounds and smells. These are all carefully manipulated by commercial interests. They fill our newspapers, television and radio stations, e-mail in-boxes and Web pages, all with one unanimous plea: buy gifts now. Buy the gifts that your family and friends need. Buy the gifts because you are expected to do so and to prove you love your family, admire your boss, appreciate your colleagues, are sensitive to your in-laws, generous to your employees, and respect your children’s teachers, coaches, dance instructors and babysitters. Buy to show your patriotism, and get this economy moving again!
There is such urgency to the message this year that shoppers are holding each other off with pepper spray, and duking it out in the aisles of Wal-Mart.
By now you have noticed that many radio stations have gone over to the 24/7 playing of Christmas music. How can the church compete with “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” by Nat King Cole, or “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby? How can we outdo “Charlie Brown Christmas”? Even now you can imagine that amazing piano score by Vince Guaraldi, and hear Linus reciting the Nativity passages from Luke.
This, year, though, the calendar has handed us a loophole, and I want to suggest that we take advantage of the fact that it’s still November, and we’re not ready to say goodbye to Thanksgiving. Today’s Epistle reading is a letter from Paul to the church in Corinth, and the segment that we shared is the part that is called “The Thanksgiving”. How convenient. Paul’s letters were always very predictable in their style. He would open by identifying the sender of the letter. It was always Paul, of course, but sometimes he would share the opening with another missionary, frequently Timothy, and in the first letter to the Corinthians, Sosthenes.
As in many letters then, Paul would follow by listing the recipients of his letter, and then greeting them. Paul always had the same greeting, the one we heard today: Grace to you and Peace”. Then comes the Thanksgiving, those wonderful, reassuring words that are worth hearing again:
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind – just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you – so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.
It’s so clear. Paul is reminding us that our hope for God’s kingdom begins with gratitude for what we have already been given. Paul wants us to know that our ultimate hope is nurtured not so much by waiting anxiously for the future coming of Christ but by looking backward gratefully for the gifts that we have already been given in Christ. Paul launches into hyperbole when he describes God’s generosity: “In every way you have been enriched, in speech and knowledge of every kind, so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift.” What a helpful reminder in an anxious time, and especially in this season!
Paul will go on in his letter to the Corinthians to be very critical of his fledgling church. They were citizens of a teeming city, a crossroads of commerce, a seaport known for prostitution, with Aphrodite, the supreme goddess of love and fertility, as its patron deity. The Corinthian church was full of Gentiles, reared in the pagan, permissive Greco-Roman culture that was foreign to the Mosaic law that was in Paul’s Pharisitic background. They quarreled among themselves, listened to competing prophets, and caused Paul endless anguish. Paul called them ”people of the flesh”, deceptive, boastful, arrogant, anxious, self-indulgent, complaining, libertine, divisive and fiercely competitive. It may have been obvious to the Corinthians, as it is to us, that whoever has the greatest number of important gifts “wins”.
Paul offers a different perspective. In his words to the Corinthians we hear him tell our own anxious souls that we already have the gifts we need: the gifts of grace, of knowledge and of speech. Later in the letter he will tell us that it’s not just those gifts that mater but others as well: wisdom and discernment, faith and healing, miracles and prophecy. And of course still later in 1 Corinthians 13 he will describe in eloquent detail the gifts of love.
That doesn’t mean that God is finished with the gift-giving. That’s why we are in Advent, in waiting, in preparation. God promises to complete what was begun in Christ. With our hope for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, we wait with patience because God is faithful. The God who called us into fellowship of his son Jesus Christ has not turned away but has gifts for us that are beyond what we could ask or imagine.
Listen to what Pastor Christine Chakoian says about Advent and Thanksgiving, and being on the cusp of each: “There’s nothing wrong with hope in the not yet, but it begins with gratitude for the already”.
So this year, instead of trying to compete with the urgency and volume of commercial Christmas advertisements, let’s try for the quiet alternative. Can the noisy gong or clanging cymbal of Bruce Springsteen’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” really complete with the quiet faith of “Let all Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”, with the gentle hope of “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus”, the age-old longing of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”?
We can celebrate Christmas, but let’s do it on our terms. Let’s look to the back of this wonderful sanctuary and reduce the number of Christmas Smile tags hanging there. Let’s give of ourselves in sustaining the work of this wonderful congregation and co-Pastors, which in these last few months has been such a source of comfort to this tight church family and the community as a whole. Let’s be sure to complete pledge cards. Debra and I have sent ours in. I hope you will.
I actually drove into West Lebanon on Black Friday. Into the belly of the beast. Disclaimer: I was on a mission to find material for Advent wreaths at Jo-Ann Fabrics. I hit the jackpot. I left my hard-won parking space and headed into traffic. There was a gap in traffic ahead of me, and the light was turning yellow. I was just about ready to put the hammer down when I remembered that John Gregory Davis has told me that Advent was a lot like a yellow traffic light. We know what we usually do when we see one of those, but we have choices. Yellow can mean blast on through, or it can mean take our foot off the gas, even if only for a few precious moments. Let’s do that. Let’s prepare, let’s pray, and while we are doing that let’s remain for these few moments in a time of Thanksgiving for all that God has given us, and continue to hope for the many gifts that God has yet to give. Amen.