Sermon for Year A, Advent 4
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
December 22, 2013
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
It’s a common story you hear right around this time of year:
An angel makes a visit, whether to Mary or to Joseph,
And that angel proclaims a certain message about a certain Jesus,
And glory be! the person who receives the message simply acquiesces to it,
And says, Yes, yes, let it be as you have said.
An ordinary tale, that one. A thoroughly common and expected story.
An angel makes a demand; a person caves in.
There’s not much new or surprising or inspiring in the dry recitation of those facts, is there?
It just seems like a story from a long time ago and a place far away
That bears no resemblance to our everyday lives.
In fact, I’ll go one step further and say
That not only does it not feel particularly relevant or inspiring:
I, as a Very Busy Person with a Lot of Things Going On During the Holidays,
Don’t need to hear it.
I heard it in the womb; I heard it as a child;
I heard it as a teenager; I heard it as a young adult; I hear it all the time now;
I will hear it when I’m old; I’ll hear it every December for the rest of my life until I die.
I have heard it over and over and over. What difference does it make anymore?
In fact, let’s just be totally honest.
Between this morning and Tuesday night (Christmas Eve),
Just exactly what do we think we’re going to hear or see
That’s really going to make us think or perceive the world any differently,
Or to see God’s hand at work in the world?
Why come with any sense of expectation that anything could be different?
And if we come not expecting to experience transformation or be converted in some way,
Then why come at all, other than merely to appease our need to attend to the rituals of our lives --
Christmas and that great Christmas speed-bump called Advent?
I hear the world -- the world I live in, the world I’m a part of, the world I’m helping to shape --
I hear the world asking these questions sometimes, but I hear the world asking for truth even more,
Saying, We want the mystery, but not the hypocrisy;
We hunger and thirst for deep truth and genuine transformation;
We want transcendence but without all the pretension and fuss and old-world form;
We’re tired of propping up institutions that used to be relevant,
BUT we still desperately want to be fed in our souls in a language we can understand;
Please, tell us your very own story about this Jesus and how he came to be
And why he’s so important to you!
Tell us that part first, please, and then we’ll listen to the rest. To everything.
My fear is, we haven’t always been faithful in this way;
We haven’t always shown excitement about these foundational stories of faith,
Partly because we have heard them a thousand times,
And partly because having heard them a thousand times,
There may be a part of us that’s become immune
To what God is trying to accomplish through those stories in us.
Because it may be easier to attend to the overt forms
Than it is to be genuinely transformed into living a Christ-oriented, cross-shaped life.
There’s a moment in another faith tradition that may help us understand.
It’s the teaching that all spiritual instruction is like a finger pointing at the moon --
Trying to get us to look at the moon -- Look! Look! See the moon! --
But what we tend to do is to venerate the finger that’s doing all the pointing.
What a lovely finger, we say. Just a really nice finger.
Meanwhile, no one’s looking at the moon! And what’s wrong with this picture?
We -- the church, the Episcopalians, the formerly dominant denominations, whoever --
We seemingly would rather talk about our programs,
Or what sets us apart from the next church over.
A generation of spiritually starving folks
Asked us to tell them the most important thing we could think of,
And we found ourselves going on about things that didn’t matter.
It’s no one person’s fault; it’s just the way things are; but it doesn’t have to stay that way.
After all, there’s an angel in the room,
And he’s entrusted us today with telling the world about the biggest, most important thing
That’s ever happened.
And so it comes as no surprise to me
That the world has decided to simply take these things of faith into itself.
“Tell us simply and firmly what you believe in,” our world has said to us,
“And let us rejoice together in the truth we find in the middle of things.
But if you will not tell us simply and firmly what you believe in,
Then we will go where we need to go and we will do what we need to do.
Either way we will not forsake the beauty of these stories.”
Don’t mistake this for disbelief simply because it doesn’t seem familiar;
There’s no shortage or deficit of belief; and really, there’s not even a lot of ill will.
We live in a world that believes with every fiber of its being
That the visitations of angels long ago and far away is not to be ignored, but rather adored;
That God coming into this world in the form of a person is the most striking and inspiring thing;
And not as something incidental, but as the absolutely central reason for being;
That these things are entirely relevant to this moment in which we live.
No, the problem is not disbelief in God; it is that a generation of faith has asked to be formed,
And what we offered them, instead of Jesus Christ, was something -- whatever it was --
That was far less compelling.
And of course for the church to offer anything other than Jesus Christ
To people who are spiritually starving, is precisely what you’d call “far less compelling.”
So, then, we live in a culture that is itself a spiritual marketplace:
And just like in the church, some of it is fingers and some of it is moons --
I don’t personally feel the need to judge either way.
You can do your meditation while you do yoga.
You can have spiritual conversation with a friend at a coffee shop or on Facebook.
You can get a tattoo that perfectly expresses how you feel about your life up to this point
Or that commemorates some aspect of your spiritual journey.
You can become an ordained minister for $7.99 in the time it takes to order a pizza --
Not as a joke, but so you can officiate at a friend’s wedding.
The world is awash in truth-seekers looking for God howsoever they name God.
Labels like Episcopalian and titles like Rector don’t enter into the conversation very often;
People just want contact with reality;
They just want to know that you have a real relationship with God,
And then, it seems, they’re perfectly happy to listen and to tell their own stories.
That, at least, is how I see it. I’d love to know what you think.
No, the problem is not a lack of faith on the part of the next generations;
It is that we have become timid, complacent, dare I say to the point of childish recalcitrance,
When it comes to sharing the hope and the faith that lives within us.
Somewhere along the line, we decided quite unconsciously
That it would be tacky to come right out with our friends and colleagues
About what our faith means to us,
Because the last thing we wanted to do was offend anyone.
When all along, our friends and colleagues would have been happy to hear us out.
Of course, the problem is not a lack of real faith on our part, either;
It is perhaps that we cannot hear these stories with fresh ears or behold them with fresh eyes;
Our gaze has become fixed upon things less substantial or relevant than Jesus Christ himself.
In fact, we may have begun to believe that we don’t have a story worth telling.
And that is heart-breaking. And so not true.
We have begun to believe that the announcement of an angel about Jesus Christ
That made it into stained glass and pulpits
And onto the lips of spiritual seekers for two thousand years
Is now somehow too far-fetched to be compelling today
In a world that’s scientific and savvy and constantly on the move;
We have begun to believe that at precisely the moment
That this same world is begging us,
No! Wait! Come back and tell the story! It’s too beautiful not to be true!
We have slouched and slunk away from our responsibility to stand in the public square
And to preach Jesus Christ, and him crucified and resurrected, or even, in this case,
Him conceived and him born, because of how much God loved us and loves us still.
We’re afraid of being confused with Those Christians,
But ironically, until we learn to speak up, we will be confused with Those Christians.
So with great love and admiration, and with great respect I say to anyone who can hear me:
That what the church does with its time and energy and attention is vitally important;
AND, nothing could be more important than the commandment Christ himself delivered
To go out into the world, to make disciples, to baptize and to commission people for service,
And to teach them to obey everything he commanded us to do.
It begins with an announcement of an angel.
That announcement is everything. The rest of the story makes no sense without it.
We can not walk away from the debt we owe it.
This announcement -- it’s the Magna Carta -- it’s the entire reason for Jesus being Jesus,
The only reason the writer named Matthew sat down to his task in the first place.
The angel appears to Joseph, and he lays out everything we need to know in eight simple words:
“He will save his people from their sins.”
Now, friends, any sermon worth its salt will provoke its listeners in some way.
Some sermons will try to do more than that;
They will provoke and prod and poke
Until both listener and preacher are thoroughly uncomfortable
But the truth has been spoken and the truth has been heard.
Sometimes at this point the preacher will apologize and pull back and that’s that
And let’s not get too many people upset.
But there’s just one more thing to say.
God comes to us all the time, disguised as our life.
Once we wake up to this fact, that disguise becomes more and more transparent,
And God becomes more and more real
Until finally we are completely captivated.
At first, we can’t contain our excitement at this fact;
At first, we grow and grow and grow; the whole thing seems unstoppable.
But human beings are distracted,
And the lessons of the cross-shaped life can become harder and harder to take in;
God will continually ask more and more of us,
And we will be tempted to become comfortable with easy answers that sound good
And overt forms (the finger pointing at the moon).
But of all the ways God chooses to come to us, for Christians, Jesus is the central way.
We cannot afford to grow tired of hearing about him.
We should not fail to learn him anew,
Or to give him a second hearing, or a third, or a hundred, or a thousandth.
He is the key.
And so, when we say, Come, let us adore him, we only mean this:
Let us completely give ourselves to him all over again, and tell the world about it, too.
So may it be. Amen.