A Sermon For Year A, Advent 1
Copyright © 2007 Nathan L. Bostian
Based on Romans 13.8-14
In the Church, our color is purple. Purple is the color of Royalty. The color of Kings. The color for King Jesus, the God who became human. Our candles are lit awaiting his arrival.
Outside of the Church, the color is green and red. It is the color of ancient pagan revelry, the celebration of winter solstice.
Our garlands are wrapped, our trees are trimmed, our credit cards are getting maxed out.
You know what time it is: It is time for the cultural Christmas wars!
Don't you just love the Christmas wars? One side boycotts a business because they refuse to say "Merry Christmas". The other side boycotts a restaurant because they do say "Merry Christmas".
One side files lawsuits to allow their children to go to school and pass out Christian Gospel tracts in the form of holiday candy. The other side files lawsuits to get nativity scenes off of public property.
It's crazy. It almost reminds me of a cheesy wrestling match:
On one side of the ring is Western consumerism, dressed up like jolly old Saint Nick. "Ho! Ho! Ho!" He says "Happy Chrisma-kwanza-khuh!"
Huh. What did he say?
Oh. He means "Happy generic holiday greetings!"
And on the other side of the ring is little angry looking elf with a small shrill voice screaming "It's Christmas! Keep the Christ in CHRISTmas!"
And so both of them enter the ring swinging. Santa is wielding a huge sack of tolerance, that he keeps smacking the little elf with... Knocking him back into the ropes.
The little elf responds by smacking Santa upside the head with a huge 70 pound Bible. When that doesn't work he throws stone tablets engraved with the ten commandments at him.
Outside the ring is the American public booing and hissing at the one they don't like. Occasionally you see fights break out in the stands.
And everytime it seems like either Santa or the Elf gets the upper and, a small army of lawyers climbs into the ring and covers the other one in a stack of paper so large they cannot move.
On December 25th every year, the cage match promptly stops, with both sides claiming they have won. One side says "Look! We have defended America's heritage as a Christian nation!" The other side says "Listen! We have made sure that America is tolerant and free!"
Neither side seems to get it.
Is this what Advent is supposed to be about?
What is a Christian, a Christ-follower, to do with the Christmas culture wars? How should we follow Jesus in a culture that has largely abandoned Christ?
In many ways, it used to be that we could think of America as a "Christian Nation". Our founding fathers wrote the constitution based on Judeo-Christian principals: most importantly, the principals dignity, freedom, and worth of individual persons.
Granted, these same values were picked up by the Enlightenment and made secular values. And granted, it took over a century to fully realize the worth of some of these persons, but that is another story.
A half a century ago we could take it for granted that our neighbors either went to a church on Sunday, a synagogue on Saturday... or if they didn't, they would keep quiet about not being "religious". The Church held a privileged place in society, and people in general were afraid of angering of the dominant Christian culture. But all of that has changed.
I hate to break it to the folks who want to turn back the clock, but the United States is a largely post-Christian culture now. Yes, we have vibrant and strong Christian movements and churches, especially "down south". But, look at the phone book and see all of the temples and mosques popping up all over the place.
Look at the sheer diversity of culture and religion at the mall the next time you go. Ask any junior high kid to name the different religions and lifestyles of the kids they go to school with: They will have friends and acquaintances who are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Wiccan, and Atheist. Think about the commercials we watch, the magazines that are sold, and the consumer culture we live in.
Everything revolves around pleasure, marketing, and profit, not faith, love, and hope. Since you are here listening to me, you know what I am saying. You are probably doing your best to live a faithful life for Christ, and you navigate yourself through the maze of consumerism, religious options, and never-ending activities that we are subjected to every day.
Likewise, in popular media from the "Simpsons" to failed TV show "The Book of Daniel" Christians are made fun of (sometimes unfairly, but if we are going to be honest, sometimes fairly).
Christian holidays are re-named, or litigated against, by armies of lawyers in our notorious "Culture Wars" over everything from posting the Ten Commandments to where we put Baby Jesus.
And Christ himself is openly mocked. A University of Oregon student newspaper called "The Insurgent" recently featured an article titled "A Little Ranting and Raving against Christianity". On the cover of this paper a crucified Jesus was pictured, naked and "aroused". Inside, Jesus was pictured in erotic poses.
It takes a lot to disgust and offend me, and this paper did. The University has defended it as "free speech", and this is just one of a slew of such incidents. We no longer live in a culture where the Church has a dominant position.
And you know what? That may be a GOOD THING in the long run. It may be a good thing because perhaps our cultural power has made it easy for us to get too comfortable and prideful.
You see, I get into discussions all the time online, in coffee shops, and in bookstores, with non-Christians and Anti-Christians, the un-churched and the de-churched. I also meet with many students who have serious doubts, or even suspicions about Christianity. After hundreds of conversations, I can say there are two commonalities I find with people who are hostile to the message of Christ:
First, these people, like all of us, are sinners. They are afraid of repenting and giving control over to Christ. They are wounded people who need Jesus to be whole, even if they deny it.
Second, almost to a person, they have been badly hurt by people claiming to be Christians. It may have been a Christian family member, friend, or Church, who "disowned" them for something they did. It may have been a Christian who pretended to be their friend just to "covert them", and after they would not convert, turned their back on them.
It may have been someone who was told by a Christian that they were going to die and go to hell forever, but the Christian would not lift a finger to help them out.
But, in all of my conversations with non-Christians, especially the bitter ones, these two commonalities are constant: they are running from God, and Christians have made it easier to run by pushing them away and manipulating them.
So, here we are, Jesus-followers in a post-Christian culture that is often indifferent, and sometimes hostile, to the message and followers of Jesus Christ. What shall we do? Let me throw out three basic ways that Christians have used to deal with culture:
First, there is the way of surrender. Give up, give in, go with the flow. All paths to God are equally valid. Just have faith in something, and faith will get you through. As a personal preference, you may want to worship Jesus and be part of his Church, but there is no way you would force that on anyone else (or even suggest it, for fear of offending someone).
Just give up, tolerate everyone and everything. To each his own. This is the "Christ of culture" model, because it allows Christ to be whatever culture and personal preference say he is.
Second, there is the way of subjugation. We will take back our culture for Christ in a holy war of lawyers and political force. We will not let this society become post-Christian, we will legislate and litigate until this nation surrenders to the power of Christ.
Fight fire with fire: If the Anti-Christians file one lawsuit against Christian culture, we will file three for Christian culture! If the University of Oregon allows Jesus to be mocked by a student paper, we will sue them until they close the paper down.
We will send our children to school with Candy Canes and Gospel Tracts at Christmas time, and if the school district does not allow it, we will threaten lawsuits until they capitulate.
This is the "Christ against culture" model, because in it Christ is the conquering warrior who makes culture surrender to himself by forcefully using his Church to demand their "rights" in the culture.
Third, there is the way of subversion. In this model, Christ subverts culture through love and truth. Christ's Church, like Christ, does not demand their "rights" or use political force to bend culture to Christ's will.
The Church, like Christ, sometimes accepts being mocked, ridiculed, and even "crucified" by the media, without striking back. When mistreated, the Church prays for those who mistreat her.
It is like practicing Spiritual Judo against Anti-Christian culture. Instead of fighting force on force, we deflect them with Love, and allow their own force to guide them straight into the Arms of Jesus Christ.
Instead of expecting non-Christians to act Christian, we love non-Christians until they realize that Jesus is a living reality who can heal them. We realize that anti-Christian rhetoric and mockery comes from people who desperately need healing, even if they reject the Great Physician.
This model will not accept that "all roads lead to God", but neither will it use force to make others listen to the claims of Christ. Instead, it will "speak the Truth [about Christ] in Love [like Christ] so that we will in all things grow up into Christ".
This view was well summarized around 150 AD, by an early Christian who lived in an anti-Christian culture, in which Christians were not only mocked, but also imprisoned and killed. He wrote this in a letter to his friend Diognetus:
"Christians are distinguished from other people neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by anything odd...
they follow the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct. Yet they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as resident aliens. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners...
They marry like everyone else and bear children, but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they live as citizens of heaven.
They obey the prescribed laws, and yet surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, yet are persecuted by all. They are unknown, condemned, and put to death, yet restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich.
They are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all. They are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor are glorified. Evil is spoken against them, and yet are justified. They are mocked, yet they bless instead.
They are insulted, yet repay the insult with honor. They do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if given new life... Those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.
To sum up all in one word: what the soul is in the body, that are Christians in the world... The soul dwells in the body, yet is not of the body; and Christians dwell in the world, yet are not of the world...
The soul is confined to the body, yet preserves that very body; and Christians are confined in the world as in a prison, and yet they are the preservers of the world."
So, in this Advent, as you prepare for the coming of the Lord, and endure yet another round of the Christmas culture wars, you have three "ways" you can choose from:
The way of submission: Give up and give in.
The way of subjugation: Fight fire with fire.
The way of subversion: Practice radical Love and spiritual Judo.
In ancient anti-Christian Roman culture, only one of these models successfully converted that culture to Christ. I will let you guess which one.
Perhaps we all should follow Saint Paul's Advent Advice:
"Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light... Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law."