THE WAR ON ADVENT
2nd Sunday of Advent, Year B; December 7, 2014
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
Isaiah 40:1-11; 2 Peter 3:8-15a

“Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things,
strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish;
and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.”
2 Peter 3:14-15a

Maybe you’ve heard about “the War on Christmas.” It started to make the TV news networks a few years ago — especially conservative networks like Fox. The people who claim to see a War on Christmas warn us of insidious secularizing forces bent on destroying Christianity in America. Today it’s “Season’s Greetings” and “holiday trees.” Tomorrow, who knows?

There’s nothing new about this complaint. It’s been around at least 50 years, and Christmas is still going strong. I know that because the TV special, A Charlie Brown Christmas, is going to be 50 years old next year. (Does that make some of you feel old?)

Remember, in that story, how Charlie Brown gets fed up with all the commercialism of Christmas? Lucy’s wrought up over what presents she’s going to get, Schroeder’s a bundle of nerves on account of the Christmas pageant, and as for Snoopy, he’s strung so many Christmas lights on his doghouse, he’s about to take down the power grid. Charlie Brown goes out and buys that scrawny little tree that bends over with the weight of a single ornament. He fears his quest to find the true meaning of Christmas is a complete failure.

That is, until Linus — that resident theologian of the Peanuts gang — saves the day with a simple recitation from the second chapter of Luke. Everybody remembers, then, what Christmas is really all about.

Forty-nine years ago, that was controversial stuff for TV. The network executives very nearly nixed the Bible reading. They were concerned it was just a little too sectarian for the American viewing public. The cartoon’s creators stuck to their guns. The reading from Luke stayed in: and that scene of Linus up on stage, holding his blanket as he tells of shepherds out in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night, has become many people’s favorite part of the story — the thing they look forward to each year.

*****

Had that controversy happened today, you can bet the TV pundits would be all over it. They would slam those network executives for waging war on Christmas. It’s the same charge they level against those poor department-store cashiers, whose bosses have told them to say “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.” Never mind that the purpose is to be inclusive of everybody: not only Christians buying Christmas presents, but Jews buying Hanukkah gifts and anybody else who may be so bold as to seek out a pair of mittens in the month of December.

I don’t think there’s such a thing as a War on Christmas. Even if there were, I really don’t think reindeer and snowmen are likely to edge out Jesus as the true “reason for the season,” for those who truly believe.

What I’m far more concerned about is the War on Advent. Now, there’s a season of the Christian year that’s really vulnerable!

Advent coincides with the greater part of the Christmas “shopping season.” We all know that season’s getting longer: Black Friday took a bite out of Thanksgiving this year, with all the big-box stores that stayed open. How can these four puny candles on the Advent wreath compete with the light show down at the mall — or even the Christmas lights strung across Main Street?

Advent’s meant to be a season of simplicity, of quiet reflection, of lighting a candle and waiting for the far greater light that is to come. During Advent, we note the shortening of the days and realize there’s an awful lot of darkness in our lives as well. During Advent, we frankly confront the poverty of our spiritual lives, and — if we’re doing it right — you and I frankly admit we could never save ourselves. We need a savior to do it for us.

*****

Those words we read today from Second Peter — about the day of the Lord coming like a thief, and the heavens passing away with a thunderous noise, and the elements dissolved with fire — are not exactly the sort of thing the Chamber of Commerce encourages as good for business. The vision described in this prophecy of doom is, most assuredly, not “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” Yet, those apocalyptic words do express the longing inside each one of us for what Second Peter calls “new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.”

Notice the prophecy doesn’t end with the end of the world. Second Peter portrays God’s judgment as cataclysmic, but it’s not the absolute end. For out of the ashes of a sinful, judgment-blasted world arise “new heavens and a new earth.”

When you and I were children, we all did some things that brought punishment down upon us. We learned pretty quickly that, if we repeated that behavior, we’d be punished again: and so we learned to modify our behavior. As a parenting strategy, punishment works: but only for a while. Adulthood will one day come, when parental punishment is no longer a threat. Good parents know they must teach their children a positive basis for behaving ethically. They must instill in their hearts a desire to do good, for the sake of good alone.

The promise of new heavens and a new earth is like that. Were God merely a destroyer, the human race would — understandably — quake in fear. There would be respect, but there would be no love. It’s only the promise of a world renewed, under the loving eye of God, that can motivate us to do good for goodness’ sake.

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Honestly, the news we’ve had this past week — of police shootings and protests and a nation still torn asunder by the moral scandal of one race enslaving another, more than a century after the Emancipation Proclamation — why, it’s enough to make you throw up your arms in despair and say, “Bring it on, Lord — a new heaven and a new earth sounds pretty good to me!”

Yet, the apostle writing these words is not advising that kind of passivity, that posture of abject surrender. “While you are waiting for these things,” he urges, “strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish.”

The verb, “strive,” translates a Greek word that has connotations of doing something very rapidly: “make haste” is another way of rendering it. One of the Greek lexicons defines it as “to do something with intense effort and motivation; to work hard, to do one’s best.”

And what is this thing we’re supposed to do so energetically? We’re meant to be at peace. Do you sense the spiritual tension there? It’s a lot like that old saying, “Hurry up and wait.”

In other words, do not cease your spiritual journey. Do not abandon your efforts at becoming a more faithful follower of Jesus Christ. Whatever problem of the larger society you may be ready to give up on, whatever destructive personal habit you may be ready to give in to, don’t do it! The sort of waiting to which the apostle calls us is not passive resignation. It’s an active commitment to the life of Christian discipleship.

That’s precisely the role you and I are meant to fill during Advent. The world out there, with its countdown clock of shopping days before Christmas, is urging us, “Go, and do!” The church of Jesus Christ, during Advent, is saying something radically different. It’s quite countercultural, in its own way. The church is saying, “Go, and be!”

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There is a War on Advent going on out there. The larger culture doesn’t understand this impulse to come and commit our precious time to something so seemingly useless as worship. While there are cookies still to be baked, holiday meals still to be prepared, the culture can’t comprehend the value of simply sitting and receiving the bread and the cup of the Lord’s Supper — a meal completely devoid of red-and-green sprinkles, sadly lacking in peppermint flavoring, and most certainly not soaked in rum. When Jesus broke the bread and shared the cup, it was an ordinary workingman’s meal he gave them: strength to sustain them through the days of waiting to come.

Our next hymn captures this quality of Advent expectation. It’s loosely based on the Magnificat, that great Song of Mary from chapter one of Luke’s Gospel. Mary sang that song on the day the angel told her she was to have a child, by the Holy Spirit. Her song gives voice to the bright hope and joyous expectation of a woman who knows the world is about to turn.

And so it is. Let’s celebrate it!

Copyright © 2014 by Carlos Wilton. All rights reserved.