Monday, December 17, 2012

An Advent sermon after Sandy Hook

Delivered on Dec. 16, 2012

I have said before that the season of Advent is not about Christmas per se. It is about the coming of Christ into the world in his totality of all his offices. Advent is supposed to be to Christmas as Lent and Holy Week are to Easter – a time of spiritual introspection and self examination.

That’s why the traditional passages for Advent are not exclusively about what happened one holy night in Bethlehem. We move to that story during the church season of Christmas, but by then our culture has moved on to New Year’s looming revelry and football bowl games. And most of us have moved right along with it, too.

Understanding that Advent is not merely about Christmas is why two Sundays before Christmas the lectionary passage is the foreboding tidings of John the Baptist. His news of the Advent of Christ is a warning. It is not filled with singing angels or dazzled shepherds.

Luke 3:7-18:
   7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."
   10 And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?"
   11 In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise."
   12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?"
   13 He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you."
   14 Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what should we do?" He said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."
   15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." 18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
That is our passage, this third Sunday of Advent, two days after a 20-year-old man – I shall not honor his name from this pulpit – murdered his mother and then broke in to Sandy Hook Elementary school where he gunned down 12 first-grade girls and eight boys plus six women. I hope you understand that the sermon I originally had planned for today is one I cannot give.

I try not to rely on headlines for sermon topics. That is a sort of lazy way to preach, I think. A preacher’s first calling is to proclaim the resurrection and to try to help the congregation discover biblical truths. People are astute enough to connect the Scriptures with their own lives. But Friday was a national punch to the gut. The horror beggars description.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells his disciples, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27a). In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, we have to ask ourselves, Whose voice are we following?

In the coming days the editorialists and TV commentators will have a lot more to say. I do not expect their offerings to be much different from what they said after Aurora, Colorado’s theater massacre or Virginia Tech’s massacre or ... well, pick one. The media’s talking heads will recycle the same things they said before. We’ll hear a lot about America’s gun culture, and all the talk will be about guns and not about the culture.

I want to talk about the culture:

This movie was to open in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, the
day of the killing rampage in Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Warner Bros. pulled the opening
After 1999's massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado, Boston Globe editorialist John Ellis wrote,
Ours is a culture that glorifies violence, profits from it, sells it with the most advanced technology known to mankind. Violence bounces off satellites in outer space and beams into every American home, every hour of every day, every month of every year.
Researchers say that each week American children converse with their parents for about 40 minutes but watch television about 1,500 minutes. The average teenager spends nine hundred hours in school per year and fifteen hundred hours watching television. These hours do not include the time kids may spend listening to  heavy metal or “gangsta” rap, which glorifies killing cops and raping women, or playing computer games both violent and occultic, or watching violent movies on video or in theaters.

The Parents’ Television Council says that,
by the time an average child leaves elementary school, he or she will have witnessed 8,000 murders and over 100,000 other acts of violence.  By the time that child is 18 years-of-age; he or she will witness 200,000 acts of violence, including 40,000 murders.  One 17-year longitudinal study concluded that teens who watched more than one hour of TV a day were almost four times as likely as other teens to commit aggressive acts in adulthood.
The Hollywood gun culture:
Business Insider reprints part of an AskMen piece on
The 99 Most Desirable Women Of The Year."
Here is no. 99, 
Bérénice Marlohe, who plays Severine in Skyfall.
Eight out of ten television producers say there is a link between television violence and real-life violence. Wrote Boston Globe’s Ellis,
In the 1980s, evangelical groups tried to lead boycotts against entertainment and media companies that produced and broadcast gratuitously violent fare. Their efforts met with some success at the grass roots and nothing but scorn from media elites. Hollywood’s contempt for public concern about the ceaseless stream of violent media was perfectly captured in a quote from Ted Field, co-founder of Interscope. ‘You can tell the people who want to stop us from releasing controversial rap music one thing,’ said Field: ‘Kiss my ‘blank.’
We call ourselves a Christian nation. Yet events like Sandy Hook keep occurring and force us to ask: if America is so Christian, and Christians are redeemed and transformed, why is our culture so filled with destruction?

That’s where John the Baptist comes in. The Advent he foretells is not one of Jesus meek and mild. It is of a righteous judge whose “winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” It is a Christ who has already placed an axe at the foot of the unfruitful tree and is getting ready to swing it.

How dare we sing Christmas carols as those 20 children are about to be buried? God save us from pride in personal piety. “Scriptural holiness entails more than personal piety; love of  God is always linked with love of  neighbor, a passion for justice and renewal in the life of  the world. We insist that personal salvation always involves Christian mission and service to the world” (United Methodist Book of Discipline).

In the week before Jesus was crucified, he entered the Temple and overturned the tables of the moneychangers. People must have been highly offended at his actions. Who did he think he was? What right did he have to impose his views on others? Jesus never worried about what people would think about him. Enough was enough! It was time for direct action.

Have we finally had enough now? Are we willing to overturn the structures of death and violence in our society? Are we willing to be called vile names for the sake of Christ? Are we willing to ignore the outraged howls of the Ted Fields of the world in the name of Christian activism? Or would we rather listen to the agonized cries of "Rachel, weeping for her children"?

Whose voice are our kids listening to? The massacres at Sandy Hook and other schools didn't happen for no reason. We cannot pretend they are unconnected to our culture. We have to raise our voices as Christian disciples, calling to our children and our nation, offering voices of life, of hope, of peace. We have to raise our voices in judgment against death dealers who promote violence and breed despair, especially in our children.

No more chickening out by hiding behind mealy-mouthed phrases like, Who are we to judge?

No more moral relativism that Christian values for life and peace are really no better than others.

No more copping out with excuses that we’re too busy with work right now.

It’s time to stare into our own souls and ask ourselves what do we really believe, what do we really value. It’s long past time to make our voices heard. “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world,” wrote Paul (Rom 12:2). “Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules. . .?” (Eph 6:12).

If we just hunker down and do nothing but take care of ourselves, we have no right to shed a single tear when the next Sandy Hook happens, and one after that, and another one after that. At funerals of children shot down in the library of another school, remember: we knew it could happen, and we did nothing.

John tells us to flee from the wrath to come and bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not say to ourselves, 'We are church members in good standing'; for I tell you, God is able make church members from empty beer cans lying on the roadside. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

He's talking about you and me, church people. You and me. So how can we sing this cantata and our carols on this day?

We sing as an act of defiance against this world’s covenant of sin and death.

We sing to announce a covenant of life more abundant.

We sing to acknowledge that we of the church are under judgment for our fruitfulness of discipleship, or its lack.

We sing in repentance for our failures to obey God.

We sing to praise God for a Savior who redeems the world.

We sing to say that there is a Light that shines even in darkest night and that the darkness cannot overcome it.

We sing because not even the worst that this would can do can make us mute our voices to announce that "Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given and the government shall be upon his shoulders, and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father – the Prince of Peace!"

A closing thought: I will be much more sympathetic to calls for more gun control when those same people are just as adamant about culture control. Sort of like what Glenn Reynolds has said in another context: "I'll believe it's a crisis when the people who say it's a crisis start acting like it's a crisis." But the Left has actually been working on culture control for a long time:

Maybe we need to ask in the manner of Dr. Phil, "How's that been working out for us?"

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