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Advent 2: A Life Giving Christmas

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 11:26 pm on Monday, December 11, 2017

A sermon preached on December 10th, 2017 the second Sunday in Advent based upon Mark 1:1-8.

Maidie and Ryan 222

In the course of a conversation when my son Andrew was down for Thanksgiving he asked me whether when I was his age did I ever imagine the technologies we have available to us now.  No, was my answer.  When I was a freshman at college waiting for infrequent letters from my high school girlfriend, I don’t think I could have imagined that a day would come that I could be in constant, immediate contact with the girlfriend and pretty much anybody anywhere in the world through a phone that could fit in my pocket, or that this phone would have more computing power than the computers that were used to put a man on the moon, or that at any time in any place I could look up pretty much any information I might want to access through this wonder that is the internet.

When I was young I may have thought on occasion about how strange it must have been for my parents’ generation to have been without television in their youth, but I don’t remember ever giving much thought to where the world I lived in was headed. Like most of us I was just wept along in the dramatic technological changes that so profoundly changed society.

I’ve read some articles lately about certain entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley – that place in California from which so much of these tech advancements have arisen – who after spending a decade or two totally immersed in this wave of creativity and becoming incredibly rich, exhausted perhaps, have taken their foot off the pedal to step back and reflect on what it all means.

They are sort of the living embodiment of that little parable Jesus told about the man who reaches a point where his barn is full of grain – he has all he needs and more. The man pauses to ask, “Now what?” But he doesn’t pause for long.  He quickly plunges ahead to do more of the same, building bigger and bigger barns.  But in the case of these particular folks from Silicon Valley they aren’t simply plunging ahead.  They are asking big questions, like what has been the impact on society of these innovations they had a hand creating and profited so from?

Some of their answers are troubling, leading them to feel some guilt.  They recognize that these tech innovations have created new forms of addiction, the most basic of which is to the smart phones themselves.  Studies have shown that the typical person who becomes dependent on their phones (and to some extent I am such a person) touches, swipes or taps their phones over 2600 times a day.  The phone’s constant pull on our attention creates a state of mind characterized by “continuous partial attention”, severely limiting a person’s capacity to focus, to be truly present to the people in whose company they find themselves.   Even, when the phone is turned off the distraction continues because the question nags at us: what am I missing by having the phone turned off?

Studies have also shown that people who spend a lot of time on Facebook and other social media tend to feel more depression – that these things that were supposed to make us feel more connected in certain ways end up making us more isolated.  Google and Facebook create personal “echo chambers” so that we get exposed only to our already established point of view making us less open to new points of view, diminishing dialogue and intensifying the growing divisiveness of our country.  These tech innovations have been the breeding ground for “fake news” and have made it possible for foreign countries to interfere with our elections.

One of the articles I read talked about these retreat centers springing up in California designed specifically for these Silicon Valley folk who have reached this crossroads in their lives and sense a need for a kind of spiritual healing. They come to these places to unplug and spend a lot of times outside, maybe to walk beside the ocean.  They speak of feeling as though something began to die inside them during their time in Silicon Valley.  They speak of having lost touch with that mystery we call the “soul”, calling to mind the words of Jesus, “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world but to lose their soul?”

The soul is real, and it requires a kind of “soul food”, and the soul is not nourished by the pursuit of high tech gadgets and a faster internet and the accumulation of more and more money.

I thought about these retreat centers for the spiritually wounded of Silicon Valley when I read our passage this morning.  Where does the story of the Good News of Jesus Christ begin?  It begins “in the wilderness.” Throughout history the wilderness has been the place a person would go to leave behind the distractions of this world to attend to a wounded soul and listen to for the voice of God.  So it is in the wilderness that we hear of this strange man named John who has done exactly that.

There he recognizes the destructive path the world is on, but he senses something else as well — that God is about to do an altogether new thing – that a Savior is coming and the time had come to prepare for his coming – to prepare the way of the Lord.

John came forth from the wilderness to the river Jordan — that river the Hebrew people had crossed to begin a new life in the “promised land” — and there he began to preach.  “It’s time to repent!” he cried, inviting people into the waters of the Jordan to be baptized.

Repentance is a word that we tend to grossly misunderstand.  We tend to think of it as being about feeling bad about ourselves and confessing our guilt.  Sometimes the experience of guilt can be associated with repentance, but not always, and the primary meaning to repentance is to change the direction of one’s life:  We’ve been walking one way; now it is time to turn and walk with God — to walk in the way that leads to life.

One of the striking things about John is that he didn’t just call some people to repent; he called everybody because everybody has gotten carried along by the destructive patterns of this world.

Sometimes repentance is talked about as a kind of waking up.

Something of what John the Baptist saw out there in the wilderness which led him to preach repentance for everybody was expressed in a powerful movie that came out 37 years ago called “Awakenings.”  It’s based upon a true story.  Robert Deniro plays a man named Leonard who has been trapped in a catatonic state for 30 years.  Robin Williams plays a doctor who senses that Leonard and others like him are present inside their bodies, yearning to wake up.  He tries a new drug on Leonard and he suddenly awakens from that sleep-like state.  From the perspective of having spent all those year trapped inside his body he sees the world with fresh eyes, seeing what the rest of us have been blind to.

In one scene Leonard awakens his doctor in the middle of the night.  He’s been struck by a revelation and he needs to share it:  “We’ve got to tell everybody.  We’ve got to remind them how good it is.”

“How good what is, Leonard?” his doctor asks.

Leonard points to a newspaper.  “Read the newspaper. What’s it say?  It’s all bad.  It’s all bad.  People have forgotten what life is all about.  They’ve forgotten what it is to be alive.  They need to be reminded about what they have, they need to be reminded of what they could lose.  And what I feel is the joy of life, the gift of life, the freedom of life, the wonderment of life.”

Leonard becomes frustrated because the policy at the hospital does not allow him to go outside the hospital grounds alone for a walk.  He makes an appeal before the governing board of the hospital for permission to do so. The Administrator asks him, “I’m curious, Leonard, what would you do if you went out?”

Leonard replies:  “I’d go for a walk.  I’d look at things. I’d talk to people.  I would decide if I wanted to go in this direction or that direction or straight ahead.  I’d do all the things that you people take for granted.”

“And that’s it?”  He asks, perplexed, dubious.

“That’s it,” says Leonard.

Sadly, the new medicine turns out to have only a short term effect, and Leonard slowly returns to his previous catatonic state.  The great irony of the movie is that Leonard has experienced at least for a short time what it is to be truly awake, while most of the so-called “well” people – the medical staff – are oblivious and condescendingly ignore his call to wake up.  The one exception is the Robin Williams character who finds in his encounter with Leonard the inspiration to begin living in new ways that more fully embrace the gift of life.

So what would it mean for you and I to wake up – to change the direction of our lives so that we are walking more closely with God – in the way that leads to life?  And in particular, as we look to the weeks ahead, what might it mean to go through this season in a way that is more closely attuned to God’s presence?

Traditionally within the life of the Church Advent has been a season in which we are invited metaphorically to spend some time in the wilderness with John – to find ways to step out of the hurried pace of life in this world into stillness to listen for the voice of God beyond the voices of this world.

Christmas calls us to ponder the mystery of God taking on ordinary human flesh, coming to us in the most impoverished of settings — to a homeless, refugee family that find shelter in a cave.  In a life totally unadorned by the standards of this world, the Savior is present to those who are awake – to those who have the eyes to see.

But to a large extent the world has co-opted Christmas and the season of Advent, so that instead of being a time of simplicity with lots of stillness to contemplate the wonder of Emmanuel – the God has chosen to be with us in this life — it too often becomes a time of frantic hurry driven by a long list of things the world has convinced us must get done if Christmas is going to come off the “right way”.

The people who write books about de-cluttering – about dealing with the sheer quantity and disorder of all the stuff we’ve accumulated in our homes over time that leads us to feel chaotic and anxious – they tell us we should set aside time to look at each item and ask the question:  “Is this essential, and does it bring me joy?”  And if it doesn’t, to give it away.    In doing so, they say over time our homes will become more peaceful places to dwell.

It sounds kind of hokey, but I would suggest something similar regarding our “to do” lists for the Christmas season, to look at each activity and ask, “does this bring me joy?”  “Am I doing this as an expression of love, or am I doing this merely because I’ve bought into the idea that this is how it has to be done?”

Consider the parties you attend or host.  The cards you send.  The decorations you hang.  Are they lifeless duties or activities infused with love and joy?  Each person’s answers will be their own, arising from their own unique soul.  Perhaps you will conclude that you don’t necessarily want to change what you’ve done in the past, but rather change the spirit you bring to these activities.

Perhaps in our culture of excess you will decide that less is more.

Capitalism has convinced us with bombardments of advertising that we must run up the credit card buying lots of expensive gifts to have a real Christmas.   A great deal of this pressure to spend, spend, spend is focused on children.  “My child must have a huge pile of presents to open on Christmas morning or she’ll feel deprived,” and in a certain sense it’s true, because all her friends’ families have bought into this notion as well.  And families that can ill afford to spend that kind of money are forced to keep pace with families that can afford it.

But if I were to ask you, how many of the dozens, perhaps hundreds of gifts you received as a child can you actually remember?  I suspect most of you wouldn’t be able to name five. But what we do remember from our childhood – the stuff that relates to the soul – are the feelings of love – or absence of love – that we associate with Christmas time.

So maybe the pressure to have enough gifts under the tree distracts us from asking questions about how the time of this season should be spent.  How can it be more truly a time of connection, of gratitude for what we already have and the recognition that God is present in the simplest of activities?

Have we made time to get out of ourselves and to reach out to those less fortunate than ourselves, and have we given our children the opportunity to do the same?  Is there a poor family I can help, at home or abroad?  Is there some lonely person I can make a connection with?

We do not have to be swept along with the culture.  We can step out into the wilderness with John and choose a closer walk with God – choose a path that leads to life.

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