This sermon was preached on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 2017, at St. Michael & St. George. This was a rare year when December 24 fell on a Sunday, and we were faced with the challenge of keeping two very different occasions on the same day. Writing this sermon I was very conscious of composing an “Advent” sermon, and not Christmas, though the temptation to blend the two was great – especially with the Gospel of the Annunciation. The opening is something of a gimmick — do a google search for “news December 17-24, 2017” to see the whole range of issues and events I could have been referencing!
Collect: We beseech thee, Almighty God, to purify our consciences by thy daily visitation, that when thy Son Jesus Christ cometh he may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Hosly Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:
It was only a week or so ago, but already there’s been a massive response across the country and even around the world. The magnitude of this new spin on the old themes took nearly everyone by surprise; we’re still processing exactly what happened, and what it will mean, though already we know that life won’t be quite the same after this. Meanwhile no one except insiders know where we’re going next, and they’re certainly not telling. There are a lot of rumors of course, and a lot of theories, but really we’ll just have to buckle down to wait and see.
I’m talking of course about “The Last Jedi,” the newest installment in the Star Wars franchise. One of the things I appreciate most about this newest film was articulated by a friend of mine: “At least as far as the Jedi part is concerned, there’s a lot less emphasis on the technology, on the chemistry of how it works than we saw in the earlier films, and a lot more emphasis on the intangibles of imagination, and perspective, and relationships.” The result is a much more three-dimensional world that cannot be nailed down or exhausted as easily as in the past.
That got me thinking: Star Wars and the Christian Religion are not exactly comparable categories. But something analogous has been happening in our churches and in our culture for generations now. Somehow we have reduced the Christian religion to mere “spiritual technology.” Do X and you’ll be fine; swallow this or that far-fetched explanation and your life will improve. Come to church and you’ll go to heaven. Pray this prayer, vote this way, buy these books, or listen to that music, and somehow, magically, you’ll grow in faith and discover the meaning of life.
I can see why that’s tempting: human beings are solution-oriented after all. We have a problem and we want it fixed. We have a goal and we want to reach it. We have a project and we want to complete it. It’s completely natural for us to regard religion in the same way. So we accumulate bits of spiritual technology: phrases, theories, habits, products, to help us get what we want. It’s completely natural.
But just like previous iterations of Star Wars, the end result is a watered-down imagination, and an anemic sense of our relationship to the whole, let alone to God.
Why do I bring all this up this morning, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, right on the brink of Christmas Eve and the great feast of the Nativity? Because this is a time of year when the Church talks a lot about promises, about expectations, about the fulfillment of long-standing hopes for light and peace and goodness, in a world which we are constantly reminded is a dark and despairing place.
Of course it’s important for us to say all these things, to revisit the old prophecies, retell the old stories, and remember the promises. But how do we keep from letting all these things become for us just more bits of outdated spiritual technology that fail to get us what we want? How do we open ourselves to the larger mysteries, to the multi-dimensional world of faith and religion beyond transaction and exchange?
First of all, by remembering that Christianity is not actually about your spiritual life, or mine. It is about God. It’s worth remembering, from time to time, the immortal line from Evelyn Underhill: “God is the interesting thing about religion.” The Christian religion is not about you. It is about God, about the world God has made, and the incarnation of Jesus Christ which makes creation holy and renders it all a thank-offering to God the Father. If you and I are involved at all, it’s to participate in God’s larger project of forgiveness, healing, and renewal; it’s to get some sustaining glimpse of that eternal love “that moves the sun and the other stars,” until we are made fit to participate more fully, to enter into that divine life forever. It is emphatically not about me getting what I want.
Which finally brings us to the doorstep of that house in Nazareth where in today’s Gospel Mary sits at prayer, and where she is surprised by a visit from the Archangel Gabriel. If you and I are going to find Christmas to be Good News again for us, we have to follow Mary’s pattern and pray. That doesn’t mean filling our heads with lots of positive thoughts. That doesn’t mean compiling a catalogue of all our good wishes for various needs or people. It means we just have to stop. Stop all the noise. Put down all the technology, spiritual or otherwise, and listen. Listen to the clock ticking, listen to your heart beating, listen to your own breathing, whatever it takes, just listen.
Listen, and watch: watch for how quickly your mind goes to the cares which press on it, watch for how quickly the worries and the fears and the inadequacies and all the rest come rushing in. What is your conscience afraid of? What weakness or sickness or vulnerability in yourself presses particularly painfully? What hopes do you cherish, what grudges do you nourish, where do your affections lie, whose regard are you desperate to win? In the silence all these doors and passageways and countless more will open to you; you will begin to be aware of the dizzying moral and spiritual complexities of everyday life, and of the vast scope of your own involvement in the world.
Mary sits at prayer in her home in Nazareth, her spirit listening and watching in the silence at the heart of it all. And this is when the Archangel appears, this is the moment when Gabriel declares her “Full of grace.” This is the moment, right when she is most in touch with her own needs and vulnerabilities, that God appears and salvation enters the world.
It might sound counterintuitive, but so much the better. The more you and I are in touch with all those cares and anxieties which constantly threaten to swamp us, the better prepared we are to meet God. The more we admit of our weakness and vulnerability, the easier we will be able to receive the Christ Child. The more truthful we can be about our own doubts and fears and despair, the clearer we will be able to see the dawn of new life when it comes over the horizon tomorrow.
No, Christianity is not about your spiritual life. It is not about spiritual technology at all, not about doing the right thing, or saying things that sound holy or religious or whatever. It’s not about fulfilling expectations, or even about generosity. It is about God; about being quiet enough to listen, truthful enough to admit my own weakness, and sensitive enough to see God working even in ways that don’t make sense and in places we’d rather not notice. Christmas is Good News for us precisely because it enters the world at its quietest, most vulnerable point; because it enters us at our weakest, most fearful moments, when we are most conscious of our failures and our impotence. In this way God grants dignity and grace to the very lowest of the low, and makes his Divine Majesty resident in the humblest of places.
This Advent 4, as we race onward towards Christmas Eve, let us resolve afresh to reject the enticements of spiritual technology, put away the drive to get what I want out of God, and listen: listen and watch, in our hearts and our world, for the humiliation which silence reveals. And let us catch a glimpse of the worlds on worlds of new life and new love which God is calling forth from the empty, barren, and broken places of the earth.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.