Radically Counter-Cultural

A Sermon for December 9, 2012
The Second Sunday of Advent, Year C
Malachi 3: 1-4; Canticle 16; Philippians 1: 3-11; John 3: 1-6
The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield

To choose to live as a Christian is to choose a radically counter-cultural way of life. While our culture honors independence and self-reliance, the One we follow teaches interdependence and reliance on God.  While our culture rewards ambition and competition, the One we follow teaches humility and collaboration.

And while our culture promotes the accumulation of status, power and riches, the One we follow teaches dying to self, service to others, and the terrible perils of hoarding one’s wealth. Pretty much everything our society holds in high-esteem can be anathema to the Christian life, while the things we so value and hold dear are often sneered at or ridiculed in the marketplace. So while I know some of you may think you’re conservative, as long as you’re out there living the kind of life Jesus teaches us to live—I’ve got news for you:  You are radically counter-cultural!

Never is this more painfully clear than during the season of Advent.

The word on the street is heralding a countdown to Christmas, preparing for Santa, and encouraging us to buy things we don’t even need—while at the very same time the Word in our scripture is heralding the coming of Jesus and our need to turn away from many of the very same things our culture is urging us towards.  “Shop now, and shop often!” shouts the salesman on TV. “Prepare the way of the Lord,” warns John the Baptizer.  I wonder who we will listen to this Advent?

Advent is a time of faithful waiting—as our scriptures reminded us last week—a time of waiting not only for the Christ-child to be born, but for God to somehow enter into human history as dramatically and decisively as he did in Jesus Christ – for a second, and final, time.

Many of us may not think we believe in the Second Coming, but if we’re waiting for war to end, for violence to cease, for poverty to be eradicated, for hunger to be eliminated, for disease to be obliterated, for justice to be done and for love to conquer all—then we are indeed anticipating Christ coming again in all His fullness.

Because we’re waiting for the promised day we all pray for and work towards–that day when unlike now—God’s will will finally be done on earth as it is in heaven.  We’re waiting for the day when God will set all things right, restoring and reconciling all of creation to His original intent.

So Advent is a time of waiting.

Yet as John the Baptizer so forcefully reminds us this morning, Advent is also a time for preparing.  While we prepare for Christmas by decorating, baking, shopping and wrapping, we prepare for the birth of the Jesus by creating empty space in our hearts and our lives in which he might appear…in which we might notice His Divine Presence.  We prepare by lighting one candle at a time on our advent wreath, by saying Advent prayers and singing Advent carols, and as our scriptures for the day insist, we prepare for the day we meet our Lord face to face by repenting: by examining our lives, our relationships, our hearts and our souls–by confronting our willfulness and sinfulness–and by turning back with new found passion to living as Jesus teaches us and calls us to live.

Now, I know this repentance business is kind of a buzz-kill for the whole Christmas joy/holiday spirit thing.  In a culture where a healthy self-esteem is one of the most valued possessions of all, who wants to look at her own shortcomings, failures, or flaws? When everyone else is going to parties, drinking eggnog, and sneaking a little kiss under the mistletoe, who wants to imagine having his soul stripped naked before God Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth?

But what if in a very real sense—whether it happens when our lives are totally transformed by another extraordinary appearance of God on this planet or by our own individual deaths—what if we are, in fact, going to be held accountable for how we’ve lived our lives?

Whether God comes to us or we go to God, what if God’s judgment really is “like a refiner’s fire” that will purify us by burning away all our brokenness, all our sinfulness, all that separates us from his Divine Love?  “Who,” the prophet Malachi asks, “can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?”  This is some pretty scary stuff!  But what if?

Dietrich Bonheoffer wrote that, “We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love, and of God’s coming at Christmas, that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us…The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience…”

So again, what if?

Well, what if judgment isn’t something God does, but something that happens when our reality meets God’s reality—when our sinfulness meets God’s righteousness?  What if the refiner’s fire that the prophet Malachi talks about is the burning fire of God’s all powerful Love, and judgment is what we experience simply as a consequence of standing in the full presence of that Divine Love—

painfully realizing for the first time just how much we’ve hurt the One who created us, the One who loved us so much he became one of us, and was even willing to die for us?  What if we suddenly see in a sort of involuntary self-examination just how much we’ve disappointed this God of Divine Love, how much we’ve fallen short of his dream for us… how we’ve failed to love him with our whole heart, mind, and strength, not loved our neighbors as ourselves, or forgiven others as we’ve been forgiven?

What if in the burning Light of God’s Love we can’t help but see the truth about ourselves and our lives with absolute clarity—all the things done and left undone; our pride, hypocrisy and impatience;our self-indulgence, dishonesty and envy; our greed, indifference, and idolatry; our abuse of this planet, our selves and each other?

In the tender compassion of our God,” sings Zechariah, “the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”  Like Malachi before him and his son the Baptizer after him, Zechariah speaks a prophetic word of hope and promise.  This God is tender.  This God is compassionate.  Could it be that the refining fire of God’s Divine Love not only shines on our sin, but also then burns it all away with the dreadful sorrow we feel because of it?  Wouldn’t that be divine?

Wouldn’t it be divine to stand before God healed of all brokenness, purged of all sin, restored to perfect wholeness, free from all that binds us just bathed in the Light of His perfect Love? Wouldn’t that be…well, wouldn’t that be heaven?  So what are we waiting for?

Prepare the way of the Lord,” warns John the Baptizer.  “Repent!

You see, we can prepare now for the fateful day none of us can predict when we will meet God face to face. We can choose now to fearlessly examine our lives, our relationships, our hearts and our souls; we can choose now to confront our sinfulness, and the remorse we’ll feel because of it; we can choose now to turn back with new found passion to living as Jesus teaches and calls us to live.  Advent may be a time of waiting, but we don’t have to wait for the Second Coming to be made clean, forgiven and redeemed by God’s Love.

“Shop now, and shop often!” shouts the voice on the television. “Prepare the way of the Lord!” answers the radically counter-cultural John the Baptist.

I wonder which voice we’ll listen to this Advent? Amen.

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