I preached this sermon at Universalist National Memorial Church, on December 9, 2018 with the lectionary texts from Philippians and Luke 3
I’d like to thank Pastor Gatton for inviting me this morning, and you for welcoming me.
If it wasn’t already clear, we’re in the season of the church calendar known as Advent.
Some facts: it is marked over the four weeks before Christmas. Traditional Advent observances in the Western church (of which we are a part) include the lighting of the four candles on the Advent wreath, and in the Eastern church, a period of fasting and abstinence second only to Lent.
In the Western church, Advent is observed as a period of expectation, marking the events leading up to the birth of Christ, including the presence of the prophets and John the Baptist. It is a serious, theologically-intensive time, well-loved by serious, theologically-minded people.
Moving away from the facts, I am struck by Advent’s power and holiness, but will confess that I’m hard pressed to observe it. Perhaps it’s something about the way we celebrate Christmas. Christmas is a total experience, and can get into every part of our lives if we’d let it. Christmas cookies are a thing; Advent cookies aren’t.
I can imagine the scandal of a medieval monk humming a Christmas office hymn on, say, the 23d. The prior would not approve; “oh, Christmas comes earlier and earlier every year.” Today, even Thanksgiving is no match, and it’s only a matter of time when the tinsel goes up after Labor Day.
Loving Christmas early
Loving Christmas early may not be very serious or theologically-intensive, but so be it. If you’re going to celebrate Christmas at all, deliberately setting aside a prior period for fasting, contemplation and abstaining seems like a lot of trouble, and perhaps ostentatious besides.
Like that song from the musical Mame, “we could use little Christmas now.” Life’s too short to not be happy for much of it as possible. Advent, then, is going to have to stand for something else.
“Happiness and true holiness”
Universalists made the link between “holiness and true happiness,” as the phrase goes in the Winchester Profession of 1803. Universalists were (and are) sensitive to the accusation that, if you rule out hell, you offer a license for all kind of debauchery. No way, me reply. “Holiness and true happiness are inseparable connected.” And if you’re enjoying something awful, it won’t make you really happy.
In past generations, Universalists taught that wicked people were punished by their sins, but today the reverse seems more true. Holiness – that nearness and congruity to God, manifest in good living — can be accented by happiness. Happiness can bring out gratefulness, say, and that can put us in mind of all the good things God as done for us, and in us.
This is what I hear in the Paul’s words to the church at Philippi, him “constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.” A real and deep joy that comes from a life congruent with God, in support and care of one another, even in difficult times. From that comes a peaceful conscience and a sense of satisfaction – or perhaps consolation – that you participated on the right side of history, standing with the prophets, waiting for the birth of Christ.
Advent can take this mixture of holiness and happiness, and adopt it as its own.
John the Baptist
But I don’t know if John the Baptist would agree with that.
John the Baptist is a difficult character.
In both western art and eastern iconography, John the Baptist appears scruffy, thin, with a long beard and unkempt or matted hair. He wears skins. It might sound cruel, but he looks more animal than human, but I think that was the point. Images, say those touched by Dutch humanism, may fatten him up a bit, and make him seem more introspective than feral. But either way, he’s a figure on the margins, a radical, and as Herod would later learn, a danger.
From his point of view: while the emperor was in Rome, and his appointee controlled our land, and while their vassals divided the land, and the high priests assumed religious authority at the Temple, — while all of these things happened the word of God come into John who was in the wilderness. Luke the evangelist might be making, as we say, a point.
Hating the world
What made John that way? Today, we have a different set of words to describe a person on the margins.
Was he depressed? Was his family of origin troubled? How did imperial domination change his view of the world? What and who radicalized him? There’s a Facebook meme circulating with wildman John with the caption “Happy Advent, you brood of vipers!” John’s way was to preach repentance fearlessly, to baptize for the remission of sins. He was confrontational, and doubtless, to use another modern word, difficult.
It’s easy to imagine that John hated the world and the forces within it. And through him, we can identify what upsets us. Some people are afraid of the world around them. Others resent and hate it. Others still see it as a subject for plunder. Fewer seem to care for it and care for those who live on earth: too few, when so many are needed. We’ve seen people – not a few are Christians – hating the world, rejecting it and its comforts. And other, more kindly, hating its cruelty, and hoping for something else.
But we do not follow John, even though he was the forerunner. We follow Jesus, who taught us to love one another, and that love makes the difference for letting God enter our life with joy.
Loving the world or not
So, let’s make a plan. If we ought not hate the world, ought we to love it? Love is a good thing. Loving the world seems to be an agreeable thing to want, to stand for, to defend.
But let’s also be careful: is it even possible for a human being to love the world? There’s at least two problems.
First, if we love the world, does that include its violence, its cruelty, its capriciousness? Do we love the storm, the flood, the wildfire? Do we love the restless mobs, the flowing garbage dumps, the war zones? From a God’s-eye-view, these may have their own rhythm, their own sense, or even their own beauty. But I don’t have a God’s-eye view. I can’t love misery and suffering, except to celebrate it being over. I don’t even really like to see people I despise suffer. So I can’t (and won’t) presume to say that this person’s illness, or that person’s destitution is somehow lovely in God’s sight, because I know no such thing.
And, second, not knowing is the other problem with loving the world. We know relatively little about the cosmos, the depths of the seas, the working’s of each other’s minds, perhaps even the movings of our own souls. Can we say we really love what we don’t know? We can say it, but what would that mean.
We love in the space where personalities meet. I love my husband and he loves me. My mother loved me when she saw me. My dog loves me and shows me with her eyes, or a gentle nuzzle. And God loves us, for love is God’s nature and seeks us. I can imagine the possibility of love with people I don’t know. I can approach the universe with awe that resonates with love. I can and do love people (and dogs) that were once new to me. But I am incapable of loving everything, if the word love is to have any meaning. Universal love belongs to the universal God.
If we do spread the idea of love too thin, what does it become? We might apply love to things that cannot love back. We may see reflected in the gold and sparkle, but possessions can love us. We may enjoy them, and miss them when they’re gone, but we do not love them.
But warnings about wealth is pretty typical of preaching; I bet you saw that one coming.
What’s more dangerous is when we love our imagination. Our imagination creates worlds and stories; imagination invents lives and brings them to us through the voice, the written word and film. Imagination can be a comfort to the lonely or deprived, and an instrument to lift the creative soul. But it can as easily box and package other people into predictable, limited roles. My imagination about you can become your inhibition. One person’s creative force is another person’s destruction. The real world is more amazing than a single person’s imagination. And one person’s imagination of what the world could be is much, much less than what the world really is. So by imagining that we love the world, we betray it. It’s better that the world, and all who live in it, remain mysterious then incorrectly understood. For to take over other peoples’ story is to deprive them of their own story, and drive them into hopelessness.
How can we transform our feelings into hope?
German Catholic theologian, Josef Pieper wrote,
There are two kinds of hopelessness. One is despair; the other, praesumptio. Praesumptio is usually translated as presumption, although translation as anticipation is not only more literal but also catches the since quite precisely. Praesumptio is a perverse anticipation of the fulfillment of hope. Despair is also an anticipation — a perverse anticipation of the non-fulfillment of hope: “to despair is to descend into hell” (Isidore of Seville) (Josef Pieper in von Balthasar, Dare we Hope…, 27-28.)
If one kind of hopelessness is “a perverse anticipation of the fulfillment of hope” then what might we hope for? Our hope for personal happiness and well-being, our hope for the renewal and improvement of society, and our hope for global, even cosmic reconciliation and peace. These are not separate hopes. Inner peace recalls outer peace. Hope connects. Thinking of one reminds us of the others. But thinking of them all might leave us rueful that any hope might happen; that’s this “perverse anticipation.” Big hopes anticipate big disappointments.
As Universalist Christians, we have to be careful, as we are keen to speak of hope in the grandest of terms; the Larger Hope. A Complete Gospel. The union of all souls with God. But this isn’t about us or human ability. Insisting and concentrating on hope’s grandness is an affirmation of God’s nature, “whose nature is Love” as stated in the Winchester Profession. We can depend on God because God is just: divine law (revealed or assumed) does not contradict or overcome divine nature. And we see traces of this divine love across scripture and in our lives. It precedes the creation of the universe and gives us life. We trust God out of a sense of the greatness of divine love, down to the last soul, down to that last day.
But in daily life, when we speak of hope, it isn’t about the cosmic, but about coping with ordinary things, multiplied a thousand times. Will this interview lead to that job, which will provide that money which will resolve this debt? That’s one scenario; there are countless others. Where’s the sense of the infinite when we shuttle from need to need, or crisis to crisis? In these terms, hope is little more than getting by, and that itself is not assured. God is no less grand, or less loving, just less relevant.
The middle path
Might I suggest we take a middle path?
Really, it would be John, as seen through Isaiah: “‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
That is, neither hating the world, surviving through bitterness or resentment or despair for what may come— nor loving as we would want it, and not as God would have it be.
This middle path is the continuing walk of faith. It is known by patience, gentleness, maturity and generosity. It calls but does not yell. It sparks wonder, but comes to us in the everyday. It cultivates courage, but does not dominate others.
And it is a work of a lifetime. Friends, a faith worth having is a faith worth working on.
Advent leads us through human history and points to that moment, the coming birth of Jesus Christ, where God by taking on our nature endows the everyday with divinity. Its growing holy light is among us, tying heaven and earth. Its joyful power directs us through the middle path between hating the world, and loving it improperly. It directs us in a path towards mature, caring and thoughtful congruence with God, with the hope of the ages: that God loves us, and prepares greater wonders.
Or as Saint Paul wrote: “This is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best.”
God bless you all, and happy Advent.