So, it’s started! The Christmas Season is upon us with all its attendant activities and busyness……..there is shopping to do, meals to prepare, special treats to be baked, visiting to do…..etc…..etc…..etc…..Not at all uncommon to have the feeling, hang on for the ride and feeling triumphant that you “survive” it.
We are part of such a demanding consumerist culture that Christmas, is barely recognizable from the holy festival that is meant to be. It seems like the target has become the day itself and the journey up to it is relegated to the survival of the “to do” lists. That is indeed sad, for the true meaning of this season of Advent is lost to us and we are the poorer for it.
Yesterday I encountered my first Christmas Song on the radio. It was a very upbeat, cheerful version of Santa Claus is Coming to Town. I’m sure you all know it. But as I hummed and tapped my foot to the tempo………. it suddenly occurred to me how relevant it was to today’s scriptures. You know the verse…..”he sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake….he knows if you’ve been bad or good……so be good for goodness sake!” He’s making a list…..checking it twice…..gonna’ find out whose naughty or nice….
Children love that song…..and parents love it too as it is used to managed exuberant behavior in the run-up to Christmas Morning. That’s all right as far as it goes….but a look at a deeper level reveals that the Christian Church has used a very similar method to extort improved behavior among its followers.
God has been portrayed as the ultimate father figure who looks at each one of us , wags the finger and passes judgment……deciding who is in…..who is out……with peace and comfort for all eternity as the prize to be won or lost. Privilege is granted to some and lives of torment and suffering are meted out to others. I recall thinking as a child that God was someone to be “feared” that he extorted loving behavior in return for favours. It didn’t sit well with me……..
And then I experienced my first moment of being shamed…..It was Sunday School in the Baptist Church which was the closest church to our home that my brother and I could walk to on Sunday mornings. I wanted to take dancing lessons and when I revealed that…..my teacher immediately responded with condemnation confidently assuring me that I was indeed a “sinner” and could never get to heaven if I did that. That was a moment I have never forgotten. I was 10 years old and the whole jig was up! I was going to burn in hell for all eternity because I was foolish enough to want to dance. I was devastated.
I eventually shared this with my mother who remedied the situation by telling me that I didn’t need to go there any more if I didn’t want to and I should take the dancing lessons ….that It would be all right. I eventually found my way to an Anglican church where we actually had dances …….co-ed dances…..shocking! but fun for my teenage social life. I liked that much better.
As I matured, I became more aware of the many ways that faith traditions through their lists of Sins …….the “thou shalts, and thou shalt nots” made people feel bad about themselves and it became increasingly clearer that when people feel bad about themselves….they tended to behave less well rather than better. Whereas earlier they might have felt shame…….now the demon of Guilt was raising its head. Guilt doesn’t get people into church either. A quick review of any Christian religion will quickly reveal a daunting list of sins…... and they vary between the various traditions. It feels overwhelming….especially when God is portrayed as the source of all Grace, Love and Healing. ….. but only as long as we behave.
So where did we go wrong?
When we started reading the Bible in a literal way instead of understanding its underlying truths we started down the road of misunderstanding and spiritual pain. Today, the First Sunday of Advent is the Sunday of Hope…….so Let’s use today’s liturgy and scriptures to reveal their deeper truths and help us arrive at a much healthier spiritual place.
At the start of this service, the candle lighting ceremony reminded us of our very human longing for God to be with us and journey with us in our lives.
The prophet Isaiah invoked his people to “walk in the light of the Lord”…….Mathew, reminded us that we must always be ready to meet the son of God, to be prepared as life is so uncertain…. In Romans, we heard Paul advise us to put on the armour of light, to clothe ourselves in Christ……and not to think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh. ….think Sin when you hear that.
These are very heavy readings as we anticipate celebrating the birth of the Christ child into the world. So, let’s unpack them and in so doing we will see how Hopefulness can be found in them.
It is important to realize that these scriptures were written for ancient peoples in a manner that would be understood by the people of the time. Few people were literate, the spoken word was the primary tool of communication and learning. Parables, metaphors and similes were used that made sense to the people that were hearing them. It was through story telling…not written words that God’s message was imparted. Eventually, the stories were written down……and it is what we’ve done with those written words that have contributed to the confusion we experience today.
These stories have been translated through the centuries, but each time that a translation has occurred, it happened through the cultural filters of the translators. Each translation then, could be said to have a “date stamp” on them. And we, here in the present would have been better off with a “best before date”, …….for we failed to recognize that it is the truths embedded in these writings that are the treasures worth preserving, and it is to these truths that we are called to pay attention for our lives in the 21st century.
All of today’s readings are exhorting us to not to “sin” and give us direction how to avoid it. But what is sin? Take a moment and think about what sin is to you?
When you think about “sin” do you think about violating the 10 commandments? To use my earlier example…..is dancing sinful? Is sin sexual in nature? If you break the rules of your faith tradition, is that sinning? Must women cover their heads? If yes, why don’t we and why do faithful Jewish men wear yarmulkes?
I have been greatly helped by discovering the origins of the word “sin” . The Greek word for sin that was used by Paul is the word “Hamartia” It means, “missing the mark” . Sin, is therefore, anything that we do that helps us to miss the mark of being our best selves. It isn’t God telling us what sin is, we miss the mark whenever our behavior separates us from feeling connected to God. Whenever we become so absorbed in our daily routines that we fail to make time to encounter God or we do anything that harms ourselves or others we experience the loneliness of separation from God. God, or spirit never leaves, it is we who leave Spirit.
The Hebrew word from which our word sin originates means “forgetfulness” We forget to remain God- centered in the busyness of our earthly lives and therefore make bad decisions separate us from walking in God’s light.
Instead, we get captured by our culture and forget to enter into the presence of God as the source of our direction. We look to our culture to tell us what is right and wrong and how to live……and we get swallowed up by earthly demands on our time.
These are cultural demands that can keep us separated from God and often lead us…..even though we think we are good Christians…..to behave in ways that can help us miss the mark. ……..think about how we marginalize certain groups of people …….think about how we self-righteously argue our points of view….. ……think about how we judge others……..and we all do. We lose site of the truth that each human being is struggling just as we are to “do the right thing” even though we often go about it in the most wrong of ways. Episcopalian priest Cynthia Bourgeault and Fransiscan priest Richard Rohr have helped me to see that God does not punish us FOR our sins……we punish ourselves BY our sins because when we forget whose we are, when we “miss the mark” of our own best behavior……we live our lives “out in the cold”, exiled if you will from the power, healing and transforming love of God.
This understanding connotes the opportunity to do better…..to improve…..or in modern business lingo put quality control” on our human behavior. Understanding this removes the child-like fear that I will end up on God’s “naughty” list and therefore receive life’s equivalent of a lump of coal.
Instead it means that when I faithfully practice the presence of God through silence in contemplative prayer, I will have access to Spirit as my navigator as I attempt to sail the rocky shores of life……..And that helps me understand that God is not punishing people whose lives are fraught with suffering…..rather, it tells me that horrid things can and do happen to really good people but through prayer, the way is found to surmount and come through the dark and stormy times. We can be helped to do better…….to hit the mark more often. So how does all this relate to the Hope of Advent?
Jesus came into this world to teach us the eternal truths embedded in the ancient scriptures of his time. He came to show us the way. Our Bible stories tell us that Jesus modeled how to remain in God’s presence while dealing with the world. Whenever his ministry became heavy, he would go apart from others to listen to God and discover his way forward. We need to follow his example.
This season of Advent is a time to prepare ourselves to receive the Gifts of Spirit that are manifested through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We have four wonderful weeks to get ourselves ready to unwrap this ultimate gift…….to walk in the light of Christ, to put on the whole armour of God and be ready to face whatever comes our way.
Take 20 minutes a day. Sit comfortably, breathe deeply and then settle into quiet in the presence of God. This is not a time to give God a “wish list of intercessions” rather it is a time to be present with God…..so that God can talk to you. If you faithfully do this, you will feel refreshed, nurtured and nourished in your lives….This is the HOPE that Jesus came to teach us……This is how we get our lives in alignment with Spirit…..this is how we will truly go forward flying farther and truer as we try to hit the mark of our best selves…….This is how we achieve God’s greatest commandments…….to love God with all our hearts, our minds and souls…….and to love others as we would love ourselves. Instead of just believing in the love of God, this is how we go forward Being the transformative healing and love that is God and this is what Jesus came into the world to teach us.
Let us pray: God of all who miss the mark in our lives, God of all who forget to whom we belong….God of all who are wholly or in part are in exile from you……Help us this Advent season to show up in silent prayer to hear your word ,that we may remain in alignment with your will for our lives and not be held captive by the demands of our noisy world. Help us to watch and to listen for the many ways you call us home. Help us to meet you on that journey so that we may embrace the gift that your son came to teach us. Help us come home and live in the light of Christ and faithfully serve you in your world. So may it be, Amen. This is the Hope that is symbolized by this Sunday of Advent. This is the good news of the scriptures this day……..may all praise be to God.