Sermon Advent 4 – December 20, 2009

December 22, 2009 at 4:11 pm Leave a comment

The Christmas presents are wrapped.  (Mostly.)

The Christmas food is bought (mostly).

The Christmas anthems are ready (mostly).

The Christmas sermon – well, I guess I can’t lie in church.

(Isn’t that funny – I hear that all the time:

but actually, God owns the whole world –

last I checked there is no safe place to tell a lie.)

Anyway –

we are mostly ready for our Christmas offerings.

Because that’s what a gift is, at its best, isn’t it –

an offering of your self,

something you give another person as a tangible sign of love, esteem, and thanks.

Presents, food, music, time, service –

all can become an offering from the heart.

Of course, we are human beings,

and our Christmas gifts can become about ourselves instead of others.

They can become opportunities to impress or flatter, to outdo another person,

to assuage guilt for time not spent or love not shown,

or perhaps to send a message.

If it has not been asked for,

an exercise DVD, a sweatsuit, and a gift membership to the gym

is less of a gift than a not-so-subtle hint.

Christmas gifts can also be given resentfully,

because one is expected to do so,

and a meal can be cooked in silent anger in the kitchen

while others relax in the living room.

We spend money we don’t have because we feel we must,

some of us buy gifts for the angel tree because we think we must,

and we secretly are waiting for the first opportunity

to quietly return that thing we’ve now got and don’t want.

A gift represents a sacrifice of time, of wealth, of self.

In ancient Israel, first-fruits of field and flock were offered to God.

Not because God needed the grains and animals –

but because they needed to a way to offer themselves to God.

The field and flock itself had been first offered by God to them,

and their offering represented the recognition that all was from God,

including their lives.

An Israelite was to lay his hand upon the bull or calf as the priest slaughtered it,

in symbol that the animal was really a stand-in for the offering of self.

But like us with our Christmas gifts,

Israel found a way to mess up sacrifice.

And so animals and grains were given to God,

but without love,

and the other matters of the covenant were neglected.

It got to the point where some of Israel’s prophets recognized

that it really wasn’t the animals God wanted from God’s people,

but God desired God’s people themselves –

living in the covenant,

honoring God’s name,

showing mercy to each other.

And without honor to God’s name,

and mercy to each other,

the animals really didn’t mean much.

It’s almost as if the Israelites played it like some kids do –

when they know that Santa Claus time is near,

they try for a time to get on the ‘good list’

only to restart living exactly how they want

once the last present is unwrapped.

Some kids go to great length to try and figure out

exactly how good Santa needs them to be

and how many bad things they can do without finding coal in their stockings.

We tend to appreciatively laugh when these kids are not ours

and become extremely angry if they are our own.

But these kids are Israel, they are us, they are humanity

trying to see how much God needs from us to be satisfied

before he lets us alone to enjoy our lives.

C.S. Lewis laid it out pretty starkly in his book Mere Christianity.

In a late chapter entitled, “Is Christianity Hard Or Easy?,”

he says that we human beings come at religion

pretty much the same way…we know we need to offer God some,

but we sure hope we have enough left over live the way we want to.

But, Lewis wrote, “Christ says, `Give me All.

I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money

and so much of your work: I want You.

I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it.

No half-measures are any good.

I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there,

I want to have the whole tree down.

I don’t want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out.

Hand over the whole natural self,

all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked –

the whole outfit.

I will give you a new self instead.

In fact, I will give you Myself:

my own will shall become yours.’

It is not that Lewis believes that God is a tyrant

who asks more of us than we can possibly give.

Rather, he believes that we are made in God’s image –

made to reflect God –

and God is one who gives and without reserve.

God does not demand our lives in a legal fashion:

he wants a relationship with us in which neither party holds anything back.

In Creation, God held nothing back –

and in Redemption, God physically becomes part of what he has created.

Jesus in the womb of Mary

is no poor substitute for God –

he is God himself come to us to share our birth, wear our flesh, and bear our sins.

As God, Jesus offers himself to us –

as human being, he offers himself to the Father as our representative.

“Sacrifices and offerings you have not required,

but a body you have prepared for me…

Then I said, “See, God, I have come to do your will, O God.”

The letter to the Hebrews sees the prophecy of the Psalms fulfilled in Jesus Christ,

but we may then see it as also applying to us who are made holy through him.

In a wonderful mystery the Holy Church encounters the Virgin Mary

as both its source and its destiny.

For in order for Christ to be born as a human being,

someone had to make space in the world.

Joseph had to make space in his life, holding the baby

in his callused carpenter’s hands

and Mary in her own body, in her womb

offering up her life so that God could be glorified,

saying, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord,”

giving her whole self to God

and then singing about how all generations will call her blessed.

She is indeed blessed,

for she believes that blessing is not found in material things,

or even accomplishments,

but in the relationship of offering selves

which God establishes with her and with us all.

God calls us to offer ourselves this Christmas and in the coming year –

because at Christmas God offered himself for us.

Offer yourself – heart and soul – giving your best to your loved ones

and to the human family –

but offer yourself to God as well,

not the best parts, not the worst parts,

all of the parts.

Praise his name with your lips, tell his story to children, come before him in prayer.

Let your hands work for him, give first-fruits of time and treasure,

let your feet take you where he wants you to be.

Let your mind ponder the mystery of Christmas –

In Bethlehem, in a feed-trough, God who needs nothing

poured himself out upon his needy creation.

When you have done so,

you will understand that you have not given,

but received the best Christmas gift ever.

With Mary you will sing,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has looked with favor upon his lowly servant.”

Behold, he is coming soon.

Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus.

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Sermon – 3rd Sunday of Advent Only the beginning…

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