Be Under No Illusions

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden

Sunday, December 4th, 2016

St. John the Baptist by El Greco.

Today’s gospel reading is the story of the start of the mission of John the Baptist, the great forerunner of Jesus’ time on earth. It's one of harsh realities and unremitting severity. As I was saying last week, this season of Advent has been so totally swallowed-up by the joviality of Christmas, both by the secular world and the Church, that the austerity and starkness of this Advent season can easily pass us by. 

For the fact of the matter is that John the Baptist’s message to the people of his time is as stark and relevant to us here today as it was to the original hearers. 

The gospel reading today is in two distinct parts, with two distinct messages.

The first message is that we are facing the dawn of God’s kingdom and we have to repent of our sinful ways.

The second message is that if we presume to think that our position in life, or in society, or in theological literacy is any sort of guarantee of automatic forgiveness, then we are very much mistaken. God has no favorites. Everyone is judged by the same criteria; everyone is equally under God’s law. Everyone is called to the same need for repentance. Everyone faces the Day of Judgement equally unclothed.

But here’s some good news: we are not facing some vindictive kangaroo court, presided over by a tyrannical despot. Rather, God yearns for everyone – each one of us – to be included in his kingdom. God’s judgement is different, because it is largely we who do the judging. We choose to exclude ourselves from God’s kingdom by our behavior, by doing things that separate us from the love of God. God does not want the death of sinner but, rather, that we would turn away from everything we do that we know is wrong, and live.

So, the shorthand for this process of deliberate, elective, detachment from God is ‘sin’. And if the season of Advent is about anything, it is about, as I was saying last week, a good, long look at ourselves so we are ready for the coming of God incarnate into our lives. Last week we were presented in our reading from Isaiah with a vision of a world where we had so completely returned to our loving God that swords were beaten into plowshares and spears into other farm tools. Today Isaiah offers a similar vision, of a counter-intuitive world where the wolf lies down with the lamb and children can play near vipers without fear. We need to hold on to those visions of a better world. That is what last week’s readings called us to. 

The Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks.

This week we are called to hold on to that vision and then consider what it is about us and our daily lives that prevents us from realizing these wonderful visions.

I can’t say what it is that’s holding you back from reunification with the Kingdom of God. I have some ideas about what’s holding me back, but only you will know, in your heart of hearts, what’s holding you back.

Sin is universal, of course, but what we think constitutes sin is much more subjective. Is something sinful? How do we know? I would want to suggest that the things that we do are, in themselves, largely morally neutral. The test is whether or not an action brings us closer to God, or takes us further away from God, and whether or not we are substituting for real happiness with God a sort of false happiness that might seem good at the time but ultimately is phony.

Our world, especially in this season of extended consumer Christmas, offers us ENDLESS possibilities for substituting true happiness with something which we try very hard to justify to ourselves will bring us happiness. Everywhere, in all the shops, the malls, the catalogs, the TV, the parties, the apparent conviviality, we are over and over and over again sold false contentment. “If only I had this, I would feel more complete... I would be happier”. “Just think what I could do with that”. Resist this kind of feeling. Mostly, it’s an illusion.

Yet.... and yet.... think of this…

This world. With all its brokenness, pretense, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. So, in this season of Advent, yes, be reflective, yes, be introspective, yes, be self-critical. But take heart. For this is a beautiful world, because God made it so.

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