The pet peeve of nearly every pastor this time of year is driving around town seeing the number of houses which are decked out very ostentatiously with Christmas lights and decorations while knowing that the people living in those houses will not step foot in a worship service during the entire Advent and Christmas season. They have the biggest Christmas tree in their living room, the most lights on the trees in their yard, the prettiest wreaths on their doors, the brightest candles burning in each window, appearing from every indication to be anticipating the coming of Christmas, the coming of the Messiah, Savior and King; yet, for some strange reason, they do not feel the need to gather together on the Lord’s Day to worship and acknowledge their need for Christ. They have no desire to be here this morning to a light another candle in anticipation of advent of Christ.
I wonder what they are celebrating? What has brought their lives so much fulfillment and happiness and peace that they have the energy and desire to go all out decking their homes with lights and evergreens and candles but have no desire to gather for worship? What is so wonderful about their lives which makes them feel as if they simply do not need Christ in their Christmas?
What are they celebrating? Getting off a few days of work to spend with their lovely families? Presents? Santa Claus? Christmas parties and dinners? Their home? Are their decorations merely saying, “Look at me!” “Look at my beautiful yard and my beautiful house? Look what I have built! Look what I have bought!”
During a conversation with a friend of mine from seminary who was serving as a missionary on the outskirts of the Republic of Congo, I said:
Brad, I don’t know how you do it. How you can leave all that our wonderful country affords us to share the gospel of Jesus Christ in a depressed third-world country!
To my surprise, he responded:
To tell you the truth Jarrett, I don’t know how you do it! How on earth do you share the gospel of Jesus Christ in the affluent United States? How do you convince people who have everything that they need a savior! People are so spoiled in the U. S. They have so much which they believe brings them happiness and fulfillment and peace. They don’t believe they need Christ. People where I minister have nothing. They are starving for the gospel! They need the gospel!
We do have much, don’t we? The very best technology: computers, smart phones, smart watches, and smart TVs with digital signals carrying more information than our brains can possibly comprehend beamed from satellites that were employed by space shuttles!
Yes, perhaps all of us living in the affluent West are tempted to look for our peace and fulfillment in the vast accomplishments of humanity. We marvel at science and technology and say, “Look at us, look at what we can do, look how smart we are!”
Because our capitalistic economic system is based on the what humans can accomplish if they are given the freedom to work for themselves, all of us have more clothes than we could ever wear, more food than we could consume, and bigger houses than we really need.
And with our freedom, we have so many choices. We can do so many different things. We can go to so many wonderful places. With our freedom there are no limits to what we can be and we what we can do and where we can go!
We are free to make as much money as we possible can, to marry who we choose, to have as many children as we want, and to live in the neighborhood and home of our choice.
Perhaps that is what so many are celebrating with their lights and evergreens and candles. They are celebrating freedom. They are celebrating the American way of life. They are celebrating their material possessions. They are celebrating technology and the accomplishments of humankind. They are celebrating Santa Claus and his great big bag of goodies made by the hands of mortals. They are celebrating family, the gift of human love and children.
So, maybe my missionary friend is right. In America, we are free to have so much which brings so much happiness and fulfillment and peace that there is really no need for a Savior.
Yet, deep inside, we know, that even within our wealthy country, within our most affluent communities, there is indeed much unhappiness and unfulfillment.
If wealth and freedom and smart human accomplishments are all they’re cracked up to be, why does the United States have highest rate of suicide per capita than any other nation on the planet? If our children have so much more, more opportunity, more toys than the other children of the world why is the suicide rate for children 14 and younger double that of other nations?
I believe that one problem we have with our country is that it takes a great degree of honesty to admit our unhappiness and unfulfillment. After all, with our great freedom of choice, we are free to fashion our lives as we choose. If the lives that we fashion are unfulfilling, guess whose fault it is? We have nobody to blame but ourselves; therefore, we are reluctant to admit to any sense of unfilfillment and unhappiness. Our pride and our ego prevent us from admitting that we ever reflect on our lives and ask ourselves the question: “Is there anything more than this?” We can’t admit that we are in need, that we yearn for something more.
So we cover it up with lights and evergreens and candles. We say to the world: “Look at me, I am happy, I am fulfilled. I don’t need church. I don’t need worship. I don’t need community. My choices and my consumerism are enough. My house, my clothes, my toys, my freedom, my family, my intellectual prowess is all I really need. It is enough.”
And yet, deep inside, we know that it is not enough. Deep inside we all know that there has to be more, but because of our freedom, our pride and arrogance, we are afraid to admit it.
Advent is a season of looking for something. It is a season of hoping and believing that “there has to be more.” It is a season of yearning. Have you noticed the hymns we sing during Advent? Not the Christmas carols, but the advent hymns like the one we are going to sing in a few moments. The hymns we sing this time of the year are somewhat restrained. They speak of desire, of waiting, of expectation. The Advent prophets speak to a people suffering from homelessness and despair. It is no coincidence that John the Baptist’s voice is that of one “crying out in the wilderness.”
John the Baptist is crying out in the wilderness, because that is where the good news of the gospel is needed. In order to hear the message of Christmas, we must first realize that we are living in a wilderness. We must be able to be honest and say: “The choices I have made on my own have not brought me fulfillment. My freedom, my material wealth, my high tech gadgets, my diplomas, a nice home, a nice car, a vacation in Hawaii, New York, Paris or Southern California, even a wife, two kids and a dog are not enough. I need something more!”
With our freedom, it takes courage and it takes conviction to admit to yearning, to admit to our need to look for something else.
In order to see the fragile light of Christmas, we must first realize that we are in the dark. Even in an information age, we must confess that humankind does not have all of the answers. Advances in technologies, and the freedom to make choices and to make money cannot protect us from our dark world of evil.
As much as we try to decorate it with lights and evergreens and candles: gadgets break; space shuttles crash; family members get sick; relationships fail; loved ones die. Human beings, with all of their potential to accomplish good, are at their core, depraved.
A beautiful December 7th Sunday morning in Hawaii and a crisp September 11th Tuesday morning in New York City can be suddenly transformed into a burning hell without notice. An evening on the town in Paris, even a joyous Christmas party with friends and co-workers can become scenes of unimaginable tragedy.
One of the greatest things about coming to this place during this time of the year is that here, before God, in the midst of a dark world of falsehood and deceit we can be honest. We can come here, if just once a week, and tell the truth.
We can be honest and admit that nothing Santa could ever bring us, nothing made by mortal hands, will bring us fulfillment and peace. Nothing we can accomplish with our freedom and our intelligence can bring us joy.
So, maybe that is the real reason people will not step foot in a church this Advent and Christmas season. Because, what they see here is often really no different than what they see out there. They see, in the church, people who believe they have it all figured out; they have all the answers; they have everything they need for peace and fulfillment; they no longer have to keep yearning for Christmas; they no longer live in the desert. They see people who are unwilling to be honest.
So, here, in this place, let’s get back to what our faith is all about: honesty, authenticity. Let us be honest and admit that we do not have what it takes to experience true peace.
So, hear the good news on this second Sunday of Advent. To those of us who are honest enough to admit that we live in exile, in the wilderness, lost, wandering, hear the good news that God is making a way.
Listen to John the Baptist: “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.”
God is making a way through our desert, a highway straight to us.
Let’s be honest. Let’s realize that we need more, and let’s keep looking, keep yearning, keep working, keep serving, keep loving, and keep inviting others who do not have a church this season to join us, until we shall see the “salvation of God.”
Until we shall see Christmas and truly know peace, now and forevermore.