Sunday, December 30, 2007

The First Sunday after Christmas, 2007

John 1:1-18

You may have observed, because you've frequently heard me refer to him and quote him, that the British scholar and writer C.S. Lewis has been one of the primary influences in my own faith journey. If nothing else, you may have read or seen the movie version of his children's series, The Chronicles of Narnia. One of the most popular of Lewis's works is a short and deceptively comical book—I say deceptively because it's really deadly serious—The Screwtape Letters. It's a collection of correspondence between Screwtape, a senior demon in Satan's army, and his nephew Wormwood, a junior devil, who has been assigned to “win back” to the cause of “Our Father Below” a man who has recently become a believing and practicing Christian. Screwtape offers Wormwood the wisdom of his experience in dealing with such difficult situations.

In his preface, Lewis declares, “I have no intention of explaining how the correspondence which I now offer to the public fell into my hands. ... The sort of script which is used in this book can be very easily obtained by anyone who has learned the knack; but ill-disposed or excitable people who might make a bad use of it shall not learn it from me.”

Well ... I am pleased to announce today that I, the humble rector of St Anne's Episcopal Church in Warsaw, Indiana, after years of secret and painstaking research, have "learned the knack" that Lewis talked about! And even more amazing than that: This discovery has led me into the possession of a file of top secret security memos from the very highest echelons—or, I guess we should say, the lowest echelons—of Hell, the private files of the one they call “Our Father Below.” The code name for this highly sensitive file is, Operation Christmas. Today, only at St Anne's (wait till word of this gets out!), I am going to share with you some excerpts from the Operation Christmas file.

The first is a memo from the director of the S.I.A., the “Sub-Terranean Intelligence Agency”, and the date, as nearly as I can figure, refers to a time roughly two thousand years ago:


FROM: Beelzebub, Director, S.I.A.

TO: Our Father Below

RE: Recent Developments

Boss --

Our intelligence assets behind enemy lines are sending signals that something very serious and potentially alarming is afoot.

Ever since that incident with the apple in the garden, as you know, we've had the upper hand. The Enemy has had some limited success with a tribe of nomads called "Hebrews" (the more up-to-date name would be "Jews"; those humans are forever changing names), but in the meantime, in most other areas, we have made significant gains for our strategic position.

However, it appears now that the Enemy is taking action to seize the initiative. Our best reports from our most reliable sources all indicate that he has sent an extremely high-level emissary—some say that it's actually his own son, although we haven't confirmed that yet—who has actually become a human being! Just what the Enemy has in mind with this move, is not clear, but the possibilities, especially if this "ambassador" turns out to really be his son, are sobering to contemplate.

Some response on our part is clearly called for. I suggest that you immediately convene an emergency session of the I.S.C. (Infernal Security Council) to discuss the matter.

I am obsequiously yours, and I await your reply.


DATE: January 1, 304 A.D.

FROM: Mephistopheles

S.I.A. Station Chief, Rome

TO: Beelzebub, S.I.A. Director

At long last we appear to have a Roman emperor who is not only thoroughly converted to our side, but is also possessed of the requisite determination and fortitude to do something once and for all about these "Christians" who have been plaguing us. Emperor Diocletian has ordered a coordinated and uncompromising campaign aimed at nothing less than the total elimination of Christianity.

At the same time, we can help our own cause by continuing to foster nostalgic affection for the traditional pagan religions of the empire. In particular, the Festival of the Unconquered Sun, which is celebrated on the 25th of December each year, seems especially appropriate to our purposes. Many humans are very attracted to the Enemy by that scandalous turn of events of two and a half centuries ago when Jesus, just when we thought we were rid of him, somehow rose from the dead. We have, of course, always tried to conceal this fact, but with only limited success: Humans find the idea irresistible. Here's where the Festival of the Unconquered Sun comes in: They want a god who dies and rises? Here's one who does it every year—the Sun! If we can turn December 25th into a holiday that's celebrated fondly throughout the empire, then we can make sure that once Diocletian wipes out Christianity for the present, it will stay wiped out for the future.

(By the way, it's been a long time since I've had a promotion and a raise. Maybe this idea will earn me one?)


DATE: December 25, 451

FROM: Prince Darkness, Infernal Security Advisor

TO: Beelzebub, S.I.A. Director

This is to confirm our conversation earlier today in which I directed you to terminate your operative in Rome, Mephistopheles. His idea about promoting the Festival of the Unconquered Sun has backfired on us so completely that the original disaster has been compounded.

If this agent had done his research properly, he would have learned that it is the custom of the Enemy's followers to adopt and adapt the religious observances of the surrounding culture for their own purposes. Thus, what they have done with December 25 is entirely true to form: They have turned it into the remembrance of that very sneak attack which reversed everything we had accomplished in the Garden of Eden. Humbug! The gall of it!

See that Mephistopheles is immediately removed from Our Father's service.

P.S. I like your idea about trying to capitalize on the popularity of this Bishop Nicholas of Myra. Gift-giving and generosity are not qualities we normally seek to encourage, but these are not normal times. Anything that can distract people's attention from remembering the Enemy's visit to earth cannot but work to our advantage. Besides, once he's dead and gone, we can work on corrupting the memory of this "Saint Nicholas" into that of a harmless mythical hero. Who knows, if people begin to think of Nicholas this way, maybe we can train them to think of Jesus in the same way. Have your people flesh out a plan for me to look at.


DATE: January 20, 1981

FROM: Prince Darkness, I.S.C. Advisor

TO: Our Father Below

Your Most Corrupt Excellency:

This is in response to your request for an updated status report on Operation Christmas.

I am pleased to be able to tell you that, on the whole, the major objective of this operation is being met: i.e. neutralizing wherever possible the effect of the Enemy's Sneak Attack. As a percentage of total population, the number of the Enemy's followers has been steadily decreasing, particularly in the more developed nations.

The coming decade seems especially promising for our cause. Our S.I.A. station chief in the United States of America reports that the wholesome values of materialism, conspicuous consumption, envy of neighbor, and greed appear to be flourishing. Status symbols have never been taken more seriously. More to the point: We have been particularly successful in associating these values with the celebration of Christmas. Our operatives, both overt and covert, have arranged for the retailing industry to no longer merely respond to demand, but to create and control the demand for material gifts, and, moreover, to set the terms for the celebration of the season: when it starts, when it ends, what decorations are used, and what music is heard. We have made great strides is obscuring Christmas as a commemoration of the Sneak Attack.

Still, it is a year-to-year, day-to-day, person-to-person battle. Remembrance of the Sneak Attack is obscured, but not erased. The enemy's position is compromised, but he is still powerful. We must not let our guard down for a moment.


DATE: December 25, 1991

FROM: The Father Below

TO: All staff

I am taking this opportunity to communicate to each and every one of you my sincere gratitude for your superb and ongoing efforts in the execution of Operation Christmas.

As you are well aware, nearly two thousand years ago, on a day that will live in infamy, the Enemy himself, in the person of his own Son, actually became a human being, one of the pitiful creatures who descend from the ones we successfully recruited to our cause in the Garden of Eden. The events of the subsequent thirty-odd years are both too familiar and too ugly to bear recounting. Suffice it to say that the resurrection of the one whose name I still cannot bring myself to speak was such a blow that I wondered whether we would ever recover. It even still threatens our very existence. And when one of our own incompetent agents actually helped the Enemy's followers turn the anniversary of his birth into the most beloved and emotionally powerful holiday in human history ... well, what can I say? We got rid of him!

Yet, we struggle on, thanks to all of you. We successfully corrupted the memory of, and devotion to, Bishop Nicholas of Myra into the cult of a jolly old man who, like a powerful magnet, draws the attention and affection of human beings, especially children, away from the original basis of the festival. We have successfully corrupted the spirit of generosity and the impulse to gift-giving into a materialistic orgy of out-doing and out-spending last year. We have successfully engineered the celebration of the holiday to begin a month before the event, so when Christmas actually comes, people are so tired that they don't have the energy to pay attention to the reason for celebrating. And, thanks to the efforts of a secret task force whom I cannot yet name without jeopardizing their security, we have fostered the rise of what humans call "New Age" religion, which may yet reclaim December 25 as the Festival of the Unconquered Sun!

My friends, there is yet one more important task that I will call you to. This, I hope, will be the fatal blow to the remembrance of the Sneak Attack and the termination of this long and drawn-out Operation Christmas. There are those human beings who, for whatever reason, are just not vulnerable to the temptations of wealth or power or prestige. The are amused by the Santa Claus myth but don't pay much attention to it. They manage to not be consumed by the frantic pace of the season. What can we do to reach these people for our cause? There comes a time when it is necessary to tolerate, even encourage, good on a small scale in order to avoid good on a large and disastrous scale. I believe we must capitalize on people's innate goodness, to turn their strong points—unselfishness, generosity, loyalty, love—into their weak points, turn their advantage into our advantage. If we can foster the notion that the real meaning of Christmas is about love and patience and kindness and gentleness, about magical moments of generosity and human togetherness, of family and friends and traditions and values and doing a good deed for someone who's poor or lonely or hungry ... if we can spread the idea that these things, distasteful as they may be, are what Christmas is all about, then we can divert attention from the idea that Christmas is about the Enemy becoming a human being in order to win them all back from our side. To the extent that people remember the Sneak Attack at Christmastime, then everything we work for is in danger. We must not allow it! If we have to accomplish this by encouraging love and generosity, then so be it. In the end, victory will still be ours.

Merry Christmas, my demons, merry Christmas.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God ... and the word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.

And the word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.


Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas Eve 2007

There is certainly no more emotional, no more feeling-laden time of year than Christmas. These feelings are evoked, as it were, on cue, stimulated by any number of powerful symbols: red and green sweaters or table decorations, fake snow in a department store display window, toy soldiers and nutcrackers, George Bailey fighting to save his Building & Loan in Bedford Falls, Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchitt and Tiny Tim, Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye trying to arrange one more tribute to the General Waverly at the ski lodge, or any number of tunes which we’re likely to hear in virtually any public place beginning the day after Thanksgiving.

Intense feelings are aroused by Christmas traditions unique to particular families, even if the meaning has long since been forgotten. I recently heard about a family for whom Christmas doesn’t happen until a blob of peanut butter is spread on somebody’s nose—nobody can say why anymore. For another family, it was a solemn Christmas ritual to slice of an inch from the top of the ham before putting it in the oven. This went on for years before somebody eventually explained that, decades earlier, in an apartment none of the family lived in anymore, the oven was exceptionally small, so they had to cut the top off the ham!

For each of us here tonight, this complex of feelings and symbols supplies us with a very personal signal that Christmas has officially arrived. For me, it’s when I here the last verse of the hymn “Once In Royal David’s City,” with a certain organ accompaniment and vocal descant. It’s like a remotely-triggered bomb in my heart: When my ears hear that music, the bomb goes off, and, for me, Christmas is here. And the feelings associated with Christmas are, of course, positive ones: love and peace, good will and good cheer, cooperation and courtesy, festivity and joy.

Joy, in fact, is why we are here at this hour, doing what we’re doing. Holy Mother Church bids us rejoice tonight, with an intensity that is matched only by the Great Vigil of Easter. St Anne’s is decked out in its most splendid finery—vestments, flowers, silver, and polished brass. Our most treasured music and our richest ceremony is on display tonight. We hear scriptures that speak of Good News. We sing “Gloria” and “Alleluia,” two of the most ancient and universal Christian shouts of joyful praise. In everything we do, we are proclaiming, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come; let earth receive her King.”

But as we all know, Christmas also has a dark side. Ask any mental health care provider and you will learn that this is the time of year when their client load reaches its annual peak. People who are estranged from their families, or prevented by geography and finances from being with them, experience a profoundly painful form of loneliness at Christmastime. The incidence of suicide tends to spike upward during the month of December. And it is during this season that those who are already vulnerable to economic exploitation are in an even more precarious position than usual. The urge to provide children with exactly what will make their eyes light up on Christmas morning is virtually irresistible for a loving parent. This urge is responsible for a mountain of credit card debt that can take literally a lifetime to get free from.

So, maybe you don’t really much feel like rejoicing tonight. Maybe your credit cards are overworked getting ready for tomorrow morning. Maybe you’ve already eaten enough junk food at grazing parties to ruin your health for months to come. Maybe you’ve suffered a loss this past year that makes any Christmas joy fade into the background. Perhaps you are facing a crisis that requires a difficult decision, and you just don’t know what you’re going to do, and Christmas is, at best, a temporary distraction from that oppressive anxiety. Maybe you are aware of a personal moral or ethical failure on your part that makes Christmas rejoicing seem hypocritical. Perhaps you are bitter about a relationship gone sour, or fond hopes that never quite seem to materialize, remaining just beyond your grasp. I could go on all night—there are plenty of reasons why any one of us is not prepared for the demand that we rejoice on this feast of the nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ.

What, then, is the Church’s response to those who don’t feel like rejoicing? Well, there are two. The first one is a bit of a horse pill. We’re going to need a lot of buttermilk to wash it down. Put simply, it’s this: “It doesn’t matter how you feel. Rejoice anyway. It’s your job.” Have you ever noticed how sublimely apathetic the church calendar is toward the feelings of those who gather for worship? There is no set of instructions in the front of the Prayer Book that says to the priest, “Use these prayers, or these readings, or these hymns if you think people are in a good mood, and these others if you suspect they may be a little cranky.” The ushers didn’t take a survey at the door when you arrived tonight, and say,“Pessimists to the left, optimists to the right.”

The liturgy is not like eating at a five star restaurant, where you can order anything you’re hungry for off an extensive menu. No, it’s more like Aunt Betty’s Boarding House, where, if it’s Tuesday, meatloaf is what’s for dinner. If this is December 24, it must be Christmas Eve, so rejoicing is on the menu tonight, regardless of whether you or I are in the mood for it. And the reason is pretty much that same as why Aunt Betty serves spinach with her meatloaf— “Because it’s good for you!” God knows, the Church knows, that rejoicing is good for us, so we are commanded to rejoice.

Public worship isn’t really about sharing our moods with God, anyway. There’s certainly room for that in private prayer, but that’s not what corporate worship is for. Worship is about God sharing his moods with us. If it’s Advent or Ash Wednesday, we confess our sins and ask for the grace to repent. If it’s the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, we just keep on keeping on; everything’s normal. If it’s Easter or Christmas . . . we rejoice. In the end, it’s God’s mood, not ours, that’s important, and we do well to put our souls in phase with the rhythms of God’s heart. The liturgy is what helps us do just that.

But there’s another response that Holy Mother Church makes to those who don’t feel like rejoicing tonight, and this one is much softer and more sympathetic and understanding and appealing. To quote the medieval English mystic, St Julian of Norwich, “All is well. All is well. All manner of things shall be well.” And that isn’t just a 14th century version of “Don’t worry, be happy.” It’s much more profound than that, because it’s based on the solid foundation of the very reason for our rejoicing: God is with us. The Word has become flesh. The gap between heaven and earth has been forever bridged. Alienation and fear and despair do not have the last word. God has the last word, and that word is reconciliation, that word is hope, that word is love, that word is—yes—joy. We are invited to rejoice because there is more than enough reason to rejoice, no matter what else may be going on in our lives.

Christmas may be full of feelings, but Christmas joy is not merely a good mood, or sentimentality, or being happy that you got a raise, or rekindled an old flame, or solved a problem or because of any other conceivable circumstance in our concrete experience. Christmas joy happens, not only in spite of, but in the face of, all the other “stuff” that happens. In fact, the more such “stuff” our lives are full of, the more clearly we can see
both our need for rejoicing and our reason for rejoicing. So, if you’re happy tonight because things are going well for you, then I give thanks with you. If you’re sad tonight because things are going poorly for you, then I weep with you. But in either case, I’m going to rejoice tonight, because it’s good for me, and I invite you to do the same, because it’s good for you, and because “All is well, all is well, all manner of things shall be well.” The Word is made flesh: Come, let us adore him. Amen.

Year A: Advent IV (23 December 2007)

Matthew 1:18-25
Romans 13:8-14
Isaiah 7:10-17

My wife and children, if you were to ask them, would readily verify one characteristic of the way I behave, and that is that I don't really like surprises. Good news, of course, is always welcome, whenever it arrives; that's not the kind of surprise I'm talking about. The situation that I find...emotionally the one which asks me to make a last-minute, unanticipated change of plans. It has a tendency to make me...just a wee bit...grumpy.

It's a good thing my name is not Joseph, living in first-century Palestine, in the village of Nazareth. I don't know that I would have coped very well with finding out that my fiancée, with whom I myself had so far behaved as a perfect gentleman, was pregnant—and by the Holy Spirit, so she says! Indeed, it appears that Joseph did not exactly take the news lightly. But he did keep his cool. He didn't make a scene. He just decided to quietly break off the engagement and get on with his life.

Now, the conventional wisdom is that Joseph just assumed that if Mary was pregnant, and he was not responsible, then some other man was. Going through with the marriage, then, was out of the question. He would never be able to look at his wife or child and not see and feel the presence... of someone else, an interloper, a usurper. Joseph would have been within his rights to publicly humiliate Mary. Indeed, the punishment for her presumed offense under Hebrew law was death by stoning. So his decision to keep everything quiet is seen as a noble and gracious act.

But there's another way of looking at this strange set of circumstances. The text of Matthew's gospel, which is the only account we have of these events from Joseph's perspective, gives us no reason to suspect that he did not simply take Mary at her word when she said that her pregnancy was by the Holy Spirit and that there had been no other man. Maybe Joseph felt overshadowed by the same presence which was with Mary when she was visited by the angel Gabriel. “The Holy Spirit!? How could I possibly ever be worthy of living as a husband with someone chosen by the LORD to be the mother of the long-expected Messiah?” He had the legal right to enforce the marriage contract, of course, but figured this was one right it would be best not to exercise. If the Almighty wanted her, the Almighty could have her!

Any way you look at it, though, Joseph is the odd man out. There is someone else in the picture. Something or someone is present with him, whether it's one of his fellow villagers in Nazareth, or the Holy Spirit of God. Whichever it is, though, forgetting about this marriage idea seems the only prudent course to follow.

Have you ever felt that something or someone is with you, but not be able to identify who or what it is? Have you ever experienced the nearness of a reality that you can't detect using any of the five senses that you learned about in grade school, but nevertheless feels profoundly and disturbingly close by? Have you ever felt a chill go down your spine ... at a mere thought? I have not yet met a human being who has attainted the age of reason and reflection who cannot testify to some such glimpse of the eternal, even if only for a fleeting moment. Yet, the way we respond, more often than not, is to just go on with our lives, to quietly break off from these moments of engagement with ultimate reality or with the kingdom of heaven or with whatever or whoever it is that's tapping us on the shoulder and saying, “I'm here.” We would rather remain ignorant than ask questions that might lead us to experience more anger or fear, or shame, or unworthiness.

The circumstances that Joseph found himself in were, to say the least, peculiar, but his sensation of presence, his knowledge that someone was with him, either for good or for ill, was as common a human experience as getting goose bumps watching a sunset. Joseph figured that the one who was with him was either a source of shame and embarrassment, or the source of such awe-ful glory as might well kill him with its brilliance. If he had gone through with his original plan to quietly break off his engagement to Mary, Joseph would never have learned that the right answer was “none of the above.” And when we disengage, when we break off our "engagement" from the presence that is with us, we forfeit the only chance we have of finding out who it is, the only chance we have of experiencing true and lasting hope, purpose, and joy. We spare ourselves the pain, but we don't get to enjoy the gain. All we get is more of the same!

Well ... The LORD, in his mercy, was not inclined to let Joseph off the hook without making one more effort. So he sent an angel to re-assure him that everything was going to be alright. Mary was indeed pregnant by the Holy Spirit, so he didn't have to be ashamed. But he also didn't have to worry about being unworthy, or the odd man out. God had chosen him, just as god had chosen Mary, to play a critical role at this critical point in the outworking of God's plan for the salvation of the human race. In that dream, the presence...made himself known. The one whom he had experienced as with him...was none other than God! The one who is present with us also makes himself known, not ordinarily through angelic visits in our dreams, but in the words of holy scripture, in the sacraments, and in the testimony of generation upon generation of saints, apostles, prophets, martyrs and ordinary everyday Christian believers. That which we first experience as "with us", is then revealed to us as “God.” The Hebrew word “Emmanuel”—Emmanuel for whom captive Israel mourns in lonely exile, Emmanuel whom we know to be the long-expected Jesus born to set his people free from their sins and fears—the name "Emmanuel" is normally rendered “God with us.” This translation, however, doesn't reflect as accurately as does the Hebrew word itself the way we experience “God with us.” Emman is the Hebrew preposition “with.” The suffix -u turns it into "with us". Joseph first experienced the presence with him. We first experience the presence with us. Then the identity of the presence, the one who is with us, is revealed. El is the generic word for "god" in almost all the semitic languages, including Hebrew. Emmanu-el—with us, God!

With us...God. In his dream, Joseph was empowered to follow the divine vocation which he had received. He went ahead with the wedding plans, and when the time came for the child to be born, he did as he was told by the angel, and named him Yeshua, or, as it comes to us through the Greek, Jesus –which, in any case, means “God saves.” According to Jewish custom, when Joseph named Jesus, he gave him the legitimacy of his own family lineage as an heir of King David, and fulfilled the ancient prophecies that the Messiah would come from David's line. Joseph probably didn't realize it at the time, but his naming of Jesus was the final link in the chain of God's plan to personally enter human history in order to save us from the power of sin and death.

You and I may not realize it even now, but our willingness to name Jesus, to recognize that the one whom we know to be “with us” is indeed “God”, to acknowledge that he alone is our strength and consolation, the hope of all the earth, the desire of every nation, and the joy of every longing heart—naming Jesus is the final link in the chain of our preparation for Christmas, the culmination of the waiting and hoping and anticipating that has been our vocation during the season of Advent. Jesus—our Emmanuel—with us, God. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A: Advent II (2007)

Matthew 3:1-12
Isaiah 11:1-10

Romans 15:4-13

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is an immensely popular children's story by C.S. Lewis. Many of you, I'm sure, are very familiar with it. The action takes place in a land called Narnia. Narnia is ruled by the cunning and vindictive white witch, who rides around in a sleigh, terrorizing her subjects. As long as anyone can remember, it has always been winter in Narnia —“always winter, but never Christmas,” to be precise.

But yet, there is a collective memory among the residents of Narnia, a memory of a time when Narnia was a happy place, alive and green and growing, a time when it was ruled by a wise and kind lion named Aslan. Aslan has not been seen or heard from for a long, long time, but there are rumors. Rumors that Aslan is going to return, very soon, to melt the snow, banish the witch, and restore tranquility and happiness to Narnia. The trees and the animals of the forest whisper to one another, "Psst! Aslan is on the move".

Aslan is on the move.

The season of Advent brings similar news to those sons of Adam and daughters of Eve such as ourselves who are not fortunate enough to live in the enchanted land of Narnia. You and I live in a transitional moment—a moment to God, at any rate, though it's taking several centuries from the perspective of human time. Winter is on the verge of melting into spring—as ridiculous as it may sound for someone who lives in the upper Midwest to say that! Night is on the brink of turning to dawn. The grand drama of creation and redemption is about to enter the final act. Pssst! God ... is on the move! on the move.

The blunt message of an unruly and obnoxious John the Baptist rings in our ears: “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Time as we know it is going to come to an end. Relationships and institutions that we have invested our lives in are gong to exist no more. There is going to be a new universal order. Advent, it appears, is about some pretty remarkable stuff!

But I wonder whether very many of us take it with the seriousness it deserves. We are caught in the trap of ordinariness, enmeshed in the routine of life-as-usual, functionally blind and deaf to what God is doing, either within that ordinary life, or beyond it. Some years ago there was a PBS mini-series dramatizing the life of Winston Churchill. I remember being particularly impressed, not so much by Churchill's leadership of Great Britain during the dark days of World War II, which is what he is best known for, but by his role as an opposition Member-of-Parliament during the 1930's. The Prime Minister at that time, Neville Chamberlain, had a grand vision for improving economic and social conditions in the British Isles. Chamberlain wanted to strengthen public education, provide jobs for the unemployed, improve working conditions, and bring his country out of the Great Depression, which, along with the rest of the industrialized world, it was in the midst of.

These were good things. Life-as-usual is a good thing. But Churchill saw that Adolf Hitler and his Nazi empire were positioning themselves to cross the channel and overrun England. And what good would all of Chamberlain's social programs be if the German flag flew over Buckingham Palace?

Winston Churchill was the impolite voice of John the Baptist, saying, “Repent! Change your priorities! The end of life-as-usual is at hand!”

John the Baptist's call to repentance is as timely for us today as it was for his original audience on the banks of the Jordan River. But we are probably more resistant to his message, more difficult to arouse and move, than they were. We are probably more obstinate than the government of Neville Chamberlain in the face of Winston Churchill's call to pay attention to what was going on in Germany. We persist in our besetting sins of placing undue value on wealth, health, status, and productivity, not to mention indulging violence, injustice, sexual immorality, and dishonesty, either directly and personally, or through membership in a society that encourages these sins.

Psst! God is on the move!

Oh yeah?

Well, if God is on the move, then most of us are apparently in no condition to welcome that news with, “Great! It's about time.” Rather, our response is more likely to be, “Now? I'm not ready yet!”

In two weeks, some of us, having not finished our shopping or cookie-baking, might be saying, “Christmas is here? I'm not ready yet!” We may not realize what a true word we speak. Our hearts will not be in any condition to receive the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

A life insurance company used to run a series of cartoon ads. Each one pictured an individual happily going about life-as-usual: relaxing, swimming, playing golf, eating dinner...whatever. What he or she could not see, was that life-as-usual was about to come to an abrupt conclusion ... courtesy of a falling grand piano, an erupting volcano, a tidal wave, a shark, or some such product of a cartoonist’s imagination. The one-line caption was always the same: “My insurance company? Why, New England Life, of course.” I guess the point of these cartoons was that their subjects were insured against the impending disaster, but it's equally obvious that they were not in any other sense prepared for what was about to happen. Neither are we, if we're not in an attitude of repentance. We're not going to be very excited to hear that Aslan is loose, that spring is coming, as long as we live in an ice house on which the White Witch holds a mortgage! But repentance is the only condition in which to joyfully receive what God is bringing about.

So what's going to become of us?

We need to repent, but we're just a little bit too stubborn or complacent or wrapped up in our lives to do a very good job of it.

The consistent witness of scripture is that God loves us too much to simply abandon us in our sins. But it's also fairly clear in the Bible that he didn't make us as puppets, that he could control just by pulling strings. God is not going to coerce us into his kingdom. So he's going to have to be a little bit resourceful if he's going to get us to respond. One of the clichés that comes to us from animal training is that of the "carrot and the stick". The idea is that animals—including people—can be motivated either or both by the fear of pain or the enticement of pleasure. Today's liturgy is a sign that, in his desire for us to repent so he can save us, God is not beyond using the “carrot and stick” approach. The “stick,” in this case, is John the Baptist. One writer has called John the “patron saint of Christian nightmares.” “You brood of vipers! (You snakes!) Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is coming?! Bear fruit worthy of repentance! Even now the axe is laid to the root of the tree; every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire! The one who's coming after me has his pitchfork in his hand, ready to gather his grain into his barn, but the chaff . . . (which might be you) . . . He will burn in an unquenchable fire!” If there was ever an excuse for an Episcopalian to preach “fire and brimstone,” this is it! During Hurricane Andrew in 1992, I saw on TV a very large, crudely-built sign that someone had constructed on the southeast Florida coast just after the winds had subsided: “Ok, God, you've got our attention. Now what?” Sometimes God just needs to get our attention, and a stick is an effective way of doing it.

The “carrot”—the pleasurable enticement—today is the prophet Isaiah. I don't know about you, but I find this vision of the “Peaceable Kingdom”—a vision that has been the inspiration for a good many artists over the centuries—to be one of the most exciting and alluring passages in all of scripture. "The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together...and a little child shall lead them.” Imagine all these carnivorous animals suddenly becoming vegetarians! And the most incredible part of all: babies and young children can play on top of snake holes, and even stick their hands down in them, and not be bitten! This is not anything you're ever going to see on Wild Kingdom or on a National Geographic special, or hear about from your high school biology teacher! Now I'm not … a vegetarian. I enjoy my position on the food chain! Nonetheless, I'm tremendously attracted by the vision of paradise regained, of Eden restored. This passage gives me goose bumps, and it might even give me the motivation I need today for the repenting that I need to do today.

And repentance is not feeling sorry, an emotion of regret. Repentance is a constant movement turning—turning away from sin and toward God. And the movement of repentance is one in which our actions and our words are consistent with one another. The liturgies of Advent say a great deal about “preparing the way,” of making ready “a highway for our God.” We “prepare the way” within our own hearts and lives to remember our Lord's first coming when Christmas arrives, and we prepare the way within our own hearts and lives to welcome him when he returns to separate the wheat from the chaff, and to inaugurate the Peaceable Kingdom, when the lion lies down with the lamb.

The carrot ... or the stick. Whatever it takes, God wants our attention. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.