Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Advent Sermon

Now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light.
-Romans 13.11-12

I'd like to start off my remarks today with a question: do you think you need to be saved? Do you honestly and sincerely believe that you need help for your life to endure? The long season of Pentecost has drawn to a close, and the start of Advent puts the necessity of salvation before us. "The night is far spent, the day is at hand," as the Epistle poetically describes this reality. Now what is salvation? And what is it from which we need to be saved? The Prayer Book identifies our enemies as 'the world, the flesh, and the devil', as we just heard in the Litany. The world is that part of human society that is in rebellion to God's gracious rule, ranging from the mammoth pornography industry to the abuse of ethnic minorities to the persecution of Christians in Africa and the Middle East. The World would have us capitulate to its standards, its ideas and its way of looking at itself and human beings. The historic doctrine of the devil is that he is a fallen angel. He and his angels are also in opposition to God's rule, and although we may as materialists be prone to question the existence of the devil, the chaos and evil in the world should give one pause: Think of the number of innocents murdered in the 20th century, a century of technological progress and human achievement. When we think about this and other evils, it is not difficult to believe that there are forces of spiritual evil in the world that seek to destroy God's good creation. Finally, the flesh. The prayer book doesn't simply mean the body. It means that part of the human person that wrestles with itself: You know the good you ought to do, but you give in to the opposite instead;That part of us that tempts us to subject our ideals and morals to our selfish desires is what the Bible and the prayer book in turn calls the flesh. It shouldn't surprise us that we our own enemy sometimes. Suicide is the trap door out of which one may exit life, but lots of other decisions one can make may not cause immediate death but do cause eventual death. These latter types of decisions blossom in addictions, divorces, and all kinds of figurative crashes, the inevitable fruit of which is an acute sense of alienation from God and others. The Bible put this stark reality in this way: "The wages of sin is death." Sometimes immediate death, sometimes eventual death.
The world, the flesh, the devil. These are that from which we need saving. Our prayer book emphasizes life as a battle in which we are under attack from these enemies. That is why there are two invariable collects or prayers for peace in both Morning and Evening Prayer. In these collects, one is not simply praying for the security of the state, since peace often merely denotes the absence of war. Rather, the peace we ask God to give us, the peace we want for our lives is security from the world, the forces of spiritual evil and from ourselves.
Now one of the problems of progressive theology is that it does not adequately account for the human need for salvation. The existence of the devil is usually denied and explained as merely a facet of human psychology. A theologically progressive church informed first most by the standards and mores of the World decreasing looks like the Christian church and more like a social action committee or even worse, a dying fraternal organization. Progressive theology tends to minimize the reality and costliness of sin--the flesh--and speaks of sin as denying the image of God in ourselves and others. Reinhold Niebuhr, a 20th century Protestant theologian, was formed in the mold of this type of theology, but through his pastoral work in Detroit he come to the conclusion that progressive theology held a naive view of sin and was overly optimistic about the effectiveness of social action. Concerning progressive theology, Niebuhr wrote, "A God without wrath, brought men without sin, into a kingdom without judgment, through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross." If we are honest with ourselves, the human situation without God is far more stark. We are in a battle which we cannot win without God's help and we need deliverance from the world, the flesh and the devil.
The other day I was listening to Mahalia Jackson singing "Didn't it rain," a song about how it rained for forty days and forty nights while Noah and his family were inside the ark. Brothers and sisters, today, it is raining too. As we approach the darkest day of the year, we are reminded in this season of Advent of our need for a salvation and a Savior. Will you be like those in the day of Noah did not see the coming storm, but were "eating and drinking, marrying and given in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark?" In other words will you live your life as if it were not a battle against the world, the flesh and the devil and in so doing surrender to the enemy. Or will you be like Noah who heard God's word to him and obeyed, entering the hull of ship while water swept over the face of the earth? The truth is that everyday it is raining and we need God's help. We need his help not to take that drink this holiday season, we need his help to spare us from that final incident that will severe for good a troubled familial relationship, and maybe we need God's help to be delivered from the distressing memories of past holiday seasons. To borrow another metaphor from Gospel music: the Gospel train is coming, Jesus is the engineer, the conductor is shouting 'All abroad'. Will you get on board?