By the Rev. Larry Peters
Pastor, Grace Lutheran Church, Clarksville, Tenn.
Suburban America often seems like one giant theme park. That was the statement made by a fellow Lutheran visiting from Africa. He was dazzled by the sprawl of malls, fast food restaurants and themed restaurants. “You live in Disneyland,” he said. I protested but my protest did not even convince me. He was right. We live in a culture of pleasure and its pursuit. We are a nation of shoppers and a people relentless in the pursuit of all that pleases “me.”
It is no wonder that we look for the same thing in the Church that we look for in life. We look for that which makes us happy, that which entertains, that which “feeds our needs” as we define them … So the Church has been saddled with the same question that faces the shopkeeper, restauranteur, and businessman in America: How can we draw people in? It is the trap of commercialism that seems destined to swallow up everything in its path.
Advent does not fit into the shopping culture of America and its predilection for personal pleasure. It does just the opposite. Advent shouts “slow down” to a nation rushing to Christmas. It says “not yet” to a people too accustomed to having their cake and eating it right now. It says “look past yourself” to a people who see everything through the lens of “me.”
Of all the seasons of the Church year, Advent seems predestined to be misunderstood, rejected and ignored. And it usually is — even in the Church. We cannot wait. We cannot think of anything but getting what we want. We cannot pause even for a moment in our pursuit of pleasure. To all of this Advent says, “Yes, you can.”
Though Advent is a season of repentance, it is not a call to look inside yourself. It is the radical call to look outside yourself to the promise of Eden kept in Christ. It is the radical call to wait by looking at the need for our redemption before we skip to the Gift which is ours in the manger. It is the call to look for the One who came so that we do not miss Him when He comes again.
What we do in the parish during Advent is to issue the call to slow down, to wait and to look past ourselves. We do this by taking our time (four Sundays and some Wednesdays) getting to the manger. We do this by waiting to sing Christmas carols until Christmas. We do this by staging our journey to Christmas in steps — Advent greens, an Advent wreath, Christmas trees, a Christmas crèche, and then “Joy to the World” and “Silent Night.” We do this by keeping Christmas long after the trees are put outside and the decorations packed away — a full twelve days that stretch out what we have waited so long to celebrate.
Most of all we do this by listening to the Word of the Lord and by hearing that Word with the ears of faith, by the extra discipline of evening worship services and daily devotions, and by the joyful acknowledgment that the Christ of the manger is come among us in the blessed Sacrament to deliver the fulfillment of His promised forgiveness, life and salvation.
One last thing. When we over schedule things at the Church we mirror the busyness of the season in a bad way. Sometimes we have so many things going on at Church during Advent and Christmas that it seems literally like a roller coaster ride to Christmas. It should be slower and much more deliberate. We do not compete with the harried schedules of the world around us by matching them event for event. No, we compete by offering what no one can find except in the Church — the Gospel of the Incarnate Lord Jesus Christ! Make sure your Advent and Christmas seasonal events do not hide what is our exclusive offering to those in Christ and those who do not yet know of the gift of salvation.
Too much of the Church already seems like a theme park. Let us make sure that we discourage this comparison by keeping the focus on Christ by slowly and deliberately walking to the manger and by making sure the manger points us to the Cross.
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