In light of the Hanging of the Greens and all the special music this morning, plus the Sacrament of Holy Communion, I’ll be brief.
Did you happen to notice the message on the marquee? That’s the starting point: Today is the first Sunday of the New Year. While others live out their lives in relationship to the earth’s revolving around the sun, our lives revolve around the Lord Jesus Christ.
Just saying the words, “Happy New Year,” in late November, early December, is a pretty good indication of how out of step we are with the rest of the world.
As well we should be. Christ calls us to a different way of life, where the crowning virtues are not consumption and greed, but sacrifice and service. In that regard, a question I’ve always found compelling is this: If you were on trial for being a Christian today, would there be enough evidence to convict you? The more we distance ourselves from the values of the world, the more effective our witness of faith will be.
In a word, that’s what I’d like for us to think about in the sermon this morning: Living in the world without becoming of the world; daring to be different and not just going along with the crowd; in the words of Henry David Thoreau, marching to the beat of a different drummer.
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Celebrating New Year’s on the first Sunday of Advent is just the tip of the iceberg. Just look around you. We’re in the middle of multi-million dollar spending extravaganza. And, while I’m all for supporting a healthy economy, what does this have to do with the birth of Jesus? Do you think he would recognize himself laid out, as it were, between Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman?
But that’s not half the story. While the world might, on a good day, give a passing nod to Jesus’ birth, for us Christmas is about Christ’s coming in judgment to reign over all creation as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Richard Donovan writes this note to preachers:
“We must face the reality that Advent, which is penitential, is very much out-of-synch with the prevailing mood of Christmas, our most joyful celebration of the year. Our people are focused on seeing a baby. Advent is focused on a risen Christ whose return seems long overdue and therefore has trouble competing with the baby, shepherds, Wise Men, Santa, Rudolph, etc.
Furthermore, while we are concerned about the future, the future about which we are most concerned has more to do with this-world concerns than with the return of Christ. We have our work cut out for us if we are to get people to take seriously their preparation for the Second Coming.” (SermonWriter, Volume 11, Number 57, ISSN 1071-9962)
Last week, I said that the world around us lives by the Gospel According to Hallmark. It’s true. I challenge you to find a card with these words from Matthew’s gospel:
“The sun will be darkened,
the moon will not give its light,
the stars will fall from the sky,
and the powers of the heavens will be shaken;
and then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky.
Then all the tribes of the earth will mourn,
and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky
with power and great glory.” (Matthew 24:29-30)
From our house to yours, Merry Christmas!
No, this is not what the world wants to hear, and that’s because the world is absorbed in its own version of Christmas, which has everything to do with gifts and glitter, and little, if anything, to do with the gospel story. Just listen to what Jesus told his followers:
“As the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.
For as in those days which were before the flood
they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage,
until the day that Noah entered into the ship,
and they didn’t know until the flood came, and took them all away,
so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” (Matthew 24:37-39)
Talk about somebody who marched to the beat of a different drummer, Noah was in a league of his own. While the world around him was coming apart at the seams, scripture says, “Noah walked with God.” (Gen. 6:9)
Have you seen the movie, Evan Almighty? Steve Carell plays the part of Evan Baxter, a news anchor from Buffalo who wins a seat in the United States Congress. He moves his family to a Virginia suburb and claims his office on the hill, where he hopes to make a difference. Little does he know what God has in store for him.
First, there’s a big crate left on his driveway containing primitive carpentry tools. Then a load of lumber … then another, and another. All along, pairs of birds and animals start showing up out of nowhere.
He leaves for work only to find God – played beautifully by Morgan Freeman – sitting in the back seat of his Hummer. Long story, short, God wants him to build an ark: “Never mind the rigors of public office; never mind the criticism of the neighbors; never mind the incredulous response of your family; I want you to put everything else aside and build me an ark. And, by the way, don’t ask why.”
So, he does. And, in time, his family comes back to help, the media park in his front lawn, a major confrontation erupts that exposes the corruption of heavy-handed politics. And, just as the wrecking ball moves into place to reduce the ark to splinters, the dam upstream breaks, and – wouldn’t you know it – Evan and his ark save the day.
It’s an entertaining and wholesome movie, suitable for the whole family. You ought to check it out.
In the meantime, here’s the point: God calls us to break cadence with the world around us and march to the beat of a different drummer. God’s calls us to see the world for what it is – a reflection of our own sinful self-indulgence. God calls us to leave behind this world’s vain and empty stores and walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.
Borrowing the quote by Henry David Thoreau gave me pause to go back and refresh my memory. He was born in 1817 and died in 1862. He was not what you might call a man of faith, though I would hasten to add, like many great men of his day, he was a Deist. He believed that the best way to know God was through personal intuition rather than religious doctrine. As an example of his faith, the story is told that, as he lay on his death bed, his Aunt Louisa asked him if he had made his peace with God. Thoreau replied, “I did not know we had ever quarreled.”
In a word, Thoreau was a free thinker and not one simply to accept the status quo.
For example, while others were ecstatic over the prospects of industrial development, he championed the cause of protecting the environment. While others embraced the practice of slavery, he was an outspoken Abolutionist. He even went to jail for refusing to pay his taxes rather than support a government that wanted to expand slavery into Mexico. He was among the first to advocate non-violent civil disobedience. He was his own man. And so, the quotation fits him to a T:
“If a man does not keep pace with his companions,
Perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer;
Let him step to the music he hears however measured or far away.”
Understand, I’m not suggesting that we baptize Thoreau as a sort of Christian-in-disguise. He was who he was. No, what I’m suggesting is that there’s a valuable lesson to be learned here – a lesson about how to live out your life intentionally and not be afraid to stand apart from the crowd.
Think about it: If he could be as influential as he was acting solely on the dictates of his own conscience, think how much more effective might we be in transforming the world into the kingdom of God marching in step with Jesus Christ?
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2007, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.