Text: Romans 13:11-14
Have you heard how the South African mines were discovered? There was a traveler seated at the door of the village chief's house. He saw the chief's children playing with things that looked like marbles. he picked one of them up and his heart exploded with joy. It was a diamond! so he went to tell the village chief: "My children also play with these stones; they call them marbles. Could I take some of them home with me? I'd be happy to give you tobacco in exchange."
The chief answered, "We have millions of them here. It would be robbery to accept your tobacco, but I'll accept whatever you give me." The man gave him the tobacco, went home, sold the diamonds, came back, bought all that land, and became the richest man in the owlrd. Heres' the point of this story: those people were walking on top of a treasure and didn't know it. Life is a banquet and yet most people are depriving themselves of it. They never discover the treasure
If prayer were suitably practiced and understood, it would provide the wealth that would make things unimportant. "Life is something that happens when we're busy with something else." We're busy trying to impress everyone. We're busy trying to win the Olympics. We're busy being successful. And life passes us by. (Anthony De Mello, Walking on Water, 111-113)
Night comes early this time of year. The dark comes quickly and lulls into a restful sleep. Cooler nights mean sounder sleep for some of us. It is harder to jump out of bed in the morning when the room is cool and the bed sheets are warm. The Christmas season is a time many of us get lulled into a sense of complacency about life. We get distracted by overeating and gluttony. We get distracted by desire for material things and greed. We get distracted by work and family obligations. We get distracted and lulled to sleep in countless ways. In the midst of our stupor Paul wants us to practice what the Buddhists call mindfulness. Paul challenges us to get up and get out of bed, and be up and about! Instead, we distract ourselves in countless, meaningless ways. We procrastinate whenever possible. Indeed, the Christmas season accentuates the procrastinator in us. Some of us put off buying gifts until the last minute because we don't feel good about the gifts we give. What do you get for someone who already has everything they need? And let's face it, most of the people to whom we give Christmas gifts do already have everything they need and most of the things they want. What are we to do?
Paul would say to us what he said to the ancient church in Rome: "Make sure that you don't get so absorbed and exhausted in taking care of all your day-by-day obligations that you lose track of the time and doze off, oblivious to God." (Romans 13:11) Let's not get so caught up in the Christmas rush that we put our spiritual lives on auto pilot and miss the original reason for this season -- the birth of the Christ within our own hearts.
Can we somehow hold on to the idea that Christ is at the bottom of all this? Beyond the egg nog and what nots, the chrismons on the Christmas tree and the glass angel on the mantle, can we guard our hearts against Santa Claus and the god of conspicuous consumption? Paul challenges us to do that. He says: "We can't afford to waste a minute, must not squander these precious daylight hours in frivolity and indulgence, in sleeping around and dissipation, in bickering and grabbing everything in sight." (Romans 13:13)
One other thing as we start to get ready for Christmas. I forgot to ask you this. What are you wearing this Christmas? Have you taken your Christmas clothes out of the closet? Have you got that reindeer tie ready to go? What about that red holly scarf? What will you wear this Christmas? Paul has a recommendation. He suggests this: "Dress yourselves in Christ, and be up and about!"
Dress yourselves in Christ? And what might that look like? Sandals and gown, anyone? I think not. Dress yourselves in Christ. What does that mean? That means to cover yourself from tip to toe in Christ. Put on humility like a garment. Learn to see the world with the eyes of Christ. To see the hungry at our doorstep. To watch out for our souls by watching out for the poor man in our midst. To guard our heart by hearing the cries of the single mother who is working two jobs and trying to pay the rent ... and her car broke down yesterday so she can't drive to work today ... so she won't be able to buy groceries this Saturday ... so her kids will be hungry this Monday ... This is the world we live in. Paul cries out to us: "Get out of bed and get dressed! Don't loiter and linger, waiting until the very last minute. Dress yourselves in Christ, and be up and about!" (Romans 13:14)
It is interesting to note in our text today that the emphasis is upon waking up yourself - not someone else. Perhaps a story from another tradition will help us see the wisdom of this emphasis.
The Buddha said, "There once were a couple of acrobats. the teacher was a poor widower and the student was a small girl named Meda. The two of them performed in the streets to earn enough to eat. They used a tall bamboo pole which the teacher balances on the top of his head while the little girl slowly climbed to the top There she remained while the teacher continued to walk along the ground.
"Both of them had to devote all their attention to maintain perfect balance and to prevent any accident from occurring. One day the teacher instructed the pupil: "Listen, Meda, I will watch you and you watch me, so that we can help each other maintain concentration and balance and prevent and accident. Then we'll be sure to earn enough to eat." But the little girl was wise and answered, 'Dear master, I think it would be better for each of us to watch ourself. To look after oneself means to look after both of us. That way I am sure we will avoid any accidents and will earn enough to eat.'" The Buddha said: "The child spoke correctly." (Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness, 63-64)
The Apostle Paul stated the same truth in a single phrase: "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling." Perhaps during this Advent season we should not try to change the world. Perhaps it is enough to try to change ourselves. Even better, perhaps we may allow God to change us on the inside. That is the simple but profound shift suggested in our reading today.
Perhaps you would like a suggestion of where to begin? Thomas Keating offers this advice in his book Invitation to Love:
On the spiritual journey, there is usually someone in our family, business, or community whom we cannot endure, someone who has a genius for bringing out the worst in us. No matter what we do, we cannot seem to improve the relationship. The person who gives us the most trouble may be our greatest gift from God. (17)
So, perhaps instead of worrying about saving the world we should focus on showing love to the person we most despise. That would certainly wake us up! Yikes!
A prisoner lived in solitary confinement for years. He saw and spoke to no one and his meals were served through an opening in the wall.
One day an ant came into his ell. The man contemplated it in fascination as it crawled around the room. He held it in the palm of hi hand the better to observe it, gave it a grain or two, and kept it under his tin cup at night.
One day it suddenly struck him that it had taken him ten long years of solitary confinement to open his eyes to the loveliness of an ant.
When a friend visited the Spanish painter El Greco at his home on a lovely spring afternoon, he found him sitting in his room, the curtains tightly drawn.
"Come out into the sunshine," said the friend.
"Not now," El Greco replied. "It would disturb the light that is shining within me."
That inner light is what Paul calls us to awaken to in our text today.
The old Rabbi had become blind and could neither read nor look at the faces of those who came to visit him.
A faith healer said to him, "Entrust yourself to my care and I will heal your blindness."
"There will be no need for that," replied the Rabbi. "I can see everything that I need to."
Not everyone whose eye are closed is asleep. And not everyone with open eyes can see. (Anthony De Mello, Taking Flight, 52-53)
- - -
~The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston on November 28, 2010 (First Sunday of Advent – Year A)