I remember one year, at my summer job back when I was in college, I had to make a trip into Walmart to pick something up, and was disturbed by the fact that in August, the store was starting to assemble the Christmas trees. Amazing! Of course, this was an extreme instance, but the complaint every year is that Christmas creeps up earlier and earlier.
In the church, we do the same thing. We push the Christmas season to start an entire month before the season begins. For those who do not know, in the church, the Christmas season officially starts at sundown on Christmas Eve, and lasts for 12 days until Epiphany. But, like many traditional aspects of Christianity, we don’t treat Christmas this way anymore. Like us, there are many congregations where the Advent season and the Christmas season have become one, with the Christmas music and themes bleeding into the Advent time.
For many clergy, this is a difficult struggle. Theologically, we are called to celebrate the birth, life, and death of Christ every day, yet there are many aspects of Advent that are important to the spiritual discipline. I remember some very interesting debates in seminary over this, and sadly, I also know of some real fights between pastors and their congregations.
Personally, I find the debate around keeping Advent separate to be akin to the complaining that Christmas is “coming too early” in stores and other establishments. Probably the #1 point that people make regarding “Christmas coming too early” in the stores and the “church needing to celebrate Advent” is that the oversaturation diminishes the message and sacredness of the holiday. For me, that is kind of a weak argument, since what is holy and sacred can never truly be diminished, no matter what.
However, the desire to engage in the discipline of Advent is much more intriguing, especially considering that our culture is so instant. Advent comes from the Latin, adventus, which is means "coming." Waiting is a big part of the message of Christ. For hundreds and thousands of years, people waited for the coming of the Messiah, yet we often find a struggle in waiting a few days for Christmas to come.
However, I must say that the discipline of Advent is not only about waiting. Probably more important is the fact that Advent is a time of preparation or building. I think back to my favorite toys of my childhood: LEGOs and Matchbox cars. I often used them interchangeably, involving a great deal of work and effort. I remember the joy I had creating the LEGO towns and roads for my Matchbox cars. I worked to make sure everything was right, and only then did I break out the Matchbox car to play with. There was always a satisfaction to completing the task before enjoying the game.
For us, the discipline of Advent is about creating a place in our hearts so that when the time of waiting has come to an end, we might find and connect with God on a much deeper level. Like I said, I am not one to make a big deal about celebrating Christmas early. In fact, I love to sing Christmas carols all throughout Advent!
However, I think there is a real need for us to engage with the discipline of Advent. We need to find a space where we can both witness to the fact that Christ has come, but also prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ again. So is it wrong to celebrate Christmas early? Not really, but we miss out on something special when we do not take the time to prepare.
A long time ago, in a sermon about this time of year, I made the statement, “Sometimes it is hard to find Thanksgiving.” Even though I explained myself fairly well, or at least I thought I had, a little boy came up to me and said, “Thanksgiving is easy to find. It is the fourth Thursday of November.” At the time, all I could do was smile. But I thought about what the boy had said, and I began to think about it. I think of the concept of thanksgiving and the day of Thanksgiving in very different ways. The day of Thanksgiving is an American holiday when we are asked to be thankful, whereas thanksgiving is a lifestyle.
Within the teachings of Christ, the choice to follow Christ is not a choice to better yourself in this world, but it is to prepare yourself for the next. Jesus spoke against the religious zealots who put the law before compassion. He spoke against those who lost sight of God in the midst of their practices of faith. He showed his wrath when he saw the temple working to profit itself over celebrating God.
When one comes to believe in Christ, they welcome a life that will undoubtedly be difficult. But before there is the choice, there is the call. Calls are always difficult. Whether it is the call to go on a mission or the call to raise a family, calls should never be entered into lightly, or for reward. That never works out well: just watch the movie Mommy Dearest. Our great examples of the reluctant prophets who often risked their life and comfort by speaking the word of God teach us that to take up a call, we have to make the choice to put ourselves within the hands of God, knowing that it will work out in the direction God has planned.
This is different from the understanding of election and predestination, since it is your choice whether or not to accept the path that has been laid out before you. When that choice is made, one must learn to trust and know that in the end, it will work out to the good. And if the wrong choice is made, we ask God for the grace to reopen the door to allow us to find the right choice again. I think about that when I think of my colleagues who joined the clergy later in life; they could mark all the times God had called them, but they turned the other direction.
At the end of choice and call comes thanksgiving, since, ultimately, we realize that in the midst of our choices and our life, God is ever present, and though we may not receive the glory and reward in this life, we will certainly find it in the next. Thus, giving time to give thanks to God is very important, because to avoid it is to leave God out of the equation and lose sight of the role God is playing in your life. Though we have free will, that does not make our lives devoid of the presence of God. In fact, if we learn anything from Christ, keeping God central to our life changes our priorities and challenges us in our relationships, and leads us to see the love that God truly has for us.
Don’t forget God in the midst of this Thanksgiving celebration, and don’t let thanksgiving be constrained to that day. Rather, let yourself be transformed by the grace and love that God has given to you through the presence of the Holy Spirit in your life.
On November 11, 1918, “The Great War” ended. It is hard to think of any war being considered great, but there was a general optimism that the horrible atrocities seen in that war would never be seen again. History would tell us something different. Among the “losers” of the war, a depression hit with the economic and social sanctions imposed by the winners. People turned to their politicians for guidance and promises of stability and strength.
Among the winners, the euphoria of the celebration led to a sense of comfortability and bliss among the powerful and middle class. There were real blinders between the haves and have nots, and as many economists saw, much of the perceived financial stability was merely a mirage. Remaining blissfully unaware of where things were actually going in society, more were focused on the greatness of the state and its power over faith and its power.
For the Catholic Church, Pope Pius XI was worried about the direction that things were going. Whether countries were in the exuberance of wealth or the desolation of poverty, people were turning from the church and faith to government and secularism for guidance. His counter was to set aside a special feast to remind followers that there is only one true king, and that is Christ. Yes, cynics might say that it was a ploy to maintain power for the Catholic Church, but I don’t think so, especially in the light of what happened over the next 20 years.
As Pope Pius wrote in the Quas Primas:
When we pay honor to the princely dignity of Christ, men will doubtless be reminded that the Church, founded by Christ as a perfect society, has a natural and inalienable right to perfect freedom and immunity from the power of the state; and that in fulfilling the task committed to her by God of teaching, ruling, and guiding to eternal bliss those who belong to the kingdom of Christ, she cannot be subject to any external power.
— Quas primas, 31
It makes me think, not only of the recent election, but also of Brexit and the general uncertainty and frustration of the world. We have bought into a society that says that church is not really needed. And instead of being proud to participate in faith, many are ashamed, and only a fraction of people even go to church. With church attendance at a record low, and secularism guiding both policy and, at times, theology, we are in a real global crisis again.
Though I know many are thinking we are on the verge of another Nazi situation, I don’t think we are there, at least in this administration. But I can assure you that we have to be vigilant so as not to let our government take the place of our church, and the president, that of our pastor. We have to recognize that Donald Trump is no better than you or I. He will make mistakes. He may even do some good. But regardless, while he is our president, he is not our king. He is a servant of the people, and he will be judged likewise. So we need to continue to have faith in Christ.
Christ is our King, and it is only through Christ that we gain salvation. So maybe it is fitting that the feast of Christ the King comes just a little over a week after the election. As I often say, perspective is everything! When we celebrate that Christ is our King, we are also celebrating our choice to live by faith, and not by the constrictions, frustrations, and torment of this world.
My favorite fast food place growing up was the BK Lounge, as my mother would call it. My favorite order was the Bacon Double Cheeseburger with fries. There was a strategy in the order for me, and it had nothing to do with what came with the burger. Rather, it was because of what it did not come with, namely tomatoes, onions, and pickles.
My distaste for tomatoes is legendary, and led to my only scholastic reprimand in my life. While I still do not eat raw onions, I’ve learned to respect them, though I still think pickles are unnatural and an abomination! But that is another issue altogether.
Burger King has since marketed the fact that not only do they have a variety of options on their menu, you can customize anything to “have it your way.” It is great marketing, and one of the reasons that I always chose Burger King over other burger places. Chains like Chipotle, Subway, Starbucks and Peet’s are built on a model of customization.
From a business standpoint, this is a great thing! But for all of the reasons it is great for business, it is not for the rest of the world. The “have it your way” attitude is behind many of the struggles and cultural fights that we have going on in our society right now. This is not new. In the early church, there were a lot of ideas about “the right way to do church,” many of which placed power with an elite group, rather than with God.
Much of the New Testament, especially Paul’s letters, is set up as a tool for us to understand how to live in the discomfort of not always having it our way. We are often reminded that our way is not God’s way; that not only is God’s way not always comfortable, at times it can be quite bitter! But as Christians, we are called to set aside what we want for the betterment of society.
While the presidential election has been dominating the headlines¾and yes, at a certain level, that is important¾real problems are happening which are being overlooked, and no president is going to be able to address this on their own. We can look to South Dakota, and see how our dependence on oil and desire to fill our cars allows corporations to find profit in destroying the environment and causing irreparable harm to holy sites.
Our desire to have it our way is creating housing problems. We see people fight or delay the construction of low-income housing because they do not want it in “their backyard.” The lack of affordable housing is compounded by companies that don’t want to rent spaces for what people can pay.
Those are only two of the many issues that really start with our actions and desires to have it our way! While we pine for leadership to create a just world, we tie their hands when we do not accept the responsibility of not always getting our way. The truth is that this election will not solve any of our problems, from housing to the environment, Black Lives Matter to immigration, until we examine how we are living. The only way that we are going to make a difference is to start asking how our desire for comfort contributes to the problems in our world.
On November 1st, we celebrate All Saints’ Day. As I was meditating on All Saints’ Day, I began to think of all of the saints that have blessed my life. Historically, in the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions, saints are individuals who, because of their holy nature, are canonized into the church. These are folks who have been linked to miracles, among other traits. While most saints have their own “feast” or holy day, All Saints’ was a day set aside to venerate all of the saints, both known and unknown.
For the Reformers, the role of the saints in the life of the church was problematic. Like the theology of the Pope being God’s vicar in the world, and therefore set above other humans, the beatification and canonization of saints did the same. This suggested that there were some who were more blessed than others, a concept that the Reformers rejected. Another problem with the saints for the Reformers was that many people were worshipping the saints in the same way they were worshipping God, and in some cases, worshipping the saints instead of God.
For the Reformed movement, to place anything or anyone at the same level or above God is idolatry. However, saying that, the Reformers did not do away with an understanding of sainthood. They embraced it as a core theology, but changed our understanding of sainthood to one that embraces all of the elect. Hence, we recognize the sainthood of all believers.
For people in the Protestant reformed tradition church, All Saints’ Day and All Saints’ Sunday are set aside to celebrate all of the saints of the church. This is a time to celebrate those who have come before us who faithfully served the Lord. It is also a time to celebrate those who are with us today, and those who will be with us in the future, reminding us that:
… we are part of one continuing, living communion of saints. … It is a time to express our gratitude for all who in ages of darkness kept the faith, for those who have taken the gospel to the ends of the earth, for prophetic voices who have called the church to be faithful in life and service, for all who have witnessed to God’s justice and peace in every nation.
To rejoice with all the faithful of every generation expands our awareness of a great company of witnesses above and around us like a cloud (Heb. 12:1). It lifts us out of a preoccupation with our own immediate situation and the discouragements of the present. In the knowledge that others have persevered, we are encouraged to endure against all odds (Heb. 12:1–2). Reminded that God was with the faithful of the past, we are reassured that God is with us today, moving us and all creation toward God’s end in time. In this context, it is appropriate for a congregation on All Saints’ Day to commemorate the lives of those who died during the previous year.
This year we will have our annual All Saints’ Service at 6:00 p.m., and at Revive and Sunday worship, we will have special activities to remember and pray for the saints in our lives.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen