By the Rev. Justin Clemente
What is the story of our culture? Or perhaps I should say, what are the stories of our culture? When you step out of your door, log on to your computer, check your Facebook, shop at the mall, or whatever, what are you invited to embrace? To count as true? I think there are at least four stories that our culture tells today.
The story of progress claims that things are getting better and better. Science will eventually cure disease, lifespan extension is right around the corner, man-made peace will somehow come! Fragments of this story linger on today, although I’m not sure how. The story of progress reached its height right before the start before the start of the 20th century. World Wars I and II dealt a fatal blow to the idea of progress. Here science and technology were used, not to heal, but to murder and mutilate millions of people. It’s hard to believe these events happened just some 70 years ago. Not too long ago I watched World War II in HD. I can only recommend watching it once because the only word that comes to mind is horrific. Deep down we know the story of man-made progress is myth, a lie. People seem to be rapidly losing confidence that things are, in fact, “getting better.”
Then there is a very different kind of story. The story of consumerism tells us that we were made for no greater purpose than to (you guessed it) consume things. If you doubt the power of this story, just count the times per day that you are marketed to. Advertisements call to you from every single place imaginable. “Unhappy? Have you tried another car? How about another wife? How about a new home? We’ve got answers to problems you didn’t know you had!” If you still doubt the power of this story, Google the average debt of the American household and reflect upon how insatiable our desire for MORE has become.
But then sometimes it seems that our culture has lost confidence that there is a story at all. This “non-story” is the story of Nihilism. This is, quite simply, the belief that life offers no objective meaning and no plot line – no beginning, middle, and end. As the 20th century philosopher John Paul Sarte said, “It amounts to the same thing whether one gets drunk alone or is a leader of nations.” To cite an example from popular culture, think about the show Seinfeld. It was a show about what? Nothing. And it truly was – the characters had no inner compass and the show had no grand story. At the end of every episode, we had shared some good laughs, but we had gotten nowhere. I very much like Jerry Seinfeld, but if you actually listen to what he says, he is deeply cynical. I once heard him say that all human endeavor is simply “killing time.” This is Nihilism – and it is the “story” that many live by today.
The last story that many today live by is Pluralism. It is the story that attempts to explain away any difference between people (usually in religion) by claiming that we are all basically saying the same thing, that we are all okay, and that we each have our own truth. If you doubt the power of this story, think about how many times you’ve heard people say that something was “true for them.” Think about the fact that one of the greatest taboos in today’s culture is to be found telling someone else that their belief is wrong. All sorts of names will start flying, right? People in our culture have lost confidence in the reality of truth as “standing over them,” so to speak, and replaced it with conditional “truths” that don’t mean much at all.
The point? Each of one of these stories wreaks havoc in the lives of people every day. Each one of these stories prevents people from hearing and receiving the Gospel. And each one of these stories stands in opposition to the Christian Story
The Christian Story
So what is the Christian Story? It’s the story of redemption, the story of the Scriptures. Our kids at New Creation know this – one of their catechism questions is “What is the Bible?” Answer: “It’s God’s story.” It’s the story of God who lovingly made us and the entire world. It’s the story of how we’ve each tragically and deliberately turned away from God and his will for our lives. It’s the story of how this God then relentlessly pursued his good Creation, desiring to win us back to himself, becoming one of us, shedding his own blood and rising again to new and unending life. Lastly, it’s the story of how Jesus will come again to reign and to rule and to restore things to the way they were meant to be.
Now we can commence preaching. We are upon the season of Advent – the time when we start at the end of the story. In the church calendar, the four weeks before Christmas are reserved primarily not for preparation for Christ’s birth, though that is important, but for preparation and expectation of his coming again! If you are tired of Christmas, if your Christmas celebration has become shallow and meaningless, then there is no better antidote than Advent. That’s personally one of biggest reasons why I embrace it in my life.
Because for days, weeks, months, perhaps even years, we have the tendency to lose the plot line of life. We forget that the story that tells the truth about the world, that narrates the world, is the one that we proclaim when we say in our liturgy, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” No matter how you work out the details in between in your theology, the end game is that Jesus will personally come again, judge the world, and set things right. He’s the only one that can do so, amen?
Advent is the invitation to recognize and realize anew where you’ve the lost the plot in your life. Where you’ve forgotten where your hope lies. It’s the invitation to become again a person of expectation and hope in the Messiah’s coming.
After you remember that, then Advent’s an invitation to remember that God called a people into existence by his Holy Spirit to tell the world that Jesus reigns and that one day he will fully and finally reign over his Creation in an even greater way, putting an end to all that is evil. As Derek Webb sings in his song “Everything Will Change,” “we will run out of time for death and tears. No wonder they call it glorious.”
If our Christmas celebration looks no different from the world around us, then we’ve let Christmas become about a folksy, quaint manger scene and a baby who asks nothing real of us. Simply put – we’ve lost the plot. But if we begin to remember that this Jesus, King of King and Lord of Lords, is coming again, then Christ can truly be born anew in our hearts and he can use to bring others to that same new life. I end with lyrics from that same Derek Webb song:
“And nothing’s gonna stay the way it is / One day you’ll wake and the curse will break / And even you won’t be the same / Your hope is not wasted on the day when everything will change.” Amen.