LET THE CANDLES BE LIT Mark 13:24-37 November 27, 2011
It was the Christmas of 1989. That date means different things to different folks. For me, it means I was still single – - Living in a one bedroom apartment on Avent Ferry Road in Raleigh - Loving my job as Minister of Youth and Children at Hillyer, where my tiny little office was tucked away in the basement of the big downtown church. And it was not unusual for me to stay a few minutes late after the other ministers and the secretary left for the day, then a few hours later realize it was 7 or 8 o’clock. Then I would head out to my little Honda Accord, which got such good gas mileage I often forgot to fill it with gas! And I would zip home. - On this particular December night, I pulled out of Hilllyer’s parking lot onto downtown rush hour and Christmas traffic and just as I got into traffic good, the little round “E” light on my dashboard began to blink furiously. I crept on in traffic – up St. Mary’s, left on Pullen, where thankfully up ahead I could see a big brightly lit sign – “GAS.” I pulled in by the gas tanks, hopped out, then noticed there were no handles on the gas pumps. Then I saw this little bitty handwritten note, taped to the tank, “As of December 1st we will no longer be selling gas.” - Not another gas station in sight, gas tank on empty and this is 1989. I am just barely 26 years old. So, I march in to the manager and point to the big gas sign and announce “You know, if you’re going out of business, you should take down your sign.” Well, long story short, I did make it to the next gas station that December night, and these days you will see me puttering around in my family size van whose gas tank rarely drops below ¼ because I learned my lesson years ago. But, how many times over the years that memory has come back to me of that December night and me saying “If you’re going out of business, you should take down your sign”. I’ve preached it several times over the years because it is just too good. You see this is the season of signs – they are going up all around us. Not gas signs, but Christian signs. Candles in our windows Wreaths on our doors Christmas trees in our homes And these signs mean something. They mean “this is a Christian home”. The candles in our windows mean God is present in this home. The wreaths on our doors mean hospitality and generosity are practiced in this home. The decorated tree means the birth of Jesus, the Savior is celebrated in this home. And if the signs don’t mean these things anymore, then we are going out of business and we should take down our signs. 1. Martin Marty who is a Lutheran preacher out of Chicago reports on a newspaper article that ran in a Chicago newspaper several Christmases ago. Reader writes in with this question: “My family and I are not Christian but we love Christmas. What can we do to celebrate this holiday?” Psychologist whose column it was writes back: “Christmas is not so much a religious holiday anymore as it is a family holiday. You and your family can decorate your home and exchange gifts as a way of strengthening your family ties without making it a religious statement.
Is this true? I’m not talking about the non-Christian family in Chicago who wrote the letter. I’m talking about for us, Christians to whom this holiday belongs. Have we allowed Christmas to become more about family traditions, family events, family gift-giving, than about worship of the Christ Child? If so, then we are going out of business and we should take down our signs. 2. Several years ago someone started the little slogan “Jesus is the Reason for the Season”. You will find it on cards, buttons, bumper stickers, as a reminder to Christians to focus on worshipping Jesus, rather than getting swept away by shopping, consumerisms – the gift that tops all gifts, and leads us to think Christmas, really, is about getting that perfect gift. Last year it was a laptop or a WII or a flat screened TV. So what will it be this year? It’s going to have to be bigger and better or there will be disappointment. A diamond? A new car? A cruise? Then what about next year? Going to have to top that, unless we remember Jesus is the reason for the season, and we choose to limit what we spend as an act of faithfulness – a way to keep our perspective. So, after several years of the slogan “Jesus is the Reason for the Season”, in 2006 Gallup polls did a survey of holiday spending. They compared what church people spend, people who are in church every Sunday, regular attendees – versus what non-church people spend – people who rarely or never attend Church. Non-church attendees spend an average of $853.00 on Christmas gifts. Church attendees spent an average of $800.00 on Christmas gifts. Now, first, let me say I was shocked that it was only $853 and $800. I hear so many stories of people taking out small loans to pay for Christmas shopping or taking until July to pay off the credit card. But still that is only a difference of $53.00 between what church people spend and what non-church people spend on Christmas shopping. So the question is are we Christians serious about unplugging the Christmas machine – decreasing our Christmas spending – and focusing on Jesus as the reason for the season – or are we just giving lip service to that whole idea? The biggest thing Christians can do to de-commercialize Christmas is to stop spending so much money at Wal-Mart and give more money to the Food Pantry, and if we aren’t willing to do that, it can be argued that we are going out of business and we should take down our signs. 3. One of the preaching journals I subscribe to and read regularly has an article this month by Roger Lovette, a retired minister in Birmingham, Alabama. In the article there is this quote: “One Sunday after church we stopped at a restaurant. It was crowded and our server looked tired and weary. After the meal, as things were thinning out,. I asked her ‘you look tired, are you OK?’ She told me she had been up most of the night with her little boy who was sick but that she was OK. I said ‘ it must be hard after being up all night, having to stand on your feet and work so hard.’ She just nodded. ‘What’s the hardest day of the week at work?’ She didn’t know I was a Reverend. She said ‘the hardest day of the week is Sunday. I dread all the people who come here after church. They make so many demands and some of them are so hateful. And they never tip hardly anything!’ “ (Pulpit Resource, Dec. 2008) Now Birmingham is not that far from Smithfield and they have wreaths on their doors just like we are getting ready to hang wreaths on ours, but the question begs to be asked – “Do we practice generosity and hospitality to strangers?”
If not, we are going out of business and we need to take down our signs. Because what are we really saying with our Christmas signs? Our candles – our wreaths – our Christmas trees? Yes, we are saying this is a Christian home, God is present here, the birth of Jesus is celebrated here and we also recognize that all of our Christmas signs point directly to the 13th chapter of Mark, where a man stands on a hill opposite the Temple in Jerusalem and says “Watch – be ready – for I am coming again.” Do not be found asleep at the door under your Christmas wreath. Do not be found absent – distracted by your Christmas calendar or your Christmas shopping. “I am coming again and no one knows when, not the angels, not even I, only the Father Himself. So what I say to one I say to all: Watch.” Advent is the time of watching and of working – of preparing ourselves for His birth and His second coming. If we get distracted by the glitter and glitz of Christmas, we may not even notice when a small crowd gathers outside a worn out stable to see a baby lying in a feed box. If we get distracted by the push and pull of daily life, we may find suddenly that the years have slipped through our fingers and we have fallen away from the Christian practices of generosity, hospitality, love of neighbor, worship of God. In our scripture this morning Jesus tells the parable of a man going on a journey. He puts his servants in charge of the work and tells the doorkeeper to watch for his return. Jesus is that man. You and I are the ones left in charge. Our task this Advent – and all year long – is very clear: Watch – and work. Tonight we are scheduled to Hang the Greens here in our church. This week many of us will begin to decorate our homes. The tree on our chancel this morning is dark and waiting for our decision. Are we in business? Will we put up the Christian signs? In the late 18th century in New England, colonists were holding one of their first sessions of State Legislature when a solar eclipse began to occur. Now these colonial politicians didn’t know too much about solar eclipses and as the sky got darker and darker they began to panic. Many began to predict that it was the end of the world and the second coming of Christ. Soon the call come to adjourn. But one Congressman stood and waiting for quiet in the confused room said “Mr. Speaker, if this is not the end of the world, and we adjourn, we shall appear as fools. If it is the end of the world, I prefer to be found doing my duty. Therefore, I move, Sir, that the candles be lit.” Friends, this morning, this first Sunday in Advent, I agree with the congressman of New England. It is best to be found working upon our Master’s return. Therefore, with renewed focus, renewed motivation, renewed faith, I move the candles on the wreath in the windows, on the tree, be lit. Christians are at work here. Go ahead – put up the signs. Maranatha – Come quickly, Lord Jesus - Amen