“If Only In Our Dreams” Advent sermon series continues

Date:  December 4, 2016

Title:  “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out!”

Preaching:  The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard

Scripture:  Matthew 3:1-12

            Early Warning Systems:  we’ve all heard about them.  We can appreciate their usefulness when it comes to things like tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes.  Even when we think about health risks and the early warning signs of cancer, diabetes, heart disease and the like, most of us would say that early warning systems are a good thing.

But I wonder – how often do we really listen to them; how often do we really heed their warnings?  Meteorologists warn of a hurricane and authorities evacuate neighborhoods, yet some stubbornly stay right in the path, refusing to believe destruction could happen to their house.  Doctors warn us about the dangers of sedentary lifestyles, yet still we stay at our desks way past quitting time, and forego the exercise we know we need, choosing to imagine that ill health will not happen to us.  Financial advisors warn us not to live beyond our means and to work at our retirement plans, yet many are forced to postpone retirement when faced with empty savings accounts.

It is so easy – too easy – to ignore the early warning systems when we have our hearts set on life as we know it, or life as we would like it to become.  I am reminded of Ralphie in the classic film “A Christmas Story”.  You remember his dilemma.  The one thing on Ralphie’s mind, the one thing his heart is set on for Christmas is a Red Rider BB gun.  But everyone from his mother to his teacher all the way up to the department store Santa Claus tells him “No… you’ll shoot your eye out!”  Still, he just can’t get it out of his heart or off his mind.

It is so easy to ignore the early warnings we all receive.  And then along comes John the Baptist.  John is the expert in early warnings for the coming of God’s realm.  “Even now,” John says, “the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire…”

John’s teachings are all about preparing – a theme which is central to all of Matthew’s Gospel.  This wild man out in the wilderness is calling us not just to “repent” (or to turn around), but also to “prepare”.  And Matthew repeatedly points out exactly what that means.  We are to prepare not just by hearing Jesus’ words (love your enemy, care for your neighbor, pay attention to God in your life, etc), but by doing them.  We prepare for God’s realm by actively participating in it right here, right now.

But what happens when we ignore all those early warning systems, when we neglect the best advice and most well meaning advisors?  Maybe we experience something like poor Ralphie, who gets the coveted Red Rider BB gun for Christmas and can hardly wait to get outside to try it out.  With the very first shot, the gun bucks and knocks Ralphie off his feet and he thinks, “Oh no!  I’ve shot my eye out!”  Fortunately there has been no permanent damage, but his glasses have gotten knocked off his face.  Hunting in the snow, he of course steps on them and breaks them beyond repair.  Ralphie panics as he thinks to himself, “Few things brought such terrible and swift retribution on a kid like a pair of busted glasses!”

So of course he immediately begins to conjure up a wild tale, an excuse for the loss, blaming it all on an icicle falling off the roof.  A lame excuse in anyone’s mind, but one driven by the urgency of fear.  When the worst case scenario (or close to it) comes to pass for Ralphie, he reacts like many of us as he scrambles to cover up, to excuse, and to justify his lack of attention or care.  We hear the voices of warning You’ll shoot your eye out!  Repent, and prepare! even as we are consumed by our fear.

This morning we find ourselves preparing not only for Christmas, but also for whatever new thing God is offering us today.  Here we stand on the cusp of God’s new age, participating in the Kin-dom in our midst.  Here we stand, recognizing that all of our denial, all of our excuses, and all of our inaction is not going to cut the mustard.  None of that is going to suffice.

Of course we will miss the mark.  Absolutely we will fail to heed the warnings we see or hear or feel all around us.  Certainly there will be those moments when we do, metaphorically, “shoot our eyes out”.  And yet, that is not the end of our story.  Let me say that again: That is not the end of our story, because repentance is not about feeling bad.  Repentance is not about feeling sorry or guilty or afraid.  And true repentance does not drive us into shame.  It drives us into change.

Do you remember a couple of years ago in the Sanctuary when I stood up to preach, and I asked you to stand up with me?  Let’s do it again!  It is easy to do because you all know the steps…

Put your right hand in, put your right hand out

            Put your right hand in and you shake it all about

            You do the hokey-pokey and you turn yourself around

            That’s what it’s all about!

             You can sit down again, but only if you remember that the song and dance doesn’t really get to the point until the last part, when you Put your whole self in and shake it all about.  Now I know it is one thing to ask Jesus to come and change the world, while it is a different – and much more difficult – thing to ask Jesus to come and change us.  It is something altogether different to ask Jesus to help us to see ourselves differently, to allow us to shake ourselves about so that we might turn around and frame our relationship with God and with our neighbors in a new way.

That is whole point of Advent.  That is the real promise of Christmas.  To walk in the way of Jesus means a commitment to constant transformation, even knowing there will be those times when we do indeed “shoot our eyes out”, when we fall short, and when we fail.  Still, to follow Christ means answering God’s invitation to regularly put our whole selves in, shake ourselves all about and turn our lives around in response to God’s grace.

Perhaps the old Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” could be our soundtrack this Advent:

Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free, tis a gift to come down where we ought to be

            And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

            Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

             When true simplicity is gained, to bow and to bend, we shan’t be ashame

            To turn, turn, will be our delight

            Till by turning, turning, we come round right.

 So be it.  Amen.

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