Sunday, December 26, 2010

Naughty or Nice

SJF • Christmas Eve 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The grace of God has appeared... training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly.+

I don’t know about you, but this short quotation from the letter of Paul to Titus sounds a little bit like the requirements to get on Santa Claus’s A-list. It sounds a bit like a checklist for avoiding coal in one’s stockings come Christmas Day, and assuring sugar-plums instead. It reminds me of a line in a hymn we won’t be singing until next spring, “There is a green hill far away,” which assures us that Jesus “died to make us good.”

And Lord knows we need to be made good — left to our own devices we are more likely to accumulate a long list of mistakes and missteps, and even misdeeds, in spite of our sometimes best efforts to be as good as we possibly can. But I assure you — and if you don’t believe me just watch the evening news — the old saying is true, “there is none perfect, no not one.”

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Once long ago there was a Christian theologian who thought otherwise, and developed the most easy-going and optimistic of heresies. His name was Pelagius. (I hasten to add, in fairness to him, that it is very likely that more is attributed to him then he actually said — but he’s been pinned with it and blamed for it and what’s done is done!) The heresy to which he gave his name — or to which his name was given — is called Pelagianism. It is the veritable Pollyanna and “Look on the SunnySide of the Street” of heresies. It is the idea that if we really work as hard as we can, by our own efforts, we can overcome all of the human tendencies to selfishness and pride and envy and lust — and all the rest of the things that get us on the naughty list — that brew in every human heart. Pelagius is the Dr. Phil of theologians, who tells the depressed “just cheer up,” the manic to calm down, the suicidal to think twice, and the addicted to “just say ‘No.’” Pelagianism is a very attractive notion, you see; that’s why it has been around for 1400 years or so; it is a kind of do-it-yourself salvation, the bargain-rate Ikea of furnishing your very own mansion in the kingdom of heaven. It’s very popular.

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Well, as many a parent will likely discover in the next few days, DIY and following the simple list of instructions for assembling a bicycle or a bookcase, or plugging in that new BluRay player and expecting it to work, or installing that new piece of software isn’t really all that easy on your own. I confess I have trouble getting the cellophane off of a DVD! And if the simply mechanical — or electronic — can be such a challenge, who would imagine that salvation could be so easily obtained without the help of a Savior!

We may want to be nice with all our hearts, but our hearts are the problem, aren’t they? For the heart can be impatient, and demanding, and fickle, and capricious; the heart can be selfish, and jealous and prideful — and envious. Watch a group of children opening their toys on Christmas Day and see if they don’t carefully take note of what the other children get — and see the wheels spinning and the little value calculators churning away behind those innocent little faces!

The simple fact is Pelagius or his interpreters had it wrong: salvation is not a do-it-yourself enterprise, not a simple matter of just trying to try harder. We need help; help — in fact the situation is worse than that — we need to be rescued; and fortunately, deep down, those of us here tonight know it.

For it is precisely to the people who sat in darkness that a great light appeared. Salvation was not a case of coals to Newcastle or ice to Eskimos, or a mere leg up to people who could have made it on their own if left alone. Salvation was a rescue from the ditch into which we had steered ourselves — the ditch into which we continually steer ourselves when we’re left alone. Salvation was liberation from the burden of slavery — slavery to each other and to our own appetites, which, left to themselves, had brought us no satisfaction but only continuing hunger for more.

Salvation was — in that powerful image from Isaiah — like the end of a war when a country is liberated from oppression. I think of that image — I’m sure you’ve seen it — a short clip of documentary film from the end of World War II when the allies liberated one of the concentration camps. It’s only a few seconds long but it tells the story that has been going on since the beginning of time. It shows one of the camp prisoners, horribly thin, painfully thin, dressed in the shabby thin striped uniform that was the only protection from the cold, being lowered onto a stretcher by soldiers’ caring hands. He is weeping with joy and clenching his hands and shaking them — shaking them in gratitude for having been saved. Have you seen it? I think of that image as I read the line from the prophet:
“For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire!” The war is over, and in the midst of a cold winter the refuse of war will be used to warm those rescued from disaster.

And how? Isaiah answers: a child has been born for us, a son given to us. Authority rests upon his shoulders, and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. That’s how. That’s what it takes to lift us from the failings from which we could never lift ourselves, never free ourselves.

Not a help line phone call to someone stationed in New Delhi, not a printed sheet of instructions in the flat box that somehow promises miraculously to become a bookcase, not the vapid encouragement of a huckster promising a quick fix, or a trainer tell us just us to try harder — but a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

We celebrate his birth tonight, in that little town of Bethlehem; for his coming into the world changed everything — not all at once, but beginning there and then — and because of his birth then, and his birth now every moment we allow him to be born in us today and every day — in our hearts — we can indeed do all that he empowers us to do — through grace. Not because we are doing it on our own, but precisely because we are not on our own any more, not only with him in our hearts but with each other in the Church which is his Body on earth, continuing his work in accordance with his will.

So let us rejoice, my friends and kin, let us give thanks that our Helper and Redeemer has come to us to save us. He will bring about in us all that we could not do on our own. He will establish and uphold us with justice and with righteousness from this time forward and forevermore.+

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