Texts: Malachi 3:1-4 • Luke 1:68-79 • Philippians 1:3-11 • Luke 3:1-6
Earlier this week, a man walked into my office off the street that I’d never seen before and haven’t seen since. My first impression was that he seemed a little disoriented, and then I smelled the alcohol. We sat down in the Lesher Lounge and he put his head in his hands as he asked me to help him. “I can’t feel God in my heart anymore,” he began. “I used to be able to feel God in my heart, but I can’t anymore. Now my mother has kicked me out of the house and my brothers will have nothing to do with me. Can you help me?”
He hadn’t brought up the fact that he’d been drinking, but I went ahead and asked. “I’m not going to lie to you. I’m drunk,” he said. And, then he shared that it’s his drinking that led to his family’s rejection of him. “That’s why I don’t believe in God anymore, because God gave up on me. God let this happen to me. But I do believe in angels, I’ve seen one. It appeared outside my window. It was beautiful. No one believes me, but I have. Do you believe me?”
At this point it was hard to know what to say for a number of reasons. Mainly because the man was still too drunk to be able to track the conversation well. Perhaps you know this from your own experiences of drinking, but the conversations that you have while drunk that feel utterly profound often are less profound to the other people in the room. That was definitely the case here. But also I was struggling with a dynamic that is often present when dealing with addictions. This man was asking for my help, but he was also setting up roadblocks and barriers to accepting what I might have to say. Other people didn’t believe he’d seen an angel, so he’d rejected anything else they said to him because they didn’t accept his extraordinary story. So I tried a different tack.
“Well, the word ‘angel’ comes from the Greek word ‘angelos’ that means ‘messenger.’ When angels appear in the Bible they usually have something to say. So, the question really isn’t whether or not I believe you saw an angel. The question is, what message do you think the angel was trying to get across?”
That seemed to stump him for a moment, so I continued. “You say you feel that God has abandoned you, but you’re convinced you’ve seen an angel. It sounds like God is trying to communicate with you, is sending you a message, but that you’re not able to hear it. What do you think you might be doing that’s getting in the way of being able to hear what God is trying to say?”
He lifted his face from his hands, and looked at me cautiously, like someone guarding something precious, distrust in his eyes. I pressed on, “do you think it’s possible that you’re so full of alcohol that there’s no room left in your heart to feel the presence of God that you miss? That you can’t hear the message God is trying to send you?”
Addictions are powerful forces in human life, and we are all dealing with them in some way or another. I’m not saying that we’re all alcoholics or drug addicts, though if we look at the prevalence of not only alcohol but also caffeine, nicotine, and prescription drug usage we start to look like an addicted society. But I’m also talking about how we eat, how we shop, how we watch television, how we surf the internet. How we find ways to distract ourselves from the painful emotions that are part of being human – grief, anger, sadness, loneliness. While we may not all be addicts, almost all of us have some form of compulsive, “go to” behavior we use for dealing with distress in our lives.
In the United States that behavior, and this is truly an opinion – not something I can back up with evidence, appears to be spending. Our nation, which has been in the grips of this recession for a few years now, moved from a production economy to a credit economy decades ago, which meant that economic expansion was being financed with credit debt. I learned this behavior early, when I got my first credit card in college. I didn’t even have to search one out, they sent me – an eighteen year old college freshman with no steady income – an application for credit. Being the immediate gratification junkie I’d learned to be through a steady diet of consumer fantasies broadcast across the airwaves in a pre-cable television adolescence, I got the card and began making unwise spending decisions right away. Midnight study sessions at Denny’s paid for with plastic. Shopping trips for new shoes, or other forms of “consumer therapy” when I was stressed, my heart was broken, or I was otherwise caught in the grips of a feeling I just didn’t want to experience.
In this way I joined the ranks of the average American, who is saddled with credit debt. By the end of last year, 78% of American households had one or more credit cards, with an average of 5.4 cards. Only two percent of college undergraduates had no credit history, and half of college undergraduates had four or more cards. The average outstanding credit card debt for households that have a credit card was $10,679.
By March of this year, U.S. revolving consumer debt, which is made up almost entirely of credit card debt, was about $950 billion dollars. Now, by way of comparison – since these are such huge numbers, ones that can’t really be conceptualized on their own – the United States spends an average of $450 billion a year every Christmas. And, here’s the kicker, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, it the annual cost of launching the necessary agricultural programs needed to completely solve world hunger is $30 billion a year.
I’m not making a causal connection here. I’m not trying to say that Christmas is the cause of starvation and global food insecurity. I’m just trying to give us a sense of proportion. The cost of addressing global hunger is just over 3% of what Americans alone (not even talking about people in other countries) are carrying in credit card debt. The annual cost of addressing global hunger is less than 7% of what our nation spends on Christmas each year.
In the Hebrew bible passage for this morning, the prophet Malachi – whose name means “my messenger” in Hebrew – brings a message from God that the people were reluctant to hear.
I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the LORD whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple… But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendents of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness. (Malachi 3:1-3)
Malachi brings a message the people don’t want to hear, an angel with a message people found terrifying. He speaks about purifying the descendents of Levi,
which was the priestly caste of the nation of Israel, so he’s talking about corrections that need to be made among the faithful people of God, and the object of his criticism is the type of offerings God’s people are giving. Malachi wants the priests to be presenting offerings to God that are righteous, that reflect God’s intentions for the world – not our intentions for God.
But we aren’t always as curious about what God requires of us as we are about what God provides, or doesn’t provide, for us. We are quick to ask, “why has God abandoned me?” But we are slow to ask, “why have I abandoned God?” Or, as is the case when we are trapped in our addictions, “what am I doing that fills the place in my heart where God deeply desires to dwell?” We jump to the assumption that it is God who does not hear the cries of the hungry world, when we suspect, when we know, that it is in our own power to meet the needs of our neighbors – and with a fraction, a small fraction, of what many of us are spending on ourselves.
This second week of Advent we are focusing on the second direction coming out of the Advent Conspiracy. If you look in the back of your bulletin you’ll see the four directions summarized: worship fully, spend less, give more, love all. Last week we heard Jesus words about the end times, and the call to “stand up and raise your heads” as encouragement to enter more fully into our worship during this season. We talked about the ways that our worship is trying to awaken us to the movement of God in the world. How our worship, in its words but also in its rituals, tries to point our attention toward the new reality that in God we are joined to one another in bonds of mutual obligation and common destiny.
This second week of Advent we hear how the words of our worship flow into critical self-examination – as a nation, as a church, as households and individuals. If, as Jim Wallis has famously said, budgets are moral documents of our priorities, then how do our national, ecclesial, household and personal budgets and expenditures demonstrate our care for the neighbor?
Some economists have suggested that the recession that has put the United States into a panic is not so much a recession as a correction. Decades of over-spending on credit, of home purchases made on bad mortgages, of conspicuous consumption, are coming to an end. This time of correction is like the refiner’s fire or the fuller’s soap that Malachi, the messenger, spoke of.
Yet, like the man who desperately wanted me to believe that he had seen an angel, but who could not tell me what message the angel was trying to deliver, we see the signs all around us that our stewardship of God’s gifts is not an acceptable offering of what God has first given us, but we do not want to hear the message that logically follows. Spend less. Give more. Love all.
During this season of Advent, when television specials and holiday movies encourage us to imagine the holiday as a festival of warm feelings and personal moments, the church has to work especially hard to fight against the culture’s desire to privatize the meaning of Christmas. God gains nothing from the $450 billion we in the United States will spend this year – but the credit card companies get balances they can charge interest on for the next year or more. That’s a gift that keeps on giving, but to the wrong people.
No, we generally don’t want to hear the message God’s angels, God’s messengers, are bringing us. John the Baptist preached his word of repentance outside the walls of the city, away from the temple in Jerusalem, because no one in those halls of power wanted to hear what he had to say. But what John the Baptist said to those who were willing to leave the city, is what he has to say to us this morning, “prepare the way of the Lord, make God’s paths straight.”
Make a pathway in your heart for God to enter once again. Figure out what it is that is filling the space in your life, in your heart, in which God deeply desires to dwell. Prepare a way for God to enter in, as God is always doing.
If you go online to adventconspiracy.org you’ll find that they’re asking everyone to consider giving just one less gift this year. They’re focusing on clean water instead of world hunger, an issue that’s just as vital to global health, and they’re encouraging everyone to take the cost of the one gift you’re not going to buy this year and to donate it directly to global funds working for clean water. I’m asking you to consider doing the same. Whether the cause is global hunger, or clean water, or HIV/AIDS, or malaria. Decide now to make a gift acceptable to the Lord, one that proceeds from our worship, one that reflects our awareness that we are all sharing a common life by virtue of our common creator. If you want more ideas about ways to make this gift, go to the ELCA website and search for their “Good Gifts” program. I’ve put the link up on our facebook page again. There you’ll see a variety of opportunities this church is providing to be a part of the healing and restorative work of our church throughout the world.
And if you determine that the very best thing you can do this year is to spend no money at all, as many Americans are deciding during this period of correction, this recession, then look for other ways to give more of yourself. Spend less, give more. That’s the direction we’ll be exploring next week as we hear more from John the Baptist, and his encouragement to give more – of ourselves, our time and our talents. Signs of God’s gracious love.
With thanks for all that God has given us, and most especially that God has given us each other for the sake of the world.