Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Shedding Our Dragon Skins

sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Curate

The countdown to Christmas has begun. It’s not Christmas yet, despite urgent cultural messages beating us about the head every day. I remember once, when we were kids, my brother Seth coming up to me and saying, “It’s nineteen days until Christmas.” And I said, “I know. It’s nineteen days until Christmas.” And a sort of quiver ran through him, and suddenly he shouted, “Christmas attack! AAAAAHHHHH!” And he started running all over the living room, letting off his spare energy.

It’s been a long time since Advent felt like that for me. But I imagine that, for a lot of us, our earliest memories of Advent are of intense longing for material things: what gifts will be under the tree? I mean, there’s even a new Star Wars film coming to theaters! For people my age, it’s like our childhood has returned. Will I get that Millennium Falcon that I can put my Han Solo and Chewbacca action figures into? It’s so soon … not yet. It’s almost here, not yet, but almost. And this is Advent language. It’s not just about Christmas, but it is in relation to Christmas. And deep within that longing for Christmas, as a child, for me, there was this lingering suspicion that maybe it’s not really about the material gifts, and that maybe the longing is even better than the having. How great might it be just to stay in the longing, because it’s such a luscious place to be? Advent is about the excitement of preparing our hearts for God’s arrival.

The prophet Malachi demands that we prepare for the coming of the Lord, and that we do so by making “offerings to the Lord in righteousness.” Apparently Malachi didn’t see a lot of that going on, which is why he had to say it. Yet he knew this was what God demanded: “offerings in righteousness.” What does that mean? “Righteousness” is one of those holy words that we assume we understand until we try to define it. I first learned what righteousness means in relation to Abraham: that Abraham was made righteous because he trusted God. Righteousness doesn’t mean moral behavior or a clean slate; it just means trusting God. So when we make offerings in righteousness, we are making offerings with complete trust.

Advent is also about judgment, and that rings through loud and clear in Malachi’s passage as well. We don’t like to think about being judged. I think many of us in this room tend to be the breed of Christians who say, “Well, God isn’t really like that. God isn’t a judgmental God; that’s a destructive stereotype.” And yet … and yet, we doubt. As Chuck discussed in his sermon last week, we assume that our sins might get in God’s way. We wonder: What am I going to be judged for? I know that I carry guilt over things I’ve done, and rightfully so. What will the judgment be, and what will the consequences of that judgment be?

Malachi gives us this idea of God approaching—the Advent idea of God coming to be with us—oh, to meet God face to face! Thy kingdom come! And then – oooh. To meet God face to face … Who can stand when he appears? How can I stand there without my knees knocking? What will my fate be? John the Baptist, in today’s Gospel, comes with that same Advent judgment that Malachi gave us. But John also brings a baptism of repentance, a way to restore righteousness, a symbolic, sacramental act for those who are ready to turn away from their sins and begin anew.

Don't bother to see the Disney movie
version. This scene isn't in it.
In his book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C. S. Lewis illustrates the perspective of Malachi and John the Baptist very well. The main character is a little boy whose name is Eustace Clarence Scrubb … and he almost deserves it. This little boy is petty and rude and self-centered and tiresome … and the worst crime of all, he has no imagination whatsoever. I mean, he only reads non-fiction, for God’s sake! And then, on a Narnian sea voyage—which he would rather not be on until he discovers a vast hoard of treasure—Eustace’s own greedy thoughts change him into a dragon. Finally he understands the monster that he has been to everyone around him. He fears that his companions will desert him on the island where he has been transformed, and who could blame them?

Then, one night, the great Lion Aslan comes to Eustace, leads him to a pool of water, and invites him to bathe. But Aslan orders Eustace to undress first. Well, Eustace, being a dragon, first objects that he hasn’t got any clothes on. And then he remembers that lizards shed their skins. And so he starts to pick at his skin, and it starts to flake, and then it starts to peel. And then he makes a tear, and the whole skin comes off. He leaves it there and gets down into the water. But as he goes to step into the water, Eustace realizes the skin is still on. Oh! There was another skin underneath the first dragon skin. So he steps back and starts to peel at that one. And that one eventually comes off. But he has yet another dragon skin underneath that one! Eustace’s heart sinks into hopelessness. Is there no cure?

That’s when Aslan says, “Come here. You must let me undress you.” Eustace recounts the story:

The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know—if you’ve ever picked the scab of a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away.

This is what God’s judgment feels like. It hurts! And it helps us. When Eustace is finally without his skin, Aslan throws him into the water. And he comes out a boy again. In this way, according to the prophet Malachi, God refines us and scrubs us and peels away our reptilian skins. We can’t do it by ourselves.

Back in October, Todd Foster and I attended a conference at St. Mark’s Cathedral of Recovery Ministries of the Episcopal Church. We heard stories of addiction and recovery from many laypeople and clergy. And so the story of Eustace and his dragon skin reminds me of the first of the twelve steps in Alcoholics Anonymous: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” The other thing I learned is that we’re all addicted to something! Admitting our powerlessness is the first step to letting God tear into our dragony flesh and remove it. If we can never admit we are in the wrong, we cannot be saved from our own clinging, greedy, helpless selves.

To be judged, to be found wanting, and then to undergo the treatment … what better way could there be to deal with sin than this? We are afraid of God’s appearing, because we will have to change. We will be judged, but the things to remember about judgment are these. First of all, God will never destroy us, no matter what. This is not a destroying fire. This is a refining fire to make us more valuable, like silver. The second thing to remember is that “the one who began a good work within us,” as Paul wrote to the Philippians, “will bring it to completion” by the last day. God is invested in you and believes in you.

So what will we do when God arrives? And will we be able to stand when he appears? This is what we must trust: that no matter how God judges us, and no matter what the consequences of that judgment may be, we will be in the presence of the one in whom we delight, the one whom we have sought all our lives with the deepest of longings, whether we knew it or not, and that even in the presence of God’s fiery, loving, refining judgment, we will be able to stand.

During this Advent season, this time that isn’t yet Christmas, with Jesus not yet among us and yet, as a Christian people, among us even now in the breaking of the bread, we are anticipating the appearing of God’s Messiah. Let’s make room for him within our hearts by clearing away all pretense, all hiding, all justification, all excuses. Let’s prepare ourselves for God’s honest assessment of us, which, regardless of all else, will center on this one piece of Good News: YOU ARE LOVED. You are worth saving, and that saving work is done. Consent to be loved, and God’s Messiah will be born within you this Christmas and every day. Amen.