St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, McKinney TX

Somthing More Than Santa Land

The most common trip out of town I took as a kid was to Covington, Louisiana. Covington is on the North Shore of Lake Ponchatrain, across from New Orleans; it’s a little like McKinney is to Dallas, except where Plano and Richardson are, there’s a huge muddy lake. But this sermon is not about Covington; I just bring it up because to get there — as we did 3-5 times a year — we had to drive east on I-20 out of Dallas to Shreveport.

And somewhere between Dallas and Shreveport, in the piney woods of East Texas near Tyler, we passed a drive-through Christmas light village. It’s called Santa Land. In the dark, on a Christmas-time road trip, it looked magical. Yet despite desperate pleas to the contrary, my dad never pulled off to drive though Santa Land. At the time I considered this a grave injustice. Now of course I realize there is nothing on the face of God’s green earth that could convince me that it would be a good idea to spend $30 for the purpose of adding an hour to a long road trip with my kids in the backseat.

Of course, most of the time we drove by Santa Land, the point was moot — because usually we drove by Santa Land at 10:00 am in the morning in March. Or coming back from Louisiana, at 7 pm on a bright July evening. And at those times, you could see Santa Land for what it really was: a beat-up track through the woods, with sad looking empty steel frames supporting drooping strings of lights.

There’s nothing to Santa Land — it’s an illusion, created by darkness, strung up with lights. It’s even worse than those movie-set Western towns that are all facades; there’s literally nothing to Santa Land.

The easiest way to go through this holiday season is to build ourselves an emotional and spiritual Santa Land. We can drown out what doesn’t sound right with the happy harmonies of our favorite pop stars singing Christmas songs; we can cover over ugly scars with tinsel, and we can illuminate the darkness of our hearts with miniature string lights.

This is the first Sunday of Advent, Advent being the period of preparation to which the Church calls us ahead of our celebration of Christmas. And I at least want to plead with you today, don’t let your Christmas become a drive-thru Santa Land. There’s so much more to Christmas than this. When the Lord comes, may He find you to be something more than an empty frame strung with dollar store mini-lights.

Advent comes from the Latin word meaning “to come to” and we’re asking, waiting, and preparing for our Lord to come to us. In that sense, we’re like the prophet in this morning’s reading from Isaiah. I don’t want to go through this verse by verse, but I do want to make sure we have a sense of the general movement of the passage, because what I want to remind you about Advent follows this general movement.

I asked Brandi to put some line breaks in our scripture reading this morning, so if you take it out, you should see it broken up into sections. The first section, verses 1-5a, this is the “God, You’re Awesome” section. It’s a plea that God would come down in his mighty power and fix things, with power like an earthquake or a raging fire. It’s a recollection that there’s no God besides God, no doer of deeds greater than God.

The second section, verses 5b-7, is the “Wow, We Really Messed Up” section. We have sinned, such that even our good deeds are tainted by the bad. “We fade like a leaf, and our iniquities take us away.” And if God really does come — well that’s going to be a whole lotta, whole lotta holiness for a people that aren’t real holy.

The third section begins in verse 8. It’s the “Let’s Just Forget About That Part, Please” section. God, please don’t hold our sins against us. We are your people, and sure we messed up, but we’d really like it if you come to us and wouldn’t hold our sins against us.

God, You’re Awesome — Wow, We Really Messed Up — Let’s Just Forget About That Part, Please

This passage, the first piece of scripture read in Advent, is basically Advent itself — it’s both plea for God to come and dwell among us, and also a recognition that for God to be at home among us, he’s going to have to “not remember iniquity forever” (as verse 9 there puts it).

But what does that take on our end? Well, for God not to remember our iniquity forever, we have to not be iniquitous for over. We’ve got to repent of the bad things we’ve done, and return to the Lord.

As far as bad things go, repenting of them is made easier because we human beings are pretty good at keeping track of bad things. Think about hurricanes. We had two very bad hurricanes this year, Harvey and Irma. And do you know what we do with bad hurricanes? We retire their names, so that we never forget them. It’s the meteorological equivalent of retiring a great player’s jersey. There will never be another hurricane Harvey; this year’s Harvey has gone off to join the pantheon of greats — like Hugo, Andrew, Allison, Katrina, Sandy.

Sin functions a little like a hurricane in our lives. At best sin is only slightly destructive, but consumes a great deal of attention. But really bad sin can lay waste, quite suddenly, to that which has been carefully and lovingly built up over many years. We all know this; we all can probably name those sins: that time Uncle John cheated on Aunt Sally; or the last time, years ago, you talked to your child, the time that ended when they told you they hated you and slammed the front door; that time your brother tried to take your dying mother’s money; the time your daughter-in-law told you she wished you’d never moved to be near them. Or — you know — the time you did any such thing.

These sort of sins, even if we don’t give them first names, they get retired into the record book. The join the pantheon of great sins in our lives — the sort that, in their wake, what comes after is never as it was before. Oh yes, we remember sins — probably even better than we remember hurricanes.

When the prophet says, “Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever,” he’s asking that God not keep track of sin the way we keep track of hurricanes. Please don’t write them down in the record book. Let’s move on. And the great news is, that’s who God is. God won’t hold our iniquity against us forever.

More so, perhaps, than any other season in the life of the Church, Advent is a time to look forward. It’s a time to look with hope at what God can and will do in your life when Christ comes to it. And that future is not defined by the various high water marks of sin that are in your personal hurricane record book. Listen to me — your Christmas past need not define your Christmas present. This is as true for you as it was for Ebenezer Scrooge.

But, and this is a rather large but, that’s impossible if the damage from the sin hurricane goes unaddressed.

No one whose house was damaged in Hurricane Harvey could invite you into their home and expect you to not remember the hurricane when the drywall is missing, the flooring is ripped out, and all the furniture is stacked upstairs.

There is no point in pretending like sin hasn’t left its trail of destruction in our life. Hear what the scripture says, “We have all become like one who is unclean…We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” To address this, to repair the damage takes repentance and forgiveness.

Otherwise, we’re inviting God to come into our home with the roof sheared off, the windows blown out, and the bottom three feet of drywall rotting. And what do we expect — to serve Jesus the Christmas roast here in a couple weeks and not have him notice the house is nearly destroyed. Yeah, gosh Lord — my life’s a complete mess and I haven’t done a thing about it — but hey, I did hang some Christmas lights on the front porch, don’t they look nice?

Sin is brutally effective of taking our lives down to the bare studs; Advent is a chance to rebuild, not an invitation to use the bare studs as the framework for Santa Land. This is a message we’re going to hear throughout Advent. When John the Baptist cries out in the wilderness, “Prepare thee the way of the Lord!” he doesn’t actually mean get the blow-up Santa Claus out of the attic and light the winter-scented candles to cover up the stench. It’s not “Prepare thee the Santa Land.”

God is happy to come down — God would love to be invited — into your life where the hurricane of sin has blown away your protection; where the flood of iniquity has washed away your greatest treasures; where the earthquake of evil has left you shaken to your very core. But there’s no reason for him, or for you, to live among the mess. God’s not interested in sharing the table with sin. Confess, repent, forgive, repair — for the kingdom of God is drawing near.

Soon, not very long at all, the dawn of the new year will rise upon Santa Land, and the January sun will reveal it again for what it really is — emptiness. But may the light of the New Year shine upon your house and reveal a warm, welcoming home, hearts full of love and open to the work of God, gathered at table with our Lord — the Lord who came home to you this season. Amen.



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