Trinity, Mt Vernon—Luke 3:1-6, Baruch 5:1-9, Psalm 126, Philippians 1:1-11
Some of you may have heard me tell stories in various contexts about the period in my life—actually, it seems like a different lifetime—when I was a salesman. I was not, by any reckoning, a very good salesman, but whenever I point that out, someone invariably comes back with the quip, “But what do you call what you’re doing now?!”—the implication being that, even though I’m not paid on commission, what my ministry is about is, in effect, selling the gospel, or Christ, or the Church, or my vision for the diocese, or something along those lines. Well…whatever. This much I know: Making a sale involves the buyer coming to the conclusion that there is some advantage to him or her in making the purchase. The first essential question that must be answered in any sales process is “What’s in it for me?”
Now, if I’m going to have to listen to anyone call me a salesman for what I do, I’m just going to hold up a mirror and remind everyone that, if I’m a salesman, then all of you are too. The Church—the whole community of the baptized—is in the business of telling anyone who will listen that God loves them madly, and has gone to great lengths to be friends with them, and invites them to join the community of those who have decided to take him up on his offer of friendship. This activity is called evangelism, and when we do it, we have to answer the “What’s in it for me?” question just as surely as does the purveyor of perfume or mutual funds, hot dogs or real estate.
Different brands of Christians have different responses to the evangelistic “What’s in it for me?” question. Those who might generally be described as fundamentalist Protestants have a rather dramatic way of framing the question. I once saw a tract entitled “The First Five Minutes After Death.” The author clearly set out two scenarios: Those who have at any time intentionally said a prayer by which they confess their sinfulness to God, put their trust in Christ alone to save them from the consequences of that sinfulness, and invited Christ into their lives, will be ushered immediately into the blissful nearer presence of God. Those who have not said such a prayer will be consigned directly to Hell, where they will literally suffer intense physical pain for endless ages. Well, if and when one comes to the point of accepting that these are the only two choices, with no ambiguity or shades of gray, the “What’s in it for me?” question is answered pretty resoundingly.
Christians of a more liberal persuasion, however, have a different answer: the world is full of social problems. There is injustice, oppression, bigotry, poverty, crime, illiteracy—the list could go on and on—these things are all around us. God wants to do something about these problems. But the only arms and legs and hands and feet that God has belong to us. As President Kennedy said almost 55 years ago in his inaugural speech, “God’s work must truly be our own.” By becoming a Christian, one can join God’s army, enlist on God’s team. We can be instruments of God’s peace, and help usher in God’s reign of justice and love. Surely this is itself a significant reward; ample motivation for becoming a Christian.
But there’s another response to the “What’s in it for me?” question. I call it the Advent Response. The Advent Response is, “You want to know what’s in it for you? Well, how would you like a ringside seat for the decisive battle of all time—the victory of Almighty God over the forces of Evil and Death? How would you like a front row seat for a more spine-tingling action drama than any human mind could conceive—the recreation and redemption of the universe?” In today’s liturgy, we are confronted with the primal images and metaphors of Advent. A place is prepared for the arrival of God’s Holy One. A hostile wilderness is tamed. A channel is carved through the mountains that divide human communities from one another. The canyons and ravines that we lose our way in are raised up. Highways are built to connect God’s people with one another. And my favorite metaphor of all: That which is crooked is made straight. With this image, I can’t help but imagine God as Bob Vila, the TV home restoration and repair expert from a couple of decades ago. Maybe you remember him. He could take a derelict old building, and imagine its former glory and its inner beauty. And he had the knowledge and skill and perseverance to restore that glory and reveal that beauty for all to see. The Advent Response is to …
Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
As we make the Advent Response a habit of our own hearts, we begin to experience “what’s in it for us.” At a very personal and individual level, we see small blessings come our way, and we know the One who is behind those blessings, the Great Lover of our soul. We experience healing—maybe from a minor headache, maybe from cancer—and we know who is behind that healing. We come to realize that we are forgiven, the slate wiped clean, the foolish things we have done dispensed with, and we are filled with gratitude toward the One who is the source of that forgiveness. We feel ourselves mysteriously and gracefully drawn—called—to a vocation in life; we experience what it is to be a round peg in a round hole, and songs of praise flow from our hearts in adoration of the One who has issued that call. Over time, we realize that we are growing in holiness, becoming more like Jesus, that we are cultivating the habits in this life that will enable us to be fully alive in the next.
As we make the Advent Response a habit of our own hearts, we begin to experience “what’s in it for us” not only personally and individually, but socially. We come to realize that our connection to the Head also connects us to the Body, that we cannot know Christ without also knowing his Church. We grow in our awareness that the communal life of the Church is not an optional extra, a pleasant frill, but lies at the core of our Christian identity. The bond that God establishes in baptism connects us not only with him, but with one another. We become devoted, in particular, to the Eucharist, which ever reconstitutes the Church, and in which the Church is most clearly and purely herself. This leads us to a more profound discipleship, a deeper giving over of our hearts and minds and wills to Christ, allowing our faith to penetrate every aspect of our lives. Discipleship, in turn, forms us in servanthood—a servanthood that expresses itself in radical devotion to one another, but also acts as a leavening agent in society. We become subversives, God’s secret agents, who transform society not by revolution, or by headline-grabbing action, but by quietly turning it inside out just by being who we are as the Church, by loving one another, and letting the world know we are Christians by our love.
Finally, as we make the Advent Response a habit of our own hearts, we begin to experience “what’s in it for us” at a cosmic level. Everywhere we turn, we see sinners repenting and being forgiven. Everywhere we turn, we see Evil declawed and defanged and the good of which all evil is a corruption displayed in bright array. Everywhere we turn, we see Death being swallowed up in victory, choking on itself and dying.
So, what’s in it for us? In a word, Joy is what’s in it for us. The Old Testament apocryphal book of Baruch is an anthem of joy flowing from the Advent Response. The prophet echoes Isaiah in a startling way:
For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God. … For God will lead Israel with joy, in the light of his glory, with the mercy and righteousness that come from him.
The Epistle to the Philippians reiterates the same theme, with St Paul in the first of what would be a whole string of references to joy and rejoicing in the course of his letter:
I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, thankful for your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.
And the Psalmist is certainly not to be outdone in this department:
Those who sowed with tears * will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, * will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.
You are no doubt at least passingly familiar with the British author and scholar and theologian of the last century, C.S. Lewis. Professor Lewis has had a tremendous influence in forming several generations of Christian minds and hearts, including my own. One of his most influential books is his spiritual autobiography, entitled Surprised By Joy. He articulates a notion of Joy that far surpasses the shallow emotion of a smiley face or the exhortation to “Have a nice day.” For Lewis, Joy is a profound and abiding conviction that, whatever comes our way, all will be well in the end, and we will be happier than we could ever imagine, because of the deathless love of God made known to us in the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ongoing ministry of Jesus Christ our Lord. Indeed, inasmuch as we allow ourselves to be trained by the Advent response, we will most certainly find ourselves surprised by Joy.
Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.