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Going Against the Stream

by William Willimon

Dr. Willimon, a Century editor at large, is minister to the university and professor of the practice of Christian ministry at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. This article appeared in the Christian Century December 19-26, 1984, p. 1192. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The other day someone told me about a friend who had been asked to preach in the church of one of the famous television preachers whom millions watch every Sunday. On the way from the airport, the guest received these instructions: “People worship with us in order to feel good about themselves. Therefore, don’t mention the cross in your sermon. And don’t dwell too much on sin. And don’t mention the John Birch Society.”

Television does set certain limits on today’s successful preacher, doesn’t it? So does the spirit of the age. There is a new optimism abroad in the United States. Commentators agree: We Americans have decided to think better of ourselves. The flag-waving, athletic-financial success of the Olympics got us rolling. Last month, we overwhelmingly rejected the one whose opponent labeled him “Minnesota Fritz and the Temple of Gloom.” No one was in the mood for bad news. Everybody smiling, red-and-white balloons cascading, we have enjoyed a veritable orgy of self-affirmation. A man in Georgia being interviewed by CBS on election day: “I think there’s a new spirit in this country. You don’t see nobody stepping on our flag these days. People are just pleased to be Americans. They’re tired of all the talk about problems. They want to hear about what’s right and good.”

Therefore, pity the preacher this Advent. Sunday after Sunday, it’s Isaiah and John the Baptist. Not the Isaiah who sings so well in Handel’s Messiah, but the Isaiah of chapters 63 to 64, who laments the fate of the Jewish exiles in Babylon. It is the raging plaint of a homeless people in a Babylonian death camp. They cry:

Thy holy people possessed thy sanctuary a little while;
   our adversaries have trodden it down.
We have all become like one who is unclean and all our righteous
   deeds are like
   a polluted garment.
thou hast hid thy face from us,
   and hast delivered us into the
   hand of our iniquities [Isa. 63:18, 64:6-7].

 

But we, 2,000 years later, have escaped the death camps so that we might celebrate Christmas. We are moving, have been moving since the first opportunity in late October, bedecked with tinsel, behind a fat, smiling, bewhiskered old man, toward cheer. Eggnogging our way to bliss. We are better off than we were four years ago and, presumably, we shall be even better off four years from now.

Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la.

And here’s the poor old church. Out of step as usual. Unable to catch the spirit of the times, swimming against the contemporary stream, the church is all gloom and doom. Isaiah 63 to 64 this December is the theological equivalent of the Nehru jacket. The world wants Christmas jingles and the church sings a lament! The world has visions of sugar plums dancing in its head and the church sees only angry Jews standing by the fence, wailing toward heaven:

thou art our Father,
though Abraham does not know us
and Israel does not acknowledge us [63:16].

 

We Americans are doing better, better and better. And the old church had better get in step or it shall be left behind as our joyous parade of happy, successful, progressive, positive people moves upward, upward and ever onward.

A few years ago we watched one of those annual Christmas specials that appear on television about this time of year. Smiling singers cavorted in a winter wonderland (in Hollywood), then everyone gathered by the tree as the happy couple, stars of the show, held each other’s hands, looked into one another’s eyes, and sang, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.’’

Scarcely a month later, their marriage was over amid bitter public recriminations and charges in court of abuse. Yes, we said, come to think of it, there was something a bit phony, a bit contrived in their yuletide joy.

Like this not-so-happy TV couple, there is something a bit contrived in our wave of national self-affirmation. If we’re doing so well, why do we drink so much at parties? If we are so happy, why must we so forcefully reassure ourselves and silence those who disagree? If we’re so happy, why must we talk about it so much? Ponder the annual office Christmas party. There is something forced, rather compulsive in our holiday merriment.

A kind of optimistic numbness sets in, in which honesty is impossible and a realistic assessment of our situation is blocked by the royal theology of success. True prophets bring about social change by simply helping people to weep for what they know they have lost, to exchange their national anthems for laments.

“The Christian faith is a thing of unspeakable joy,” says C. S. Lewis. “But it does not begin with joy, but rather in despair. And it is no good trying to reach the joy without first going through the despair.”

The Advent prophet meets us on our cheerful way up and inserts a cold, despairing word into our seeming optimism.

 

We have all become like one who
   is unclean,
   and all our righteous deeds are
   like a polluted garment.
We all fade like a leaf,
   and our iniquities, like the wind,
   take us away.
There is no one that calls upon thy
   name,
for thou hast hid thy face from us,
   and has delivered us into the
   hand of our iniquities [64:6-7].

 

Scarcely had the election ended before the inevitable truth-telling began. Yes, we do indeed have a deficit problem. Yes, despite certain promises, there will be new taxes, and new cuts. Reality intrudes itself.

Let us not be too harsh on the royal theology which we created. In our own lives, in our yuletide overspending, overdrinking, overhoping, overgetting and overgiving we act out a sad seasonal ritual: oh, that a new video recorder or a new car might fill the emptiness. Yet, we know that in the cold gray of January the bills come, the radio evicts Bing Crosby and we find that, alas, the “Peace on Earth and Good Will” of the TV Christmas specials barely lasted until New Year’s.

We are out somewhere, back against the wall, in some padded, comfortable, tinseled cell. Even though the guards outside have smiling, amiable faces, we are still their prisoner. Exiles, far from home.

The hope for us, says the church in Advent, is that we are out of hope, and we know it. We know, in our better moments, where our quest for self-affirmation has left us. Now, lost in the cosmos, victims of the monstrous technological toys we have created, we wander. America, with our bombs and bombers, our deficits for defense, our cheese and wheat stockpiled before the scandal of the poor and hungry shivering in the cold again this Christmas -- our ancestors wouldn’t know us.

The Advent prophet leads a sad litany made all the more sad because it is reality: “All our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. . . . our Iniquities, like the wind, take us away. . . . thou hast hid thy face from us” (64:7-7).

That’s why the church generally refrains from singing Christmas carols during Advent. That’s why purple, the color of penitence, adorns our altar and the neck of your preacher. We dare not rush to greet the Redeemer prematurely until we pause here, in darkened church, to admit that we do need redemption. Nothing within us can save us. No thing can save us. We’ve tried that before. No president, no bomb, no new car, no bottle, no white Christmas can save.

No! to all false consolation, we say. No! to the empty, contrived merriment of a terminal world. Our hope must be in someone out there who comes to us. We find our way only because One comes, takes our hand and leads us home.

No thank you, we shall wait here, in yearning and silence, in darkness and penitence, for that One.

“In our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?” (64:5).

Wait. Wait and see what is to be born among us. God grant us the honesty and the patience to wait long enough to find some real salvation.


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