I heard a great sermon on this First Sunday of Advent, preached by Wayne McLaughlin at the Montevallo Presbyterian Church. The Montevallo congregation follows the Narrative Lectionary instead of the Revised Common Lectionary, and the reading in the Narrative Lectionary for today was the familiar story of Daniel in the Lions’ Den. As Rev. McLaughlin pointed out at the beginning of the service, at first this seemed to be a strange choice for the First Sunday of Advent.
The complementary New Testament reading was from I Peter 5: “Your enemy, the Devil, roams around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.” The “Devil” in this context refers to the Roman government. Peter, writing from “Babylon” (Rome), encourages the persecuted church to resist the anti-Christ government, not by taking up arms, but through what we would call “civil disobedience” today. The Daniel story, too, is about civil disobedience. The king has passed a law that no one may pray to or otherwise entreat any being or power other than the king himself, yet Daniel continues to pray, three times a day, in front of his open window. He could have gone into the back of the house to pray in secret, but he does not. Calvin, in his commentary, points out that this was tantamount to “spitting in the king’s face.”
As I listened, it occurred to me that for those of us Christians who follow the Church Year, we are engaging in civil disobedience ourselves. The predominant religion in our society is not Christianity: it is instead Americanist Christianity. Americanist Christianity’s chief tenet is consumerism. “It’s the economy, stupid.” The Americanist considers all other articles of faith subservient to “what is best for the economy.” This explains how Americanist Christians could be so excited about a candidate who had appeared on the cover of pornographic magazines, had belittled women and minorities, demonised other nationalities, and mocked the disabled. He said he would “bring jobs back,” and that “trumped” (pardon the pun) everything else.
In fact, a Christian who takes seriously the words of the Bible with regard to social justice, to caring for the poor, immigrants, and those marginalised and stigmatised by society, will soon find himself/herself at odds with Americanist Christians. To the Americanist, these values are seen as too “leftist,” when they actually come from the works and words of Jesus.
The Americanist Christian never questions having an American flag in the worship space, or having “patriotic services” on or near Independence Day, during which hymns of praise are sung, not to God, but to America. (“My country, ”tis of thee … of thee I sing!” “America! America! God shed his grace on thee!”) Were we to replace “America” with “Zeus” in these hymns, we would consider them idolatrous. The Americanist does not see the disconnect here.
The High Holy Days of consumerism, and therefore of Americanist Christianity, are the period from Black Friday through December 24. The Americanist Christian calls this period of time the “Christmas season,” borrowing a term from Christianity (but not using it the same way Christianity does). The first day of this holy season of consumerism, “Black Friday,” has become known for huge crowds, long lines, and even violence as people scramble for the best bargains. But this is all fine, because it helps the economy, and that is what this “Christmas season” is all about to consumerists.
For the Christian who follows the Church Year, however, something entirely different is going on right now. Today, the First Sunday of Advent, marks the first day of a New Year for the Christian. Like Daniel, the Christian on this day defies the “powers that be,” defies the prevailing religion of consumerism and of Americanist Christianity. The season of Advent, which begins a new Church Year, teaches the Christian that “the one with two tunics must give one of them to the one who has none.” The season of Advent teaches the Christian that God “fills the hungry with good things” but “sends the rich away empty” and “scatters those who are proud in the imagination of their hearts.”
The Church Year is an act of civil disobedience for the Christian as we defiantly reject the religion of consumerism, of Americanist Christianity. We reject the Americanist’s disdain for the poor, the immigrant, and others whom they consider “losers.” We reject and defy the false gospel that “God helps those who help themselves” and defiantly proclaim the Gospel of grace as Jesus and the Apostles proclaimed it: God helps those who cannot possibly help themselves. (That is the very definition of grace.)
As the consumerist’s High Holy Days are drawing to a close, on December 24, the Christian defiantly BEGINS to celebrate the Feast of the Incarnation of the Son of God, and tenaciously continues to celebrate it through January 6. The Church Year tells the Christian that Christmas begins, not ends, on December 25. The “Christmas season” has outlived its usefulness to consumerism by that date, so the Americanist says, “Christmas is over!” when it has barely begun.
We have before us, in the season of Advent, and indeed, in this entire Church Year (and in every Church Year) the opportunity to be “salt and light,” to declare the values of Christ’s reign–justice, mercy, compassion–in defiance of the values of consumerism and therefore of Americanist Christianity. Be firm in your faith, and resist the enemies of Christ’s reign and of the values of that reign (see I Peter 5:7-11).