Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for December, 2009

God Bless It!:

A Review of Disney’s A Christmas Carol

By S. Randall Toms, Ph.D. 

Since its publication in 1843, there have been over 20 film adaptations of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, plus countless plays and television dramas based on this classic work.   From a silent version in 1901 to director Robert Zemeckis’ (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump)  most recent 3D version starring Jim Carrey, people have debated about which is the best film adaptation.  Some people are still devoted to the  famous 1951 version with Alistair Sim, while others enjoy Albert Finney, George C. Scott, or Patrick Stewart in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge.  Only time will tell whether Zemeckis’ version will become a Christmas classic as some of the earlier adaptations, or if people will feel it can only be appreciated by wearing 3D glasses while watching it on the big screen.   Cinematography’s use of computer technology for 3D effects continues to amaze audiences.  When the snow falls during the opening scenes, it seems as though you could reach out and catch the falling snowflakes.  The movie was made using an animation  process called “performance capture” in which the movements, but not the appearance of the actors is recorded and then transferred to computers to utilize 3D animation techniques where the likenesses of the actors are transposed to the models.  Zemeckis also used this technique in Polar Express (2004) and Beowulf (2007).  While the 3D human beings look almost real, there still seems to be certain “coldness” about the figures, especially in the eyes, that somehow prohibits our complete identification and immersion with the characters.  While we are impressed with the technical imagery of the film, this version may not grip our hearts and stir our emotions as much as some earlier adaptations.  Don’t get me wrong, I still cried when Tiny Tim said, “God bless us everyone,” but I don’t know if my tears were caused by this particular rendition of the story, or the ghost of Christmas Carol’s past.  I’m fighting back the tears even as I type Tim’s famous words.  After writing his classic, Dickens was often asked to read it publicly.  On one occasion, Dickens described the effect of his reading:

“They took it so tremendously last night that I had to stop every five minutes.  One poor young girl in mourning burst out into a passion of grief about Tiny Tim, and was taken out.” 

We might not be able to understand in our high-tech days that even a reading could move someone to tears, but such is the power of this great classic.

It may be that the failure of Zemeckis’ feature  to move us as much as some earlier versions is due to our focus being on the animation technique rather than the story itself.  Certainly, Zemeckis’ adaptation stays very close to Dickens, the dialogue being lifted almost word for word from the pages of the novella.  When I saw that Jim Carrey had been cast in the role of Scrooge, I was worried that we might see Scrooge as Ace Ventura.  In his role as The Riddler in Batman Forever, after he delivers one piece of dialogue, he asks if that was too “over the top.”  I would have to say that Carrey’s performance as Scrooge was almost understated.  There are only a few scenes that remind us that Jim Carrey is playing this role.  As a matter of fact, I can say that at points I wish Carrey had been a little more lively and emotional.

Though this version has some shortcomings, it is still a faithful adaptation of Dickens’ work and has the power to “do us good.”  A Christmas Carol, like the Christmas season itself, has the power to transform us in the way that Ebenezer Scrooge was changed from a “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner” (4), to a generous, warm-hearted celebrator of yuletide.  Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, explains the blessings of this special time of year: 

There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say…, Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless  it!”(7) 

Very often at this time of year, we complain about the Christmas season.  We grumble about the commercialization of Christmas.  We whine about the traffic and the crowds at the malls.  With the pressure of buying gifts and the ceaseless round of parties and school activities, it is easy to become an Ebenezer Scrooge and say, “Bah humbug,” whenever anybody mentions Christmas.  As Scrooge expressed his objections to Fred, we want to say:

Merry Christmas! Out upon merry Christmas! What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, and not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in ’em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you? If I could work my will,…every idiot who goes about with ‘ Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!” (6)

Later on Scrooge complains that he had never derived any benefit from Christmas:  “What was Merry Christmas to Scrooge? Out upon merry Christmas! What good had it ever done to him?” (28).  As the story unfolds, we find that Christmas had never done Scrooge any good because he had never been open to all of the lessons that Christmas has to teach us.  Some people have complained that A Christmas Carol, for all its emphasis on Christmas, is rather Christless, noting that Dickens himself was not a particularly religious man.  But Scrooge’s nephew has already pointed out the obvious blessings associated with Christmas, noting that the origin of the holiday should be venerated.  Fred then goes on to delineate the benefits that have accrued to society and people that are derived from that initial blessing, just as even non-believers in America today should realize the blessings that have come to them as a result of living in a culture that was influenced by the coming of Christ.  The ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future arrive on this Christmas Eve night to show Scrooge all the things there are to be learned by a proper view of the Christmas season.  In the same manner, Dickens’ Christmas Carol comes to us as a staple tradition of the Christmas season in order to “do us good.” 

            A Christmas Carol does us good by frightening us.  While some of the earlier adaptations might be more moving, especially in its depiction of the Cratchit family, Zemeckis’ version is easily the scariest of the film versions.  The 3D animation techniques coupled with the dark, somber tone of almost the entire film, sets us up to be terrified.  A Christmas Carol should have a nightmarish quality, and the wonders of computed generated imagery and 3D animation are able to generate this effect in a way that was never possible in earlier adaptations.  We must remember that A Christmas Carol is a ghost story, and as such, meant to scare us.  Think twice about letting very young children see the Zemeckis film, because in many respects it is a horror film.  The images are intended to frighten us, in a good way, by showing us the consequences, both temporal and eternal, of our selfishness and greed.  The film does an amazing job of transforming Scrooge’s door knocker into the face of old Jacob Marley.  Marley’s ghost is sent to arouse Scrooge out of his miser’s complacency.  No doubt, if Zemeckis’ vision of Marley’s ghost had been sent to me, I would have been a terrified penitent.  But Scrooge is terrified not merely because he has seen ghosts.  He is alarmed by the sight of what his life has been and how it will end.  Marley’s ghost is a warning to Scrooge that the fate of the two men will be the same if Scrooge persists in his present course.  Marley says,  “I wear the chain I forged in life…I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?” (18).   Of course, Scrooge recognizes the pattern because he is also making a chain of the same one by his own avarice.  If he continues to live in this manner, like Marley, he will be doomed to wander sadly throughout all eternity for no “space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunities misused” (19).  Then, Scrooge is frightened by the picture of the future, as he sees that after his death people will mock his memory, and then forget him.  Trading love and friendship for gold results in the terrifying experience of loneliness and eternal regret.  If being terrified by ghosts results in causing us to evaluate the results of our own materialistic idolatry, then Christmas ghosts are a blessing.

            A Christmas Carol can do us good by inspiring us to be charitable.  The primary thrust of Dickens’ novella was to generate compassion for the poor.  Scrooge is a greedy man who hoards all of his money and refuses to give to the poor.  Again, the ghosts show him images that not only frighten him, but also melt the iciness of his cold heart.  Marley’s ghost laments,

My spirit never walked beyond our countinghouse—mark me!—in life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole… Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode? Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me? (19, 20). 

 The Ghost of Christmas Present warns Scrooge that if men such as himself continue to neglect the poor, the results could be catastrophic.  When the spirit pulls backs his skirts and reveals the two children at his feet, the boy named Ignorance and the girl named Want, they are depicted in horrifying terms:

They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish, but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread. (65)

Again, this is one place where Zemeckis’ version excels the others in portraying the horrifying look of these children, for the 3D techniques have the ability to portray these children as starving monsters who may be capable of doing anything if  they reach adulthood.

            Dickens also has a scathing rebuke for religious leaders who use Scripture and the doctrines of the Church as justifications for the neglect and oppression of the poor.  When Scrooge suggests that the Ghost of Christmas Present is responsible for the repression of the poor through Victorian sabbath laws, the spirit replies:

There are some upon this earth of yours…who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us. (48) 

In other words, churches are often the perpetrators of man-made laws that are entirely out of accord with the spirit of the Gospel which places human need above religious ritual.

            Then, Scrooge is confronted with the prospect that Tiny Tim, the young son of Bob Cratchit will probably die before the next Christmas.  The novella hints that Tiny Tim will die as a result of Cratchit family’s poverty. At the end of the novel, we learn that Tiny Tim did not die, so it seems that Scrooge’s generosity, perhaps in getting Tiny Tim needed medical care or improvement in the living conditions of the Cratchit family resulted in saving Tiny Tim’s life.

            The visits of the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future, show Scrooge the horrible effects of miserliness and the blessings of generosity.  Miserliness cost Scrooge the love of a wonderful woman.  As they part ways, she says, “Another idol has displaced me…A golden one” (36).   We learn that Scrooge had no room for a relationship with a woman  because he feared poverty more than he valued love.  But he learns that nothing can comfort us like the warmth of family and friends.  He also learns that the people who are most generous with their money and their affections are happiest and loved in return.  Old Fezziwig, the Cratchit family, and his nephew, Fred, though they may not have Scrooge’s fortune, are far wealthier than he is in terms of comfort and joy.  Like Scrooge, we need to be confronted with the ways in which we have given up emotional wellbeing, love, and companionship, not only out of covetousness for gold, but covetousness for pleasures, power, fame and many other “idols.”  Sometimes, only deep regrets about the past, the loneliness of the present, and vision of the emptiness of the future can cause us to cast those idols away.

        Then, A Christmas Carol can do us good by showing us that it is not too late to change.  As Scrooge is confronted with the Ghost of Christmas Future, he asks the question, “Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of the things that May be, only?” (80).  In other words, Scrooge wonders if everything has been predestined, and if there is any way to escape the future as it has been revealed.  In an effort to answer his own question, Scrooge pleads with the spirit,  “Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,…But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!” (80).  The comfort offered in A Christmas Carol is that we can change the future if we change the present.  If we learn the Christmas lessons concerning love, generosity, and compassion, then future Christmases can be filled with warmth, light, and companionship.  Scrooge makes the commitment to the Ghost of Christmas Future, “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach” (81).   Scrooge was as good as his word, so that the narrator can close the story by saying, “…and it was always said of him that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One” (88).  A Christmas Carol does us good if we learn from it how to observe the Christmas season in the right spirit.  The tale brings our own versions of these ghosts in the form of conscience.  As we contemplate the Christmases lost, and the Christmases we may yet lose, we are compelled to change before it is too late.

            As the Ghost of Christmas Present is taking Scrooge around the city, they see some people who are starting to argue, just as we often begin to quarrel with one another due to the stress of the Christmas season.  But they decide that they shouldn’t quibble about such things since it is Christmas.  Dickens writes:  “For they said, it was a shame to quarrel upon Christmas Day. And so it was! God love it, so it was!” (47).  The American novelist, James Lane Allen (1849-1925)  said in 1914 that A Christmas Carol was the greatest English short story: 

I can also count in its behalf more elements of greatness, welded into a great, beautiful lasting effect upon the imagination, than in any other great story known to me.  It is not true gold, but it is immortal alloy.  Having made my decision, that afterthought comes to me that my choice unwittingly has fallen upon what is beyond doubt the most widely read and loved short story in the English language:  humanity’s verdict.  (122)

A Christmas Carol is part of our cultural heritage and Christmas tradition.  166 years after its publication, we are still fascinated by the story.  We modernize it, paraphrase it, recast it,  and modify it, but the words and images, like the ghosts of the story, continue to haunt us, and hopefully, transform us, just as they did Ebenezer Scrooge.  When I think of Dickens’ classic tale, I say, “God bless it,” “God love it,” and “God bless Us, Every One!” 

Works Cited 

Dickens, Charles.  A Christmas Carol.  1843.  New York:  Bantam Books, 1966.

Allen, James Lane.  “Humanity’s Verdict.”  A Christmas Carol.    New York:  Bantam Books, 1966, p. 122

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

 

New Arks of Salvation:

A Review of 2012

By S. Randall Toms, Ph.D. 

            The director of 2012, Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, The Day after Tomorrow), said in a in an interview with David Jenkins, “I always wanted to do a biblical flood movie…”   While 2012 depicts a worldwide flood and mankind being saved by arks, there are not many other similarities to the Genesis account of Noah, though the main character’s little boy is actually named “Noah.”  2012 alludes to the Genesis account of the flood, legends about the lost continent of Atlantis, current fears that the Mayan calendar predicts the end of the world in 2012, and various scientific, apocalyptic scenarios.  While the Genesis account of the flood describes it as a judgment of God because “the imagination of man’s heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5), the destruction of the world as we know it in 2012, has nothing to with divine wrath. 

When I first heard of the movie 2012, I thought there might be a great deal of information about the Mayan calendar, which supposedly comes to an end that year.  Actually, the Mayan calendar is only mentioned in passing during this film.  If there is any connection between these disasters and the Mayan calendar, the movie doesn’t portray it as much more than a coincidence.  Though Biblical prophecies are also mentioned briefly in the film, there does not appear to be any connection between the catastrophes depicted and Biblical prophecies, though the Woody Harrelson character makes a wild, strained link between the Mayan calendar and the views of some Christian groups about the Rapture.  The film does not depict these calamities as any kind of divine judgment.   Though the tagline for the film is “We were warned,” perhaps a reference to the Mayan calendar, these ancient prophecies receive short shrift in the film.   Also, thankfully, the film does not blame exploitation of the environment.  In so many films that we have seen recently,  including Emmerich’s The Day after Tomorrow, human beings are blamed for global warming, pollution, and other environmental problems that cause the destruction of the planet.  In this film, the disasters are caused by a solar flare, something beyond human control or causation.  This is not a film about ancient prophecies, divine judgment, or human  neglect of the environment.  It is a disaster movie, with a few social, political, moral, and religious allusions.  With the help of computer generated imagery, Emmerich is able to take the great disaster films of the 70s and  80s, such as Earthquake, Airport, The Towering Inferno, and The Poseidon Adventure, and combine them for mass destruction on  a global scale. 

The primary reason to see 2012 is not for its discussion of ancient prophecies or how it deals with moral dilemmas, but rather to see the way modern movie-making technology can depict the spectacular nature of the end of the world.  I have read that the production cost of this film was over $200 million, and though some scenes are unrealistic and cheesy,  if you would like to get an idea of what California would look like after the San Andreas fault finally causes “the big one,” and the state falls into the ocean, 2012 is the movie for you.  When I attended this film, I was a little late, and there was a large crowd.  I had to sit near the front row, almost having to tilt my head backward to see the screen.  As it turned out, I couldn’t have had a better seat.  It felt like the world was falling in on top of me.  This is definitely one of those films that will not have anywhere close to the same effect if you wait to see it on DVD.   

As the film unfolds, we find that scientists and the leaders of governments know that the world is about to end because of a solar flare that has caused the earth’s core to overheat, which will result in a massive shifting of the earth’s surface, producing enormous tidal waves that will cover the entire globe.  When geologist Adrian Hemsley (Chiwetel  Ejiofor)  learns from a fellow scientist in India of the destructive solar flare and the neutrinos that increase the temperature of the earth’s core, he alerts White House Chief of Staff Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt) of the impending disaster.  After the President of the United States  (Danny Glover) is informed of the situation, politicians and scientists, fearing that the people of the earth would descend into anarchy if they become aware the world is going to come to an end in a few years, decide not to tell the people at large. People like Jackson Curtis, (John Cusack) are normal people, continuing to live without any knowledge of their apocalyptic future.   Curtis, much like the Tom Cruise character in the War of the Worlds, is a divorced man separated from his children, who goes to pick them up for a wonderful weekend in Yellowstone National Park.   Fortunately, Yellowstone has become a place of interest since the future destruction of the world will feel its first effects in this National Park which is basically a  volcano waiting to explode.  While in Yellowstone,  Curtis runs into Charlie Frost, played by Woody Harrelson who gives the best performance in the film.  Frost is  a kind of counter cultural hippie/conspiracy theorist  who is waiting for the apocalypse and knows that it is going to occur soon.  Frost tells Curtis that world governments are preparing spaceships to carry select individuals away from the planet before the end.  Actually, we learn later that the leaders have decided to prepare “arks,” far more sophisticated, of course, than Noah’s ark of gopher wood.  These leaders have selected people who will continue the human race once the waters have subsided.  How do the nations of the world decide who will survive and who will perish?   Governmental leaders, scientists, and of course, rich people who put up the money to build the arks are chosen to perpetuate the human race after the massive flood.  The rest of the film deals primarily with Curtis’ attempts outrun one disaster after another to save his family by getting them to one of the arks. 

            Though Jackson Curtis is one of the common people not chosen to board an ark, he is a science fiction writer who has penned a novel, Farewell Atlantis.   The film credits state that 2012 was partially inspired by  Graham Hancock’s 1995 book Fingerprints of the God’s.  Hancock’s book was influenced by Ignatius Donnely’s 1882 work, Atlantis:  The Antedeluvian World.    Both Hancock and Donnely posit that there was an ancient civilization, Atlantis, that was destroyed, but before its destruction, it  passed on some of its cultural and scientific knowledge.  In 2012, our modern Atlantis, with all its superior technological and scientific knowledge is about to be destroyed again.  But this new Atlantis is going to be able to survive.  In many recent movies, the apocalypse is brought about by the arrogance of science, or the unintended consequences of scientific achievement.  In this film, science and rich people are saviors of Atlantis.   The old saviors, governments and religions, especially, are incapable of helping to avert  the approaching cataclysm. 

As we watch the worldwide devastation of the planet, it is interesting to see what buildings, monuments, and artworks are focused on as they are destroyed.    Emmerich’s choice of particular objects to show being demolished was not random.  When explaining why he seems to enjoy destroying certain landmarks in his films, he replied, “Landmarks are always symbols, just symbols. … They stand for something.”    In 2012, the U. S. Bank building in Los Angeles is  demolished, indicating that banking and the world of finance cannot save us, although rich people did provide the funding for the arks.  The White House is destroyed as the USS John F. Kennedy  naval carrier crashes into it, implying that governments cannot save us, especially those who fail to live up to the ideals of the Kennedys.  For some reason, Emmerich seems to enjoy destroying the White House.  Remember Independence Day?    (The symbolism of such cinematic destructions is not lost on film-going audiences.  I remember when I first saw Independence Day that the theater erupted into cheers and applause when the aliens decimated the White House).  Las Vegas  is destroyed  indicating that escapist entertainment, obviously, can’t save us.   The Washington Monument topples, signifying that the principles of the Founding Fathers are powerless in the face of natural disasters. 

2012 seems to make it very plain that  gods, religion, especially Christianity, cannot avert the coming disaster. The Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro falls from the top  of the Corcovado mountain, suggesting that Christ cannot save us from this apocalypse.  Does the destruction of certain religious symbols have some significance for Emmerich?  When he was asked  by Patrick Lee why he chose to show the Redeemer statue tumbling from its great height, he replied, “Because I’m against organized religion.”  One of the movie posters is entirely this scene of the Redeemer statue falling to its destruction.   In the Sistine chapel, a fracture occurs between the finger of God and the finger of Adam, hinting that God cannot save his creation.   Just as the President of the United States is about to read the 23rd Psalm to give some kind of comfort to a world that is perishing, the transmission of his broadcast is cut off, implying that the people no longer have a divine shepherd who is capable of leading them to green pastures.   People are praying at the Vatican, but in the middle of their supplications, St. Peter’s crumbles and falls upon the people pleading for mercy, intimating that prayer can’t save us.   In the interview with David Jenkins, Emmerich said, “We decided that what people do in a crisis is that they start praying. Even the most religion-hating person would get down on their knees and ask God for salvation. Yes, it’s good to be spiritual, but praying in the face of disaster will not stop the disaster. Fate, luck and coincidence might help you survive, but not prayer.”  That explanation seems a little disingenuous since the film has made it clear that no one can survive except those who get on the arks.  What was left for them to do other than pray? Though Christianity doesn’t seem to offer much hope as an instrument of survival, Buddhism comes off pretty well.   Jackson and his family are ultimately led to the arks by a Tibetan monk.  

If  governments, gods,  and religions can’t save us in the time of ultimate disaster, what can?  The film appears to posit three saviors:  money, science, , and human kindness.  Without billionaires, the arks could not have been built.  Adrian  Helmsley, the geologist, has faith in Nature itself.  In a rather oddly Darwinian statement about who will survive, Adrian says, “I believe nature will choose for itself, from itself.”  Actually, it seems that the rich and powerful have chosen who will survive, unless we conclude that in a social Darwinist universe, wealth and power are Nature’s way of deciding the survival of the fittest.  But Adrian is not content to allow only the rich and powerful to survive.  He fights for the rights of the common folk, especially some of the poor people who assembled the arks .    He asks the leaders to approve a decision to let the people on board,  revealing his deep concerning for people by saying, “The moment we stop fighting for each other is the moment we lose our humanity.”    As a result of Adrian’s pleas, the leaders of the word gathered on the arks, decide to open the gates to admit as many people as possible.  In the end, human kindness saves the survivors from having made a decision to begin a new civilization with blood on their hands. 

 Though the President was prevented from reading the 23rd Psalm, 2012 permits the reading of an excerpt from Jackson Curtis’ book, Farewell Atlantis.  Hope is not gained  from the words of one of the old books of Holy Scripture, but rather from a work of science fiction.  At the end of the film, Africa becomes visible, which has shifted in its geographic location.    The arks head for the Cape of Good Hope to begin a new world.  Now that the old governments, businesses, institutions, and religions have been washed away, there is “good hope” for the future:  money, science, and  human kindness have prevailed.

Another  recent “ark” movie, Evan Almighty, also emphasizes the power of human kindness to change the world.  Toward the end of the film, God (Morgan Freeman), tells Evan’s wife that the story of the flood in the book of Genesis was not about the wrath of God.  Talking about the story of Noah’s flood, God says, “I love that story, Noah and the Ark. You know, a lot of people miss the point of that story. They think it’s about God’s wrath and anger. They love it when God gets angry….  I think it’s a love story about believing in each other. You know, the animals showed up in pairs. They stood by each other, side by side, just like Noah and his family. Everybody entered the ark side by side.”  At the end of the film, after Evan has saved some people and a host of animals, God tells Evan that he changed the world.  God writes the letters “a-r-k” in the dust and explains that “ark” is an acronym for “Acts of Random Kindness.”  In other words, the ark that will save human beings is human kindness.

The question that remains, of course, is whether people can really save themselves by human kindness.    Is  human kindness  really powerful enough to overcome human selfishness?    Though Adrian Helmsley in 2012 and Evan Baxter in Evan Almighty have saved some people, we know that there are still powerful people left in the world, in both films, who are far from displaying human kindness.  Even the flood of Genesis did not cure the evil that resides in the human heart.  If the simple command, “Be kind to one another,” were sufficient, humanity would be at peace by now.  All the great philosophers and teachers, even Jesus Christ himself, advocated kindness.    After Noah’s ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat, after Evan Almighty’s ark comes to rest at the steps of the Capitol, and after 2012’s arks come to rest on the shores of Africa, it is still true concerning man  that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart is only evil continually.   One of my seminary professors was fond of saying  that before the Flood man had a dry evil imagination; after the Flood he had a wet evil imagination.  Floods and arks don’t change the fact that although human beings are capable of acts of random kindness,  the history of mankind has been more about sustained acts of cruelty.  A “good hope” for the future does not rest in the people who get off the ark.   Not long after Noah and his family leave the ark, we see people committing the same acts of cruelty and injustice.   For a more realistic look at how people would behave in a post apocalyptic world, see the film version of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road2012 seems to have bright hopes for the future of a world without God and the principles and institutions that have been based upon the word of God.  In McCarthy’s The Road, you find an accurate picture of a godless world and the anarchy and barbarism that ensues when people have thrown off the morality of the past.   When people begin to leave the arks of 2012, do we have any reason to believe that they will use their money and science any differently than they have been used by generations of human beings before them?

 Works Cited

Jenkins, David.  “Roland Emmerich’s Guide to Disaster Movies.”   Time Out.  14 December 2009.

            http://www.timeout.com/film/features/show-feature/9039/roland-emmerichs-guide-to-disaster-movies.html

Lee, Patrick.  “What Even Roland Emmerich Won’t Destroy.”  Sci Fi Wire.  02 November 09.   14

            December 09.  http://scifiwire.com/2009/11/5-best-things-2012s-direc.php

Read Full Post »

Advent and the Word of God–Sermon

Advent and the Word of God

A Sermon Preached by Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph.D.

On December 13, 2009

At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, LA

 

The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field:  The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the LORD bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass. The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever. (Isa. 40:6-8) 

When I surrendered to preach the gospel at the age of 14,  I was very excited.  I had visions and dreams in my head of preaching powerful sermons to great crowds, and the people would be moved by the words I would say.    I had been listening to good preaching all of my life, and I thought that I would be able to preach such sermons.  But whenever I sat down with my Bible, a pen, and a piece of paper, I found that it was not so easy to prepare a good sermon.    When I thought of the congregation I was about to preach to, it became even more difficult.  If I was preaching in my home church, what would I have to say to them?  If I was preaching in a rescue mission, what was the appropriate theme?  If I was preaching in a nursing home, what could I possibly have to say to them?  Every minister must look to heaven and ask, “What shall I say?”

            In our text for today, the word of the Lord comes to the prophet and says, “Cry,” or “Proclaim a message,” and the prophet replies, “What shall I cry?”  “What will be the message that I should deliver to these people of Israel who are so saddened by their years of oppression in captivity?”  Then the voice says, “This is the message you should deliver:  All flesh is grass.’”  As we began our study of Isaiah 40, we saw that the prophet is told to comfort the people; but this particular message does not appear to be very comforting.  “All flesh is grass.”  While these words may not seem to offer much comfort, I hope to show you that they are some of the most comforting words in Scripture.

            Whether or not we like these words, they express a truth that is emphasized again and again in Holy Scripture.  The Psalmist said, “Thou carriest them away as with a flood; they are as a sleep: in the morning they are like grass which groweth up.   In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth.   For we are consumed by thine anger, and by thy wrath are we troubled” (Ps. 90:5-7).  In Psalm 103: 13-16, we read, “Like as a father pitieth his children, so the LORD pitieth them that fear him.  For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust.   As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth.   For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more.”  These verses show us that our lives are short.  Even if we should live to be a hundred years old, compared to the vast span of history, compared to the eternal years of God, our lives are as short as that of grass.  When we see this word “grass,” we shouldn’t think of the kind of grass we have in our yards, such as St. Augustine, Centipede, or Bermuda, which might have a relatively long life.  The kind of grass that the Psalmists and Isaiah have in mind is the kind that grew in Palestine which might last only days or a few weeks.  It grew up quickly, and then, just as quickly, it was gone, destroyed by the heat of the sun or a dry wind.  Just like that kind of grass, we have a short life, and then we are gone. 

At the end of every year, we often look back and think of all the famous people who have died in the past 12 months.  We are reminded that no matter who we are, how famous, how rich, or how powerful, we are still grass.  This year we saw the deaths of Karl Malden,  Michael Jackson, Ted Kennedy, Patrick Swayze, Walter Cronkite, Steve McNair,  Farrah Fawcett, Ed McMahon, Ricardo Montalban,  Les Paul, and just this week, Gene Barry (Bat Masterson).  In that list, we have actors, musicians, politicians, athletes, and newsmen, but no matter what they were, in the end, it is still true: “all flesh is grass.”  The interesting thing is that these people were famous to many of us, but as I read those names, some of our teenagers didn’t recognize the names, and never will.  All flesh is grass.  As we think about all the mighty kings, dictators, artist, musicians, and writers who have ever lived, a few are remembered for a while; but then, like all before them, they are gone and forgotten.  All flesh is grass.

            Our lives don’t last long, and what we accomplish doesn’t last very long either.    Our text reminds us of how flowers, the beauty of flowers, quickly fades away.    In the springtime, I love to go up to Afton Villa and see the all the Azaleas, and especially that field of daffodils and buttercups that just seems to explode in March or early April.  A few years ago, my wife and I went up there to see that beautiful sight and take some pictures, but it had been a warm March, and we missed it.  All the daffodils had already died.  As beautiful as they are, they are only here for a short time.  Our youth, strength, and beauty are the same way.    We try desperately to hang on to them, but eventually, these things fade away.  The same is true of all that we create and  all that we accomplish.  They last for a while, and then they are gone.  The other day we went to see the movie, 2012.  As the world is being destroyed, the filmed showed the most famous monuments, statues, buildings, art works, being swept away and destroyed.  We think that all our creations have great permanence, but all we need do is look back at history and see how all things that man creates are ultimately subject to destruction and decay.  Even the empires and governments that man establishes have their day and disappear.    Think of all the great empires that existed:  Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman, as well as the powerful empires of China and Japan.  When you think of how the United States is only 233 years old, in comparison with these other empires, we are incredibly young.  We like to think that the United States is different, that our form of government will last forever, but we have to face a historical truth.  Most likely we will have our day and be gone.  Our nation can be destroyed by another nation, or changed so drastically from within that it will no longer have any resemblance to what the Founding Fathers had in mind.  No matter how great the empire, no matter how sound the principles of government, like the beauty of the flower, it fades.

            Though we know these things to be true, we still try to keep holding on to things that must inevitably pass away.  In the poetry and letters of the great poet John Keats, we see that one of the sad thoughts that constantly plagued him was that nothing is permanent.  Beauty, happiness, romantic feelings—these things last only for moment:  no matter how hard we try, we cannot make them last forever.    I have been studying in some detail recently the films of the Coen brothers who have written and directed movies such as O Brother, Where Art Thou, Fargo, and No Country for Old Men.  In one of their lesser known films, The Hudsucker Proxy, the movie opens with a narrator named Moses who is describing a New Years Eve in New York City, 1958.  The narrator says,  

Yeah, old Daddy Earth fixin’ to start one more trip around the sun.  Everybody hopin’ this ride ‘round be a little more giddy, little more gay.  Yep, all over town champagne corks is a poppin’.  Over in the Waldorf, the big shots is dancin’ to the strains of Guy Lombardo.  Down in Time Square, the little folks is a watchin’, waitin’ for that big ball to drop. They all trying’ to catch hold of one moment of time, to be able to say, ‘Right now.  This is it.  I got it.’…..’Course by then it’ll be passed.” 

It is true that we all want to hold on to the good times.  We want this moment to last forever.  We want our health, beauty, financial security, happiness, and peace of mind, to be frozen in time, but  it is impossible to do so.  Like old Moses the narrator says:  the moment you think you have it, it is already the past.

            Now, you may be thinking, “Fr. Toms, if you intended to comfort us this morning, you are not doing a very good job.  Where is the comfort in thinking that all flesh is grass?  Where is the comfort in knowing that the beauty of the flower fades?”  First, there can be no comfort unless you face realistically the facts as I have presented them.  We know that “all  flesh is grass” not only because Scripture tells us so, but because the words are obviously true to our own experience.  We may try to live in denial, ignore what is happening to ourselves and others, run away from these words with ceaseless activity, but if you ever slow down and think, you realize,  “All flesh is grass.”  This stark truth, which on the surface may seem so depressing, starts us on the road to comfort.  When we realize that all flesh is grass, all beauty is like the flower that fades, all accomplishments will turn to dust, then we begin to ask the question, “Is there anything that lasts?  Is there anything that is stable and unchanging?  Is there anything in which I can place my trust and confidence and know that it will last longer than grass and flowers?”  It is when we give up on the stability and permanence of everything else in this world, that the comforting word comes to us:  “But the word of our God shall stand forever.”  There is only one thing that never changes—the word of God.  What he has spoken will stand forever and ever.  Since he is eternal and unchanging, the word that he speaks is eternal and unchanging.

 Last week, during our Morning Prayer service, we read those words from Isaiah 55: 10-12:  For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater:   So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.   For ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace: the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”  Here again, is the word of comfort to the people of Israel when they are in captivity.  Seventy years they had suffered under the hands of their captors, but God had promised them that one day they would be delivered.  Do you think that they were ever tempted to give up hope that the word of God was true?  Of course, during trying times, we always face that temptation.  But the Lord is telling his people, “When you look at the Babylonians and the Persians and all of their might, remember this:  All flesh is grass.”  Even the Babylonians and Persians are grass.  Though they seem to be powerful and permanent, they will soon be gone, and the word of God will continue to accomplish everything that was promised.

As we have seen in our study of Isaiah 40, this passage was not ultimately fulfilled until Christ came into the world who would free us from the captivity of sin.    God had promised his people a redeemer, but it must have seemed that he would never come.    This same Isaiah had prophesied, “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counseller, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.  Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this” (Isa. 9:6-7).  But 700 years went by, and still, he had not arrived.  Think of it.  During that time the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans came to power.  All but the Romans had come and gone.  It must have seemed that the promised Messiah would never come.   But the word of our God shall stand forever.  Finally, after Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and Greece had proved to be grass, the word of God performed what had been spoken so long ago.  Christ came as had been promised to establish the kingdom that would have no end.

God’s people must always remember that though we are surrounded by a culture and a system of government, that seems to be permanent, it’s all grass.  Kings, dictators, presidents, congressmen, and senators are all grass.  But we belong to a kingdom that shall have no end.  When the angel appeared to Mary to tell her of the child she would bear, he said, “And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS.    He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David:   And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end. (Luke 1:31-33).  After the birth of Christ, even the Roman empire in all of its glory, faded away, but the kingdom of God stood and survived.  Since the time of the Roman empire, we have seen other great empires rise and fall, some of them intent on destroying the Church of the living God.  They have all failed.  The word of our God shall stand forever.  Over the course of history, we will see other great political empires rise and fall, but the kingdom of God will continue to stand, because it has been decreed by the word of God to stand forever.    The writer to the Hebrews said, “His voice shook the earth at that time, but now he has promised, “I will once more shake not only the earth but heaven as well.  The words ‘once more’ plainly show that the created things will be shaken and removed, so that the things that cannot be shaken will remain.  Let us be thankful, then, because we receive a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Heb. 12:26-28, TEV).    All the other kingdoms, governments, and empires of this world will be shaken.  As a matter of fact, it is the plan of purpose of God to shake all the kingdoms of this world, so that only one kingdom will remain, his kingdom, so that all the kingdom of this world will become the kingdom of our God, and of his Christ (Rev. 11:15).  Always remember that no matter how much you are persecuted, no matter how much you may seem to be in the minority, and no matter how powerful a government may be, all the kingdoms of this world are grass.  You belong to the kingdom of God which can never be shaken.

If my only message was, “All flesh is grass,” then we would be very pessimistic and hopeless. The world would be a meaningless place, an absurd universe.  But what gives us hope in the midst of a transient world is “the word of our God shall abide forever.”    Seven hundred years after Isaiah spoke these words, the Apostle Peter used them in the first chapter of his first epistle: “Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever.   For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away: But the word of the Lord endureth for ever. And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you (I Peter 1:23-25).  St. Peter tells us that the word that abides forever is the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, for Jesus is the Word that stands forever. 

At this Advent season, we celebrate the Advent of the Word of God.  The Apostle John tells us,  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.   The same was in the beginning with God.   All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.   In him was life; and the life was the light of men….And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth” (I John 1:1-4, 14).  There is no question that the word of God abides forever, and Jesus is that word made flesh.  If we receive him, we abide forever, for he lives in us.   We will abide forever because we have been born again.  Yes, it is true, that all flesh is grass, but those who believe in Jesus Christ are not like the grass that perishes.  We have been born again, and it was the word of God that gave us the new birth.  See how Peter puts it:  “Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God.”    The word of God came to us in power, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and we believed that word, received that word, and that word says that all who believe in Christ have everlasting life.  Furthermore, Jesus Christ himself, the Word of God, lives in us.  This is what we celebrate at Advent—the coming of the Word of God into the world.  He abides forever.  He comes to each one of us who believe in him, and we abide forever.   Because the word of God shall stand forever, and because he has promised that those who believe in him will live forever, the word of God that stands forever, guarantees our eternal life, and his word will be performed.  It will accomplish what he says, just as it has always has.  

  Because the word of God that abides forever has taken root in our hearts, then we also will abide forever.  The Apostle John tells us, “And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever” (I John 2:17)  Though a Christian may be like grass in the sense that we will all one day die, we are not like grass in this important sense.  We abide forever, because we have received the word of God.   If this were not so, we would stand beside the graves of loved ones and say, “All flesh is grass,” and walk away.  But at the graveside of a believer we can say, “All flesh is grass, but he who does the will of God abides forever.” Do you want something in which you can really put your trust and confidence?  Don’t put your trust in yourself, in other people, in nations, kingdoms, kings, and politicians.  We must trust in something more enduring, more stable than ourselves and even powerful people—the word of God.  All through history, people have tried to develop a philosophy of life that will help them abide.   There is only one way to abide—believe the word of God.  We shall stand forever because the word of God stands forever.    

Each week, I sit before a blank piece of paper, or, more often, in front of a blank computer screen, and I look to heaven and ask, “What shall I say?  How shall I comfort my people in the midst of their troubles and trials?”  This week, the answer was the same one Isaiah received when he asked that question:  “All flesh is grass, but the word of our God shall stand forever.”  Amen.

Read Full Post »

Advent Preparation–Sermon

Advent Preparation

A Sermon Preached by Rev. S. Randall Toms

On December 6, 2009

At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, LA

 

The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.   Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it. (Isa. 40:3-5).

            As we travel across the United States, we don’t often stop to think how much time, effort, and money has gone into building all the roads and highways in this nation.  Going through some of the more mountainous states, we marvel that roads could have been built in such places.  Think of all the digging, blasting, and tunneling that was involved in the construction of some of those roads.  Think of all the earth that to be transported in and out of such locations.  Though it may seem boring, the history of road construction is quite fascinating.  Building roads and highways in our time with all of our modern, mechanical advances is still a staggering task; but imagine what it must have been like to have built roads in the ancient world without our modern equipment.  What did they do when they built roads and encountered valleys and mountains?

            In our text for today, we find a description of that kind of highway construction.    In the ancient world, a king would sometimes send a message to a city or town that he was going to pay them a royal visit.  We can imagine all the preparation that would be involved in getting ready for the visit of a mighty monarch.  One kind of preparation was the building of a highway for the king to travel.  What kinds of things would have to be done to build such a highway?  In our text,  we read of a voice, a herald of the king, perhaps, who is announcing to the people, “The king is going to come to your city.  Prepare a highway for him.”  In order to prepare a highway, every valley shall be exalted, every mountain and hill made low, the crooked places straight, and the rough places made plain. 

            Last week, we saw that Isaiah 40 describes the time when the children of Israel were in captivity because of their disobedience and unfaithfulness to God.    Isaiah 40 describes that time when the children of Israel would be released from their captivity.  One of the most terrible punishments that God inflicted upon his people was that he withdrew himself from his people.  At our men’s Bible study, we men have been studying in the book of Hosea how the Lord said, “I will go and return to my place, till they acknowledge their offence, and seek my face: in their affliction they will seek me early” (Hosea 5:15).  God had returned to his own place, so to speak.  That is, he had withdrawn his blessings.   He had withdrawn the comforts that people enjoy when they are in fellowship with him.  In the book of Ezekiel we have a description of how the glory of the Lord had departed from the temple:  “Then the glory of the LORD departed from off the threshold of the house, and stood over the cherubims.   And the cherubims lifted up their wings, and mounted up from the earth in my sight: when they went out, the wheels also were beside them, and every one stood at the door of the east gate of the LORD’s house; and the glory of the God of Israel was over them above” (Ezek. 10:18-19).  In Isaiah 40 we read that God  is ready now to return to his people; but if they want him to return, they are going to have to build a highway for him.   We realize that this is not a literal highway composed of earth and stones  being described:  they are preparing a way for the Lord God himself, not some earthly ruler. Because of their sins, the Lord had departed.  Now he is willing to come back if the people will prepare for him a highway.  This is a spiritual highway prepared by repentance. The Lord had left them because of their sins.  If they want him to return to them, they must prepare the way by repenting of their sins.  William Hendriksen writes in his commentary on Luke, “…’the wilderness’ through which a path must be made ready for the Lord is in the final analysis the people’s heart, by nature inclined to all evil” (203).  Their sins are these valleys, mountains, crooked, and rough places.  These are the obstacles that must be cleared out of the way so that the Lord might return to them.

            Last week, we saw that Isaiah 40 was not really fulfilled in its ultimate sense until Jesus Christ came into the world.  In Isaiah 40, we are not told whose voice it is that is speaking these words, but the gospels tell  us that this speaker is John the Baptist.  Luke writes,  

Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene,  Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests, the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness.   And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins;  As it is written in the book of the words of Esaias the prophet, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye 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 (Luke 3:1-6). 

The Apostle John tells us that when the priests and Levites asked John the Baptist who he was, he said, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias” (John 1:23).    The ministry of John the Baptist was to get the people ready for the arrival of Jesus Christ and his public ministry.  When the angel Gabriel appeared to Zacharias, he told him what his son, John the Baptist would do, “And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:17).  Remember what John’s father Zacharias prophesied after John had been born.  We sang it just a moment ago in the Benedictus:  “And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways” (Luke 1:76).  When we read Luke 3, we see John the Baptist beginning to fulfill this mission of preparing people for Advent–preparing them for the arrival of our Lord Jesus Christ who was just about to begin his public ministry.  How did John prepare the people?  He prepared the people by preaching repentance.  Exxalting valleys, making mountains low, making the crooked straight, making rough places plain are figurative words used to describe repentance.  John the Baptist came preaching repentance.  He was telling the people to get the highway ready.  The King, Jesus Christ was on his way.    John the Baptist went out into the wilderness, in the desert places, to preach.  The very surroundings  in which chose to preach were a reminder to people about the condition of their hearts.  John was saying, “Your heart is a wilderness.  Your sins have made you a spiritual desert, but the barrenness of your hearts change if you will prepare a way for the Lord to come to you.  If you will prepare your hearts by repentance, the Lord will come to you and show you his glory.”

            Just as the people were encouraged to prepare their hearts for that advent of Christ so long ago, we must prepare our hearts for his Advent now.    Each year, we reenact that first advent.  We prepare for his coming.   This time of preparation is symbolized in our Advent wreath as we light each candle during the weeks leading up to Christmas.  Finally, on Christmas Day, we get to light the white candle in the center, symbolizing that the Advent season has been completed for Christ has come.   Christ came into our world nearly 2,000 years ago–his first advent.  We are looking forward to that second Advent, when he will return in glory to rule and reign.  In between those two great Advents, there are other Advents, other comings of our Lord when he comes to us in special and powerful ways to cure our spiritual barrenness.   We prepare for those Advents in the same way—by repentance.    In the Anglican church, Advent is a penitential season.  The liturgical color for this season is purple, symbolizing its penitential nature.  We want to get ready for the coming of the Lord in order that his glory might be revealed.  We get ready by building a highway of repentance into our hearts for the Lord to travel.

            No doubt, we as individuals, as well as the Church and our nation need to prepare the way of the Lord.  Individuals need to repent of their sins.  Churches need to repent of the way they have forsaken the gospel of Christ and substituted other gospels for the true gospel of Christ.  Our nation needs to repent of its national sins, the ways in which we have turned our backs on God’s law and substituted our own man-made laws.  But let me ask you this morning, “During this Advent season, do you need to prepare the way of the Lord?  Do you have any valleys, low places morally in your life that you need to raise up?  Have you sunk low in sin, deeper in sin than you can ever imagine that you would have sunk?  Do you have any mountains that need to be brought low?  I mean, are you proud and arrogant, too proud to admit that you have sinned against God–too proud to admit that you are sinner who needs forgiveness through the shed blood of Jesus Christ?  Do you have any crooked places in your life that need to be straightened out?  You know, the Bible describes obedience to God as walking a straight path, turning neither to the right hand or to the left.  But we twist the word of God, we pervert its teaching, we rationalize our sins, excuse them, and convince ourselves that we are really living in obedience to God. When we do so, we have made the way to our hearts a crooked highway.  Do you have any rough places in your life?  Are there any obstacles, sins that you love so much that you refuse to move them out of the way so that the Lord might find ready access to your heart?

            Building some of these great highways in our country was a monumental task.  We look at some of them and say, “How did they do it?  It seems impossible.”  What I have asked you to do today is impossible.    Our valleys, the depths to which we have sunk or too low.  It is a like a deep gorge that can never be filled.  Our mountains of sins are too high, too massive to be moved out of the way.  We are so deceitful in our own hearts, we constantly pervert the straight ways of the Lord.  If we look at all our sins, how could we ever remove all the rough places?  In our own strength, we cannot do so.  As I said earlier, filling in valleys, leveling mountains, making crooked places straight and rough places plain are just descriptions of repentance.  But repentance is impossible if God does not grant us the ability to repent.  That is why in our Morning Prayer liturgy, when the priest pronounces The Declaration of Absolution, or Remission of Sins, he says, “Wherefore let us beseech him to grant us true repentance….”  That one phrase is an admission that we cannot repent unless God gives us the ability to do so. We love our sins too much.  We must pray that a supernatural miracle would take place—that God would give a true hatred for our sins so that we would turn from them moral outrage and disgust.  During this Advent season, let us take a good look at all the valleys, mountains, crooked and rough places in our lives, and let us pray that God would enable us by his grace to remove every sin, every obstacle, so that our sovereign King, our Lord Jesus, might find a ready access to our hearts.  Amen.

Read Full Post »