Sunday Night Worship – 12/2/07

“Peace on Earth Sounds Great”

Matthew 24: 36-44 and Isaiah 2: 1-5 and Romans 13: 11-14

I heard it twice this week. Amid all the loud, battery-operated, you-simply-have-to-have-this-this-year television commercials, this one stood out. It’s from Walmart. Maybe you’ve noticed that Wal-Mart has started upping the ante on its commercials recently. Gone are those annoying bouncy yellow smiley faces slashing huge cartoonishly written prices. They have toned down the blue and yellow. People in the ads are wearing less flannel and whereas they used to be clearly working class or lower middle class they seem much more solidly middle class and even upper middle class now. Marketers and MBAs and advertisers would probably all say this is a good thing – broader appeal, bigger dollar consumers, etc. I’m not so sure.

The new ad campaign also comes with the tagline “Save money. Live Better. Wal-Mart”. This was at the end of the commercial I saw twice this past week, the one I want to tell you about. It features a woman in her 30s with small twin boys. The whole commercial focuses on the fact that, of course, she must buy two of everything in order to keep the peace at her house. There are shots of the boys wearing the same outfits and playing with the same Spiderman action figures. Everywhere they go they have identical clothes and toys and belongings. Obviously, the ad is meant to show that if you shop at Wal-Mart then even this situation is more bearable. Things are so reasonably priced at Wal-Mart that buying two isn’t too much of a sting.

Well, fine. I can be a cynic about marketing and advertising. I don’t have a soft spot for Wal-Mart. I really don’t have a soft spot for incessant and consumer-oriented Christmas commercials. These are my normal gripes and annoyances with the commodification of seemingly everything.

But here’s where smoke started to come from my ears. We go through the whole commercial showing the two-of-everything theme and, of course, there are snowflakes and red and green and lighted Christmas trees galore. Then, after the mother has said how economical it is to be able to buy two of everything, she says (and I quote), “Look, peace on earth sounds great…but it’s not happening at my house unless there are two of everything.” Then the tagline: “Save money. Live better. Wal-Mart”.

Let me say right now that, against my usual inclinations and personal desires, that this sermon is not about hating Wal-Mart. It’s also not about how much I hate the hyped up version of Christmas that is sold to us, offensively and aggressively, beginning in early fall. It is not even about our misguided notions about gift-giving. Here’s what it is about: our impoverished, un-Christian, wimpy, bland, anyone-could-do-it idea of “peace”. That’s what I can’t stand about that commercial.

The mother says, “Look, peace on earth sounds great…but it’s not happening at my house unless there are two of everything. (Save money. Live better. Wal-Mart)”. The completely misappropriated use of and misunderstanding about what constitutes peace on earth! The gall! “Peace on earth sounds great”?? Can you imagine saying to Jesus, “Look, new and abundant life sounds great and all, but my life is already really abundant – I just got a flat screen TV! Anyway, I was on my way to Damascus, so would you mind stepping out of my way”?

“Peace on earth sounds great”?? This is a new low – even for Wal-Mart! The idea that someone would equate the peace on earth echoed throughout the Bible – and in this week’s readings from Isaiah to Romans – with the “peace” of twin brothers who are not arguing with one another is truly stupefying. We’re talking about lions and lambs lying down to nap together, completely overcoming their predator and prey relationship for something unforeseen and unimaginable. That’s peace. We are not talking about a temporary lack of noise and frustration, a “peace” brought about by satisfying self-centered desires of immature children (or adults).

Some of you may be wondering if you can still head out to pick up a few things at Wal-Mart this week. Or maybe you are wondering what bee flew into my bonnet. Perhaps it seems that I am giving too much attention and influence to a commercial. I’m not out to get you off Wal-Mart or to start an anti-media campaign or anything like that. But I will say that I think I am paying just the right amount of attention.

Today is the first Sunday in Advent, the first Sunday of the Christian year. These four Sundays of Advent we prepare for the coming of Jesus, both as an infant in a stable, remembering those events from so long ago, and also as Lord of all coming again to finish this new creation. This is a time to pay attention.

When Ernie, Tom, and I were preparing our liturgy for tonight’s worship, Tom mentioned that today’s texts feel socialist or communist to him. He said he can’t hear the passage about beating swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks without thinking this (Isa. 2: 4). We had a good time joking about this but it’s not really a whole lot better than Wal-Mart. If socialism and communism or Republicanism or Democracticism are the best examples we can think of for the kind of radical reordering of society and the real and lasting peace Jesus is bringing, then something is wrong in the Christian imagination. We aren’t paying attention.

People often read the passage from Matthew as apocalyptic literature, designed to talk about eschatology or the end of all things, also what we call the second coming of Christ. That is certainly a faithful Advent theme but I think we miss something if we focus, Left Behind style, only on the rapture.

Matthew reads, “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (Mt. 24: 42-44). This sounds terrifying! The Son of Man is a thief who comes in the night and, if we could know in advance when and where he was coming then we’d try keeping him out, all the doors locked up tight. Because this thief is coming to break in. That’s what it says. Christ is coming when we aren’t expecting it, in the dark, possibly when we are asleep and vulnerable, to break in.

This is the season of the unexpected hour. This is the season of dark nights and vulnerable moments. This is the season for the in-breaking of God’s Word into the fullness of time. That is the incarnation we remember and celebrate at Advent and Christmas and it is what can happen in this unexpected hour. The in-breaking of justice rolling down like the waters and peace like a mighty river, carrying us to a place we can scarcely imagine or grasp. Watch out. Keep awake. Pay attention. Because Christ is not done being born yet and is not above breaking and entering. This is the season for the in-breaking of God’s Word into the fullness of time, bringing a peace that requires thievery and smashed windows.

It’s the kind of peace that overturns all other notions of peace. The kind of peace that makes a simple lack of war seem silly. The kind of peace that violently transforms all that came before it. It’s so close and still a little out of reach, so unimaginable that we prepare this feast each week to remind ourselves in anticipation of the taste and feel of it. Each week we put down our swords and our shopping lists and our busy schedules and our fears and doubts and our inadequate commercials. We put down our own visions and versions of peace and pick up – for a few Spirit-infused moments – the simple elements through which God reminds us to pay attention and to get ready. We take and handle the broken pieces that bring wholeness. That is a step towards living better.

Thanks be to God!

© 2007 Deborah Lewis