4th Sunday of Advent (A) – December 18, 2022
St. Paul – Lyons, KS
Isaiah 7:10-14; Psalm 24:1-6; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-24
Hallmark Movies and the Narrative of Our Lives
I was hanging out with one of my good friends this past week—and hopefully he doesn’t listen to my homilies, don’t mean to expose him like this—but he, HE was talking about how much he was looking forward to his favorite part of the Christmas season: Hallmark Movies. I don’t know if you know this…but Hallmark dropped 40, 4-0 new Christmas movies this year. Since 2009 Hallmark has aired more than 300 different Christmas movies. More than 80 million people will have seen one by the end of this Christmas season. Why? Why are they so popular?
And there are a lot of reasons, to be sure. But I would argue, at its core—it’s because these movies tap into a narrative, a story we all are on board with…and wrap it in the Christmas traditions and nostalgia we all love.
What is that narrative? Boy and girl, falling in love, trying to balance their career with this new-found romance, all while trying to make sure that all of their Christmas shopping is done; boy and girl experience a challenge in their relationship, break up, achieve their career goals and buy their presents, but realize that they need this other person to complete it all; and so they make up, get back together, and Christmas is saved. *gag*
So what is the narrative? What’s the story? Romance, achievement, and gifts/stuff. These are the three stories we tell ourselves over and over again. These are, so often, the stories we tell ourselves will fulfill us and satisfy us. The story of romance: if I can just find the right person, everything in my life will come together. The story of achievement: if I can just achieve A, B, or C in my career or with my kids, I will finally be happy. And the story of stuff/gifts/consumerism: if I can just acquire A, B, or C, give my kids X, Y, or Z, I will finally be happy. These movies hijack these narratives, these stories we tell ourselves…and we eat them up!
But they don’t tell us the rest of the narrative, the rest of the story. They don’t tell us that they’re false narrative: they don’t fulfill on their promises. They don’t tell us about year number 17 of marriage, or the fights, the times of just going through the motions, of cancer, or the death of a child. They don’t tell us about losing a job, your project going bad, someone passing you up for a promotion. And these movies don’t tell you how these stories, even if you achieve all of them, still leave you unsatisfied. Or they tell you to double down on them! “Guess you just married the wrong person; find a new one! Guess you just need to achieve more! Get more stuff!” And so you keep doing that. And they definitely don’t tell you where these stories really end: death. (Y’all didn’t think I could ruin Hallmark movies, did ya?) Especially for those of us who are younger—as we get older, we try all of these things and we realize they’re dead ends—but especially when we’re younger, we eat them up! Romance, achievement, consumerism. We find ways to create and go after these experiences, look for them wherever we can find them. We make our plans. We go it alone.
Ahaz: The Man Behind the Famous Prophecy
We’ve all heard the Christmas story—we can all picture Linus giving his famous retelling in A Charlie Brown Christmas. We have all heard this famous prophecy that comes up over and over in our readings today: “The virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.” But do you know the story behind the prophecy? The prophet Isaiah is speaking to Ahaz, the king of Judah. And at the time, Ahaz is forming a bunch of political alliances with other nations to save his own skin. Instead of trusting in God, Ahaz decides to figure things out himself, make alliances with terrible nations, making a “deal with the devil.” And so Isaiah comes along and say, “No! Trust in the LORD! He’ll take care of you! Look, here’s a sign for you to believe it, so you can trust in the LORD!” And Isaiah gives the famous prophecy: “The virgin shall conceive and bear a son.” What a sign!
And it happens! His virgin wife conceives and bears a son! And so just as you would expect, Ahaz … does nothing? He does nothing. He keeps up with his old ways. He hears the plan, and he even sees the sign! (How many times we’ve prayed for a sign, just needing a little sign. Ahaz got one!) Hears the plan, sees the sign—but then he fails to act on it. And worse: he keeps up with his old political machinations. And it ends in total destruction. Total ruin for Judah.
Ahaz believed in a false narrative—political power could save him—at the end of the day, Ahaz placed his faith in political scheming instead of the LORD, and it burned him.
The Goal: Obedience of Faith
In our second reading, St. Paul is talking about how the reason he is an apostle, the reason Jesus called him in the first place was in order to bring about what he calls, “The obedience of faith.” “[I], Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God…received the grace of apostleship, to bring about the obedience of faith” (Rom 1:1, 5). This is the exact opposite of what Ahaz demonstrated. Ahaz demonstrated the self-direction of the ego. Paul is encouraging the obedience of faith. That’s the goal: to entrust our entire lives not to our own plans and machinations, but to place ourselves under the authority, the plan, the wisdom, under obedience to another—to surrender our lives in faith to Jesus Christ, Jesus the King.
Which means what? Well it means what we’ve heard all during Advent in our readings, John the Baptist’s principle message: repent! It means repentance! And again, repent isn’t just, “Stop cussing and be more patient.” Repent means to turn around, to change, to change our way of thinking and operating—change the narratives, the stories you are currently living your life by, and in faith turn your life over to Jesus Christ!
So often we hear this! We hear this all the time—and we even agree with it, we are convicted by it! I can see it in your faces (I know you think I can’t see you, but I can). We hear and agree and are even convicted, “Yeah, I need to change”—but then we do nothing. (St. Augustine talks about this by saying there is a two-fold conversion we need to undergo: a conversion of the intellect, and a conversion of the will. It’s almost New Year, so everyone is about to start their new diet and exercise plan. Why? Because they know that it is good for them. But it’s almost January 27th when 75% of them quit. Why? Because it’s one thing to hear and know and agree with something, but it’s a whole other thing to do it.)
We hear so much, and agree, see the signs! But then, just like Ahaz…we fail to act on it. How much longer until we change? (Have you ever seen Popeye? Popeye the Sailor Man? You remember those? What’s that guy’s name that always makes him mad? Bluto! And then Popeye goes, “That’s all I can stands I can’t stands no more!” How long until we get to that point? How long until we say that? Until we can’t stand these narratives and stories anymore?)
It’s easy to listen to me stand up here and say, “Man, Father, great message tonight. Really engaging. I couldn’t agree more. You’re a great speaker” …but then we don’t act, we don’t do anything about it. And then we stand up and profess the Creed, profess the Christian narrative that is supposed to animate our lives, the story that is supposed to motivate our every action … but we don’t believe it. Some of us do, I know that! But many of us, we don’t—not really. Our story, the narrative we believe—and we believe it because that’s what our lives reflect, that’s what our calendar reflects, our Visa bill reflects it—our life shows that our “faith” is in the narrative proposed by every Hallmark movie ever: romance, achievement, and stuff.
What if your boss gave your a specific task, a specific job to do at work … and you blew it off? That would be massive, right? Your boss would be like, “Wait. You remember the assignment I gave you, you understood it, and you just didn’t do it?” Some of your have employees. But what does it say about us that we can come here every week, stand up and profess our faith every week, come forward and receive communion every week … and the rest of the week be blowing off what our supposed “king” has told us to do? “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me”—that’s what Jesus says. “All authority…has been given to me.” He is the king! “Christ” is the title that means, “King.” Every prayer we pray, “through Christ our Lord,” you say, “Amen,” meaning you agree—“Yes, Jesus the King!” And then we so easily blow off what our king commands us to do.
Paul calls himself the dulos Cristou Iesou, the slave of King Jesus! And even when things are going terribly—imprisoned, beaten, mocked, outcast—Paul is at peace. Why? Because he knows he is going in the right direction. He has changed course. He is living his life by a story he knows doesn’t end in death, but in eternal life!
But many of us are avoiding repentance, turning, changing—and we know it’s not leading anywhere, we know it’s not going to end well, but we keep going anyway. There’s something on our heart: and we need to take that to the Lord. We need to act. We need to lay it down. We need to call ourself out. We need to make a turn, a change, and take a step, a real and meaningful step in the right direction.
God doesn’t want to beat us down! That’s what the world and it’s narrative, its story wants to do! God wants to raise us up, to give us new life, to be the one to sustain us. All he needs us to do … is let him. My goal isn’t that you walk away sad, but that you change: “You’re right. I need to take a STEP. A meaningful step in the right direction.” And one powerful one is to take that, whatever “that” is…take it to Confession. I have three priests coming this evening. Three priest who are very kind, very gentle. Three priests who want to help you take that step. This is a chance to turn, to change. Call out how you have been living your life according to the wrong story. How you have been going after things in all the wrong places. And turn back toward him. He is waiting for you. He wants nothing more than to welcome you back.
St. Joseph: The Just Man
As our Gospel shows, it is Joseph who is our model of what all of this should look like. Joseph is a righteous man. Joseph lives the obedience of faith that St. Paul is talking about. Joseph is the one who hears, who listens, but then (and most importantly) Joseph is the one who acts. Here is a man who is unmarried, who is faced with an unplanned pregnancy, is poor, and the only instruction he receives is in a dream of all places—and yet he acts. “When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him.” The obedience of faith. Joseph is given a path forward, one that he would not have decided on for himself. But this is the path given to him.
Take the path that the Lord has given to you. Entrust yourself to him, to his story, his narrative. He only wants to give you life, freedom, happiness, joy and peace. Turn to him, change your direction, and act on his promises.