Sunday, December 20th, 2015 – 4th Sunday of Advent
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scripture: Luke 2:1-14
Hymns: “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”, “O Come, All Ye Faithful”, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”, “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus”, “Here I Am to Worship”, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, “What Child Is This?”, “Go, Tell It On the Mountain!”, “Joy to the World!”
Special Music: “Away in a Manger”, “Mary’s Boy Child”, “Still, Still, Still”
May the Force Be With You
As I’m sure most if not all of you are by now aware, I spent eighteen and a half hours in a movie theater on Thursday. I arrived at the Cinetopia Prairie Fire in Overland Park at 3:15 on Thursday morning and left at 9:45 that evening. From the time that I got there to the time that I left, I watched seven movies – all of them Star Wars. The first prequel, from 1999, began at 4:00 AM. The original Star Wars, from 1977 started at 11:30. The new movie, The Force Awakens, kicked off at 7:00 PM. And by the time it finished, I was as happy as a pig in slop. Now, I don’t know whether that was just from being in nerd heaven or the fact that I was deliriously tired from spending an entire day watching Star Wars movies on less than five hours of sleep – bear in mind, it was an hour’s drive down to Overland Park, and there was an executive board meeting on Wednesday night that didn’t let out until 8:30.
Here’s the thing about it all, though: at some point in that epic marathon of lunacy, I had a though that should probably be chalked up to sleep deprivation, but still made sense to me the following day, so I decided to run with it. It seems to me that the Star Wars saga can be seen as a parallel to the church. And I don’t necessarily mean that thematically. I mean, yes, there’s obvious allegories all throughout the story – the Force is the stand-in for God; there are light and dark sides to human nature, and it is up to you to decide what you will embrace; there are wise people in our lives that point the way to God. Not saying that pastors are necessarily a one-to-one corollary for Jedi knights, but I’m not saying that they AREN’T, either.
So here’s what I mean by all of this: Star Wars first came out in 1977, to the amazement and delight of millions of people around the world. It wasn’t anything particularly new – it borrowed elements from space stories like Buck Rogers, from John Ford westerns, from Akira Kurosawa samurai movies. But there was just something to it, some sort of spark that took all of these old elements and made them new again. The franchise would ride high on the crest of the wave for the next twenty-two years, releasing two more movies, and then subsequently re-releasing the whole trilogy twice, in 1995 and 1998.
It was around this same time that Star Wars came out that the evangelical Christian movement was really first getting into full swing. The sexual revolution of the 1960s had been countered by the rise of churches like the Calvary Chapel, which capitalized on the anarchistic, freedom-of-self nature of the sexual revolution, adding to its concept of love for all the One who, in the Christian tradition, had been behind that idea of love for all: Jesus Christ. Churches following the model of Calvary Chapel began to pop up across the nation, with high-octane fuel being dumped on this fire from coast to coast by the prime years of the Billy Graham crusades. And of course, though the Mainline Protestant churches – of which we are one – looked with some suspicion upon the evangelical movement, they nonetheless reaped the benefits. They were aided in this endeavor by the rise of 1970s and 1980s praise music.
Ah, yes, the original generation of praise music. Simple, inoffensive, guitar driven choruses that were easily slotted in where an organ-based hymn had been the week before, and easily taken back out for the next week. The music spread like wildfire throughout churches evangelical and Protestant alike, and soon enough, this more modern form of worship had grown so popular that even the stodgiest of stodgy old churches were setting aside an hour before Sunday School for a “contemporary worship service.”
But around 1990 or so, something curious began to happen – the rise of Christian rock. There had been early attempts, to be sure, bands such as Petra and Stryper, but it didn’t really catch on until the early 1990s, when bands with names like dc Talk, Audio Adrenaline, the Newsboys, Jars of Clay, Third Day, and more burst onto the scene. Coming from California, the Midwest, the South, these bands provided a new soundtrack that was quickly embraced in the contemporary services of the evangelical world.
Right around the same time that dc Talk was hitting it big with arguably their most famous song, if not one of the most well-known songs in the history of contemporary Christian music, “Jesus Freak”, a science fiction movie came out that revolutionized the way such movies were made. This movie was called Independence Day. Released on July 4th, 1996, it abandoned the concept of retelling a western, or a samurai film, or a mystery in space, instead embracing the idea of aliens that wanted nothing more than to come to Earth and just lay waste to the whole place. The special effects required to make the movie were mind-boggling for 1996, and the movie truly changed the face of cinema.
From that point forward, science fiction movies were never quite the same. Everybody wanted to do something newer and flashier, relying heavily on special effects to tell their story. Star Trek, The Matrix, Men in Black – all science fiction franchises that had to be bigger, better, stronger, and faster with every subsequent episode, until in 1999, the franchise that had, in a way, kickstarted pop-culture sci-fi 22 years earlier decided to get in on the act.
That was the year that Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was released, and it was absolutely terrible. Yes, it was a commercial success, because a nation full of insane 17 year olds decided it would be a good idea to camp out overnight to see the first movie. Granted, there are worse things than camping out overnight in Phoenix in May.
The problem was that the movie crammed itself full of unbelievably gaudy special effects and big-name stars such as Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor while not bothering to actually have a story. Lucasfilm seemed to think that they could ride it out on the Star Wars name and the overwhelming visuals without having to actually come up with anything original or new.
Right around this same time, the Christian rock that had sprung up in the early and mid 90s was beginning to make its way into churches. It found its way into the evangelical contemporary services first, and then began to filter into the Protestant services, but there was a problem: the evangelical churches had been purpose built to be flexible, to change as the years went on, and they were able to embrace this new form without much issue, but the older Protestant churches were built on decades if not centuries of tradition. Changing something would mean upsetting people, and too many congregations weren’t willing to actually take that risk.
And so, the churches embraced the changes in style half-heartedly – they were willing to let the music come in, but they weren’t willing to actually adapt themselves to a new way of thinking. Thus it was that after a brief resurgence in the late 1990s, mainline Protestant churches began to experience a decline that has not only not stopped in the last fifteen years, but has grown more and more precipitous with each passing year. Mainline Protestant churches at this point command a smaller percentage of American involvement than at any other time since the 1790s.
So it seemed strange, then, when a few years ago another new movement began to find a foothold within the old Protestant churches. Called the emergent church, it reached back centuries to VERY early styles of worship, using old music, old liturgies, engaging in ancient practices of contemplation and meditative prayer. Indeed, very little that made its way into the emergent church was in any way new, but the success that the movement has found I attribute to something I like to think of as a year-round celebration of Christmas.
Now what, you might ask, does that mean?
If you think about the story of Christmas, there is very little that was NEW to be found in it. The entire story was about the fulfillment of prophecies and stories that had been known to the Jewish people for centuries. The savior born in the little town of Bethlehem. The Messiah borne of the lineage of King David. “For unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given,” Handel’s Messiah has proclaimed time and again since 1741, echoing the words of Isaiah 9, itself written some thousand plus years before the birth of Christ.
All of these old things, the hopes and fears of all the years, as it were, met together on that one Bethlehem night. Nothing new was to be found in that story, AND YET, on that fateful night, when the shepherds looked up to see the spirit in the sky proclaiming, “GLORY TO GOD IN THE HIGHEST, AND ON EARTH, PEACE, GOODWILL TOWARD MEN,” there was just something DIFFERENT. There was someBODY different – the one we now know as Jesus Christ had come to dwell among the people of God that night.
So what I mean by a year-round celebration of Christmas is this: think to yourself, when do you usually see a sudden uptick in church attendance, swelling to an apex? Usually somewhere around December 25th, right? Sure, I realize that there are many who would look cynically upon that fact and say to themselves, oh, that’s when their families want them to go, or that’s when they feel obligations, but I don’t think that’s what it is at all. I think that’s when we take the old, familiar church service that we see from week to week, from month to month, from year to year, and we inject into it something exciting: the birth of Jesus Christ.
And sure, as the Christian church, we do look to Christ all year long, but throughout so much of the rest of the year, we get caught up in one thing or another that distracts us from Jesus: church officers, or budgets, or VBS, or youth programs, or mission trips, or camp, or you name it, it’s happening, and somehow that excitement about the birth of Jesus Christ gets shuffled lower and lower in the deck until we barely remember it’s still there.
That’s what celebrating Christmas all year long is about: keeping Christ front and center in the life of our church. When we worry about who’s going to be upset by change, when we worry about whether or not we’re keeping up with the contemporary trends, when we worry about whether our worship styles are too old, we are worrying about OURSELVES instead of looking to the One whom we worship and serve. The emergent church has proven that no worship style is too old or new, as long as you remember to keep Christ at the forefront.
And you know, that’s sort of what the new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, did. No, obviously, it wasn’t about Christ, but it didn’t worry about THINGS as much. It didn’t try to be a grand visual spectacle, or have every big-name actor it could get its hands on. In fact, there was hardly anything new about it at all. It was just a very respectful re-telling of the original Star Wars story, given new life by breathing into it the old spark of adventure and fun that had made the original movie so amazing and wonderful in the first place.
We as the church would be well-served to follow that example and look to the past to find our future, and when I say the past, I mean all the way back to Luke chapter 2, verse 7: “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, for there was no room for them in the inn.”
Jesus is the reason not just for the season, but for our entire being as the Christian church. Let us, therefore, endeavor to take the spirit of Christmas forward, and celebrate it all the year long.
Merry Christmas, and may the Force be with you.