Sunday, December 27, 2015

Sermon for Christmas I

Christmas I     (2015)                                                                              John 1:1-18
St Thomas', Glen Carbon

Most of you are at least somewhat familiar with the British scholar and writer of the last century, C.S. Lewis.  If nothing else, you may have read or seen the movie version of his children's series, The Chronicles of Narnia. One of the most popular of Lewis's works is a short and deceptively comical book—I say deceptively because it's really deadly serious—The Screwtape Letters.  It's a collection of correspondence between Screwtape, a senior demon in Satan's army, and his nephew Wormwood, a junior devil, who has been assigned to “win back” to the cause of “Our Father Below” a man who has recently become a believing and practicing Christian. 

Screwtape offers Wormwood the wisdom of his experience in dealing with such difficult situations. In his preface, Lewis declares, “I have no intention of explaining how the correspondence which I now offer to the public fell into my hands. ... The sort of script which is used in this book can be very easily obtained by anyone who has learned the knack; but ill-disposed or excitable people who might make a bad use of it shall not learn it from me.”

Well ... I am pleased to announce today that I, the humble bishop of the humble diocese of Springfield, after years of secret and painstaking research, have “learned the knack” that Lewis talked about!  And even more amazing than that:  This discovery has led me into the possession of a file of top secret security memos from the very highest echelons—or, I guess we should say, the lowest echelons—of Hell, the private files of the one they call “Our Father Below.” The code name for this highly sensitive file is, Operation Christmas

Today, for the first time ever, and only at St Thomas’ (wait till word of this gets out!), I am going to share with you some excerpts from the Operation Christmas file. 

The first is a memo from the director of the S.I.A., the “Sub-Terranean Intelligence Agency”, and the date, as nearly as I can figure, refers to a time roughly two thousand years ago:

M E M O

FROM:      Beelzebub, Director, S.I.A.

TO:            Our Father Below

RE:            Recent Developments


Boss --

         Our intelligence assets behind enemy lines are sending signals that something very serious and potentially alarming is afoot.

         Ever since that incident with the apple in the garden, as you know, we've had the upper hand. The Enemy has had some limited success with a tribe of nomads called "Hebrews" (the more up-to-date name would be "Jews"; those humans are forever changing names), but in the meantime, in most other areas, we have made significant gains for our strategic position.

         However, it appears now that the Enemy is taking action to seize the initiative.  Our best reports from our most reliable sources all indicate that he has sent an extremely high-level emissary—some say that it's actually his own son, although we haven't confirmed that yet—who has actually become a human being! Just what the Enemy has in mind with this move, is not clear, but the possibilities, especially if this "ambassador" turns out to really be his son, are sobering to contemplate.

         Some response on our part is clearly called for. I suggest that you immediately convene an emergency session of the I.S.C. (Infernal Security Council) to discuss the matter.

         I am obsequiously yours, and I await your reply.



M E M O

DATE:       January 1, 304 A.D.

FROM:      Mephistopheles
                  S.I.A. Station Chief, Rome

TO:            Beelzebub, S.I.A. Director


         At long last we appear to have a Roman emperor who is not only thoroughly converted to our side, but is also possessed of the requisite determination and fortitude to do something once and for all about these "Christians" who have been plaguing us. Emperor Diocletian has ordered a coordinated and uncompromising campaign aimed at nothing less than the total elimination of Christianity.  

         At the same time, we can help our own cause by continuing to foster nostalgic affection for the traditional pagan religions of the empire. In particular, the Festival of the Unconquered Sun, which is celebrated on the 25th of December each year, seems especially appropriate to our purposes. Many humans are very attracted to the Enemy by that scandalous turn of events of two and a half centuries ago when Jesus, just when we thought we were rid of him, somehow rose from the dead.  We have, of course, always tried to conceal this fact, but with only limited success: Humans find the idea irresistible. Here's where the Festival of the Unconquered Sun comes in: They want a god who dies and rises? Here's one who does it every year—the Sun! If we can turn December 25th into a holiday that's celebrated fondly throughout the empire, then we can make sure that once Diocletian wipes out Christianity for the present, it will stay wiped out for the future.

         (By the way, it's been a long time since I've had a promotion and a raise.  Maybe this idea will earn me one?)

M E M O

DATE:       December 25, 451

FROM:      Prince Darkness, Infernal Security Advisor

TO:            Beelzebub, S.I.A. Director


         This is to confirm our conversation earlier today in which I directed you to terminate your operative in Rome, Mephistopheles. His idea about promoting the Festival of the Unconquered Sun has backfired on us so completely that the original disaster has been compounded.

         If this agent had done his research properly, he would have learned that it is the custom of the Enemy's followers to adopt and adapt the religious observances of the surrounding culture for their own purposes. Thus, what they have done with December 25 is entirely true to form: They have turned it into the remembrance of that very sneak attack which reversed everything we had accomplished in the Garden of Eden.  Humbug! The gall of it!

         See that Mephistopheles is immediately removed from Our Father's service.



P.S.  I like your idea about trying to capitalize on the popularity of this Bishop Nicholas of Myra.  Gift-giving and generosity are not qualities we normally seek to encourage, but these are not normal times.  Anything that can distract people's attention from remembering the Enemy's visit to earth cannot but work to our advantage.  Besides, once he's dead and gone, we can work on corrupting the memory of this "Saint Nicholas" into that of a harmless mythical hero. Who knows, if people begin to think of Nicholas this way, maybe we can train them to think of Jesus in the same way. Have your people flesh out a plan for me to look at.

M E M O

DATE:       January 20, 1985

FROM:      Prince Darkness, I.S.C. Advisor

TO:            Our Father Below


Your Most Corrupt Excellency:

         This is in response to your request for an updated status report on Operation Christmas

         I am pleased to be able to tell you that, on the whole, the major objective of this operation is being met: i.e. neutralizing wherever possible the effect of the Enemy's Sneak Attack. As a percentage of total population, the number of the Enemy's followers has been steadily decreasing, particularly in the more developed nations. 

         The coming decade seems especially promising for our cause. Our S.I.A. station chief in the United States of America reports that the wholesome values of materialism, conspicuous consumption, envy of neighbor, and greed appear to be flourishing. Status symbols have never been taken more seriously. More to the point: We have been particularly successful in associating these values with the celebration of Christmas. Our operatives, both overt and covert, have arranged for the retailing industry to no longer merely respond to demand, but to create and control the demand for material gifts, and, moreover, to set the terms for the celebration of the season: when it starts, when it ends, what decorations are used, and what music is heard. We have made great strides is obscuring Christmas as a commemoration of the Sneak Attack.

         Still, it is a year-to-year, day-to-day, person-to-person battle.  Remembrance of the Sneak Attack is obscured, but not erased. The enemy's position is compromised, but he is still powerful. We must not let our guard down for a moment.



M E M O

DATE:       December 25, 1995

FROM:      The Father Below

TO:            All staff


         I am taking this opportunity to communicate to each and every one of you my sincere gratitude for your superb and ongoing efforts in the execution of Operation Christmas

         As you are well aware, nearly two thousand years ago, on a day that will live in infamy, the Enemy himself, in the person of his own Son, actually became a human being, one of the pitiful creatures who descend from the ones we successfully recruited to our cause in the Garden of Eden.  The events of the subsequent thirty-odd years are both too familiar and too ugly to bear recounting. Suffice it to say that the resurrection of the one whose name I still cannot bring myself to speak was such a blow that I wondered whether we would ever recover. It even still threatens our very existence. And when one of our own incompetent agents actually helped the Enemy's followers turn the anniversary of his birth into the most beloved and emotionally powerful holiday in human history ... well, what can I say? We got rid of him!

         Yet, we struggle on, thanks to all of you. We successfully corrupted the memory of, and devotion to, Bishop Nicholas of Myra into the cult of a jolly old man who, like a powerful magnet, draws the attention and affection of human beings, especially children, away from the original basis of the festival. We have successfully corrupted the spirit of generosity and the impulse to gift-giving into a materialistic orgy of out-doing and out-spending last year. We have successfully engineered the celebration of the holiday to begin a month before the event, so when Christmas actually comes, people are so tired that they don't have the energy to pay attention to the reason for celebrating. And, thanks to the efforts of a secret task force whom I cannot yet name without jeopardizing their security, we have fostered the rise of what humans call "New Age" religion, which may yet reclaim December 25 as the Festival of the Unconquered Sun!

         My friends, there is yet one more important task that I will call you to.  This, I hope, will be the fatal blow to the remembrance of the Sneak Attack and the termination of this long and drawn-out Operation Christmas. There are those human beings who, for whatever reason, are just not vulnerable to the temptations of wealth or power or prestige.  The are amused by the Santa Claus myth but don't pay much attention to it. They manage to not be consumed by the frantic pace of the season. What can we do to reach these people for our cause? There comes a time when it is necessary to tolerate, even encourage, good on a small scale in order to avoid good on a large and disastrous scale.  I believe we must capitalize on people's innate goodness, to turn their strong points—unselfishness, generosity, loyalty, love—into their weak points, turn their advantage into our advantage. If we can foster the notion that the real meaning of Christmas is about love and patience and kindness and gentleness, about magical moments of generosity and human togetherness, of family and friends and traditions and values and doing a good deed for someone who's poor or lonely or hungry ... if we can spread the idea that these things, distasteful as they may be, are what Christmas is all about, then we can divert attention from the idea that Christmas is about the Enemy becoming a human being in order to win them all back from our side. To the extent that people remember the Sneak Attack at Christmastime, then everything we work for is in danger. We must not allow it!  If we have to accomplish this by encouraging love and generosity, then so be it. In the end, victory will still be ours. 

         Merry Christmas, my demons, merry Christmas.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God ... and the word was made flesh, and moved into the neighborhood.

And the word was made flesh, and moved into the neighborhood.

Amen.

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