The major road near our home, if you take a it five miles or so due east, leads to the largest mall in New England. Additionally, right next to that mall sits a shopping area which was one of the first suburban outdoor malls in America. The architecture of the anchor store there built in 1951 included a large dome, which was supposedly the third largest dome (in terms of diameter) in the world, behind only St. Peter’s in Vatican City and St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. (I’ll let that sink in for a moment.)
Our love affair with shopping was on full display this weekend because we think it will lead us to fulfillment. What’s a preacher to say as we begin the season of Advent?
Based on Isaiah 2:1-5
It’s catalog season. Every time I head down to the mailbox I come back with an armful, many from places I’ve never heard of. Often I toss them into the recycling pile, but occasionally I get sucked in. It’s the glossy pictures of an idyllic setting. It might be a man weighing a little less than me, certainly with more hair than me, drinking a cup of coffee out of a thermos lid standing outside in a snow-covered field. He looks toasty warm in his high-priced clothing. And I admit I begin to imagine that maybe if I had those great clothes I could stand out in a snowy scene all warm and cozy and maybe just maybe grow some hair. That’s why Black Friday and the hyper-consumerism of the Christmas season flourish in our culture. Because we yearn for that scene. That one extra kitchen gadget or article of clothing or book or iPad or Lexus will make our world complete. Those companies don’t want me to buy a new thermal lined coat, they want me to think I’m realizing a dream. As a pastor put it, “We are invited to lean… toward the coming Big Event, when fantasies will be fulfilled, and dreams may yet come true.”
While I could stand before you and denounce all of this outright and say to you, “Wake up!” — a good Advent message to be sure —I realize my own deep longings. There is something inherently human in that yearning for wholeness, and Madison Ave. has become really, really good at homing in on those desires in order to exploit them for other’s gain. That same pastor wrote, “Yes, our culture is celebrating a giddy overhyped pseudo-Christmas while we are attempting the more serious task of observing a holy Advent, but the reason that the cultural messages are so powerful is that our human yearning is so real, and so profound.” Or, slightly changing the perspective on it, those profound longings are God-given.
I’m striking out onto thin ice here rhetorically speaking. If those desires are God-given then what’s holding us back from buying that new wardrobe? This isn’t unlike the theology of some Christians today who claim that God wants disciples to be healthy and wealthy and possibly even wise. One such believer writes, “It’s God’s will for you to live in prosperity instead of poverty. It’s God’s will for you to pay your bills and not be in debt. It’s God’s will for you to live in health and not in sickness all the days of your life.” Which is an awful lot like a glossy picture in a magazine, never mind turning Christianity into a religion of the rich or those who are aspiring to be and is a long way from “Blessed are the poor.”
So what does God want for us? What is that deep-seeded yearning inside each of us?
Hear the word of the Lord from the Prophet Isaiah: “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.3Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”
We long for a place of peace. We long for a return to Eden—that place in the deep recesses of our collective mind where everything remained in harmony with everything else. God provided plentiful food; death did not yet exist. All living creatures experienced true connection with one another. Until, of course, sin entered the picture and off it went toward destruction. Rather than being connected to others and with all of God’s creation, discord crept in and has been with us ever since.
In his allegory of heaven and hell called The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis begins his tale in hell with the protagonist joining a line forming in order to get on a bus. All around the town is grey and the homes and streets seem unbelievably empty. In spite of the emptiness around him, the queue extends quite a bit. Once the bus finally arrives, the people get angry with one another trying to force themselves to the front in order to get the best seats. When our hero is the last one to board the bus, he sees that it is barely half full. Each person had plenty of room. However, they’re still at each other.
After the bus begins moving, the bickering worsens, until finally an all out fight breaks out and weapons are brandished. No one gets hurt, it seems, although people have changed places. Shortly afterward, the protagonist realizes that the bus has begun flying. He hopes to catch a view of mountains or lakes, something he hasn’t seen in a vary long time, but he only sees the dull grey town which appears to go on as far as his eye can see. He’s surprised, and asks a neighbor if there had once been a much larger population given that the town seemed empty.
“’Not at all,’ said my neighbor. ‘The trouble is that they’re so quarrelsome. As soon as anyone arrives he settles in some street. Before he’s been there twenty-four hours he quarrels with his neighbors. Before the week is over, he’s quarreled so badly that he decides to move. Very likely he finds the next street empty because all the people there have quarreled with their neighbors—and moved. If so he settles in… Even if he stays, it makes no odds. He’s sure to have another quarrel pretty soon and then he’ll move again. Finally he’ll move right out to the edge of the town and build a new house… That’s how the town keeps growing.’” And when he looks again, all our hero sees is more and more houses in that grey town with no end in sight.
Here are some of the details about Black Friday shopping that have emerged this weekend:
- A Las Vegas shopper was shot late on Thanksgiving Day as he was attempting to take his newly bought television home. Two other men attempted to steal his TV from him, but fled as police arrived.
- In the Chicago area, a police officer shot the driver of a car that was dragging another officer who was responding to a call of alleged shoplifting at a Kohls. Three people were arrested.
- At least three people got into a brawl in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart in Rialto, Calif., because shoppers allegedly were cutting the line. Two were taken into custody.
- At another Wal-Mart in West Virginia, a man was slashed to the bone with a knife after threatening another man with a gun. The altercation was over a parking spot, police said.
- A woman apparently used a stun gun on another after an all-out brawl inside of the Franklin Mills Mall in Northeast Philadelphia.
Lewis’ image of hell isn’t too far-fetched, is it? This all happening after a national holiday of giving thanks for our blessings and as we enter the season of goodwill and peace for all.
The imagery from Isaiah includes a diversity of people, all nations, streaming to the mountain that is home to God. When they gather, they take all their weapons and turn them into tools for growing food. Rather than violence, they find connections amidst that which provides sustenance and life. In this time to come wars become obsolete, as the particulars of how to destroy your enemies are not taught. The light of the Lord floods them with brilliance, and they know everlasting peace.
That’s what we want so very much. That’s what all those glossy catalogues want to sell us. Peace and a sense of wholeness and shalom—a feeling of being complete, our truest selves. But, as the stories of mayhem around Black Friday show us yet again, buying more and more stuff will not help us reach that place. The coming of the Christ child, however, can lead us there. When he comes, angels will give voice to the reconciliation he brings to the whole world. And when he comes again, in that day and hour that none of us knows about, he will usher in the complete coming of his peaceable kingdom.
Our job is to get ready. To be prepared. To share Christ’s good news. We need to love one another, and reach out to the sick. We are invited to feed the hungry and help the poor. If we do these things in the weeks ahead, we will be ready not only for Christmas, but for Christ’s second Advent as well. Amen.
 Feasting on the Word, Year A Vol 1, pg 2.
 http://beginningandend.com/prosperity-gospel-wild-joel-osteen-myles-munroe-charging-100-services/ Accessed Nov. 27, 2013.
 CS Lewis. The Great Divorce. Harper Collins, 2001. Pg. 10.
 “Black Friday kicks off with a little chaos, lots of bargain-hunting” NBCNews.com http://www.nbcnews.com/business/black-friday-begins-crowds-some-shopping-some-mayhem-2D11673314 Accessed on Nov. 30, 2013.