Sunday, December 09, 2018

Sermon, "Advent in Narnia: Always Winter, Never Christmas," Romans 8:18-25, Isaiah 55:1-5

Sermon 12/9/18
Isaiah 55:1-5, Romans 8:18-25


Advent in Narnia: Always Winter, Never Christmas


Last week I mentioned that Lucy’s older siblings eventually make it to Narnia too, and that’s true. But I sort of skipped over just how her brother Edmund arrives in Narnia. Edmund is the second youngest sibling. In the opening chapter of the book, we find that Edmund frequently seems to be at odds with his siblings. He seems to resent Susan and Peter when they tell him what to do and make him feel like a baby, and in turn, he also seems to enjoy lording his age, his “wisdom and knowledge” over Lucy, wanting to make her feel silly and immature. Stuck together without parents present for days on end, the four Pevensie children are not exactly models of kindness to each other. We talked at our Advent study this week about sibling relationships. How many of you have at least one sibling? I shared that nothing can make me feel so much like I’m 12 again than the arguments that I’ll sometimes still get into with my siblings. They’re usually over nothing, when you really get down to it. We just, after so many years of practice, really know how to push each other’s buttons.  
Edmund certainly knows how to get at Lucy. The narrator tells us that Edmund can sometimes be spiteful, and that after Lucy claims to have visited Narnia, Edmund’s spite comes out full force. Edmund “sneer[s] and jeer[s] at Lucy,” we’re told, “and [keeps] on asking her if she’d found any other new countries in other cupboards all over the house.” (23) Lucy is crushed. One day, though, the children are playing hide and seek on a rainy day, and Lucy just wants to look at the wardrobe again, not expecting, after not being able to find Narnia there again when with her siblings, that she’d be able to get back to the magical land. But this time, the door to Narnia is open again. Edmund follows her into the wardrobe without her knowledge. We read, Edmund “at once decided to get into [the wardrobe] himself - not because he thought it a particularly good place to hide, but because he wanted to go on teasing her about her imaginary country.” (24)
Except Edmund finds himself in Narnia. He isn’t filled with the wonder Lucy is though. Edmund is very disappointed when Narnia turns out to be real, because he knows that he will have to tell Lucy that she was right and he was wrong. He describes Narnia in his mind as strange, and decides he doesn’t like the place, and makes to go back home. That’s when he hears bells in the wood, and eventually a reindeer-pulled sleigh approaches, carrying a dwarf, and a tall lady, dressed in white fur, carrying a golden wand and wearing a golden crown. Her skin is snow white - not figuratively, but literally. She looks proud and cold and stern. She introduces herself to Edmund as the Queen of Narnia, and demands to know who Edmund is. She is very severe with him, and we the reader can tell that she’s seconds away from smiting him with her wand. But instead, when Edmund reveals he is one of four siblings, the Queen - who we already know from Lucy’s earlier visit to Narnia is actually the White Witch - is suddenly very interested. Again, to us, it is clear that she now begins to manipulate Edmund, lulling him into a sense of safety, but Edmund doesn’t seem to notice, because she is doing and saying everything he wants in his secret heart.
The White Witch asks Edmund what he’d like to eat the best, and he responds without hesitation: Turkish Delight, a kind of jellied treat made dates, pistachios, and hazelnuts, covered in powdered sugar. By magic, she produces a box containing several pounds of Turkish Delight, and Edmund immediate digs in. He shovels down as much of the treat as he can, hardly realizing that he’s giving the Witch lots of information about his siblings as he answers her questions between bites. After eating all of the candy, Edmund just wishes for more. The narrator tells us that the candy is enchanted: “anyone who had once tasted it would want more and more of it, and would even, if they were allowed, go on eating it till they killed themselves.” (33) The Witch does not allow this though. Instead, she insists that Edmund go back and retrieve his siblings and bring them to Narnia with him. When he does, she says, Edmund will be gifted with roomfulls of Turkish Delight, and made Prince of Narnia. His sisters and brothers will be made courtiers and nobles, but not a Prince like Edmund. The Witch is perceptive to know that Edmund would want to think of himself in a higher station than his siblings. After giving directions to her castle to Edmund, she leaves him.
Lucy then finds Edmund, delighted that he’s made it to Narnia. But then Lucy tells Edmund that this woman who called herself a Queen is known to the whole land as the White Witch, and that she has made it endless winter in Narnia. “Always winter, but it never gets to be Christmas.” We, who continue to experience winter long after the end of our Christmas celebrations, can relate in a deep way, can’t we? Edmund doesn’t disbelieve what Lucy tells him about the Witch. He believes she is dangerous. And all the enchanted Turkish Delight has made him sick. But, we read, “He still wanted to taste that Turkish Delight again more than he wanted anything else.” (38, emphasis mine.) When Lucy and Edmund leave Narnia and find Susan and Peter, instead of owning up to Lucy being right, Edmund decides to “do the meanest and most spiteful thing he could think of. He decided to let Lucy down.” He tells them that he was just playing pretend with Lucy, and that there is no Narnia. Lucy is devastated. When all four children finally do make it to Narnia, and it becomes clear that Edmund has been lying, when the children hear about Aslan, the great lion, the Savior of Narnia, the Christ-like figure, Edmund, already in the thrall of the Witch, leaves the others to join forces with the one who has promised him endless power and endless indulgence.  
What’s your Turkish Delight? In this season, it might be easy to come up with any number of special treats that you enjoy. If you come to my Open House tonight, you can have one of the hundreds of sugar cookie cutouts I made. After the Open House is done, and after I set aside cookies that will go to our cookie sale next weekend, I’ll have to wrap the rest up and put them in the freezer until Christmas otherwise I will eat them all. But when we think about how Edmund wanted Turkish Delight, we’re talking about something that goes beyond craving a sweet treat. He wanted it more than he wanted anything else. Later, the narrator tells us that when Edmund has dinner at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Beaver in Narnia, he doesn’t enjoy it, because he’s thinking about Turkish Delight the whole time, and that “there’s nothing that spoils the taste of good ordinary food half so much as the memory of bad magic food.” (85) He starts to desire Turkish Delight in an unhealthy way. It consumes him. And we get the sense that in general, Edmund’s priorities are out of line. He’s pursuing what benefits him the most, to the detriment of others, and even what he wants for himself is not actually good for him.
So, again I wonder - what’s your Turkish Delight? What is it that you’re chasing after, that gets in the way of how you care for others, that might seem good for a moment, but you know isn’t really so good for you actually? What is it that, when you get a hold of it actually leaves you feeling, like Edmund, a little sick? What do you end up spending energy pursuing that results in you compromising your values, who you are, who God calls you to be in order to have it or experience it?  
These questions bring to mind our text from the prophet Isaiah, one of my very favorites. Isaiah writes, “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good … Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.” Isaiah’s question rings in my ears: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” Why? Why? Why do we do it? Why do we spend so much energy on what leaves us feeling so very empty?
I’m not sure there’s an easy answer to that question, but I’m sure we’ve been doing it since time immemorial. We get a sense of that in Paul’s letter to the Romans. The creation is waiting for God and God’s children with eager longing, because the whole creation has been subject to futility, has been in bondage to decay, groaning in labor pains. Don Schuessler suggested at our Advent study this week that we keep trying to fill the God-shaped hole in our lives with things that aren’t God-shaped. We keep hoping that metaphorical Turkish Delight will meet all of our spiritual nutritional needs. But it never does. And it never will. Only God can fill the God-shaped hole in our lives. Only God offers the Bread of Life which satisfies. Only laboring for God and God’s way in the world brings us true contentment. Paul says that God sets us free, redeems us, body and spirit.
Edmund eventually experiences redemption too. At first, even when it becomes clear to Edmund that the White Witch is no Queen and is up to no good, he can still only think about getting some more enchanted Turkish Delight. But finally, when in their travels to find his siblings so that the Witch can try to keep the prophecy that signals the end of her rule from being fulfilled Edmund witnesses her turning a whole group full of animals into stone for insisting that Father Christmas had shown up at last, Edmund begins to feel regret and compassion. Eventually he’s rescued, because his siblings won’t give up on him, and Aslan won’t either. Edmund has a serious talk with Aslan, and after coming face to face with the true ruler of Narnia, the great lion, Edmund is never the same. Sure, he still fights with his siblings sometimes. But he seeks their forgiveness, and they give it. He knows that despite all of the wrong choices he’s made, he’s reconciled to his family and to Aslan, he’s redeemed. He knows it. He never forgets it. And he tries to live like a person who remembers it every day.  
My hope for us is that we, too, can experience the forgiveness Christ offers when we realize how off course we’ve gotten. My hope is that we too can live as people who remember that we were welcomed back, forgiven, reconciled. Let go of chasing the Turkish Delight that you’re sure if you heart’s desire, and remember instead the taste of the Bread of Life that satisfies. If you have caused some harm - to yourself, to others, to God - in your quest for things that have left you empty - God can redeem your life. We can seek forgiveness. We can repent, return to God. God longs to welcome us back, longs to work out our reconciliation. Friends, God’s redeeming love is breaking through the cold of endless winter. This Advent, let’s claim the promise of forgiveness and new life. Amen.

(Page numbers in this sermon refer to C.S. Lewis's The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.)

Monday, December 03, 2018

Sermon, "Advent in Narnia: The Wardrobe and the Lamppost," Isaiah 9:1-7, Matthew 7:13-14, John 1:1-9

Sermon 12/2/18
Isaiah 9:1-7, Matthew 7:13-14, John 1:1-9


Advent in Narnia: The Wardrobe and The Lamppost


Today is the First Sunday of Advent. And this year, we’re spending Advent in Narnia. How many of you have read the book or watched the movie The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe? The book is the first in the series of seven books called The Chronicles of Narnia, written by theologian C.S. Lewis for his goddaughter Lucy. Lewis wrote the books in the late 1940s and first half of the 1950s. Lewis is the author of Christian classics like Mere Christianity, Miracles, and The Problem of Pain, but in his Chronicles, written for children, he shows a whimsical imagination and a more grace-centered theology than we find elsewhere in his works (in my opinion at least!) The Chronicles can be read with a secular worldview, but the books are laden with Christian imagery, heavy with meaning. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, set during a long winter in the magical land of Narnia is the perfect setting then to help us enter into the spirit of Advent.
Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy Pevensie are English school children who have temporarily gone to live away from their parents during World War II to be kept safe. They’re sent to live with an eccentric man who is a professor, and they have lots of fun exploring the big old house full of antiques and treasures. In one room, they find there is only a large wardrobe with a long mirror on the door. Most of the siblings aren’t interested in the room or the wardrobe, and turn to leave as quickly as they entered, but Lucy, the youngest, is curious. She’s sure that the wardrobe door will be locked, but she just has to try it to see. It isn’t locked, and so she steps in, being careful to leave the door open behind her. She pushes through lots of winter coats, only to find that the wardrobe is larger than she expected. And suddenly, it isn’t a wardrobe at all, but tree branches that she pushes through, emerging in a snowy wood with a tall, bright street lamp lighting the scene. She meets there a faun - a creature who is half man, half goat - named Mr. Tumnus, and she discovers that she has somehow found her way into a land called Narnia through the door of the wardrobe. We’ll talk about what unfolds there more in the weeks ahead, but today, we’re thinking about two of the first things Lucy encounters in relation to Narnia - the wardrobe, and the lamppost.
The wardrobe is the entrypoint to Narnia. Later in the book we hear mention of the fact that there are other doors into the world of Narnia - the wardrobe is just one of them, and later in the series we find out that the wardrobe is a door because it is made from the wood from a tree that grew from the seed of a fruit that was from Narnia itself. We discover, too, that the children can’t just get into Narnia when they want to. Getting to Narnia involves something of a sense of call. The children can get to Narnia when Narnia needs them. When Lucy first returns from her visit to Narnia, and she tries to show her brothers and sister what she’s found, they find nothing - just a regular wardrobe. They think Lucy is telling stories, that she’s let her imagination run wild. It’s only after Susan and Peter, the older siblings, talk to the professor (who has been to Narnia too, though he doesn’t share that with them just yet) about Lucy’s Narnia’s stories and he encourages them to have an open mind that the rest of the children also find their way to Narnia through the door of the wardrobe.
I’m wondering - what are the doors you’ve encountered in your life? When has there been a path, a way that was opened to you? Did you go through the door? What opportunities have you taken, and what ones have you missed? What door are you standing outside of, while God is calling to you from the other side? Are you like Lucy? The first to fling the door open and step through to what God has waiting? Or are you more like the older siblings, doubting that God has a Narnia-place to show you?
We heard two short verses from Matthew’s gospel this morning. Jesus says, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” Sometimes, God’s way is hard, isn’t it? Sometimes following Jesus takes everything we’ve got. Sometimes, it would so much easier if we could just tune out Jesus’ voice and hit that nice, open road, with the big, wide gate at the end. But we know, we know that we’ll wish we chose the other path - the narrow path, but the path of life. In our Advent Study this week, we remembered that Jesus told us how to stay on the path that keeps us in God’s way. Later in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” So what is Lucy like, that leads her to find Narnia? What are children like? Lucy is curious, and kind-hearted, and unafraid. Her heart and mind are ready to receive unexpected things. Brave Lucy has to go all the way into the wardrobe and push through all the coats, and traverse the temporary darkness before she gets to the trees and to Narnia.
I think of the children in our own community of faith. When we share in the Children’s Message during worship, it isn’t just so we can be entertained by the kids and the sweet, sincere answers they give to my questions. First, foremost, of course, that time is so that they can learn, so that they can be more fully a part of our worship services, and so that they know that whatever we’re talking about in the sermon time is for them, too, even if we need to talk about it in different ways for it to be clearer for children. But after that, that Children’s Time in worship is so that we can learn from them. I think of asking the kids what the world needed a few weeks ago, and how quickly they listed so many ways they could see that we could be working for change, caring for our planet and its peoples. I think about talking to them about how God might call to them, how God speaks in dreams, and Alana sharing how God spoke to her, no big deal. I think about how eager they are to help, however we’ll let them. How they always know that choosing kindness and love is the way of Jesus, even when it is hard to put into practice. And I know that if they found a room with a wardrobe, they’d go through the door and find Narnia. Can we let them lead us on God’s path, right into the heart of God?
If the wardrobe is the entry point to Narnia, then the lamppost is sort of the symbol of the place, the home base for Lucy’s (and eventually her siblings’) visit to Narnia. It is at the lamppost that she learns where she is, and where she meets her first friend in Narnia. It is the light from the lamppost that she sees while she is still trying to push through the wardrobe that keeps her going instead of turning back to the spare room. And when she emerges from the branches, it is the light that she still follows to bring her into the clearing.
What light are we following? Our other two scripture texts for today draw on themes of light and darkness. From the Hebrew Bible, the prophet Isaiah writes, “There will be no gloom for those who are in anguish.” For “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness - on them light has shined.” “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace.”
The gospel of John doesn’t include a nativity story, not if you’re talking about shepherds and angels and baby Jesus. But John does talk about Jesus’s origin: He is the word, who is and who was in the beginning, and is made flesh, God dwelling among us. John says, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”
Are there places in the world that seem filled with darkness? No doubt, it won’t take you long to list places and situations and circumstances where you’ve witnessed darkness. We experience it as a people, a community, a nation, a globe. And most of us know darkness in our own lives, our own families. This season can be particularly challenging, in fact, when we’re wrestling with the darkness in our lives. There are literally less hours of light, and the long nights seem to match our moods when we’re wrestling with pain, with anger, with doubt, with grief, with hopelessness. Amazingly, though, no matter how much dark there is, it only takes the tiniest bit of light to cancel the power of the darkness. Think about it. Children who are nervous because of the dark when they head to sleep are often comforted by  just a little night light. It hardly sets the room aglow. But it makes such a break in the darkness!
The light of Christ is a break in that darkness that feels like it will suffocate us, and it is never extinguished. Christ is the true light, and the darkness will not overcome it. If you can’t see the light, call out - call out to God. Call out to a friend. Call out to your pastor. Call out to someone you can trust. The darkness may seem unrelenting, but there is someone who sees the light, who can take your hand, and help you find your way again. The darkness will never overcome the light.  
This Advent, be on the lookout for doors that need opening and stepping through, doors where it seems like a light is shining on the other side, and something is luring you, calling you, drawing you through. Know that choosing that door might take you on a narrow path that is difficult to navigate and full of challenges. Sometimes you have to push through a lot of coats before you step into Narnia. Sometimes others will be skeptical that the path you feel God wants you to take leads anywhere at all. Be as bold as Lucy stepping into the wardrobe anyway, until you find your way to Narnia. And this Advent, look for places that you can shine the light in the darkness. There are a lot of people who feel like they are in darkness. But Jesus, who is the light, also says that we are the light of the world. Let your light shine. Be like Lucy, keeping her eye fixed on the lamppost. Because she did, she was able to show others the way to Narnia.
We’re spending this Advent in Narnia, friends. God is calling you to step in through the wardrobe, and follow the light. Amen.