Saturday, December 06, 2014

Comfort Ye!

Student assembly address

The year is 540 B.C. 

Almost fifty years earlier, the Babylonians had destroyed what was once southern Israel, or Judah, and its capital city Jerusalem, the once-proud city of David. The Babylonians had been brutal, savaging women and children, and sending families into exile as slaves into cities far away, dividing parents from their children, siblings from siblings. All symbols of God's covenant with the Israelites were desecrated and then destroyed--the Ark of the Covenant, the Temple itself--leaving the Jewish people with little hope that the "promised land" obtained during Moses' time would ever be theirs again. The harsh judgment of earlier prophets-- Amos, Elijah, Ezekiel and others--had come true. It was clear to the Jewish people that God had punished them for their sinfulness, allowing Babylon to utterly crush them.

Imagine what it would be like to have foreign invaders destroy everything we regard as sacred and holy. Imagine being separated from our parents and siblings, never to see them again. Would our faith survive that? This was the plight of the Jewish people during the Babylonian exile. 

But at the peak of despair, when even the most faithful and holy among them had begun to lose hope, God sent his people a new prophet, Isaiah, speaking soothing words that they had not heard for nearly five decades: 

"Comfort ye, give comfort to my people. Israel's sins, her iniquities are forgiven, her warfare has ended." (Isaiah 40). 

A new age is soon coming, sayeth the Lord, when every valley will be exalted, and every mountain will be laid low. The Lord shall allow his people to return to their ancient city Jerusalem, where the Temple shall be rebuilt, families reunited, and the ancient faith of Abraham, David and their forefathers restored.

George Frideric Handel was a German composer who lived in the 18th century. Among his most famous works was the "Messiah: A Sacred Oratorio" which has become one of the most well-known choral pieces of all time--almost everyone has heard the 'Hallelujah' Chorus. But earlier in the "Messiah", Handel puts to music the prophecy of Isaiah, promising the redemption and restoration of Israel from exile. The Messiah is frequently played during Advent and the Christmas season.

Though we do not live in slavery, we do live in a world that seems to have less and less knowledge of and concern for the Lord, where people who try and live as devout Christians are often ridiculed. The theme of Advent is "Come, Lord Jesus." We are in need of hope, much like the ancient Jews, and we need to re-hear the promise of the Lord's coming, promise that God's kingdom will come again and a new order restored. 

I know this is not the type of music you'd have on your phone's play list, but one of the signs of an educated person is the willingness to consider new things, so I ask you for the next six minutes to listen with an open mind to this recording of a portion of the Messiah as performed by tenor Nicholas Sharratt in London, 2012. Try to place yourself back to the situation of the Jewish people some 550 years before Christ, in despair, listening to the words of Isaiah, telling them their suffering is finally coming to a close, and that their warfare is over.


Come, Lord Jesus. Make what is crooked straight and the rocky places plain, so that we may follow you more faithfully. Amen.

Monday, December 01, 2014

A Force for Good

Student assembly address:

Good morning! I was passing by Opry Mills  Mall on Black Friday on my way to the airport to drop off my daughter and son in law. Were any of you there? All I could tell from Briley Parkway as I drove by was that the parking lot was jammed with cars, and there was a line of cars on Briley about a half a mile long just to get off the Opry Mills exit. 

Retail businesses do about three trillion dollars in sales during the build-up to Christmas, or about 20% of their annual business. Black Friday is the biggest retail day of the year, followed closely by "Super-Saturday," which is the last Saturday before Christmas--this year, on December 20. All this also means that we're also deluged with advertisements clamoring noisily for our attention.

Some of the very best minds in business work in advertising. It's no easy task to create witty, 30 second ads that stand out from among all the other ads. People with a talent for it are well paid, and should be--good commercials influence us to buy the product that they're selling, so much so that thirty-six companies spent over one billion dollars in advertising last year. (Trivia: Which company spent the most, at 4.9 billion dollars? Procter and Gamble--think Tide detergent, Crest toothpaste, Charmin bathroom tissues, Gillette razors, Head and Shoulders, etc.)

One of the interesting questions about advertising is: what are they selling? I don't mean the products they ultimately want you to buy, but how they're trying to connect with you--what their underlying message is. Consider this recent Cadillac commercial:

This commercial is very good--it's funny, it features a goofy fella whose name is Steve Merchant, a British comedian and writer--and it's memorable. If you've seen it, you remember it. But underneath the humor, what is the appeal? If you drive this Cadillac, you'll turn heads. Pretty women will notice you. Men will be jealous of you. It's an appeal to our vanity, really. People will know you're a success if you drive this Cadillac. They'll envy you. Be a person who is envied by others.

That's a pretty consistent advertising technique, especially for luxury items: to appeal to our vanity. But there's another kind of commercial, much rarer, that appeals to the opposite side of our character, to our better instincts. Consider this recent Navy recruiting commercial:

What is the appeal of this commercial? Aside from its high production value, it appeals to a noble desire within each of us to make a difference with our lives, to do something of value, to serve others. All of us, I think, want to be challenged and want to be proud of ourselves. It's why we respect coaches who push us, or teachers who are hard on us. 

Instead we live in a coddled culture, with low expectations, where everyone gets a trophy. When my son was ten years old, he had about 20 trophies from football, basketball and baseball on top of his dresser. One day, I noticed he had arranged them, with half sitting prominently on his dresser and the other half on some back shelves. I asked him why he had arranged them like that. "The trophies in the back are participation trophies,"  he said. "They don't mean anything. The trophies in the front are for making all-stars, or for winning something."  If it's easy, it doesn't mean as much.

The armed services commercials appeal to our deep desire to challenge ourselves and to do something noble with our lives: "The Few. The Proud. The Marines." or "Army Strong" or "Aim High. The U.S. Air Force." They are extraordinarily successful, too--all four branches of the armed services met or exceeded their recruiting goals this last year.

I think we can learn from their success. If we commit to serving others, if we act not out of vanity but out of altruism and concern for others, our lives will resonate with other people, and we will not only feel better about ourselves, but others will want to be around us.  Want to impress a girl or a guy? Don't appeal to his or her vanity; instead, appeal to what's good, deep down inside him or her, deep inside all of us. Suggest you do Christian Internship hours together, or visit an elderly home at Christmas, or do something for someone else. The measure of a good relationship is: Are we better people because of our association with that person? Do we draw out someone else's best instincts to serve others? 

We began the Advent season yesterday. In preparation for Christ's coming, let's recognize the best way to welcome Christ is to be--perhaps not a global force--but a local force for good in the lives of all those we meet.