December 5th, 2021 | Third Sunday in Advent

Category: Weekly Sermons

Advent 2C:  Baruch 5:1-9; Canticle 4; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

The Rev. Candice B. Frazer

In C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, Uncle Screwtape, or the Tempter as he might be known, counsels his young apprentice, Wormwood, on the most effective ways of leading humanity down a dark path.  In his ninth letter he laments that God, known as the Enemy in the letters, owns all that is pleasurable because he created all the pleasures.  All Wormwood can hope to do is move humans away from the natural condition of pleasure to that which is least natural.  He offers that “[a]n ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula.”  Wormwood’s job is to twist pleasure from something pure and holy to something that feels tainted and produces guilt. 

We’ve all heard the phrase “guilty pleasure” and we all have indulged in some guilty pleasure—hopefully the more innocent and small ones like a morsel of chocolate and not one of the big ones like adultery.  What Screwtape knows and is trying to teach Wormwood is that pleasures are not created in order for humans to sin, but if our relationship with pleasure becomes broken, then it also becomes sinful.  Screwtape tells Wormwood that “[a]ll we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden.”  Screwtape will go on to offer his nephew a whole bunch of caveats on when to take the opportunity to twist those pleasures into darker things.  If Wormwood’s timing and instinct are good, he need only open the door of possibility for sin and humans will, most likely, walk right through.

C. S. Lewis understood something about the nature of humanity and our potential to fall short of our virtues only to rest in our vices.  In his poem entitled Deadly Sins, Lewis not only lists the sins, he points out the virtue the sinner truly desires.  Lewis recognizes that most people do not desire a sinful life, they simply get stuck in their desires for virtuous living and because they are distracted by the changes and chances of this life, settle for the vice as they believe the virtue impossible.  His poem reads:

Through our lives thy meshes run

 Deft as spiders’ catenation,

Crossed and crossed again and spun

Finer than the fiend’s temptation.

Greed into herself would turn [5]

All that’s sweet: but let her follow

Still that path, and greed would learn

How the whole world is hers to swallow.

Sloth that would find out a bed

Blind to morning, deaf to waking, [10]

Shuffling shall at last be led

To the peace that knows no breaking.

Lechery, that feels sharp lust

Sharper from each promised staying,

Goes at long last—go she must— [15]

Where alone is sure allaying.

Anger, postulating still Inexcusables to shatter

From the shelter of thy will

Finds herself the proper matter. [20]

Envy had rather die than see

Other’s course her own outflying;

She will pay with death to be

Where her Best brooks no denying.

Pride, that from each step, anew [25]

Mounts again with mad aspiring,

Must find all at last, save you,

Set too low for her desiring.

Avarice, while she finds an end,

Counts but small the largest treasure. [30]

Whimperingly at last she’ll bend

To take free what has no measure.

So inexorably thou

On thy shattered foes pursuing,

Never a respite does allow [35]

Save what works their own undoing.

Paul Ford summarizes the purpose of Lewis’ poem as saying that “if the sinner would look along, or perhaps better look through, the sin and see what was really the object desired, the temptation process would become an opportunity for deeper growth in the Spirit.”  Basically if we want to grow as Christians, we should not so much turn away from our sins, but move through them to understand what we truly desire in the world.  That desire is not so much greed, sloth, lust, anger, envy, pride, or avarice—known better as the seven deadly sins—instead it is has been corrupted by these things.  Gluttony keeps us from what we truly hunger for—that God desires to give us everything.  Sloth is the unmade bed of peace that we long to lie in.  Adultery seeks a satisfaction that can only be found in what we truly desire—a relationship with God.  Anger would not allow the inexcusable even though God will.  Envy keeps us from believing how valuable we truly are in God’s eye.  Pride centers us on our self, when it is God that the soul truly desires to center upon.  Avarice hoards the notion that there can ever be enough rather than believe that in release she would find abundance.  Our deepest desires and pleasures are corruptible—Screwtape knows that and makes it his strategy in turning us from his Enemy, yet our hope—God.  God, however, is always drawing us toward those good pleasures because they are the basis for our relationship with him.

In the fourth century, Evagrius of Pontus was a leader in the church and quickly rose in the church ranks to position of influence and power.  Even as a leader of the church alongside the ranks of St. Basil the Great and Greggory of Nazianzus—church fathers who continue to influence our understanding of the Christian faith today as authors of the Nicene Creed—Evagrius fell to temptation and had an affair with a married woman.  He fled Constantinople rather than face his failings and found his way to Egypt and the desert fathers.  He became an aesthetic monk and spent the rest of his life devoted to the study of the nature of sin and thus authored the Seven Deadly Sins.  He did not list these sins as a means of judgment or condemnation—as we use them today—but as a way of understanding our struggles and the dangerous pitfalls we navigate in this life.  In a way, he acted as any good physician would—identifying the problem so that one could work toward the cure.  Evagrius recognized the vices as the dis-eased understating of the virtues we so long for and he wanted to help us to heal.

That is not so different from the work of John the Baptist calling out for repentance and forgiveness of sin.  Many a preacher has taught us that to repent means we must turn from our sin. I am not so sure that is always the most helpful way of thinking about or dealing with sin.  If it were, might we be a little less sinful—I mean, it has been two thousand years of that particular preaching.  I wonder, instead, if taking a C. S. Lewis approach might help us to be more mindful of why we sin.

Instead of beating ourselves up for our sins, naming them and trying to understand what they are masking—what the underlying virtue we so longingly desire might be—is a way of working through that which stands in between us and God instead of turning our backs on God and attempting to walk in a different direction.  I believe God is always in front of us calling us toward him—through the dark night and shadows of the soul into the light of Christ.  Our sin may be between us and God, but to turn away from our sin is, in effect to turn away also from God and that doesn’t seem to be any better a direction. 

Turning our back on our sin feels more like denial than a salvation of repentance.  As any member of AA would tell us, the first step is to admit powerlessness which is about being honest with one’s self.  We don’t repent our sins simply because we want forgiveness, we repent because we desire to live in the kingdom and that requires a level of honesty about who we are in our relationship with God.  The ways we fall short are simply the lies we tell ourselves about God.  True transformation is not in denying those lies, but in correcting them.

The thirty-first and final letter that Screwtape writes to Wormwood acknowledges this level of transformation.  The soul that Screwtape has been advising his young apprentice on, has been lost to them.  Screwtape writes, “It makes me mad to think of it.  How well I know what happened at the instant when they snatched him from you!  These was a sudden clearing of his eyes (was there not?) as he saw you for the first time, and recognized the part you had had in him and knew that you had it no longer…as if a scab had fallen from an old sore.  By Hell, it is misery enough to see them in their mortal days taking off dirtied and uncomfortable clothes and splashing in hot water and giving little grunts of pleasure—stretching their eased limbs.”  A proclamation of baptism not as a denial of our sins but as a healing of them.  That is what most upsets Screwtape and delights his Enemy, our Lord.  That is what John the Baptist was proclaiming in the wilderness all those years ago.  That is the preparation we make this Advent season. 

Prepare ye the way of the Lord!

Amen

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