A Year without Television, Part II: The Advent Sermon

The following is the sermon I preached on the topic of Entertainment on December 7th, 2016. If you have not read Part I of this series yet, please do so.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I don’t say this often, but I hope you know it’s true every single time I stand in this pulpit: what I say to you I first say to myself ten times. Preparation for this sermon touched something that, truth be told, I often regarded with suspicion but was content to let lie without taking action. But if I were to preach on this topic, then return to everyday life unchanged, I would be cut down like a tree by the words written in Romans 2, “You then who teach others, do you not teach yourself?” (Rom. 2:21). If God’s Word necessitates a change, then I must change before preaching that Word to you.

The past couple of days have been interesting, and somewhat uncomfortable, but very liberating changes are happening. I mention this so that you won’t think of me as a hypocrite and lay aside the Word because of it. Not that I’m concerned about your opinion of me personally, but I am concerned about anything that would prevent you from taking God’s Word to heart. I also seek to show you by example that submitting one’s life to the scalpel of God’s Word is always the best course, and is not at all to be feared when we remember the nail-pierced hand that holds it.

But I’ve kept you in suspense long enough. Our topic tonight is happiness, specifically, what gives true and lasting happiness? The world has its answer, and that is entertainment: television, movies, sports, a particular kind of music. We as Christians seek true happiness elsewhere, but we must ask: to what extent can we indulge in the world’s entertainment? The world certainly uses it wrongly as the prime source of pleasure and joy. But is there a Christian way to make use of it?

As with any question the Church may ask, we find that she’s already asked it before. There are two very useful writings from the third century, over 1,700 years ago, both called “Concerning the Public Shows,” one by a man named Tertullian, the other attributed to a pastor named Cyprian, both from North Africa. I’ll include some quotes from them at opportune places.

Now there are many things that fall into the category of entertainment. In the interest of turning you home to your beds before the cock crows, we’ll take up the most prevalent offenders and treat them together: movies and television shows. I’ve called them offenders before proving that that cause any harm, so let’s say for the moment that they’re innocent and harmless.

Even then, you have to admit they are worthless at best. Even apart from other considerations, you’ve finished a movie, gotten up, stretched, and said, “There’s two hours I’m not getting back.” But they’re truly worthless because they neither nourish the body, nor serve the neighbor, nor help the goals of the Christian life. Paul writes to Timothy in 1 Timothy 1, “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5). Do the comedies and dramas cause love to spring up in you? Do they purify the heart, better the conscience, or strengthen faith in Christ? No. They stupefy the mind, they manipulate the emotions, but they do not aid the Christian life, nor the body, nor the neighbor. Even if we refused to take the train of thought any further than this, we still have to say with Solomon after he had thoroughly tested pleasure, “behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind” (Ecc. 2:11).

But there’s more to be said, and you could probably tell me what it is if you think about the times you should have averted your eyes or stopped up your ears. Listen to these words from the writing attributed to Cyprian, “But now to pass from this to the shameless corruption of the stage. I am ashamed to tell what things are said; I am even ashamed to denounce the things that are done—the tricks of arguments, the cheatings of adulterers, the immodesties of women, the foul jokes, the filthy parasites, even the toga’d fathers of families themselves, sometimes stupid, sometimes obscene, but in all cases dull, in all cases immodest. And though no individual, or family, or profession, is spared by the discourse of these reprobates, yet every one flocks to the show. The general infamy is delightful to see or to recognise; it is a pleasure, nay, even to learn it. People flock there to the public disgrace of the brothel for the teaching of obscenity, that nothing less may be done in secret than what is learnt in public; and in the midst of the laws themselves is taught everything that the laws forbid. What does a faithful Christian do among these things, since he may not even think upon wickedness? Why does he find pleasure in the representations of lust, so as among them to lay aside his modesty and become more daring in crimes? He is learning to do, while he is becoming accustomed to see” (Libri de Spectaculis, §6).

Seventeen-hundred years later, and what’s different? All the pettiness and promiscuity remains, along with the coarse jokes, rude language, and irregular loves. The stupid father remains a stock character, and how could a show be interesting without throwing civil and natural laws to the wind? But I’d like to draw your attention to something the Church has known for a long time: the world’s entertainment is meant to catechize. It is a tool for making disciples, and not the sort of disciple you want to be.

Consider but one example. For a decade the world laughed at the humorous gay character: his lisp, his funny mannerisms. The devil was teaching us to enjoy him, to want him around, to sympathize with him. And homosexuality exploded as people wanted to be him, knowing they would be as readily accepted as he was. Then the gay characters began to lament that they couldn’t marry each other, the world grew sympathetic, and the Supreme Court helped them along. Now, even though the statistics paint a miserable picture of home life especially for children who were raised by homosexuals, the television cares not for the truth, and portrays them as even happier than the passé traditional family. The transgender character is the new stock, and we see the fruit that it’s bearing.

Why would we subject ourselves to this lying propaganda? But in addition to this temptation toward false belief, there’s also great temptation toward vices, such as lust, anger, covetousness, and disrespect. I continue quoting, “We quickly get accustomed to what we hear and what we see. For since man’s mind is itself drawn towards vice, what will it do if it should have enticements of a bodily nature as well as a downward tendency in its slippery will? What will it do if it should be impelled from without? Therefore the mind must be called away from such things as these” (Libri de Spectaculis, §8). Beware, lest you open the door to sin by submerging yourself in temptation.

Listen to these words of Paul from 1 Corinthians 6 and decide whether you want such things illuminating your living room, “Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9-10). Paul might as well have listed the characters the populate the screen. Leading these sorts of lives disqualifies people from eternal life. Now I’m not saying that simply by watching these things we automatically become them. I am asking: Why would we hold these characters before our eyes and let their words echo in our ears? Why would we become familiar with them and enjoy having them around? Why would we let the devil catechize us in the way of eternal death, and sit so comfortably as if we’re immune to temptation and suggestion? These are not neutral matters, and we’ve taken them lightly for far too long.

Well now what? Now we turn to the source of true joy and pleasure and happiness. That is, after all, why we turned to the screen in the first place: to enjoy, to relax. Instead we got lies and an uncomfortable conscience. But Jesus satisfies our desire for happiness and pleasure with truly happy and pleasing things. What gives greater joy than knowing the God who held gavel and sword set them aside and took up human flesh and a cross? Yes, the true joy is that however lax we’ve been in watchfulness and vigilance, however often we’ve delighted in watching others scorn the commandments of God and been double-minded in our faith, Jesus has swept it all away with the wave of his blood. As certainly as the bones of Pharaoh’s soldiers and horses lie defeated at the bottom of the Red Sea, so your iniquities have been drowned in the depths. Whatever foolishness you’ve committed with the screen, or because of it, rejoice, it is no more. Even for this Christ died and rose to redeem you.

And where do we go from here? The simple answer is: nowhere. Here is true and lasting joy that abides forever and survives the Last Day to continue being our joy. It is the joy of which Jesus spoke in the Gospel according to John, “no one will take your joy from you” (Jn. 16:22). We don’t move on from that. And what does that mean, practically speaking? It means everything that you’ve sought from the acting of the screen, Jesus has already given you in the reality of the Christian life and in the truth of the Scriptures. I’ll share a final quote with you, which will bring the sermon to a close.

“Let the faithful Christian, I say, devote himself to the sacred Scriptures, and there he shall find worthy exhibitions for his faith. He will see God establishing His world, and making not only the other animals, but that marvelous and better fabric of man. He will gaze upon the world in its delightfulness, righteous shipwrecks, the rewards of the good, and the punishments of the impious, seas drained dry by a people, and again from the rock seas spread out by a people. He will behold harvests descending from heaven, not pressed in by the plough; rivers with their hosts of waters bridled in, presenting dry crossings. He will behold in some cases faith struggling with the flame, wild beasts overcome by devotion and soothed into gentleness. He will look also upon souls brought back even from death… And in all these things he will see a still greater exhibition—that devil who had triumphed over the whole world lying prostrate under the feet of Christ. How honorable is this exhibition, brethren! how delightful, how needful ever to gaze upon one’s hope, and to open our eyes to one’s salvation! This is a spectacle which is beheld even when sight is lost. This is an exhibition which is given… by Him who is alone and above all things, and before all things, yea, and of whom are all things, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory and honor for ever and ever” (Libri de Spectaculis, §10). Amen.

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