24 December 2011

Here to Kneel

Luke 2: 1-20

Christmas Eve/ 24th December 2011

Several weeks ago a friend posted a picture on his facebook page.  It was an image of a manger scene.  The figures appeared to be made of clay.  There’s a donkey, a cow, several sheep.  Mary and Joseph are there on either side of the manger full of hay holding the baby Jesus.  Conventional enough. But if you look closely at the figure of Jesus he is being held firmly in place with a white, plastic strip—a cable tie—that wraps around the belly of the baby Jesus and the manger.  The facefook caption read, “This baby Jesus isn’t going anywhere.” My friend is a student at Princeton Theological Seminary, a venerable theological institution celebrating its bicentennial next year, one of the seminaries of the Presbyterian Church (USA), and (if I may say) one of the finest seminaries in the world.  I asked him, “Where is this crèche?”  “Mackay,” he replied.  “Mackay at Princeton Seminary?” I asked, surprised. Mackay is the name of the student center on the seminary campus.  “Oh yeah,” he replied.  Now, seminarians are known for their many pranks.  I was involved in several.  So I can appreciate that the administration took precautions that seminarians wouldn’t steal the baby Jesus. 

         The more I thought about the image I wondered, isn’t this what we love to do, both in the church and in the academy:  keep Jesus fully secured in his crib, locked in one location in space and time, fearful that he might be “stolen” from us?  The inane debates in our culture about whether there’s a war on Christmas, which seems to be an annual event like Black Friday, is also based on a fear of stealing Christ from Christmas, as if Jesus Christ was an “object” that we could hold on to, define, and defend. 

         Tonight and tomorrow we are here to celebrate the most distinctive theological claim of Christianity, the incarnation – in-carnatio, literally, “going into flesh” – “the Word made flesh” (John 1: 1-14), a theological claim which sets us apart from every other religion on this earth.  The history of what took place long ago is important.  But we are about more here tonight than recalling and remembering what took place. We are not here to commemorate.  History doesn’t save us, it doesn’t renew us, it doesn’t allow us to participate in the ongoing presence of the Spirit who moves through creation.  Yes, we can celebrate what took place in the past, but tonight is about claiming and celebrating Christ’s ongoing incarnating presence in our lives, in our flesh, in you and me.

         What if Jesus is not stuck in a remote past, but is present with us here, in this space and time, in us? What if the crèche is empty, what if the Christ child is waiting to be birthed anew in us, “in birth after birth, ever fresh and fresh”?

         That’s how the poet Robert Frost (1874-1963) put it in one poem.  He gets it right:
But God’s own descent
Into flesh was meant
As a demonstration
That the supreme merit
Lay in risking spirit
In substantiation.
Spirit enters flesh
And for all it’s worth
Charges into earth
In birth after birth
ever fresh and fresh.[1]

         Frost gets it because he knows something that many in the church have forgotten or never got, that the incarnation is not a one-time occurrence but something that has fundamentally changed and is changing the very structure of our existence.  In the incarnation we discover a “demonstration” that God is forever “risking spirit” by being active in the world and our lives.  The Spirit enters and for all it’s worth charges into earth – where?  Yes, in Jesus, absolutely, but also in birth after birth, ever fresh and fresh.  In your birth and my birth ever fresh and fresh, doing something new.

         Why don’t we get this? Because all of this is tough to get our heads wrapped around.  How can this be?  God and humanity in one place?  God in diapers in a smelly manger? Savior?  A baby born King?  Christ in us? Sure, you can just accept it on faith, I guess, believe anything is possible with God.  Take that leap.  “Just believe,” you say.  Maybe that’s what you believe.  The problem, though, is that when we move the discussion toward belief, then beliefs need to be argued, proved, defended. When we’re wrestling in the world of beliefs we’re really dealing with our egos, and with reason, how we use our intellects to “explain” something to be true. The world has grown tired of beliefs.  The world, once again, knows the costly price of dogmatic assertions, of fundamentalisms of every kind.  The world has lost trust in what we say we believe as a church because it’s not embodied – incarnated – in how people live their lives. 


     I, too, have grown tired of beliefs.  That might sound odd coming from a preacher.  Maybe.  That is until we remember that the first Jesus followers did not have a “belief system.” The way Jesus called us to follow was and is more than something we are merely asked to believe in, more than confessing certain theological ideas, more than intellectual assent (maybe blindly) that we offer, more than devotion to historical figures, and certainly more than an anemic ethical do-goodism.  What they had was an experience of the holy, an encounter with the divine, and they participated in the power and grace and awesomeness of the Spirit of God unleashed upon the world, gospeling the world in the flesh, calling us to follow on a heroic journey of divine dimensions.  That journey begins with the shepherds.  They show us the way.

         We can’t reason our way into any of this.  We can’t set reason aside, but we can’t allow it to lead the way.  Luke’s description of what the shepherds encountered was really a mystical experience, it was an encounter with mystery – and mystery, because it’s a mystery (not a puzzle) is not completely knowable.  It can’t be measured.  It can’t be analyzed.  It can’t be verified.  It can only be experienced.  Despite the presence of stories like these in scripture, the church has never done well with the mystical.  It’s actually been repressed.  Cultural historian José Argüelles (1939-2011) sees a “dictatorship of reason” in the modern era of Western culture that “banished mysticism as a branch of the insane.”[2]  We need to admit that there are other ways of knowing in addition to reason.  Albert Einstein (1879-1955) insisted that, “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.  It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.  Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead.”[3]  The psychoanalyst Carl Jung (1875-1961) warned, “…only the mystic brings what is creative to religion itself….  The creative mystic was ever a cross for the Church, but it is to him [and her] that we owe what is best in humanity.”[4]

         Maybe we need to see the shepherds as mystics.  When the King James Version says, “and they were sore afraid,” the Greek actually reads kai ephobethesan phoban megan (Luke 2:9), literally, “and they became afraid with very much great fear.”  They were terrified, but with a holy terror, a holy awe. Language is pushed to the limits to express the awe, the fear, the terror that comes with encountering the mystery of what the shepherds experienced that night.  Yes, the angels said, “Fear not,” but only after they experienced holy awe.  The theologian Rudolph Otto (1869-1937), back in 1917, described such moments as a mysterium tremendum et fascinans:  a terrifying and fascinating mystery that seizes us and overwhelms us in love.[5] 

         The Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel (1907-1972) defined mysticism as “radical amazement.”  Wasn’t that Mary’s response to what the shepherds’ experience?  Maybe she, too, was a mystic.   Radical awe.  “Awe is the beginning of wisdom,” Heschel claimed.  “Awe precedes faith.”  Not belief, not reason, but awe.  And praise too “precedes faith.”[6]  Awe is the beginning of wisdom.  The fear experienced in awe and terror “is not the fear of guilt” or of being attacked, but “a fear of WOW! – a reverential fear based on a realization of the greatness of our existence, of our being included in the amazing twenty-billion-year drama that is the universe,”[7] the realization that the Creator of this universe and the source of existence encounters us, overwhelms us with love, and faces us – literally – in the flesh, in the birth of a Son who came for us to know once and for all that we are deeply loved, that we are the beloved sons and daughters of God, the objects of God’s joy and passion!

         So how do we respond to this kind of awe? What do we “do” with it?  We don’t “do” anything with it, its “does” us, and shapes us and loves us.  As the ancients knew, there is only one proper response to mystery – and that is to kneel.  As the poet T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) told us in his Four Quartets, this is what the journey of life is about, this is what faith is about, this how we respond to the mystery of the incarnation, he said,
                  You are not here to verify,
                  Instruct yourself, inform curiosity
                  Or carry report.  You are here to kneel….[8]
We are here to kneel.



[1] Robert Frost, “But God’s own descent,” In the Clearing (New York:  Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962), 7. I’m grateful to my good friend, the Reverend Alex “Chuck” Coblentz for first sharing this poem with me.
[2] José Argüelles, The Transformative Vision (1975), cited in Matthew Fox, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ:  The Healing of Mother Earth and the Birth of a Global Renaissance (New York:  HarperOne, 1988), 42.  Fox cites Gregory Bateson’s view that the repression of the mystical is “pathological”
[3] Albert Einstein, “The World As I See It,” in A. Einstein, Ideas and Opinions (based on Mein Weltbild), Carl Seeling, ed. (New York:  Bonanza Books, 1954), 8-11.
[4] Jolande Jocobi and R. f. C. Hull, eds., C. G. Jung:  Psychological Reflections (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1978), 206, 340.
[5] Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy, trans. John W. Harvey (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1923, 2nd ed. 1950, [Das Heilige, 1917]).
[6] Abraham Heschel, quoted in John C. Merkle, The Genesis of Faith:  The Depth Theology of Abraham Heschel (New York:  Macmillan & Co., 1985), 170, 172, cited in Fox, 51.
[7] Fox, 51.
[8] T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” Four Quartets (1942).

20 December 2011

An Advent Series: The Way Toward Birth - IV. Dawning Light

Isaiah 11: 1-10 & Luke 1: 67-79

Fourth Sunday in Advent/ 18th December 2011

Come with me to the place of birth and rebirth
Come, beloved of God, to the place of renewal and new beginnings.
Come, Holy ones, to the place of your resurrection, the place of life.
Come with me down the narrow way that leads to the broad fields of salvation.


For the road is before us.  
The journey beckons.  
The path calls out your name.  
Venture toward the place of light and illumination.  Step out.  Trust it.  Follow. 

Yes, Advent means “coming.”   In this season we remember the original coming of Jesus, his birth in Bethlehem, the place of God’s incarnation and prepare for his future coming again. Yes, advent is about arrival.  In this season we remember the arrival of God and the promised future arrival of Christ. 

            But as I’ve tried to convey the last three weeks, Advent is also about another “coming,” another “arrival.”  It’s about our arrival at the place of birth, the place of God’s incarnation in us.  It’s about Jesus’ coming into our lives, his arrival, in our flesh.  It’s about Jesus being born in us.  There’s a 15th century poem that goes like this: 
Lo, in the silent night
A child to God is born
And all is brought again
That ere was lost or lorn.
Could but thy soul
Become a silent night!
God would be born in thee
And set all things right. (Anonymous)

            Where is the place of Bethlehem in you?  Yes, the incarnation is about Jesus.  “For in him,” Paul wrote, “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Co. 1:19-20).  Yes, it’s about Jesus, but the significance of his birth is not merely the mystery of God enfleshing humanity – that’s significant, don’t get me wrong.  But now follow-through with this insight, what does it really mean? Bring it closer home still, “in here,” within.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) urged us to recall, the very core of Christ’s being is always related to the self, pro me, for me.[1] What does it mean pro me, for me?

We come to see that what God did in Jesus reveals to us something of who God is and how God acts and what God loves to do in us.  The incarnation—in-carnatio—means, literally, “going into flesh.”  That’s what God does:  always has, always will.  Christmas calls us to see the way of God in us, in creation.  Once we see it at work in Jesus, we can see the pattern at work all around us, in the world, in our lives.[2]  God is in the birthing business, as it were, and delights in bringing universes and things and, most of all, people to life.  God has this uncanny habit of taking delight in novelty, in making all things new, extending horizons of hope where there’s only despair and darkness, of breaking forth light in the night and dazzling us with the dawn.

            The poet Robert Frost (1874-1963) gets it right, here in this poem:
But God’s own descent
Into flesh was meant
As a demonstration
That the supreme merit
Lay in risking spirit
In substantiation.
Spirit enters flesh
And for all it’s worth
Charges into earth
In birth after birth
ever fresh and fresh.[3]

            I think Frost gets it right because he realizes that the incarnation is not a one-time occurrence but something that has fundamentally changed and is changing the very structure of our existence.  In the incarnation we discover a “demonstration” that God is forever “risking spirit” by being active in the world and our lives.  The Spirit enters and for all it’s worth charges into earth – where?  Yes, in Jesus, but in birth after birth, ever fresh and fresh.  In your birth and my birth ever fresh and fresh, doing something new.

            You see this view takes Christianity away from being a belief system that we merely believe in, of theological ideas that we subscribe to, of intellectual assent that we offer, devotion to historical figures, and an weak inane do-goodism, take us away from these views of Christianity and moves us toward something that we participate in, to an experience, a human journey of divine dimensions.  It’s the journey that counts:  your journey, my journey, individually and together.  Yes, Mary can say, “My soul magnifies, glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior (Luke 1:46-47).” but she, too, demonstrates something for us.  What will it take for us, for you and me, to be able to say that our souls are magnifying and glorifying, intensifying and reflecting the love of God and therefpre we rejoice?  The journey to that point, to that kind of realization, to that confession is the way toward birth; it’s the journey of faith.  It can happen in a moment or it can take a lifetime, but it’s the journey that counts.  Advent, Christmas Epiphany – the Incarnation – add the Transfiguration, Lent, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost are all about God making this journey toward us and then inviting us to make the journey toward God and showing us the way.

            Yes, the journey will take us through dark places.  Yes, we will get lost.  Yes, it will seem like there’s no hope.  Yes, there will be hardship and loss.  That’s what Judah knew in its own journey with Yahweh.  Life will be tough and difficult, full of pain and suffering, sometimes because of the faith we hold (or that holds us).  But – hear the good news – Isaiah tells us, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.  The spirit of Yahweh shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD” (Isaiah 11:1).  A shoot shall come out from what appeared to be a dead tree cut to its roots. Life will emerge from apparent death.  Something new is about to take place. 

            Now, from our Christian perspective, we hear these words and immediately think of Jesus.  We hear “spirit” and think of the Holy Spirit.  But these were not Isaiah’s reference points.  He’s not necessarily taking about a future Messiah.  But what he is talking about is the generative power of God.  “The tradition of Isaiah,” Walter Brueggemann reminds us, “never ceases to be astonished at the newness and never fails to summon God’s people to hope and expectation in the face of discouraging circumstance.”[4]  Yahweh will come and do a new thing, because Yahweh delights in creation, in newness.  The coming of Yahweh is generative, irresistible, an authorizing “wind,” a spirit as force that “enlivens, gives power, energy and courage,” so that the bear or this spirit “is recognized as one designated, who has the capacity to do what the world believes is impossible.”5]  That’s what Yahweh will do in and through “him,” whoever “him” will be.  Whoever is the bearer of the spirit of Yahweh generates a new historical possibility where none was available.  He – she – will do something new. Again, Bruggemann, makes the point that Isaiah’s poem here in chapter eleven is essentially about transformation, the kind of change that takes place when the spirit is guiding us.  This vision of the wolf living with the lamb, this “peaceable kingdom,” “is one of the most remarkable assertions in the Bible that there will be ‘all things new’ in creation when God fully authorizes the right human agents.”[6] 

            The first followers of Jesus saw in him one such “agent” fully authorized by the spirit of Yahweh.  They saw within Jesus God doing something new.  In him they witnessed “the tender mercy of God.”  For in him, as Zechariah said, they saw the dawn breaking forth in dazzling brilliance, giving light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1: 78-79).
To guide our feet into the way of peace.  
To guide our feet into the way. 
To guide our feet. 
To guide.

            God’s own descent
Into flesh was meant
As a demonstration
That the supreme merit
Lay in risking spirit
In substantiation.
Spirit enters flesh
And for all its worth
Charges into earth
In birth after birth
ever fresh and fresh.

            This week we will celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, celebrating with friends and family the most distinctive theological claim of Christianity, the incarnation, which sets us apart from every other religion on this earth.  The history is important.  But history doesn’t save us, it doesn’t renew us, it doesn’t allow us to participate in the ongoing presence of the Spirit who moves through creation.  Yes, we can celebrate what took place in the past, but what about celebrating the ongoing realization of Christ’s incarnating presence in our lives?  Is Christ stuck in the past or is he an ongoing presence being born again and again in humanity? 

            Last week, a friend posted a photograph on his facebook page.  It was an image of a manger scene.  The figures appeared to be made of clay or ceramic.  You can see a donkey, a cow, some sheep.  Mary and Joseph are there on either side of the manger full of hay holding the baby Jesus.  But if you look closely at the figure of Jesus he is being held firmly in place with a white, plastic strip—a cable tie—that wraps around the belly of the baby Jesus and manger.  “This baby Jesus isn’t going anywhere,” the facebook caption read.  (Oddly enough, this morning I found a cable tie on the ground, on the driveway between the church and the church house.)  My friend is a student at Princeton Seminary.  I asked him, “Where is this crèche?”  “Mackay,” he replied.  “Mackay at Princeton Seminary?” I asked, surprised? Mackay is the name of the student center on the Princeton Seminary campus.  “Oh yeah,” he replied.  Now, seminarians are known for their many pranks.  I was involved in several.  So I can appreciate that the administration took precautions that seminarians wouldn't steal the baby Jesus. 

            I felt there was a good sermon illustration in there somewhere. The more I thought about it I wondered, isn’t this what we love to do, both in the church and in the academy:  keep Jesus fully secured in his crib, locked in one location in space and time, fearful that he might be “stolen” from us.  What if he is present with us here, in this space and time, in us?  What if the crèche is empty, what if the Christ child is waiting to be birthed anew in us, “in birth after birth, ever fresh and fresh”?

            This is what the wise and, some might say, dangerous Dominican theologian Meister Eckhart (c.1260-c.1327) said centuries ago, this was what he trying to get across in his teaching and preaching back in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.  “The Creator is constantly creating and the universe is constantly being created.”[7]  Eckhart wrote, “It is given to every person to become the child of God, substantially indeed in Christ, but in himself or herself by adoption through grace.”[8]  The incarnation calls us, again and again, to discover our identities as sons and daughters of God.  For “what good is it to me,” Eckhart asked, “if the son of God was born to Mary 1400 years ago, but is not born in my person and in my culture and in my time?”  That’s our question, too.  Just add 600 years.  He asked this question confident in the answer that God continues to create in us. We can have the same confidence.  “God is here—in this very place­—” Eckhart insisted, “just as much incarnate as in a human being long ago.  And this is why God has become a human being:  that Divinity might give birth to you as its only begotten Son [and Daughter], and as no less….  The Creator gives birth to the divine child in the innermost part of the soul and gives birth to you with its only begotten Son as no less.”[9] 

Risking spirit in flesh – in birth after birth after birth. Ever fresh and fresh. 
Amazing.


[1] See Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christ the Center, trans. Edwin H. Robertson (New York:  Harper & row, 1978), 47-48.
[2] I am grateful to Fr. Richard Rohr for this insight/comment.
[3] Robert Frost, “But God’s own descent,” In the Clearing (New York:  Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962), 7. I’m grateful to my good friend, the Reverend Alex “Chuck” Coblentz for first sharing this poem with me.
[4] Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1998),  98.
[5] Brueggemann, 99.
[6] Brueggemann, 102.
[7] Matthew Fox on Meister Eckhart in The Coming of the Cosmic Christ:  The Healing of Mother Earth and the Birth of a Global Renaissance (San Francisco:  HarperOne, 1988), 122.
[8] Eckhart cited in Fox, 121-123.
[9] Eckhart cited in Fox, 121-123.

13 December 2011

An Advent Series: The Way Toward Birth - III. Lost in the Dark


Isaiah 9:2-7 & Luke 1: 39-55

Third Sunday of Advent/11th December 2011

Advent means “coming.”  In this season we remember the original coming of Jesus, of that journey to Bethlehem, to the place of God’s incarnation, the Word made flesh.  It’s also about the future coming of Christ at the culmination of time.  We could also say it’s about arrival–the arrival of God with us, the promised future arrival of Christ.  There’s yet a third meaning. It’s also about our “coming,” our “arrival” in Bethlehem, to the place of God’s incarnation, God’s Word made flesh in us.  It’s about Jesus’ coming into our lives, his arrival in our lives, in the flesh.  It’s this latter view that I’ve been trying to stress the last two weeks in this series.  The incarnation occurred and continues to occur in us.  What God reveals to us through Christ, God has always been doing and will continue to do.  Once we see this pattern at work in him we can see the pattern at work all around us, in the world and in our lives.[1]  God is in the birthing business, as it were, and delights in bringing universes and things and, most of all, people to life. 

            And so for the last two weeks I ended the sermons with a series of questions.  What if the characters in the birth narratives represent parts of our own personalities?  What if you, then, are like Mary, being asking to bear the life of God into the world?  What if, then, you are like Joseph, being asked to care for the life of God in the world?  

            I believe we are asked to bear the life of God into the world.  I think God is always trying to birth something new within us, to grow a life in and through us, so that our lives in all their beauty and brutality, their suffering and joy, might actually reflect the glory and love of God, in order that we, like Mary, can say, “My soul magnifies, glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior” (Luke 1:47).  What will it take for us, for you and me, to be able to say that our souls are magnifying, glorifying, intensifying, reflecting the love of God, and therefore we rejoice? The journey to that point, to that kind of confession, to that realization is the journey toward birth, the journey of life, the journey of faith.  It can happen in a moment or it can take a lifetime, but it’s the journey that counts. Advent, Christmas, Epiphany – the incarnation – is about God making this journey toward us and inviting us to make the journey toward God.

            And like any good journey or adventure there will inevitably come a time when we get lost.  In every spiritual journey toward birth there comes a time when we realize we have lost our way.  Think of the Magi, even with the star overhead – a kind of celestial GPS system – they still had to ask for directions to Jesus. 

            Sometimes it’s the fear of getting lost that prevents us from ever venturing forth on the journey.  Sometimes we lose our way because we become distracted–we lose sight of what’s important, we lose sight of the goal and purpose of our lives, we become tempted by idols conjured up by our minds. Our minds are a factory of idols, as John Calvin (1509-1564) said, around which we obsess.  The commercialism this time of year, alone, is enough to make even the most committed Christian get sidetracked.  The worries and anxieties, the sorrows and grief we bear can also lead us astray.  The stresses and strains of a world that appears to be whirling out of control can also easily block out the light, leaving us feeling as if we are lost in the dark.  We all get lost now and again.  We miss or ignore the signposts.  And sometimes it’s very dark indeed.  And in the darkness, I mean complete darkness­–with no ambient light–it is very dark indeed.  When you’re in complete darkness you cannot move, the way isn’t clear.  It’s inevitable there will come a time, maybe many times, when we are lost.

            Isaiah offered his words of warning and hope to a people who were lost in the dark.  It was dark and getting darker.  The risk of invasion of the Assyrians from the north was real.   Nevertheless, the promise of God is that a way out will be offered.  As Robert Frost (1874-1963) said, “the best way out is always through.”[2]  The way out is always through, through the darkness. In other words, in any journey toward birth there will be a time when we have to concede that we’ve lost our way; we have to acknowledge that we’re in the dark apart from the light of God.  The difficult truth is that sometimes we’re only found after first admitting we’re lost.  We have to get lost in order to be found.  Remember, for example, Dante’s (1265-1321) great masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, a text that has defined the narrative of Western culture, in which he recounts his own spiritual path.  It begins this way, set on Good Friday, 1300, he writes, “In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost.” But then he goes on to “give account,” he says, “of the good which I found there.”[3]  For many, the way toward spiritual birth only occurs after one first admits that one is dead or dying, that one has reached one’s limits, we hit rock bottom, when we are confronted by our own mortality or the mortality of a loved one.  Just think of Scrooge in Dickens’ (1812-1870), A Christmas Carol (1843).  New birth begins only after Scrooge has the courage to face his own death.  That’s when the light of a new day begins to dawn, Christmas Day – the day of birth.

            The good news is this:  “The people who walked – and who walk and will walk – in darkness have seen – and will see – a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined” (Isaiah 9:2).  “For a child has been born for us” (Isaiah 9:6).  In time, the first Christians used this image of light to describe their own experience of what it was like to walk with him.  “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” (John 1:4).  It doesn’t say that in him was the absence of darkness.  The darkness remains.  But the darkness does not have the power to overcome his light–never has, never will–the light of God that shines in the face of Jesus Christ.  The days might be dark, but there’s a light that can shine in the darkness. The light shines within the darkness.

            The anthem we hear this morning was inspired in the darkness.  It was 1953.  Paul and Ruth Manz were sitting vigil with their three-year son, John, who was seriously ill in the hospital.  The doctors gave little hope.  They sat there 24/7, Paul during the day, Ruth at night, both filled with sadness.  They had devotions together behind his bed; they read scripture during this time together.  Ruth was drawn to Revelation 22, the vision of a different John, author of Revelation, standing before the throne of God and the face of Christ.  “And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light…” (Rev. 22:5). Ruth wrote out some words, expressing her trust in God, and giving her sorrow up the Lord, “E’en so, Lord, quickly come.”[4]  Their son survived and in response Paul set her words to music, dedicated to “John and all those who prayed for him.”  Lost in their darkness, they trusted in the inevitable power of that light, a light that has the power to change the way we see the dark.
           
Peace be to you and grace from Him
Who freed us from our sin 
Who loved us all, and shed his blood
That we might saved be.
Sing holy, holy to our Lord
The Lord almighty God 
Who was and is, and is to come
Sing holy, holy Lord.
Rejoice in heaven,
all ye that dwell therein
Rejoice on earth, ye saints below 

For Christ is coming,
Is coming soon
For Christ is coming soon.
E'en so Lord Jesus quickly come
And night shall be no more
They need no light, no lamp, nor sun
For Christ will be their All!

You can listen to a performance of the anthem here  and here.   


[1] I’m thankful to Fr. Richard Rohr for this statement/insight.
[2] Robert Frost, “A Servant to Servants” (1915).
[3] Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, I. Inferno, John D. Sinclair, trans. (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1961), 23.
[4] Paul Manz (1919-2009), E’en so, Lord, quickly come (1953).  See also, http://news.minnesota.publicradio.org/features/2004/12/20_olsond_manz/“E’en so, Lord, quickly come.”

07 December 2011

An Advent Series: The Way Toward Birth - II. Sign Posts



Isaiah 7: 10-17 & Luke 1:26-38

Second Sunday in Advent/ 4th December 2011







Come with me to the place of birth and rebirth.
Come, beloved of God, to the place of renewal and new beginnings.
Come, Holy ones, to the place of your resurrection, the place of life.
Come with me down the narrow path that leads to the broad fields of salvation.

Advent is about the journey to Bethlehem, to the place of God’s incarnation, the Word made flesh, the birth of God in human flesh.  This is true.  And yet, what I tried to suggest last week and lift up today and throughout this series is that Advent is also become about a journey to another Bethlehem, God’s Word made flesh, the birth of God in human flesh – in us, in you and me – God’s ongoing incarnation in the world through us.  Yes, the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke’s gospels focus on the birth of Jesus, upon a singular person.  However, the early church saw in the singular Jesus something of God’s larger, ongoing purpose and pattern.  What God reveals to us through Christ, God has always been doing and will continue to do.  Once we see it in Jesus, we learn to see the pattern at work everywhere, all around us, in the world and in our lives.[1]  God’s way in the world is continuous incarnation.  God is in the birthing business, as it were, and delights in bringing universes and things and people to life.  What we see God doing in Jesus’ life gives us some indication of what God seeks to do in our lives. 

            But how do we know what this is?  How do we know we’re on the correct path?  How do we know we’re going in the right direction?  So many feel their spiritual path just goes round in circles, covering the same old territory, feeling their faith has no life.  Others, I know, feel lost in a maze, not sure where they’re going.  Some Christians, oddly, have never ventured on the journey, they’ve stayed close to home; have never explored the meaning of their faith with any depth.  Others still have just given up in despair and live their lives vicariously through others, the religious types, the saints, through ministers and priests.  No wonder the life of faith becomes dead, dull, and boring.  But this journey, if you’re on the journey, is anything but dull and boring, and it’s not dead or deadening.  If it is, then that may be a sign you’re on the wrong road. 

            God never leaves us alone along the way.  God is present with us all the time.  There is no place where we can feel apart from God’s spirit.  God is closer to us than the breath that moves at this very second to and fro from our lips.  Jesus said, “I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20).  And yet there’s so much within our hearts and within the world that would lead us to suspect that these things are not true.  There’s so much that causes us to distrust these things.  The depth of suffering experienced by the human psyche causes us to pull away and enclose ourselves in apparent safety, closing off the outside world.  The depth of suffering in families, in communities, in the sheer brutality and inhumanity of this world are enough to force us recoil from any kind of trust in God’s presence or benevolence. 

            The prophet Isaiah would be very comfortable in such a world. He observed first-hand the suffering of God’s people.  He saw how their obsession with and trust in silver and gold, with military and technological advances, with senseless, dead idols (Isaiah 2: 7-8), led to false piety, dead religion, and meaningless worship, all of which led to a rejection of righteousness and justice (Isaiah 1: 10-17).  “Cease to do evil,” Isaiah warns, “learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:16c-17). And, not surprisingly, the people became anxious.  They worried about what the future will be.  Judah knows the Assyrians ruthlessly invaded the Northern Kingdom and Isaiah warns that the same is about to take place in Zion, in Jerusalem.
 
            God wants to give King Ahaz some assurance that all will be okay.  “Ask a sign of Yahweh your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.”  In other words, Ask away, God says, be bold!  But Ahaz refuses.  “I will not put the LORD to the test.”  While Ahaz’ response might sound like an expression of humble belief, it really isn’t.  It actually demonstrates a lack of faith and trust.  I wonder if Ahaz’ reluctance to ask is due to the fact that once he asks for the sign, then he will have to actually go out on a limb and trust it.  It’s easier to not ask too much of God, then we won’t be disappointed.  It’s easier to have little trust in God, than risk having our egos hurt. 

            Isaiah responds, frustrated, “For God’s sake, Ahaz, it’s bad enough you weary everyone else with your empty piety and hollow trust, but your empty piety and hollow trust have become tiresome even for God!”  Now the LORD will give a sign.  “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”  The child’s name shall be: “God is with us.” 

            Now before you float away with the melodies of Handel’s Messiah in your ears and assume where I’m going with this, let me say Isaiah here is not talking about a coming Messiah, he’s not referring to Jesus, he’s not talking about Mary, and he’s not talking about a virgin young Mary.  These Christian readings of the text come much later, after Jesus, of course.  The sign focuses not on the young mother and not on whether or not she is a virgin, the focus is on the birth of a child, a son who bears the name, embodies the name “God is with us.”[2] The son is the sign. His name is not “God will one day with us.”  God is with us – always has, always will.  The birth of the child with this name serves as a visible, physical, concrete reminder of what always has been and always will be true, that Yahweh is with us.  The birth is a sign of assurance.

            Fast-forward to another Mary who bears a child. Gabriel’s annunciation offer’s a similar word of assurance, the birth of her son will be named, not Immanuel, but Yeshua, meaning “Yahweh saves.”  The sign is made flesh, again, and this time it becomes really real, tangible, clear for all to see.  God is really with us.  Yahweh saves.  Assurance made flesh.  Because this is true, a future begins to open before us. A way in the darkness begins to take shape.  A road that leads toward being in the world that fully trusts in the goodness and faithfulness of God to God’s people and to creation.

            For Christians, Jesus is the sign post, maybe the only sign post we need; perhaps he’s the best sign post among many sign posts.  At minimum, we know him to be a trustworthy sign post on the way toward Zion.  His name – God is with us; Yahweh Saves – are the signposts we need along the road that leads to our birth in God, for the growth and unfolding of lives that trust in God’s faithfulness.  God is with us.  God wants to be with us.  God can’t bear to stay away from us. 

            With us – not with us in general or with people in general.  With us – not off in the distance, watching us from afar. With us – around us, through us, and, yes, even within us.  And the way God gets to be with us is through birth.  A birth is required.  Didn’t Jesus say, “You must be born again” (John 3: 9)?[3]  As we saw last week, citing the historian Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975), a continuous “recurrence of birth” is required for transformation to occur.[4]   I believe that God’s walk with us in and through Jesus is always a recurrence of birth.  The incarnation did not happen once, it always happens and is continuous through us because we are in Christ and Christ is in us. When he’s alive with us we experience recurrent birth because God is also trying to birth something in us.  And because God is with us we know that whatever is being birthed in us by God, it can be trusted. 

So, what if, then, you are, like Mary, being asked to bear the life of God into the world?  What if, then, you are, like Joseph, being asked to bear the life of God into the world? Or, what if the birth of Jesus demonstrates at some level that in our experience of new birth we, too, will come to discover that we are children of God? What if this is what we really need to discover about ourselves?  What if we are the sons and daughters of God conceived by the “young woman,” people who bear the name “God is with us”?   How, then, might this outlook change the way we move through Advent and arrive on Christmas morning?  Perhaps it will shape the way we view the infants and children in our world, as vulnerable gifts deserving our care, honor, and respect.  For God is with them too.  And it will shape the way we view the child still within all of us, as we too are called to care, honor, and respect that child within us.  For God is with us too.

            This past week I was playing around on iTunes searching for some new Christmas music. I came across a new arrangement of “Do You Hear What I Hear?”  It’s on the new Glee Christmas album, volume 2.  It’s a beautiful arrangement, but they omitted the last stanza for some strange reason.  I can remember singing that song as a boy at the Washington School Christmas concert in North Arlington, NJ.  It’s one of my favorites; yes, it’s kind of sappy, but it’s so simple, majestic, profound. It can send chills down my spine.  It was released just after Thanksgiving in 1962 by Noël Regney and Gloria Baker.  What I didn’t know until this week (Thank you, Google.) is that it was written during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The lines, “Said the night wind to the little lamb, ‘Do you see what I see?’” and “Pray for peace people everywhere,” came to Regney after watching babies being pushed in strollers through the streets of New York City. It was difficult for them to perform this song in public during the missile crisis because they thought of those babies and became overwhelmed with emotion.  “Said the shepherd boy to the mighty King, ‘Do you know what I know?’ – Do you know what I know? – ‘A child, a child, shivers in the cold, let us bring him silver and silver.” 

It’s striking, a Christmas song about the Christ child is born after looking out and seeing “signs,” babies and infants.   So are they singing about the Christ child or the children of New York City or maybe about the child in us that reaches out for the children in the world, the child in us that also shivers in the cold?  Yes.  We can’t tease them apart.  They’re all connected. To care for one is to care for the other.  For a young woman shall bear a child.  Her name, his name is “God is with us.”  How we care for these “signs” among us and within us just might be the signs posts telling us that we’re on the right way.



           

             
           



           

           






[1] I’m thankful to Fr. Richard Rohr for this statement/insight.
[2] Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 1-39 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 69-70.
[3] An alternate reading is “born from above” or even “born anew.”  Either way, Jesus points to the necessity of a new birth.
[4] Arnold Toynbee, The Study of History (a twelve-volume work written between 1923-1961), cited in Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Bollingen Series XVII (Third Edition) (Novato, CA:  New World Library, 2008 [1949]), 11-12.