28 December 2008

Seeing Salvation

Luke 2: 22-40

First Sunday After Christmas/ 28th December 2008

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word: for my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 

“.. For my eyes have seen your salvation…” My eyes, my heart are drawn to this portion of the text, to these words.  That’s what Simeon says when he sees the baby Jesus in the Temple.  He lifts him up in his arms and praises God for what he had seen.

It’s a curious turn of phrase ‘’seeing salvation.”  How does one see salvation?  Obviously he’s talking about Jesus, but what does he see in him which causes him to offer such extraordinary praise to a human being?

It’s worth noting that this exchange in the Temple is marvelously incarnational in that he is holding up the baby Jesus, holding him in his arms, touching him, feeling his weight in his arms, looking at his face.  There’s emotional affect in Simeon.  It’s a fleshly experience.  It’s a reminder to us that salvation is more than a concept or idea or the state of one’s soul; instead, it’s an experience, something real, phenomenal.  Simeon is not holding a religious idea or theological concept in his arms, but holding an embodied soul, a real person, that he not only feels, but can see.  It’s an experience of salvation that we have here – it’s real.  You can touch it, feel it, be moved by it.  It’s an experience encountered not in some after life, but in this life, here and now.  It’s an experience assuring the promise and presence of God.

Experience has come to mean a lot to me on my journey of late, specifically religious experience, encounters with the Holy.  Theologically-speaking, we Protestants (and all Christians in general) get nervous when we put too much emphasis upon experience.  We would rather try to sum up God in our creeds and confessions, assuming we have thus defined God; we would rather talk about God instead of experience God.  We would rather reduce God (along with everything else in Christianity) to an idea and concept, to argue and debate and fight over getting belief right, as if belief can be a substitute for an experience of God’s salvation.  We might have plenty who say they believe in God, but what about experiencing God?  We have plenty of Christians who think they are “saved” because they can affirm certain beliefs about Jesus and God, but what about an experience of encountering Jesus, of knowing what it feels like to be saved, of what salvation looks like?

Over and over again throughout scripture, what changes people’s lives is not intellectual assent to theological ideas, but encounters with the Living God, encounters with God in the flesh, of relating directly with the Personhood of God.  Believe me, I’m not being critical of rigorous theological thought.  With a doctorate in theology, trust, theology matters.  How we think informs our life.  But sometimes, I wonder if our penchant for theological arguments is a defense mechanism against having to encounter the One whom we try to talk about, only to discover the limit of our thought.  We can’t think our way toward salvation.  Salvation is an experience that comes upon us and our lives are changed as a result.

 Jesus is how we usually render the Hebrew word “Jeshua” or Joshua.  It means, “Yahweh saves” or “Yahweh is my salvation.” The word for salvation in Hebrew yasha means “to bring out into a wide open space.”  It doesn’t mean being saved from the burning fires of hell or escaping judgment, it doesn’t mean a state of life known after we die.  Salvation is an experience we have when we are brought out into a wide open space and allowed to stand there freely, safely.  It’s the feeling that comes being in a fortress on a hill and you can look out across a plain in every direction and see that there isn’t a threat in sight.  That’s salvation.  It’s the free space we’re given to live in.  Yasha, salvation, is not living in a cramped space, but in a wide-open space.  This means that yasha, salvation, is also the foundation of hope and a future.  Salvation means given a place to live, to breathe, to hope.  The motto of the Royal Burgh of St. Andrews, Scotland is Dum spiro spero.  “While I breathe I hope.” That’s what Simeon encountered in the face of this baby – a fuller reason to live with hope, with a promising future for Israel and for Gentiles, in seeing salvation he sees a wide-open space to live, to breathe – to be human. That’s what salvation looks like. 

Henrich Suso (c.1295-1366) once saw salvation.  It was an evening in 1328, the story goes, when German mystic and Dominican monk, Henrish Suso or Seuse had a vision.  An angel of the Lord approached him “brightly,” he wrote, “and said that God had sent him down to him, to bring him heavenly joys amid his sufferings; adding that he must casy off all his sorrows from his mind and bear them company, and that he must also dance with them in heavenly fashion.  Then they drew [Suso] by the hand into the dance, and the youth began a joyous song about the infant Jesus.”  When the vision ended, Suso wrote down the joyous song of the angels.  He called it In dulci jubilo, in sweetest jubilation; it’s the melody for “Good Christian Friends Rejoice.”[1]

As we bring the calendar year to an end this week, and as we emerge from Advent into a new liturgical year, what if we attuned our attention for experiences of God in our lives?  Periodically, I like to ask the Elders at a Session meeting, “Where have you seen God at work in this church over the last couple of months?”  “Where have you experienced God?”  “Where have you seen the spirit of Christ among us and within us?”  It’s a helpful spiritual discipline.

The more we ask this question in our lives, looking, anticipating an answer, the more our outlook and attitude and perspective will change.  There are experiences of God all around us, sightings of Jesus’ love and grace, holy moments when we know the Spirit is among us and within us.  Where have you seen salvation?

Just recently, I saw salvation at the Advent Service for Wholeness and Healing.  We had about eight people in attendance, but the energy and power in this space was amazing.   John Calvin (1509-1564) once said, “God is known where humanity is cared for.”  God’s Spirit was present as we cared for and provide a space for grief and hurt and sorrow and pain, and prayed together and provided hope.

Several weeks ago I was driving through Hampden and came upon the burned-out shell of a church, the Mt. Vernon United Methodist Church.  You could see the charred timbers in the steeple or tower.  It sits on the corner of 33rd Street and Chestnut.  There’s a fence around the site.  But inside the fence, situated on the corner of the lot is a large plastic, illuminated nativity scene.  By the looks of it, it appeared that the church fire was a recent event, given the crèche on the corner.  I did a Google-search and discovered that the fire took place on August 2.   The church was built 160 years ago and the building is now condemned. This means that the church leaders intentionally set up the crèche as a deliberate choice to make a profound statement: God’s hope still shining brightly amid the rubble of our charred lives.  That’s the Christmas experience.   It’s a powerful statement.  Seeing salvation – hope, promise of a future, life.

Where have you seen salvation this Advent and Christmas?  Where have you seen signs of Christ’s love?  Where have you been given space to hope, to breath, to live?

[1] Ian Bradley, The Penguin Book of Carols (London:  Penguin 1997), 150-153.

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