27 December 2009

Growing Before God

1 Samuel 2:18-20,26 & Luke 2: 41-52

First Sunday After Christmas/ 27th December 2009

This story from 1 Samuel is inextricably linked to the gospel reading for this Sunday in Christmastide. The theological themes in 1 Samuel are extended in Luke 2. When Luke wrote his account of Jesus in the temple, he had this story from 1 Samuel in mind. Both texts in both testaments coalesce around the experience of change and growth – the necessity of change and growth.

First to Samuel. Samuel’s development as a priest took place within the temple, a priest who embarked upon a new venture of faith and politics that eventually reformed temple practice. Samuel’s life, here his early life, is lived out within the wider context of God’s providential care and direction. Samuel doesn’t belong to himself. He belongs to God. Samuel’s destiny is in God’s hand and he will be used for God’s purpose to bring about change and reform.

Twice, in verse 21 and again in verse 26, we find similar statements that reinforce a significant theological claim. Of course the boy Samuel eventually grew up into a man, but the growth he experienced was “in the presence of Yahweh.” In his notes on this text, John Wesley (1703-1791), the founder of Methodism, stressed that Samuel, “Grew – Not only in age and stature; but especially in wisdom and goodness. Before the Lord – Not only before men, who might be deceived,” Wesley wrote,” but in the presence and judgment of the all-seeing God.” (1) It is one thing to grow naturally into adulthood and quite another to develop to maturity in the presence of God, so that God’s wisdom and strength fully inform the process and the goal of that growth.

It’s perhaps easy to overlook these two verses as throw-away lines, stating the obvious. Except that it is this idea of growing up in the presence of God – and the difference it makes in the formation of one’s identity, destiny, and purpose – that Luke chooses to use in his brief, although significant, telling of Jesus’ early development. Luke uses the language of 2.40, “The child grew and become strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” – and then again after the temple scene in 2.52. Although the NRSV uses the world “strength” in v. 40, “vigor” is probably more accurate. Jesus’ growth was vigorous not only in the sense of physical strength, but also in terms of possessing considerable vitality, force, and dynamism.

By quoting the description of Samuel’s growth in the temple within the account of Jesus’ development in and around the temple, Luke sees in Jesus a priestly role. This is important for Luke. He lifts up the priestly role of Jesus. The role of a priest is to mediate the presence of God. The priest goes goes before God on behalf of God’s people. The authority Jesus will later fully claim for himself is dependent upon the time spent as a child growing in vigor, wisdom, and before both divine and human favor. Just as Samuel learned through obedience and training, so, too, does Jesus grow in maturity through a process of obedience, not to Mary, nor to Joseph, but to God. Jesus’ life does not belong to himself. It belongs to God.
Samuel was not born knowing all that he needed to be and do as a priest.

Similarly, Jesus, although fully divine was also fully human and therefore grew progressing through every stage of the life-cycle, the stages we will all progress through (Lord willing). The same eight stages of developmental psychologist Erik Erikson (1902-1994) famously identified, starting with infancy, childhood, adulthood, to old age. (2) Here human development is linked with divine or theological development or awareness in Jesus. Again, it’s easy to overlook this, but this text leads us to pose an important question, Is there something theological, divine about human development? (3) What does human development, from infancy to old age, say about God? What does it mean for a human being to grow from infancy to old age in the presence of God? For what? Why were we born? For what purpose? What is the purpose of our lives?

It’s of the utmost significance that we see in Jesus’ life, from infancy through adolescence into adulthood, the growth of a human being within the presence of God. Granted, we don’t know much about his childhood or his adolescence – but we know he was born. He didn’t just arrive on the scene as an adult. He’s the same human being whose existence – born among us, full of grace and truth, who took on flesh – whose life was given to redeem humanity, not only mature adults, but through a redemptive process that has the power to bring healing to every stage of human development. I like to view Jesus’ life – from his birth through his death and resurrection – as a kind of template paced over our lives, his story over our stories, his life touching our lives at every stage of existence. Our lives then have the capacity to become sermons that proclaim the glory of God – like Jesus. Yes, Jesus was unique, but Jesus came to show us what our life can be, what we can become, the kind of people we can be through him. The early church father, Irenaeus (c.115-190) said, “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.” The life of Jesus in our lives has the capacity to make us more humane and human, more fully alive.

One of the leading theologians of the twentieth century was Thomas F. Torrance (1913-2007). (I had occasion to meet him two and corresponded with him briefly for a time. His son, Iain Torrance, is now president of Princeton Theological Seminary). T. F. Torrance makes this point in one of his many reflections on the incarnation, particularly through a moving interpretation of Luke 2:52, Jesus “increased in wisdom and in years.” Obedient as he was through his life, Jesus had to learn obedience to God in order to achieve reconciliation for humanity with God. As the Son of Adam he was “born in our alienation, our God-forsakeness and darkness, and grew up within our bondage and ignorance, so that he had to beat his way forward blow by blow, as St. Luke puts it, growing in wisdom, growing in grace, before God as well as before man.” It is Jesus as priest who “beat[s] his way forward” on our behalf, through every step along the way of human growth, offering his obedience and redeemed humanity up to God. Torrance wrote, “[Jesus] learned obedience by the things he suffered, for that obedience from within our alienated humanity was a struggle with our sin and temptation; it had to be fought out with strong crying and tears and achieved in desperate anguish and weakness…. Through the whole course of his life he bent the will of man in perfect submission to the will of God,…and offered a perfect obedience to the Father, that we might be redeemed and reconciled to him.” (4)

Although some of the images and language in Torrance’s theology might prove problematic to us and appear very abstract, this notion of Jesus redeeming humanity at every stage in its development with his life in order to present our lives back to God, reconciled and holy, is a very uplifting image. It elevates the idea that all of Jesus’ life was salvific for humanity, not only his death and resurrection. It’s the totality of Jesus’ life that saves.
As we sang here on Christmas Eve in the carol, Once in Royal David’s City, “He is our childhood pattern.” He is the pattern of our lives.

Yes, we know that Jesus was born to die, as the carols teach us. We often tell the Christmas story in such a way that we tend to think that Jesus was born only to die. Yes, we should not forget the cross, the destiny of the baby born in a manger. But there have been theologians and traditions in the history of the church that have refused to focus only on the cross, that want us to see the meaning of his entire life (and I would agree with them). If God’s love and grace were revealed in the cross and an empty tomb, if we see God’s love there, then we must also see God’s love and grace in this baby and his childhood and adolescence and his adulthood. For all these, too, tell us something about God, about how God chooses to live and be born in the world. To see Jesus as infant, teenager, adult, say something of God, how God is linked to us as infant, teenager, adult. Every step of our lives matter to God because we see that they matter in Jesus.

The birth and life of Jesus says something about our lives – that our lives, how we grow, how we develop in the presence of God is of ultimate value to God. Incarnation – that God took on flesh, tells us something of the significance about our flesh, of our lives. Jesus grew in the Lord. So, too, we who are in him must grow in the Lord – growing in likeness, growing in faith, growing in witness, growing along our own unique journey (as Jesus’ journey was unique), growing in love. Changing, ever constantly changing, becoming the people we were created by God to be – growing in the presence of God.

In his work, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the American author James Agee (1909-1955) wrote, “In every child who is born, under no matter what circumstances, and of no matter what parents, the potentiality of the human race is born again.” How much more for that child who “grew in the presence of Yahweh,” through whose life the world has been redeemed? To what extent is the potential of the human race born in you and me?


Photo: The Nativity Star, Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem - the traditional birthplace of Jesus Christ.

1. John Wesley, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Wesley’s Notes on the Bible: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/wesley/notes.ii.x.iii.ii.html. Emphasis added.
2. Erik Erikson, Childhood and Society, second edition (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1963), 247ff.
3. See James E. Loder, The Logic of the Spirit: Human Development in Theological Perspective (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 27.
4. Thomas F. Torrance, Theology in Reconstruction (London: SCM Press, 1965), 132. Emphasis added.
5. Text by Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895) and included in her Hymns for Little Children (1848).

25 December 2009

Born to Save

Luke 2: 1-20

Christmas Eve/ 24th December 2009

One of the many challenges preaching on a text like Luke’s birth narrative is familiarity. How many times have we heard this story? There’s always the risk of thinking we’ve heard it all before. But when this happens we run the risk of losing that sense of holy awe and fear, the terror and wonder found in this extraordinary text, and we miss an opportunity to hear the Word of God with fresh ears, to have it dwell within us, to have it enfleshed in our bodies, dance in our hearts.

First as a boy and even now, Luke 2 never fails to leave me speechless. Luke’s way of telling the story is masterful, theologically, even politically astonishingly rich. It is bold and radical. There’s nothing “all is bright, all is calm” about it. Sometimes, I fear, we have domesticated and tamed this story, at times almost beyond recognition. We always need new eyes.

The word that caught my eye this year – and, I’ll admit, I never noticed it until just last week – is host as in “a multitude of heavenly host.” My study Bible has a little superscript that reads, army as an alternate reading of host, which I’ve overlooked. But then it hit me. I shouldn’t have been surprised, given what we know about this birth story. The Greek reads, stratia, an army, a band of soldiers, Roman soldiers. It’s the designation for a Roman army, except here in Luke we have an army of angels who bring not war or the threat of violence for stepping out of line, but peace, God’s peace. Luke is up to something.

Yes, the angels bring, “Good news of great joy for all the people.” That’s wonderful. But the subtext, the text behind this text, the story behind this story, the people behind the shepherds and Mary and Joseph, are the gods and armies of Rome. Indeed, the person in the foreground of Luke’s Christmas pageant, the person who is never depicted in any crèche scene, or pageants or nativity plays that I’ve ever seen is none other than Caesar Augustus (63 BC – 14 AD), Emperor of Rome. That’s where the story begins – Augustus sets into motion the journey to Bethlehem. But he’s more than an incidental in this drama. The cultural, political background to this text, to this story that we celebrate tonight is none other than Rome. To our eyes it’s difficult to see; it’s implicit to Luke’s world. But scratch the surface, do a few word studies (pay attention to a word like host), and we find the historical setting for the birth of Jesus Christ – Imperial Rome.

Here’s another example. Supposed we traveled together to Berlin. I would take you into the Pergamum Museum. There we’ll find an inscription on marble that came from Turkey, near Ephesus. It’s a gift to mark the birth of a divine child. See if this sounds familiar: providence, “filled with virtues for the benefit of mankind, bestowing him upon us and our descendants as savior – he who put an end to war and will order peace, …who by his epiphany exceeded the hopes of those who prophesied good tidings [good news] not only outdoing the benefactors of the past, but also allowing no hope of greater benefactors in the future; and since the birthday of the god first brought to the world the good tidings residing him.” (1) This is not a Christian inscription. It did mark the birth of one who claimed to be god, though: Caesar Augustus. It dates from 9 B.C. In Luke’s time Savior, soter, s_t_r, was a title given to Emperors, along with Divine, Son of God, God, God of God, Lord, Redeemer, Liberator, Savior of the world. (2) Sounds like Luke 2, doesn’t it?

See what Luke was doing? Hear what he’s saying? All of these titles, along with other birth proclamations for the Emperor, would have been familiar in Luke’s church. He would have known about the birthday celebrations of Caesar and so would have the early church. Here we see just how courageous the early Christians really were. To use them to refer to the “new born Jesus is either low lampoon or high treason.” (3) The good news – the good tidings – God’s army of angels bring to the world, to you and to me that deafens every other competing voice is this:
Jesus is the true Benefactor of benefactors, not Caesar.
Jesus tends to the needs of his people, not Caesar.
Jesus is the true savior, not Caesar.
Jesus – and only Jesus – as Savior
has the power to bring the peace of God, not Caesar.
Jesus does not offer peace achieved by imperial violence
(which is not really peace),
but the peace given through healing,
compassion, and
table fellowship,
where he invites us to sit at table in the kingdom of God.

In this way, Jesus is the true savior to a world crying out in need. Luke wants us to know: this is how a true God, a true Savior is born.

This is real joy to the world. That’s what God’s heavenly army shouts from the heavens. Glory! Joy to the world – to all people, the people, the faces of the people. For the true giver of peace is born, born for the people, for common, ordinary people – like shepherds.

What we find at the heart of this story is this astounding, radical idea – that God refuses to be God without us. For you shall name him, Emmanuel, “God with us. (Matthew 1:23)” It is God’s graceful determination to not be God without us, to get mixed up with our humanity and not be God without it, without our flesh and blood, because he comes to save, to liberate, to redeem, to restore, to bring light to the darkest recesses of our souls. This is what the Incarnation of God announces to us that Jesus was born to live and in and through his living, he saves.

On this night we listen to a very old story that is ever new and real. It’s for this world, with all of its aches and pains, its sorrow and suffering that God comes down and comes close. It’s for you and me, for the faces of our loved ones, the faces of people we miss tonight of all nights, the faces of strangers we meet, the faces of children, hungry faces, tired and broken faces, young and old alike; faces of the unemployed; faces of people this night struggling with disease; the faces of our armies at war; faces of people who are alone, tired, confused, worried, people who are looking for a little peace. God comes to the world to save us from everything and everyone who seeks to destroy our lives. Whoever your Caesar might be – Caesar can’t save you, Caesar can’t give true peace, can’t give what your hearts are hungering for, can’t give us a hope that won’t disappoint.

There’s a choral piece written for this night. This is the text:
The hills are bare at Bethlehem,
No future for the world they show;
Yet here new life begins to grow,
From earth’s old dust a greenwood stem.

The heart is tired at Bethlehem,
No human dream unbroken stands;
Yet here God comes to mortal hands,
And hope renewed cries out: ‘Amen.’
(4) Amen. Yes!

To a real world, full of broken dreams, God has come to save. “For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:17)” Into the world, to the world, in this world, in the darkness we proclaim the light. And never denying all the challenges of reality we face daily, into this real world comes the message that has the power to claim us and overwhelm us and even ravish us: God’s joy. By God’s grace we are called to bear to the world, God’s unspeakable joy. God’s joy. So let us live and so let us sing.


Photo: Duccio Di Buoninsengna (1308-1311), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

1. Inscription from Priene, cited in Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth (HarperOne, 2007), 160.
2. Borg & Crossan, 63.
3. Borg & Crossan, 63.
4. “The Hills are Bare at Bethlehem, “ arr. Robert Scholz; text by Royce J. Scherf., Christmas at St. Olaf, Vol. VI, “What Wondrous Love,” (1993).

20 December 2009

The Godbearer

Luke 1: 39-45

For the Fourth Sunday of Advent/ 20th December 2009

We might expect from Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary a skeptical response, shock, surprise. But there’s nothing in the record. There’s no debate or even protest with Gabriel, there’s no, “I’m not worthy.” Instead, Luke tells us, Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word (Luke 1: 39).” There’s no argument from either Mary or Gabriel.

When one encounters the holiness of God – or God’s holy messengers – all one can do is be open to the experience, to receive it, humbly – and then share it. In the encounter with Gabriel, Mary came to know of the unfolding mystery of God’s work of salvation. Something happened and in that holy act Mary received an insight into the nature of the child growing within her. All she could do is receive this news, which is what she did. Some might view Mary’s response as unrealistic, unnatural – there’s no struggle, no doubt. But she did do something – again, she took the experience seriously and then she did as everyone who encountered the holiness of God has ever done: she bore witness to it. “With haste (Luke 1: 39),” Mary went into the hill country, to Judah, to see her cousin, Elizabeth. She had to tell someone.

This is how the God of the Bible moves in the world. Indeed, the foundations of the Greco-Roman philosophical tradition were shaken by the Judeo-Christian view that truth is not an idea, but a person. Truth, particularly religious or theological truth, is arrived at, is known through personal encounter. For example, “When speaking of how God is known, the Bible seldom speaks of insight or illumination or demonstration; rather, it says that God appeared, [God] did something, [God] showed [God]self, or spoke to someone…, the way to God begins not with arguments or proofs, [which we are wont to do in our skeptical, overly rationalistic world], but with discernment and faith.” This is because the “the Word of God makes its way not by argument but as men and women bear witness to what happened.” (1) When we bear witness to what we know, God is known.

This is what made and makes Mary so significant. She models a way for us to be open to the movement of God in our lives and then shows us how to respond to it. It’s in the midst of her witness to Elizabeth that Luke has Mary signing a song of praise in the Magnificat, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

Yes, Mary is significant, of course. But, needless to say, Protestants have been hesitant when it comes to her important role in Jesus’ birth. Martin Luther (1483-1546) speaks for many when he preached in a Christmas sermon, “…the text does not proclaim the honor of the mother,… I am to accept the child and his birth and forget the mother, as far as possible, although her part cannot be forgotten, for where there is a birth there must be a mother.” Forget the mother? How? “We dare not put our faith in the mother,” he said, “but only in the fact that the child was born.” (2) At least Luther could admit and affirm, “Mary suckled God, rocked God to sleep, [and] prepared broth…for God.” (3) However, Luther, along with the other reformers, could not support the kind of Marian devotion that evolved in Roman Catholicism through the Middle Ages, using texts like, “Blessed are you among women (Luke 1: 42) or “For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed (Luke 1: 48), as proof texts. Marian devotion within Catholicism continued and developed after the Reformation, maybe because of it. Beliefs about Mary were actually codified quite recently (without Biblical support, it must be said), such as Mary’s perpetual virginity, her freedom from actual and original sin (Immaculate Conception, 1854), and the idea that she did not die but was taken directly to heaven (Bodily Assumption, 1950). “We Protestants also get agitated about exalted language that sounds like Mary is a co-redeemer of humanity. And finally, in popular devotion the cult of Mary can drift into excess and superstition. For these reasons, Protestants emphasize a distinction that both Catholic and Orthodox believers acknowledge, that Christians honor or venerate (duleia) Mary as the Mother of God, but we don't worship her (latreia), which worship is due to God alone.” (4)

Perhaps a deeper theological claim can be made about Mary, one also shared across the ecumenical spectrum. It’s that Mary is significant because she shows us how to be receptive to God’s will. She demonstrates how one encounters the holiness of God, how we engage mystery.

The birth of God’s son is a mystery that overwhelms reason and thought; it cannot be demonstrated or argued. The ancient world made a distinction between a mystery and a puzzle. A mystery, by definition, cannot be explained or explained away. A puzzle can be solved, figured out. A mystery is not a puzzle. A mystery remains a mystery and in the presence of, engagement with, encounter with the mystery, knowledge is gained. Similarly, the birth of God’s son is a mystery – it is experienced and received with holy awe. It cannot be domesticated, made comfortable, or safe. It cannot be prettified, tamed, or contained. It cannot be put in a box, wrapped with a nice ribbon, placed under a Christmas tree, and adored from a distance. The Magnificat is Mary’s song of response to the mystery she encountered and was about to experience. It is sung in awe before the Holiness of God whose glory cannot be tame or contained, who chooses to dwell within humanity in order to redeem us and to restore us. The Akathistos Hymn, first sun for the Patriarch of Constantinople in 626 beautifully captured this image, “Hail, space for the uncontained God.”

The revealed, uncontained mystery unleashes the power of God’s redemptive work in the world. Mary’s blessing is shared with the world because of what God will do through her son. Then and now these claims – these amazing verses – are extraordinary: “He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away (Luke 1: 51-54).”

God will overturn the imbalance of power; all authority will be subjected to the authority of God. The song identifies and anchors God’s salvation in the lives of God’s people in concrete, physical, tangible ways; not only in “spiritual” ways, but in touchable, solid, real, and social ways. Through this one about to be born the proud and haughty will be scattered. God will bring down the powerful from their thrones and put the lowly ones there instead. He is coming and will be born for the hungry ones, not for those who are rich and satisfied. Radical stuff, indeed – it’s all there in the text. Now imagine this text circulating through the Roman Empire, under the nose of Caesar. This is what the birth of Jesus means in Luke’s gospel. These claims are unsettling, troublesome, disturbing, and disruptive. One of our church school teachers said to me once after reading this text, “We let third graders read this stuff?”

Mary models for us how to be servants of the mystery of God. She shows us how to say, “Yes,” to God, and through her life she bears the Son of God. In this way, Mary was literally Theotokos, the Godbearer, the title given to her at the Council of Ephesus in 431.

Godbearer. It’s a powerful image. It’s an apt description of Mary. But, I wonder, if it doesn’t also, in some way, also apply to us? Yes, Mary was special and significant. There was only one, actual, Mother of God. Yet, if Mary is held up here as a model of faithful witness and discipleship, then I wonder if perhaps Luke wants us to also claim the “Mary” in all of us – both women and men. (5) I’m not talking literally here, of course (!), but metaphorically. We are not asked literally to bring Christ into the world as she did. But are we not filled with grace? When we receive this grace, can we recognize ourselves in the salutation, “Greetings, favored one!”? Are we not, too, the object of God’s address? Can we see ourselves this way? Do we not desire to be servants of this grace? Are we not then also in some sense called to be Godbearers – Godbearers who help to give birth to the presence of God in this world through concrete, tangible, physical, social ways for all to see? Are we not called, with Mary, to do the impossible, to bear the impossible into a world that forever wants to give up on hope? Are we not called to carry signs of new life and hope with our lives to the world in the name of Christ? “Christ is born!” we will proclaim on Christmas morning. But is it not also true that Christ is being born – and wants to be born – again and again through you and me? Is this not what we’re called to as followers of Christ? In this sense, then, we are Godbearers – bearing witness to God’s amazing grace and love, God’s tidings of great joy and peace and hope.

I close with an Advent Credo, written by the Roman Catholic priest, writer, activist, Daniel Berrigan. It calls us to affirm what the birth of Jesus means, to claim it’s truth, to live from it, to share it, encouraging us to bear witness to another reality, other than what the world wants us to believe is true. (If we were in worship this morning at Catonsville Presbyterian Church, we would have shared this responsively.)

It is not true that creation and the human family are doomed to destruction and loss—
This is true: For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life;

It is not true that we must accept inhumanity and discrimination, hunger and poverty, death and destruction—
This is true: I have come that they may have life, and that abundantly.

It is not true that violence and hatred should have the last word, and that war and destruction rule forever—
This is true: Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, his name shall be called wonderful counselor, mighty God, the Everlasting, the Prince of peace.

It is not true that we are simply victims of the powers of evil who seek to rule the world—
This is true: To me is given authority in heaven and on earth, and lo I am with you, even until the end of the world.

It is not true that we have to wait for those who are specially gifted, who are the prophets of the Church before we can be peacemakers—
This is true: I will pour out my spirit on all flesh and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions and your old men shall have dreams.

It is not true that our hopes for liberation of humankind, of justice, of human dignity of peace are not meant for this earth and for this history—
This is true: The hour comes, and it is now, that the true worshipers shall worship God in spirit and in truth.

So let us [leave] Advent in hope, even hope against hope. Let us see visions of love and peace and justice. Let us affirm with humility, with joy, with faith, with courage: Jesus Christ—the life of the world. (6)

Come, Lord Jesus. Come.

1 Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 6.
2 Martin Luther in John D. Witvliet and David Vroege, eds. Proclaiming the Christmas Gospel: Ancient Sermons and Hymns for Contemporary Christian Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004), 109.
3 Cited in Time, March 13, 2005. For Protestant views of Mary see Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Mary: Glimpses of the Mother of Jesus (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1999) and Cynthia L. Rigby, Blessed One: Protestant Perspectives on Mary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002).
4 Daniel B. Glendenin, Journey with Jesus, http://journeywithjesus.net/index.shtml.
5 Kenneth E. Kovacs, Lectionary Homiletics, Volume XXI, Number 1(December 2009-January 2010): 8ff.
6 Daniel Berrigan, S. J., Testimony: The Word Made Flesh (Orbis Books, 2004).

07 December 2009

Transformation Required

Malachi 3: 1-6 & Luke 3: 1-6

Second Sunday of Advent/ 6th December

We could say that Ol’ Man Malachi needs a little Christmas cheer. He’s full of venom and judgment and warning. This is not the kind of text we really want to hear this time of year, is it? It’s not very Christmassy – at all. Instead of sugar plums, Malachi gives us soap – fuller’s soap, strong lye-based soap. Instead offering a festive spirit, Malachi gives us fire, not the warm-glow of a fire in a hearth, but a refiner’s fire, a fire’s forced-air, a white-hot blaze that melts metallic ores. With fuller’s soap and the refiner’s fire, God’s messenger prepares Israel for the coming of the Lord. “Who can endure the day of the [Lord’s] coming, and who can stand when he appears?” That’s the question before us. How does one prepare for such a day?

We're probably more familiar with the Luke text for today; we know how John asked us to prepare, bellowing out warning in the wilderness. Both texts are Advent texts because they offer some indication of what's required before the coming of the Lord. I want to focus on Malachi, for demanding as this text might sound it offers an amazing word of promise and hope, believe it or not. It tells us what is required before an encounter with God.

Malachi is the last prophet of Judah, the last book in the Old Testament. After Malachi there’s 450 years of prophetic silence. Before the end of the prophetic era Malachi extends a word of hope, “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.” Malachi, as Yahweh’s messenger, envisions a day when God will fully dwell in the temple and all will know it. Judah is tired and weary (and wearing God down with their weariness), “You have wearied the LORD with your word,” he says. The people are asking, “Where is the God of justice? (Mal. 2:17)” They are people hoping, longing, desiring for the presence of God, for an appearance of God, eager for a time when the Lord of hosts will be seen, will be tangible, fully known by them. Malachi gives them this assurance. That time is coming and is near. The Lord is coming; one needs to prepare. But he never said when. And for centuries they waited and waited for a future promised by the messenger.

Yet, the people never gave up hope. The Lord, who is coming, is on the move. Israel’s God isn’t static. Malachi has a dynamic vision of God. God is about to do something new, to show up, to make an appearance, to “stand” before their eyes. By the time Jesus was born that sense of anticipation was enormous. As a people weighed down under Roman oppression, the Jewish people we’re waiting, hoping for something to happen. That’s why the crowds were flocking to John out in the wilderness. God is on the way, so prepare. But how? That’s the question before Malachi and the question before John and the question that’s before you and me whenever we anticipate a moment of encounter.

How does one prepare for an encounter with God? For, “who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” How does one stand before the Holy One of Israel, the Lord of Hosts, the great I AM? How does one stand before Holiness? Who can withstand the penetrating gaze of the God’s piercing eyes? Who can bear the “weight of glory,” to use C. S. Lewis’ (1898-1963) wonderful phrase, who is strong enough, who is holy enough, who is good enough, pure enough? Who can withstand the awesomeness of God? (1) That’s the question.

How we prepare for a divine encounter is largely conditioned by one’s image of God. Our image of God is of paramount significance. Our images of God are more often conditioned and fashioned by psychological determinants than from a theological reflection upon who we know God to be, particularly in the face of Jesus Christ. Wondering who can “endure” and withstand the coming of the Lord might seem that God’s coming is terrible and to be feared, filled with vengeance and anger instead of a spirit of joyful expectation; more awful than awe-filled. If we see God as only a fierce judge who is coming to judge and then destroy, well that’s going to have considerable impact upon how we relate to and prepare for God. If we’re conditioned by fear, then the coming is certainly not an occasion for hope. Malachi and John both see the coming of God as an occasion of hope. Yet, a destructive God image can easily be reinforced in the way one hears this text; it all depends upon that internal interpretative filter that processes verses 3 and 4. “For [the Lord] is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers soap” – ouch. How is this good news? (2) Why should one get so excited about the coming of a God coming with fire and lye? It doesn’t make sense.

That is unless we view this text as a purification process, as something done in and through grace in order to prepare us for an encounter with the Holy One of Israel. God comes with not just any kind of fire, but with a refiner’s fire – it’s the kind of fire a metal worker uses to melt metallic ores in order to bring their impurities to the surface and remove them, to leave in place something pure, of considerable value. And fuller’s soap, not just any kind of soap, filled with lye, is used to remove the impurities from material and cloth, especially wool. There’s nothing in the text – frightening as it is – that says the Lord will come and completely annihilate or destroy. If that’s how we hear it, well then that says something about our image of God, how we view God.

Malachi tells us that something has to happen before we stand before the Lord, a purification that prepares us to stand before a Holy God. For without this we’re not worthy or equipped or able to approach the holiness of God. Yes, there is judgment here, but it’s a judgment of all the impurities, of all that is sinful within us, everything within us that distorts God’s image in us. God judges sin in order to save us. Judgment is never for judgment sake. It’s sin that is judged so that we might be free from sin. It’s the impurities within us that are purged, leaving behind something – someone – better in its place, the people we were created by God to be. God judges to save. God purges to save. All is done in order to prepare us for a face-to-face meeting with the Holy.

Malachi’s focus is on meeting the Lord and he wants to prepare us for it – for an experience, that sense of holy awe and wonder when we stand before God’s glory, the Holy of Holies, that feeling of holy fear and trembling when we stand before God, the Wholly Other – not the god of our understanding, not our domesticated and trivial notions of god, not the god who agrees with our worldview or our opinions, not the god who always reassures and comforts us, but the Holy One who disturbs and shocks and offends and challenges us with the shattering grace of presence. It’s the experience of God in burning bushes that burn and burn, yet do not consume (Exodus 3:3). Before such encounters, before this awareness of God we take off our shoes, for we stand on holy ground. To see the Lord in the temple – or in a manger – calls for a change.

All this talk of purification, refiner’s fire and fullers’ soap, probably doesn’t speak to us. What the prophet is really getting at here is transformation (or as John the Baptist would say, repentance), a change in thinking, in behavior. If we really want to experience God, really want to have an encounter with God, then we need to know that something has to change. It’s as if there’s a door and on the other side of that door is God in all God’s holiness. The door is closed. To all who wish to enter, facing us is a sign of caution that reads: WARNING: TRANSFORMATION REQUIRED.

The Swiss psychoanalyst, Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1962) said the critical turning point in analysis, when healing and transformation take place, often follows this searing realization: that “there are things higher than the ego’s will, and to these one must bow.”(3) What does it take for us to bow? It’s not unlike what Malachi and John the Baptist are saying, our hearts, our lives need to be “purified,” our impurities acknowledged, our brokenness, our sin confessed, everything that separates us from our neighbor or ourselves or God, a confession that we are not in control of the universe or of our lives. It all needs to be “burned away,” even our “virtues,” as Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) reminded us, need to be burned away, because they too have impurities that corrupt.(4) All this is done in grace, for the one doing the purifying is the Lord – who burns away all that which corrupts, all of our impurities, leaving in place the finest gold and silver, our truest holy selves as a gift to the Lord.

When you go to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, down in the undercroft of the nave there are two holy shrines. One marks the place of the manger; the other marks the site of Jesus’ birth. In order to see the site of his birth and the candles surrounding it you have to get down on your knees and look under a stone slab, you have to lower your heart and your head in order to see. This is how we “endure” or withstand or prepare for such an encounter. In a sense, we do not stand, but we bow, we kneel in awe before the coming of the Lord, before an infant whose weight of glory the world beheld with holy fear, before an infant whose weight of glory we behold with holy fear and trembling and exceeding joy.

1. C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, Edited, and with an Introduction by Walter Hooper (New York: Collier Books, 1980), 3-19.
2. Kenneth E. Kovacs, Lectionary Homiletics, Volume XXI, Number 1(December 2009-January 2010): 8.
3. C. G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Recorded and edited by Aniel Jaffé (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), 181.
4. See Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation.”