29 November 2011

An Advent Series: The Way Toward Birth - I. The First Step

Isaiah 2: 1-8 & John 1:1-5

First Sunday of Advent/ 27th November 2011

Come with me, dear Christian, 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, to the place of life.
Come with me down a narrow path that leads to the broad fields of salvation.

Many say they wish to take this path.  Many say they’re looking for it with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, but most never leave home, most never muster the courage to step out upon the way, many have good intentions and hope to one day; others have read-up about the way, studied its terrain, memorized stories about the journey –the stories of others who have travelled there, but have never ventured very far from the known on their own. 

            Every journey of the human spirit recounted in ancient mythologies and religions, every journey of faith requires leaving home.  The journey of the hero, the journey toward wisdom and enlightenment, the way toward salvation, requires that one sets forth down a new way, a new path, the road less travelled that makes all the difference.[1]  Dorothy Gale was wrong when she said, “if I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own backyard.”[2]  I like Dorothy, but she’s wrong here, all that we desire cannot be found in the corner of our own backyards, it will be not be offered at home.  We are called out toward a new place.  We are summoned to leave home and go where the Spirit leads.  We are invited to leave the old way behind and step out toward the yet unrealized future. 

            Abraham was called to leave home in order to meet his future.  Moses had to leave home in order to find the way toward liberation.  Mary and Joseph had to leave Nazareth in order to go to Bethlehem.  The magi had to leave home to meet the Christ child.  The Apostle Paul had to leave home to find salvation.  There’s something about the journey, the traveling, the adventure that shapes and forms who we are, which forces us to question our faith and rediscover a deeper one.  It’s only on the journey that we discover who we really are and discern what God is calling us to be and to do.  Jesus had to leave home, go off on his journey, in order to show us the way that leads toward God.

            When Isaiah says, “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD” (Is 2:5), we’re given a liturgical summons, a call, an invitation to step out on the journey toward God, to walk down a different path, to follow a different way, led by the light of God.  Isaiah offers an invitation.  It’s really more like an urgent plea:  For God’s sake, please, walk in God’s way, in this path, and not in the other path.  The prophet Isaiah is desperately warning Judah to change its ways, to turn away from its idols and obsessions and return to God. Isaiah relentlessly calls the people to give account for their wayward lives, for their falling away from the worship and service of Yahweh toward idols and the worship of “things.” He warns.  Man, does he warn. 

            The people have turned away from relying upon God toward relying upon themselves for their well-being.  He’s fed up because the people are fed up to the full – full of themselves, full of their things, full of silver and gold, full of horses and chariots, full of idols.  They have turned away from the things that matter most. They have ignored the needs of the most vulnerable among them, the needs of the orphan, and the widow.  They have focused so much upon themselves that they have rejected the needs of their neighbors.  And he warns. 

            Full of silver and gold, full of horses, full of idols – it all sounds so foreign to us, so exotic, the sins of an earlier time, cut-off and removed from us.  But they’re not. They’re actually remarkably similar to our own “sins” – we too are full of wealth; we too are full of silver and gold.  We too have our silver and gold and stock and bonds and other securities. 

            We too are full of horses, it’s called the military industrial complex, it’s called military expenditures. 1 trillion dollars full of horses for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now there are rumors of more horses needed for Iran and Pakistan. 

            And we are full of idols.  This can be summed up with two words:  Black Friday.  While we might not have ventured into a mall on Friday or withheld from online shopping, we are all complicit in a society that is full of idols, we are tempted and seduced by idols, we worship idols, we’re fascinated with things, mesmerized by all the bling.  Idols are anything that compete with our reliance and trust upon God.  Idols are our projections of self-achievement, self-congratulation, and self-security.  Idols are -isms, every –ism we encounter today are usually idols.  They are the things, people, beliefs we carry around with us, trust, never question.  Most of these idols are also our own creation. We’ve invested them with authority and power.  God has not invested them with authority and power.

            When Isaiah says, “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord,” he’s calling them – and us – to come away from our obsessions with gold and horses and idols.  Come away from the road that leads to all those things.  Come away and take a detour – repent – and go down a different road, the road that leads to God.  It’s a calling away from economic and religious accommodation to the culture as a whole, to a different way.  The implication here is that in order to travel on this road we need light, because the road we’re currently on is full of darkness – or leads to darkness.  To live full of gold, full of horses, full of idols is to live in a kind of darkness – and not even know it.

            The light of God is offered as an alternative way.  It’s the way away from one form of being and the way toward a new way of being, of renewed obedience to God, of a new relationship with God.  So, yes, Isaiah warns. And he warns. And yet, the voice of the prophet never gives up his confidence and trust in Yahweh to save, to redeem, to restore, to rebuild.   Over and over again Isaiah calls us to “Walk in the light of the LORD,” which leads down a new path, to a new place, a place of rebirth and renewal.  What Isaiah hopes for is the return of God’s people back toward God, the renewal of the covenantal relationship, the (re)discovery that they are the beloved children of God.  Judah has a long road to trod before they discover this.  Jerusalem will be destroyed and the people forced into exile in Babylon.  But it’s in Babylon, in exile, that the promise of a return starts to emerge, it’s the image of a redeemer who will come to save the people through the birth of a child who will bring salvation.

            These are the images and words of Advent and Christmas. Immediately, we begin to think of Jesus as that redeemer and savior, a child given to us, wonderful counselor.  That’s how the early church understood Isaiah, how they approached the birth of Jesus.  So as we enter Advent and move toward Christmas, these are the stories we hear – the promised coming of Jesus, the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus, Mary, Joseph. We try each year to focus on the reason of the season.  We know Isaiah’s warning rings true. We are all complicit in the over-commercialism of the season.  Advent, to some extent, offers resistance to the pull of the culture in its rush toward Christmas without taking the time to prepare for it. But it’s tough.  We want to sing Christmas carols, decorate our homes and churches, so we can be just like the malls.  There was a time in American society when homes were decorated for Christmas on Christmas Eve.  Every year churches are engaged in a titanic struggle to preserve the meaning of Christmas.  It’s tough.  It’s not surprising that many churches just give up and give in (probably the same ones which cancel worship when Christmas falls on a Sunday).
            All of which leads me to this Advent sermon series.  This year I’m not going to follow the lectionary, no apocalyptic texts from Mark, no reference to the Baptist’s voice crying out in the wilderness.  Advent hymns? You betcha! I’m not giving those up.  Instead, I want to listen for a different voice that runs through the Christian tradition which is often not heard or ignored.  It’s a voice that comes from the early centuries of the Church, from places like Palestine, Egypt, and Turkey; it’s the voice of Christian mystics and theologians who were less concerned with the facticity of the historical birth of Jesus They didn’t deny the historical veracity of Jesus’ birth.  They went deeper than history. Instead, they looked to his birth, the reality of his birth, of God taking on flesh in Jesus, becoming incarnate and dwelling with humanity full of grace and truth, as a revelation of something deep and profound in human experience.  And it’s this:  the birth of Christ reveals to us the mystery of God.  His birth, life, death and resurrection, together, sets the pattern for all of us.  By pattern, I don’t mean example.  That is, Jesus was not born only so that we might follow him.  Instead by pattern I mean that his birth reveals a pattern that we are called to participate in and that pattern, that way, that life is the very life of God being born and again and again and again in human flesh. 

            It was the early theologian Irenaeus (c.115-c.202), from France, among many others, who affirmed that, “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.”[2]  Irenaeus had a tough life, his community of faith was traumatized by persecution and yet he held on to a vision of humanity as full of divine light and presence: “For those who see the light are within the light and partake of its brilliancy; even so, those who see God are in God, and received of His splendor.”[4] The incarnation was viewed as a cosmic event through which “Divinity became human so that humanity could become divine.”[5]  In other words, divinity becoming human didn’t just happen in Jesus and for Jesus alone, but Jesus, participating in our humanity, calls our humanity into the divine life – all of us.  The Christian experience is this journey; it’s the way toward new life – our life.  It begins with birth.
            And birth, a new way, as Isaiah said, is required. The British historian Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) pointed his readers in a similar direction.  In his twelve-volume work, The Study of History (1923-1961), Toynbee analyzed the laws of the rise and disintegration of civilizations.  He argued that schisms or divisions in the soul or in the body politic can only be resolved one way.  They will not be resolved “by a scheme of return to the good old days (archaism), or by programs guaranteed to render an ideal projected future (futurism), or even by the most realistic, hardheaded work to weld together again the deteriorating elements.  Only birth can conquer death – the birth, not of the old thing again, but of something new.  Within the soul, within the body social, there must be – if we are to experience long survival – a continuous ‘recurrence of birth’ (palingenesia) to nullify the unremitting recurrences of death.”[6]  I believe that the walk with and toward Jesus is always a “recurrence of birth.”  Every time we encounter him we experience a “recurrence of birth.”

            What if every mother is Mary, every child is a kind of “Christ,” every father is Joseph?  What if Mary and Joseph are more than historical figures, but each parts of our personality?  What if God is really trying to birth something new within you?  What if God is trying to born something of God’s own life with you? What if you are, like Mary, being asked to bear the life of God into the world? What are you being ask to “father” and care for, like Joseph, something, some life that belongs to God within you?  That’s what this sermon series is about. 

            Perhaps there’s resistance to all of this, to what might appear as wacky ideas.  Or maybe you can resonate them.  Either way, they’re worth examining.  My hunch is that there’s a part in all of us that is unwilling to fully claim who we are as beloved children of God. Why is this so? No less an authority as Augustine (354-430) – Augustine – said, “The Son of God became the Son of Man that he might make the sons of men sons of God.”[7] 

            What if this Advent, what if on this Christmas morning you can celebrate the birthing of your identity as a son of God, as a daughter of God?  Is this not what Jesus came to show us?  Is this not the greatest truth we can discover about ourselves, that at the core of our being, in the depths of our psyches, that we are beloved daughters and sons of God?  Then everything else we might say about ourselves becomes secondary, secondary like silver and gold and horses and idols.

            “The Son of God became the Son of Man that he might make the sons of men sons of God.

            Our journey toward Bethlehem is also the way toward our birth.  This can happen no matter how old we might be.  So let us follow the light and step out on this journey and go where the Spirit leads us.

[1] Allusion to Robert Frost (1873-1963) poem, “The Road Not Taken,” Mountain Interval (1920).
[2] The Wizard of Oz (MGM Studios, 1939).
[3] Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies), 4. 20.7. (c. 180 AD).
[4] Irenaeus, 4.20.5.
[5] Wendy Farley, Gathering Those Driven Away:  A Theology of Incarnation (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 170.
[6] Cited in Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Bollingen Series XVII (Third Edition) (Novato, CA:  New World Library, 2008 [1949]), 11-12.
[7] Augustine, Mainz sermons, 13.1. Cited in Norman Russell, Fellow Workers with God:  Orthodox Thinking on Theosis (Crestwood, NY:  St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009), 39.