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.

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