04 December 2012

Awake & Astounded: I. Stay Open - An Advent Series

Psalm 24 & Revelation 3: 14-22

First Sunday of Advent/ 2nd December 2012

            Lift up your heads, ye mighty gates,
            Behold, the King of glory waits;
            The King of kings is drawing near;
            The Savior of the world is here! [1]

These words, this hymn (which we sang at the beginning of the service) summon us to enter a new (liturgical) year, a new world, a new dimension, a new and holy space.  “Lift up your heads, ye mighty gates.”  That’s what the psalmist sang:  “Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors! That the King of glory may come in” (Psalm 24: 7).  It’s an entrance psalm, a psalm sung for a royal procession, the procession of the Ark of the Covenant up into the great temple of Yahweh in Jerusalem.  It was sung by a choir, with call and response, as the Ark, the dwelling place of Yahweh, made it’s way to the temple mount.  And as they approached the gates of the temple and its ancient doors, the choir sang to the doors, commanding the gates, to rise, to open.  Do not block.  Do not hinder.  Make way. Open up and allow the glory of God move through your threshold and permit access, so that that the walls of the temple might indeed become a sanctuary, a container, a dwelling place for the sanctus, the Holy, the Holiness of Yahweh.

             And the procession made its way to the temple because the temple is the meeting place between heaven and earth, the axis of the world, the axis mundi, the point of connection, the point of contact, the meeting place between the people and God.  The psalmist tells us, “Such is the company of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob” (Psalm 24:1).
            We, too, are in that procession, aren’t we?  We, too, are among the company of those who seek after God, who seek the face of the God of Jacob.  That’s our story, isn’t it?  Their procession is our procession, that long walk through a lifetime that’s continually searching and seeking after the face of God, the presence, the place of meeting.   The search for the face that won’t turn away is one of the deepest desires of the human heart and we are never, ever fully satisfied until we find it.  It’s what everyone desires. Whether one believes in God or not, I believe this deep hunger for the face drives the human spirit.[2]  Advent is a time when we remember – or maybe discover for the first time – the depth of that desire, when we remember the meaning and joy of the procession and return to it (or perhaps finally join it).

            Fling wide the portals of your heart;
            Make it a temple, set apart
            From earthly use for heaven’s employ,
            Adorned with prayer, and love, and joy.

            The author of this hymn text, Georg Weissel (1590-1635), a seventeenth-century Prussian pastor-theologian, takes the literal reference to a temple structure and beautifully transforms it into a metaphor for the human heart and then invites us to an internal or inner Advent.  The heart then becomes like a temple, the dwelling place, the meeting place of God.  And in order for that to happen the gates of the soul need to be lifted up, the ancients doors of the heart flung wide open to allow access. The King of glory is coming and wants to come in.  Yahweh is on the move and wants to come in, wants to live among us, to get close. Make way.

            But as we all know, this is easier said than done.  Those gates are heavy and the doors are thick.

            The Franciscan priest and writer, Richard Rohr, was recently asked the question, What do you think God is doing these days?  What is God up to?  Rohr’s answer was this:  “God is into giving away God.  That’s all God is doing is giving away God.  There’s nothing else.  That’s God’s job description.  I want to give away some more God.  And God is trying through every metaphor, every act of creation, every moment of time to reveal a little more of God.”[3] So why don’t we feel it?  Why don’t we see it?   Why don’t we experience it?  Because we put up so many obstacles and barriers and gates and heavy doors that we shut God out, we deflect God’s goodness, block God’s love, reject God’s presence, we close our eyes, and fence off our minds, and wall off our hearts.  But, why?  Why do we do this?

            Gates, doors are provocative symbols. They offer protection.  They keep us safe in our homes, protect our families.  They’re also mysterious and dangerous.  Gates stand between here and there, between the known and unknown.  They are places of transition. The ancients had great respect for thresholds, these liminal places, they could be holy, sacred places, we still have all kinds of rituals associated with them – shoes are removed before them, brides are carried over them, Jews place mezuzahs over them and Christians place crosses and a modern pagan might nail up a horseshoe or two.[4] Gates and doors can take us from what is known into the unknown, from one world into another.  And that’s why they’re potentially dangerous. 

            Can you risk opening the door?  Can you risk stepping through the threshold?  That’s what Advent is about.  The psalmist says, “Lift up the gates.”  But there’s something in all us that wants to keep them shut, tight. Maybe we’re self-satisfied with things as they are.  Maybe we’re feeling self-sufficient, that we’re happy and content and comfortable. Maybe we think we don’t need anything or anyone – even God.

            We must always be on guard when these thoughts and feelings of self-sufficiency surface – and they will – because often they’re hazardous illusions. That’s what the Spirit said to the church in Laodicea.  They were shut off in their bubble of self-sufficiency and complacency and could not see the state they were in.  As a result, they suffered from a bland indifference and paralyzing indecision.  “I know your works,” Jesus said, “you are neither cold nor hot.  I wish that you were either cold or hot.  So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”  The exact rendering here is actually stronger, something like vomit.  “For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing” (Rev. 3:15-17a).

            Laodicea was an exceptionally rich city in central Asia Minor (Turkey).  “It was so wealthy that after it was utterly destroyed by an earthquake in 60 C. E., the city proudly refused imperial disaster assistance from [Rome] and rebuilt the city completely with its own resources.”[5]  It was at a crossroads in Asia Minor, a city well known and well endowed by its textile, banking, and medical industries.  Its signature commercial items were shiny black wool and Phrygian powder, which was mixed with water to make a medicinal eye salve.  They also had a significant water problem.  The source of their water came from the medicinal springs of Hierapolis, six miles away.  By the time it made it’s way down to Laodicea, its “tepid and mineral content made the water nauseating.”[6]  The people were prone to spit it from their mouths.

            The wealth of the city made its way into the church so that the church, too, was wealthy and self-sufficient. They were not open to the truth of their condition.  “You do not realize,” Jesus said, “that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”  Jesus reproves them in love and says, Open up and see.  I offer you real wealth, refined by the fire of suffering.  Instead of black, itchy wool, I offer you white robes of cloth. And here, put my salve on your eyes, this will heal your blindness.  Jesus is quite harsh with First Church, Laodicea.  They think they’re doing the work of Christ, they think they’re being good witnesses, they think Christ is among and within them, but he’s not. 

            How do we know this?  Because he says to them, “Listen! I am standing at the door [– on the outside of the door, which they have closed against him –] knocking.  If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Rev. 3: 20).

            Can you risk opening the door?  Will you allow him to cross the threshold and come in?  Doorways can be risky places, but also holy places, sacred places.  When we lift up the gates and open the doors of our hearts – and keep them open – open long enough to welcome the movement of God’s glory across the thresholds of our lives, then something holy and miraculous will occur – I promise.  This is Advent – it’s about opening up and staying open long enough to welcome the presence, the birth of God, the face of God in our midst.

            Redeemer, come!  I open wide
            My heart to Thee; here Lord, [in my heart, Lord] abide. 
            Let me Thy inner presence feel;
            Thy grace and love in me reveal.

[1]From the hymn, “Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates,” written by Georg Weissel, was first published in 1642.  It was translated from the German by Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878) and published in The Chorale Book for England (1863).
[2] On the “search for the face,” I am indebted to the work of James E. Loder, The Transforming Moment (Colorado Springs, CO:  Helmers & Howard, 1989).  See also, Kenneth E. Kovacs, The Relational Theology of James E.Loder:  Encounter and Conviction (New York:  Peter Lang, 2011).
[3] Richard Rohr’s comments may be found here: www. http://vimeo.com/49803870.
[4]The Book of Symbols:  Reflections on Archetypal Images, The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism (Taschen, 2010), 558.
[5] Brian K. Blount, Revelation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 80.
[6] Blount, 80ff.

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