28 December 2014

Seeing Salvation

Fra Angelico (1395-1455), Presentation of Jesus in the Temple (1440-1442)
Luke 2: 22-40

First Sunday After Christmas/ 28th December 2014

“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 Jesus 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, Simeon’s talking about Jesus, but what caused him to offer such extraordinary praise to a human being? What does he see?

It’s important to note how this exchange in the Temple is marvelously incarnational: he’s lifting 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 isn’t holding a religious idea or a theological concept in his arms, but an embodied soul, a real person he not only feels, but also sees.  It’s an experience of salvation that we have here—it’s real.  You can reach out to touch it, feel it, be moved by it.  It’s an experience encountered, not in some afterlife, but in this life, here and now.  It’s an experience assuring the promise and presence of God.

For the last couple of years, experience has come to mean a lot to me on my own journey, specifically the importance of religious experience, encounters with the Holy.  Theologically speaking, we Protestants (indeed, most Christians I have found) get nervous when we put too much emphasis upon experience.  We would rather try to sum up God in our creeds and confessions, thinking we have thus defined God; we would rather talk about God rather than talk about our experience of God—or lack of experience.  We’re more inclined to reduce God (along with everything else in Christianity) to an idea or a 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.  There are plenty who say they believe in God, as an intellectual exercise, but what about experiencing God?  There are plenty of Christians who think they are “saved” because they can affirm certain beliefs about Jesus, accept him as Lord and Savior, 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, lives are changed through encounters with the Living God, not by intellectual assent or subscribing to theological ideas Encounters with God in the flesh, directly relating with the Personhood of God, that’s what transforms.  Believe me, I’m not being critical of rigorous theological thought.  We need more rigorous thinking in the Church today, not less.  As Presbyterians, we know that theology matters.  How we think informs our life.  But, sometimes, I suspect our Presbyterian penchant for theological engagement is a defense against actually encountering the One we’re trying to talk about. For, when we try to really talk about this God we eventually 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 Yeshua or Joshua.  It means, “Yahweh saves” or “Yahweh is my salvation.” The word for salvation in Hebrew yasha, meaning, “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 only 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.  

Imagine:  You’re in a fortress, a castle perched high on a hill and from the castle you look down on the plain below, you look out in every direction.  You can clearly see that there isn’t a threat in sight.  No one is trying to attack you.  You’re safe there, secure.  That feeling, security within a spacious freedom—that’s salvation.  Salvation is the free space we’re given to live in.  Yasha, salvation, means living within a wide-open space. It’s the opposite of trying to live in a tight, cramped space.  It’s a wide-open space. This means that yasha, salvation, becomes the foundation of hope and a future.  Salvation means we’re given a place to live, to breathe, and 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, offering a promising future for Israel and for Gentiles.  In seeing salvation Simeon sees a wide-open space to live, to breathe—to be human. He can breathe deeply and allow his lungs to expand with air.  That’s what salvation feels like, 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, Henrich Suso 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 cast off all his sorrows from his mind and bear them company, and that he must also dance with them, [the other angels,] 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]

It’s fitting for us to sing this morning:

            I danced in the morning when the world was begun,
            and I danced in the moon and the stars and the sun,
            and I came down from heaven and I danced on the earth.
            At Bethlehem I had my birth. 
            Dance, then, wherever you may be;
            I am the Lord of the Dance, said he,
            and I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be,
            and I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.[2]

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 turned our attention toward 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? Where have you seen resurrection?  Where have you seen signs of new birth?  It’s a helpful spiritual discipline to follow at the end of each day or after a particular season in our lives.

The more we ask these questions, looking, anticipating answers, the more our outlook and attitude and perspective begin to 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 our Blue Christmas Service during Advent. We had about six people in attendance this year.  We never have a huge crowd, but the energy and power in this space for these services is always 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 provided a space for grief and hurt and sorrow and pain, and prayed together and provided hope.  Each person at that service thanked me for offering such a space.  I’m always struck by the way the Spirit is present in these services.

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?
Where is God inviting you to rejoice?
Where is God drawing you into the dance of heaven here on earth?
Where is God inviting you to dance?

[1] Ian Bradley, The Penguin Book of Carols (London:  Penguin 1997), 150-153.
[2] “I Danced in the Morning,” text by Sydney Carter; music American shaker melody, adapted by Carter, 1963.  Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013).

1 comment:

lazarus said...

Ah yes, experience.

Two edged sword. It cuts both ways. On the one hand it is essential to our transformation in Christ. On the other hand, it has been the source of division and delusion (especially the charismatic movement and the individual who shows up saying, "God appeared to me and told me to quit my job, etc...").

I understand that that is not the point of your post. However, I would love to hear how your thoughts on the two edged sword with a view to a healthy relationship with "experience."