23 December 2018

The Coming of the Light

Fourth Sunday in Advent

I was afraid of the dark.  Like most children, I was afraid of places absent of light.  Although there’s nothing childish about this.  Who isn’t afraid of the dark?  We need the light and we fear its absence.  Light allows us to see, of course, it allows us to perceive and discern. It illumines and allows us to know what’s around us, it allows us to know our surroundings, whether we’re in a safe or threatening place. Light helps us to know. It reveals.  It opens things up. Light holds the dark, holds back the dark.  And light allows us to receive the loving gaze of another, and to see the face of one’s beloved.

When I went to sleep as a boy, my mother closed the door to my bedroom door, but not all the way, so that the light from the hallway would enter the room.  I remember lying in bed, staring at the darkness, looking at the door which, although brown, appeared black.  Around the door was a thin sliver of orange light.  The door was framed in light, and made the door look darker than it really was.  I was comforted in knowing that the light was still there, was always there, on the other side of the door.  As a boy, I was fascinated by the relationship between light and dark.  And it struck me this week, reflecting on my memory and on that of the image of the dark door, that the light was framing the darkness, holding the darkness, keeping it at bay, and therefore I felt safe to sleep, safe until the rising sun pushed away the night.

At our Christmas Concert Service last Sunday, we heard Luke's account of the annunciation (Lk. 1:26-38), Mary's song of protest and hope (Lk. 1:46-56, the Magnificat), and the tidings of joy to the shepherds (Lk 2:1-20). On this last Sunday in Advent, I would like to go “off script,” or, actually “off lectionary.” I would like to focus on a text never found in the lectionary: Zechariah's prophecy regarding his son, John the Baptist.  And I would like to zero in on one image in particular.

It’s fitting on this last Sunday of Advent, on the cusp of Christmas Eve, that we put the spotlight on the John the Baptist—the main man of Advent.  You’ll recall that Elizabeth and Zechariah, up in years, were told that they would have a son, and that they were to name him John.  Zechariah was a priestly, faithful man, yet even he couldn’t believe the news Gabriel brought to them.  So he was struck mute until after the birth of the child.  Zechariah was unable to speak all through Elizabeth’s pregnancy, he was silent for the birth of their child, mute until the child’s eighth day, when he was presented for circumcision.  Still silent, Zechariah wrote out on a tablet: “His name is John” (Lk. 1:63).  Yochanan, in Hebrew, meaning “Yahweh has been gracious.”  Fear came over their neighbors. “What then will this child become?” they asked (Lk. 66).  And then after all this time being silent, Zechariah cried out offering a song of praise and prophecy, leaving us with this remarkable canticle of promise, hope, liberation, and most of all, light.

“And you, child,” Zechariah said, speaking to his son, you, “will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins” (Lk. 1:76). John will become the one who prepares the way for the coming of the light.  “By the tender mercy of our God,” Zechariah sings, “the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Lk. 1:78-79). John is the one who prepares for the coming one, the one who brings light to the world.

Yes, Jesus was sent “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death….” In many respects, this isn’t anything new.  God was always viewed as the light of Israel; God’s presence is luminous. It’s essential for us to know that the coming of Jesus was continuous with this past, but it’s also different.  Now, in the birth of Jesus, the light of God comes among us and fills time and space in the flesh. God comes close—uncomfortably close. God enters into the brokenness of the world, in order to bring light to those who sit, who are stuck in darkness.  But how?  Where?

Light and dark. These are rich metaphors, archetypal in the way they tap into the deepest recesses of the human psyche.  Although, we tend to be existentially removed from them today because most of us never really spend a lot of time in total darkness, we’re not afraid of the dark, we just flip on a switch or press an app on our Smart Phones and we have light. What does it mean, then to say Jesus is light to those who sit in darkness?  Does this image still have the capacity to mean anything to us?  If so, it will have to mean something different for us.

What, then, might it mean for us? Sometimes we hear talk of the battle between the forces of light and dark.  But it’s more complicated than that. The dark, which is part of God’s good creation, is also good.  We’re told in Exodus that God dwells in the darkness, that’s where Moses encountered God (Ex. 20:21).  The Psalmist reminds us, “God made the darkness his dwelling place” (Ps. 18:11). Or, “Darkness is not dark to you, and night shines as the day. Darkness and light are but one” (Ps. 139:12). 

But darkness is really dark to you and me, darkness is absence; for us, the absence of light, deep darkness, disturbs us profoundly.  Maybe because we know there’s still quite a bit of darkness in this world—and there’s quite a bit of darkness in the human heart, at times devoid of light.

I recently came across a quote from L. R. Knost, editor of the Holistic Parenting magazine. She writes, “Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world. All things break. And all things can be mended.  Not with time, as they say, but with intention.  So go.  Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally.  The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you.”  I like this reminder.  She is a Christian and she writes to offer hope.  In many respects, she’s right. I like how she makes the connection between light and love. The broken world waits in the darkness for the light that is in you.  There’s more light in us, created as we are in the image of God, than we often suspect. 

But not always. I wonder whether this is true for everyone.

What if you feel so broken, so wounded that you can’t see the light within yourself? What if you can’t love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally? What then? What if your pain and sorrow, your anxiety, maybe depression, your concern over the current state of the world the stress that comes daily with one more “breaking news” story that leaves us speechless?  What if all of this makes it difficult to see light, let alone be light.  What then? What if asking to be light is just too much for us?

There are far too many who can’t see or feel any warmth within themselves.  They can’t see themselves as bearers of the light.  Maybe that’s what they were taught as children.  Maybe life has been so tough for them that it’s difficult to see the light. It’s just how they feel.  Or maybe you feel there’s some light in you, but not enough light to confront a world that feels dark.  Perhaps you feel overwhelmed by the dark.  The bright spark is tenuous. 

I was Christmas shopping this past week at Macy’s in Towson.  I struck up a conversation with the salesperson at the register.  I had several bags in my arms, so she asked, “Is all your Christmas shopping finished?” “Almost,” I said.  “So you can go home,” she said, “have a quiet evening and a peaceful holiday.”  I smiled and said, “Well, sort of….”  I “outed” myself and said, “I’m actually a pastor, so it’s kind of a busy, stressful time.”  “Episcopalian?” she asked. What does an Episcopalian look like? I thought.  “No, Presbyterian.”  What does a Presbyterian look like?  Then she said, “Say a pray for me and all of us working behind registers in malls this season. There are a lot of people who are just plain mean and nasty. I go home and pray for them, and try not to take it personally.  But it’s tough.”  I tried to joke with her a little, make her laugh, and then as she gave me my purchase, I looked her in the eye and wished her a strong, heartfelt, “Merry Christmas.”

The Sufi mystic Rumi (1209-1273) wisely said, “The wound is where the light enters you.”  As a Muslim mystic, Rumi had a profound insight into the workings of God, and had a better understanding of the incarnation than many Christians.  It’s our wounds, the places that hurt, the places that appear devoid of light and love, it’s in our weaknesses and struggles and all that comes with the fragility of being human, the flesh—that’s where God’s love chooses to enter our lives. That’s where God chooses to be born, in the messy muck of a stable and feeding trough which is sometimes our lives.  The light of God enters the world through the weakness and wounds of the flesh, not apart from them. The Gospel of John says it even better, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5).  Did you hear that?  Listen to that: Light shines in darkness.  God’s light shines—not our light, but God’s light—shines not apart from the darkness, but in the darkness, in the darkest places in us and in the world, which means we don’t have to be afraid of the dark.

In Anthony Doerr’s novel All the Light We Cannot See, we are drawn into the lives of two children just before the Second World War.  Marie-Laure in lives Paris and Werner lives about three hundred miles to the east, near Essen, Germany.  The novel is written in such a way that we imagine the world through their eyes, what we imagine them seeing and experiencing as Europe is about to be swallowed by darkness.  Marie-Laure, however, is blind.  Her world is always dark and yet she “sees” through her imagination, and we begin to view the world as we imagine for her what’s unfolding around her. Werner lives in an orphanage with his sister, Jutta.  Light is a theme that runs through the novel.  Late one night, after Werner and Jutta were supposed to be asleep, Werner pulls out an old shortwave radio, hooks the antennae out the bedroom window, and soon hears “scratchy broadcasts” coming from Russia, London, Rome, Berlin, and one coming from somewhere in France.  A man is talking with a French accent, talking about light.  The voice says: “The brain is locked in total darkness, of course, children….  It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light.  And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light.  It brims with color and movement.  So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?” “…Open your eyes,” concludes the voice in the night.[1] The mystery of light and darkness in us, embedded within us, the fact that light shines in darkness, and darkness can even generate light, allowing us to see, just consider how awesome this is!

One of my favorite writers is Robert Macfarlane.  Fellow at Cambridge University, he has written remarkable books on walking, following old paths, a book on our fascination with and relationship to mountains and mountain climbing.  He’s mesmerized by words, especially forgotten words in Old English, Scots, and Gaelic used to describe the natural world.  I follow him on Twitter, where he posts a word a day.  Several weeks ago, he introduced me to a new word: “quaquaversal,” meaning, literally, “wherever-towards.” It means “dipping or emanating in all directions from a central point.” It was originally a geological term; but a person, thought, event, artwork, etc., may also be said to be “quaquaversal.”  Macfarlane says, it’s, “A relishably precise term for a radiant quality.”

A person, thought, or event emanating in all directions from a central point. It emanates from a central point and moves “wherever-toward” everything else.  Quaquaversal.  As it emanates, and moves out and moves in, it fills every available space, not unlike light, which breaks forth upon us like the dawn and fills all in all. 

I love this image and this word, because it resonates, or, better, illuminates what the birth of Christ might have meant for his first followers, what it could mean for us today.  It illustrates what his birth—and his entire life—meant for those who encountered him, those who allowed themselves to be filled with the quaquaversal-quality of his light.  There was something then—something still—about the birth of this child that brought and still brings light to our lives, a light that pushes the darkness away.  Or, perhaps better, it’s the kind of light that illuminates and holds the darkness, frames the darkness, fills the darkness, and helps us to see what previously was lost in shadow. And his light has the power to illuminate all things because the source of his brilliance is love.

Love and light are always linked. Because it’s really love that brings all things to light and, therefore, to life. The naturalist John Muir (1838-1914) once said, “One can only see by loving; love makes things visible and all labor light.”[2]  Love brings us to light.

And this light, this love, this life cannot be wished or forced or controlled or earned or manipulated.  The ever-wise Annie Dillard put it so well, “I cannot cause light, the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam.”[3] That’s all we can ever do.  We place ourselves in the way of Christ’s light.  His light, the path of his beam is always coming toward us, is always about to dawn upon us, and fill us.  As Zechariah knew, this light, this love, this “tender mercy of God” (Lk. 1:78), is freely given by God, it’s all grace.  And as Mary modelled for us so well, for both women and me: “Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’” (Lk. 1: 38).  Like Mary, we are invited to put ourselves in the path of his light.  Like Mary, we are called to be receptive to what is always coming toward us, to what is being given to us, to what is being offered to us, to what of God is being born in us and through, to that new horizon of hope and liberation and salvation about to open before our eyes by the light of God’s love.

“For in those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus…”—in those dark days of Caesar, the dark days of Caesar oppression sword, in those days, a light was born, to “guide our feet into the way of peace” (Lk. 1:80).

[1] Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See (London: Fourth Estate, 2014), 48. 
[2] Cited in James B. Hunt, Restless Fires: Young John Muir’s Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf in 1867-68 (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2012), 49. And on the luminosity of darkness, see Jungian analyst Melanie Starr Costello’s reflection here.
[3] Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Harper Perennial Modern Classic), 38.

09 December 2018

The Wilderness Calls

Luke 3:1-6

Second Sunday of Advent

Most Saturday mornings he was there in the center of town, near the Victorian fountain in Market Street, not far from the cross-mark in the cobbled street where reformers were burned for heresy during the Reformation. On Saturdays, the streets of St. Andrews, Scotland, are busy; they’re bustling with shoppers, townsfolk and country folk, farmers in town to do their shopping for the week; there are book stalls and bake stalls and food stalls set up in Market Street, the main street of St. Andrews, the center of the community. Most Saturdays Jeremy was there in Market Street near the fountain, dressed smartly in a tweed jacket and waistcoat, with a bendy-Bible in one hand and the other outstretched as he proclaimed a word of warning and repentance.  He was a member of the Gospel Hall, an evangelical mission, which has been in St. Andrews for decades. There he stood, like a modern-day John the Baptist, preaching a word of warning and judgment, calling people to repent and accept Christ as savior.

I know his name because Jeremy lived in David Russell Hall, where I too lived at the University of St. Andrews.  We were about the same age.  We were both postgraduates; he was studying English literature. We had meals together, often on Sunday afternoons. He was from England. He was a nice guy. Kind. He walked with a slight limp. We were never close. We never talked about theology or church. He knew I was a minister. He walked or cycled, almost daily, on his way into town, right past the church that I served in Hepburn Gardens/

Sometimes I would stop and listen to him from a distance.  I was curious.  To be honest, he was a bit of a curiosity.  The other guys in the dorm didn’t know what to make of him—they didn’t know what to make of me, either, but in a different way.  I was a conventional minister (although, that, too, was certainly odd).  I did my “thing” on Sunday mornings behind a pulpit within the safe confines of a very traditional, established Church of Scotland.  Out of sight, out of mind.  He did his “thing” on Saturday mornings, out there in public for all to see, exposed, vulnerable to suspicion and judgment, and sometimes even ridicule. We were very different, still brothers in Christ.  We were both preachers.  But he was the evangelist.  “But am I not also an evangelist?” I wondered.  Sure, in a way.  But isn’t that what I’m supposed to do, too?  Could I do what he did on Saturday mornings? Not with the same message, mind you, but a different message.  Could I imagine my voice echoing through Market Street?  I don’t think so.

For most, today, the image of a street-corner preacher pronouncing God’s judgment is a caricature, a curiosity, an oddity, not unlike the character of John the Baptist.  John doesn’t seem to fit anywhere. Sure, we know he’s an integral part of the story, but how many of us take him very seriously? He’s on the stage for a while, moves the narrative along, then he decreases so that Jesus can increase (Jn. 3:30). John drifts away into the shadows and just stays there out in the desert.  Episcopalian preacher-writer-theologian Fleming Rutledge says of John the Baptist, “After two thousand years, he still stands there, irreducibly strange, gaunt, unruly, lonely, refractory, utterly out of sync with his age or our age or any age.”[1]  Rutledge calls John, “the main man of Advent.” 

John and Advent: they make a good pair.  We don’t know what do with John, like we don’t really know what to do with Advent. Both make us uncomfortable.  Perhaps we would be more receptive toward the season of Advent if it didn’t come right before Christmas. Advent has morphed into a season of preparation for the coming of Christmas—we’re guilty of doing of this, just listen to way we talk about Advent as getting ready for the baby Jesus—instead of it being a season that’s supposed to stand on its own, which prepares us to live in this in-between time, live in ordinary time, as we wait for Jesus to come again.

 In fact, Fleming Rutledge suggests in her latest book Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ, that, “of all the seasons of the church year, Advent most closely mirrors the daily lives of Christians and of the church, asks the most important ethical questions, presents the most accurate picture of the human condition, and above all, orients us to the future of the God who will come again.”[2]

Advent, like John the Baptist, calls us to wake up and see who we are and calls us to repentance. It’s a call to change: For the love of God and all that is good, change!  Come clean. To be honest about ourselves and the state of the world that we find ourselves in. Take off our blinders.  It’s time to confess our complicity in the world’s injustice, confess our sin and brokenness and rebellion against God’s desire for the world.  It’s time to acknowledge our divided, wayward, crooked hearts that can’t find the way that leads to salvation.

When we prepare for Jesus’ coming, we need to remember that John and Jesus are cousins (Lk. 1:5-24; 39-45), they share a common lineage, they are a team, one leads the way to the other.  In order to receive Jesus when he comes, in order to receive his joy, we need to hear John’s message, again and again.  John’s brutal realism, his honesty about the often-grim reality of our lives leads the way for Jesus, he reminds us why a savior has been given to us, why we need a savior in the first place.

But we often want Jesus without John, Jesus without the judgment.  We don’t really want to hear his message; maybe in Lent when we’re supposed to wallow in our sin, not weeks before Christmas joy. Instead, Advent whisks us away into the wilderness with John, far from visions of sugarplums and “all is bright, all is calm,” deep into the wilds of Judea.  Luke wants us to know something essential: the only place we can prepare for the coming “salvation of God” (Lk. 3:6) is in the wilderness, which means that we have to go there, to the wilderness, in order to hear this word of promise and hope.

In BrenĂ© Brown’s recent book Braving the Wilderness, she helpfully describes what we know the wilderness to be.  “The wilderness is an untamed, unpredictable place of solitude and searching.  It is a place as dangerous as it is breathtaking, a place as sought after as it is feared. But it turns out to be the place of true belonging, and it’s the bravest and most sacred place you will ever stand.”[3] If you’ve spent any time in truly wild, remote places, you know this to be true.

Yes, sometimes, often, we need to go to the wilderness to hear the Baptist's call.  We can’t hear his voice in the tamed places where we live, in safe, comfortable, predictable, familiar places.  The voice of God is often best heard in wild, unfamiliar, even hostile places, beyond our control, on the edge of things.  That’s where the prophets lived and preached, out there on the edge; even today, the prophets are out there on the edge of things.  Perhaps only there can we prepare for the coming of our salvation, only there can we hear the Baptist’s voice, clearly hear his word of warning, but also of hope.

So, what are we supposed to do? Spend Advent in the dessert? (That sounds nice, actually. Maybe at a desert spa?) Do we have to go off to a secluded place, live in isolation? Go to the mountains? Spend time in a monastery?  Not in Advent—we’re too busy.

~  ~  ~

What if the wilderness is nearer than we suspect? What if you step out into the wilderness the moment you cross the threshold of this sanctuary? Let’s flip things around. What if the church is the familiar place, the tame place, the well-ordered and civilized, comfortable and predictable place? What if the church has become the place where it’s tough to hear the Baptist’s cry, and difficult prepare for the coming of our salvation?  Within the walls of the sanctuary we’re easily cordoned off, safe from “the world.”  Here we do our “church” thing, I’m hiding behind a pulpit, you’re tucked in the comfort and familiarity of your pews, maybe lulled to sleep by the routine of our rituals. Yes, sometimes it’s tough to hear the Baptist’s voice in the church.  What if the church is not the best place to prepare for Jesus’ coming?  What then? 

Maybe Jeremy has something to teach us. 

I write the sermon most weeks in my study in the Church House; sometimes at home, but usually in the Church House. This week, for some reason, I felt drawn to write away from the church. I wrote this on Friday afternoon on the second floor of Atwater’s, the coffeeshop not far from here on Frederick Road.  It’s a very different experience writing a sermon in a public place; perhaps that’s where a sermon should be written, in a public space.

Luke tells us that a voice cries in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” And we hear that voice best in the wilderness. 

So, what if the wilderness for Christians these days is just out beyond the walls of the church, beyond this community, simply living and learning and listening for the voice in the wild beauty of the secular, in the world, in the ordinary, seemingly Godforsaken irreligiosity that surrounds us all the time?  What if that’s the wilderness for us these days?  What if we prepare for Jesus’ coming beyond the walls of the sanctuary, beyond the Church House, beyond the confines of my study, beyond the boundaries of “church,” out there in Market Street or Main Street or any street, right there on the street where you live?  What would that look like?  Our society these days—where we work, where we shop, where we go to school, where we live—is the wilderness, feeling untamed and wild, dangerous and breathtaking, confusing and overwhelming, out of control, maybe even hostile—all at the same time. The wilderness is the place where, right now, we are being challenged, where our beliefs are being tested, living on the edge, feeling unsure, unsettled, maybe brought to our limits.  

It’s here—or, rather, out there, in those places, beyond the walls of the sanctuary—where we need to really listen for the Baptist’s voice, where we need to search for the highway, the way upon which God’s salvation is coming toward us through the deserts of our lives.  It’s out there, in the so-called “secular” spaces that we need to listen for the voice, find the sacred, where we need to listen for the coming birth of Christ, even in places of apparent Godforsakenness—like a shopping mall on the Saturday before Christmas Eve, even in the chaos of the crowds, in all the materialism and crass commercialism of this season—and there’s a part of me that loves all of it!—we can hear the Baptist’s voice and prepare for Christ’s coming among us.

Let us be brave and step out into the wilderness.  How will you prepare for his coming in the wild places of your life?  Right where you live, at the crossroads of your life, can you hear the Baptist crying out to you?  

Image:  Christmas Lights on 34th Street, Baltimore, Maryland.

[1] Fleming Rutledge, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), 277.
[2] Rutledge, 1-3.
[3] Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone (Random House, 2017), 36