Sunday, December 21, 2014

Greetings, Favored One! (A Sermon from Luke 1:26-38 about divine-human encounter)

Not every experience of the Divine, not every encounter with God is as momentous as Mary’s encounter with the angel in our text today, but Mary’s experience can be seen as a kind of archetypal representation of what a divine encounter can do in our lives.

Any authentic God experience generally gives us two things that are foundational to a heathy and transformative spiritual life. First, such experiences give us ground to stand on.

Luke says that when the angel appeared saying, “Greetings, favored one!” she “was much perplexed . . . and wondered what sort of greeting this might be.” Then the angel declared, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” Isn’t interesting that almost every time God appears or an angel of God appears in the Bible, the first thing the angel says is, “Do not fear?” It would seem that fearing God, being afraid of God has been a problem throughout human history.

If Mary is to stand on solid ground with God, she must let go of her fear and know beyond question that she is loved by God. Twice the angel assures her that she has found favor with God. This was not based on anything she did. This was not based on merit or status or any accomplishment. Mary is just an ordinary Jewish girl trying to get by in a very patriarchal culture. It would have been quite normal, I think, for a young Jewish girl to feel devalued and inferior.  So Mary is assured, first of all, that she is loved.

If you spend any time reading the mystics in the Christian tradition, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avilla, and others (and this is true of the mystics of other religious traditions as well) they all attempt to describe an experience of feeling loved unconditionally whereby they fall in love with God. They encounter divine Love, and that encounter changes them.

They all depict God as the initiator, the aggressive lover, the protagonist who seduces them out of their fear and their feelings of unworthiness. And the greater the experience of God as an unconditional Lover, then the greater the sense of radical acceptance, and the more energetic and devoted they are to give back to the world, especially to the poor and disenfranchised. Love is repaid by love alone. Love is reciprocal. There is no sense of trying to acquire God’s favor or climb some sort of ladder of worthiness, there are no merit badges to earn. Love is experienced and love is given back to God by giving back to the world which God loves.

This is the first thing authentic God experience gives us: ground to stand on, namely, that we are accepted and loved by the greatest Lover of all.  

The second thing authentic God experience gives us is a vast Divine Mystery to explore. In 2 Samuel 7, David wants to build God a house, but God doesn’t want a house, because once a house is built then the temptation will forever be to limit and confine God to God’s house. And so often this is what we do with our doctrinal confessions and creeds and our particular religious traditions and practices isn’t it? We limit God to the house we build for our kind of people to worship in. But once we experience the Really Real, the vastness and Mystery that is God, we become open and receptive to so much more.

I certainly did. I grew up like so many of you in a particular tradition that taught certitudes about God. For a long time I never thought to question those certitudes. I was taught that these certitudes were absolute truth and nothing good could come from questioning the truth. So for a number of years I confined and limited God to a particular house.

Now, there is nothing wrong with worshiping and serving God in a particular house, in a particular tradition. In fact, it is important to be able to call someplace home. But when we think that our house is the only house where God can dwell, then we severely limit God and our experience of God.

Only the vastness of the love of God and awareness of the vastness of the Divine Mystery we call God can set us free from our confinement to the little houses we have built.

If we hope to be able to know and rest in God’s radical grace and acceptance, then Images of God that strike fear (like “I will torture you if you don’t love me”) or simply childish images (like the Santa Claus god who is making a list, checking it twice, in order to find out who is naughty and nice) – these fearful and childish images of God (the torturing God and the Santa Clause God) have to go. Generally, though, we do not abandon such images easily – not without a struggle – and we are often wounded in the process. Maybe that’s why so many Christians avoid thinking deeply about their understanding of God; they just don’t want engage in the struggle.

A part of the struggle is letting go any need to use God or manipulate God for our benefit. I am reminded of a small boy who was writing a letter to Santa about the Christmas presents he so much wanted. He began, “I’ve been good for six months now.” Then he paused, and crossed out the word six, and wrote three, “I’ve been good for three months now.” Well, after he wrote that, he stopped again, and marked out three months and wrote three weeks. Then, after some more deliberation, he marked that out too. He got up from the table, went over to the nativity scene that had the figures of Joseph and Mary, picked up Mary and stuffed her in his pocket. Then he went back over to the table. He started a new letter, “Dear God, he began. He decided to by-pass Santa and go to even a higher source. “Dear God, if you ever want to see your mother again . . . . “

Once we experience God as Unconditional Love and Lover and realize there is no reason to be afraid, then we also realize that it is a waste of time trying to manipulate others or use others for our advantage or to use God to manipulate others. And we no longer want to. That’s the real liberating reality. We are finally able to see how childish and silly all those manipulative games are. 

Mary found herself grasped by love, held on to, chosen by a greater Someone, and that gave her the courage to participate in a larger story. Standing firmly on that ground, held and gripped by loved, she found the courage to say “yes” to God’s call. She was willing to be led beyond her comfort zone, beyond her house of certitudes to a new place. She had to leave her safe place, but she found a better place (not as safe, but better) in God’s love and purpose.

Mary would indeed be wounded in her participation in the Love and Mystery of God. In saying yes to God she said yes to the struggle. She suffered a questionable reputation and gave birth to a son who would break her heart, who would be crucified by the Romans as an insurrectionist. Mary found no security in her circumstances. She found her security in God – in God’s choice of her, in God’s love and acceptance, not in her status, or name, or reputation, or place in the world.

Mary personifies the entire mystery of how salvation is received. She  functions as the ideal disciple in Luke’s Gospel. She epitomizes trust. She trusts God to lead her into the mystery. Can we?

I see the angel as a symbol for our own experience of God, which is almost always inner experience. It is the experience that tells us that we are loved. This was Jesus’ experience when he heard the Divine Voice say, “You are my Beloved Son, on whom my favor rests.” I suspect that the writer of 1 John was trusting his inner experience of the Divine, which he calls an anointing, when he spoke about God being love. He wrote: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love, does not know God, for God is love.” Obviously, the kind of “knowing” he is talking about is experiential knowing, not academic or informational knowing. He goes on to say that love casts out all fear and that to abide in love is to abide in God, for God is love. Wherever love is at work, God is at work.

This is the true ground of being. This gives Mary the courage and faith to surrender to a greater purpose and mystery that she does not fully and will never fully understand. Mary’s trust and surrender to this great Mystery and Love is beautifully expressed in 1:38: “Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Author Sue Monk Kid tells about finding an old bundle of Christmas cards while poking around in the attic looking for a picture frame. As she sifted through them she found a card that had meant a great deal to her one year when she seventh months pregnant. She was terribly tired of waiting and yearned to hold her baby in her arms. Then the card came. On the front was Mary, great with child, and inside were the words, “Let it be.”

Kidd felt a kinship with Mary; she felt as if Mary had come to show her how to wait through her pregnancy. She writes, “Don’t fret so, the card seemed to say. You can’t control the life in you. It grows and emerges in its own time. Be patient and nurture it with all your love and attentiveness. Be still and cooperate with the mystery God is unfolding in you. Let it be.”

The late Henri Nouwen wrote of his own experience with regard to the spirituality of Christmas: “I realized that songs, good feelings, beautiful liturgies, nice presents, big dinners, and many sweet words do not make Christmas. Christmas is saying “yes” to something beyond all emotions and feelings. Christmas is saying “yes” to a hope based on God’s initiative, which has nothing to do with what I think or feel. Christmas is believing that the salvation of the world is God’s work, not mine.”

Some context here is important: Nouwen wrote that personal word as a struggling workaholic. It is God’s work to redeem the world. Indeed, it is, but God works through incarnation. This is what the Christmas story primarily tells us. So Christmas is not only believing that the salvation of the world is God’s work, it is also accepting our part in God’s work to save the world. It is God’s work to save the world (to heal, transform the world), but it is our part to say “yes” to our participation in the salvation of the world, and we can start by saying yes to God’s work in our own hearts and lives right now. We can say “yes” to God’s love right now, and allow God’s endless flow of grace and goodness to wash over us, to immerse us in something much larger than ourselves, to fill us and overflow into all our relationships and all the other aspects of our lives. It is God’s work to save, to redeem, to heal, and reconcile; but it is our work to create space and opportunity for God to work both in us and through us.

God does this extraordinary work in and through ordinary people. Mary was so very ordinary. There was no special heroics or holiness that commended her for this task. That God would dwell in these flesh and blood bodies and in this material world (which is what incarnation teaches) is truly extraordinary isn’t it?

The great mystery is that we cannot not live in the presence of God. We are totally surrounded by God all the time and everywhere. The prayer attributed to Saint Patrick captures it well: God beneath you, God in front of you, God behind you, God above you, God within you. We do not earn this. It’s all a matter of being tuned in, being aware, being able to trust and surrender to this Greater Love and Mystery at work everywhere all the time.

Mary was willing to trust and surrender to this Great Love and Mystery that allowed the Christ child to be formed in her. What about us? Are we willing to trust and surrender to this Great Love and Mystery, to create the space and time and opportunity for the image of Christ to be formed in us?

* * * * * * * * * 

Our Good God, we are so distracted, so obsessed with other things – buying the right presents, decorating the house, entertaining, and so much more – that we hardly have time to think about the things we have talked about today. We thank you for this church, for this place and time where we can again be reminded of what is important, of what really matters, and how our small lives are part of a much bigger story. I pray that that each one us here will have an encounter, an experience of your love that will open our eyes to your vastness, to your abiding and surrounding presence, and to your unconditional love for each and every one. May we not be afraid to have our small, little houses come crashing down, so that we will be prodded to journey beyond our little world and see how you are present in so many ways, revealing your love and inviting us to share in it.  

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Why It’s Wrong to Use Jesus to Reject Full Inclusion of LGBT Persons in the Church.

It is practically blasphemous to appeal to Jesus as the reason for a church’s refusal to fully accept and affirm LGBT persons because Jesus was the great boundary breaker, not the boundary maker. Consider the following:

First, Jesus was the great boundary breaker in the way he broke down barriers between the “righteous” and “sinners.” The meaning of these terms in the Gospels was usually based on sectarian categories (see especially Mark 2:13-17). “Sinners” was a term applied by the “righteous” to those who did not keep the law as the righteous understood and applied it. Sinners were excluded from religious life. Jesus demolished that barrier when he welcomed all “sinners” to eat with him. Eating together meant full acceptance and inclusion. New Testament scholar James D. G. Dunn aptly summarizes:

“Jesus’ practice of table fellowship was not only an expression of the good news of God’s kingly rule. It was also an implicit critique of a Pharisaic definition of acceptability, of a Pharisaic practice which classified many fellow Jews as sinners, effectively outside the law and the covenant . . . What to many Pharisees was a sinful disregard for covenant ideals was for Jesus an expression of the gospel itself. People they regarded as unacceptable, Jesus proclaimed by word and act to be the very ones God invited to his royal banquet.”

Jesus was constantly in trouble with the gatekeepers because he consorted, befriended, and welcomed into his fellowship all those the gatekeepers ruled outside the ranks of the people of God. The exclusion and condemnation of those categorized as sinners by the righteous in Jesus’ day is analogous to the labeling and judgment of LGBT persons as “sinners” by the self-designated righteous today. 

Second, Jesus was the great boundary breaker in the way he made the whole of Jewish scripture and tradition hang on the commandments to love God and love neighbor. In Luke’s version of the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself, a Jewish leader sought to justify himself by asking, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responded by telling the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25ff).

When I was a kid in Sunday School I remember being taught many times that being a good neighbor is helping someone in need. While that is important, that’s not the main point of the story is it? The point is that the Samaritan was the enemy. Some Jews may have despised the Samaritans even more than the Romans and vice versa. And what Jesus taught by parable regarding love of enemies, he taught more directly in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:43-48; also Luke 6:27-36).

Third, Jesus was the great boundary breaker in the way he extended boundless grace by healing all who needed healing. Consider this summary in Matthew’s Gospel:

“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pain, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them” (Matt. 4:23-24). 

There were no hoops to jump through. Jesus healed all who came: women, men, children, Jews, non-Jews, poor, rich, those with or without faith . . . he made no distinction.

Fourth, Jesus was the great boundary breaker in the way he critiqued and confronted his own sacred tradition in order to bring about needed reform. This is particularly reflected in the Sabbath controversies where Jesus challenged Sabbath law (see especially Mark 2:23-3:6). With regard to Hebrew scripture sometimes he accepted it, sometimes he expanded it, and sometimes he rejected it. For example, he accepted the commandment against murder, but extended it to include anger (Matt. 5:21-24). Jesus completely rejected the law of retaliation in the Hebrew Bible and encouraged non-violent protest (Matt. 5:38-42). Jesus critiqued and challenged his Jewish tradition and scripture in order to break down barriers and move people toward inclusion, grace, and compassion. 

Fifth, Jesus was the great boundary breaker in the way he overstepped social mores and customs in order to love and elevate those regarded as inferior. In the ancient world a female was deemed inferior to a male. Polygamy was common (Deut. 21:15-17). Only a man had the right to divorce (Deut. 24:1-4).  Concerning vows, women were economically valued less that men (Deut. 27:1-7). The monthly menstrual bleeding of a woman was considered a source of the woman’s ritual and spiritual uncleanness (Lev. 12:2). Female inferiority was even built into the structure of the temple itself, with the court of women outside the court of Israel. Women were not allowed into the inner court where sacrifices where offered.

Jesus broke through the taboos of uncleanness when he healed the woman who had the “flow of blood.” When she touched Jesus, instead of rendering Jesus “unclean” Jesus rendered the woman “clean” by healing her (Mark 5:25-34). Jesus overturned notions of female inferiority when he called women disciples (Mark 15:40; Luke 8:1-3; 10:38-42). Jesus’ teaching on divorce (Mk 10:1-12) was really aimed at trying to level the playing field for women who could be divorced by their husbands for any reason whatsoever.

Again and again, in story after story Jesus crossed boundaries, tore down walls, overstepped social mores, and challenged laws, scriptures, traditions, and customs that separated and segregated people into acceptable and unacceptable categories which determined who was ‘in’ and ‘out.’ He did this in the name of “Abba” and for the cause of God’s kingdom. Jesus’ ministry as boundary breaker clearly demonstrated what God is like and what God is about.

Given the nature of Jesus’ work as boundary breaker why would anyone think that Jesus would erect barriers to exclude and judge our LGBT sisters and brothers? Some of the Jewish leaders in Jesus’ day accused Jesus of blasphemy because they felt he misrepresented God and thus violated God’s glory. They were the ones, however, who were actually misrepresenting God and distracting from the glory of God’s love and compassion. Doesn't this seem all too contemporary?

If blasphemy is understood as misrepresenting God and distracting from the glory of God’s love and goodness (as the Jewish leaders in Jesus’ day defined it), then we are all guilty on some level and to some degree. But let’s hope that in our treatment of our LGBT sisters and brothers fewer of us fall back into the same mistake the so-called “righteous” made in their treatment of “sinners.” LGBT persons are not anymore “sinners” than the rest and it’s time more churches embrace full affirmation and inclusion.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Misuse of Scripture (Southern Baptists seem to lead the way)

When our president issued his executive order giving deportation relief to millions of undocumented people in our country, as part of his explanation he quoted Scripture: “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9; also 22:21). This angered a number of conservative Christians who apparently felt they had a monopoly on the Bible.

Mark Coppenger, professor of Christian apologetics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote a piece for the Religion News Service claiming that the President misused Scripture by running “roughshod over context.”

The irony of this is that the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution in 2011 quoting this very Scripture as a basis for compassionate action. The resolution declared: “The Scriptures call us, in imitation of God Himself, to show compassion and justice for the sojourner and alien among us.” Following that declaration the Scripture the President quoted was listed along with several others.

Did Coppenger change his mind or did he never support the SBC resolution to begin with? My purpose here is not to critique Coppenger’s hypocritical hermeneutic. Mainline Biblical interpreters can easily tear his shoddy reasoning apart (see Mark Silk’s excellent critique at the same website).

The question I want to ask is: Could there be some bias at work behind the argument that the President misused Scripture? Could it be a general animosity toward our President? Could it be a commitment to a political ideology or party? Or could there be some other bias or interest at work? I can’t make that judgment, but clearly some sort of bias is behind Coppenger’s argument.

Coppenger proves the point that I frequently make about our use and misuse of the Bible. Our biases (and we all have them) influence how we appropriate Scripture for good or ill.

So why not apply Scripture with a bias toward love? This is what Jesus seemed to do in his use of Scripture. And the most enlightened biblical texts suggest as much:

“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13). “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). 

“Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us . . .”  (Eph. 5:1-2).

“Above all, clothe yourself with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col. 3:14). 

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God: everyone who loves is from God . . . Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. . . . God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:7-8, 16).

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:36-40).

If Dr. Coppenger and all the other conservative Christians who are crying “foul” at the President’s use of Scripture would allow the above Scriptures to shape their hearts, then we wouldn’t have to have this conversation.

My principle is simple: Only love provides the context for appropriating Scripture rightly.  

Monday, December 8, 2014

Gold, Circumstance, and Mud: Living in the In-Between (Isa. 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8)

Advent reminds us that we live in an in-between time. In between the historic coming of Jesus of Nazareth and the future coming of a new world of peace and righteousness. The prophet in Isaiah 40 is addressing a people in exile who are preparing to return home, but they are not home yet. And when you think about it, that’s where we all are isn’t it? The kingdom of God that Jesus announced and embodied is here, but not yet – not yet in any complete sense.

When Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God, according to the Gospels, he spoke of it both in present and future ways. In some passages the kingdom of God is clearly future. But in other passages it is clearly present. On one occasion, according to Luke, when Jesus was questioned by the Pharisees about when the kingdom of God was coming, Jesus said, “The kingdom is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!” or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you” (or we could read that as, “the kingdom of God is within you”). In another passage Jesus told the Jewish leaders that his works of healing and salvation - healing diseases, restoring the  disabled and the mentally ill, and liberating people from the demonic were all signs that the kingdom/reign of God had come upon them.

This is why Jesus declared, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Matt. 12:30). In other words, one can’t be neutral in the presence of the reign of God embodied by Jesus. In this in-between time one either stands with Jesus and the things he stood for or one stands against Jesus and the things he stood for. In the Synoptic Gospels, it is never simply about belief, it is about what we do or fail to do. We stand with or against Jesus on the basis of what we do or do not do.   

* * * * * * * * *
In this in-between time we have to live with a lot of tensions, a lot of incompleteness.
Our text in Isaiah reflects the tension between humankind’s experience of universal glory and universal frailty. On the one hand, the prophet points out that all people are like the grass that withers and fades. On the other hand, all people, says the prophet, will see and experience the glory of the Lord. On the one hand we are vulnerable, weak, subject to suffering and death. On the other hand, God acts redemptively on our behalf and bestows God’s glory upon us.

This tension between universal weakness and universal glory reflects something of the tension between original sin and original blessing. Original sin says that we are all sinners and that we need to be liberated from our sins – freed from our greed, pride, lust for power, and all the rest and healed from sin’s effects upon our lives and relationships. Original blessing says we have the potential for great good, that we are “God’s offspring” as Paul tells the Athenians in Acts 17 and that in God “we all live, move, and have our very existence.” Original sin says we all fail and come short of God’s glory; original blessing says that even in our imperfect state we reflect God’s glory, that we all have great potential, and will all eventually experience God’s glory. We are grass and we are glory, but no one is unworthy of God’s love.

When I was a junior I recall a Saturday morning basketball practice. Coach called it a practice, but it really was punishment. We were beaten the night before by a team we should have easily defeated. So he called a mandatory practice for Saturday morning. We ran and ran and ran – never touched a basketball all morning. Finally, when we were all about to drop he called us over to the bleachers for a little talk. The only words I remember was coach saying that we were all expendable. Well, he did make one exception. After he said to us, “You are all expendable,” he paused and added an exception clause, “well, maybe not Row.” David Row was our 6’ 6’’ center. He was absolutely necessary.

What we really needed to hear from our coach at that point in the season was: “You all are better than this. I know you are better than the way you have been playing.” We needed for him to believe in us. We needed practice, not punishment. We knew we had been playing poorly, we knew we were better than the way we had been playing, but we needed to hear that from our coach. Instead, what we got was: You are all expendable. Pitiful.

Unfortunately, this is the message many of us heard from our preachers and Sunday School teachers for years: “You are sinners. You are no good. You deserve to go to hell. You are unworthy. But God loves you anyway. Don’t know why God would love the likes of you but God does and that is why Jesus had to die. But you really are nothing.”  

Sisters and brothers, I don’t believe for one minute that we are nothing – that we are expendable – or that Jesus had to die because we are no good or to satisfy God’s justice or to persuade God to forgive us. God loves us because God is love. God forgives us because God is a forgiving God. God does not need to be persuaded or appeased or bought off. The reason Jesus died is because our sins (humankind’s sins) – our hate, greed, and pride had him crucified. He died because he confronted the injustices of the religious and political establishment of his people and he embodied the compassion and love of God that compelled him to care more for people than their rules. His commitment to God’s cause and his investment in the good of others got him killed. God didn’t kill him, we killed him, humankind killed him; more specifically the Romans and the religious leaders killed him, but they represented all of us. Jesus died because he was committed to our good, not because God required it.

* * * * * * * *
One evening at Christmas a pastor and his wife were called in by their four young children to be the audience for their living room Christmas play. Baby Jesus was a flashlight wrapped in a blanket. Joseph had on a bathrobe and had a mop-handle staff. Mary looked solemn with a sheet draped over her head. The angel had pillowcase wings. The youngest of them had a pillowcase full of gifts. His line was: I’m all three wise men and I bring precious gifts of gold, circumstance, and mud.

Well, that is pretty much what we are and what we bring. We are both gold and mud. We reflect God’s image, but yet we mar that image. We are God’s beloved daughters and sons, and yet how often have we failed to claim our identity and live out the reality.   But God’s love remains constant. God’s word is a word of love and as the prophet says it stands forever, and no matter how much mud we accumulate, there is gold underneath.

The little boy said the precious gifts were gold, circumstance, and mud. So often the circumstances of our lives greatly impact whether or not we ever recognize the gold that we are. Those who have been trampled on like mud all their lives have no way of knowing that they possess gold. But God knows. And God cares. And somehow, I believe, that we all will discover it. The prophet suggests as much when he says, “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people (not some people, not just the good people, not just a certain kind of people, but all people) shall see it together.”

There will come a great leveling and equalizing. The prophet says, “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” The people of wealth and might and privilege will be brought down and the poor, the disadvantaged, and the most vulnerable will be lifted up.

According to Luke, Mary sang about this in her Magnificat: “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

Why does God do that? Why does God bring down the rich and powerful and send them out empty? I’m sure it’s for their own good. I’m sure it’s for their salvation. Perhaps we all have to know what it is like to be empty before we can be filled with God’s love and goodness. Perhaps we all have to know some humility before we can see God’s glory or even our own true glory. Perhaps we have to know that we are sick before we can be healed, broken before we can be restored, in bondage before we can be liberated.  

* * * * * * * *
It is not by accident that the voice that cries out to make ready the way for the Lord is in the wilderness – “make straight in the desert a highway for our God” cries the voice. John the baptizer went out into the desert to call his people to repentance. He called them away from the temple, away from the power structures that favored the well-to-do and the privileged, away from the religion of the gatekeepers who were all about control and manipulation. He called them out into the desert away from all their kingdoms to get ready for a new kingdom. 

In order for the kingdom of God to come in any significant way into our lives and into our world, our kingdoms have to go. We cannot continue to worship at the alters of success, money, power, and control and expect to meet God and see God’s glory.

John isn’t just speaking to anyone, he is speaking primarily to his people, the covenant people, the people chosen by God to share that sense of chosenness with everyone else. John apparently felt they had become a sore excuse as a witness for God and so he calls them to repent – to change their minds about what is important and to change the direction of their lives. It’s the same for us.

According to Mark this call to repentance by John is “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” It’s the beginning because this is the way that leads to the revelation and experience of God’s glory. There can be no sustained encounter with God without repentance, for all of us turn off the path. The baptism of repentance prepares the way for the baptism of the Spirit through the Messiah.

John shows us that the path that leads to God’s glory is through a spirituality of descent, rather than ascent. It is not through prosperity but rather poverty, not through pride but rather humility, not through fullness but rather emptiness. We have to decrease so that the increase can come, so that we can experience the abundance of kingdom life. Humility and repentance constitute the way that leads to the revelation and experience of the glory of God. So we have to let go – let go of our place and privilege, let go of our lust for position and power, let go of our need to grab and grasp stuff – whatever that stuff may be.

I wonder if we one of the reasons we give more attention to Christmas than we do Easter is because the baby Jesus does not require as much from us as the risen Christ, the cosmic Lord. The first disciples didn’t proclaim baby Jesus. Mark’s Gospel doesn’t even have a birth story. Paul never referenced Jesus’ birth at all in his letters. But they all proclaimed Jesus is Lord.

A number of years ago a large department store tried marketing a doll in the form of baby Jesus. The advertisement described it as being “washable, cuddly, and unbreakable” and it was neatly packaged in straw, satin, and plastic. Biblical texts were even added appropriate to the baby Jesus. Despite a large marketing campaign, it didn’t sell. So in a last ditch effort to unload the merchandise, they offered the baby Jesus at a discount price. They featured a prominent display that declared: Jesus Christ. Marked down 50%. Get him while you can.

Maybe I’m just being a humbug but it seems to me that there is a real temptation to preach at Christmas time a marked down Jesus, nothing much more than what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” I believe that God’s living word comes to us as a call, an invitation to go out into the desert, to turn away from the gods of this age, to go out in humility and repentance, to prepare our hearts and lives to see God’s glory and reflect that glory. One of the benefits of following the church calendar, of using the Lectionary, is that we cannot avoid passages like Mark 1 that calls us to renewal, to a cleansing baptism of repentance.

Because we are gold and not just mud, because the glory of God resides in these weak and vulnerable bodies and souls, this is a high calling, a noble calling. It is a calling to be baptized with the Spirit of the Messiah in order to be collaborators, to be partners with Christ in confronting injustice, liberating the oppressed, healing the wounded, and working for a better world. 

* * * * * * * *
Our good God, forgive us whenever we think too high of ourselves and forgive us when we think too low of ourselves, help to realize that we are both nothing and everything, and though we have all fallen short of your glory, though we have all missed the mark, we are your children none-the-less and loved with an eternal love. Empower us to claim who we are – namely, your daughters and sons – and to live like it. May a bit of the glory that you are and that resides in us, be set free to shine through us. May your love and grace fill us and spill out in joy and gratitude. Amen.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A God With Skin on Her Face: Exploring the Mystery of Advent

Advent is derived from a Latin word meaning “arrival” or “coming.” The season of Advent on the church calendar marks something momentous.

Henry Nouwen, who taught at both Harvard and Yale and authored over forty books, spent the last seven years of his life serving in a community of people with mental disabilities. One Christmas, a member of their community arranged under the altar three small wood-carved figures made in India: a poor woman, a poor man, and a small child between them. The carvings were simple, nearly primitive – no features, just the contours of the faces. The figures were smaller than a human hand. But when a beam of light shone on the figures, large shadows were projected on the wall of the sanctuary, which, according to Nouwen, functioned as “large, hopeful shadows against the walls of our life and world.” Without the light, there was little to be seen, and one could pass by the figures and “continue to walk in darkness.” “But,” observed Nouwen, “everything changes with the light.”

The season of Advent invites us to reflect on and celebrate the coming of the light – the historical incarnation of the Divine in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The writer of First Timothy recited a litany used in early Christian worship that called this “the mystery of godliness,”

“Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great: He appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up into glory.”
I love what the author Madeleine L’Engle said:

“Don’t try to explain the Incarnation to me! It is further from being explainable than the furthest star in the furthest galaxy. It is love, God’s limitless love enfleshing that love into the form of a human being, Jesus the Christ, fully human and fully divine.”

Any rendering of Christianity that reduces “the mystery of godliness” to a propositional statement, a creed, or doctrinal formula diminishes its truth. Any attempt to explain it will miss the mark and likely stifle the imagination that is needed to enter into the mystery.

I love the story about the little girl who came running out of her room after a particularly loud crack of thunder during a thunderstorm. She jumped into bed with her parents and exclaimed, “Mommy, I’m scared.” Her mother calmly reassured her that everything would be all right: “Remember honey, God is with you.” She retorted, “I know, but I really want someone with skin on her face.”

Advent invites us to stand in wonder and awe before the God who became incarnate in human flesh – a God with “skin on her/his face.”

Advent also encourages anticipation of and work for a world of peace and justice. God’s historical incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth points toward the future when God’s healing and redemptive presence transforms all humanity and creation.

A minister was preparing his sermon in his study at home. His little daughter stormed in and asked, “Daddy, can we play?” He said, “I’m sorry, sweetheart, I’m in the middle of getting my sermon ready for Sunday. We’ll play later. She sighed, “Okay,” and then declared, “When you’re finished, I’m going to give you a big hug.” She turned to leave, but when she got to the door, she spun around, raced back to her father, jumped up on his lap and gave him a bone-breaking hug. He said, “Honey, I thought you were going to give me the hug later when I finished.” She responded, “I am. I just wanted you to know what you have to look forward to.”

In Jesus we are given a preview of God’s dream for the world. This is why we pray: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus offers us a glimpse of what God’s will for the planet looks like and what we have to look forward to. 

While the proper observance of Advent includes both remembrance and anticipation, Advent is not complete without the contemporary appropriation of Christ’s living presence. For without this present experience, the focus on the past and future have little relevance.

Paul wrote to the church in Galatia,

“But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law . . . Because you are his sons and daughters, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out Abba, Father (Gal. 4:4-6).”

God’s Spirit is still vindicating and validating “the mystery of godliness” as the Spirit illumines, reveals, and mediates the living presence of Christ, affirming our identity as God’s children.

Advent invites us to appropriate God’s healing, reconciling, saving presence now. The angel announced to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people; to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord (Luke 2:10-11). Matthew’s version expresses it this way: “She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).

Evangelical and progressive Christians tend to explain Jesus’ work as Savior and our present experience of salvation in different ways. I believe personal salvation is a process of conversion that, like the energizer bunny, goes on and on. As we open our lives to the light and truth of Christ’s living presence, the dark parts of our personality and ego are exposed, freeing Christ’s Spirit to rescue us from the deception and tyranny of our false selves. The Spirit works redemptively in us and through us, healing our inner wounds and liberating us from our false attachments and group idolatries. We then experience some measure of freedom from the pride, greed, egocentricity, anger, bitterness, prejudice, ignorance, and narrowness that held us in bondage.

Advent also encourages us to be awake to encounter Christ in the everydayness of life. I have had experiences where I became keenly aware of and passionately moved by God in the most common of circumstances and ordinary of places: in a casual conversation with a friend, wading in a local creek fishing for smallmouth bass, playing make-believe with my small grandchildren, sitting on a gymnasium bleacher waiting to referee a recreational league basketball game, waiting with a family while their loved one dies. God is present in all of life – we just need eyes to see and ears to hear.

The light that was and will be is now, shimmering against the backdrop of every single experience and encounter. The presence of Christ is for the present. The invitation of Advent is an invitation to open our everyday, common lives and our deepest selves to the healing, transforming Spirit of the living Christ.

(The reflections above were drawn from chapter 2, “Advent’s Invitation: Shimmers of Hope” of my book, Shimmers ofLight: Spiritual Reflections for the Christmas Season)