Isaiah 35:1-10, Magnificat, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11
This is the third sermon in my series on the inner experience of God. This series is not going how I expected it. I had expected to focus this week on Mary. We just read responsively her famous song, the Magnificat, her ecstasy upon her pregnancy. She’s had a unique experience of God.
The character of Mary belongs to the Gospel of Luke, which we read every third year. The Gospel of Matthew takes the nativity from Joseph’s point of view. Matthew is more traditionally masculine. If Luke is Puccini, Matthew is Verdi. If Luke is Mozart, Matthew is Beethoven. Luke is Leonardo da Vinci, and Matthew Michelangelo. If Luke is ecstasy, Matthew is agony.
We will stay with the male viewpoint, with the agony of John the Baptist, and throught that find the ecstasy.
John the Baptist had expected great things from the Messiah, which things did not happen. He expected a revolution, he announced a regime change, which is why he was in Guantanamo.
But the leader he had pointed to was not leading it. The teaching and the miracles were nice, but not the Messiah’s job. We need a leader, not a teacher. We need a king, not a preacher. We need a commander, not a healer. So Jesus, no hard feelings, should we be expecting someone else?
The disappointment of John the Baptist is like the disappointment of that parishioner whose questions led to this series of sermons: How come I don’t feel like I have God in my heart, like other people do? Yes, where’s the benefit? If we can’t feel God, then why not stay with what we can feel—material things, food and drink, sex, exercise, yoga, or ordinary social relationships?
What can I expect in the experience of God? Should I feel Jesus inside me? Is the feeling discernibly distinct from my ordinary feelings? John the Baptist thought the Messiah would bring a discernible change in day-to-day events, that the power and glory would be undeniable.
Well, Jesus can explain himself. He has to be careful, because if says directly, Yes, I am the Messiah, then King Herod will arrest him too, because King Herod has the same expectations as John the Baptist, though opposite desires. Jesus does not regard it as the time and place to declare himself so directly. He has to reserve his royalty for the throne that is the cross.
But in the mean time, to any one with eyes to see, he is able to explain himself. The blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the dumb speak.
Please note how Jesus is not a typical revolutionary. How little he changes things. In a real sense his miracles are not even supernatural. It’s nature he’s restoring as nature should be. He makes the lame to walk, not fly. His power as Messiah is not to do the radical and supernatural in the world, but to restore the ordinary world to how the Creator intended it, and to reveal within it where its Creator intends to take it. The only difference between the world he points to and the world we’re used to is the removal of the power and corruption of human sin.
Religious people so often look for the supernatural, the radically different, the miracle which is inexplicable. It appeals to the ancient love of magic and the modern love of getting high and the lure of special knowledge for the special class. It’s often as innocent as desiring a sacred pill to get us through a life which otherwise is nasty, brutish, and short.
Now it’s true that in special cases, for the sake of a special mission, God comes to people in special ways. During World War II, the German Resistance theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was in a Nazi jail, and he reported in his letters home that occasionally Christ had come to be with him in his cell. When his friends wrote back to ask how they could get similar experiences of God, he answered in some exasperation that they had the normal encouragements of family and church and music, and all he had was this special experience of God, to compensate.
I have told you about my single direct experience of God, at 857 President Street. It was when I was at my lowest, and discouraged in my ministry, feeling my failures and my weaknesses. One day while I was in prayer, repeating a Psalm, I suddenly felt the presence of Jesus next to me. And it was not Jesus in my heart, but Jesus, somehow in the Word of scripture, next to me. And then suddenly he left, and has not come again. But I knew at once that is was for my mission, and since then I do not doubt my ministry.
Should I look for this kind of thing? No. Thou shalt not covet. It was a gift, not a possession. Too bad many Christians chase such feelings, and when the thrill is gone, they lose their faith.
The world that God offers us is the ordinary world. It is not a supernatural world, but this world, fully moral and spiritual. God gives us eyes to see the birds, not the future. God gives us ears to hear our neighbors, not the angels. The difference in the world God offers us is a moral difference, the removal of sin and guilt and corruption.
Thet moral difference is greater and more inclusive than we expect, the moral difference has a profound affect on many, many things, from family life to the economy to the soil to the weather to our physical well-being. The prophecy of Isaiah is of the world of nature coming to flower and full fruition. We are so used to a world that is corrupted that we cannot even imagine a fully moral world in all its consequence. And we might not even welcome it, considering the changes in ourselves to make us fit to live in it.
What we like is this world as it is, only in our favor. We like this world to be nice to us and we can stay the way we are. We like the presence of God to be the continuation of our current expectations. We like the experience of God to satisfy our current appetites, even as corrupted.
Look, our experience of God will not be what we demand, and yet it will be very natural. It will be real, but not as we expected it, and it will even judge our expectations. If we stand by our demands we may will miss it. If we are compelled by our felt needs we may miss his gifts, and our agendas leave no room for his agenda. But if we get past our stumbling blocks, if we get past our offense at him, if we give in, we are set free.
You get the healing of your own nature, the fulfillment of your creation. You will feel the presence of God in feeling yourself, for once, as God intended you to be. Your experience of the Spirit is your experience of yourself as God intends you will become.
What’s coming to birth in you is you. The Virgin Mary is unique in giving birth to God. What's in you is you, what the Holy Spirit conceives in you is the new birth of yourself. Your ecstasy is the feeling of that new self in you, moral and spiritual, and that is from God’s presence in you.
That is not the typical modern kind of self-discovery, of searching for your own authentic self. You cannot perform, you have to receive it. It has to be directed from the outside, it is conceived in you by the Spirit of God and its genetic code is the Word of God. And that takes openness, prayer, and study.
There is no substitute here for the Word of God. Yes, the scriptures, and the hearing of the scriptures in the community, in this local community, and the great community of Christians across the ages. There is no magic to the Bible, it isn’t quick, it takes time and patience, and studied openness.
But when we read the Bible, in patience and humility, and in community, it gives us the world back. It gives us back the natural joy of the world that we’re supposed to have. Not the world as we have made it, but the world as God intends it. We can already sense it and rejoice in it, and we can rejoice in ourselves as part of the world.
So when others forgive us, we can learn not to be ashamed of that forgiveness but to enjoy it. We learn to rejoice, not in what we achieve, but in what we are forgiven of. We rejoice not in what we have, but in what we are being given. I can tell you that that the enjoyment of your own forgiveness is the doorway to the joy and wonder in the world that God is giving you.
Copyright © 2007 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.