Saturday, December 28, 2013
Isaiah 61:10—62:3, Psalm 147, Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7, John 1:1-18
Our gospel lesson for this morning is also the ninth and final reading in our Christmas Eve service. I’m the one who gets to read it, for which there is precedence, but I admit my self-interest. It’s the moment when Christmas finally arrives for me. To that point my Christmas Eve is all about liturgical management and people management, and I am not a first-class manager. But all the details and distractions are pretty much done with by the time we get to the ninth lesson, and I get to stand up in the darkness and read it: “St. John unfolds the great mystery of the Incarnation.”
The Incarnation is claimed in verse 14: “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we have beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” I’m not going to preach on that today, but on the previous two verses, which are about you, and how you are children of God: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” That’s you. You were born of God.
It’s remarkable that the birth which St. John presents in the opening of his Gospel is not the birth of Jesus but the birth of you! You, believer, are a child of God because you were born of God.
No you weren’t! You were born from your mother. You are the child of your parents. So this is a metaphor, but it’s a very basic metaphor of Christianity. Remember the song that Michael sang for us: “If anybody ask you who I am, who I am, who I am, if anybody ask you who I am, tell them I’m a child of God.”
Judaism does not typically speak this way. Jews regard themselves as Children of Israel, of the guy who was the grandson of Abraham, and for Jews it’s more literal than metaphorical. The Torah never calls God “our Father,” and the psalms and prophets do so only rarely. Islam never, ever calls God a father, and Muslims don’t call themselves the children of God; indeed, the very word “muslim” means a willing servant who submits to God.
This “children of God” language of the Gospel circles back to the natural religions and the mythologies which claim that we’re descended from the gods. But we’re not! We are descended from the same primitive primates as the monkeys are. And so was Jesus — at least within his human nature, which was a fully human nature. And yet uniquely he was the son of God, the only begotten child of God. His unique identity as the Son of God is the stone cast into the water, and your identity as God’s children is the expanding ripples on the water.
Let’s explore the metaphor. A first point of the metaphor is that you belong. To be a child is to belong, and to belong to someone other than yourself, but with a belonging which is different than ownership and being owned. It is a belonging which is not contractual, it’s not even covenantal, it’s a belonging which you cannot break. Yes, you can be at odds with God, as children can be at odds with their parents, and yet they have a connection which is deep and tough and physical and emotional and is broken only by violence against nature.
You belong to God in a way which was not your choice any more than being born was your own choice. So that you can have that easy sense of belonging, that sense of security, which children have within their families if their parents do their job. So you can presume the security and the comfort of having been born of God.
Galatians puts it differently. What St. Paul writes is that we are children of God by adoption, not by birth. How different does that make it? Adoption can be a dicey thing. My youngest sister and brother are adopted. It took some time for them to feel like they belonged. And it wasn’t easy. They didn’t have that physical connection with my parents that we older ones had, that genetic connection which reinforces the belonging.
And yet somehow, over the years, my adopted brother connected with my father in many ways more powerfully than did the rest of us, and it was he who gave the eulogy at my father’s funeral. Perhaps it was more powerful because there had been some choice in their relationship, some moving toward each other. Those two had a friendship that the rest of us did not have. Adoption can be a stronger connection than natural descent. And what my brother emphasized in his eulogy was the Christian faith that my father had bequeathed him, which he felt he would not have inherited had he not been adopted.
The point that St. Paul is making is that childhood means inheritance. Not genetic inheritance so much as cultural and legal inheritance. You are God’s children, even by adoption, in that you inherit things from God. In many genetic ways I am like my mother. But my inheritance from my dad is very great.
Think of it. He was a Reformed Church pastor from Paterson, New Jersey, who was serving a church in Brooklyn, New York. I should change my name to Marvin Meeter Jr. (Probably the name “Marvin” is hip again somewhere in Williamsburg.) Some of my siblings miss my father more than I do. I feel like I’m reliving him in many ways.
And that’s another meaning of the metaphor. If you are God’s child, then God is living on in you. God’s eternal life is in your life right now. God is always present with you. You’re not much different from other people, except that there’s always some small feeling or something of God just under your awareness, just beneath the surface, and all it takes is a bump for you to feel it and a scratch for it to come out.
You also inherit the world. Your being a child of God is not to disconnect you from the world but to get you at home in the world, as it is God’s world. It’s not that you belong to the world, but that the world belongs to God. God created it and God is saving it. That salvation is for creation is very strong in both Isaiah and Psalm 147.
It is not coincidental that St. John’s Gospel opens by quoting from Genesis: “In the beginning.” The great mystery of the Incarnation is that the miracle of Salvation comes into the naturalness of Creation for the revival and renewal of Creation. Your salvation is not to free you from the world but to give you freedom in the world. You are not a slave to the world, but you are as free in the world as the child of the owner of the world can be.
It is such a status you have. But your childhood means that you have both status and the appropriate dependency and humility of children. You are not the measure of your world. You are not the final cause of your own existence. Your existence is a gift to you; you are the steward of your existence on behalf of the Giver. This is counter-cultural. This goes against the reigning values of modernity.
We have come to assume that that which is most basic to you is your “self”. The core of you is your “self”. Self-improvement, self-help, self-maximization. We used to speak differently. We used to say that that which is most basic to you is your “soul”. The core of you is not your “self” but your “soul”. And your soul is that most inner core of you that seeks beyond yourself and reaches out beyond yourself. That you are a soul means that you are never in business for yourself.
When I say “soul” I don’t mean that separate spiritual essence of Platonic philosophy and of so much Christian tradition and of new-age spirituality. I mean that less familiar but more Biblical idea of soul, which is the unity of life and mind feeling within the body, and which has the special sensitivity to mysteries beyond our natural sensations. As your eye is sensitive to light, and your ear is sensitive to sound, so your soul is sensitive to God’s spirit and to the gifts of God’s spirit — the good, the true, and the beautiful.
You are given your soul for you to be sensitive to God’s light in the world. You are given your soul for you to pick up God’s meaning in the world. You are given your soul for you to be free within the world. You are given your soul for God to be present in you and live through you. You are given your soul for you to receive all the gifts of God’s inheritance for you. You are given your soul for you to receive God’s love and know it as God’s love.
You are a child of God. You have a status more intimate with God than servants do. Yes, we do speak rightly of being the servants of God, but today Galatians wants me to say that you are not God’s servant — God does not own you, you do not owe to God your service, you do not owe God anything but your love, and everything which comes from love. That is what God wants from you, you who were born of God — what God wants from you is your love.
Copyright © 2013 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Tuesday, December 24, 2013
Good evening, and welcome, I’m happy to welcome you here tonight. Whoever you are, wherever you come from, Christian or Jewish or something else, no matter your belief or unbelief, we are glad that you are here to celebrate the Incarnation of Our Lord.
Tonight you will hear the nine lessons that are read in thousands of churches throughout the world. Here at Old First, perhaps uniquely, you will hear the second lesson chanted in Hebrew, our Christmas present from Congregation Beth Elohim, given tonight by Miss Allie Roth. You will hear God promise Abraham that "in his seed would all the nations of the earth be blessed."
Why so? “Because thou hast done this thing.”
What thing? That he sacrificed his son, his only son. How awful. That in obedience to God’s voice he held a knife to Isaac and was about to kill him. At the very last moment God told him to stop and to kill instead the substitutionary ram that was in the bushes, so technically he was innocent, but in the intention was the deed. Why this on Christmas Eve?
The story of the Binding of Isaac is crucial in the Bible. It is mysterious and monstrous and dark and light. Theologians both Jewish and Christian have wrestled with it through the centuries (see James Goodman's recent book, But Where is the Lamb?), and questioned Abraham: “How couldst thou have done this thing?” And questioned God: “How couldst thou have done this thing?” One particular theologian, a controversial one, a divisive one, will have asked this question too. I mean Jesus of Nazareth. He seems to have taken this story personally, and learned about himself from it.
How much did Jesus know, and when did he know it? The doctrine of the Incarnation is not that he carried a God-sized mind in his brain. He was a newborn, an infant, a toddler, a little boy, an adolescent, a young man. He had to learn his Aleph, Beth, Gimmels like everybody else.
His parents will eventually have told him the mysteries of his birth, and that the angels had called him the Son of God, and what did that mean?
His cousin John the Baptist addressed him as the Lamb of God, and what did that mean — that he would be a substitutionary sacrifice?
You can well imagine that as both the son and the sacrifice, he will have identified with both Isaac and the ram, and asked himself the very question that is asked by one of our songs tonight: “And am I born to die?” The story was binding on him, it was Torah to him, and a law for him, requiring his obedience. How much would that obedience cost him?
He learned more welcome things from our third and fourth lessons, of the peace and healing he should bring as the Messiah and the hope of Israel, and of the Gentiles too. He heard them say, “God with us,” and he took that very far, he dared to speak for God and act for God as if God inhabited him. So much so that when he was born, God was fully in humanity, God was in humility, God was in poverty, in mortality, in society, in festivity, in joviality, and in full complicity. So that God lived through him and even died through him.
So that in the Binding of Isaac, God inhabits all four characters: God in heaven, the father, the son, and even the substitutionary sheep. God is both sacrificed and rescued, God is both guilty and innocent, God takes it all on; God has to, if God is fully with us. I suspect it was this story by which Jesus most deeply understood the reason for his Incarnation: not only that he might save us, but also that he might save God for us.
And so tonight we say it back to God, “because thou hast done this thing.” What thing? This nine-step investment of our God in us. The Incarnation is God’s self-sacrifice for us. It is God’s great Yes to us and our humanity. It is God’s great Yes to you and to your life.
“Yes, Yes, my beloved creatures, Yes, Yes, Yes, my fragile human beings, of whom I have been one,” and you sing your Yesses back with your songs and your carols. So Yes to all of you who came here tonight to listen and to sing. Yes, Yes, to the eight of you who came to read, and Yes, Yes, Yes to the multitude of musicians up there like the heavenly host upon the hillside. It is good and right for all of you to enjoy this thing that God has done in peace and in good will. God bless you one and all.
Copyright © 2013 by Daniel Meeter, All Rights Reserved.
Thursday, December 19, 2013
Isaiah 7:10-16, Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25
Today I’m going to talk about your conscience. Your conscience. You prayed about it in our opening collect, when you said, “Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation.” Your conscience is your inner voice to help you “refuse the evil and choose the good” (Isaiah). It is your inner moral feedback loop, your gyroscope. You develop it as you grow up. An infant doesn’t have one yet, but as you grow up you gradually replace the voice of your parents with the voice of your conscience, an authority external by an authority internal, from obeying your mom to obeying your convictions.
I’m also going to talk about your imagination. Your imagination is the childlike part of you that your growing up should not diminish. It’s often discounted, because it’s so close to dreaming. But it is not the opposite of knowledge, or even of science. Think of Einstein, and Galileo, or Crick and Watson imagining DNA, think about Jefferson and Madison imagining a republic. Think of St. Paul and St. John imagining the desire of God, and of Our Lord Jesus, who had to imagine himself beyond where any human being had ever gone before.
Last week I told you to develop your “moral imagination,” as Nelson Mandela did, developing your innocence through suffering to love. Today I’m calling you to the imagination of belief, the imagination of faith. You need your imagination to believe this gospel, and to project your Christian life ahead of you.
Our first lesson shows you a failure of imagination, the failure of King Ahaz. Isaiah offered him a sign, any sign, and he refused to take it. He needed one, because he was in trouble. Jerusalem was under siege, surrounded by enemy armies, and the people were starving. King Ahaz was invited to ask for any sign he could think of, no matter how dramatic or supernatural. But he wanted to look strong. To ask for a sign would be to look weak, as if he were uncertain.
So God gives him a sign that is very natural, as simple as a young girl giving birth. Such a sign is easily discounted by the skeptical. You have to imagine an ordinary childbirth as the presence of God, Immanuel, God with us. You need the imagination of belief even to regard it as a sign!
In our gospel lesson, Joseph does better. But don’t think it was easy or automatic. The sign that Joseph got was very hard to believe. Who of you takes your dreams literally? Who of you would not recognize your dream as a projection of your wishful thinking? This dream just added to his uncertainties. His first uncertainty had been the character of his fiancé. How could she have done this to him?
And now he had the second uncertainty of whether to credit his dream, whether to believe that his dream had really given him some trustworthy information from God.
And most difficult of all was his third uncertainty, what his dream implied, which was a virginal conception of the baby inside Mary.
You realize that with their notions of biology, the idea of a virginal conception was even more preposterous back then. They did not know about the ovum, the egg that the mother contributes. They thought that the whole life of the baby came from the seed of the father, and that the womb of the mother was passive, like the soil of a garden in which the seed is planted.
You could maybe dream a virginal conception, you could even imagine it, but to depend on that, to take that as a sign from God that you should take this fallen woman as your wife, while it took very little imagine to consider pre-marital sex with someone else — Joseph, you’re dreaming.
How long did he lay there on his bed? Such ordinary things, a pregnant girl, and a crazy dream, that he should take as signs from God? That’s the imagination of belief. It doesn’t make things easier; it often makes things harder. It doesn’t reduce uncertainties, it usually adds uncertainties.
It’s that way with science too. Scientific advances settle some uncertainties and then present new ones, and it takes imagination to keep the advances going. Just so, your Christian faith is how you get at the truth of the world and the truth about yourself. But you will also find that getting at the truth can add to your uncertainties. Which calls for your conscience as well your imagination.
Joseph was a conscientious man. Consider his context. It would not have been illegal back then to have Mary stoned to death. More likely he would have demanded a financial compensation from her father, because marriage back then was still a contract between two men, and the woman was the property exchanged. But he had decided to take a step in charity, to divorce her quietly, that is, without any contest or compensation, so that she could just get married to the father of her child. He is a generous and conscientious man. He is indeed a righteous man.
But as he lies on his bed he can imagine what will happen to his reputation if he believes his dream. Instead of shame on her, shame on you, Joseph, dishonor to your reputation that you had your way with her before you were married. Dishonor to your whole family.
I wonder if he considered his own name: Joseph — that he had the same name as the dreamer of Genesis. That Joseph’s dreaming was the means by which salvation eventually happened to his brothers and his father Jacob, but his dreaming also caused him pain and suffering along the way. Oh my, what are you in for if you believe your dream?
Joseph gets up from bed and decides to believe it all. He steps forward into the unknown, like Noah stepping into the ark, like Moses stepping into the Red Sea, like Peter stepping out of the boat onto the water. You have to go with your imagination. But that’s not all; you also have your conscience to go on. You see it with Joseph when he takes Mary as his wife but does not take his marital rights with her, he holds off from having her. Which is remarkable: he does not treat her as his property.
This becomes the first modern marriage in all of human history, where his wife is not his property. Imagine that. It will take many centuries for mankind to imagine that. Thank you Jesus! You’re not even born yet and already you’re bringing new salvation to human relationships!
Now I can imagine Joseph sometimes thinking: “Why me? Why my wife? Why us? Why couldn’t we have a normal life like other people? Why can’t I have a first-born of my own like other men?” And then he had to depend upon his conscience, his conscience that was formed and developed in his own youth by all the best traditions of Jewish piety, and the daily meditation on the law and the prophets. If you are a righteous Jew, that is how you purify your conscience, that is the daily visitation of God, re-reading and rehearing and re-imagining each day the call of God and promises of God. That is what purifies your conscience and helps you get on with being generous and loving.
If you put these two things together, your conscience and your imagination, you get what St. Paul in our Epistle has called “the obedience of faith.” The obedience of faith is a way of describing the necessary interplay of your conscience and your imagination. The obedience is the conscience part, and the faith is the imagination part. Your faith is necessary so that the internal authority of your conscience depends upon the external promises of God in which you put your faith. Your imagination is necessary so that your conscience can be creative instead of static or frozen or fearful, so that you can get out of bed, like Joseph, and step out into uncertainty with love and generosity. So that you can walk as a child of the light.
All the world is dark around you, but do not be afraid to walk into it, because your light is shining out from you. The light shining out from you is the light of the Spirit of God inside you, “Immanuel, God with you,” God within you, for you are a “mansion” for God. A stable. A manger. You are a manger for God’s birth, and a mansion for the richness of God’s love.
The story of Joseph and Mary is a love story. Not a typical one. But love that conquers fear and shame. Love that enters your uncertainty and empowers you to enter the unknown. This is the love story of God for humanity. This is the story of God’s love for you.
Copyright © 2013 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Thursday, December 12, 2013
Isaiah 35:1-10, Magnificat, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11
Why do we get this gospel lesson on December 15? We’re ready for the manger. Why do we get John the Baptist on the day of our Children’s Pageant? We’re on the way to Bethlehem. A better fit with our calendars is the Isaiah lesson, rejoicing at the coming of God. Rejoicing is the proper theme of the Third Sunday of Advent, called Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin verb for “Rejoice.” Gáudete, gáudete, gáudete. Why distract us with John the Baptist?
But the lesson from the Epistle says, Patience. Don’t rush things. James says, Be patient until the coming of the Lord. There is reason to wait. There is reason for the season of penitence, because you can get Jesus wrong. You can welcome Jesus, and delight in his coming, but get him wrong. As John the Baptist did. As you can’t help but do. And that’s okay, it’s to be expected, which is why you should be patient and penitent.
John the Baptist had to be patient but he was not in a penitentiary. Imprisonment in those days was different. It was not the punishment itself, as we do it. It was holding you in custody until your punishment was decided, which could be exile, execution, or exoneration. To delay your decision was in the interest of the sovereign, so that your people might generate, you know, some cash. So you were allowed a good deal of contact with your people. So John was kept up on the news.
John was disappointed with Jesus. You remember from last Sunday what he’d expected from the Messiah. Fire. Wind. A winnowing fork. An ax laid at the roots. Stringent justice. Smashing heads. “So Jesus, no offense, but when are you going ‘to come with vengeance,’ as Isaiah said, ‘with terrible recompense, to come and save us,’ including me? And, no offense, what you’re doing is very good, and keep it up, but maybe should I be expecting someone else?”
Jesus does not defend himself. Nor does he answer directly. “Go back and tell him what you hear and see: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor get good news, and blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” That’s a tough response. From John’s point of view, that response just begs the question. John already knows all that. That’s his point. Doing that stuff is fine, but that’s not the job of the Messiah.
The message that Jesus sends back is a challenge: “Look again, my cousin, look again at the same stuff you have been seeing. The problem is not my evidence, but what you want for the solution. The signs are all there, but you want directions to a different place. Step back from it, John. Your issue with me is your expectations. Which means your issue with me is actually yourself.”
John the Baptist had that peculiar problem of the perfectly pure in heart. It’s the problem with innocence, and why you have to get beyond your innocence. I know that last Sunday I told you that the Advent season calls you into your place of innocence, and in that place to find an inner child, who is God as a child, and I told you to take yourself in there, to restore your wonder and to revive your hope. Today I’m complicating that. I’m telling you to get beyond your innocence.
The problem with innocence is indignation. Like John the Baptist’s. You have always done the right thing, the hard thing, all the way, and at great cost to yourself. You gave your life to the job you were given, you never considered your comfort or convenience, you never complained, even in prison you don’t complain, but now your successor is taking the easy way. Your innocence yields to indignation, and impatience, and sometimes even to intolerance.
Jesus was not disappointed in John! He took no offense at his questioning. Because it had not been given to John to see the something new afoot. No one had yet imagined it but Jesus himself, and no one else would see it until after his death and resurrection, the whole new radical way of being the Messiah. So Jesus doesn’t hold it against his cousin that he has not imagined him.
You can love Jesus and want him to come, and still get him wrong. You do it yourself, you can’t help it — your soul is blind and deaf, you are spiritually disabled. So you need his light and his voice. So every year you need to step back and ask yourself what you expect from him. You need to ask yourself what it is about yourself that makes you expect this. Who do you think you are? Where do you get it from, how God should come into your life? Like John the Baptist, “C’mon, Jesus, don’t you owe me something here? Don’t I have a right to some expectations?”
Innocence says this: "Okay, I’m, say, third in line, and I’ll be happy to get whatever is coming to me as third in line." But the Epistle of James says, "Don’t take your turn, wait, be patient, go to the back of the line!" And now innocence has to learn something new: Love for all the others in line ahead of you.
Innocence has to develop into love. Not childlike love, not natural love nor innocent love, but sacrificial love, generous love, love of neighbor as yourself. John the Baptist, you did what you did because you were certain you were right, and you were. But when the Kingdom comes, you will do what you do for love, and not because you’re right. And only by patience will you learn that.
They are saying that it was his twenty-seven years in prison that allowed Nelson Mandela to develop his moral imagination. So that when he came out, he was not indignant nor intolerant, but able to love his enemies. They are rarely saying that his Christian faith had everything to do with that. He had to wait — he waited on God, with patient endurance, with no control, like a farmer waiting for the rain (James).
And so do you, if you want to develop your moral imagination beyond the privilege of innocence into the sacrifice of sympathy. From the burning purity of the desert into the messy swamp of love (Isaiah). Advent calls you to let God lead you on the road from innocence to love.
Isaiah sings about the healing of your disabilities within the larger transformation of creation. There are crocuses and blossoms that need to come to life in you. And though you value a flower for the beauty it gives you right now, from the flower’s point of view, whatever it is, is for the future, for the seed it will generate; a flower is for the future.
You must be eagerly patient in your life for what God is doing with you still, what God in God’s own time is slowly bringing forth to life in you. And it will go beyond what you expect within yourself. If you could expect it, you would not need God to do it. You must admit your moral disability, and it will offend you — it must at first.
What do you want for Christmas? It’s okay to ask that. We are not so indignant for the sacred mystery that we must be intolerant of the secular festivity. But I will ask you this: What do you want from Christmas? What do you want from God’s coming into the world, and into your own life?
Here is a take-home. For this next year, open yourself to one new way to follow Jesus beyond where you are now, and into an area where you have not yet trusted him. Not a New Year’s resolution but an Advent absolution.
You might try it in an area of society, wherein what Jesus says is just too radical: say, about non-violence, or peace, or wealth and poverty. Open yourself to another patient look at that, keep open to it longer than you have before.
You might try it in an area of your inner life. What do you believe God owes you here? In what have you been disappointed when it comes to God? Pick one thing, and enter that place of drought with God, and water it with God’s Word and Spirit and with the love of, say, two fellow members of the community of Jesus.
You might try it with how you budget your time, or in your dealings with your children.
You might open yourself to a new activity, with a work of joy you have not dared yet: learn the trombone, or cook for the poor.
Just one way. Open to God coming into you there. I can tell you this: no matter what you try, it will also mean a growth in love. Your love will increase. Whether you do it in terms of society or your inner life or your active expression, the sign of it will be more love. Because it’s more of Jesus, and when it’s more of Jesus, it’s more of God.
Copyright © 2013 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Thursday, December 05, 2013
Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12
You get quite a menagerie today. You get a wolf, a leopard, a lion, a bear, and another lion. You get a lamb, a kid, a calf, a veal-calf, a cow, and an ox. You get three kinds of poisonous snakes: the asp and the adder and a whole brood of vipers. You get camel’s hair and three leather belts and sandals. You get locusts, and honey, and wheat, and the chaff of the wheat, and straw. You get a tree stump, a shoot, a branch, and roots, and a root again in Romans. You get an ax on the roots, and trees chopped down and burned. You get fire, twice, and water, and wind. You get sea water, and rain, and showers, and mown fields, and little hills, and mountains. You get stones, and their children, and children of Abraham. You get a little child, and a nursing child, and a weaned child.
I love all the animals, because the season of Advent is for children in the way that Lent is for adults. In Lent you get ready for a death, but in Advent you get ready for a birth. Both Lent and Advent are penitential seasons, but the penance in them differs. Lent is for self-examination, while Advent is for hope and expectation. In Lent you look for your guilt and in Advent you look for your innocence. In Lent you locate all your guilt inside yourself, and you register your guilt, and process it. In Advent you have find inside yourself your place of innocence. That’s the childlike part — that unstained innocence, that wide-eyed innocence of little children.
You have that space of innocence inside you. An open space, a little room of receptivity, of unreflecting eagerness, of easy hope and easy joy. Can you still find that place in you?
Experience is the enemy of innocence. The little child will lose her innocence as she gains in her experience. The experience of snake-bite, the experience of poison and of pain, the experience of betrayal by your friends and denial by your intimates. Your hopes dashed, your native joy corrupted. You learn the habits of not trusting, and also not revealing. You learn to judge what you see and decide what you hear, and you have be quick about it and maintain a good defense. You have developed your skills in how to deal with a vicious and malicious world. You learn to take some pleasure in your skills, in the thrust and parry of your sword, in the subtlety of your attack, in the sharpness of your sight, in how deft is your defense, in your shrewdness and your cunning. Yes, you are a decent person, and you keep yourself from extra guilt, but you’ve too much experience ever fully to enjoy again your innocence.
The gift of Advent is that doesn’t have to be this way. The penance of Advent is to recreate within yourself your place of innocence, a pocket of light and air inside you that is free of dust and dirt and sticky webs. Because when you go in there it isn’t free and clear. Your guilt is there. Your shame. The record of your betrayals and denials is all there, and the residue of what’s been done against you and unfairly.
In Lent you are the one who cleans it out. Lent is your own spring cleaning. In Advent you just let him in. Don’t register what’s there, you don’t have to examine what is there, just let him in and he cleans it for himself to make it ready for himself. He makes your place of innocence empty of everything but his gentle, joyful self. You don’t have to clear away your darkness first to let the light shine in. It is the light itself that clears away the darkness in you.
The Advent way to find again that place of innocence inside you is to embrace with your mind the Lord Jesus as a little child. Give yourself to that image, trust that God’s behind it. He will clear away your skillfulness, and the lessons of your experience. He has to clear away your smarts, your shrewdness, and the pleasures you have learned. You let him in as a child pure and innocent, and you become again a child with him. Of course you doubt it, from the poison of the snake, but this child is immune to the poison of the snake, and with his mouth he sucks the poison out of you.
God as a child. Or God within the child. That’s how Christians have taken this prophecy of Isaiah, and taken it beyond how Isaiah had foreseen it. Let me draw you briefly away from your personal place of innocence to do some history (but I will bring you back to it). The prophet Isaiah was predicting the return and revival of the ruined, cut-off dynasty of King David.
You know that King David’s father was named Jesse, and so the family tree of King David is often called the Jesse Tree. The Jesse Tree is called a tree-stump by Isaiah as a metaphor of the dynasty of David’s descendants being cut down by the empires of Assyria and Babylon. The hard thing that the prophets said was that God was behind this cutting down, that the ruthless empires of Assyria and Babylon were the instruments of the Lord God in punishing the House of David for its faithlessness.
But God would still be faithful. God would cause a new shoot to grow up from the stump of the Jesse Tree. We’d guess that Isaiah would anticipate a normal king again, but very good and very powerful, and not afraid to smash some heads. He would be vigorous and even merciless in the working of his justice. Justice, justice, justice. The fruit of his justice would be the peace that we see in the fellowship of the wolf and the lamb, the lion and the calf, and a little child leading them.
In the subsequent history of Israel we don’t find any fulfillment of this prophecy in the way that Isaiah might have anticipated it. There would be no political revival of the dynasty of David. The Jesse Tree scattered many seeds, and there were many descendants of David among the Jews, but none of them ever was king again. Except the son of Mary.
The remarkable thing that Christians claim is that this prophecy was very much fulfilled, but in a surprising way beyond anticipation, and with a doubling of intensity. First, that the little child in the peace part of the prophecy is the very branch of Jesse in the justice part. The child of peace is the captain of justice. And second, that this captain of justice will be God’s own self, that God will just come down and do it God’s own self. Which means, if you complete the circuit, that God is in the little child, and it’s as a little child that God desires to come into your life. The peace that he gives you is how you get your justice and your righteousness. Let him into your imagination and he will do your penance for you. Let him into your place of innocence and he will give you innocence.
What that innocence allows for is wonder, the wide-eyed wonder of a child. You want that. You want to forsake the suspicions you’ve developed in your life. You want to welcome the gifts of the world and the colors of other people and be open to what they do all day. There is so much good reason not to do this, so much good reason to judge the world ahead of time, but for your soul to be joyful you need to be in your place innocence in order to look out wonder. You want to practice the wonder which God intended to be normal for human beings.
One more thing. When you go into your place of innocence with the Lord Jesus, then in there you will also find your hope. Even after all of your experience. Hope is not optimism, hope is what you depend on precisely when your experience is bad. You have to have the hope. Because you’re not a child, because you have experienced the loss and grief and pain. When you have hope, then you know that you are in the place of innocence and wonder. Whenever you struggle to have that hope, then go back to the promises of God in Jesus Christ for your encouragement. Your hope depends upon the Word of God, and your hope is energized by the Spirit of God.
Do you suppose it’s true for you? Does God not love you? Does God not understand you, and also understand the world in all its good and bad even better than you do? Has God not entered the world to bring joy to you and peace? I close with the blessing of St. Paul: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Copyright © 2013 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.
Sunday, December 01, 2013
Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:36-44
The image of Light is an important image in the Bible. The Bible employs the image of light in a great variety of usages. We will explore those images in the next four weeks. My sermon series is called “Children of Light,” for that is what you are. So let’s explore and enjoy the images of light.
But first, about Advent. Advent is a penitential season, like Lent. Advent was originally a season of fasting and sober self-examination, four weeks of it. There was no feasting until Christmas morning, and then twelve days of what feasting you could afford.
This sober observance of Advent has is now virtually impossible with the secularization and commercialization of Christmas. Unless we emphasized the contradiction: we could say that Advent contradicts the holiday season, and that the repentance of our souls in here contradicts the indulgence of our flesh out there.
But in this case, “contradiction” is not as good as “poignancy”. You can experience the holiday season with positive poignancy. Poignancy like pregnancy. There’s pain in it, there’s risk in it, and sometimes loss, but the relief of it is new life. A birth. The Word becoming flesh. The Incarnation means some affirmation of the flesh. Which is a mercy, because you cannot help but live within your flesh, and live among your flesh and blood. Your children deserve your gifts, your spouse deserves your gifts, your lover waits upon your gift, your boss expects you at the party, and your voice is needed when people are gathering to sing. You can participate.
These things do satisfy, they do, but not completely, these things are not enough, you long for something more. God has planted in you the desire for something more, the something more that all these things are pointing to beyond themselves, if you stop and look and notice it. That beyondness, that incompletion, that longing, is the poignancy you feel. And that feeling can be by turns desiring and despairing. You are longing for something you cannot attain. You can’t achieve your completion on your own. Advent reminds you to desire it as a gift from God, in some partial measure now, but in fullness only after you have died, when you receive your final salvation.
All the world is longing for the completion and summation which is promised with the coming of the Lord; that is, the Second Coming of the Lord; which is the opening theme of Advent, as you have noticed in the collect we prayed: “that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal.” We open the season with his Second Coming in majesty and then we close the season with his First Coming in humility, as an infant.
The season develops backwards: we begin it at the ending and we end it at the beginning. It serves the poignancy. His first coming, though in the flesh, creates within you the desire for something more than flesh, and lest your desire be overcome by the despair of your flesh, his first coming comforts you. You are comforted at the end of the season, and you are challenged at the beginning, now. Today.
We are living in the darkness, the darkness before the dawn. There is some light for us, and that light comes from the morning star, just above the horizon. “How brightly shines the morning star.” Let me explain that the morning star is always a planet, usually Venus. Science has taught us what the Bible writers did not know, that the light that it shines with is a borrowed light. It is light reflected from the sun before the sunrise. The sunrise will be his Second Coming, the great and final dawn, and his First Coming is as the Morning Star, to give us joy and hope and light before the dawn. You cannot look directly at the sun, for its light is burning and blinding, but you can gaze upon the Morning Star, and rejoice in it, and it both satisfies and heightens your desire.
And it gives light enough for you to walk by it. You can walk forward in this light, even before the dawn. Enough is illuminated. Enough is enlightened. In other religions, enlightenment is what you attain inside yourself. In Biblical religion it’s different. You see it in Isaiah. Your enlightenment is around you: it is the light of God upon the world, illuminating it. And Biblical enlightenment is for walking in, not sitting in.
In Isaiah the light is from the Torah, which is the living Word of God, for Israel, and for all the world. In the gospel this living Word of God gets personified in Jesus, who is your Morning Star. He shines the light in which you walk. He illuminates the world before you. The world itself is dark and dangerous, and you have reason to be fearful. There is chaos there, and evils both natural and malicious, and you have your own handicaps and disabilities. But he gives you light enough that you can safely find your way across the landscape of your life that is before you.
Rise up and walk. Wake up, get up out of bed. Change your clothes, take off your nightgown, put on your day clothes, put on the armor of light. There’s an image! From Romans 13, “the armor of light.” Instead of wearing chain mail or heavy metal plates, you are wearing light itself, like a force-field around you, and you are protected by the light upon you, the light of Christ on you that you are absorbing but also reflecting, and as it shines back off of you it clears away the danger that is lurking in the darkness before you. It’s a defense designed for movement and freedom and joy and peace.
Your light is not a burning light, but a softer gleaming light, the light on you of Christ who is the hope and healing for the world, even in its darkness. You have put on Christ, you wear him like a robe of light, and that is healing for your own flesh, which frees you from the compulsions of your flesh, so you now can pay attention to what God is doing and what God gives you.
All this means that you live in the same world as everyone else, but you see the world differently.
It means that your illumination is not some private thing inside you, it’s rather very public, as public as the gospel, freely given, and freely shared with other people like yourself.
It means that you don’t have to solve the mysteries of the world in order to make your way in the world, or even the mysteries of your own life, to live life well.
It means there’s only so much you have to know and only so much you have to understand, and still you’re able to see your way. You don’t know when your Lord is coming back, but you know what it means that he is coming back, with a greater light, but he is coming to you now with the light of his Holy Spirit.
You long for some light in your life. Some solving of a mystery you live with, some illumination to manage your obstacles, or navigate your uncertainties, or just get through the week, or just get through the pain. You need the world illuminated, or just that one small piece of the world which is this week. The light is always there, but it’s also always a surprise.
You have seen it. Maybe only once or twice, but that’s enough. The brief shining moment, the flash in the sky. You can stretch that moment across your life, you can keep on walking in it. That is what religion is: it’s how you stretch that one brief shining moment across the whole course of your life as you go forward.
You don’t have to be passive, you can be active. You can be doing those things you can do now which anticipate the better things you can’t do yet, but you will do when your completion comes.
Keep awake. Pay attention. You have taken off the compulsions of your flesh so that you can pay attention in your flesh. The good news here is that the power of your attention is not in your own self, but in the light that’s given to you. All you have to do is walk. Don’t worry about getting it all correct, don’t worry about your stumbling or your mistakes. Be like a little child, just learning how to walk.
Walking is the image of the Christian life. It’s one of the most basic things that human beings do, and it is God’s metaphor for life. It’s meant to both relieve you and empower you.
And you are walking with your head up. Looking toward the dawning glow on the horizon. Because the day is still to come. You don’t know when it will come, but you know what it means that it will come. It is up to God, and it is from God, and God will do it.
Copyright © 2013 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.