Thursday, December 06, 2018

December 9, Advent 2, Living Between the Times: Transformation

Malachi 3:1-4, Song of Zechariah, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6

Are you a prophet? Do you know anyone who is? What makes a prophet a prophet? Someone who foretells the future? That’s too narrow a definition. It’s not just foresight, but also insight. A prophet is a truth-teller about the present—with future implications. And Christian prophecy never treats the future as inevitable, it always leaves room for human choice to change the future for the better. The prophet puts you in a crisis, the prophet says to mind your ways and mend your ways, please do!

Prophets aren’t always welcome. The full truth about the present can be uncomfortable. And inconvenient! Prophets are unpopular. They are people who don’t get along, and difficult. It’s no fun to be a prophet. People in power do not like prophets. People in positions of prestige and prosperity do not like them. It’s the poor and oppressed who generally have no problem with them.

A prophet says, Stop! A prophet says, Wake up! A prophet says, “You’re a miserable offender,” and you say, “I’m not that bad.” A prophet says, “There is no health in you,” and you protest your health. You want to justify yourself and preserve your self-regard. But can you let go, surrender your self-regard, and what’s even harder, risk your investments in the future as you have bet on it so far? If your pension fund is invested in ExxonMobil, and if the prophet is warning you of global climate change, then you might resist the prophet to protect the comfort of your retirement!

Do you have a vision for the future of your life? Are you a visionary? The late president George H. W. Bush was famously hobbled by what he called “the vision thing.” I have been as well. When I came to my fourth charge, in Grand Rapids, I was repeatedly asked what was my vision for that church. I had no answer. I had never been asked that in my three former charges. “What do you mean? You called me to come and be your pastor. I came!”

“But a church like ours needs a vision for our future!” So I brought in advisers and I went on retreats, and finally I presented to the Consistory a vision plan—which they voted down 23 to 3! “We like you as our pastor but that’s not where we want to go!” Two years later, after I had been in Brooklyn for a while, I was talking to a friend back in Grand Rapids about where Old First was headed and he said, “Dan, your vision was right all along. You just had it for the wrong church!”

Well, nice, but did my vision come from God? Was it a prophetic vision? Not every visionary is a prophet. And many truth-tellers are simply pundits. The difference is your truth comes from God, your vision comes from God, when these are not available to human deduction apart from the gift of God. A prophet is a messenger, an instrument, even an oracle. The Christian prophet’s personality is never to be separated from her message, but her source is ultimately not herself. That’s why I never preach to you except from out of the Bible, because I’m supposed to be your prophet.

Does that mean that God still speaks? That God still talks today? Yes, but my speaking is not equal to God speaking, nor is even the Bible equal to God speaking. Where God speaks is in our making sense of the Bible together. In the interaction of this ancient text with our common life is God still speaking, so that God makes us a prophetic people, God makes us a visionary people.

But not as we just are. As it transforms us. If we prefer the status quo, if we don’t desire our transformation, then we cannot be prophetic. We have to participate in the transformation that we call for. And our transformation is guided by our vision, a vision that we seek from God, from our common interaction with the Word of God as it’s been given to us within the Holy Bible.

We say that we “offer a vision of the kingdom of heaven.” For the past few years we have been preoccupied with our sanctuary as the expression of that vision. The day is coming when we can enter back in it.  And then we will have to do the further work of making that sanctuary “a space of unconditional welcome.” What does that mean? What about security? What about safety? What about good behavior? Is the kingdom of heaven ever in tension with the unconditional welcome?

Not all behaviors are welcome in the kingdom of heaven. Not if we believe in transformation. To sort out which behaviors are welcome is our task as a prophetic people, and we assign this task to the Board of Elders (which please remember as we are choosing new consistory members). The task isn’t always easy, and it can’t be just our preferences—we must be interpreting and applying the gospel of God that directs us. It must come out of our sense of mission given us by God.

Our consistory is accountable to a wider assembly called the Classis of Brooklyn, and just last Sunday we had a meeting with its officers. The Classis of Brooklyn cannot support our mission of full acceptance and affirmation of LGBTQ people, our visions differ on the kingdom of heaven, and so we explained our request to be transferred to a different classis.

We testified that we dissent from the traditional expectation that LGBTQ people should behave straight somehow. No, and we believe that the vision of the kingdom of heaven is calling us to ever new realities of unconditional welcome. God is not finished speaking yet, and is always addressing new developments. The vision is of the future, not the past. The golden age is still to come, and it’s waiting for us with God.

Of course all of us require transformation, in whatever ways that are appropriate to our several conditions and orientations. Also needing further transformation is our unconditional welcome. We can never say that we’ve arrived. Are we fully welcoming to trans-gendered people? Are we fully welcoming to the poor and dispossessed? If we look at our building we must admit that our space is only very conditionally welcoming to disabled and differently-abled people. How with our building can we yet make the crooked straight and the rough places plain? How more open can we yet be?

Why are we on these topics in December instead of talking more about Christmas? Well, mostly because that’s where our scripture lessons are—they’re not yet about the fulfillment, but the longing, the pregnancy, the time of expecting and not yet the time of delivery, and we are living between the times, this space within the time of  prophecy and transformation, the season of Advent.

Advent is a penitential season, because transformation has to begin with repentance. But the repentance of Advent is different from that of Lent. It is not mortification and self-examination but openness and expectation. You open up your soul like Mary’s womb. You open your heart like Mary’s uterus. You open your mind to the prophecy that sounds too strong, too critical, extreme, and you say, Well, maybe!

You don’t answer back, you listen. I think the greater part of repentance is just listening to the prophecy. To entertain the prophets in all of their difficulty is repentance in itself. Of course the prophet doesn’t have the last word, but is for preparation between the times.

The last word belongs to the savior himself, for whom the prophet prepares the way. And the savior comes in the way that we need but not how we expect him. The savior surprises even the prophets. The prophet Malachi expected him to come like fire, which burns, or like bleach, which stings, and not like an infant who needs to be kept warm. The prophet John the Baptist expected him to come like a warrior-king, building his military highways in the deserts like the Roman soldiers did, and not like a baby needing to be held and touched and comforted. A wonderful surprise.

So the preparation you need to work in this Advent season is conditioned by the character of the savior who comes at the end of it wrapped in swaddling clothes, which means a preparation of receiving, embracing, holding in your arms, holding on your chest. You need to open up your love. If you are resisting the stringent purging of the prophet, you are also restricting your love. If you resist the overly critical urging of the prophecy you are closing off yourself from the overflow of love. You are trying to keep control, you are trying to be the boss, you are in the way of God in you.

The marvelous thing is that he doesn’t wait for us to be ready. Ready or not he comes. His coming does not depend on what we do even though we are called to do it. For I am confident that the one who began a good work in you will bring it to completion in the day of Jesus Christ. Why would God wait for you to get ready first when God has such great love for you?

Copyright © 2018, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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