Friday, November 28, 2014

Reflections on the First Sunday of Advent

This Sunday's readings can be found here. As Christians we begin again on the first Sunday of the liturgical year, lighting that first candle of our Advent wreaths to get ready to celebrate the Feast of the Incarnation. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. 

I am not preaching anywhere this weekend, but I have been praying with the readings anyway, and located the sermon below that I preached six years ago in Holden. I've edited it to reflect a different time and place, including the references to Ferguson. But the basic point I tried to make then and now is the same: Come, O Come, Emmanuel!

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The first words of this Advent season and a new liturgical year come from the prophet Isaiah, a desperate cry for help addressed to God: O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…

Have you ever prayed such a prayer or stood with someone who has? Perhaps it was at the grave of a loved one who died before her time. Or maybe you have gone through a rough divorce or lost your job right before the holidays. I think about the people in Ferguson, Missouri who might be praying this very prayer as Advent begins - and of Michael Brown's family as they carve the turkey without him at their table. 

It’s hard enough when your life has come unglued. But you can pretty much get through anything if you feel that God is with you, if you feel that God is your rock or the good shepherd who walks with you through the valley of the shadow of death. Even if we know it will be another six months or a year that we have to face chemotherapy or until we find new employment or love again, we can "fake it 'til we make it" if we have hope. And we can make it if we feel that God is working through it all to bring about something good.

Our deepest fear is that maybe God is not with us. And if you keep reading from that Isaiah text, this is part of what he is also wrestling with - the idea that God is the source of his pain, that God has reneged on God's promises. 

For Isaiah, it isn’t personal suffering like we see in the Book of Job but a national tragedy that gives us these first words of Advent. He speaks on behalf of an entire nation, out of the pain of the Babylonian Exile and the feeling of having been betrayed by God. Isaiah poses a profound theological question, perhaps the most serious theological question any of us will ever ask: given God’s past marvelous deeds, where is God now? If God could do all those wonderful things “back in the day” (like bring the slaves out of Egypt and defeat Pharaoh's army at the Sea of Reeds) then why isn’t God doing something about the Babylonians and King Nebuchadnezzar now

This question is along the lines of asking why God didn’t intervene to stop six million Jews from being killed in the middle part of the twentieth century or stop those planes from crashing into the towers in lower Manhattan, or why there seems to be a war on so many young black men in our cities.  

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…

It may seem like an odd way to begin Advent—like a strange way to begin our preparations for Christmas. We bring ourselves to church after all, in a month when it is all too easy to feel off-kilter, so that we can regain some sense of balance - so that we might feel more grounded and centered than when we came in. One of my former parishioners used to remind me from time to time that the world can be pretty tough, and he came to church to hear good news preached, to have his wounds bound up. I sympathize completely and for what it’s worth, sometimes my week is no picnic either. Clergy are not exactly insulated from "the world." 

But my experience as a pastor and preacher (and above all as a fellow traveler) is that sometimes the good news isn’t immediate. It's not a quick fix. And if you are in a place where you can identify with where Isaiah or Job are and you find yourself yelling at the heavens, then a pastor who says, “there, there” is not much of a pastor. The theologians call it “cheap grace.” So I tend to get drawn into texts like this one from Isaiah because they keep us from shallow trivialities and invite a deeper transformation that takes work, and time. 

This prayer of Isaiah's, as I hear it, expresses extraordinary grief and loss and a sense of betrayal that grow out of his first-hand experience. He needs to take that to God, whom he feels has been M.I.A. He needs to be heard and acknowledged before he can get to hope. I read one commentator on this text who said that “God hides in order to deconstruct a distorted faith.” Now that sounds like the kind of thing a theologian would say! But it also happens to be true, I think, and it does evoke good theology: God hides in order to deconstruct a distorted faith.

God is beyond all of our language, beyond all of our images. I don’t mean only our false idols. Of course God is not a golden calf or a little statue or a 401-K. But I also mean that God is beyond even the most helpful of icons: beyond “father” and “rock” and “light.” At the burning bush when Moses wants to know God’s name, God insists, “I am who I am.” At best all of our words and all of our images for God—even our very favorite ones—can only point us toward the Inscrutable One who is beyond our understanding and comprehension—the One Tillich called “the God beyond God.” We need human words. But we must always be careful about confusing our words for god with God. They are not the same. God is always bigger. And God is not our pet. 

So when someone tells me that they don’t believe in God I never feel like it is my job to convince this "atheist" why they are wrong. I just ask them to tell me about this god they don't believe in. And usually, if they are willing to humor me and talk about it, what I discover is that they are actually beginning to deconstruct a distorted faith. Or to say it another way, I don’t believe in the god they don’t believe in either! 

All of us need to let go of the old images that keep us from encountering the more mysterious but living and real God. The crisis of faith is real, for sure. But that crisis also represents not only danger but an opportunity. And I think that is why these words of Isaiah may be a very good place to start our Advent journey.

Let me be specific. We talk of “father God” so much we may actually begin to think that God is an old man with a gray beard sitting up in space. We go along, often unquestioning, because as long as life is good it’s just fine for God to be “the big guy up there”—not all that different from Santa Claus or a kindly old grandfather. Until one day chaos breaks in and we find ourselves really hurting. Sometimes it takes an exile, or a crisis in faith, or a recession, or the death of an unarmed teenager to bring us to our knees. Suddenly we find ourselves vulnerable and frightened and we cry out for God to make it all better: to put a band-aid on our boo-boo or to fix the ozone layer or clean up the oceans or zap away weapons of mass destruction and bring about peace on earth: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…”

And when nothing happens, we start to convince ourselves that we must therefore be atheists; since God clearly hasn’t done what we asked. We stand with Isaiah at a crossroads in such moments, however, And what in fact needs to go is not our faith, but those old images we’ve been carrying around that are now keeping us from a renewed faith and an encounter with the true and living God. Make no mistake about it; this is very hard work. And most of us don’t like that place of unknowing, that place of painful uncertainty and anxiety. We just want God to fix it all.But if we are willing to work though all of that, we may discover that we are being transformed and even born anew. 

If it is about nothing else, this season of Advent is about birth—certainly the child whose birth we are preparing to celebrate, but also the new birth that each of us must go through to discover authentic faith. Yet here is the thing: the process of new birth is always painful. And paradoxically it is always also about death and loss. Before there can be the new life that this long-awaited birth brings, there must first be the death of our old worlds, our old certitudes, our expectations. Sun and moon and sky need to darken before we can let go of our false faith, and prepare ourselves for a king of kings and a lord of lords. And then what we get is a tiny little baby who needs his diaper changed. We find ourselves kneeling before a manger and a child who needs to be fed and cared for and loved. Come, let us adore him!

What if, as my scholarly friend says, such moments of crisis in our faith represent an opportunity rather than an obstacle to faith—a chance to deconstruct a distorted faith in order to become free to reconstruct a more incarnational faith, so that God can meet us right where we are?  

What if Christmas is an invitation to stop looking up to the heavens for a magical God who fixes things to come down and make it all better,and instead is an invitation to open our eyes to see God-with-us, making all things new. A God who says, “I’m right here, now …wherever and whenever two or three gather together.” A God whose most important name is Emmanuel. 

The truth is that this prayer has been answered: the heavens have been torn asunder and God has come down to dwell among us, very God of very God, begotten not made. The Word that was with God and was God has become flesh to dwell among us and we have beheld his glory, full of grace and truth.

But not as we expected.  The God we get comes to us as a little child who grows up and dies on a cross. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus lead to new and more profound questions before offering us easy answers. Questions like the ones Brian Wren raises when he asks:  "Can this newborn mystery, an infant learning to feed, defeat the grim and chilling powers of domination, death and sin?"

Can he? Is this little baby the best God can do? This One with the tiny little hands and fingers—He is going to defeat the powers of domination, death, and sin? 

Wren’s poem is (as the Church has come to expect of him) very good theology. But let me give away the ending: the answer is Yes. The mystery of this newborn child, this infant learning to feed, is Yes: He is the Way and the Truth and the Life, and He is victorious over the chilling powers of domination, death, and sin. No matter how bad this week was for any of us, that is good news. 

Christ before us, Christ behind us, Christ beside us, Christ beneath us, Christ above us. Christ here and now, among us. Don’t look for the skies to be opened up—just open your eyes and look around you. And light a candle. Come, O come, Emmanuel! 

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