Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The 12 Days: Day 7

Luke 2:39-40:

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.  The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

So they went home.

After all the fuss at the temple, after the drama of that night when the baby was born, after all the drama with angels and unexpected pregnancies, they went home.  Back to Nazareth.

They went home and the boy...grew up.  Aside from what happens in 2:41-51, when the child was twelve years old, that's all we get.  No miracles, no drama, no...well, nothing.  They went home and the child grew up.  Grew up well, to hear Luke describe it, but grew up.

With the dramatic flair Luke showed throughout the first chapter and most of the second, you'd think that if Luke had found any good juicy stories (see 1:3 for Luke's frank admission about doing research) about Jesus's childhood (nothing embarrassing, mind you, but a good healing or something), he'd have found a way to work it in.  He did include the temple story, after all, or both of them (Simeon and Anna, and the twelve-year-old at the temple).

But, in the end, Luke doesn't give us anything else.  Just...he grew up.

As has been observed, other writers were happy to fill in the gap.  For example, some time in the second century, an unknown author filled the gap with a colorful piece of writing known now as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.  Jesus isn't a very nice kid, if you buy these tales.  Apparently people wanted stories of Jesus's childhood, though.  Why this kind of account was appealing is beyond me, I have to admit.

Aside from Luke, the gospels have Matthew's more spare account, and John's prologue (more on than another day).  Mark has nothing to say on the subject at all.  And nobody else, certainly not Paul, sees fit to address Jesus's childhood, or any of the other big biographical details, really.  Paul has a few things to say about the meaning of the Incarnation, but doesn't seem to care much about how it happened (again, more later).

People get greedy.  For all his sense of drama, Luke isn't going to feed any kind of frenzy for juicy stories that don't add up to good news.  So, the nativity story ends with...he grew up.

And that's enough.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The 12 Days: Day 6

Luke 2:22-38:

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, "Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord"), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, "a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons."
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.  It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Messiah.  Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arm and praised God, saying,
"Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and a glory to your people Israel."
And the child's father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.  Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed -- and a sword will pierce your own soul too."
There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher.  She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four.  She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night ant day.  At that moment she came and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

Just when things started to seem normal.

Again Joseph and Mary were doing what good parents were supposed to do, when they were supposed to do it.  A Presbyterian can spot things being done "decently and in order" from a mile away.

All seemed perfectly on track until the old man showed up.  To hear Luke tell it, he just walked up and took the child.  We have no reason to believe that Mary or Joseph knew who he was, so maybe a little bit of panic was in order.  By the time Simeon got through saying what he had to say, maybe the parents wished he had been a mere child-snatcher -- he was old, and they could certainly outrun him...

Oh, it started off well enough, and to Mary at least it should have brought back some memories of angel visits and dramatic prophecies.  Before too long, though, Simeon quit preaching and got to meddling.  Falling?  A "sign to be opposed"?  Might these have been the very first intimations that all would not go well for this child?  Finishing with the cryptic "a sword shall pierce your own soul too" was the last straw, I'd think.  What could that possibly mean?  Is this child going to break my heart?  What will he do?  What will people do to him?

If that weren't enough, then an equally old woman showed up, not to bring darkness to their own hearts, but to point out the child to everyone passing by.  Now Mary and Joseph are not only puzzled and troubled by the old man's words, but they are trying to sort it all out with the whole temple full of people watching, it seemed.

Luke seems very interested in giving us a lot of detail about Simeon and particularly Anna.  We are for a moment treated to the backstory that brought the two to the temple, as well as Anna's personal history and her identity as a prophet (note that Simeon is not so identified).  For Joseph and Mary, though, we have to guess that none of this background was available; just two random strangers suddenly going nuts over their child.

It's not as if there hadn't been enough already, between the angel visitations before Mary was even pregnant, not to mention the invasion of shepherds babbling about angels on the night of the birth.  But what was it like on the other days, when this was just a child who needed to be fed and cleaned and so on?  Did it start to seem, after a while, as if all that other business might have been just a dream, something starting to seem a little less real, a little less present than it seemed at one time?

If so, Simeon and Anna were on the scene to shake those illusions away.

They also served, perhaps, to remind the new parents that they were not the only ones with everything riding on this child, in case that was starting to slip from conscious thought.  To think of these two, blessed with great years, whose whole life had more or less become about waiting for the appearance of this child -- my child -- the salvation of the people, glory of Israel, but my child! -- had to be a jarring, shattering moment.

If there were more of these to come, Luke doesn't record them for us, at least outside of the temple incident at age twelve.  We are left with only two more sentences, in verses 39 and 40, which don't tell us a lot specifically.

Maybe that's because this isn't the important part?

After all, we have done a pretty impressive job of sentimentalizing the nativity story we have beyond all capacity to jolt us or surprise us or move us to live a Christ-like life.  Imagine if we had a childhood full of stories to obsess over.  Can you imagine the carols?  "Away In a Manger" would look like a doctoral treatise in theology by comparison.

Maybe our lack of childhood story is for the best.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The 12 Days: Day 5

Luke 2:21:

After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

It's what you do.

On the eighth day the male child is circumcised.  That's the procedure.  Even if your child is the Son of God.

Amidst all the weirdness and completely not-normal stuff that happened in the time leading to the birth of Jesus, and after the rather dramatic angel intervention and shepherd invasion of the night of the birth, the next thing we get is this simple sentence about first-century Jewish parents doing what first-century Jewish parents do.

One of the things that stands out as odd about what we know of Jesus's life is this yawning gap between birth and age thirty.  Aside from the episode in the Temple when Jesus was twelve, we skip from this infant/toddler (more on that later, on day 12) to the thirty-year-old Jesus showing up to be baptized by John the Baptizer.  Childhood, young adulthood...<crickets>.  Nothing.

Not that everybody was willing to accept this.  If you delve into the non-canonical material about Jesus, stuff that came out decades or even centuries afterwards, you get some really bizarre accounts about bizarre, willful, even cruel things done by the child Jesus.  Modern authors are not immune to the temptation to "fill in the blanks" about Jesus' life, either.

We stink at not knowing, or more precisely at accepting that we don't know.  There are some occasions where that's a good thing; I'm glad that doctors and researchers didn't settle for not understanding cancer.  But there are occasions where it leads to unhealthy and even destructive behaviors, wild unfounded speculation, and incredibly bad religion.

What's also interesting in the case of these non-canonical accounts, though, is the apparent need to make Jesus's childhood, well, "special."  The miracles and the power have to start showing themselves at a young, even very young age.  The possibility that Jesus just had a childhood -- a reasonably calm, normal childhood -- is apparently unacceptable.

The thing that appeals to me here is the utter normalcy of what the verse describes -- what any male Jewish child would have had done on day eight -- juxtaposed with the reminder of how not-normal things had been up to that point ("the name given by the angel..." -- not everybody has that experience).  At some point, if you're Mary and Joseph, you've got to get on with raising the child.

What do you do when the Son of God poops his swaddling clothes?  You get new swaddling clothes, or clean the old ones, and clean up the child.  Normal.

The child has to be nursed.  The child has to be burped.  And after eight days the child has to be circumcised.


Sunday, December 28, 2014

The 12 Days: Day 4

Luke 2:15-20:

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.  When they saw this they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.  But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.  The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

They had to check it out, of course.

The angels had made the big announcement to them, and given them a "sign" to know that they were in the right place, so of course they had to go check out what his thing was that the angels had announced, what the Lord had revealed to them.

I've always wondered what became of the sheep.  Some of the songs of the season suggest that they simply left the sheep behind.  This would be a fairly serious thing; to the owners of the sheep it's quite likely that the sheep were of more value than the shepherds.  Was one poor sap left behind to stay with the sheep?  Would one be enough, given that the sheep were quite likely agitated after that interruption from the angels?

I like to think that they herded the sheep along with them.  After all, this child was lying in a manger. If there was a manger around there was probably food as well as possibly shelter for the sheep.  As a result, I imagine a pretty crowded scene around Mary and Joseph and the child Jesus, with the shepherds and sheep crowding in along with whatever other animals were already there.  I like to imagine it, but of course I have no evidence for it.

Whatever became of the sheep, the shepherds made their way towards Bethlehem, and did so "with haste."  It doesn't say "they ran."  Maybe the sheep were slowing them down.  But they got there as fast as they could, in plenty of time for a heaping helping of cognitive dissonance.

It's not like they weren't warned.  The angel was pretty clear about what they'd see; a child lying in a manger.  Still, it wasn't as if the medium and method by which the message was delivered truly prepared them for such a humble sight.

Most scholars suggest that the manger was found not in the rustic kind of stable we imagine, but in something more like a man-made cave, hewn out of rock; in other words, something not far from a literal hole in the wall.  Inside were the child, still rather newborn-looking, probably squawling a bit (NOTE: I'm told by those who have given birth to children that if you're newborn child doesn't cry there's a decent chance something is wrong; that rather stupid line in "Away In a Manger" about "little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes" is absolute BS, nothing more than an attempt to shame Victorian children into being little pod people); Mary most likely spent and wiped out from giving birth, and Joseph in whatever state of panic he had achieved by this time.  It's hard to imagine that the scene itself wasn't quite what these shepherds imagined after all that angel stuff.

Whatever dissonance there may have been, the shepherds didn't seem to be deterred; they unloaded their whole story on Mary and Joseph.  Luke makes it sound like there were others on the scene as well -- "and all who heard it were amazed..." (emphasis mine) -- maybe the keeper of the inn?  Maybe the innkeeper's wife?  (As played by Pig-Pen and Frieda in "A Charlie Brown Christmas," perhaps?) In any case, we get x number of people being amazed, but Mary starting her own My First Baby Book in her own memory.

Certainly Mary hadn't completely forgotten the announcement from the angel Gabriel, or perhaps the experience of that crazy prophetic song coming upon her from out of nowhere when she was visiting Elizabeth.  At the same time, though, the girl was tired.  She could really have used some rest.  But the shepherds crashing in (with or without sheep) no doubt brought back to her all of the unbelievable and awe-full things that had led up to this birth, providing a reminder: remember who this child is, Mary; remember who this child will be.  And the shepherds' account of the angelic announcement brought back into sharp relief for Mary just what it was to be the θεοτὁκος.

As for the shepherds, they were presumably polite enough not to overstay their welcome.  And they ... returned.  To their fields?  To their sheep?  To that one schlub left behind to keep the sheep?  To an empty field deserted by the sheep who had wandered off and gotten swept away in a nearby river?  We don't know.  They disappear from the story.  But they disappear "glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen."  Maybe that made the nights alone with the sheep easier to bear.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The 12 Days: Day 3

Luke 2:8-14:

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, "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.  This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger."  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"

Now we're getting somewhere.

This is the stuff of Christmas, as it tends to get transmitted in culture both high (no, that link doesn't lead to Messiah!) and popular.  It is so familiar, perhaps, that we don't actually hear it anymore.

Oh, we hear it for certain, when we watch A Charlie Brown Christmas or see the Christmas pageant or the Christmas Eve service, but there's hearing, and there's hearing, and I'm not sure we hear it.

Maybe this is a place where a more modern translation, like the NRSV above, might help.  There's a difference in impact between saying there were shepherds "abiding" in the field, and shepherds "living" in the fields.  And how long has it been since you took the time to figure out what "sore afraid" means?  But we get "terrified."  Maybe not as poetic, but meaningful.

Again, this is maybe a place where our little pageants don't help us.  Who can be terrified of the cute little boy or girl playing the angel?  And yet our understanding of this passage, of the shock and, yes, terror the shepherds felt gets diminished every year.

To go back to A Charlie Brown Christmas: if Shermy thought it was frustrating to play a shepherd every year in the Christmas play, he'd have been totally bummed at being a shepherd for real.  Living (not just abiding) in the fields, trying to keep track of some of the dumbest animals in creation, fighting off predators, fighting off weather, fighting off boredom...again, perhaps not quite like our romanticized illustrated Bible might suggest.

And into this mixture of tedium and chill bursts an angel, appearance enough to leave the shepherds terrified.  The angel's announcement probably didn't help matters.  When a terrifying being tells you not to be afraid, it doesn't usually help.  The heart of the announcement -- a baby born Messiah, wrapped up in cloth scraps and laid in a feed trough? -- probably came off as more confusing than comforting.  And then...if one angel was terrifying, a multitude of same was probably heart attack-inducing.

This might, in all the nativity narratives of Matthew and Luke combined, be the scene that comes closest to capturing something of the radical in-breaking that the scriptures of Advent pointed toward.  An event out of the blue, overturning the existence of those who witnessed and experienced it, the announcement would seem to have made it impossible for the shepherds' lives to go on as normal, wouldn't it?  How do you go back to humdrum shepherding after that?

When you say you want to feel the Spirit, to know what it is to be face-to-face with the radical action of God Almighty, keep these guys in mind.  Their lives are being invaded in this passage.  They are being thrown into the middle of an unexpected and inconceivable divine intervention, and they can't quite know what's next.  Except for one detail: they've gotta check this out.

Our dramatist Luke shows his flair here.  Change of scene; he might as well have started this passage with the Greek equivalent of "Meanwhile..." But the choice of shepherds for this scene -- shepherds, not kings or wealthy folk or even good solid citizens, but grungy, scruffy, legally unreliable shepherds -- reveals more than dramatic flair; under the radar Luke is making a statement about the kind of Messiah being born on this night.  The scruffy, smelly folk, the undesirables, the social outcasts ... these are his people, even when he's barely out of the womb.  There might have been less likely people on the planet that night to be the recipients of this angelic outbreak, but it's hard to think of who they might have been.

And this is worth breaking out the angelic multitude.  Not just the birth of a Messiah, but this Messiah, the one who seeks out shepherds and fisherfolk and others on or beyond the fringes.  That's worth a good rousing chorus of "Glory to God."

Friday, December 26, 2014

The 12 Days: Day 2

Luke 2:1-8:

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.  This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.  All went to their own towns to be registered.  Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.  He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.  While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.  And she gave birth to her first born son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.  

Luke is our drama maven.  You can tell because he begins the chapter with a big honking exaggeration.  "All the world" should be registered?  Really, now, the Roman Empire was big, but let's not be ridiculous here.  On the other hand, if you were an average joe living in the Empire, I suppose it might have seemed the whole world to you.

Considering the buildup of chapter 1, this might seem to be a bit of an understated narrative of the birth, not unlike Matthew's.  Of course Luke has more up his sleeve.  Eventually Luke will give us the only surviving canonical account of Jesus as a child -- not infant -- by the end of this chapter.

For now, though, block out the other stuff, and let these eight verses sink in.  The registration is called, and everybody has to go to the family home town to get counted properly.  Joseph, briefly mentioned in Luke 1:27 (just before Mary gets to have a non-dream conversation with an angel and go hang with her old pregnant cousin Elizabeth), leads the family-to-be on the road to Bethlehem, because it was the ancestral home, so to speak, because Joseph was of the house and lineage of David.

Think about that for a minute.  One of Joseph's ancestors was King David, the great hero of Israel/Judea history (or maybe second to Moses, depending on how you define "hero" I guess).  We haven't actually been told anything about Joseph in Luke's account; he hasn't been identified as a carpenter at this point.  Still, though, whatever Joseph was at this point, how must it have felt to have only the greatest king your people had ever known in your ancestral line?  Did Joseph ever wonder why he wasn't a king himself, or at least some kind of royalty, instead of a guy schlepping across Galilee and into Judea with a pregnant fiancee and some kind of wild story about her pregnancy being "by the Holy Spirit" (really, what does that even mean?)?  Joseph, in Luke's account, hasn't had the benefit of any angel visits, in a dream or otherwise.  The whole episode must have felt very confusing and confounding to him.

You might imagine Joseph thinking to himself on the whole trip, "Don't have the baby while we're in Bethlehem.  Don't have the baby while we're in Bethlehem.  Don't have the baby..." ad infinitium while on the road, while seeking a place to stay -- where were these vaunted relatives of the house of David?  Was there no one to take him in?  Was everybody else skipping out on the registration?

Notice also Luke's last bit of dramatic emphasis; after all, Matthew had nothing to say about a manger, or the lack of room in the inn (by this time Matthew hasn't said anything about the location or circumstances of the birth, and by the time the Magi show up they're in a house of some sort -- Matt. 2:11!), or "swaddling clothes" as the KJV put it.  These are all unique to the narrative of the drama master Luke.  (It's also worth remembering that in Matthew's narrative Joseph had gone ahead and married Mary, but here that doesn't seem to have happened if one believes verse 5.)

Yes, Luke has more up his sleeve.  But freeze the picture here for now.  An exhausted mother, a perplexed father, a newborn baby boy resting in a glorified feed trough.  And no idea what was going to happen next.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

The 12 Days: Day 1

Matthew 1:18-25:

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.  When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.  But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."  All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:  "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us."  When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

It's just not poetic, darn it.

We're so accustomed to hearing the nativity story from Luke, year after year after year at Christmas Eve, that to read Matthew's rather more bare-bones account just feels, well, wrong.  No shepherds.  Only one angel, and that one angel is skulking around in Joseph's dreams instead of showing up in full daylight, bold as brass.  No particular suggestion of census or journey.  No manger, no stable, none of the stuff without which there's no Christmas pageant for the kids to put on.  The whole virgin birth business is there, sort of, although Matthew skirts around the edges of it rather than making it front and center as Luke does.

Looking backward in Matthew's gospel doesn't help either; the only thing before this account in Matthew is one of those tedious genealogies one is more accustomed to find in Old Testament passages, with all the "begats" in KJV-speak.  The vast majority of the names are quite foreign, outside of those old genealogies, although there are some familiar folk.

That genealogy only goes back as far as Abraham, for that matter, and does include Isaac and Jacob; four women manage to get included (Mary being the final one), and while the story of Ruth and Boaz has achieved something of a heartwarming reputation, there is nothing heartwarming about Judah and Tamar, and your church bluenoses probably don't want to spend a lot of time on Rahab and Salmon.  but of course Boaz and Ruth lead to Jesse and Jesse leads to David.  At that point the names get a lot less familiar until you finally get to Joseph.  Matthew is oddly concerned with pointing out that fourteen generations elapsed from Abraham to David, another fourteen generations from David to the Babylonian exile (the NRSV uses the word "deportation" (which puts a joltingly relevant twist on that story), and fourteen generations from the exile to the Messiah.

We don't hear from Mary at all -- no prophetic Magnificat here.  For that matter, we don't hear from Joseph either, although he is in many ways the principal figure in the story as Matthew tells it.  He is at least given credit for being a "righteous man," although his plan to "dismiss" his unexpectedly pregnant wife-to-be seems righteous only in comparison to having her put to death, which was an option.  An angel shows up in his dreams just as he resolves to do this, to avoid humiliating her in his eyes, to warn him off this plan.  Instead, Joseph gets the word to take her as his wife, and be the earthly male parent to a child conceived by the Holy Spirit.  He gets a name to give the child, a bit of scripture to back up the whole cockamamie story (Matthew loves to do that -- drop in bits of scripture to back up his story), and...well, that's about it.

Indeed this whole "birth narrative" is hardly that at all, more of a narrative of a family-in-the-making threatened by scandal and a rather quiet dropping of a bomb into their already-tumultuous situation.  It's a little confusing that Matthew first announces Mary was "found to be with child by the Holy Spirit" back in verse 18; exactly how did they know that, and if they knew then why did Joseph have to be told again in his dream in verse 20?  One almost wonders why Matthew bothered at all.  While Luke spilled a lot of ink on his birth story, neither Mark nor John bothered at all.  John gave us that fancy prologue about the Word, but nothing about the child.  Mark jumps into the story with the adult Jesus showing up to be baptized.  So it wasn't mandatory.  Why, then, does Matthew feel the need to include this dry, spare account?

One reason shows up at the end of this orbit of twelve days (so you'll get no spoilers here).  The other is at least partly suggested by that genealogy, leading us up to Joseph and Messiah-Son.  To wit:

This is what (or who) we've been waiting for.

It's why Matthew lays out a genealogy with big names like Abraham and David.  It's why Matthew wants to drop some scripture on us.

This is what (or who) we've been waiting for.

Even from the beginning, Matthew wants us to see that this is no ordinary child, as ordinary or extremely human as the circumstances of his birth might have seemed on the surface.  The Spirit is acting in this somewhat chaotic family-contract setting, moving against what seem to be righteous impulses to do something beyond ordinary righteousness and blowing a hole in polite society's expectations to do something that made no sense to polite society.

We will be back to Matthew, circling back around to him at the end of this cycle.  But for now, his word to us is simply this:

This is what (or who) we've been waiting for.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A word of thanks on the way out

For those who know me or at least are connected to me by social media, the word is out; I have received and accepted a call to be pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Gainesville, Florida, starting hopefully by January 25 or sooner.

So some things to get out of the way:

1) Yes, Gainesville is the home of the University of Florida.  Yes, I have my old Ph.D. from Florida State University.

Yes, I know.

2) Because of the process of the Presbytery of St. Augustine, I have already been examined by that presbytery's Examinations Commission and received into the presbytery.  I'm already on the email list, even.  Because of this there is not as much need for a long protracted process before ordination and installation.  We're already working on getting a committee together, and hopefully it will happen February 8.  Good excuse for a weekend visit to Florida in February, right?  Anyway, to me that's a good thing, because do you realize Lent starts less than two months from now?  Yikes.

3) We have a contract on a place to live, and despite some strange HoA covenants that will hopefully be settled soon enough to move in before the new year is too far along.

4) While I will assist in liturgical leadership at a church this Sunday, I have no more supply preaching days scheduled.  Having been roped into singing agreed to sing in the choir at a different church tomorrow night, that means I have precious few days left to be a simple average congregation member and to listen to the sermons of others.

5) I haven't decided what all this means for this blog.  In one sense, the "fool's errand" of the title is done.  I've left behind the life of academia, taken up a theological education, and am now headed into a pastorate.

On the other hand, there are still things to learn.  At any rate I suspect a few last posts will come along before any decision is made one way or another.  If anything I might actually get back to blogging, as opposed to reposting sermons (which I presume will be going up on the church's website).  We'll see.

But before things got too far I did want to offer up one acknowledgment, out of the supply-preaching experience.  Today I received in the mail what I assumed to be one last Christmas card, although I didn't quite understand why it was addressed only to me instead of to both of us.

Instead it turned out to be my first "ordination card."  It was sent by the congregation of Meherrin Presbyterian Church in Meherrin, Virginia, about an hour southwest of where we've been living.  I preached there at least ten or twelve times since graduating in May, far and away my most frequent supply stop.

On a good Sunday the congregation includes eight or nine people.  (It was quite an event when there were twelve one Sunday.)  They have a piano but no one to play it (it was a huge even when my wife went me to play for the service, on two different occasions), and tend to sing to the accompaniment of something called "The CD Hymnal," although they were game enough to sing a cappella if a hymn wasn't available on that set.

By now some of you have already gotten an image in your head of this church you've never heard of. Some parts of that image might be correct.  Some parts are definitely wrong.

I did preach in other churches on occasion, some of which could be described as "waiting to die."  Not this one.  It is a church that exhibits little concern with being too small to do anything, instead focusing on doing what it can to fulfill the mission of the church universal, from collecting almost anything for the needy to opening up the church library to the public the first Saturday of each month for the children in the area (it's not a highly-populated area, but they do get some traffic).

They're pretty willing to try most anything, including new or unfamiliar hymns (I even had the chance to choose a set of hymns for one service from the still-relatively-new Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal and borrow a couple of handfuls of hymnals to use for it one Sunday), and are all about any prayer or litany that involves the whole congregation.  I was able to preach some fairly pointed sermons without getting run off as well.

The church to which I am headed is a small one, but not nearly so small as that.  At any rate they should consider themselves warned that, after my experience with the good folks at Meherrin Presbyterian Church, I will be extremely disinclined to listen to any arguments that Grace Presbyterian Church is "too small" to do anything.  For that lesson I am and will be thankful as  I make this next, joyful and awe-ful and maybe even a little fearful transition.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The approaching twilight of the grand and glorious cat

Sometime this month we estimate that our older cat, Mickey, will turn ten.  When a pet gets into double-digit age, there's not much question anymore that your pet is a senior citizen.

Mickey in his role as my "thinking cat."

This March will mark ten years since Mickey joined us.  It wasn't a planned thing at the time.
We live in West Palm Beach at that point.  We were heading away for a few days and were boarding our dog, Miss Piggy (R.I.P.), with our vet, which also had a pretty sizable boarding facility.  Miss Piggy had already been checked in and was being led off to her boarding cubicle, happily following the vet tech as she was wont to do.  While she was off I was waiting for more paperwork to sign, but that left me a few moments to wander about in the lobby.
Besides the boarding facility, this vet office also had a couple of display windows.  A local rescue group would occasionally bring in kittens to the office who would spend a few days there, and would be on display in these very large display windows with food and litter box and toys, and even folks who didn't come into the office could see them and ooh and aww and be lured into adopting.  I had noticed the mostly black-and-white tabby with some more golden brown highlights in the window as I was bringing Miss Piggy in, but with a highly motivated dog straining at the leash to get in (yes, I know, most dogs don't want to get into the vet's office, but Miss Piggy was always a curious one that way) I hadn't stopped to look.  Now, with nothing else to do, I went over to take a peek.
It happened that Mickey (this was already his name) was being particularly cute at the time, rolling over on his back and swatting at some kind of mobile-type toy.  For a three-month-old kitten he was already a pretty substantially sized feline (six pounds, as it turned out), but he was still small enough to be kittenish.  So, I smiled, and it's possible I let out an "aww" or something like that.
To this day I have never figured out how the vet tech, who had juuust gone to take Miss Piggy, was suddenly over my shoulder saying "would you like to hold him?" I mean, she was not young and she was not small.  But even an NBA point guard or Olympic sprinter shouldn't have been able to move that quickly.  Not really waiting for me to answer, she reached into the window and lifted a surprised Mickey out and onto my shoulder.
At that point I was totally in the tank.
The tech suggested that Mickey and Miss Piggy have a little get-acquainted time when we returned from our trip -- not that I was all that worried, since Miss Piggy had shared our space with two cats for most of her time with us in Tallahassee.  We did it, and within five minutes Mickey was curled up on Miss Piggy's paws napping.  Mind you, every vet tech in the building crowded up to the windows of the exam room at some point to watch.  Clearly this cat was a charmer from the get-go.
So we made arrangements for adoption, and within a week my wife had picked the cat up from the vet's office and had him stretched out on her chest and shoulder by the time I got home from campus that Friday.
His early size was an accurate predictor; he is a large cat.  The preferred term, we have been repeatedly informed, is "grand and glorious."  This doesn't keep him from getting into, onto, over, under, or otherwise around anything he chooses, for the most part.  And it does give him the strength to knock over whatever he chooses in order to get our attention.  Most recently it was their primary cat bowls.  The best way to describe him is "barrel-chested."  This was never going to be a small cat by any stretch of the imagination, but even if he were a more normal weight he was always going to look big.  (I can sympathize, Mick.)  Pluto, on the other hand, is a very long cat, and therefore looks slim and sleek even though he's quite the monster himself.  It's not fair, Mickey, I know.
He's now outlasted Miss Piggy (that was more or less inevitable) and learned to tolerate our all-black Pluto.  He's generally been a healthy cat, despite his weight and occasional sneezing spells.  He has been, in all the ways that matter, the dominant personality in the house.
This isn't a "farewell" post, not by a long shot.  He's still an active and even frisky cat sometimes (to the degree that any adult cat can be called those things, given that the sleep anywhere from two-thirds to three-quarters of the day).  Still, one can just barely start to see that he's a senior cat indeed.  He isn't going gray (he still has the amusing gray spot on his muzzle that makes him look like he has a dirty face).  He might have lost a little bit of weight (Pluto actually weighs more now), but nothing so much as to cause alarm.
But he is a ten-year-old cat, and that's not nothing in cat years.  Every now and then his "little" brother actually manages to be the bully, a fact which annoys Mickey to no end.  Maybe he's a little more attention-hungry than he used to be.  He's a lot more likely to seek me out for use as a cat sofa than he used to be, not to mention the "thinking cat" perch he frequently takes if I'm in that recliner.  Like any cranky old person, he wants things his way; that cat fountain may be satisfactory for Pluto, but only the bathroom sink upstairs will do for Mickey.  And if there isn't anyone there to turn it on for him (he hasn't quite mastered that trick), he'll knock every pill bottle or cup into the sink until his demands are met.  He is less intolerant of belly rubs than he used to be, though they're still not his favorite (he really likes what might be called a full-face pet most of all).  In other words, he has both mellowed and gotten more cranky with age.
He's still a pretty fearless cat.  Nowadays if there's a stranger in the house Mickey is almost immediately out to investigate.  He's still ready to make a break for it if anyone leaves a door open too long.  And when he sets his mind to it, he'll still climb or otherwise get into whatever he can.  The leaping and climbing may not be quite as effective as they used to be, but he can still surprise us with where he manages to appear.
He may well be with us for another ten, for all we know.  But bitter experience has taught us that cats, or any pets or "animal companions" if you prefer, are no more guaranteed to last forever than we humans are.  And we also know from that bitter experience that whenever that day comes for Mickey, or Pluto, or any future feline family members, it will hurt in ways Hell cannot possibly imagine.
For now, he's still the big boy, even if his "little" brother has passed him.  He's still the dominant cat, and he's still first in line for attention and first in line for breakfast in the morning.  With any luck this will still be true for years to come.

Sermon: Rejoice

Meherrin Presbyterian Church
December 14, 2014; Advent 3B
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Luke 1:46-55


One of the more fascinating moments in the early history of the church involves the bishop Ambrose of Milan forcing no less than the Roman Emperor to engage in an act of public repentance.  Theodosius, the emperor in question, had reacted violently to a riot in the city of Thessalonika; under the pretense of hosting a chariot race, seven thousand Thessalonikans had been lured into the city stadium only to be massacred by Roman troops.  Upon hearing of this Ambrose had not merely made a statement but physically barred Theodosius from entering the church in Milan, and ordered the emperor to perform public penance before he would be allowed to enter the church ever again.  Amazingly to our modern sensibilities, Theodosius submitted to Ambrose’s rebuke, and made penance before the public, and was eventually allowed to enter the cathedral again.
I dare say such a result would be inconceivable today.  I dare say any modern-day Ambrose who so challenged the leader of any country on this planet would far more likely end up arrested or simply killed, and the church probably destroyed as well.  Yet such challenge to the powerful was the lot in life of most of those Old Testament figures we lump together under the label “prophet.”  Only occasionally were the results of such challenges by those prophets so spectacular; the prophet Nathan’s challenge to King David after David had stolen Bathsheba and had her soldier husband killed stands out as one.  More likely the prophet might be imprisoned or at minimum cast out of the king’s presence (the career of Jeremiah shows a few examples of the sufferings a prophet might suffer in the course of doing his or her job). 
Perhaps the worst fate, though, might simply be to go unheard. 
You preach, you proclaim, you deliver the word God stirred you up to deliver, and … nothing.  The powerful ignore you, the people go on their way without noticing, … nothing changes. 
One wonders if the prophecy recorded in Isaiah 61 left its proclaimer with such feelings.  Couched in gentle language though it may be, this is about as subversive a message as any biblical prophet was ever charged to proclaim.  It starts off typically enough; “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me…” is actually a fairly formulaic way of introducing a prophetic speech.  What follows might be a little unusual, if only because rather general; instead of a specific charge against a specific king or against a particular class of wealthy or powerful people, the message becomes one of good news, promises to the brokenhearted, the captive, the prisoner, those who mourn.  It’s actually kind of poetic; “a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit” becomes rather lovely in the reading, even translated into English.  The poetry turns to striking meaphor in verses 3 and 4 – “oaks of righteousness” as a description of those who had been weak and powerless indeed.
It’s all very lovely and hopeful, and yet the prophet can’t seem to resist one dig, back in verse 2.  Did you catch it?  To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God” (emphasis mine).
It happens again in verse 8: “For I the Lord love justice; I hate robbery and wrongdoing(again, emphasis mine).  It is a fearful thing to see or hear the Lord use the words “I hate.”  Yet here they are, bold as brass, again enmeshed in a passage of beauty and poetry and hope – “I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them…  The promise to the poor and downtrodden can’t seem to escape being laced with words of … well, wrath, or something like it.
In the midst of words of rejoicing, to hear such jarring interjections is perhaps difficult to handle.  Maybe we get distracted by it, or perhaps we just tune it out and focus on the pretty stuff.  Even many biblical commentaries pass over these interjections lightly, not wanting to lose the train of thought of hope and joy, perhaps? 
It is, though, part of the passage.  And we aren’t called to blow off those scripture passages that bother us.  So, what do we make of it? 
Something similar, albeit milder, also happens in the gospel text taken from Luke today.  Here we are confronted with a rather different sort of prophet; a teenage girl who is pregnant, under what we shall delicately call suspicious circumstances.  Over the millennia the church has built up Mary into a tremendously important (or in some corners, nearly divine) figure, but let us not lose sight of her station in life at this point; an unwed pregnant girl, not only powerless but subject to being cast out of the community or worse, had Joseph chosen to do so.  That “likely story” about being “pregnant by the Holy Spirit” probably didn’t help her cause.
And yet, in the presence of her much older and also pregnant cousin Elizabeth, Mary lets out one of the most dramatic prophetic (and yes, that’s what it is, prophetic) utterances in the New Testament.  As lowly and powerless as she is, God makes of her a prophet in order to return to themes heard before in Isaiah and other prophets.  Even in this prophetic utterance Mary recognizes the incongruity of herself, so lowly a servant, being now called blessed by all generations because of what the Mighty One has done for her.  But before long, the prophecy returns to themes of the lowly being lifted up and mercy being given to those who fear God. 
But listen to what else goes on;
…he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts…
…he has brought down the powerful from their thrones…
…and sent the rich away empty…
Again with the dagger amidst the poetry.
What we are confronted with in both Isaiah and Mary is a God who, unapologetically and unequivocally, takes sides.  And what’s left at least a little vague in Isaiah is made uncomfortably specific in Mary’s Magnificat – “the proud…the powerful…the rich.”  And if we really hear it, if we don’t get blinded with the music and poetry of it, we’re probably a little concerned. 
The title of this sermon is “Rejoice,” and in liturgical circles this third Sunday is sometimes called “Gaudete” Sunday (from the Latin word for “rejoice,”) and these texts do have much to them to provoke rejoicing, particularly for the poor, the hopeless, the oppressed, the captive, and so on. 
But is that how we really see ourselves?
Let’s face it; by comparison to many in the world we are not remotely poor.  We generally don’t know what it is to be oppressed – did anybody try to prevent you from coming to church this morning?  Was anybody here barring the door? 
Perhaps more to the point, the descriptives applied to the “other guys” in Mary’s song are actually … well, kind of appealing if we’re honest with ourselves.  We are kind of proud of what we’ve done, of what we’ve “made” for ourselves, proud that we’ve made it through life and survived and even done pretty well for ourselves sometimes.  We don’t necessarily see ourselves as powerful or rich (unless there’s a county commissioner in here who’s been holding out on me), but if we’re honest, we’d be pretty happy to be either.  I mean, right now, my wife and I are facing the task of finding a new place to live in a new city to us.  It would be very helpful to be rich right about now. 
And yet between Isaiah and Mary we’re left with the inescapable conclusion that the rejoicing that this Sunday promises isn’t necessarily compatible with those promises that some preachers make, that JESUS WANTS YOU TO BE RICH or that you can live YOUR BEST LIFE NOW! Maybe the challenge of this day is to realize that rejoicing, genuine rejoicing, is not found in those earthly measures of success.  Maybe the challenge is to understand once and for all that our hope is built on so much more than bank accounts or social status or political influence or any human thing that might tempt us into pride.  Maybe the challenge is to understand that before God, we are all poor and in need, and that to set ourselves otherwise is to set ourselves to be sent away empty. 
We have hope, we have reason to rejoice, not because of what we’ve made or what we’ve earned or what we’ve accomplished or who we’ve controlled.  We have hope because God.  Because Jesus.  Because we live in “the year of the Lord’s favor,” as lowly as we may be. 
It isn’t that we rejoice in our lowliness, even.  You may have known the type who is perhaps a little too caught up in bragging about their lowliness?  The “po’ but proud” type who is a little too proud of being po’?  We aren’t hopeful because we’re poor or oppressed or captive or anything like that; we are hopeful because God is hope.  We rejoice because God gives the joy. 

We want to get it right, I know that.  We’re not always good at recognizing who the oppressed or poor or downtrodden are, though.  Even bishop Ambrose, the emperor-defying hero from the beginning of the sermon, got it wrong on occasion.  On a different occasion he used his influence to prevent Theodosius – yes, the same emperor – from providing compensation to a community that had lost its place of worship when it was burned by rioters.  You see, the place of worship was a synagogue, and the rioters were Christians.  We still get blinded by our own fears.  We can’t see through our own struggle to hold on to what little power we think we have to see that we sometimes turn into the oppressor.
As Advent winds towards Christmas, our hope, our joy is found not in Herod’s palace, nor in the headquarters of the Roman Empire.  It turns up in a piddling little out-of-the-way town out in the sticks.  It comes in the form of the baby born to that unwed pregnant teenager, that baby who ended up being laid to sleep in a feed trough, with no decent accommodation available.  That hope was witnessed by shepherds, among the most lowly-regarded of all Israel, and eventually by a few foreign star-watchers.  Not even in the relatively lowly province of Israel – a minor corner of the Roman Empire at best – could this setting have been called “powerful” or “rich” or “proud.” 
We rejoice in a God who takes sides so profoundly that even in crashing into history, that God did so in about the most powerless way possible.
For the God who takes sides and gives us hope to rejoice, Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Hymns (PH ’90): O Lord, How Shall I Meet You? (11), Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming (48), It Came Upon a Midnight Clear (39)

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Sermon: But...

Meherrin Presbyterian Church
December 7, 2014; Advent 2B
Isaiah 40: 1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; Mark 1:1-8


As a former music history scholar, I confess I get excited when a scripture reminds me of or evokes my former career.  When one sermon text I preached over the summer was on a scripture set to music in one of Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorios, I got so excited I actually sang the relevant tune. During the sermon.
So at first glance at today’s text from Isaiah, it would seem to be a musician’s dream.  A significant portion of this chapter was appropriated by George Frederick Handel for some of the early solos and choruses of his oratorio Messiah.  It’s one of those pieces of music that’s almost impossible to avoid this time of year.  If it’s not being performed live somewhere, it’s probably going to pop up on your TV or radio if you happen to watch or listen at the right time.  It’s a Christmas tradition, as they say.

It can be inescapable this time of year.

Seriously, I’ve sung these portions of the work so many times as to have large chunks of them memorized.
You get the idea.  Handel mined this chapter very heavily in writing the first portion of his oratorio – “Part the First,” in the ornate language of some of the early published editions.  And it’s not hard to get why.  It’s a beautiful, hopeful text.  Unlike so much of what prophets like Isaiah had to say much of the time, it provides reassurance to a people, whether in Isaiah’s direct audience or to us today, that are rather in dire need of some form of reassurance.  Where much of the prophet’s task was to call out the people for their sins, and last week we had the prophet basically suggesting that God should just blow in and knock everything over and push the restart button, here the message is much more gentle and accessible. 
Much the same message is found in today’s psalm.  It offers us some beautiful, if rather curious, images – “righteous and peace will kiss each other” might take a moment to sort out in the imagination – but it, like most of Isaiah’s chapter, provides hope, comfort, and even a kind of joy in its evocations of righteousness and peace, love and faithfulness. 
The trouble is, when we leave here and go home, perhaps with the radio on in the car or the TV on when we get home, or perhaps when we look at the newspaper we didn’t finish this morning, it becomes very hard to remember all this stuff about comfort, or love and faithfulness, or righteousness and peace kissing.  Another hostage killed in the Middle East.  Another shooting in another American city, with nobody held responsible.  Another oil spill.  Another typhoon in the Philippines.  Governments of small Pacific islands planning to evacuate their citizens, not because of a typhoon or another storm, but because sea levels are rising so fast the islands are truly sinking into the sea. 
There’s a disconnect between what we see around us, what we know and observe about humanity, including ourselves, and what promises we hear in these bits of scripture from Isaiah and Psalms.  We feel it as much as know it.  Peace is nowhere to be found; righteousness seems an illusion; faithfulness and love sound like pipe dreams. 
If a modern-day psalmist were to describe our contemporary culture, he or she might pen lines like “…steadfast hate and vindictiveness will meet; abusiveness and greed will high-five one another…  Promises of comfort, as Isaiah proclaims, sound hollow, more like fantasy than real, earthly possibility.  How can we possibly look for that?
But Isaiah has more to say, something more that makes clear that these promises are not fantasy, and that they are promised even in the face of the human frailties and faults we know all too well.  And the musician who communicated this best of all – who “preached” this message far more effectively than I could ever hope to do – was  not Handel, but Johannes Brahms. 
In the second movement of Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem, that composer appropriates a piece of Isaiah’s chapter 40 as well, but he avoids the passages made famous by Handel’s settings, choosing instead from the central movement of this text in verses 6-8.  Like many psalms and like last week’s passage from Isaiah 61, this first portion of Isaiah 40 has three mini-sections that move in contrast to one another.  Verses 6-8 provide a kind of reality check after the effusive promises of verses 1-5.  With a tone a bit more pessimistic and maybe even a little cynical, this passage provided plenty of reasons for Handel to skip it in creating Messiah.  On the other hand, it was perfect for Brahms.
Verse 6 echoes verse 3 and its language of one “crying out.”  But where verse 3 doesn’t exactly make clear who is crying out (we’ll see who gospel writers thought it was in a little bit), in verse 6 the prophet is positioning himself as the object of the command: “A voice says, ‘Cry out!’”.  But somehow the prophet isn’t impressed.  Psalm 81 and its promises seem far from his mind.   
What does come to his mind is the very thing that seemed to be missing from our psalm excerpt and from the beginning of this chapter; the frailty, faultiness, and outright disobedience of humanity.  The prophet’s reply “What shall I cry?” would probably benefit from a little slang interpretation here;
Cry out?  Cry out what?
What can possibly be said to these hateful, faithless people? 
These people are like grass.  They have all the faithfulness and constancy of the grass in the field – looks pretty now, but withers and dies when the heat comes on.  What’s the point of prophesying to such a faithless, worthless bunch?
Now there’s some stereotyped Old Testament prophet talk.
For all the inconstancy of the people, though, there is one thing that is sure.  And Brahms says it much better than I.
What you are about to hear begins about seven minutes into the second movement.  This is the fourth time Brahms repeats the prophet’s weary claims.  It’s in German (this is the German Requiem, after all) but you can keep track beginning in the second half of verse 6 – “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field,” and then skipping to verse 7 – “the grass withers, the flower fades…”

(Brahms, Ein deutsches Requiem, track 2, begin at 7:00) [NOTE: in the linked video the section starts around 7:34, lasting to a little before 9:40.  In my humble musical opinion the "Aber des Herrn Wort" needs to be a lot faster.]

Aber des Herrn Wort bleibet in Ewigkeit.” “But the word of our God will stand forever.
But! Never has so much power and hope and attention been musically invested in that little conjunction “but”!  Okay, in German it’s actually “aber,” which translates as “but.”  Here those three little letters are packed with so much hope.
Our inconstancy, our faithlessness, our hatefulness, our spitefulness, all of those horrible things that we see in ourselves as a species and as a human race cannot outlast the promise of our Lord.  Our failure cannot be the final word; it will always be trumped by the “word of the Lord” that endures through all eternity.  Brahms, who if anything would probably fit within the modern category of “spiritual but not religious,” nonetheless saw the hope in that little German word “aber” and found a way to express it with a power and a joy and an exuberance that maybe we can learn from and hold on to in our own reflection on this passage. 

"Spiritual but not religious," or simply "None"? Can't decide.

Something a little similar happens in our gospel passage for today, from Mark 1, although no composer has emerged to set it in such an effective way.  In verse 4 we are introduced to the character John “the baptizer,” whom many early Christians quickly decided was the one crying out in the wilderness early in Isaiah 40.  If we take verse 6 seriously then “character” seems a pretty accurate description of the man.  The gospel writer wastes little time in introducing us to John and his message – “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  But by verses 7-8 it becomes clear that John’s message is less about himself than about The One yet to come, One who is going to bring something new and different:
The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.

There’s that word again – “but,” or in this case the Greek word “δε.”  Here, though, while it is a word that signifies hope, there’s also maybe a little danger with it, maybe a little disruption.”  What does it mean to be “baptized with the Holy Spirit”?  Sounds a little scary.
It’s no longer about God doing something in the abstract, no longer about God’s faithfulness outlasting our sinfulness and faithlessness.  Now, that little conjunction “but” is introducing a far more challenging promise; God isn’t just going to do something, God is going to do something to us. 
 It isn’t about God out there in the distance being all Godly and powerful.  It isn’t even about God tearing open the heavens and shaking things up as in last week’s scripture from Isaiah.  It’s about God getting inside us and shaking us up.  And maybe that’s … well, not exactly scary, maybe, but … okay, maybe it is a little scary.  It means we might change.  It means we might not be able to kick back in our own comfort zone and leave all the work to God.  This One who is to come baptizing us with the Holy Spirit is hope, yes, but hope that comes with a little bit of threat, a little bit of an edge. 
That’s the thing about Advent, if you take it seriously.  It’s not quiet.  It’s not passive, really.  It is charged with the energy of a God whose faithfulness will outlast all of our faithlessness, yes.  But it’s also charged with the energy of a God who doesn’t feel like waiting that long, a God who chooses to break in now and turn us inside out and upside down with the Holy Spirit, a God who instead of tearing open the heavens and starting earthquakes invades humanity in the form of a human who turned over tables, and healed the sickest of the sick, and turned the heads of the religious leaders inside out with his challenge to their stock theology, who exalted the poor and told the rich to give it all away, and who didn’t even have the decency to stay dead when humanity finally killed him.  And that, friends, is the power and the challenge of Advent.
“But,” for three little letters packed with hope and danger, Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Hymns: "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" (PH 9), "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus" (2), "Lord Christ, When First You Came to Earth" (7)

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Sermon: Tear Open the Heavens

Meherrin Presbyterian Church
November 30, 2014, First Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Mark 13:24-37

Tear Open the Heavens

First of all, Happy New Year!  Liturgically speaking, of course.
Today marks the first Sunday of the season of Advent, and as such the beginning of a new liturgical year for the church.  Beginning with this season, the church follows a cycle of anticipation and preparation, culminating in the celebration of the Nativity in the brief season of Christmas (it really does last twelve days, just like the song says).  That culminates in the event given the name Epiphany, marking in most reckonings the visitation of the Magi, or Wise Men, or the Three Kings, whichever you remember best.  After a period of what is sometimes called “ordinary time,” Ash Wednesday surprises us with the initiation of the season of Lent, another preparatory season with a focus on the events leading to Christ’s final days on earth and the Crucifixion.  Easter announces the Resurrection of Christ, and the season that follows (seven Sundays in all) leads to Pentecost, marking the manifestation of the Holy Spirit to the disciples following Christ’s ascension into heaven.
Ideally, this pattern leads us on a yearly basis through the life cycle of the church, so to speak; a season of anticipation followed by the celebration of the birth of Christ, a season for teaching and learning Christ’s life and teaching, commemoration of Christ’s death and life again, and the so-called “birthday of the church” at Pentecost.  Ideally, that is.
In practice, certain occasions or seasons tend to get overlooked, actively pushed aside, or misunderstood.  Depending on where you look, Advent is all three.
This may partly be because Advent has a double meaning.  It does mark the approach of the Nativity, the first coming of Christ in the form of the child Jesus, which is celebrated at Christmas (or often weeks before) with pageants and music and decorations and nativity scenes and all manner of festivity.  However, Advent also serves the more here-and-now purpose of encouraging reflection upon Christ’s return, that great day a-coming when we will no longer live in separation from our Lord, but will “see him as he is” in Paul’s words and will be gathered together for eternity.
For some, this is what might be called an off-ramp.  It conjures up images of those hell-fire preachers with their codes for reading the Bible for clues to the date of the “Rapture” or some other contrived remaking of Christ’s return.  We Presbyterians – for whom the phrase “decently and in order” was invented – tend to be suspicious or maybe fearful of such out-of-control theological gamesmanship and to want to keep our distance from it, which is fair enough. 
Still, there is something disruptive about Advent, if we take it seriously, that we as a church, and perhaps especially we as Presbyterians, need. 
Today’s reading from the Old Testament offers something of the proper – that is, radically upsetting and even destructive – frame of mind for marking a genuine celebration of Advent.  Just look at that phrase that opens the chapter: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…”.  That is an image we just don’t associate with Christmas.  Yet it is practically the essence of observing Advent: identifying and claiming the intense, even painful desire for return, to be among us humans once again, even if it sounds a little destructive.  We know ourselves to be cut off, and we want to be reunited with our Lord, whatever it takes.
As the chapter continues, we see that it sounds a lot more like a psalm than the usual business of a prophet, chewing out the people for their sins.  In this case the prophet becomes the voice or the mouthpiece of the people, putting into words their desire for God and even their petition for God to return to them, even if that requires “tearing open the heavens.” 

Impressive, but not "tear open the heavens" impressive.

As is often the case with psalms, there is at least a three-part structure to this psalm-like unit of the prophet’s writing.  In this case, the first part of the “psalm” is a plea, a cry out from the people for God to…well, to “be God,” to do the dramatic, earth-shaking, attention-getting things that the people remember from their memory and their sacred story.  They cry out for God to “tear open the heavens and come down,” to come in such a way “as when fire kindles brushwood and fire causes water to boil.”  They’re looking for a dramatic intervention, in other words, for God to go all Old Testament on the world and shake things up, to get their foes trembling and the earth to shaking. 
It takes a little while to understand why a people would want to invoke such a thing.  What could they possibly be thinking?  Why in the world would you cry out for earthquakes and the heavens tearing open?  Why would they be crying out for the kind of divine action that overwhelms and leaves no room for human will – brushwood has no choice about burning when fire is set to it, nor water about boiling when it is heated.  Why have the people given up?
It helps to know just who the prophet’s audience is in this case, whose words are being evoked here.  The author of Isaiah, or at least this last part of it, is widely understood to be preaching among the people of Israel who have returned from Babylonian exile.  They have returned to Jerusalem, but Jerusalem isn’t what they remember.  It’s in ruins.  It’s unlivable.  It’s unsafe and a sitting duck before Israel’s enemies.  The people are scared, they’re frustrated, and they don’t know what to do. 
In time, the prophet-psalmist gets around to admitting the harder truth.  The condition of the people is largely their own doing.  Oh, they try to pass the buck.  They even try to blame God for “hiding” from them (v. 5).  Even that cannot stand, though, as the people are eventually forced to admit that it is their own iniquity that has brought about their circumstances.   No matter how much they might want to blame God for hiding, they have to admit the truth of an old saying: “If you think God’s far away, guess who moved.”  Finally, the prophet and people have to resort to pleading with God to remember that “we are all your people” (v. 9), no matter how badly they’ve fouled things up. 
The psalm for the day (that is, the selection from the actual book of Psalms) actually covers similar territory as the passage from Isaiah.  A call for God to come leads to a lament at the seeming distance of God, and finally a plea for restoration.  Psalm 80 is so much more polite than the Isaiah passage, though, so much more tame and suitable for singing in worship.  The raw desperation of Isaiah’s pseudo-psalm is particularly evocative, even to us moderns on the edge of another Advent season. 
The reading from Mark’s gospel gives a fairly vivid picture of what happens when God really does intervene in dramatic fashion.  Even this, though, doesn’t quite capture the desperation and violence of Isaiah’s language.  There is another passage in Mark, though, that echoes Isaiah rather strongly.  In chapter 1 of the gospel Mark offers a very brief account of the baptism of Jesus.  As Mark describes the event,
And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved;* with you I am well pleased.’ (Mark 1:10-11)

“The heavens torn apart.”  Sounds familiar, yes?  It is no small thing, no sweetly picturesque picture.  It is violent, upsetting whatever stands in its way, disrupting and revolutionizing and refusing altogether to be decent and in order. 
It is worth our time as Advent begins again to spend a little time with the likes of Isaiah, as well as perhaps the psalmists.  The people to whom the prophets preached or ranted or sang had plenty of experience with waiting and anticipating.  They didn’t always do it well, mind you, as today’s reading suggests, but they knew what it was to live in anticipation, to know that life as they knew it was not life as it was meant to be.  Likewise, we don’t live in paradise.  We don’t live in perfect union with God or perfect fellowship with Christ or in perfect unity in the Spirit.  We might just be able to learn something from these people and their failings and their yearnings.
Thirty years ago the Methodist pastor and author Will Willimon wrote a commentary on this Isaiah passage, one which was situated in a time when American society was possessed of a rather different attitude than we might see around us today.  Remember “Morning in America”?  All optimism and sunny smiles and no, there’s nothing wrong with America?  And then, once the presidential election was over, … oops, we actually do have a deficit, and taxes are going to go up, and maybe things are not quite so perfect as we promised.  OK, maybe it wasn’t that different of a time, but we do live in a society in which the rich get richer and the poor die trying, when society goes crazy on Black Friday at Walmart harrying employees who rely on food stamps and welfare to survive on a Walmart salary, when our legal system twists itself into knots to say it’s o.k. to shoot an unarmed youth as long as he’s black. 
Okay, maybe we can understand why Isaiah’s people might be looking for dramatic divine intervention, for God to tear open the heavens and come down.  But when we call on God to come down, we need to know what we’re invoking.
The heavens tearing open.  The mountains shaking.  Fire set to the brushwood engulfing it in flame, setting the water aboil.  Our lives disrupted, our routines disrupted irreparably, our paths rerouted in ways we can’t imagine.  Families set against one another, brother against brother, child against parent.  Our comfortable accommodations to the world exposed as the cheap socially distorted Christianity that they are.  Left with no escape from a God who wants and even expects us to give everything we have, not just the convenient parts. 
The world does its best to drown out this call, and is pretty successful when you get right down to it.  There isn’t a lot of disruption in your average Nativity scene.  It’s very cute.  It’s sweet.  It’s quite tame, unless the proprietors of the live Nativity are using a real baby who decides to get squawly and start crying its lungs out. 
But we need the distraction.  We need the child to start screaming.  We need to hear the cries of the oppressed, the poor, the forgotten, the rejected.  We need to hear the groanings of our own hearts, burdened and brought down by our own iniquity, our utter inability to set things right on our own.  As fearful and frightening as we (rightly) might consider it to be, we know we are lost and without hope unless God tears open the heavens and comes down. 
C.S. Lewis reminds us that “The Christian faith is a thing of unspeakable joy.  But it does not begin with joy, but rather in despair. And it is no good trying to reach the joy without first going through the despair.”
If we’re honest, we know the despair. 
Are we really ready for the joy?
Are we ready for Advent? 
Be careful what you ask for.

For Advent in all its disruptive power, Thanks be to God. 

Hymns: "Comfort, Comfort Ye, My People" (PH 3), "Savior of the Nations, Come" (14), "Prepare the Way (13)