Our church has taken “building a place” as this year’s Advent theme, and we’re doing just that. Each week a large set piece is added to the sanctuary—a pair of workhorses, wide doors, hayloft, and (soon to come) a manger—to suggest the construction of a stable and reinforce the idea of preparing a place for Christ to be born anew in us. An evocative musical number and cleverly insightful sketch set the stage for each sermon, whose title builds off “a place where”—printed in lower-case, subtly muting the racket affixed to Christmas so our contemplations are in scale with Bethlehem’s humility. It’s been a profoundly moving journey. And though there’s more to come, it well may have peaked with last Sunday’s message, “a place where change looks possible.” When our pastor, Joy Douglas Strome, finished, few eyes were dry and very few doubts remained that any of us will ever see Advent and Christmas the same way again. I was so stirred, my thoughts turned to all of you. With Joy’s permission, I’m sharing it here, in its entirety, conceding its power on the page can’t compare with her inspired delivery. Nonetheless, the sermon—which synthesizes Isaiah 61 and John 1.6-9, 19-28—has much to tell us and gives us much to think about. I trust you’ll take time to read it, and make time to sit with it, wrestle with it, and be blessed by it. If its impact here is half of what we experienced, my prayers in passing it along will be answered.
Weekly stable construction in the Lake View Presbyterian sanctuary: doors (L) and hayloft awaiting the hay delivery (R).
Prayer for illumination
O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel. Ransom us, O God, as we sit captive to many things. Ransom us that we might be free to encounter your liberating Word this day, right now. Amen.
A double dose of most things would seem excessive, would call for restraint, might even be dangerous. But a double dose of John the Baptist in the wilderness delivered by our lectionary is clearly here to make a point about Advent. Last week from Mark, this week from the Gospel of John, we hear the story of John the Baptist, precursor to Jesus. Part of why it is hard to hear is because we think we should be getting on with things by now. Isn’t it time for carols and the Baby, the soft side of the story? No, not yet.
Thomas Merton wrote, ”The Advent mystery is the beginning of the end of all in us that is not yet Christ.” Most of us would be undone by that, Many days I am undone by it. I suspect we’re all feeling off guard a bit by the notion that somehow we’re actually being transformed into Christ during Advent. That’s probably not what we signed up for. We want to see Christ. We’re glad for the story of angels and shepherds and Magi. We’re impressed with Mary’s courage, and Joseph’s commitment, and even God’s ingenuity with the delivery method for this important message. Still, we usually picture keeping our own human autonomy as we hear the story repeated for yet another year. We watch it unfold at a distance.
Merton would suggest that something a bit more lasting is happening, that in Advent we are actually being changed into something recognized as Christ. That is beyond the pale for most of us, and it’s easier to just hunker down and wait for the Christmas carols to finally come out. (And for those of you who are counting, they will come out next week.)
The One True Light
John came to testify to the one true light. That light would be Jesus, would be Christ, would be the Messiah. Even when everyone else around him seems confused, he seems to be comfortable with the job. The author of the gospel of John gives John the Baptist a little attitude and the conversation between John and the priests is almost funny. John sidesteps the questions with clever answers. He keeps them guessing about who he is and what his function will be.
John’s was the last of the Gospels to be written down, to the community that probably most needed to hear about testifying. But John the Baptist makes a bit of a mockery of their questioning: Who are you? Well, I’m not the Messiah. What then? Are you Elijah? I am not. Are you the Prophet? No. You’d think that he’d been coached by a good attorney, who warned, “Just answer the questions!” Then comes the breaking question: Well, then, who are you? I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness; make straight the way of the Lord. Well, if you are just a voice, they reason, why all the baptizing? It’s a trick question. He may be quoting Isaiah, but he isn’t authorized to perform this priestly function. But John the Baptist turns it around again: I’m just baptizing with water. The one who is coming after me? I’m not worthy to tie the thong of his sandal. No mention of fire, like last week. No mention of Holy Spirit. Just an allusion to the stature of the One Who will come after John.
John the Voice is out here doing his own thing, based on his belief that his singular job is to pave the way for God’s own Son to appear on the earthly scene. Did he know what that would be like? Well, partly. But he didn’t know everything, because if you remember, he ended up with his head on a plate. Surely if he would have known, he would have been more careful, don’t you think? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe he was just faithful.
Isaiah’s ideas are big ones. They become Jesus’ big ideas, too, when he starts his adult ministry—this idea about good news (which means “gospel”) to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners. Prisoners in Isaiah’s day were either political prisoners or people in debt. No prison space was taken up by hardened criminals; criminals were taken care of another way, if you catch my drift. People in debt in prison might have family members that could pay “on time” to get them out. It was one of a number of rackets. And in a time when the oppressed were never out of debt, you know who it was in prison waiting for the good news that Isaiah, then Jesus promised.
Anyway, these big ideas sound lofty, they sound like something we want, and they are just poetic enough to capture our imagination. But most of the time, before we get too carried away with the prophetic call, our rational mind kicks in gear and says, “Really, can this happen?” Well, probably not in our lifetime. How do we have faith like John the Baptist had, when we run short of patience with the waiting, when our rational minds have seen one too many oil deals, one too many businesses collapse, one too many bailouts, one too many scams, one too many abused children, one too many corrupt politicians.
This week alone is enough to make us skeptical, isn’t it? More young people come forward in the Penn State mess, and another of our governors [Rod Blagojevich] is going to jail, and the judge says he ripped at the moral fabric of our society… That’s flowery language for we just don’t trust anyone much anymore.
Reason Needs Faith
Two different authors have helped me think about this this week. First is Theodoret, one of the Early Church leaders from the third century. He wrote about being able to perceive God’s light in this way:
To see visible objects we need the eyes of the body.
To understand intelligible truths we need the eyes of the mind.
To have the vision of divine things we cannot do without faith.
What the eye is for the body, faith is for reason.
To be more precise; the eye needs the light which puts it in contact with visible things; reason needs faith to show it divine things.
Reason would have us abandon the big ideas of our prophets for the most expedient, cost effective alternative. And most of the time that path does not bring about justice. Reason needs faith to show it divine things. That’s an interesting definition for faith… the ability to see divine things. And in John the Baptist’s case, it wasn’t just to see divine things, but to talk about them, interpret them, testify to them, and put his life on the line for them.
Open to the Divine
Barbara Brown Taylor wrote these provocative words about faith this week. She says:
Faith and hope can cancel each other out this time of year. Faith is radical trust in what God is doing, even when the divine mode of operation is far from clear… Hope, on the other hand, can easily assume the dimensions of individual and corporate wants. I hope for a white Christmas, a less contentious church, a closer relationship with Jesus, a God Who makes sense. While there is nothing wrong with any of these hopes, they still carry considerable cargo, suggesting that I know not only what my community and I need from God, but also how God might best come to us. The only hope that belongs on this Messiah table is the bare hope of God’s arrival, sweeping all clutter away.
For those of us who think we see pretty clearly what needs to happen to set everything straight in the world, this is sobering news. I think she is suggesting that faith means hanging on even when our idea of things is not coming to pass. Faith means hanging on beyond the time when reasonable people would have given up and gone home. Faith means the ability to see the sacred in the most profane places we can imagine. Faith means being open to the divine incoming in places we do not expect.
For some of us that means we open ourselves to the possibility that the divine could pop in on us at a board meeting in a big business… where we least expect God to be doing business. For some of us that means we open ourselves to the possibility that the divine might pop up in the most tangled up, corrupt political systems we could imagine… where we least expect God to be wheeling and dealing. For some of us that means we open ourselves to the possibility that the divine might pop up in our most contentious family dynamics, the ones that have us bluer than blue this season… a place where we have never had a divine experience before.
Truth be told, God showed up in first-century Bethlehem in a place where no one would have expected anything remotely divine to happen… and just look what happened.
John the Baptist’s faith—this ability to see divine things that were not even present yet—told him that change was coming, and it was possible that God would do a new thing. God would sweep away all the clutter, and make all things new. God would cause “righteousness and praise to spring up,” as Isaiah said.
So what does this mean for you and me, ordinary players in this big drama of Advent? None of us will have the lead roles. The spotlight won’t shine on us individually. There are no lines for us to memorize, no costumes to gather, no anxiety about opening night. But we still have a part to play.
Most of us know well the role of being reasonable. But as Theodoret reminds us, reason needs faith to show it divine things. So maybe our job, our part this Advent is to take that to heart… to let our faith chip away at our own personal reasonableness… and let in the light of something new.
Jackie’s song [“Come to the Manger”] said, “In our darkest of hours wherever we are, the shadows are parted by the light from this star.” In the places where our own lives seem the most undone… can we push our faith to reveal something divine there… even just a little something? Alternatively, in the places where our own sureties about what is right and wrong, good and bad, black and white push us to be disgruntled and cynical most of the time… can we push our faith to reveal something divine there… even just a little something?
What worries me is that our reasonable natures might just make us miss something hugely divine, because we, like those of old, are looking for a king who will lead us into battle (and battle can be defined many, many ways), and God is choosing to work behind the scenes in a stable in Bethlehem.
Watching for It
All we have to go on are these old ancient words, and 2000 years of history of faithful people who have heard them and been led to believe. Evidence of the divine? It is around us. But we have to be watching for it.
It might not be obvious. It might be in the gentle hands of a nurse who is hooking us up to the IV right before we are wheeled in for surgery. It might be in the hug of a teacher who is paying attention to the child who is all of a sudden withdrawn. It might be in the beautiful chortles of a baby who has found her voice for the very first time. It might be in the wise counsel of a senior citizen who has experienced the world and then some. It might be in the patient parent, who has set aside many of their own needs for the years of parenting in order that a new, young life might be launched in a healthy way. It might be… well, as sure as I start to identify places, those won’t be the places you experience the divine or even I experience them again.
Harder than Lent
So, open is the key. Wherever our reasonableness has gotten a bit out of control, maybe there is the place to crack things open a bit. I’m not even sure how that sounds to you, or me for that matter. I like the idea of being open, but my heart is afraid. If I let myself be open to the divine, there could be a lot of other stuff that comes in with it, and that is very scary. Maybe we only like the idea of a sacred experience. What if we were to actually run into one?
Some people think Lent is the hard season, but I say no. This [Advent] is such hard work. In Lent we know exactly what’s getting ready to happen. We are headed to the cross, and there’s no going back, and afterwards the resurrection is going to be good news. But in Advent? We are headed to a manger, and a boy will be born into a world not all that unlike ours, full of danger, and heartache… Full of sorrow and missed opportunity… Full of people whose needs far exceed our ability to meet or give or serve.
The possibility of failing Advent is looming right before us. We could get right up to the door of the manger and freeze: Really. Do I want to go in and risk this? Do I want to look this child in the face and sign my name on the dotted line? Will I ever be able to make good on this promise? To be the ones who will harbor a Baby somewhere inside ourselves and let ourselves be changed? Do I really want to do this? What if I fail? What if I try and fail? What if I can’t muster the courage? What if I embarrass myself? What if I have to talk to people I don’t know? What if I have to help out kids or seniors? Or what if I have to listen to someone else’s pain? It’s so much harder than Lent.
A Dangerous Prospect
This birth requires something of us. If you haven’t figured it out yet, we are not building a stable that you get to look at. We are building a stable that we are inside. These are doors that open to the outside. And if it hasn’t hit you yet, this is a dangerous prospect.
We don’t get to be moved by the beautiful Christmas carols if we aren’t ready to take on the consequences of the birth, the care of a Baby. Unless we are willing to let all the clutter of our lives be blown away, then the trip to the manger has every possibility of being the most devastating thing we have ever done.
Peek over the edge of the manger and look, but don’t make eye contact—because one look and you will be changed. Everything that your reasonable mind will tell you can’t be will all of a sudden look possible. Everything that your reasonable mind would like to quantify and explain away will fall away and in its place will come big Bible ideas like glory, and justice, and righteousness and peace.
And if we have made eye contact with the baby, if we have opened ourselves to the divine, we will discover that reason isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Reason needs faith in order to show it divine things.
May reason scatter, so that divine things might come to us all. Amen.
Peek over the edge of the manger and look, but don’t make eye contact—because one look and you will be changed.
Postscript: “Come to the Manger”
This is the song that Jackie Jasperson, our church’s music director, exquisitely rendered prior to Joy’s sermon.