Thursday, 21 December 2017

Pointing to Jesus - Giving way to God

The 3rd and 4th Sundays in Advent
Year B
John 1:6-8, 19-28
Luke 1:26-38

The fourth Sunday of Advent is also Christmas Eve.  And like December birthdays it so easily gets lost in the mix, and so I’d like to combine the two Sundays, the 3rd Sunday of Advent last week and the 4th upcoming.   In particular I’d like you to hold the two principal characters of the Gospels (from John and Luke, respectively) from these two Sundays in your mind:  St John the Baptist and Mary, the mother of our Lord - significant characters – both of them remembered, preached about, enshrined in stained glass in churches around the world, but whose significance is not so much based on what they do as on what they allow.  Their bodies and their beings are not so much hammers and javelins as they are doors and passageways.  I probably need to explain.

Many of you wonder how much significance you have in the world around you.  It’s clear you have some ambition at work.  It’s clear from the contribution you would like to make to your church or the associations you belong to.  You want to say your bit.  It’s even evident from your family life.  Ask your children whether mum or dad still wants to hold some of the reins. 

It’s a thing – personal power.  You know it and the people around you know it.  Alfred Adler parted company with Sigmund Freud over Freud’s belief that sex was as much a fulcrum for the motivation of human beings.  Adler looked at it differently – no, he said, it is the quest for significance which motivates us.

Some of you have been beaten down in that.  You have the look of loss about you – what Adler meant when he coined the phrase “the inferiority complex”.  Some of you project an air of humility but behind all that you have a plan.   Other folks can hear the wheels turning.

Who are you then?  You might be on the younger end of life:  The sort of person who is battling in your salad days for a place on the ladder at work, for recognition among your social circle, for a listening ear in your family who haven’t cottoned on to the fact that you’re your own person now.  You’re somebody who would like to nail that funding, write that great Canadian novel, throw off the watching eye of the matriarchs and patriarchs – create your own footprint. 

Or flip it around:  Perhaps your bus pass is not far down the road:  You worry that you will be superseded by people who are younger and stronger than you and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.  The children are grown, your spouse is already answering questions with that Mmmm yes tone of voice indicating that he or she has not fully listened to you.   You may simply be trying simply to hold on to the gains you have made.

If someone were to say to you – younger or older - that the key to life is learning to step aside and that great power is involved in giving way in the days of your strength you might find that a hard argument to accept – quite counterintuitive, really.

The record of John is this:  that when he was questioned by the envoys of the Scribes and Pharisees about himself, at what must have seemed like the height of his career, with his preaching attracting not only people from the suburbs of Jerusalem out to his desert pulpit but residents of Jerusalem itself in considerable numbers – when he was questioned sharply about who he was he declared openly and clearly that he was not the expected Messiah.  Asked further whether he was some heavenly adjutant like Isaiah or Elijah returned from the dead he answered plainly:  I am not the Christ, nor am I Isaiah or Elijah.  I am just a voice and the one I announce is somebody other than me.  This success I take off and lay to the side.  I announce another.  Jump ahead a couple of chapters and he puts it even more succinctly:

"He must increase and I must decrease."

Mary hears the news from the angel Gabriel that her youth is being asked of God as a gift.  On the cusp of her adult life, God asks her for what must be the substance of her near future.  She will be overshadowed by the Most High  She must risk the marriage which is about to begin – her status in her community – the stability of the ordinary family life she had every right to and for which her community, her upbringing and even her own piety had prepared for her.  Her imagined future happiness, says the angel, must now include a sword which will pierce her soul also. 

Biblical writers - describing conversations between God and a human agent be it Moses, or a prophet or such like – often leave out the silences.  God proposes and the human responds.  What gets missed in the narrative is that moment of silence which we must read in to the text – that necessary interlude, brief or not – where both Yes and No are possible answers.  Mary’s response to the angel, when it occurs, is her considered promise to be useful in the birth of something wonderful which is beyond herself. 

"I am the handmaid of the Lord.  
Be it unto me according to his word."

You were obliged in school to run at least one relay race.  You ran your portion of the track and then handed on the baton.  You’ve doubtless walked around graveyards filled with people who had their day.  It’s no mystery that we eventually give way in our generation.   If you are the sixth president of your Kiwanis club it is no Greek tragedy that there will be a seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth president.    Giving way is the most normal thing in the world in the long run and unless you are Chaucer or King Tut the memory of you will cease in all the land.

As you approach the end of the civic year and think about the new one looming up perhaps you feel a certain dis-ease.  Of what are you resolved as the new year begins?  What did you accomplish in the last?  Do you resolve to be more of a hammer this year?  Would you chuck your javelin a little further along the track this year, conquer a little more territory, build up your walls a little stronger – dominate the resources around you a little more effectively, do that thing, write those words, settle that challenge?

Take stock, won't you, of what has the greatest value.  The angels gathering around the birth, unlike Gabriel, have no names.  The names we attribute to the Wise Men are mere legend.  Nobody knows who the shepherds were.  They gathered to witness the arrival of what they could not give themselves, what no end of human ability will ever supply and what you, at your best, will never be.  Resolve at least, this Christmas, to place your trust in what you do not have yourself – to point, as John did to what shows itself to be stronger, better and more beautiful than you.   Allow yourself, as Mary did, to be a channel for something you can never own yourself.  Allow wonder to replace confidence.  Truth and beauty are given to us from elswhere.  Unwrap then, with this newfound attitude of wonder, the gift 

Which has been prepared for you.  
And for the people you love.  
And for people you have never even met.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Showing up for good news and bad.

The Second Sunday of Advent
Year B
Mark 1:1-8

Mark’s Gospel says that that John “appears” in the wilderness.  What an odd verb in English.  It’s like he pops up out of the sand. 

In any case - he’s there, anyway, ahead of the action, like a “roadie” setting up the microphones before the concert.  Or somebody laying the table for a meal before the guests arrive.  

Mark is the earliest Gospel - the Gospel which Luke and Matthew had in their hands when they wrote their own and, as an introduction to Jesus and his public ministry, it is awfully abrupt.   Where are the shepherds?   Where’s King Herod or the hasty flight to Egypt?    No, just a man - in the desert - setting the stage.  John doesn’t even get the first word in after the title phrase - that job is given to the prophet Isaiah.

2As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

In fact it’s a mix of Isaiah’s “voice in the wilderness” with something which Malachi said about a “messenger” or maybe even something taken from the Book of Exodus about an “angel” leading the way.  If you follow these source readings back, you will find the recurring theme of things not being allowed to continue as they were.  In the Book of Exodus, God says the Terror and Pestilence will precede his leading angel.  Isaiah has the revolutionary idea that the mountains will tumble, and valleys be lifted up.  Malachi promises not only the cleanliness following the liberal use of a “fullers soap” but the purity which only a refiner’s hot fire will be able to deliver.  The process of change is not going to be easy.  The world will be scrubbed, burnt and turned on its backside.  John says more or less the same thing in his preaching:  

"The axe is laid to the root of the tree."

A day of reckoning is at hand.

When the registered letter was delivered to you by the postie, she had a smile on her face.   You passed the time of day over the fence but you knew (and she knew) that good news never arrives by registered mail.  

A little man from the Prefecture showed up with a measuring tape to check that your doors were the regulation height. 

The inspector from Weights and Measures had a measure of volume to see if you were selling full litres of gasoline for the announced price.  

Someone demanded to see your underwear drawer.  

"We’ll need a character reference from your last love interest", said the person with the clipboard.   

"A performance evaluation has been scheduled for you at work next week.  We thought you should know."  

You get my drift.  It’s that sort of day.  You remember that it was late afternoon when you got the news. The sun was shining.  You can even remember what you were wearing when word came to you.

Not everyone is broken hearted, mind.  Someone, somewhere, is rejoicing.  Remember that John’s words to the Pharisees:

“You brood of vipers!”

is only one end of the spectrum of readings this Sunday.  The earlier reading is from Isaiah 40:

“Comfort ye, my people!”

Like the folks who’ve been bumping their heads on your low doors, like the customers at your gas station who’ve suspected for years that you’ve been giving short measure but you’re the only gas station in the village.  Your spouse has complained bitterly that your ties and your jack-knife don’t belong with your underwear.   And that last love interest of yours?  She thinks you’re a jerk and wouldn't mind at all if the day finally came when you were called for it. 

What about that performance evaluation, anyway?  Maybe it’s just the ticket.  Your co-workers think you get away with blue murder.  They know how bad it is for morale on the floor.  Bad news for you is good news for them.   

But why is it not good news for you too?  

It would be – there are people who love you who believe it could be -  if you’d agree to let the knife carve away what is rotten and hurtful, wasteful and frivolous.  If you’d look beyond your own interests

It is a terribly difficult thing to do but we shouldn’t be dramatic.   People do it all the time.   Choices become clear when light increases and they also become possible. 

You could always run away, 
you could hide, 
or resist 
or pretend 
or just not show up

and so avoid being laid bare by this amalgam of good news and bad but people are, in the main, pretty courageous.   They both tolerate, and sometimes even dig up from within, honest reappraisals of themselves.  Like I said – people do it all the time.

I jotted these words down earlier in the week.  Maybe I get them wrong.  John is not performing the opening act for some process of self-improvement for moderns.  That would be twisting this reading out of its context and I don’t want to do that.  He is, in fact, announcing a dramatic turn in history where God approaches his people and where an unexpected cast of characters open themselves to that approach.  They show up - in droves.  The usual suspects and the unusual.  They permit themselves to be laid bare.  They express acts of repentance and demonstrate their faith.  They are not only witnesses but they become participants as Creation is reformed restated and reinstated in its beauty.

Who will be in attendance?  
Who will show up?  
Who is not allowed to come? 

Subsequent chapters of Mark’s Gospel have Jesus preaching and telling parables.  In village squares, on hillsides, in private homes - to individuals - to groups.  He’s fishing.  

For you?  
For more deserving people than you?  

He’s casting his net into the lake.  He’s chucking out his lure into the sea.  He’s throwing out the option to come out and be present and be part of God’s Kingdom.  And nobody – no matter how compromised – is excluded from the invitation. 

You could be there.  

At long last, it could be good news for you.  If you are hungry enough to be part of that movement in human history, you will be there.  In spite of yourself and in spite of your experience the last time you tried.   You could be so struck by the prospect of life that all your excuses for being a no-show could wither away.

When the scrubbing is done and when the fire has done its work in you, you won’t be missing much.   You will have gained everything.