The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Sunday, December 14, 2014

One whom we do not know

Advent 3B
John 1:6-8, 19-28

In the name of God.  Amen.


One of the things that I really appreciate about Advent, is that it represents an entire season of the church year where our main focus is waiting.  The rest of the world is almost always about busyness and productivity and generating outcomes to justify our existence.  But in contrast, the church tries to direct us during this time to slow down - to listen - to wait.

We’re watching and preparing, but the preparations - for the spiritual observance, at least - are more about preparing ourselves spiritually than they are about preparing anything physical that is around us.

Today, in the Gospel that we’ve read, we hear again about John the Baptist.  Though this time, he isn’t baptizing - at least not at the moment.  Instead, he’s testifying to the waiting that he’s doing - that all of them were doing, whether they knew it or not.

The religious authorities of the day questioned him about who he was, but he wasn’t any of the people or things that they anticipated.  Instead, he was the one to lead the waiting.  He was the one to point to the one who is to come.

You may have noticed this increased focus on waiting that we’ve built into our liturgy for Advent.  Through these weeks, we’ve had an increased emphasis on silence.  There’s a more deliberate, and extended pause after the sermon.  The prayers of the people don’t have a spoken response after each petition, but instead, a time of silence to reflect on what how we’re speaking to God.

In a culture so committed to activity as our is, silence and waiting can seem unnatural.  Uncomfortable, even.  It certainly was uncomfortable for the religious authorities of the first century, and they expressed that discomfort in their concerned questioning of John the Baptist.  The one who leads the waiting - the one who came to point to another - represented a challenge to those authorities.  Authorities like to be in control.  They expect it.  Their social station depends on it.  And John represented, for them, a threat to their control.

They knew what the Messiah would be.  They had been praying for him for generations.  So they knew.  Or at least they thought that they knew.  What they knew was that the Messiah would be a great political power.  He would be a man who would come in power and great glory to overthrow their oppressors.

But John’s message threatened those assumptions.  “Among you stands one, whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me…”  The one you’ve been waiting for is so unlike what you’ve been expecting that he’s right there in the midst of you and you can’t even see it.

It’s easy to look back on those religious authorities of that day and to feel righteously judgmental.  They had, after all, gotten things so very wrong.  But the truth of the matter is, we still struggle with what it means to wait for Christ.

On one hand, we struggle in the manner in which we do it.  We tend to use Advent, not for holy waiting and spiritual reflection and preparation, but as a season for accomplishing tasks.  We have shopping lists to get through, and holiday parties to attend, and family arrangements to make, and decorations to put up, and presents to wrap, and… and… and…

But our struggle isn’t just in how we go about preparing.  Even if we’re capable of keeping our minds solely focused on the coming of Christ (and I’m not convinced any of us really do), what sort of Christ do we have in mind?  The irony is that the church, in its too-often self-righteous judgment of those first century leaders, very often makes the same mistake that they did.

Listen again to the collect that we prayed this morning: “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us…”  Do you hear anything familiar?  We’re praying for the same kind of saving figure as our first century Jewish forebears were.  We’re praying for “power” and “great might”.

But that’s not how Christ came to them.  Christ came as an infant.  Christ came in a fragile and frail human shell.  Christ came as one of us.  Not as some lofty power that would squash our oppressors, but as one oppressed.  He stood among them as one whom they did not know.

It’s only natural for us to want some big, bold sign.  We want flashes of lightning and claps of thunder and voices from the heavens.  That would be harder for us to mess up, or to miss.

But Christ still stands among us as one whom we do not know.

There’s a kind of schizophrenia to Advent.  There’s a series of disconnects between what we pray for, and what our experience tells us is God’s way of acting in the world, and what our scriptures point us toward.  We wrap the season up in nostalgia and comfort and tradition, when its purpose is really more about radically defying expectations and surprising us and meeting God where we’d least expect to.

Christ stands among us as one whom we do not know.  So our main goal in Advent is to get to know the ones among us who may be Christ - to seek out and to experience the incarnations of God in the world around us.  God is here, even when we don’t know it.

So that’s why we wait.  Not in boredom.  Not twiddling our thumbs.  Not letting our minds wander.  Not so that the time will simply pass.  But we wait in preparation and expectation.  We wait with a purpose.  We wait to clear out the clutter of our minds and to wade through the distractions of our lives so that there will be space to recognize Christ.

Christ stands among us as one whom we do not know, and Advent is when we try to open ourselves to knowing.  Christ won’t likely come as we’d expect.  That’s just not how God usually works.

So we wait, in the hope that we’ll know.


Sunday, December 07, 2014

Preparing for Christ

Advent 2B
Mark 1:1-8

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

I forget if I’ve brought y’all a West Wing story in my preaching yet.  If I haven’t, it’s definitely time.  If I have…  Well…  Here’s another.

One of my favorite television shows of all time is The West Wing.  It’s smart, and fast paced, and it addresses serious social issues, and it’s all centered around one of my favorite spectator sports - politics.  So I watch the show over and over again.  Most situations in life tend to have a relevant West Wing reference…  At least most things in my life.

So, as I was reading again this year about John the Baptist, and his relationship with Jesus, this scene from The West Wing kept playing again in my mind: the President is in the Oval Office talking with his Deputy Chief of Staff, Josh Lyman.  Josh runs the White House Legislative Affairs operation, and has just suffered an embarrassing defeat.  He’s apologizing to the President, and feeling forlorn about it all, when the tension is interrupted by the President’s half-humorous observation.  The President says to him, “You know what the difference is between you and me, Josh?  I want to be the man.  You want to be the guy that the man depends on.”

That’s a really rare thing to find in politics - someone whose highest aspiration is to help someone else be great.  And, in truth, it’s a rare thing to find anywhere in our culture.  We live in a culture that idealizes individualism, and expects each person to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and to strive for greatness - for their own greatness - often to the peril of anyone else’s interests.

But in the figure of John the Baptist, we have a model of service.

In his time wandering the Judean wilderness, John the Baptist had made something of a name for himself.  I’m sure it was true that a number of folks thought he was just plain crazy, but he had established himself as a noteworthy prophet.  He had followers, and he had a message.

The truth is, John could have gone on quite well, just like that.  He could have embraced his moderate fame - he might have even grown it a bit as the word continued to spread.  He could have focused on himself, and his own needs, and his own advancement.  If humanity then was anything like what it usually seems to be now, he may have even felt some pressure to do just that.

But the central lure of Christ is to be in relationship - to care about others - to build up community.

Christianity is not about erasing anyone’s individuality - just ask John the Baptist.  He was thoroughly individual.  He wore rough-hewn rags of coarse skin as his clothes.  He ate of the meager fare of his wilderness foraging.  He screamed the hard truths to the curious crowds that no one else was willing to say.  And his role as one of the first to be called by Christ was simply to be himself.  Not to fall in line and act like all the others.  Not to tend and nurture his political power until he could become influential and respected.  No, he was called as who he was, to minister in the way that he was ministering.  And, as is always true of the most important ministry, his ministry pointed not to himself, or to his own achievements, or even to the centrality of his own message.  Instead, his ministry pointed to something bigger than himself.  His ministry pointed to what was to come.

On Thanksgiving Day, as I was setting the table and getting some of the last details ready for the feast that was about to begin, a friend of mine who was there with me noticed across the room a collection of religious icons from around the world that I have hanging together and she asked me: “What do you think of the second coming?”

Believe it or not, this is one of those questions that priests get asked a lot.  So, I didn’t have to struggle or search for an answer.  I had it ready.  I said, “It happens every day.”

We’ve talked about it here a lot.  Christ is present when someone looks beyond their own self-interest toward the needs of someone else.  Christ is present, as we heard just a few weeks ago, when we perform acts of kindness toward those who are seen as the “least” in the world.  Christ is present when people of privilege use their influence to speak out against injustice.

In short: Christ comes in community.

When most people talk about “the second coming of Christ” they’re talking about the end of the world.  But if experience is any indicator, when Christ comes, it’s less about the “end” than it is about the beginning of something great.

And just as John the Baptist was called to prepare the way of the Lord in that first Advent, so, too, are we called to prepare the way of Christ in our own time and place, and in all of the “advents” of our own lives.

A few years ago I saw a bumper sticker that said, “Jesus is coming - look busy!”

Well, Advent isn’t so much about “looking busy” as it is about readying our hearts to see Christ.  It’s about opening ourselves to the wonder of God’s presence.  It’s about reminding ourselves that we can see Christ, if only we’ll look.

That’s how we prepare the way of the Lord - how we live into our Advent calling to be John-the-Baptists for our own world.  Looking for Christ might seem strange to the rest of the world.  That’s okay.  John the Baptist was certainly strange.  But when you find Christ, it will be the beginning of something great - and that’s the miracle that we’re working toward for Christmas.  It’s not about a single day or a single season.  It’s not about a birth.  It’s not about a baby.  It’s not even about a man who would someday save the world.  It’s about a shift in perspective that keeps saving the world over and over again.  A shift in perspective that transforms both individuals and whole communities.

That’s what we’re getting ready for: not Christmas, but Christ.  You are called to prepare the way.  Amen.