Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Christmas Sermon on John's Prologue--Christmas Day III

A lot HAS ended, don’t get me wrong.
Gone are the countdowns of shopping days left.
Gone is the stressing about whether the gifts will arrive by the morning of Christmas Day.
Gone is the wondering “what to get so-and-so.”
But other things have begun, like having to remind yourself what the return policies of the store you bought that gift in.
Begun is the going to the stores to stand in lines which go, not to the checkout stand, but the customer service lane.
Begun is the preparation for another New Year’s and the stress that goes with thinking about a resolution that you’ll really stick to this year.
In the midst of all this we pause to listen to the voice of the Evangelist John.
John, that Maverick gospel-writer, eschews the Mary and Joseph stories. John doesn’t seem to care about dating Jesus’ birth in the calendar of the Roman overlords.
John forgoes the visitations of angels and the heavenly chorus.  John goes where no gospel writer had gone before, to the ethers of the most outer of outer space.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word WAS God.
Its like John is saying, "Lets really get to the heart of where Jesus came from, and it starts with God and God's Word.
There are a couple of things going on here and we really need to be aware of them to see where John is coming from. John has obviously read his Genesis creation story. You could even quote it could you? "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was formless and void, and darkness covered the face of the deep, and the spirit of God was hovering across the face of the waters." John seems to be writing a prequel to the Genesis one story. John is answering the question, what happened before God created the world? His answer? Word happened. Word happened before World.
We witness in John's writing the invention of a new Christian art and artistic license. It’s as though he was pondering the significance of Jesus and his ministry and his enduring work on earth and in a flash of brilliance while meditating in the Spirit on Genesis Chapter One, it comes to him, “Yes, that's it, Jesus was the earthly manifestation of the very thought of God.”
The word Word is a tricky one here and we certainly don't want to paint a picture in our head of a giant W floating out in the ethers, or even the baby Jesus meandering amongst the galaxies like the Star Trek Voyager.
The word “Word” in the Greek is logos. Logos can be translated a bunch of ways, as thing, or rule, or idea, or law, or principle, but what makes the most sense to English speakers is "Word." The Greek audience of John knew of this Logos idea, the idea that there was an organizing principle to the world, a way of God to be translated into earthly reality. John is making a connection between this Greek logos and Israel's God the Creator.
We could go on and on peeling away layers of this onion and find motifs of the feminine in Word/Logos, like the sophia or Wisdom of God which came to popularity in the intertestamental time. As well as elements of the populist religions which celebrated the Sun and the Moon which showed up as light for the world, John's pastiche is put together with the care of a fine craftsman and he is very intentional in bringing all these strands of thread together and weaving a masterpiece.
But why are we talking about this today?
Christmas is the time when all of our philosophizing, all of this projecting our thoughts into the spiritual world, about this invisible ethereal God, something that has only existed in dreamy dream land and those places that don't actually exist, tangibly, in reality, finally land with a loud thunk!
Now can we not only see God, but we can touch God, we can hold God, we can feel our hearts be dazzled like we are dazzled at the presence of a newborn baby. This was new. No man-made religion had done this before.
Before, it was all just theory, it was all just wishful thinking, it was all just question marks and speculation. The best humanity could offer up to this time was just a molten statue before whom you could bring sacrifices that you fervently wished were found acceptable. In Jesus' birth, that thing we celebrate today, all of human history bends and curves and ties and is knit together in a wonderfully fine fabric.
Christmas is the time when we move out of and away from just wondering, "What would it be like if God became man? And we get our answer. It looks like a new baby, which we call Immanuel, "God with us." And that's it!
So, how does God being with us in this new way transform our present lives?
Growing up I remember that "special edition" of the Sears & Roebuck Catalogue that would come out late in the year prominently featuring all the latest toys that would make me positively covetous. "Oh wouldn't it be nice if I could have this, or this, or that." Sears titled this catalogue the season's "Wish Book." And you know what? It never failed to disappoint me, even when I got something "like" what I was "wishing" for. That HO scale race track that I had always wanted, would work for awhile and then break down, and the mice in the basement would chew through the electrical cord and I would just have to move on to the next toy until the next "Wish Book" would come out.
As Christians, consider that that thing that has been masquerading as hope up till now was actually just wishful thinking.
If Christmas Day marks the end of anything it’s the end of wishful thinking. We all know what wishful thinking is, keeping our fingers crossed, with toss-away phrases like "I guess we'll see what happens," or “I HOPE it works out.” God's gift to us is NOT wishful thinking or a year-end “wish book.” God's gift is genuine hope, hope that is freed of circumstance, hope that is freed from breaking down, or is subject to nibbling mice.
Christmas marks the beginning of real hope, hope that is real and tangible, as real and tangible as a baby we can hold.
Christmas marks the end of the delusions we entertain about life and ourselves. So however we respond to what we see around us, we need not be afraid because glad tidings of great joy are at our now at our arms reach.
Christmas isn’t the end.  It isn’t the end of   anything except hopelessness. 
Yes, Christmas is the beginning of hope, real hope, the only hope that can make merry.
So really: Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas to all.

To the only wise God our Savior be glory, majesty, dominion and power, both now and forever, amen.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Wilderness Sermon--Advent 2B 20141207

I can’t help but go all Bible geeky over our Gospel passage for today because this is one of those passages that, when we do a little peeking behind the curtains we discover new and vibrant truth that makes the Bible come so alive for us as Christians.  Today’s passage, when I got this insight back in my seminary days, is one of those new discoveries that really put a tiger in my tank.
Mark’s Gospel, the earliest and shortest of the canonical Gospels starts out by saying “The Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God WAS John the Baptist and his message of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  It’s really cool how he starts his Gospel with the same word that starts what we call the Old Testament in Genesis 1:1 “In the beginning.”
There’s something funky about the way we have come to translate and also interpret these lines in the New Testament.  And we want to understand, first of all, the wilderness.  Usually the way we read this is that John the Baptist was the voice of someone in the wilderness.  But if you really think about it, if you’re in the wilderness, why would you be voicing anything?  Who’s in the wilderness, after all?  The lovely wilderness people?  Is the wilderness where you go to find the most receptive audience?  What audience?  Okay, I’m going to let you in on a little secret that they only tell you when you go to seminary and learn Hebrew and Greek.  The earliest manuscripts of the Bible did not have any punctuation in them.  They didn’t even have any spaces between the words.  No periods, no commas, no colons, no semicolons, no exclamation points.  When you look at the oldest extant scrolls we have available what you see isn’t a nicely divided and punctuated reader-friendly text, but something that looks more like one of those printer test documents that make no sense because the printer is just testing out everything.  This is what the oldest manuscripts of the Bible look like:  A printer’s test page.
So, when we read the quote from Isaiah, it could be read a lot of ways, but the most likely way it was meant was this:  “The voice of one crying out:  ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’.”  We have grown up thinking that the voice was coming FROM the wilderness, but in reality, and no one was willing to stand up and say it, it would be stupid to be crying out IN the wilderness.  Think about it, where would you need paths to be made straight but in the wild-erness.  It only makes sense.
So what difference does this make, especially during Advent? Advent is that time when we wait.  The word Advent means coming and the coming that we await is the coming of the Christ Child.  This second week of the season of Advent takes us to the earthiest gospel of Jesus that exists in the Bible, the gospel of Mark.  What is available to us is the opportunity to transcend those old ways of thinking.  Repenting, the Greek word is “metanoia” meaning beyond the mind, beyond that place that makes you crazy, repenting is an action of, for once in your life, getting what’s so, I have really messed things up for my life, and only God’s good grace can bring me out of it.  The wilderness is the ontological mailing address of our soul.  It is that barren wasteland that exists between broken promises and unfulfilled dreams.  It’s that vacant lot that you drive past and say, “Oh we could have done something really great with that place, if only . . .”
 The difference this understanding of the wilderness makes is that John the Baptist’s message starts to really hit home.  Ah, the wilderness, that barren wasteland that loses our luggage and skins our knees, THAT is the place where we experience the exigencies of life.  No one would be surprised to hear this.  Please get this, there is nothing wrong with the wilderness.  It’s kind of like the 23rd Psalm’s “Valley of the shadow of Death.”  “Lo, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will walk, well I better RUN through the valley of the shadow of death, because you always want to get through the valley of the shadow of death as quickly as possible.”
It is IN the wilderness where the paths need to be made straight.  It is in the yuckiest of things in life that we long for the experience the bigness of God.  It’s when we are experiencing the most unlovely of things that we need to experience the most loving.  What makes the difference?  The path. 
This is what Mark’s gospel is telling you today: The path, the path that leads to abundance and truth and joy, that path? That path goes THROUGH the wilderness, and yes the wilderness is scary and no one really wants to go through the wilderness, but the wilderness is where God is.  “In the wilderness make way for the coming of our Lord.”  God is in our lives when things feel most NOT like it if we will only let it impact us.
Today, as we journey toward Bethlehem and the babe lying in a manger and God’s Nativity, let us celebrate our own naivety.   Let us all, with verve and unabashed zeal, take hold of the joy that is offered us.  Let us all be the voice crying out, “In the wilderness, where your mind already is, make straight pathways for the Lord.”
“The one who is coming IS more powerful than you or I, none of us are even close to being worthy to even stoop down and untie his sandals.  As you have been baptized in water, let yourself now be baptized in the Holy Spirit.”

To the only wise God our savior, be glory, majesty, dominion and power, both now and forever.  Amen