With God on Our Hands

Lectionary Passage:  Luke 2: 22-35 (36-40)

22When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23(as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”  25Now 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. 26It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27Guided 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, 28Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 33And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34Then 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 35so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 

So before you exhale after all your cooking and wrapping and running around frantically to get everything done, I have to tell you that we’re not done.  The truth is, the birthing is never really over.  This is the Season of Christmas (as opposed to the Season of Advent that we just completed).  But we don’t get a whole lot of help from the Scriptures.  We read the story of Jesus’ birth and then Scripture accounts of the days and years that followed are spotty at best.  This passage is one of the few accounts of Jesus’ childhood.  But it is a reminder that Jesus was a Jew, lived among Jews, and, for that matter, was Jewish for his entire life.

So, in this passage that we read, our story has jumped forty days from the birth story that we read just a few days ago.  Eight days after Jesus had been born, he had, in accordance with Jewish law, been circumcised and named.  Now thirty-two days later, they go to the temple.  The trip is serving two purposes.  First of all, Mary must be purified.  According to the twelfth chapter of Leviticus, after a woman gives birth, she is impure for forty days.  At the end of that time, she is to bring an offering to the temple and be purified.  Additionally, Jesus, the firstborn son, is to be consecrated and offered to God. 

So, in this moment, a man named Simeon appears.  It says that he took Jesus in his arms.  Can you imagine Mary and Joseph’s reaction?  After all, this was their newborn, probably the first time that they had ever really had him out in public, and this old man comes out of the shadows and scoops up their child.  But something made them step back.  Was it his words, or his demeanor, or something else?  This frail, older man, held the child with a tenderness that was amazing.  He cradles Jesus in his arms and looks into his eyes.  And he begins to prophesy.

But the words were a bit different than the foretelling over the last months and weeks from angels and shepherds and the like. “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”  Simeon was a righteous and devout man.  His Jewish faith had been important to him his entire life.  And that faith included a promise that God would indeed send a Savior, a Messiah.  And he knew that his life would not end until he had seen the promise fulfilled.  So he looked down into the bright, dark brown eyes of this child and he knew. Simeon had waited his entire life for this child, for this moment.  Now he could die in peace. Don’t take that as a giving up of life.  It was his resolve.  His life, his promise, had been fulfilled.  He was at such peace that he couldn’t even imagine life being any more than it was in this moment.  He had not waited for moments or the four weeks of Advent or even a few months.  He had waited decades, his entire life, for this moment. 

Simeon’s Song, the Nunc Dimittis (Latin for “now send away”), is sometimes sung after Communion and often at the end of a funeral.  It is a plea for peace.  He is not asking for death; he is accepting it and with it, the promise of redemption.  For Simeon, death is no longer a pall that hangs over him; it is part of life.

So as Simeon, with a gleam of life in his eyes, hands the child back to Mary, he adds: This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.  In other words, once again, things are about to change.  This child is special.  This child provokes a decision that each person must make.  Notice the order.  We talk of the rise and fall of people, the rise and fall of nations, the rise and fall through history of whole societies.  But THIS child, THIS child will cause the falling and rising, THIS child will turn the world upside down and bring life.  In that moment, Mary knew that she would experience grief.   But she also knew that her grief would rise and become life.

So why are we talking about death so soon after the glory of Jesus’ birth?  Shouldn’t we get a little bit of a reprieve before we start walking to the cross?  The reason is that the two cannot be separated.  Simeon knew who Jesus was.  He saw Jesus’ life.  He saw Jesus’ death.  And he saw life again. He saw, even at that early time, the signs of redemption.

So what do we do with this?  You know, we probably should have known.  This thing for which we have hoped, and waited, had to involve us in some way.  God was born unto us.  We, like Simeon, have God on our hands.  What do we do with God now? I don’t know about you but on some level, it’s hard to find the right words.  Maybe all we have left to do is praise and sing and respond.  God has come into this world and is here, here on our hands.   

The truth, of course, is that Jesus’ coming does not end with the calendar or with the festivities or with the final packing-up.  His coming is always a beginning and a sending.  We, too, are now sent away.  We, too, are at peace with letting our old selves die and becoming the ones unto whom Christ was born. The hope that was so prevalent during Advent, the promise for which we waited and prepared, is here, right before us.  God is with us, on our hands. 

Christ has come!  God has been born unto us and we have God all over our hands.  Jesus’ coming begins our going.  We are not sent into the world with all the answers or with an assurance that we really even know what we’re doing.  Our directions, like our Scriptures, are spotty at best.  We are not called to be perfect; we are not called to be brilliant; we are called to be courageously faithful, to go, to go and be Christ in the world.  Christ has come!  And we have begun.

It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work. And when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. (Wendell Berry)

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

With the Turn of a Page

book-pages-16-12-22Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 9As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” (Matthew 17: 1-9)

I am thinking about all of the ministry, all of the good that he did in those short years.  He was so good to those that had believed in him and had followed him through so much. And they were so devoted.  And, slowly, slowly they began to understand what I did—that this man was the very essence of God, that this man was the Word made flesh.  It was hard for me to understand and I had actually had that incredible encounter with the angel.  But for those who followed him, these were men and women of faith, men and women who chose to put themselves aside and do God’s work.  They had not had a dream with an angel or one where God spoke to them.  They had not seen the brilliance of that star that shone over Bethlehem and seemed to point to what had happened.  These were ordinary people who had families and lives but who believed that they were a part of something beyond themselves.

I was not there that day when Jesus led some of them up to that mountain top.  I was not there when he was changed into light right before their eyes.  I was not there when God intervened.  I was not there when all of the Law and all of the Prophets and all of history came spilling into our ordinary lives on that mountain.  But to hear Peter and James and John describe it, it was amazing.  I was not there but it was still my story.  And I realized in that moment that God’s coming did not begin with me.  I realized that I was blessed to be a part of it, an instrument that God called to be a page in a story.  It was a story that had begun to be written long before I was born and one that will continue far beyond me.  But I think that it was there on that mountaintop that it all came together.  And the brilliance of it all was more than any of us could take for very long.  Sometimes we have to look away and begin writing to grasp it at all.

And then Jesus descended the mountain with the faithful at his side and headed into Jerusalem.  I would have liked to stop it there.  I would have liked to find a way to freeze the frame of the story, to close the book and protect the pages that were already there.  But the story had to go on.  I understand that so well now.  And the faithful understand that.  The faith-filled men and women since the beginning have understood that they are not the story but that the story is incomplete without them.  So they find their voice and they find their faith and they walk down the mountain with our Lord.  We all have a page to write.  The story would go on without it, but God would rather have them all.

But whether small or great, and no matter what the stage or grade of  life, the call brings up the curtain, always, on a miracle of transfiguration-a rite, or moment, of spiritual passage, which, when complete, amounts to a dying and a birth.  The familiar life horizon has been outgrown, the old concepts, ideals, and emotional patterns no longer fit; the time for the passing of a threshold is at hand. (Joseph Campbell)

FOR TODAY:  What is on your page?

Peace to you as we come closer to that holiest of nights,

Shelli

Do This

 

jesus-in-the-garden-of-gethsemane-16-12-203Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” 9Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” 11For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.” 12After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.16Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. (John 13: 3-17)

I thought of that last night that we were together.  It was wonderful.  It was a cool evening and the breeze was blowing into the room through the open windows.  All of our family was there and all of Jesus’ friends were all together at a table near the door.  It was the Passover festival and we so enjoyed ourselves.  Jesus sat next to me.  He had been unusually pensive, almost as if he were grieving.  Several times he looked around the room with a faraway look in his eyes.  He put his hand on my shoulder and then he got up and went over and joined his friends.  They had all been through so much and they finally seemed to be enjoying themselves.  I turned back to the table to talk to the family and when I looked again, Jesus was kneeling down and washing the disciples’ feet.

I couldn’t take my eyes off of him.  Most had seen him as a leader of those men that could at times be almost over-zealous.  But the one I knew was kneeling there—compassionate, loving, almost a servant.  I realize now that he was showing us who we should be.  He was showing us how to love one another, how to put others first, how to see God in others’ eyes.  I feel so blessed to be able to say how much I learned from him.  Many parents cannot say that.  I learned to love; I learned to be gentle and compassionate; I learned to serve.  I am certain that future generations will picture this night and see only Jesus and his disciples.  But it was Passover.  We were all there.  We were all watching, although we were careful not to disturb the certain intimacy that was in that moment.  We did not understand in the moment what the next day would hold but we knew that this was a special time and a special place.

I didn’t go with them when they left and walked down to the Garden.  I wish I had.  I know that I couldn’t have done anything, but maybe I could have comforted him or something.  There in the garden, Jesus was arrested.  It was said that one of the disciples had betrayed him, pointing him out to the guards.  I didn’t concentrate too much on that.  All I know is that they took him away that night and I would never be able to hold him again.  Now I know that what happened that evening would spark the change in the world.  What happened that evening to that baby that I held, the baby that I lifted out of that hay-filled stall so many years ago, would begin a sequence of events that I know now was God’s way of leading us all through the story, leading us all home.

In that Garden, Jesus surrendered not his innocence but his control.  And only in surrendering will we know what God intends for our life.  I see now that if Joseph and I had not surrendered so long ago, giving ourselves to whatever it was God had in store, that I would not have been blessed with this life that I’ve known.  But, more importantly, the story would have been different.  Each of us has a chance not to write our own chapter but to be a part of a story that is already beautifully written.  What Jesus taught me was that each of us has to do this.  God did not create us as robotic characters following the one in front of us.  Instead, God placed a tiny piece of the Godself in each of us.  It’s called free will.  God created us to choose.  And then on our journey of faith, we are asked to choose to surrender it back to God so that we will finally understand what it means to be loved by God.

It’s not what you do for God; it’s what God does for you.  Instead of trying to love God, just let God love you. (Richard Rohr)

FOR TODAY:  What is God asking you to surrender so that you can be a part of the story?

Peace to you in this often-hectic week,

Shelli

The Day That Hope Was Born

cross-and-manger-16-12-19Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ 27Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

28 After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfil the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’ 29A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. 30When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.  (John 19: 25b-30)

Those midday hours on that day were merciless.  I stood there feeling so helpless, wanting to hold him to cradle him like I did when he was a baby.  At that point, I didn’t know what the outcome would be.  I just knew that he was in pain.  And I needed to get to him.  But the guards were holding us back.  There was nothing that I could do but pray, pray that this would end, pray that God would release him, pray that this would all turn out for some good. Little did I know how good it would be.

In that moment, the memories flooded back.  I thought about that night when the angel came to me.  At first I did not understand. I was afraid.  But something in me compelled me to say yes, to say yes to something that I had no idea how to do.  I thought about that long trip to Bethlehem.  And then when we arrived, the city was packed with people and we had nowhere to go.  It was so scary.  But I never felt like we were alone.  Someone traveled with Joseph and I.  Now I understand.  We were never alone.  And I knew that I was not alone now.  There, there on the cross was God.  But in that moment, I prayed that it still all had a purpose.

None of it seemed real.  At that point, I was questioning why.  Why did all this happen?  Why was I allowed to love him, to look into his eyes and love him if this was how it was going to end?  I wondered if these people standing here with me even thought about the manger, even thought about that holy night.  In hindsight, I know that God was holding ME—when I was holding him and even now.

I wondered if the world would ever understand what it did.  And it began to rain and the wind began to blow.  The skies turned appropriately dark and angry.  And the world began to shake.  Rocks and debris began to slide down the mountain behind us and the wind blew the temple curtain that separated the holy and the ordinary.  In that moment, I thought hope was dying there on the cross.  I realize now that that child I held that Bethlehem night so long ago was hope, a hope that would never die, a hope that would literally spill into the ordinary parts of our lives.  At that point, I thought it had ended.  I know now that our eternity itself was spilling in to our lives.  I know now that that birth so long ago was never for naught.  It was for this—to give hope to a world that could never give it to itself, to give hope to a world that sadly over and over destroys itself, to give hope to a world that doesn’t really understand that it has never been alone.  I know now that hope was born in that manger.  But hope came to be on that cross.  I know now that I was pulled into a story that would have no end, that would birth newness and hope at every turn.  How blessed I truly am!

At the center of the Christian faith is the history of Christ’s passion.  At the center of this passion is the experience of God endured by the godforsaken, God-cursed Christ.  Is this the end of all human and religious hope?  Or is it the beginning of the true hope, which has been born again and can no longer be shaken?  For me it is the beginning of true hope, because it is the beginning of a life which has death behind it and for which hell is no longer to be feared…Beneath the cross of Christ hope is born again out of the depths. (Jurgen Moltmann)

FOR TODAY:  Dare to hope…in spite of everything else.  Dare to hope for that which you cannot know.  Dare to hope beyond what you can see.

Peace to you in this often-hectic week,

Shelli

O Holy Night

nativity-lorenzolotto-15431

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.  (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, 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, and on earth peace, good will toward men. (Luke 2: 1-14, King James Version)

 

Mary and Joseph have arrived.  The crowds are almost too much to take, pushing and crushing as the couple makes their way through them.  Mary doesn’t feel well.  She really needs to just lie down and rest.  And when you don’t feel well, the last place you want to be is somewhere that is not home, somewhere foreign, somewhere so crowded, so unwelcoming.  They need to hurry.  There is not too much time left.

 

They stop at a small inn up on the hill overlooking the shepherds’ pastures down below.  Joseph leaves Mary for a moment and goes to make arrangements for a place to stay.  But when he returns, his face looks frustrated, almost in tears.  He tells Mary that the inn is full.  In fact, the whole town is full.  There is no place to stay.  There is no room.  But he tells Mary that the innkeeper has given them permission to at least go into the stableroom to keep warm.  He’s freshening the hay now.  He actually was very nice and was trying his best to make them comfortable.

 

So Mary and Joseph entered the stableroom and, surrounded by animals, tried to get some rest.   They could still hear the crowded city outside.  They could hear the Roman guards yelling as they tried to control the crowds.  It made the place feel every more foreign, even more foreboding.  But directly overhead, was the brightest star they had ever seen.  It was as if the tiny little stable was being bathed in light.  So Mary laid down and closed her eyes.  She knew that the time was almost here.  She knew that the baby was coming into the world.

 

And on this night of nights, into a cold, dirty stable in a small town filled with yelling and pushing crowds, into a place occupied by soldiers, into a place that did not feel like home, into a world that had no room, God comes.  The door to the Divine swings open and God and all of heaven burst into our little world, flooding it with Light and Life.  And yet, the child in the manger bathed in light, the very Incarnation of the Divine, Emmanuel, God With Us, the Messiah, is, still, one of us.  God takes the form of one of us–just an ordinary human–a human like you and me–to show us what it means to be one of us, to be human, to be made in the image of God.

 

God comes into a world that is unprepared for God, that has no room for God.  God comes into places that are unclean, unworthy, unacceptable for us, much less for the Divine.  God comes into places that most of us would not go, out of fear of the other, out of fear of the unknown, out of fear of the darkness. And there God makes a home.  The Divine begins to pour into the world and with it a vision of the world pouring into the Divine.  This night, though, is not the pinnacle of our lives but, rather, the beginning of a new chapter.  God comes, bathed in Light, in the humblest of disguises imaginable, into the lowliest of places we know, into the darkest night of the soul, that we might finally know that all of the world is of God, all of the world is bathed in the Divine.  God comes so that we might finally see life as we are called to see it and live life as we are called to live it, filled with mercy and compassion and awareness of our connectedness to all the world.  God comes so that we might finally be human, so that we might finally make room.

 

Perhaps the world will never be completely ready for God.  If God waited for us to be completely prepared, God would never come at all.  But this God doesn’t need our preparation. This God doesn’t need to come into a place that is cleaned up and sanitized for God.  Instead, God comes when and where God comes.  God comes into godforsakenness, into a world that is occupied by foreignness, where the need for God is the greatest, into a world that cries out for justice and peace, and there God makes a home.  God comes into the darkness and bathes it in light.

 

The time is here.  In this moment, the door to the Divine swings open and God and all of heaven are now bursting into the world.  If you stop and listen, just for a moment, you can hear the harps eternal in the distance as they approach our lives.  Can’t you feel it?  Doors opening, light flooding in, the earth filled with a new vision of hope and peace.  Maybe, just maybe, tonight will be different.  Maybe this is the night that the world chooses peace and justice and love.  Maybe this is the night that the world takes joy. Maybe this is the night when the world realizes that it is already filled with the Divine.  Maybe this is the night when we become human.  Maybe this is the night that we make room.

 

It gets darker and darker…and then Jesus is born. (Ann Lamott)

 

Merry Christmas!

Shelli

 

The Next Chapter

Manger and cross

(Advent 4C)

5Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; 6in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. 7Then I said, ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God’ (in the scroll of the book it is written of me).” 8When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), 9then he added, “See, I have come to do your will.” He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. 10And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (Hebrew 10: 5-10)

So why did God come? Why did the Divine make a way into the ordinary? Why did the Creator of the world, the Maker of all that is, come and dwell within Creation and hang around with the muck and mire of the world? So many times this passage is read as if God somehow traded one world for another, as if God somehow felt the need to start over on the grand plan that God had previously proclaimed as “Good”. Does that really make sense? Did Christ come into the world as a “do-over”, as if what God had so lovingly begun had somehow failed?

I don’t think God is throwing away the old order; I think God is continuing to create it. God is always continuing to create, not to exchange one way of being for another but to change one way of being into another. God was always coming into the world. There were incarnations all along the pathway, if we had only dared to open our eyes and notice. But then it was time for the next chapter for those of us who were called to that part of the story. And what had begun with God’s goodness and God’s mercy and the holiness of the Divine continued, bringing a new order to the whole story.

Christmas did not begin nor end with the manger. The shepherds and the visiting kings did not drop their baby presents off and go back to their lives. As Christians, Christmas is our entrance into the story, into something relevant, into faith, into a story that will take us to Golgotha and then home. It does not replace the part of the story that Abraham brought to us; rather, for us, it brings us into it. And from there, we continue on. So, in a way, Christmas is our birth as much as it is Jesus’. So, in eight days, on that holiest of nights, when you light your candle and sing “Silent Night”, do not look at it as the beginning of the story, but rather the chapter in which you come to be, the very dawn of redeeming grace spilling into a waiting story-filled earth.

Christmas did not come after a great mass of people had completed something good, or because of the successful result of any human effort. No, it came as a miracle, as the child that comes when his time is fulfilled, as a gift of God which is laid into those arms that are stretched out in longing. In this way did Christmas come; in this way it always comes anew, both to individuals and to the whole world. (Eberhard Arnold)

 

Grace and Peace,

 

Shelli

 

Yeah…but

St_-John-the-Baptist(ADVENT 3C)

15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. (Luke 3: 15-18)

Well if John shows up, it must be Advent. We’re not sure exactly what to do with him. He’s completely unorthodox, dresses oddly, eats bugs, lives in the wilderness, and, it seems, just cannot seem to tone down his rather zealous message. After all, this is the season of sharing and wonder and twinkling lights as we look for the coming of the Christ-child. “John…shhhh…you’ll wake the baby!”

We know that John and Jesus go together. John was born about six months before to Mary’s cousin, the child of parents who never thought they would have a child. And, if you remember, John was the one who supposedly moved or kicked or at least made himself noticed in his mother’s womb when the pregnant Mary walked in the room. John was clear about his calling. He was not the Messiah but he was the one who would point to the Messiah. He was the forerunner, the opening act, if you will, that would set the stage for who and what was to come. John preached repentance, turning around. His message carried an urgency that called us to change, to be ready for the coming of Christ. Yeah…but…

But we still don’t know what to do with him. We like to think of Jesus as one who is kind and compassionate so John sort of becomes the “bad cop” in the duo. But have you ever thought that perhaps we have a hard time understanding John because, truthfully, we don’t understand Jesus. If John was the one that pointed to Jesus as the one who would baptize with water and Spirit, as the one who wielded the power to save the world, then why would we assume that John’s message was really all that different from Jesus’? See, we like this season of waiting and birth. We like the image of the baby. It’s safe. We like the image of a Jesus who is kind and compassionate, a smiling man surrounded by children as he stands on a mountain and preaches love and mercy and forgiveness. Yeah…but…

Jesus was a radical, folks. Jesus burst into the world essentially through a back door. By the time the establishment knew he was here, things had already begun to change. Jesus did preach love and mercy and forgiveness. But he also preached following and change and a calling to lose our life. That’s right…a calling to lose our life that we know and become someone knew. John called it repentance, turning around. Jesus message was a little more forceful: Lose your life or you die. Change your life or you’ll miss the Kingdom of God. Yeah….but…

There is that moment on Christmas Eve when we sing “Silent Night” and light our candle. In that moment, the incredible twinkling moment, the baby comes into the world for us. But it’s only a moment. Because in that moment, our world changes. For a few verses in the Bible, we’re allowed to be a little silent, to look upon the newborn and beam with expectation. But it doesn’t last long. There is work to be done. Perhaps John’s whole purpose was to simply wake us up so that we would hear the message that Jesus brought. John pointed us to Jesus; Jesus points us to God. Otherwise, it’s just too tempting to stay at the manger and keep Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes where he is kept safe and we are kept comfortable, where we don’t have to think about Golgotha or our own shortcomings. So, THIS Advent, listen to John. Let John’s message point you beyond the manger to the One that will point to God, that will bring you life. But you have to let go for that to happen. Keep in mind, if Jesus as a baby was the point of it all, we would have a manger on our altar. But the baby grows up and asks us to follow. And the cross on our altar reminds us that we will never be the same again. Yeah…but…

“Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” (Mark 10:18) Jesus did not point people to himself but to God. Our worship of Jesus may well be our worst disservice to him and the easiest way of effectively ignoring him. The religion about Jesus is quite different from the religion of Jesus. May my honoring Jesus never stand in the way of the more important challenge to imitate him in his openness to the Divine. (Ron Miller)

 

Grace and Peace,

 

Shelli