Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Friday, December 21, 2007

Third Sunday of Advent--My Soul Magnifies the Thief



A few days later, but better than never at all....

Isaiah 35:1-10
35:1 The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus

35:2 it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God.

35:3 Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.

35:4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart, "Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you."

35:5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;

35:6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert;

35:7 the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

35:8 A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God's people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.

35:9 No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there.

35:10 And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Luke 1:47-55
1:47 My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

1:48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

1:49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

1:50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

1:51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

1:52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;

1:53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

1:54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,

1:55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."

James 5:7-10
5:7 Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.

5:8 You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.

5:9 Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors!

5:10 As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

Matthew 11:2-11
11:2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples

11:3 and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?"

11:4 Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see:

11:5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.

11:6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."

11:7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind?

11:8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces.

11:9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.

11:10 This is the one about whom it is written, 'See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.'

11:11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
One should tell a joke in a sermon, so this looks like a good place for one:

One World War II Quaker conscientious objector had been a professional wrestler. Once when he and some other inmates of the Coshocton CPS camp in Ohio made a trip into town, they were hassled about their pacifism by some local youths, who insisted that only force could change the German's views.

In response, the ex-wrestler took off his coat, challenged one of the local boys to a match, and promptly threw the townie across the room. He then asked the youth, "Now do you believe that force won't change people's views?"

"Heck no!" the local boy hollered back.

"That's exactly my point," said the Quaker, who put on his coat and left.
Mary's song is one of the most subversive in Scripture; which is why it is little noticed by Protestants. I knew about it, growing up, but only vaguely. Advent services in my Presbyterian church, such as they were, never focussed on the "Magnificat". The traditional Latin name alone sounded too Papist, but made it mysterious and exotic for me, growing up in Southern Baptist East Texas. Zechariah's Benedictus was more favored, with its references to the blessings Messiah would bring. We knew, of course, the Gloria, and I learned a choral version of the Nunc Dimmitus that I still wish I could find again, and learn. I only have a portion of it left me, and the incomplete music haunts me.

But the Magnificat is the crown jewel of Luke's four songs in his gospel. Interestingly, the Gospel of John starts with a song, too, the so-called "Hymn to the Logos." There are more than a few connections between John's gospel, and the gospel we attribute to the unknown "Luke." But the songs are some of the best part; and yet they are never considered Christmas songs, even though, arguably, they are the first Christmas songs ever.

The first two chapters of Luke practically read like a musical, with people bursting into song spontaneously. Angels we apparently expect to sing, especially at such a world-changing moment; but people burst into song in Luke; unfortunatly, we don't have the music, only the words. But what words he gives us:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
And all because God has chosen a teenager, a "young girl" as Isaiah originally put it, to mother the Messiah. But what does this mean? Does it mean Israel will rise to a greater power, throw off the yoke of Rome, rule the known world? No. It means God is a thief, coming to steal the comfort and security of the thrones of the powerful away from them, and to lift up the lowly. God is the usurper of social order, the one on the margins who takes away everyone's security, the burglar who scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, the thoughts of their security and power and comfort and position and authority. Thieves destroy all sense of these things. Thieves take all comfort away.

I heard a report from Baghdad this morning, about a lull in the violence, a seeming return to normal in that ravaged city, that chaotic country; but it was followed by a story of a bombing just today, in a private mosque, in a "secure" area. Thieves, vandals, murderers, sucicide bombers: they all take away whatever thoughts of privacy and security we think we have. They all prove that our comfort is an illusion, our walls permeable, our defenses vulnerable. They expose our fears, they subvert our orderly existence. They are agents of chaos. How strange they should be so much like Mary's description of God.

There are differences, of course. God does not promise death and destruction and a new order built on power and murder and ruthlessness and corpses. Mary's God comes, not to steal from us for Godself, for God's enrichment, but for our sakes. Mary's God doesn't come to take from us what we need, but to return it to us. Mary's God comes to send us into the wilderness, where we can see and hear, truth.

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind?

11:8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces.

11:9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.

11:10 This is the one about whom it is written, 'See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.'

11:11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
In the wilderness, no one has social power, or authority, or the trappings of society. In the wilderness, no one wears soft robes; that's the dress for palaces, for societies dependent upon hierarchies and rulers. In the wilderness, the race is to the bottom, and social order is upended. Among people, no one is greater than John the Baptist, the man standing in the wilderness, dressed in animal hides, preaching to whoever will make the trip out to the wilderness to listen. You don't hear John in the agoria, in the marketplace, in the palace or even the Temple courtyard. You leave all those places, to hear what he has to say. You have to be prepared in order to listen to him. You have to give up your comforts yourself; no one, you see, will take them from you. You have to set aside what you think is good and right and proper, and go out to where those things don't matter, in order to listen. You need a new perspective. And you have to do it yourself.

"Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."
You have to see, you have to hear, and you have to go looking for it. You, in other words, have to be the thief. God does not come in the night to steal your life from you. You have stolen it from yourself. You have replaced your life with this world, with these things, with those thoughts; and God will scatter your thoughts with God's deeds. What will you do then? Go to the wilderness? Listen to the angel? Are you so sure the angel isn't speaking now, but you can't listen? Are you ready? Mary was ready, but perhaps just barely. Perhaps she was just wise, and kept quiet. Zechariah was not ready, and he was struck silent until he saw what he could not believe. The thief comes to restore our sight, and our speech. The thief comes to return us to ourselves.

God is not coming to take away from us what we have. God is coming to allow us to give it up. God is not coming to steal from us; God is coming to restore to us what we have taken from ourselves. God is not coming to turn things upside down; God is coming to turn them right side up. We are the ones who have inverted everything. We are the ones who worship power and honor those who sit on thrones above us. God is coming to restore order, not to destroy it. God is coming to restore justice, not to subvert it. God is coming as a helpless child, not to surprise us our perplex us, but to join us. God is coming as a powerless infant because that is the only way God can do what needs to be done. God is coming in the wilderness, because that is the only place we can truly see God, and stop seeing only ourselves. Not with force; force won't change us. The Lord comes in power, through powerlessness, and undoes nothing. The Lord urges us to undo it all ourselves, and be prepared. "Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near."

We have stolen these things from ourselves, from each other. We have stolen peace and comfort and security, in the name of peace and comfort and security. What could be more topsy-turvy than that? God is coming, not to destroy order, but to restore it.

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;

then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert;

the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
The Lord magnifies all our souls, so we can see more clearly what is good. And the Lord is preparing the way, by urging us to steal from ourselves all that we count valuable, so we can cling to those things which truly have value: peace, goodwill, joy to the world. God is coming in hospitality, to bring us hospitality.

Soon; and very soon, the Lord will be here. The Lord will come, and will not delay.

Amen.

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