Sunday, December 04, 2016

In the wilderness... glorious signs

Second Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 11 and Matthew 3 

A friend of mine seems to always be watching for stories online… stories of that look like the vision of God as Isaiah paints it… she posts these stories of poor people being lifted up, of enemies reconciling, of violence ending… and she labels them this way. “The kingdom of God is like… [this].”
She is a more subtle John the Baptist…. But as for the original John the Baptist? There was nothing subtle about him! Out from the wilderness he speaks with total clarity, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” He looks like a modern-day Elijah, a prophet inviting people into practices to prepare for a new way of life with God.
And in the part of John’s message that we didn’t print today, John compares this work of getting ready to removing the chaff from the grain. Or in other words, removing the protective covering around the grain that was very important while it was growing and maturing but that is no longer needed since the grain is now fully mature and ready for harvest. I wonder, What is chaff in our lives? “What has outlived its purpose in our lives? What have we convinced ourselves is protecting us when it is not?”[1] What is the chaff this season that could just as well be removed and thrown into the oven for fuel (where it could do far more good than it’s doing clinging to us)?
This reminds me a lot of the kinds of conversations we had together throughout the last month in the forums that Roger and Anne facilitated, as we talked about the book Being Mortal, and asked ourselves and each other, “What do we need to do as we age or face health crises to make life worthwhile, each step of the way?”  What can we do during this season to make life worthwhile? There are moments for acquiring (December can surely feel like that kind of month!) but there are also moments in this season for letting go of what is unnecessary (the chaff) so we can get to the real kernel.
So that’s one image… an image that in ancient language would have been called “purgation” or spiritual cleansing or in today’s terms, “Simplifying.” It’s emptying ourselves to make space for more.
It seems as if we’re being invited through Advent to be open to more.
All month, we’re preparing… for what? For Christmas Day? Well, let’s be honest. For our consumer culture, it all ends on December 25th when people throw out their trees on the curb, thanking God it’s finally over.  For Christians, this month is getting ready to start. It’s more like the concept behind the Black Belt in Taekwondo. You go through all this training, learn all these forms, and finally you achieve the Black Belt which means, “I’m ready to begin.”
That is what Advent is for us… practices, learning our forms, letting go of what is not needed anymore, and getting ready to be open to God’s fresh new start.
And in that way, perhaps the deep darkness of this month is a gift.
For those of us who feel such pressure to bring God’s justice and peace to people in need right now, to those of us who are impatient with God’s timing, for those who want to move mountains and make a way out of no way…For those who are crushed by their anxiety in not being able to do all and be all… the darkness of Advent blocks out so many things, makes it impossible to see the big picture, means we have to rely on just on what’s right in front of us, God, and each other… as somehow in this deep winter darkness, God is doing something bigger than what we can see, under the ground, in the root system.
When things look bleakest, when we look at what once was a grand tree and now appears to be a chopped-down stump, God’s work is like that strong shoot springing out from the stump, a signal to all of us that God doesn’t leave us in death. God doesn’t leave us lost in the night. God is not done yet. We try to chop these volunteer tree shoots away because this tree’s invading our fences or alleys, and in response, it relentlessly grows. It’s like a body giving birth. Once the labor has begun, there’s no going back for mother or baby… and really, although it’s painful, stressful, strange… we have to go through it to get through to the new life on the other side.
So what practices can we do to get ready for it all to begin again? Well David Whyte, a poet, invites us to be brave in facing the challenges this way:
Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take…
Start right now
take a small step
you can call your own
don’t follow
someone else’s
heroics, be humble
and focused,
start close in,
don’t mistake
that other
for your own.
Start close in,
don’t take
the second step
or the third,
start with the first
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take2

Here’s where we might start being brave…
In prayer; In paying attention to other people
lighting candles in trust in the darkness and waiting time
Practicing silence and listening
Ramping down vs. ramping up… practicing peace

However we practice, we can know that the final result is not up to us. Remember the dawn at the other end of the dark that Pastor Elizabeth spoke of last Sunday? Remember Isaiah’s lion and ox, and that child with its hand over the snake’s hole (but unharmed)?
God’s vision of wholeness and completion has been around for all of time… and God is not done bringing this vision into being. We watch for God’s signal in the wilderness, flickering like a candle, growing relentlessly from the stump… crying out like a prophet… God is near and so we get ready… to begin again.

2 David Whyte, River Flow: New and Selected Poems

[1] From Denise Anderson, current Co-Moderator of the PC-USA

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