Sunday, December 13, 2020

Advent III

Luke 1.46b-55

My soul proclaims God's greatness.

My spirit rejoices in God my saviour.  

For you have looked with favour on your lowly servant.

From this day all generations will call me blessed.

You have done great things for me, O Most Mighty.

Hallowed be your Name!

You have mercy on those who fear you,

From one generation to another.  

You took action with a strong arm.

You scattered the proud in their conceit.

You pulled the mighty from their thrones.

You raised the lowly.

You filled the hungry with good things.

You sent the rich away empty.

You come to the aid of your servant, Israel,

for you remembered your promise of mercy,

to our ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, 

and to their children in every age.



Margaret Keenan was the first person to get the “the jab,” as they say in the UK.  The soon-to-be 91 year-old described receiving the vaccine as the “best early birthday present.”  It was a lovely moment, but then came the second recipient, an 81 year-old with the unlikely name William Shakespeare.  


Twitter erupted: “They really are prioritising the elderly,” one person wrote, “this guy is 456.”  Someone called it “the taming of the flu,” while another said, “I’m surprised they let William Shakespeare have the vaccine. I thought he was Bard.”  I should stop.  But one more: reflecting on the fame these two have gained after getting the jab, someone noted, “A plague on neither of their houses.”*


Ignoring the bad puns, it’s easy to feel joy and relief in the face of this long-awaited turn-of-events.  It has a “beginning of the end” feeling to it, and somewhat perfectly timed, as we reach what are literally the darkest days of the year.  If this was a seasonal film, this would be the moment for someone to shout “it’s a Christmas miracle!”  And it certainly feels that way.


And beyond the feeling, some remarkable things have taken place: the early word was that vaccines can take years to develop—this one took about ten months.  The early word was that finding one vaccine would be lucky—there are already three or more.  Even the manufacture of doses, something that was predicted to take months or years, was started months ago, on the off-chance that the vaccine would eventually be approved.  


So we praise God that we are here, waiting for the day we can get the jab, and we praise God for the gift of medicine, along with the gift of insight and imagination.  God has shown us once more what’s possible when we focus all our attention on a problem.  We can do something revolutionary.


Revolutionary.  Revolutionary is one of those over-used words that has lost some of its power—perhaps too many hair products or exercise machines have been described using the word.  When something is revolutionary—like developing a vaccine in a matter of months—it turns the existing order on its head, and it changes everything.  


And the word also reminds us of political revolutions, a changing of the existing political order into something else altogether.  Again, the word is often misapplied, with the most famous example being the American Revolution.  For a revolution that proclaimed “all men are created equal,” there remained the bitter reality that 700,000 African-Americans were enslaved at the end of the revolution, or nearly one-in-six Americans.  And this number would grow to 4,000,000 before slavery ended in 1865.


Turning to Oxford to help us understand what revolutionary truly means, we get “involving or causing a complete or dramatic change.”  Like the Song of Mary:


You took action with a strong arm.

You scattered the proud in their conceit.

You pulled the mighty from their thrones.

You raised the lowly.

You filled the hungry with good things.

You sent the rich away empty.


It’s no surprise that when Latin-American theologians were trying to describe “a theology of liberation,” they pointed to Mary.  Between Mary and Moses, and some early Isaiah thrown in for good measure, we begin to understand the radical nature of scripture.  These three embody complete and dramatic change.  For Isaiah it was “swords into plowshares,” an idea so powerful that it is carved in front of the UN headquarters.  For Moses, it was literal liberation, the power of God to free God’s people.  And for Mary it is predictive, a revolution that begins in Bethlehem and concludes at Calvary.  


Why concludes?  I say it concludes at Calvary because the cross is a once-and-for-all event, an event to reconcile us with God, to end death, and to ensure our freedom in the Spirit.  The world no longer has hold over us, and we are free to live with love and mercy.  But every conclusion, of course, must have a beginning: and the beginning of this revolution is God’s desire to enter the world in the most humble way possible, as a baby.  And this is truly revolutionary: no strongman, no advancing army, no tactical plan.  Just a baby, the most vulnerable form God could possibly assume.  


But before we shift all our focus to the birth of Jesus, we would do well to remember Mary.  For our Roman Catholic friends, she is the patron saint of all humanity, the Queen of Heaven, and the Our Lady of numerous locations.  Our Lady of Guadalupe, as an example, is the patron saint of the Americans.  And for all Christians, as declared at the Council of Ephesus (431), she is Theotokos, the Mother of God.  In addition, Mary is the only woman named in the Quran—mentioned 70 times—and exalted as “the greatest of women.”  Listen again to the beginning of her song:


My soul proclaims God's greatness.

My spirit rejoices in God my saviour.  

For you have looked with favour on your lowly servant.

From this day all generations will call me blessed.

You have done great things for me, O Most Mighty.

Hallowed be your Name!


As prophetic utterances go, this one remains true.  From her lowly station she becomes mother, guardian, guide, follower, and witness to the resurrection.  She inspires and blesses all humanity, with her song of liberation and her life with God.  She reminds us that whatever seems fixed, or certain, or impossible to change can be quite the opposite.  And she reminds us that praise and gratitude are at the centre of a life of faith.  


May God see us through the dark days ahead, and may we never lose sight of hope, with Mary to guide us, Amen.  


*https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2020/12/08/shakespeare-britain-pfizer-coronavirus-vaccine/ 

Sunday, December 06, 2020

Advent II

 Mark 1

4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with[e] water, but he will baptize you with[f] the Holy Spirit.”

Who is about to be born, and in early middle-age, and about to begin a promising career, and apparently doomed?  

If you answered Jesus, you would be correct.  If you answered Jesus in the season of Advent, you get a bonus point.  My riddle points to the mixed up timeline we’ve entered, and the extent to which the season is trying to accomplish several things at once. 

Of course, the Bible is filled with biographies, stories of characters that give us a glimpse of the span of their lives.  Most famous, perhaps, is Moses: from the babe in a basket to an aged liberator, gazing upon the promised land.  Or David, a mere lad, out tending the sheep while God’s anointed is being chosen.  We will see the span of his life too, victories, foundations, and personal defeats.  Or Esther, the beautiful young orphan who becomes queen, develops a mastery of court life, and saves the Jewish people from death.

In each case, the story is told straight, a linear description from beginning to end: selected or saved for service, engaged in a crisis or conflict, and triumphant at the last.  In each case, of course, it is God that is victorious, and we give thanks.  What we don’t do, in the course of telling these stories, is interrupt the order: we wouldn't tell the story of the burning bush to explain why the baby Moses was set adrift on the Nile.

In Advent, we enter a unique version of time.  Future is present, the past predicts the future, and the one for whom we wait is already here.  Heroes of the narrative occur in the middle of the story, but they help us prepare for the beginning.  The baby John the Baptist may appear in the time of Jesus’ nativity, but now he’s the fully grown John who will help us prepare for Jesus’ birth.

“After me,” says John, “comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  Again, these words fit the prelude to Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan, but they also describe our fondest hope, the time for which we wait.

The glue that holds this story together is baptism.  John is practicing one aspect of baptism (“a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”) and Jesus another.  John’s work, like Advent, is preparatory, allowing us to make room for Jesus to enter our hearts.  We must die to our old selves to welcome him in, to find new life in Christ.  St. Paul knew this better than most:

Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Rom 3) 

In Athens, the wise ones would say “tell us more, for you are bringing strange things to our ears.” (Acts 17) It is strange, to conflate baptism and death, but remember that the timelines are not what they seem.  When we were baptized we entered the death and resurrection of Jesus, not some distant event, but the same death and resurrection that happens at every baptism, both now and in the future.  

This is what John means when he describes our baptism as baptism with the Holy Spirit.  It exists outside of time, and it defies time, because new life in Christ never stops happening.  Maybe this is why Paul’s Athenian friends were so puzzled.  Your life unfolded in a predictable manner: spun, measured, and cut, without any sense that it could be respun or uncut or measured in a different way.  Jesus takes away loom and tape and scissors, sets them aside, and says ‘walk with me, and follow in my way.’  Nothing about your life is set when we’re talking about new life in Christ.

Just now the practical people are crying out for something tangible, and for them, I have a confession.  Not an actual confession, though I do have a few. My confession is the abiding belief that confession is at the very heart of who we are and what we do.  In confession, we ask God to help us set aside the things we regret and the things that are holding us back.  

But there is more than just that.  In confession we send a signal to others that it’s healthy and appropriate to name the ways we fall short and seek forgiveness.  In a world of facades and falsehoods, we can be the voice that says “we all screw up, and we all need God’s help to get by.”  We can’t self-pardon.  But when we model a way of being that includes humility and a realistic sense-of-self, it can start catching.  Maybe others will admit they’ve failed, and fallen short, and that they need something outside themselves to make it right.  That is when the Spirit moves, and new life comes.  

So John was right all along.  People enter the desert places longing for something, anything that can help them.  And he appears, practicing a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins—which was always just a fancy way to describe confession.  They were busy making room: leaving cluttered lives and unresolved situations to seek the new life that only God in Christ can bring.  

May God bless you as our Advent journey continues.  May you enter and reenter the story as needed, always aware that it leads to new life.  Amen.