Sunday, December 29, 2019

First Sunday of Christmas

Hebrews 2
11 Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.[g] 12 He says,
“I will declare your name to my brothers and sisters;
in the assembly I will sing your praises.”[h]
13 And again,
“I will put my trust in him.”[i]
And again he says,
“Here am I, and the children God has given me.”[j]
14 Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. 16 For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants.

Goodbye, second decade of the twenty-first century, whatever you are.

I don’t even know what to call it. The ought-teens? The twenty-teens? The awkward teen years—that seems closer to the mark. The truth is we tend to need some distance on a time before we can fully affix a name to it. Did people know they were in the middle of the Me Decade in the middle of the Me Decade? Tom Wolfe told them in 1976, pointing out that communitarian vision of the 1960s was being set aside in the 70s in favour of greater individualism. But did people see it? And can they see it now?

Some thinkers have taken the longer view, defining entire ages and eras in an effort to add some perspective. So, for example, a couple of scholars coined the term “the long nineteenth century,” (Ehrenburg and Hobsbawm) arguing that the 1800s really began in 1789 (the French Revolution) and ended in 1914 with the outbreak of the First World War. In other words, the last years of the 1700s and the first years of the 1900s had more in common with the 1800s, and therefore properly belong to them.

Having settled that, what about the last century? Let’s assume for a minute that it began in 1914, and ended on 9-11. So that would be war, more war, American hegemony, and the end of the world we knew—as the Age of Terror began. Alternately, you could argue that the last century began in 1914 and ended in 2016 with the election of you-know-who. In that model, it’s war, more war, American leadership, and the sudden end of American leadership. My son makes the technological argument, suggesting that the century began at Kitty Hawk (1903) with the first powered flight, and ended with the rise of Facebook (2008? 2010?), the technological advance that ruined everything. But don’t think about that now, wait and discuss it over coffee.

So whatever we call these times, and however we measure them, there are some themes that stand out. Bob Johansen, who has the unlikely title “Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for the Future” says the era we live in is VUCA, meaning volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. The precise origin of this idea seems unclear, but there is little denying that we are experiencing all four.

Our world is volatile, meaning things change rapidly and then they change again, and nothing seems settled anymore. It’s uncertain, meaning you can no longer predict outcomes, and what you think you know, you don’t really know anymore. It’s complex, meaning that a variety of things are happening at once, and older examples of cause-and-effect no longer seem to hold. And finally, it’s ambiguous, meaning there is some confusion over the nature of reality itself.

Clearly this is going to be the longest coffee time ever, or you’ll just let it go and ponder the weather instead. Tomorrow’s high is six and rain is a virtual certainty—if we can still trust the weather forecast to be true. But it’s still going to be VUCA, volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, because that’s the age to which we belong. And somehow, we need to decide what the church can offer the world we live in, recognizing that we’re experiencing our own version of VUCA at the same time.

So let’s take those in reverse, and look at the VUCA church first. We covered a bit of this territory back on Anniversary Sunday, so I won’t say too much, except to note that everything is changing, that we can’t predict the outcome, that cause-and-effect has gone out the window, and that the reality of our situation seems to be a matter of debate. It might be enough to say that mainline Protestants are on the cusp of a meaningful conversation when it comes to the future, and we shouldn’t add to the VUCA by ignoring reality.

So back to the first question: what can the church offer a world that is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous? Three things, in fact, but first we need to hear again from the author of Hebrews. I say ‘author of Hebrews’ because the author is unknown. It is written in the style of St. Paul, and certainly takes some inspiration from Paul, but the church has agreed from the earliest days that this belongs to some other author.

Hebrews is a demanding letter. It asks us to “to enter into full maturity as God’s children,” and be “transformed by the suffering that comes from obedience” to the Gospel.** We are called to follow Jesus, whom the author of Hebrews calls a “reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” (1.3) In many ways, it resembles John’s Gospel, unapologetic in it’s high sense of Christ and his place in our life together.

The passage that Kathy shared is a prime example of the Hebrews-way. It quotes Psalm 22 and Isaiah 8, not saying “the scriptures say,” but rather “God says…” Scripture becomes testimony and describes our place in this unfolding vision. In this passage, God is determined to help us see our relationship to Christ, as his brothers and sisters, and as children of the Most High. And further, he underlines the humanity of Jesus, dying the death we die, so that we might be freed from the power of death.

So I promised three things that the church can offer in this age of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. And we turn to Hebrews for help, because Hebrews does a remarkable job of mirroring the clarity we find in Jesus. The early church, like the church of today, found itself surrounded by misunderstanding and indifference. It fell to the early writers—the gospel writers, St. Paul, and the author of Hebrews—to confront this worldview and make the counter-argument. So what did they offer?

The first was the certainty of community. In the most primitive form this was a congregation, two-or-three or more gathering in Jesus’ name. They had each other, and they understood that there were many more who would find a place in their fellowship. For the poor—both poor and poor in Spirit—the message of new life in Christ was uniquely compelling. And this new life begins in community, fellow-travellers on the road to God.

The next was the gift of simplicity. We are brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ. We are God’s children. God sent Jesus to share our humanity, to experience what we experience—joy and sorrow—and to follow the human way to the death that ends when Jesus makes an end to death. We no longer need to fear death, because death’s grip on us is no more. This simple and profound message was shared and quoted and commended until it finally took hold, and that leads to our final point.

The final thing the church can offer in this age of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity is truth, or rather, the reality of truth, the belief that there are things that are profoundly knowable, things that transcend this age and every age and point to the one who named himself “the way, the truth and the life.” Pilate famously asked “what is truth?” an unbelieving question that also belongs to every age. But we say “He is the visible image of an invisible God” and “I know that my redeemer lives, and that at the last he shall stand upon the earth.” God safeguards our past, our present and our future—protecting all of time from the trial of spiritual ambiguity.

We praise the “reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being,” and we follow in his way. We surround each other, we shelter the simple message of new life, and we share truth: he shared our humanity so we might share his glory, Amen.

**Interpretation, Luke Timothy Johnson


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