Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Scott Borden, OHC
RCL – Advent 4 A – Sunday 19 December 2010
Advent is the season of waiting... of anticipation... and its almost over... so nearly over that Matthew is already telling us about the birth of Jesus. Its part of an amazing annual cycle in which we make our hearts ready for God with us, we welcome Jesus into the world, and then, like clockwork, a few short months later during Holy Week we rid our world of Jesus by way of crucifixion, only to have the Easter event frustrate our plans.
Its a cycle that has repeated for thousands of years. Why?
One reason the cycle repeats, and must repeat, is that, as human beings, we are works in progress (or at least we like to think we're making progress). Each time we encounter this cycle we are different – so the encounter is different. Each encounter changes us. Its not so much a cycle as a spiral. We go round and round, but we are not exactly in orbit.
There is another reason why this cycle of Anticipation, Incarnation, and Crucifixion repeats. It has to do with expectation – and this is what I want to focus on today. We long for God with us, Emmanuel, but the god we long for and the God who is with us can be very different. Part of the reason the cycle ends in rejection (crucifixion) is that we don't get the god we want. At least that's my theory... And that suggests the question: What god do we want for Christmas?
Its easy to look back 2000 years and see that the people of Israel didn't get the Messiah they hoped for. They wanted a great military leader, a Messiah who would restore God's chosen people to the proper place of power and privilege. They wanted a super-hero...
Its tempting to say this was their error, but the truth is we still have a profound desire for a super-hero... A god who will save us from our enemies – who will destroy our enemies. But that god will not come to us this Christmas or any Christmas. Emmanuel comes to save us from ourselves, not our enemies.
Our ambivalence about a savior goes back further than 2000 years. If we look to the prophet Isaiah, we can see the conflict brewing.
This morning we're singing one of the great Advent hymns of all time – O Come Emmanuel. The hymn is based on 7 ancient prayers which date back some 1500 years. Each of these prayers has Isaiah as its foundation. These prayers become, at some time in history, the Magnificat Antiphons for the last days of Advent – which we still use today.
Each of these prayers addresses some particular name, some aspect by which we know God. These prayers focus us on the God who becomes incarnate and so they provide a good context in which to explore how the god we want differs from the God who comes.
What are we looking for, according to these prayers? For wisdom. For a great leader. For a sign. For a key. For the light. These things sound fine – who can argue with them... but things aren't so simple.
O Wisdom – Isaiah tells us that the spirit of the Lord is the spirit of wisdom and understanding, of counsel and might, of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. The psalmist tells us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. In our modern world, fear is a powerful, ever present motivating force. Terrorists derive all their power from fear – our fear. But even watching the Weather Chanel can be an exercise in fear... Modern fear, terror, seems to lead to anything but wisdom.
Yet Charles Darwin, of all people, made some profound observations about fear: He observed that fear in all animals begins with the same response – astonishment. The eyes open wide, the ears perk up, all the senses come fully awake – as the animal makes a choice about what to do. Usually the choice is whether to fight or run. That is what living creatures do.
But the fear of the Lord calls for surrender, not defense, not flight. In the original Latin of this prayer, the word for Wisdom is Sapientia. It is this same word that helps define human beings as different from other animals – Homo sapiens. Unlike other animals, when fear triggers our astonishment, we can respond with thought rather than reflex. We can, as Jesus demands, turn the other cheek.
We want a god who will destroy our enemies and we get a God who calls on us to be prepared to give up all we have, including our own lives, to make peace.
O Adonai – leader of the house of Israel... Law giver... judge. At some subliminal level the god of judgment is one of the most enduring and terrible pieces of our tradition. Some folks, for example Pat Robertson, are quite clear about the god of judgment – this god is always ready and waiting to crush us for our sins – because he loves us so much. This god is willing to let airplanes fly into the World Trade Center towers, or cause earthquakes to add to the suffering of the people of Haiti. This god gives people AIDS and cancer. This is a god who's judgment is swift and pitiless.
The good news is that this isn't the God who comes. Adonai, who Isaiah has in mind, comes to redeem us – to free us from what harms us, not to crush us.
I believe that Pat Robertson and his ilk really want a god who will destroy the folks of whom they disapprove and, naturally, reward folks like themselves. I also believe that, for them, part of the anticipated reward is that they get to watch the bad folks suffer – much as Lazarus got to watch from Heaven as the Dives, the rich man, suffered in Hell.
I find it much less pleasing to believe that part of me is not all that different from your standard issue, fire-and-brimstone breathing televangelist. But if I am honest, I have to admit that I, too, want a god who will make a perfect world for me by getting rid of the imperfect people – those would be the people I don't like. And instead we get Jesus who prefers the company of imperfect people and shuns the sanctimonious.
O Day-spring – O Morning Star – in Latin O Oriens (O Rising Sun would be a more accurate translation). Isaiah speaks of “the people who walked in darkness...” and tells how they have “seen a great light – on them light has shined.”
How we long for the God of Light – and yet at the same time how we love the god of darkness... In the bright clear light of day injustice is intolerable. Exploitation is intolerable. Hunger in a land of plenty is intolerable.
We want a god of light who will come and show us beauty. The reality is the God who comes will show us truth – and much of our truth is not beautiful, not tolerable. The god of darkness makes me comfortable. The God who comes will confront me with truth – and it will be most uncomfortable.
O Root of Jesse – O Radix Jesse in Latin – a sign for all people... A standard... a banner. What a funny image Isaiah has given us. We expect the sign to be lofty and uplifted – yet the root is rather humble and lowly. Of course Isaiah is speaking metaphorically, not literally – but still he has chosen a very humble image. Radix, the Latin word, lives on in English in the form of our humble radish – that savory, little root. Isaiah might roll his eyes at how I am torturing his simile, but I think this points us to one of the basic problems – we want a god that is glorious, gilded, spectacular, and the God who comes is more like a radish.
The God that comes to us can be such a surprise... We're like a child on Christmas morning anticipating the latest xBox or iPhone... and opening the package to find socks and underwear...
We get the God we need, not the god we want. Emmanuel, God with us, is with us no matter what we want or expect. That is the great beauty and mystery of Christmas: God comes to us, equally, to all of us, wherever we are, whoever we are, whatever we are, no matter what we expect, no matter what we want.
The images of the savior we want can make it hard to see God who is with us. Even so Lord Jesus, quickly come. Teach us wisdom. Help us to crave justice. Lead us in the path of humble love, service, and sacrifice. Be to us Emmanuel – God with us.