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Easter Darkness

Advent 3A-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

December 15, 2019

John the Baptist paces back and forth in his narrow cell.  Imprisoned by King Herod, he questions how he lived his life.  Last Sunday John stood beside the Jordan preaching in the wilderness. He seemed so sure of himself. But now that he faces a stupid death, he’s not so sure.  He has doubts.

Jesus did great deeds of power in cities throughout Galilee, but John still wonders if and when God’s kingdom will come.  Meanwhile Jesus’ list of enemies continued to grow. “Look, [they said, this Jesus is] a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:19).  Now John the Baptist whose very conception occasioned an angelic visit, who leapt in his mother’s womb at the first glimpse of a pregnant Mary sent word to ask Jesus, “are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11:3)   I’ve staked my entire life on you.  Has it all been for nothing?”

This is not the sort of faith story we like to tell—but I many of us, including me, has lived some version of it at one time or another. We like conversion stories that go straight “from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge, from despair to joy.”  Yet, John’s story doesn’t follow this happy trajectory. It’s an anti-conversion story. “John’s journey is a backwards one. From certitude to doubt.  From boldness to hesitation.  From knowing to unknowing.  From heavenly light to jail cell darkness.” (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, “Has It All Been For Nothing?”, 12-8-19)

We might call it spiritual failure, or maybe faithlessness?  Backsliding?  We might get mad. Jesus doesn’t.  Jesus responds to his cousin’s pained question with composure, gentleness, and understanding. Life can be unfair. What was happening to John wasn’t fair.

The season of Advent teaches us it’s okay to doubt, question, even shake your fist at God –just as many of the psalms do. “On the evidence of our senses, despair is perfectly rational.  Entropy is built into nature.  Decay is knit into our flesh. By all appearances, the universe is cold, empty and indifferent…This leaves every human being with a choice between despair and longing.  Both are reasonable responses to a great mystery.” (Michael Gerson, Washington Post) Jesus has compassion for John. Despair is an understandable response to life’s worst cruelties.

Christians worship the Crucified One, so why do we have a hard time hanging in there with extreme doubt, despair, and suffering?  Somehow, we feel a need to blunt the edges.  To soften the blows.  To make God okay.  But this story is not “okay,” and many of our own stories aren’t okay either.  The prison bars that hold us don’t always give way.  Our doubts don’t always resolve themselves.  Justice doesn’t always arrive in time.  Questions don’t always receive the answers we hunger for. (Thomas)

To add icing on the cake, soon, Jesus’ mother and brothers will show up too, presumably wanting to question their problematic child and brother. Perhaps, they want to take him home and hide him away. How does Jesus answer? What did he say?

Jesus took John back to the bible.  He invited him to consider a different vision from within its pages about who the Messiah is.  In Christ, we see that God is a friend of the lost.  In Christ, we hear that God stands in the midst of our suffering.  God opposes injustice and evil.  God befriends us in the midst of whatever lostness we find ourselves. We are not alone with our pain. In Christ, God entered our world of darkness and death, and decisively filled it with light and life.

We heard in Mary’s song (the Magnificat), God has lifted up the lowly and brings low the mighty.  According to Matthew, the world turned with John the Baptist.  A new age of Christ had dawned.  Jesus is Emmanuel –God’s Wisdom come in the flesh.  There will be new duties and new commandments. The period of the Law and the Prophets was over.  The time of fulfillment is at hand.

Yet, for John, the dawning of this new age in Christ does not mean that he will be freed from prison.  Although John was there to herald Jesus’ beginning, he will not live to see Jesus’ end.  The victory won in Christ may be decisive, but often our deliverance is limited. How did John respond to Jesus’s answer?  Did it satisfy him?  Did it quell his doubts?  Did it renew his joy? We don’t know.

The pious stories of our youth feel more reliable, filled with ready-made answers. Yet these are not jagged enough for the world we actually live in.  “They’re too lukewarm, too clean, too polite.  They move to closure and triumph so quickly that they turn pain into an abstraction. They dull my capacity to practice genuine compassion, empathy, and longsuffering.  Where is the Christian story that can handle horror?  Where is the Christian story that will equip us to sit gently and patiently in the darkness with those who mourn, fear, rage, or doubt?” (Thomas) Well, they’re right here in our bible, in these readings of Advent.

St. Paul contrasts our present sufferings with future glory. In the epistle for this week James urges patience in suffering at least five times. The book of Hebrews honors all the saints who died “without having received what was promised.” The baby born in the barn will die a criminal death.  John’s death will be both tragic and capricious—a travesty of injustice.

Our readings this week all point to something John missed that is essential to the character of God.  “All five passages emphasize the people toward whom God is biased. These Scriptures describe at least eighteen — eighteen! — sorts of people in pain who might be forgotten by the world but who are nevertheless remembered by God: the blind, the lame, the diseased, the deaf, the dead, the poor, the dumb, the oppressed, the hungry, the prisoners, the bowed down, foreigners, orphans, widows, the humble, and then, my three favorites, those with feeble hands, weak knees, and fearful hearts.” (Daniel Clendenin)

The message of both John and Jesus is a call to live according to the way of God and not the way of the world.  The way of God, it turns out, is to enter into, draw close, and patiently endure all the suffering and violence this world can dish out in order to show God’s peace, love and mercy. That’s how God is turning this old world inside out and upside down.

“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom,” promises Isaiah.  “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” sings Mary, the expectant mother of Jesus.  This holy season of Advent invites us to honor doubt, despair, and silence as reasonable reactions to a broken world.  To create sacred space for grief, mourn freely, and rage against injustice.  To let joy be joy, sorrow be sorrow, horror be horror.  To feel deeply, because that’s exactly what God does.   (Thomas)

Advent 2A-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse” (Isaiah 11:1).  With beautiful words the prophet Isaiah describes his vision of a future king, like David, who rules with “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” (v 2). We lay on hands and say these words to affirm our baptism to become members of this church. In some small way that makes each of you an answer to Isaiah’s prayer. We are tasked with fulfilling Isaiah’s vision of nonviolence and social harmony, building communities where the wolf, the lamb, the leopard and the kid live together in peace.

Soon after Isaiah wrote these famous poetic words, the only thing that would remain real was the stump. The story begun in Eden continuing through Abraham, Sarah, Moses, King David and the Prophets came to an end. The temple soon fell into ruins. The people killed or carted off in chains, neither their time nor their bodies would be their own.  All was cut down, destroyed.

I am aware that I am grieving the decay of our civic life, the erosion of great institutions of government, education, and the church. I am anxious about the inability for all of us to agree even on basic facts. Yet nothing I am worried about today compares with the utter devastation people of faith have coped with in the past. It’s not that our worries and concerns aren’t legitimate and relevant.  But fortunately, we possess the wisdom of our ancestors to guide us through times of doubt or unknowing when it comes to faith.

It happens more than we care to admit. The sense of being stranded in the midst of life can be enough to drain a person’s self-worth. Where did the joy go? Where did the feeling of self-confidence disappear to in the midst of this emptiness? Just yesterday life was clear and vibrant. Today it is endlessly bleak. The darkness is unyielding. Nothing helps; nothing takes it away. There is no light here, we think. But we think wrong.

The Old Ones whisper, there is a light in us that only darkness itself can illuminate. “It is the glowing calm that comes over us when we finally surrender to the ultimate truth of creation: that there is a God and we are not it. That is the light that shines in darkness.” (Sister Joan Chittister) 

Only the experience of our own darkness gives us the light we need to be of help to others whose journey into unknowing is just beginning. Without that, we are only words. We are false witnesses to the truth of what it means to be pressed to the ground and rise again.

The light we gain in darkness is faith. Faith is our light.  United Church of Christ pastor Mark Longhurst describes how both light and dark are essential for transformation. The light and the darkness are bound up with one another. Periods of seemingly fruitless darkness may in fact highlight all the ways we rob ourselves of wisdom by clinging to the light. Who grows by only looking on the bright side of things? It is only when we lose our certainties that we become able to see past false images of God to discover the grace operating beneath all our self-serving fantasies and fears. (Mark Longhurst, “Beyond Light Supremacy: Let There Be Light *and* Darkness,” Patheos, 10-11-19).

The terrible, disorienting experience of Exile opened the hearts of God’s people wide enough some of them became able to recognize the Messiah even when hanging on a cross. It made some of them ready to live into the radical reality of God’s ubiquitous grace.  One of them was John the Baptist. Like Isaiah, he also speaks to us today about a tree stump This time, it is God doing the chopping to make way for the kingdom. “Even now the axe is lying against the root of the trees” (Matthew 3:10). What kind of kingdom you ask?  The peaceable kingdom, like the one Isaiah described.

“John planted himself in the middle of nowhere.  He set up shop in the wilderness, and anyone who wanted to hear what he had to say had to go to a lot of trouble to get there…” and not just trouble, but plenty of danger too.  (Barbara Brown Taylor) To hear him preach about repentance and baptism, a pilgrim from Jerusalem had to take that treacherous Jericho road, made famous in the parable of the Good Samaritan.  They had to trek through blazing desert, carrying all their own food and water, traversing hills and lonely canyons infested with bandits to Jericho and then beyond—to the wilderness beside the Jordan far away from everything.

Ask yourself.  Who would make such a journey?  Who would risk it?  Who would be so desperate?  Many who went out to see John had nothing left to lose. Their lives counted for very little.  They had lost hope in building a life for themselves. They went to the desert in search of a little peace. They returned to become midwives of a new creation of impossible possibilities.

Often God’s little ones are the first to hear the angels or to follow the leading star. The people who flocked to hear John the Baptist were people on the margins, outcasts, thieves, and sinners—and right behind them came a second group of people—those sent out to keep tabs on the people who lived on the margins, to be sure things didn’t get out of hand.

That sets the scene of our gospel today.  John announces the Lord’s coming.  He calls the religious leaders a brood of vipers. He speaks of fiery judgment, and of wrath to come.  Clearly, John the Baptist didn’t get the memo about wishing everyone a very merry Christmas.

John’s Baptism of fire is bad news to those in authority and anyone peddling Christmas like a commodity, but good news to the poor, the grieving, the victims of violence, those who suffer injustice, and anyone longing for the kingdom of God.

Isaiah’s dream and John’s baptism are impossibly good news for everyone.  Isaiah and John boldly declare God’s peaceable kingdom is closer than we realize. The old ways are passing away. Even now, God is bringing something new out of the old, making what was impossible possible.  A shoot is growing from the dead stump of Jesse.  Death gives way to life. John and Isaiah expose the upside-down dreams our so-called common sense is built on and awaken us being part of God’s dream for this world following the light God has placed deep within us, the light only darkness can reveal, the light we call faith.

Easter Darkness

Alleluia! Christ is risen (Christ is risen indeed, alleluia!) Yet that first Easter morning, despite the fresh bloom of early spring, everything looked dead. Mary Magdalene and the women made their way to the tomb at early dawn.  As they did, the ribbons of color spreading through the eastern sky were not beautiful. The budding garden was not fragrant. The singing birds could not be heard. As the women went to the tomb their minds were shrouded in the grey colors of grief, their voices were hushed by the crushing weight of despair.

While the natural world throughout the Northern hemisphere testified to the promise of new life, neither these women, nor anyone else, expected anything but death. Bodies go into the ground and stay there. Springtime comes to grass, trees, and living things, not to bodies lying in the grave.

Regardless of what Jesus had told them—that he would die, and on the third day, rise again—Mary Magdalene, the women who accompanied her, and the rest of Jesus’ followers, still lived in a Good Friday world.

While we greeted Easter last night and this morning with jubilation and trumpets, we are confronted here with something quieter, more mysterious, and perhaps more resonant with our own daily lives.  It is what pastor and author Frederick Buechner has called “the darkness of the resurrection itself, that morning when it was hard to be sure what you were seeing.” While the benefit of two thousand years of hindsight have informed our Easter acclamations, what we read from the Gospels is that the first disciples stumbled in the half-light on that third day after Jesus’s crucifixion, confused and afraid. Where was the stone? Were those angels standing beside them in that unlit tomb? And where was Jesus? Are they sure the tomb is really empty?

It was “…the first day of the week, at early dawn” (Luke 24:1). That’s when Easter really begins. “It begins in darkness. It begins amidst fear, bewilderment, pain, and a profound loss of certainty.” The creeds and clarifications we cherish today would come much later. What came first were variations on a theme that sound a lot as if they come from our own lives—like a woman I heard sing about Jesus last Tuesday at the Synod Chrism Mass who struggles with cancer and must carry her own oxygen—or like another woman I visit who testifies to the power of God from her sagging nursing home bed. Easter is what happens when ordinary people brush up against an extraordinary God.  Easter looks like people of a  broken, hungry humanity encounter a bizarre and inexplicable Love in the half-light of dawn. (Debie Thomas, I Have Seen the Lord, April 14, 2019)

Theologian and writer Chris Barnes reminds us what actually matters during Holy Week: “The question that Easter asks of us is not, ‘Do we believe in the doctrine of the resurrection?’ Frankly, that is not particularly hard. What the Gospels ask is not, ‘Do you believe?’ but ‘Have you encountered the risen Christ?’”

Our gospels tell the stories of individual people having profoundly individual encounters with Christ. These encounters are not identical. Last night we read when Peter saw the empty tomb, he ran away and returned to his home. When the beloved disciple saw it, he believed but did not understand When Mary saw it, she ran to tell the disciples who dismissed her words as an idle tail. In other words, we come to the empty tomb as ourselves, for better or worse. The question is not, and never was, “Why should people in general believe?” but rather, “Why doyou believe? How has the risen Christ revealed himself to you?”

Easter comes like a lamb before wolves, with a word to shatter hard won common sense. Easter comes like a dove into our Good Friday world.  It is a dog-eat-dog dog; only the strong survive; white makes right; if you want peace prepare for war world.  But here comes Easter, telling its idle tales again.  Easter promises what we heard today from the prophet Isaiah, God is doing a new thing: a new heaven and a new earth. “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” No longer must we consume one another to survive in this new world.

Easter says hope never dies.  Easter says all your tomorrows can be different from your yesterdays.  Easter says life is stronger than death; light conquers darkness.  Here comes Easter singing a simple song about God’s grace.

Easter isn’t about one man’s death and one man’s rising.  It is a claim about the undying life we all share because of the unconditional reality and claim of God’s grace to embrace our lives and not let go.  The test of the Christian message of resurrection, therefore, is not what happened in the tomb, but is the capacity of grace to break through our Good Friday’s and with the fresh springtime of Easter.

Easter does not a return to the past but moves toward the future. When our false expectations, flawed speculations, wrong theologies, or hateful ideologies become a like a wall separating us from grace and each other, God’s Easter is going to break through that wall.

Since ancient times Christians have called Easter the “first day.” From Easter comes our practice of worshiping on Sunday morning. It is the first day of the week. It is also the first day of a new creation, sometimes called the “eighth day”, because on it Christ restored the image of God in humankind and in so doing also brought restoration and renewal to all creation. We are an Easter people. We are a new creation through the gift of God’s grace revealed to us in Christ Jesus.

Of all the things Easter promises this may be the most preposterous—that we are now members of the resurrected body of Christ.  Within you are seeds of hope to renew the hope of the whole world. The cross reveals the depths of cruelty, violence, and immorality to which we can sink, at the very same time it marks the path God has opened to the way forward. The cross is a Tree of Life offering healing for the nations.  “Now all the vault of heaven resounds in praise of love that still abounds. Christ has triumphed! He is living! Alleluia” (ELW #367).