Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas: God Pulls a Fast One

Have you ever noticed how people get absolutely goofy around babies? One small baby in a group of otherwise sane adults and something happens. The center of attention is immediately diverted from everything else and usually articulate, serious people are reduced to making odd faces, strange noises and fighting over who gets to hold the baby. There is something deep and primal that pulls people towards the vulnerability of an infant. Perhaps it is a sense of hope, maybe innocence or possibility contained in such a small and fragile package. Whatever it is about babies is clearly compelling.

So perhaps that is why God chose to enter into human reality as a baby. It is an unexpected message. All during Advent we had powerful readings with an apocalyptic sensibility: wake up! listen! God is coming! repent! The prophets speak of a radical new cosmic order. John the Baptist thunders out in the desert. It is clear that God is coming to turn the world upside down. But then what happens? Where is the thunder, the upheaval, our God coming from on high with power and might?

Instead, as the climax of all these readings we get a baby. A helpless baby born to an unwed mother, in an occupied country, laid in straw in a barn. Once we are (hopefully) prepared, listening, paying attention, God pulls a fast one on us. God doesn’t get us to pay attention by hitting us upside the head, God gets us to pay attention by appealing to our most basic, our best, our most human instincts. The divine comes into our lives as a baby. God comes in vulnerability.

What would it mean if we were to really pay attention to this unexpected message, if we were to treat the presence of God in the world as we would a baby? The message of Christmas is that Jesus was born into history, into time, but the message is also that the divine is being still being born into our world today. And the divine presence is still vulnerable, still fragile, in need of care and nurture.

Look at yourself in the mirror. Look at someone you know, someone you care about deeply, or someone you dislike. You, the person you love, the person you hate, each of you carries the image of God. Each of you were created in God’s image. Each of us carries the vulnerable presence of God in the world. Christmas says that God isn’t somewhere far away, detached, completely removed from human reality. Christmas says that God has come here in our midst and shares our reality. God has come into the depths of the human experience as an infant.

But today as on the first Christmas many of us will fail to recognize the divine presence in its unexpected package. Perhaps this is the source of so much suffering and evil in the world. We know that babies are deeply shaped and formed or malformed by how they are treated. Abuse, neglect, violence in formative years will create lifelong scars that will take years of hard work to heal. To fail to cherish and nurture a baby is to do violence to that new life. In the same way if we do no not recognize the vulnerable, fragile, divine spark that is the meaning of the incarnation, why do we wonder at the broken state of our world?

So today is Christmas but every day is Christmas. The message of that day 2000 years ago is that God shares our human nature. God became an infant. God continues to share our humanity and we continue to be made in God’s image. Here and now the incarnation means that God comes in vulnerability. For the world to be made anew the divine presence in each of us must be protected, nurtured, strengthened. The divine child is in our midst, how will we treat it?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Who Is Shouting At Us?

Who is this scruffy, odd, unkempt maniac who keeps shouting at us? In the first weeks of Advent John the Baptist seems to be everywhere in the Gospel readings. From the story of his birth to his encounter with Jesus at the Jordan there is something odd and disturbing about John. I have to confess that I have tended to skip over the accounts of John, wanting to get to the “good stuff” the real story, the coming of Jesus. But I suspect that on some level I want to ignore John the Baptist because of what he represents.

John the Baptist is more than a historical figure in the drama of salvation, he is more than a literary device to lead up to the birth of Jesus. John is also the voice of the strange, the unexpected, the rejected that shouts in our face and pulls the rug out from under our lives of comfortable complacency. John the Baptist lives deep in our souls, beneath our consciousness, in the dark places we would rather not go, proclaiming the things we don’t want to hear.

Everything about John strips bare the illusion that we know how things work. John heralds a new order in which nothing is predictable, nothing happens the way it is supposed to. John heralds the coming of God who will set the world upside down.

It is no coincidence that John’s birth was unexpected by human standards. Old, barren women don’t give birth. They don’t give birth years after such a thing was deemed impossible. Few of us had our birth heralded by an angel; our fathers were not struck dumb at the announcement of our birth. Everything about this birth shouts: “sit up! pay attention! look! something new is happening!”

After his birth John continues to do the unexpected. He lives in the wilderness, eating and clothed like an animal. The wilderness, the place where he chooses to live, is the place of demons, the place of danger and death. But since this is Scripture there is an inherent paradox here. The desert, the place that people associated with death, demons and danger becomes the place where the announcement of salvation comes from. In other words don’t look for the announcement of God’s coming to emanate from the places of established religion, comfortable faith and clear answers, look to the desert, to the darkness, to the place of fear, that is where the announcement of new life will come from.

So what is the figure of John the Baptist that dwells deep in our inner being, the feared and rejected part of ourselves that stands up and shouts about the coming of the new order? What parts of ourselves do we want to keep in the desert, keep in our deep inner closet and never open the door?

John the Baptist is the shouter, the doubter, the rejecter of social norms, the fearless wild man. John is the one who says that our God has not been domesticated, cannot be put in the box of our expectations. John lurks in our hearts and pokes us viciously when faith becomes easy or judgmental or simply routine and dull. John is the voice that grates like sandpaper and says there is more to faith than a dutiful hour on Sunday. John is the deep suspicion of cheap grace and facile sacraments.

But John is also the one who welcomes the parts of ourselves who are like the crowds who came to see him. There on the shore waiting for baptism are our shame, our fear, our anger, our hurt, our sense of rejection and inadequacy. The message and ministry of John the Baptist says that these rejected and marginal parts of ourselves are simply waiting to be embraced by God, the difficult parts of ourselves that will lead us to God. Faced and embraced our fear will become prudence and discretion. Our anger will be channeled into energy for building the Reign of God. Invited into the light of love our shame, rejection and inadequacy become the deep humility that creates room for God.

Listen! Do you hear him? Look! Do you see him? There on the margins, in the corners, in the wilderness of our hearts John the Baptist continues to shout and interrupt our pleasant lives. Today is the coming of God. Today is the coming of new life.