Sunday, December 28, 2014
Readings: Genesis15:1-6, 21:1-3; Hebrews11:8, 11-12, 17-19; Luke 2:22-40
Abraham was already an old man when God called him.
At seventy-five, he probably thought himself
well past his sell-by date.
Yet God called him forth from his homeland
and promised that he and his wife Sarah,
who had been childless for many decades,
would have descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky.
It seemed an unlikely scenario,
but, as the letter to the Hebrews tells us,
“he thought that the one
who had made the promise was trustworthy.”
He had faith in God’s promise,
and from him and Sarah
came forth the nation
into which Jesus Christ was born.
Simeon also was an old man
who had received God’s promise:
in this case the promise
was that he would not die
before seeing God’s anointed,
the one who would fulfill the promise
that God made to Abraham and his descendants
that through them all the families of the world
would be blessed.
He lived in hope,
as he grew weary and weak with the years.
Yet his weariness did not prevent God’s Spirit
from leading him to the Temple in Jerusalem
on the day that Mary and Joseph brought Jesus there
to offer the sacrifice of redemption for their firstborn.
His weariness did not prevent the Spirit
from giving him eyes of faith,
with which to recognize in the Christ child
the one for whom he and his people
had waited for so many years.
Anna the prophetess had, like Simeon,
grown old in God’s service.
We might imagine the grief she felt
when she was widowed after only seven years of marriage,
grief that led her to seek solace and hope in God.
At eighty-four, Luke tells us,
she never left the Temple area,
but led a life of fasting and prayer.
With her prophet’s eyes, she too, like Simeon,
recognized in the child Jesus
the arrival of God’s salvation
and she too offered up
a prayer of thanks to God.
So what is it with all these old people
in our readings today?
Isn’t Christmas about baby Jesus?
Isn’t it about something new, not something old?
Isn’t it about life that is just beginning,
not about life that is nearing its end?
So much of our celebration of Christmas
is tied up with images of childhood—
often highly sentimentalized and unrealistic images
of innocent, cherub-like tots
nestled all snug in their beds,
while visions of sugar-plums
dance in their heads.
So the presence on this feast of the Holy Family
of such emphatically old people
as Abraham and Simeon and Anna
can seem just a bit jarring.
This is particularly true in a culture like ours,
which seems to prize youth so highly
and to relegate the elderly to the margins,
seeing them as economically unproductive
and perhaps a discomfiting reminder of our own mortality.
Some even speak of those who are old and sick
as having “a duty to die”
so as not to drain resources
that could be used by the young
or burden them with their care.
And some elderly people internalize this way of thinking:
suffering from social isolation
imposed not only by their own infirmity,
but also by a culture that wants to hide them away,
they come to see their own lives as useless.
But this is not how God sees things.
God does not see age or weakness or infirmity,
but the potential of the human spirit
to be transformed and renewed by God’s Spirit
at every stage of life’s journey.
When God wanted to establish a people to be his own
he did not choose parents who were young and fertile,
but Abraham and Sarah:
old and barren—
as the letter to the Hebrews says, “as good as dead”—
yet fruitful in the hope of God’s promise of life.
When God wanted the Messiah’s arrival
heralded in God’s Temple
he did not choose fresh-faced prophets
who could relate to the young,
but Simeon and Anna:
sight failing with the passage of many years,
yet gifted with the eyes of faith
to recognize God’s salvation.
Where we may see only the infirmities of old age,
God sees disciples who are reborn in the Spirit
each and every day:
in God’s Spirit the eyes that have grown dim
can have the keenest of spiritual sight;
in God’s Spirit the body that is failing
can still show forth the glory of God,
even in its weakness.
The Holy Family of God’s people is, we might say,
a multi-generational family
in which young and old live together
within the household of the Church,
sharing with each other our unique gifts,
gifts that are bestowed on young and old alike.
When I think of my own parents,
of my elderly friends,
of parishioners here at Corpus Christi,
I think of the gifts of wisdom and experience
that age can bring.
But even more I think of the gift of the Spirit,
the Spirit that makes the young see visions
and the old dream dreams,
the Spirit whose love binds all of us—
young and old and in-between—
into one Holy Family of God.
May the prayers of Abraham and Sarah,
Simeon and Anna,
assist us as the Spirit works within us
to make us into a community
in which the gifts of all
are welcomed and valued.
Sunday, December 7, 2014
Readings: Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; 2 Peter 3:8-14; Mark 1:1-8
It’s the motto of the Boy Scouts,
so it must be good advice.
The founder of the Scouts, Robert Baden-Powell,
explained this motto back in 1908:
“Be prepared in mind by having disciplined yourself
to be obedient to every order,
and also by having thought out beforehand
any accident or situation that might occur,
so that you know the right thing to do at the right moment,
and are willing to do it.
Be prepared in body by making yourself strong and active
and able to do the right thing at the right moment, and do it.”
It might also be thought of as the motto of John the Baptist,
with whom St. Mark associates the prophetic words:
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”
Be prepared, so that you will know and do
the right thing at the right moment.
It is therefore surprising, perhaps,
that people in Jesus’s day
proved to be so thoroughly unprepared for him:
that when the right moment came—
that moment in human history
when God’s promise of comfort and salvation
was to be fulfilled—
almost no one was prepared to do the right thing.
In Mark’s Gospel in particular,
as we shall hear in our Sunday readings
over the course of the next year,
not only did the crowds and the religious leaders of the Jews
fail to do the right thing at the right moment,
but even Jesus’s closest followers,
even Peter who had confessed Jesus to be God’s anointed,
were unprepared when the moment of Christ’s passion came.
But perhaps we should not be surprised.
In the very first sentence of his Gospel,
Mark hints that the story he is about to tell
will be so strange,
that no one could have been prepared for it:
“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God.”
He first tells us that this story is “gospel”—“good news”—
which in the ancient world was a term used to denote
the announcement of a royal birth
or a victory in battle.
And then he tells us that this good news
concerns Jesus Christ, who is the Son of God:
one who shares the nature of God
in the way that a child shares
in the nature of his or her parent.
Perhaps after this opening
we should be prepared to hear a story
that is not like your typical story,
since it is, after all, the story of the Son of God.
But just when we have prepared ourselves
to hear a marvelous story
of the mighty deeds
and the triumphant victories
of the Son of God,
Mark proceeds to tell us a story
of misunderstanding and rejection,
a story of betrayal and abandonment,
a story of suffering and death,
and a mysterious message at an empty tomb.
Who would have predicted that the story of God’s Son
would take such a form?
Who could have possibly,
in the words of Robert Baden-Powell,
“thought out beforehand
any accident or situation that might occur”?
It seems that the point that Mark is making in his Gospel
is that no matter how much we prepare,
no matter how thoroughly
we think things out beforehand,
no matter how strong and active
we make ourselves,
we are never prepared for Jesus:
we are never prepared for the surprising story
of the eternal Son of God
who takes on the form of a servant
for us and for our salvation.
We are never prepared because we inevitably think
within our human categories,
according to our human notions
of what the right thing is
and when the right moment.
But Jesus comes precisely to overturn
those categories and notions:
to make us rethink
what we have thought out ahead of time,
to undermine our idea of what it means to be strong.
Yet Mark’s Gospel also bids us,
“prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”
Indeed, the Church gives us this season of Advent
as a time of preparation for the coming of Jesus.
So how do you prepare for the one who is
the one for whom you can never prepare?
Perhaps we prepare not by making plans,
but by making space.
Not by thinking things out ahead of time
but by opening a place in our hearts and minds
for the Word of God that comes to us in Jesus Christ.
Not by becoming strong and active,
but by making our hearts soft and pliable to God’s Spirit.
This is, of course,
the most difficult sort of preparation there is,
particularly in the season of frenetic activity
that leads up to Christmas.
But this is the challenge of Advent:
to clear some time in our busy lives,
to make some space in our crowded minds,
to prepare a way into our hearts
for the one for whom we can never prepare,
but who comes to us to shock us,
to surprise us,
to delight us with his love.