Tuesday, December 12, 2017

A Song Beyond Comparison - An Advent Sermon

Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.

The Christian Calendar begins with Advent, a season in which we’re invited to entertain the possibility of an alternative reality, an alternative reality that subverts life as we know it. The Calendar doesn’t start with a conference, or a seminar, or a discipleship intensive – the downloading of facts and certitudes, doctrines and truths. It starts with an invitation to imagine other possibilities; new possibilities. This is significant because this whole “following Jesus” thing is about new possibilities. Newness of life, new ways of living, God declaring through Isaiah – “Behold, I am making all things new.”

We’re not always quick to embrace the “new” though. Often it is only in a slower process of re-imaging things that we find an openness to some new possibility begins to come alive. Most of us linger in wistfulness as we consider and re-consider alternative ways of being and alternative ways of arranging our lives. Alternative understandings, newness that is demanded of us, is more likely to shut us down and put us on the defensive; we start to defend the old and resist the new – we even start to resist the idea that there could be anything “new.” Thus ultimately, we’re not taught “into” something new, we’re “imagined” into something new. This is why the best teachers are not those who can explain a subject with great clarity, but those you can capture the imagination of students in regard to the subject at hand.

The Christian Calendar, an annual cycle-of-discipleship based on the life of Jesus, understands this, and begins with a season designed to capture your imagination. We don’t begin with teachings of Jesus, not the miracles of Jesus, certainly not the Cross – that’s a surprising part of the story that comes later. We begin with the excitement and anticipation that God is up to something new in the world, something never seen before, a Messiah, a Christ, a Saviour is coming. And his name will be Jesus and he’ll save people from sin. Imagine that!

This is a challenging idea for those that aren’t very imaginative.

Years ago, some friends and I were at the movies watching the first installment of the long-awaited Lord of the Rings trilogy. The movie closes with Fordo and Samwise in their canoe paddling to the far side of a river. Off they go, all by themselves, carrying the Ring of Power to Mount Doom. In a silent theatre with the closing credits rolling, a friend up mine pipes up; “That could never happen in real life!”

“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). “That could never happen in real life!” Or, as John puts it, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” (1:14). That could never happen in real life!” Or, as Luke puts it, (with angels singing to shepherds), Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” (2:14).

Could these sorts of things happen in real life?

In our Gospel reading, Joseph has his doubts, of course he does. He has it in mind to quietly and respectfully call off the marriage – a baby conceived by the will of God. “Yep, of course Mary – wink, wink, nod, nod, say no more, say no more.” But then, he has a dream, where an angel speaks to him, tells him its true, all of it. The child will be the Saviour, the one who rescues people from their sins. This is all out of the box, this is something new, but Joseph is open to this newness and takes Mary as his wife.

Sometimes it feels it would be easier to cope with the uncomfortable known than imagine that something genuinely “other” could happen. Sometimes it is easier to imagine things could never change, that’s easier to cope with at times. What we know, even the pain and hurt, can at times be comforting. Imagining Mary had been unfaithful and calling everything off, surely that wouldn’t be as painful as embracing this risky new thing? A virgin birth? The Son of God?

If we can imagine something other than what is, we tend to imagine only a “hyper” version of reality, not an “alternative” version of reality. But this is a failure of imagination. We imagine our lives being turned around because we win lotto – we imagine all the things we would do and could do if our numbers come up and we win the $36 million-dollar power ball – Christmas come! Here though, the world doesn’t change, rather you simply get to place all of your trust in the power of money to turn your life around, rather than trusting in the power of God to make all things new!

This is also why a popular understanding of eternity, rather than a biblical understanding, is ultimately a failure of imagination. Because it doesn’t imagine this world renewed and restored and healed, it imagines another world, a “hyper” version of this world with mansions and crowns for everyone and streets paved with gold in a pearly gate – eternity in a safe and secure gated community. This is little more than a super-sized, upgraded, “hyper world” – birthed in escapism, materialism and consumerism rather than in a biblical vision of a renewed cosmos.

Advent is a season where we are invited to re-imagine the world through the eyes of God. To allow something other, something from elsewhere, from outside of ourselves, outside of the plausibility structures of the world – to capture our imagination and offer an “alternative” vision for the world as we know it. God’s vision for this world.

Paradoxically though, this doesn’t mean we need to look elsewhere or look far off – through a telescope to the edges of the universe, for something distant. Rather, we need to look deeply into the recesses of our own hearts, for the aches, the longings, the hopes we have as humans for a world of peace and joy, that are birthed of God. Hopes that we all carry, though they are easily lost under the baggage of sin and death. Hidden because of pain or heartache, or disappointment and loss, maybe great poverty gets in the way, or maybe great wealth – we can lose sight of God’s vision for this world for many reasons.

Deep down though, I think faith, hope and love is always desperate to spring to life. And, it seems to me, that in the countdown to Christmas, this is a more palatable possibility than any other time of the year.

In The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis, Digory and Polly, Uncle Andrew, the Cabby and the evil witch Jadis, find themselves present at “the founding of Narnia” where Aslan’s sings the world into being; it’s described as “a song beyond comparison.” It’s a magnificent scene. At one-point, Aslan selects animals to be the walking, talking, animated, stewards of Narnia. Digory and Polly are awestruck when they hear the animals talking to each other and Aslan – it's positively magical.

The Cabby on seeing everything unfold comments; "Glory be! I'd ha' been a better man all my life if I'd known there were things like this." Uncle Andrew sees things quite differently though, he wasn’t awestruck.

Lewis writes: For what you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing: it also depends on what sort of person you are. Ever since the animals had first appeared, Uncle Andrew had been shrinking further and further back into the thicket. He watched them very hard of course; but he wasn't really interested in seeing what they were doing, only in seeing whether they were going to make a rush at him. Like the Witch, he was dreadfully practical. He simply didn't notice that that Aslan was choosing one pair out of every kind of beasts. All he saw, or thought he saw, was a lot of dangerous wild animals walking vaguely about. And he kept on wondering why the other animals didn't run away from the big Lion. 

When the great moment came and the Beasts spoke, he missed the whole point; for a rather interesting reason. When the Lion had first begun singing, long ago when it was quite dark, he had realized that the noise was a song. And he had disliked the song very much. It had made him think and feel things he did not want to think and feel. Then when the sun rose, and he saw that the singer was a lion ("only a lion," as he said to himself), he tried his hardest to make believe that it wasn't singing and never had been singing - only roaring as any lion might in a zoo in our own world.

And so, when at last the Lion spoke and said, “Narnia awake,” he didn’t hear any words: he heard only a snarl. And when the Beasts spoke in answer, he heard only barkings, growlings, baying, and howlings. And when they laughed – well, you can imagine. That was worse for Uncle Andrew than anything that had happened yet. Such a horrid, bloodthirsty din of hungry and angry brutes he had never heard in his life.

Uncle Andrew missed the magic. He was all too practical. As Digory puts it earlier in the story; “Grown-ups are always thinking of uninteresting explanations.”

At Christmas time there is a certain “magic” in the air that is hard to miss, but, it’s not impossible to miss. If one wants to you can come up with uninteresting explanations and right Christmas off as consumerism, pressure and commercialization. It’s all just noise, barkings, growlings, baying and howling. Like Uncle Andrew, you can avoid thinking and feeling things you don’t want to think and feel.

But, if one pays attention, you can tune into the magic, the deeper longing embedded within the core of the whole vast Christmas industry, and if you listen carefully enough, discover that there is still a “song beyond comparison” being sung. Trees are decorated, Christmas movies are watched, Christmas lights are set up, gifts are bought and wrapped, cards are written, soldiers fighting pause to play soccer and share cigarettes, even those with only a little do what that can to give to others – ultimately because faith, hope and love still desperately wants to spring to life and is stirring people’s hearts.

While some find it easy to dismiss God, a novel idea, a myth, a theory of everything; dismissing Christmas isn’t so easy. Luther and Nora Krank try to do this in the movie, Christmas with the Kranks, it’s not so easy. Christmas is all-encompassing.

To dismiss Christmas is to dismiss a part of ourselves, it’s to dismiss some of the most wonderful and some of the most enduring aspects of our childhood, and at the same time, some of the most fragile aspects as well (the hopes and fears of all the years, the tears and the laughter). In one sense it is to dismiss the child that still lives inside each of us. To dismiss Christmas is to dismiss the sense that there is more to life than the ordinary and the mundane, that life is also somehow mysterious and magical. It’s to dismiss the possibility that reindeer really know how to fly.

It’s to dismiss that leap in your heart as you wake to another morning only to quickly remember that it isn’t another morning at all – it is a morning as different to any other morning as you can get. And, in doing so, it’s to dismiss the possibility that some way, somehow, someday – this once a year Christmas feeling, could actually become an every day of the year feeling. It’s to dismiss the idea that peace on earth and goodwill to all – might actually be possible.

Which, whether we realize it or not, or accept it or not, is to dismiss the idea that Jesus Christ is actually Emmanuel, God with us, the one who will save us from our sins and make all things new.

How is this all going to happen? How can a baby, born in a manger, be the beginning of some whole new thing that God is doing? Well, that’s the story that unfolds in Epiphany and Lent and Easter and isn’t the issue at this stage of the story. For now, in Advent, the invitation is to re-imagine this world turned right-side-up. And to embrace all of the excitement, anticipation, risk and fear that comes with daring to imagine such a thing.

It’s to imagine new possibilities for your life over the next 12 months.

That, in our lives and in the world – pain and heartache could find healing, that anxiety and worry could fade away, that waring and fighting could give way to peace, that disappointment and heartache could become joy and laughter, that faith, hope and love can actually spring to life. It is an invitation to re-imagine this world and to tune into a song beyond comparison that is being sung today. A song of heaven that still plays in the quiet of our hearts today.

Living God, I pray for my brothers and sisters,
May they know your presence in this season of possibility.
Give them the ability to see as you see – to re-imagine this world
As one made new, reconciled and restored.
Give them a heart that is obedient,
A faith that is kingdom-focused and a love that is neighbourly.
Awaken them to your song, a song beyond comparison
A song that is being sung today.
Act in us, through us, and beyond us,
That we might see a weary world rejoicing.
As we go this morning, may we go in
The grace of the Father
The love of the Son
And the comfort of the Holy Spirit.

Thanks to C.S.Lewis for The Magicians Newphew, Frederick Buechner, Barbara Brown-Taylor and Walter Brueggemann, for shaping elements of the above. 

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