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December 17, 2006 | 6:30 p.m.
The Point of It All
John H. Boyle
Parish Associate, Fourth Presbyterian Church
In a recent New York Times Magazine article about intelligence spying by our government, the observation was made that “The problem facing intelligence agencies today is not gathering information—it’s finding that valuable tip in a glut of chatter” (December 3, 2006, p. 6).
That about describes the way things are for many of us, and especially during these hectic holidays. I am reminded of the youngster who had trouble pronouncing the word “trespasses,” so that when he prayed The Lord’s Prayer, he said, “Forgive us our Christmases as we forgive those who Christmas against us.” These hectic days lead up to so-called holy days when the mundane and the mysterious come together at a crude manger, a fodder box for animals, in a little town we know as Bethlehem of Judea. Lots of chatter, lots of noise. Lots of sensory bombardment and overload. Lots of talking heads responding to this report and that remark, all with their own viewpoints and most convinced that theirs is the correct view.
All the while the world continues to spin (some would say out of control), so that no matter where you might put your finger on that spinning globe, the chances are you do so on a place in the world where another kind of glut would be the order of the day—the glut of violence, war, genocide, poverty, hunger, torture, oppression, drought, floods, earthquakes, wind, and fire. And preceding this glut and in the aftermath of this glut, there is another glut—the glut of broken bodies, broken spirits, broken hopes and dreams, broken hearts, broken relationships, and broken promises.
My life began just a few years before the Great Depression of the late 1920s and early 1930s. I remember the bread lines. Echoes of World War I were still in the air and in the stories my father told me of his experiences in the U.S. Navy during that war. It wasn’t long before I had my own stories to tell of my experiences of combat in Europe during a second world war. When that war ended in 1945, we had little time to catch our breath before we were caught up in the Korean War of the 1950s. Then in the ’60s and ’70s there was the debacle of Vietnam, riots and fires and police brutality on the streets of America. Before long the Gulf War known as Desert Storm in Iraq seemed to restore faith in the military and talk of a good war. Then came 9/11 in 2001 and we were soon embarked upon the war on terrorists, in Afghanistan, to be soon followed by another war in Iraq to topple a dictatorship said to be backing the terrorists. Now we are bogged down in that war in what seems to many to be a never-ending quagmire of death and destruction.
Even though we are aware that during these decades many magnificent and wonderful things occurred to contribute to and to enhance the well-being of multitudes here and abroad, we are nevertheless reminded by journalist Chris Hedges that during the course of the world’s recorded history, there have been only a handful of years during which there was not at least one war going on in some part of the world.
So, against the backdrop of the history of world carnage, when it comes to this season of Advent and Christmastide with all its attendant excess, glitz, consumerism, religious pageantry, art and lofty music, interfaith tensions regarding religious displays in the public sector, and the efforts of many to “Keep Christ in Christmas,” to do something to keep alive what to them is the meaning of it all, we may find ourselves wondering what is the point of it all, what is that valuable tip in the glut of chatter, to say nothing of the noise of war and the sounds of suffering.
It was not that different in the time of the prophet Zephaniah or that of the letter writer Paul or that of the gospel writer Luke. A lot of awful things were happening to an awful lot of people. What is rampant in the world today of human suffering, oppression, bondage, and heartache, was rampant in the world then, where some waited for salvation in the form of the one who was to be the Messiah of God, and where others dared to believe that a man named Jesus was the one for whom they had been waiting.
For me Advent has come to mean an invitation to adventure, a coming toward something new, a new something coming toward me. Initially it meant the promise of liberation from tyranny and oppression and, by extension, liberation from the bondage of sin, from fear of the future, and from the idolatry of the past.
It is an adventure in waiting with patience, something many of us have difficulty doing. We can wait in doubt. We can wait in dread. Or we can learn to wait in lope or with a sense of hopefulness in the possibility that regardless of what may happen, something new and edifying will come our way, not in the absence of doubt and difficulty, but in the midst of them.
It is an adventure in watching with anticipation and expectancy, and a willingness to look for the signs of God’s presence and intimations of God’s grace, not only in the peak experiences of our lives but in the ordinary and pedestrian and sometimes drudgery-laden events of our lives, where least expected and often overlooked.
It is an adventure in wondering in awe and reverence before life’s mysteries, and in pondering and reflecting upon the paradoxical nature of light in the midst of darkness, love in the midst of hatred and violence, faith in the midst of doubt and fear, and joy in the midst of sorrow. Sometimes such wondering and pondering is best done in silence, something else that many of us find it hard to tolerate. I was startled when last Sunday’s Chicago Tribune was delivered to me in a plastic sleeve which had emblazoned upon it an advertisement by a well-known cell phone company heralding a new unlimited night calling service under the heading, “The Power to Eliminate Silent Nights.” As they say on Nightline, “It’s a sign of the times.”
Yet, sometimes it is in the silences in our lives that we can hear the most and hear it most clearly. Sometimes it is in the seeming silence of God that we can best hear God’s still, small voice.
Where then does the adventure of Advent lead me? I am led, first of all, to the message of the prophet Zephaniah’s Song of Joy. I am led to the promise of God’s presence. “The Lord is in your midst.” “God is in your midst.” The prophet declares it more than once, as if to drive home the point. Then he tops it off by proclaiming that God “will bring you home.” However, all this reassurance about God being in the midst was preceded by the declaration of the Day of the Lord, a time of judgment and wrath, not only upon the enemies of Judah, but upon the people of Judah as well who had allowed themselves to be seduced into worshipping the pagan gods of Assyria whose power was rapidly expanding in the region and those of the barbarian Scythians who were overrunning Palestine.
Nevertheless, Zephaniah asserts that God is in the midst of them. God is in the midst of their problems and in the midst of their perversity. God is in the midst of their suffering and in the midst of their sinfulness. Not in the absence of these conditions of their humanness but in the midst of them and in spite of them.
The idea of God’s presence with me is one with which I sometimes have great difficulty because I don’t always feel God’s presence. Furthermore, I am not always sure I want God hanging around me. God and religious faith can provide us with consolation but at times may bring suffocation. But I have learned over time that though my feelings are real, they are not always an accurate guide to reality, especially to the faith reality of God’s presence and God’s love. At such times it becomes important for me to keep focused on faith in the reality of God’s presence in my life, even when I don’t feel God’s presence. God is closer to us when God seems most far away. God doesn’t move: we do.
God is in the midst of the church as well, even when it is at its worst, brimming with abuse and hypocrisy and in danger of losing its soul. Over fifty years ago, early in my ministry, I attended an ecumenical convention of Christians of various stripes from over forty countries throughout the world. In a stirring sermon on “The Marks of the Church,” Dr. M. E. Aubrey of London had this to say:
Do you hear people say that “the Church is in danger?” Well, of course it is in danger. That is where Christ meant it to be. It is only when it seems safe we need begin to fear. It is in danger, but it is not doomed. . . . Christ saw the Church as it would be, but loved it as it was, and gave His life for it. If it were good enough for him to die for, it is good enough for us to live for. . . . The Church of Christ remains, built on the rock of truth and love. It lives still, not because of what we are but . . . because of what He is, Christ in the midst.
The adventure of Advent leads me also to God’s promise of the peace of Christ. It was this reassurance that the apostle Paul sought to bring to the Christians in Philippi, with his words about rejoicing in the Lord, not worrying about anything, and making their requests known to God in prayer with thanksgiving.
Again, I’m not always in the mood to rejoice in much of anything, much less in the Lord. And when I am more aware of and focused on what I don’t have and what I have lost, than on what I have left that can be enhanced, enriched, and put to good use, there is precious little thanksgiving that I’ll be able to muster. But if I dare to make that attitudinal shift from what I don’t have to what I do have, even though it may be only five loaves and two fish, a shift from what I have lost to what I have left, I find a certain serenity that can nurture silence in my noisy heart. It is the peace of Christ that stands guard over my aching heart and troubled mind, reminding me that I am safe and secure in the love of God, a love that will never let me go. For it is not in our hold upon God that we find security but in God’s strong hold upon us. As the words of a gospel chorus I remember singing in church school as a lad put it, simply yet profoundly:
Safe am I, Safe am I
in the hollow of His hand.
Sheltered o’er, sheltered o’er
with His love forevermore.
No ill can harm me, no foe alarm me,
for He keeps both day and night.
Safe am I, safe am I
in the hollow of His hand.
Finally, the adventure of Advent leads me to God’s purpose in the world and to my participation in that purpose. “What should we do?” they asked John the Baptizer, after he had laid it on the line with them, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” and telling them to clean up their act in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. What should we do? Well, to begin with, said John, give to the poor and the hungry, don’t cheat others, and don’t exploit others. That would be good for openers, said John. In other words, quit being so self-absorbed and begin to look for ways to serve not just yourselves but others: the least, the last, the lost, the lonely, and the left out, who live in deserts of drought and in the alleys and on the back wards of the world. For the Messiah comes not to be served, but to serve and to give himself as a ransom for many.
The Advent, the coming of Christ, means that the price tags on our priorities are changed. The “needless mark-up” of things like war, munitions, pharmaceuticals, to say nothing of celebrity status and glitz, and the ever increasing gap between those who have and those who don’t, are now reversed, and the things that have been marked down as being of lesser value, like the plight of the hungry and the poor, the suffering of victims of genocide and AIDS, and adequate education and health care for all, are now to be hot ticket items. Or at least they are in God’s book.
Advent means that God comes to us and through us to others, in every act of kindness done, in every case of justice won, and in every work of peace begun.
But the essence of Advent and Christmastide is captured for me in a story out of the life of Alexander Maclaren, renowned Scottish preacher of over a century ago. He tells how as a young lad he got his first job in the city of Glasgow, some distance from his home on the other side of the dark and forbidding terrain known as the moor. His father had walked with him to his work on that first day and instructed him to return home the same way when his work week ended. All week long young Alex worried about having to traverse that ghostly moor. When the time came to do so he was in a state bordering on panic. Nevertheless, he started out, whistling to keep up his courage while tears of fear and foreboding flowed down his face.
Years later, describing this event, Maclaren wrote something to this effect: “I was so frightened that I did not know whether I could go on. Then, as I looked up ahead of me, I thought I saw something or someone coming toward me. I became even more terrified. Until suddenly I saw before me coming out of the bog mist and fog the head and shoulders of the grandest man on earth. He must have known I was frightened, but all he said to me was, “Alex, I wanted to be with you so badly that I came to meet you.” Then, shoulder to shoulder, my father and I walked down into that bog, and I wasn’t afraid of anything anymore.”
Advent and Christmas tells me that God wanted to be with us so badly that in the person of Jesus Christ God came to meet us, and we don’t have to be ultimately afraid anymore. Tonight, once again, God continues to come to meet us now in the bread and the cup of this table before us, a table of memory and hope. God comes to us to be with us in the midst of life’s sometime crushing load, to bring us and all people everywhere the peace of Jesus Christ and the grace of God’s forgiveness, and to call us to be disciples of the Lord, healing, teaching, and reclaiming, serving God by loving all. For me that’s the valuable tip in the glut of chatter. It’s the point of it all. Amen.