(I am captivated by and participating in the beauty of Port Alfred in this Christ Mass week and so too lazy to write a full Blog)
Here is my micro sketch of my sermon for Epiphany this Sunday.
I have been contemplating how the Magi contrast with the rash of arrogant religious Wise Guys out there at present. You know the people who have words from God for everyone and who have it all packaged and sealed. Real Wise Guys…..Ugh!
Seems to me the Magi were very different from the Christian Taliban.
They read and studied widely beyond their own culture.
They were prepared to go on a journey to discover truth.
They were discerning, and saw through Herod’s power play.
They were not too arrogant to bow the knee before mystery when they found it.
John 1:1-18 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
There is a spine chilling moment in Goethe’s Faust where Faust, the dry as dust academic in mid life, begins the play by bewailing:
Ah! Now I’ve done Philosophy, I’ve finished Law and Medicine, And sadly even Theology: Taken fierce pains, from end to end. Now here I am, a fool for sure! No wiser than I was before: Master, Doctor’s what they call me, And I’ve been ten years, already, Crosswise, arcing, to and fro, Leading my students by the nose, And see that we can know – nothing! It almost sets my heart burning. I’m cleverer than all these teachers, Doctors, Masters, scribes, preachers: I’m not plagued by doubt or scruple, Scared by neither Hell nor Devil – Instead all Joy is snatched away, What’s worth knowing, I can’t say, I can’t say what I should teach To make men better or convert each. And then I’ve neither goods nor gold, No worldly honour, or splendour hold: Not even a dog would play this part!
In desperation Faust decides to rewrite his life and begins with the Gospel of John:
It’s written here: ‘In the Beginning was the Word!’ Here I stick already! Who can help me? It’s absurd, Impossible, for me to rate the word so highly I must try to say it differently If I’m truly inspired by the Spirit. I find I’ve written here: ‘In the Beginning was the Mind’. Let me consider that first sentence, So my pen won’t run on in advance! Is it Mind that works and creates what’s ours? It should say: ‘In the beginning was the Power!’ Yet even while I write the words down, I’m warned: I’m no closer with these I’ve found. The Spirit helps me! I have it now, intact. And firmly write: ‘In the Beginning was the Act!’
(Goethe’s Faust Scene I &III)
At that very moment Mephistopheles the embodiment of evil, the shadow, the devil that stalks every one of us, enters the room disguised as a poodle (the very dog that Faust said wouldn’t play his part), and the game is on. Faust will live on trying to integrate all of his being in what remains of the second half of his life that he has extended in a bargain with the devil. All the time Faust is aware that if he fails, he stands to lose his soul. It is a dark deal. We know it well. We have made in myriad ways ourselves.
Robert Johnson that great explorer of the Golden world of the unconscious mind has described Faust as, “… one of the great statements of optimism, hope, and redemption in Western Literature” (Transformation: Understanding the Three Levels of Masculine Consciousness. Johnson, Harper Collins.1991)
It would seem that the dilemma of modern humans is that, like tired Faust, we have become sceptical of words, God knows, we have produced enough of them! (This from WordPress as I write “The best of 388,445 bloggers, 608,093 new posts, 352,786 comments, & 126,353,072 words posted today on WordPress.com.”)
We also have become doubtful of the ability to act in any way that will significantly integrate and heal the world through words or even deeds.
Like Faust we come on this Christ Mass day tired of words, and exhausted from our many acts. We drag ourselves away from Turkeys and Tinsel, Egg Nog and Alka-Seltzers and stumble into church not really expecting anything to happen here that will help or change anything.
We tell ourselves we have come for the children. That they should remember “the reason for the season,”. Now there is a hackneyed cliché if ever there was! Ho Ho Ho! I know of families where children are not permitted to open presents until they have been to church. What a terrible conditional religion!
So here we sit, exactly where we sat last year, and all the Gospel seems to have to offer is more words about Word. Every fibre of our exhausted minds wants to scream with Eliza Doolittle who in My Fair Lady sang, “Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words! I get words all day through; first from him, now from you!”
Do we want to rewrite things like Faust, In the beginning was the Mind, the Power, the Act?
Yet, what if we could get behind our verbage strewn present into the mind of the Gospel writer in his Hellenistic world we may discover that when he said Word(Logos), he didn’t mean the empty shells we have come to see words as, but rather understood that Mind, Power, Act and more were contained in that Logos that the Greek philosophers believed was the very core of Being in the Universe? The Word John writes of here is not an exhausted collection of letters, it is the very core of existence. Word(Logos) for the Greek mind was what the Higgs-Bosun (God Particle) is for ours
Could we perhaps attempt a modern day Faustian re-translation and say “In the beginning was the Life Energy”?
If we do we might get close to an understanding that enables us to take the truth of our religion into the Large Hadron Collider at CERN and say, “Here is God’s manger” and at the same time, fly up to Hubble’s lens and sensors and say, “Look as far as you can, and you are seeing just the interior of God’s Cosmic crib”
Like you, and Eliza, I am nauseated by the surfeit of words. So I need to stop this flow which is probably only adding to my toxic verbal footprint.
I will try to be succinct.
Imagine the biggest and smallest manifestations of life energy that you can.
Now imagine all of that appearing in the magic and mystery of a vulnerable human life.
Get that, and you get the greatest gift of the Christ Mass.
“The Life Energy of the Universe, became flesh just like us and camped out amongst us”
Faust spent his final years in simple joy, not writing, seldom speaking, merely reclaiming land from the sea. May all of us who come home to the indwelling Christ Word do the same.
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by processes. Perhaps it’s the fact that I grew up in gold mining towns where the headgear wheels were spinning, the metalurgical plant was roaring, and the tailings were clattering onto the waste dump. There was always something going on. Gold was coming out of the depths of the earth. Rich ore was graded as containing fourteen milligrams per ton of rock milled. Small returns for a lot of efffort. Yet gold, that elusive beguiling metal, was at one time the backbone of South Africa’s economy.
So I find processes, mining, metallurgical or monetary altogether fascinating.
As I read the Annunciation Gospel for this fourth Sunday of Advent, I discern a process in the unfolding of Mary’s story. For the past two weeks we have contemplated John the Baptizer as that archetype of the Christ follower. This week the other archetypal Christian Mary asks for our attention.
Where John was all barren wildness, Mary is innocence in encounter with the Creative Life of the Universe we call God. Here Incarnation happens and “the dwelling place of God is with people”. How does it happen?
There is no earth shattering explosions underground, no pounding and grinding of great mills, not even the fiery furnace of the alchemical gold extraction and pouring in the smelt house.
There is only a simple peasant girl saying, “yes” to an outrageous idea from God.
The Annunciation-Incarnation process seems to unfold in five stages for Mary:
Comfort. “Do not be afraid.”
Assurance. “You have found favour with God,”
Annunciation of the plan. “You are going to conceive and birth a God-child”
Questioning doubt. “How can this be?”
Agreement to partnership. “Let it be with me according to your word.”
It strikes me that this process is archetypal for us who are invited into the Divine Domain, the Kingdom of God.
We begin by experiencing the comfort of God when God shows up disguised as our life. In the dark night, the fearful storm, the empty wilderness, God shows up and Consoles us. “Do not be afraid” I suppose it is outrageous of me to ask at what point Mary conceived? Was it before, during or directly after the messenger visited? I wonder if it matters? God showed up.
The next step in our Incarnating of God process is the Assurance that whatever has happened, is happening now, and is going to happen, is all in the presence and providence of God. We all have found favour with God, we know the favour because we sense our part of the plan. The worst hell possible to a human being is not to know that there is a favourable destiny to our lives.
The third step is the Announcing of the Plan. It is only at this third point in the process that we note that Mary has a specific and unique plan. Ours will be different, but the process remains the same. The plan is announced and revealed and we see the possibilities.
The inevitable fourth step of Questioning doubt is essential and inevitable. Any deep encounter with the mystery of God must leave us incredulous and asking, “How can this be?” Beware of any scheme or plan that is announced to you by messengers claiming to be from God and who won’t allow you to ask that question, or any other questions. The church is littered with the wrecks of deluded egos who claimed to be speaking for God, would not allow any doubt or questioning, and were later revealed to be nothing more than manipulators and controllers.
Having got through the fourth and challenging stage of Questioning doubt we then stand with Mary on the edge of mystery and miracle. All that remains is the “Let it be” This is the ultimate wording for an Agreement to partnership with God and Life
Great song it was by John Lennon, “When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, ‘Let it be. Let it be…'” John Lennon was not an obvious Christ follower, but he knew enough to know that Mary would know what to do in “times of trouble”
“Let it be”
It is the moment when Annunciation becomes Incarnation.
It is a process which was Mary’s but which is open to us all.
It is the way that God keeps being born into this world. Just say ,”Yes. Let it be”
In all the years of my ministry, I have served the Divine Domain best when I have allowed this Annunciation-Incarnation process to flow. “Yes, Let is be…”
There is gold and God in those words.
Every time I have said, “No. The rules say…” I have hurt others and myself and sensed the thwarting of what God might have been wanting to do, if I had only said yes. It is perhaps the greatest curse on ministers in denominations that we are expected to serve both the Incarnating Life of God, and to keep the rules of the church. As if those two were in any way aligned and symbiotic?
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
(John testified to him and cried out,”This was he of whom I said, ˜He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord,” as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
Deuteronomy 25: 5When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage, and performing the duty of a husband’s brother to her, 6and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. 7But if the man has no desire to marry his brother’s widow, then his brother’s widow shall go up to the elders at the gate and say, “My husband’s brother refuses to perpetuate his brother’s name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.” 8Then the elders of his town shall summon him and speak to him. If he persists, saying, “I have no desire to marry her,” 9then his brother’s wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, pull his sandal off his foot, spit in his face, and declare, “This is what is done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.” 10Throughout Israel his family shall be known as “the house of him whose sandal was pulled off.
Ruth 4 : 5Then Boaz said, “The day you acquire the field from the hand of Naomi, you are also acquiring Ruth the Moabite, the widow of the dead man, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance.” 6At this, the next-of-kin said, “I cannot redeem it for myself without damaging my own inheritance. Take my right of redemption yourself, for I cannot redeem it.” 7Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging: to confirm a transaction, the one took off a sandal and gave it to the other; this was the manner of attesting in Israel. 8So when the next-of-kin said to Boaz, “Acquire it for yourself,” he took off his sandal.
9Then Boaz said to the elders and all the people, “Today you are witnesses that I have acquired from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and Mahlon. 10I have also acquired Ruth the Moabite, the wife of Mahlon, to be my wife, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance, in order that the name of the dead may not be cut off from his kindred and from the gate of his native place; today you are witnesses.” 11Then all the people who were at the gate, along with the elders, said, “We are witnesses.
Strange things, these sandals.
“In ancient times men generally went barefoot indoors but outside they protected their feet with a sandal usually made of a simple sole of untanned leather, tied on with straps or latchets (Genesis 14:23; Mark 1:7). A sandal was the cheapest thing one could imagine (Amos 2:6) ”only the shoe-strap was worth less (Genesis 14:23).” (http://www.bible-archaeology.info/clothes.htm)
From the above readings the most obvious interpretation of John the Baptizer saying, “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal” means that John sees himself as a far more lowly person than the one whose coming he is proclaiming.
It reminds me of a custom in India where a form of greeting usually of younger persons to elders, will be by touching the feet. This in turn places the greeter’s head at the level of the elder’s hands which then bless touch the bowed head and offer a blessing of long life upon the supplicant.
There is also a wonderful Indian tradition that has found its way into our Christian Hymnals, namely sweeping the dust off the Guru’s (Teacher’s/Rabbi’s) feet. The hymn goes like this:
One who is all unfit to count
As scholar in Thy school,
Thou of Thy love hast named a friend
O kindness wonderful!
So weak I am, O gracious Lord,
So all unworthy Thee,
That even the dust upon Thy feet
Outweighs me utterly.
An Indian website explains the Eastern Custom:
Touching the Guru’s feet, then, is an act of respect and reverence, but also of learning. We facilitate our own spiritual progress when we learn to be humble. Humility puts us in a place of learning. After all, when we accept a Guru, regardless of whether they are a diksha (initiatory) or shiksha (learning) Guru, we do so because we wish to emulate that Guru. By touching their feet, we demonstrate not only that we are ready to listen to them, but also that we are ready to transform and strengthen ourselves. (http://kamakhyamandir.org/culture-and-history/why-do-we-touch-a-gurus-feet/)
So it is clear that John’s reference to the sandals of Jesus is a reference to his own humility.
But to leave the metaphor there would be to miss another important dimension of John’s words.
The reference in Ruth above and the reference to the Deuteronomy passage regarding dynastic succession and deal making using sandals,has relevance for our understanding of the relationship of the herald John, to the master Jesus.
Before unpacking this let me remind us that John the Baptiser is a wonderful arche-type for the Christian Disciple. He is the one who builds up a successful ministry in the South Jordan, so much so, that people travel from Jerusalem and surrounding regions to come and hear him and to be baptised by him. This very successful operation is just as quickly dissolved by John at the appearance of Jesus. He even goes so far as to send some of his own disciples off to follow Jesus with those magnificent words that have found a resting place in the Eucharistic liturgy, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”.
Oh, how the church could have benefitted from more pliable egos like John’s ego in the history of Christendom!
So back to the sandals. I would like you to consider that by proclaiming that he was not worthy to touch the sandals of Jesus, (not even the lowly thongs that tied the sandals) John was acknowledging that he wasn’t in a position to make deals and contracts with the coming one that he was preparing the way for.
No genealogical appeal from John who was a relative, and thus no genealogical claim from anyone.
Don’t forget that it is also John who said,to the Pharisees, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “˜We have Abraham as our ancestor; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3)
This is an example we would do well to follow as we prepare once again this year for the coming of the Christ.
We who are the way preparers. We who are the Freeway construction crew. We would have to remember what John is saying to us.
Like John, we can only prepare the way. Just as we are not worthy to untie his sandals, and to gather the dust off Jesus’ feet, so we are not in a position to assume that we can negotiate and argue the terms of his coming. Jesus will come to us and to the world on his own terms and in his own way. All that remains for us is to be as surprised as John was.
So let us keep our hands off his sandals and our egos at his feet.