“How God Slips In” The Third Sunday of Advent

Advent III  “How God Slips In”

          The season of Advent is about God making Christ’s presence known in our world, bringing justice and peace, righteousness and faithfulness, truth and mercy into the lives of the captives, the broken hearted and the oppressed.  Our challenge is to allow our lives to be aligned with what God is doing in creation.  Can you rearrange your interior space so as to not crowd out the herald of hope.  In new and unexpected ways God wants to infiltrate your life and our world with the qualities and characteristics – the very virtues of God.


 

 

In her imaginative work, The Book of Qualities, J. Ruth Gendler, assembles an ensemble of characters who are representative of human emotions and attributes.  Among her cast of characters is Wisdom, who “likes to think about where the edges of things spill into each other and become their opposites”.  She introduces her reader to Despair, who “papered her bathroom walls with newspaper articles on acid rain” and Change, who “likes to come up quietly and kiss me on the back of my neck when I am at my drawing table”, and Devotion, who ‘braids her grandmother’s hair  with an antique comb”.   Gendler’s impulse to personify these qualities places her in good and ancient company.  For generations, human beings have sought to understand and describe the emotions and characteristics that animate us by, in turn, animating them, personifying them as human figures.  We have sought to do this with God as well, exploring aspects of the character of God by singling them out and giving them form, life and agency. Let me show you an example of this literary form from the Psalms, specifically Psalm 85, most specifically verses 10 and 11.

 

Psalm 85

“1Lord, you were favorable to your land; you restored the fortunes of Jacob.

2You forgave the iniquity of your people; you pardoned all their sin. Selah

3You withdrew all your wrath; you turned from your hot anger.

4Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us.

5Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations?

6Will you not revive us again, so that your people may rejoice in you?

7Show us your steadfast love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation.”

 

Now listen as the Psalmist sets us up for this…

8Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.

9Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.”

 

Now, listen to this… as a quartet of God’s qualities in the Psalmist hands come to life:

 

“10Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.

11Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.”

 

In medieval times the characteristics of God became a cast of characters that found expression is art, literature, poetry and drama.  This literature was so well developed that these characters based on attributes of the divine became known as the Virtues, often appearing in contrast to a set of personified Vices.  For of the Virtues were singled out of the Daughters of God: Mercy, Peace, Righteousness (who was also known as Justice), and Truth, our friends we just met in Psalm 85.  These four Daughters of God were the primary cast in a 15th Century morality play in which Justice, supported by Truth, debates Mercy, aided by Peace.  The subject of their debate was the soul of a man who has allowed himself to be taken in by a character called World, whose servants Lust and Folly dress him in expensive clothes and lead him on misadventures.  Ultimately, God sides with Mercy and Truth, and the man is saved.

Another woman, Barbara Newman, employs the personified qualities of God in her work God and Goddesses: Vision, Poetry, and Belief in the Middle Ages.  She observes that these characters, which medieval imaginations depicted so often as women, made the qualities of God accessible to the common person and invited them to participate in divinity by embracing and embodying these qualities of God in their own lives. 

What an interesting approach to sharing God’s good news.  How do we see, where do we see, the infinite qualities of God accessible to us.  How do these characteristics of God live and move and take form in our lives and in our world?  In what ways do we see God taking shape around us and within us?  Where do we witness Mercy, Truth, Peace and Justice in the meeting places of our day?

Jan Richardson tried her hand at imagining just such an event she entitled:

Saturday Morning, 10AM


Justice and Peace meet at the café,

Sit together,

Hands folded around steaming cups,

Heads bent over the paper.

They are not taking in the news of the world with sorrowing eyes and the clucking of tongues.

They are instead planning their itinerary,

Plotting their map,

Looking for the places where they might slip in.

Their fingers touch, release, touch again as they read,

Moving with the half-aware habits that come only with long living alongside.

They have met, parted, met again on countless mornings like this one, torn and taken by turns.

They put the paper aside, they brush away the crumbs,

they talk quietly,

They know there is work to do.

But they order one more cup:

There is savoring they must do before the saving begins.

They lean in, barely touching across he table for a kiss that makes a way, a world.


Can the characteristics, the qualities of God slip so gently into our world to change it, restore it?  Imagine yourself to be Isaiah – and listen to the words from Isaiah 61 (1-3; 10-11):

 

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.

10I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. 11For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.”

 

As I read this passage, it seems so far beyond me – so out of reach that God’s spirit could find me useful in implementing the good news of God’s favor to our generation.  The very notion that God’s virtues of binding up the broken hearted, proclaiming liberty to captives, making gifts of garlands instead of ashes can take life in me shakes me to the ground.  But Isaiah brings it all into reach for us in the earthy conclusion to this passage.  It is about new life shooting out of the earth, about seeds sown in a garden, germinating, taking root and springing up – nothing supernatural – all very normal – God causes righteousness and praise to spring up before all nations. 

Our Gospel reading for today is John 1:6-8; 19-28.  Let me read it: John 1:6-28

 

“6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.

19This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” 21And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. 24Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” 28This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.”

 

What a simple question it was the authorities asked of John the Baptist: “Who are you?”  John knew the answer, simply and deeply.  But like you and me, he first knew who he was not – he was not the Messiah, he was not Elijah, he wasn’t the prophet.   No. He is just a voice, just a witness.  He is the one who will testify to the light and nothing will deter him from his mission.   This season of the year it’s difficult to keep track of who we are.  I can pretty easily get waylaid by secular shininess and become burdened by my own expectations.  It’s a saving grace to read about a man who probably didn’t spend hours figuring out his mission, his vision, his core vales or his purpose. Who he was he had discovered in the desert, he knew it to his core and wasn’t afraid to express it. 

In reading the series of books from which the movie Capt’n and Commander was drawn I was impressed how a commanders or an admiral’s flag was moved from ship to ship – it was always evident by the location of the flag – literally a badge on the vessel – that the ranking officer was on board.    Might these virtues, these characteristics of God, serve that same purpose –  by our actions mark the presence of God in our lives.

Fortunately, like John the Baptist, with a real sense of relief, we can admit that we are not the Messiah.  For some in the church a healthy dose of cynicism and humility seems to be an appropriate prescription should there be any confusion about that.   Maybe our theological underpinnings aren’t as well tacked down as we would like to suppose.  Just maybe we don’t have all the truth.  But like John what we can do is prepare the way for Christ’s spirit to become comprehensible as the actor in the life of another.

The season of Advent is about God making Christ’s presence known in our world, bringing justice and peace, righteousness and faithfulness, truth and mercy into the lives of the captives, the broken hearted and the oppressed.  Our challenge is to allow our lives to be aligned with what God is doing in creation.  Can you rearrange your interior space so as to not crowd out the herald of hope.  In new and unexpected ways God wants to infiltrate your life and our world with the qualities and characteristics – the very virtues of God.

 

 

 

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