Archive for December, 2013

Matthew 11:2-11, Isaiah 35:1-10

December 16, 2013

Imagine bringing someone who has lived all their life at the equator to our area. In this season. The person looks around, sees dead trees, leafless bushes, grey and brown all around with a scant touch of evergreen. You tell them, “Come spring, this will all be alive and full of color.” Your visitor looks dubious. But in fact, beneath the surface, this dead-seeming landscape of ours is pounding with life.

That is the prophet Isaiah’s message as well. He points to a landscape that appears at least as dead as ours in winter. His dead landscape, of course, is not due to a lack of warmth, but to a lack of water. He tells the people, “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing.” Isaiah was speaking to a people who felt as dead as the landscape. They were living in exile, uprooted — cut off from what gave their lives meaning and joy. But believe me, says Isaiah, your lifeless-seeming desert, is surging with new life just waiting to burst forth.

This, also, is the story of Advent, the first season of the church year. You could say that the cycle of the seasons mirrors the cycle of our spiritual lives. In the Advent season nature appears to be dead. We’ve all known times like that — times when we are anxious about many things. Times when our lives are not carpeted with crocuses. Advent promises us that like seeds in frozen soil, joy and singing do lie within us, and their time will come to sprout and grow. Call it crocus time.

Advent can also have a deeper meaning. Consider how Jesus challenged the crowd in today’s Gospel. “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?” Wind-tossed weeds? No. Celebrities? No. They went, he said, because they had heard about a prophet; in other words, someone who might feed their great, inner need. What was that need? It is our need as well. It is the need to belong. When that need is not met life can feel bleak indeed.

According to Matthew’s version of the Gospel, John did not know Jesus personally. Just the same, he did prepare the ground for Jesus. He did this the way prophets do; that is, he reoriented the people’s thinking. The people suffered from a common misperception. Salvation, they believed, would come from without, from outside of themselves — from a religious or political leader or from some special event at which they would be present, a sacrifice, perhaps. John pointed them to look within, to their own souls, the only possible soil for salvation.

As long as we look to something outside of ourselves for our salvation, we’ll look in vain, and life will seem bleak and we’ll hide that bleakness from ourselves with busyness and other distractions. But Jesus came after John and took John’s teaching one step further. John had prepared the ground, so to speak; then Jesus promised that under that ground lay seeds of new life waiting to sprout and grow. That new life, of course, is God’s life, eternal life.

Jesus, himself, had undergone that transformation. He had opened the womb of his soul. He had said yes; quicken, O God, that life that lies dormant within me. His inner landscape gradually turned, as seasons do, as if from winter to spring. And that new life that he felt swelling up within him would not, could not be interrupted by death. This was salvation — discovering the divine life of God within himself. This then became Jesus’ mission, to help us all discover and nourish that Life within ourselves.

This helps interpret what Jesus added about John: “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” He was contrasting those who have not yet heard of the promise of spring, or who refuse to act on it, with those who have.

Let me give you an example of the difference. When it comes to generosity, giving can take place on three levels. At the first level, we give with hesitation. What if the thing I am giving I will need later? Hesitant as it may be, though, giving at this level does bring a sense of happiness and freedom.

At the second level we give with a sense of sharing, as if to a sibling. We do not hesitate; giving is easy at this level. And as we give a spirit of joy and friendship and openness grows in us.

At the third level we give spontaneously and immediately of the best we have, simply because we take such delight in the well-bring and happiness of others. At the same time we experience great abundance within ourselves and our joy continues to grow.

Those whom Jesus called “born of women” can give at the first two levels of generosity; but the third level can only be reached by those who have discovered and nourished the divine life within them.

Why is this so? It has to do with belonging. When the life of God is flourishing within us we see with new eyes. It’s like when I was a child in the 1940’s. If my mother went to a shoe store, I would dart over to the x-ray machine to wiggle my toes and watch my bones move. That may not have been such a good idea, but the idea I want to lodge with you is that of actually seeing life inside of life.

When we see normally, we look in a mirror and see a face peering back at us, perhaps not as young or beautiful as we would wish. We look into eyes that acknowledge a past, not as honest or generous as it could have been, not as successful. Contrast that with how we look when we see with God’s eyes. We see right through surface realities to the precious person within. We see a person who goes through life blessing others – often all unknowingly. We see a person who is neither dependent on others nor independent of others, but interdependent on all sides. Above all, we see someone who belongs, whom nothing can separate from the web of eternal life.

I’d like to leave you with the image of a vast and intricate jig saw puzzle. This is God’s jig saw puzzle, so vast that it contains all of creation. Each of us is a piece, but we need to see with God’s eyes to really feel that truth. The truth is that each one of us is essential to the overall picture. Remember Jesus story about the shepherd who left the 99 sheep in the wilderness and went searching for the one who was lost? Have you ever neared the completion of a jig saw puzzle and realized a piece was missing? You tear the house apart looking for it. Well, this image of the jig saw puzzle only takes us so far, because God never fails to find a missing piece, and never fails to fit it into the whole, glorious design.

Those who actually see with God’s eyes, the way Jesus did, cannot help but give at the third level of giving – immediately and spontaneously because of the delight they take in the well-being and happiness of others — for who is the Other if not myself?

Remember in Advent: the ground has to warm up before the new life can spring forth; God is the sun of our inner awakening. Let us spend time basking in the presence of God.