Monday, December 17, 2007

Please Be Seated

On a snowy weekend, hear the prophet Isaiah announce God’s promise that the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus, and rejoice with joy and singing. Let’s picture our crocuses beneath their snow shrouds: I’ll guess they’d rather be here than tucked into the sands of a desert. Some of us, on the other hand, might volunteer for that assignment?

And in this season of precipitation without end, hear the apostle James exhort, “Be patient, therefore, beloved… The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.” Or snows, as the case may be. Snow also plays its role in preparing the ground for eventual harvest.

I can’t hear either of these great texts without accompaniment by Brahms. He set them both to absolutely gorgeous haunting music in his German Requiem. If you have a recording of that, or can borrow one, you might find it a good counter-cultural Advent experience to listen to it. I believe I can promise you a solid hour of relief from jolly muzak about Santa, White Christmasses, and mistletoe, if you will treat yourself to what Brahms heard in these texts. Not many people will be doing that, this Advent. You will be in a select minority.

A requiem deals with death, and isn’t that an odd place to go in Advent?

Well, no. Advent is a time for hearing who the Messiah is, how he comes, and what he has come to do. Prophets like Isaiah tell us the purpose of the Messiah: “’He will come and save you.’ Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”

I celebrated eucharist in a circle of sixteen nursing home residents last Wednesday. Right after reading to them Matthew’s story of the correspondence between John the Baptist and Jesus, I sat down in the one empty chair in their circle (as I do here, I usually stand to speak briefly after the Gospel). I had just read our Lord’s immodest but straightforward claim of having fulfilled Isaiah’s vision of the Messiah: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them…” Something in me said, “Elvin, sit down.”

Matthew’s words helped me feel the Incarnation. God’s anointed one, Jesus, enters our estate, not in soft robes and royal palaces, but against the splintery boards of a cattle trough. Powerless he comes, and though he exercises divine power by his sacramental touch, it is to give away that power to the poor and the injured and the reviled. When the powerful take offense, his powerlessness marks the mystery of his passion. I was suddenly aware that standing in a room filled entirely by people in wheelchairs was the wrong posture to keep, to consider his claim.

So, eye to eye, I reminded them what our Gospel means. That our Lord Jesus Christ has come to dwell with the blind, the lame, the deaf, the poor, and all who are facing death. This is by his own choice, and in response to the mission entrusted to him by Father-Mother God, and because of our need. I said, “He is in the wheelchair next to you; even more, he is in the wheelchair you’re sitting in, because he is in you.”

I could not stand to say that. Perhaps I should not be standing now. Sitting is the ancient posture for preaching, and Advent suggests why.

He comes powerless. has not worked for him. No family influence prevents his family from reporting all to the Internal Revenue Service. State-sponsored terrorism soon hastens this family across the border, political refugees. This is no season for standing—not on ceremony, not on principle, not in strength. It is time to sit very close to the earth that yearns to be made new, redeemed from soaking up the blood of the innocent, the off-scourings of civilization, the pollutions of the proud and the upright. It is time to sit with the patience commended by James, realizing that we cannot stand without the strength of God, and we cannot have that strength except by God’s gift, and we cannot receive the gift if we cannot sit still enough to want it, and we will not want it unless God’s Spirit stirs us up like dough in a bowl which cannot rise unless first it sits.

This is what Mary and Joseph both learn. That Mary must sit with Elizabeth her cousin, as they share their months of pregnancy. Mary must sit beneath the scornful gaze of those who judge her young and foolish. Mary must sit on a donkey on a journey that out-airports any airport story you or I can tell. Mary must bear a son.

Joseph sits with his fears, resolving to break up with his fiancée, who is unexplainably pregnant. Then Joseph must sit at the feet of an angel, who in a dream instructs him in the unexplainable.

It takes a lot of sitting, for the Messiah to be revealed. Let’s not resist the sitting we have to do. Let’s expect, from those places, even those places of powerlessness, to see and hear God.