Sermon preached December 16, 2012
Texts: Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18
Are you expecting? That’s a delicate question and our Advent theme this year. When parents are expecting a child, they often learn about the process of giving birth and about what parenting might entail. The journey of faith, our journey together with the God we know in Jesus is meant to be a life-long journey of learning. God’s love may be unchanging – though I would argue that we need to be a bit careful with that assertion because God’s love responds to the circumstances in our lives and in the world, God’s love may be unchanging, but we change and the world we try to love with the love of God changes. What we learned in confirmation was important but it may not carry us far enough in a world where we can induce comas to keep young people alive and yet cannot finally prevent death from touching us all, in a world of instant communication yet persistent isolation and alienation, in a world where twice in one week a lone gunman opened fire on unsuspecting people, Friday on a group of school children. We need to keep learning and growing.
As I was discussing the Advent theme with the worship committee, I planned out three sub-themes to “Are you expecting” – learning, getting the right stuff together and surprise. When I was talking with Velda and Cynthia about the getting the right stuff together I elaborated – you know how parents buy cribs and highchairs and car seats and playpens and all that. Cynthia said, “You mean like nesting?”
Nesting. That was a new term for me. Nesting. It is kind of an old-fashioned term. I remember Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life” asking his wife, played by Donna Reed – “You on the nest Mary?” If there is worse question to ask a woman of childbearing years than “Are you expecting?” – “You on the nest?” may be it!
But we do “nest” when we are expecting a baby. We buy all the necessary supplies – car seats, blankets, diapers, pack and play. And it does kind of remind you of bird’s building their nests – finding what they need to make a comfortable home for the newly arrived. When you see a bird’s nest, they are rather fascinating – carefully constructed, with an occasional odd item used. They want a safe and secure place for their newly hatched. We humans want a warm, safe and secure environment for our children coming into our lives.
Is there something here about the spiritual journey? Does it make sense to try and talk about our lives as places where God will come and feel welcome? What can we do to welcome God, to make in our lives a warm and welcoming place for this ever-arriving God? I want to say three things in response to this question.
First, we need to admit that there is something a little odd in talking about a God who arrives, who comes. We affirm, after all, a God who is ever present. Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. (Psalm 139:7-10)
We affirm that there is no place we can go where God is not, yet the human experience of God is that God can seem absent. God’s presence can be elusive in our experience. Often we have such experiences when things happen in our lives and in our world that don’t fit well with our ideas about God. Where is God when science explains things we used to attribute to God? Where is God when a job is lost? Where is God when dreams turn into disappointments? Where is God when a child dies in infancy? Where is God when a mother is killed in a car accident? Where is God when children are shot and killed in a school? Where is God when a vibrant twenty-three year old is attacked by unknown organisms affecting her nervous system? Where is God when rape and torture become weapons in wars of liberation? Where is God when six million Jews are killed during the Holocaust?
We ask deep questions that have no easy answers. God seems distant or drifting. We experience what Christian mystics have called “the dark night of the soul.” Such dark night of the soul experiences are not the absence of God, but can signal a need for growth on our part. Gerald May: when habitual senses of God do disappear in the process of the dark night, it is surely because it is time for us to relinquish our attachment to them (The Dark Night of the Soul, 91).
God is not absent, but our experience of God’s distance may perhaps mean we need to tune into God differently. We need to reconstruct our nest for God’s presence in our lives. We can be more attentive to God’s presence. We can be more perceptive of God’s presence. This is the second point I want to make about nesting as a part of our spiritual journey.
Michael Eigen is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist whose writings I have discovered over the past couple of years. In a recent book, Eigen reflects on the experience of the biblical character Job. You remember that Job loses everything, and his friends try to help by offering their opinions about where God is in Job’s life. They seem focused on the idea that because Job’s life has gone south, he must have done something wrong. God finally shows up at the end of the book and tells Job’s friend they just got it wrong. God shows up and meets with Job, but never really answers Job’s questions about why all this stuff happened to him. God just shows up in a new way in Job’s life. Eigen: [God] simply shows himself…. Job is awed by the immensity of existence, the bare fact of being. God’s show of power blows a hole through him. Talking with his Creator brings unsuspected moments of illumination, new levels of intensity, realization…. Life would not be the same after his rock-bottom shake-up and meeting God face to face. (Contact With the Depths, 34, 35).
We can be more open to God’s presence. We can be more perceptive of God’s presence. We can be more attentive to God’s presence. We can do things in our lives that make them more open to God, a better nest for welcoming the Spirit.
So here’s my final point. Remember points one and two: (1) God is always present, but our experience of God is not always attuned to that presence; (2) we can be more perceptive of and attentive to God’s presence. Here’s three: We become more perceptive of God, more attentive to God through soul work, and an important part of soul work follows the Mobius principle. Clear as mud?!
Soul work is the nesting of our spiritual journey, the way we make our lives more open to the presence of God who is always present, ever-arriving. We often think of soul work as things like meditation, prayer, spiritual direction, depth therapy. They are important. Philippians 4 reminds us of the importance of prayer, especially prayers of joy. There is a wonderful insight here. We tend to more naturally pray when things are not going so well. Our prayers are simple: “Help!” When things are going well, prayer can find a back seat. Pray prayers of joy – prayers of “thanks” and “wow.”
Then there’s the Mobius principle part of soul work – good works are also soul work. The Mobius strip moves in and out. What is in our souls is expressed in our action, but our actions also shape our souls. Kurt Vonnegut, in one of his novels wrote: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be” (Mother Night, quoted in Timothy White Strangers to Ourselves, 203). Psychologist Timothy White writes: “the first step to changing our non-conscious inclinations is to change our behavior” (212).
So here’s John the Baptist, the paradigmatic figure for Advent. We have not forgotten about him. “Bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8). We sometimes think that first comes the repentance, then the works – the soul work of repentance expressing itself in living differently. What if, however, the actions are part of the repentance, the soul work? A new thing is on the horizon. Our understanding of God’s action and presence is changing. Repentance is the soul work we do to be more attentive to God’s presence. Part of that soul work is good works. Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise. Tax collectors – collect no more that the amount prescribed for you. Soldiers – do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages. (Luke 3:10-14, edited). By the way John was not against wage increases. Soldiers in John’s time added to their wages by taking money from common people.
Good works are also soul work, preparing us to be more attentive to God’s presence. We don’t do good to earn God’s love. God already loves. We do good in response to God’s love and to open ourselves more deeply. Our soul work benefits the world, another Mobius moment and right now our world needs our kindness and gentleness.
So how are you doing shaping a place for God? How are you doing in being more perceptive of God’s presence? How are you doing in being more attentive to God’s presence?
Advent is soul work time, including the soul work of good works. You on the nest?