The important work of silence…
Several years ago, while I was still teaching, my principal sent out an email to the faculty at this time of the year. Here is what the email said:
I remind everyone that the next several weeks, for many, are not the happy days depicted on the TV ads created to heighten consumerism. For some, the holidays and the idyllic advertisement scenes unearth the deep pain of lost loved ones, heighten the feelings of loneliness, and emphasize the reality of personal poverty. While some may speak of purchases, and the TV news is filled with frenzied shopping scenes, trips and gifts, others will have no gifts and will spend the holiday in poorly heated homes, or shelters. To such individuals, life can appear especially unjust during this time of year. This is also a very difficult time for families who have fathers/mothers/children serving in the armed forces, especially those in war-torn areas.
The second question of Advent is this: Is it enough that we give ourselves to raising healthy, happy families… or is there something more to repenting and reconnecting with what God is doing in the world through Jesus?
The lectionary readings for today make clear that the truth being enacted and celebrated in the Advent and Christmas seasons challenges the establishment narrative. They contain both a prophetic critique of the way things are and a hopeful promise of new life that is possible.
We hear the promise of a new leader from the line of David. Isaiah 11 speaks of a new leader who will be empowered by the Spirit. The coming governor will attend to the well-being, equity and worth of the poor and marginalized. Jesus comes to do exactly what Isaiah 11 promises. In a world that continues to be torn apart by polarized partisan political debates about taxes and establishment grid-lock—this is good news.
Our readings remind us that sometimes God’s truth can only be named with poetic language. The poetic words in Isaiah imagine the restoration of creation extending to the animal kingdom. The vision addresses the situation of the poor—the ones who know about rough places needing to be smoothed out.
Jesus comes with a new way of speaking truth to the human condition. The Spirit of wisdom is not held captive to the prose of the powers. It speaks with poetic candor from the margins. To those of us who have done pretty well in the current arrangement, the prophetic voice is jarring–even distasteful. It is so whether it is dressed like John the Baptist or Wikileaks. That’s why prophets get in trouble. They are scapegoated. It happens to John the Baptist. It happens to Jesus.
The establishment does not take the baptism of John seriously. They do not perceive what Jesus does—that a new world is on the way and the old is dying (Brueggemann). Baptisms in the desert don’t make sense when we are building establishment visions and program in centers of power and tradition. Baptism does not make sense in a consumer economy driven by self-interested individualism.
It is unlikely we would invite John the Baptist to be speaker at our annual revival meetings. He would stir things up too much. We would be uncomfortable with his words of judgment for the establishment because in many ways we are the establishment. It is easy to judge the religious leaders of John’s day who stand at a distance and watch the baptisms. But the question is this: how ready are we to let go of our establishment rights and privileges–our religious pedigree…our social status in order to follow Jesus.
How do we repent and reconnect with Jesus?
Perhaps repentance begins by naming that in the real commitments of our lives, we are deeply in conflict with the new reign of Jesus (Brueggemann). Why would we want things to change when we are building nice houses, planting fruitful gardens, running successful businesses, taking care of land holdings…
I felt this conflict when I wrestled with the decision of whether or not to leave a stable teaching career to respond to God’s call. Heather and I felt this conflict deeply as we wrestled with the decision of whether or not to move to another house last year. I feel this conflict when I read or write Christmas form letters. I notice this conflict when I hear talk about how illegal workers are underbidding established businesses for work.
What do we do about this conflict? Perhaps repentance means we are led by the Spirit to altars of confession and commitment and then to the margins where we meet Jesus.
Sometimes you meet Jesus as you are sitting at a traffic light—the one by the McDonalds on Water Street. It is a cold morning—30 something degrees—and a woman with a worn face and desperate eyes is looking out from under a hooded parka and beanie cap. She is knocking on the window and asking for a ride.
You motion to her that your windows don’t work, but before you can decide how you will respond, she opens the passenger door and gets in. She rubs her tattooed hands together as she soaks in the heat of your car. As the light turns green, she begins telling you her story—a story about the car that is not starting in the McDonalds parking lot. The car they are threatening to tow. She needs a ride to her uncle’s house at Queen and Frederick. The uncle who was the helicopter mechanic during the Vietnam War. She needs a ride because who has $200 to get their car towed. As you drive, you listen to her story as the Christmas music plays on the radio.
You drop her off and then make your way to Prince Street Café to work on a sermon for the second Sunday of Advent. A sermon about the One who comes to judge the poor with righteousness and mercy. A sermon about the one who will not judge as his eyes see or as his ears hear.
So what is the invitation this morning to folks like me and you?
Several weeks ago, Heather and I went back to our old house to dig up some flowers, plants and bulbs to transplant. (We had permission!) Heather knew where the bulbs were even though they were hidden beneath the soil.
Perhaps the invitation this morning is like this task. It’s an invitation to look for the bulb of God’s kingdom where it is hidden in the soil of our lives and the world. Looking for the bulb of God’s kingdom, cultivating it so it can bloom in our lives and in the world requires the important work of silence.
Silence is important if we are to even hear the word of God’s judgment. Silence is important because God’s word takes on flesh in ways that challenge the conventional assumptions of the establishment script. The script that drives so much of the political talk we hear about what can bring about change. The economic subtext that drives the Christmas season.
Silence is important work if we are to make room for a different word to take flesh in us. A poetic word. A word that looks like Jesus. Silence is needed to discern where there are possibilities for the new life of Jesus to grow out of the dead stumps of accommodation to Babylon.
Silence is important if we are to welcome Jesus in “the other” (Rom. 15:7). The reading from Romans connects the rule of Jesus to the old promises made to father Abraham in the book of Genesis (Genesis 12:3). Gentiles are welcomed into the people of God. That’s us. Since Christ has welcomed us, we are called to welcome others. There is a lot of talk these days that is rooted in fear of the other—the Muslim, the gay, the immigrant. Could it be that the Spirit of wisdom is calling us away from violent talk to a place of silence where we are willing to be present with “the other” and listen to their story?
Advent is an invitation to go beyond mere acceptance of the way things are to the deeper place where God is recreating the world. Nurturing healthy and happy families is part of this. So we celebrate the role in the school musical, the deer that was shot, the child who is on the honor role, the acceptance letter to law school… And then we also are silent so that we might discern how all these things are a part of the bulb of God’s kingdom blooming in the world.
Where do you need to go to a deeper place of silence so that God’s word (Jesus) can be born anew in you?
An examen of our lives reveals our need. As we pay attention to the stirrings brought about through the break-up of a dating relationship, the deep place of vulnerability as we face health issues, the uncertainty that comes with the loss of a job, as we feel the ache of distance from loved ones. As we live with awkward family dynamics and presents under the tree… As we are aware of the void left after the glory and energy of the successful football season…
As we pay attention to the deeper yearnings of our lives, we are invited into the holy silence of God…the silence where a mystery happens. The Word becomes flesh not just in the womb of Mary, but in you and in me…in the world.
May the very Word of God be bread for us this day as we feast at his table. And may that Bread be broken and multiplied through us to feed the world.