Are you the One? Intimacy and Stardust
Stir up your power, O Lord! This is the beginning of our Collect this morning, and remember, the Collect is where we collect our prayers as a group and talk to God. Stir up your power.
The people around Jesus knew what it looked like when God had stirred up the power, it looked like the vision in Isaiah: The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert – and remember, they lived in a desert – the desert shall blossom abundantly, like the crocus. And, when God stirs up the power, the blind will see, the deaf will hear, and there will be peace.
The prophet, John the Baptizer, was in prison. He had become too dangerous for Herod to leave alone. His disciples still came to see him, and they told him that his cousin, Jesus, had come back from wherever it was that he had gone to for a long time – some people think it was India, but at least quite a bit east, to study with the masters. He was back, and he was causing quite a stir.
So John sent word to Jesus: Are you the One? (capital O) Or, do we wait for another?
Jesus sent word back: The blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news. What more do you want? You know the prophecy from Isaiah as well as I do.
Some of John’s disciples joined the disciples of Jesus. Others did not, and there is (interesting!) still a church that regards John the Baptist as the Messiah, not Jesus. Obviously, there was a conflict, and it is impossible to know what was actually said. Matthew was clear that Jesus was the Messiah, and he has Jesus say that John was the messenger, an incredibly important messenger to be sure, but a messenger, and not the messiah.
I was at the SF Interfaith Council’s Thanksgiving Breakfast recently, and one of the most important speakers was next on the program. But before she spoke, there was someone else important to introduce her, and before that, there was someone to introduce that person – just in case we didn’t get how important all of this was. And then, when the number 1 person finally got to the microphone, she did not speak about herself.
Into a climate of expectation about the coming of the Messiah, which was huge in the time of Jesus, this climate that was fueled by these words of Isaiah, John was introduced, as it were, by Isaiah. And John was the introduction to Jesus. And Jesus really did not talk about himself – he talked about God, about what God really expected and wanted from the people, saying that God was present, and announcing the kingdom of God. He showed that God was present by healing. One of the titles for Jesus is Immanuel, which means “God with us.”
In between the time of Isaiah and Jesus, God had been more and more removed from humanity. There is this swing, where God is understood as being “right here,” and very quickly, because having God right here is quite dangerous, we institutionalize God and God becomes more and more distant. When I was growing up the popular saying was about the “clockmaker God.” This clockmaker God had indeed created the world, the Newtonian scientists would agree with that much, but then that God had stepped back, to watch, not to interfere. Of course, the quantum physics scientists are proving them all wrong, but that’s another discussion. The point is that God keeps coming close, keeps wanting intimacy, and it happens for a while, and then we push God away.
Christmas is the time in our calendar when we celebrate this Godly desire for intimacy, the fancy name for that is incarnation. There are two parts to this incarnation that are difficult for us to deal with. First is the issue of powerlessness, and second is this issue of powerlessness. The first one has to do with Jesus, the king, being born to poor people. Whether or not any of the stories about the birth of Jesus are true, and probably they are not, is irrelevant. That he came from the wrong side of town, this we are pretty sure of.That he had no power base, no academic degrees, no family connections, no financial backers, this is pretty obvious. To claim this person as the Messiah, the one who has ultimate power, the power of God, this is preposterous. But it gets worse! The second powerlessness comes with the crucifixion. Christianity is the only major religion that lets its god die. There are other religions where there is a death and resurrection, but not of this magnitude, not of the “primary” god.
Christmas is a good time, not the only time, but a good time, to explore this amazing proclamation of incarnation a bit further. Normally, we talk about incarnation as “God becoming human,” but in the incarnation, Norman Habel says “God becomes flesh, the Creator becomes clay, the Word becomes Earth… God joins the web of life, becomes part of Earth’s biology.” Therefore, Jesus, as created, represents all creation. “Jesus, as animated dust from the ground, is that piece of Earth where God’s presence is concentrated in the incarnation.” But even that still is too Earth-centered, because the truth is that we are stardust, the stardust that is the shared stuff of the entire universe.
Therefore we can say that the incarnation affirms that God is embodied in all creation, everywhere, so affirming that God became one of us is an affirmation of galactic matter. All physicality is inseparable from divinity. But! When we talk that way, we lose the intimate relationship that is essential to spirituality. And theologically, the essential detail of incarnation is not birth but crucifixion. The affirmation that God is with us in the stable lays the groundwork for what comes on Good Friday.
We can ponder the truth of “we are stardust” and creation spirituality, but when we seek hope for this planet, we also need particularity. The problems of sin, evil, and alienation are — as far as we know — Earth problems, and tied specifically to humans. Habel: “Human sin affects more than humans; it causes many inter-related parts of life to be at odds with each other and ultimately with God’s design.”
We are stardust, but the need for salvation may be unique to this planet. However, we can’t narrow down too far. The promise of Earthly salvation brings reconciliation to the whole Earth community, humans and the rest of creation together.
Well this is all fine and good, but wayyyy too far up in the stratosphere, so to speak! We all have been getting multitudinous requests for contributions lately, and the really good ones tell a very small story. I just saw one, a video about a group that rescues dogs. But the video was not about rescuing dogs, it was about a particular dog, and what happened with her. One educational e-book (Homer Simpson for Nonprofits) says it very clearly: “Small – NOT big! – is what evokes feeling, and feeling is what prompts action.”
Peter Sawtell says: “All of our planet’s beauty and agony, all of the complicated stuff about sin and grace, evil and death, are brought to a focus in and through the incarnation. God-with-us in the person of Jesus is “small, not big” and capable of evoking deep feeling and passion. For the bulk of Christians who are not academic theologians, the story of Jesus has been an amazingly approachable, vivid and compelling story. That personal and particular narrative has changed lives and inspired commitment. Generally speaking, the small stable has been a more powerful story than vast stardust. The challenge for the church today is to take that story of incarnation on a human scale — the story of a baby in a stable and a man on a cross — and make sure that our telling of the story engages us with the larger Earth community. If we tell the story so that it ignores the rest of creation, then we’re distorting the Gospel, and we’re not tapping into the transformative power of Earthy incarnation.” In other words, what is important is precisely the feeling of God being with us, in our difficult days, in our time and space, not the powerful king.
Br. James Koester of SSJE suggests that: “Childbirth, at least at one time, was both a life giving, and life threatening event, and the birth for which we wait is no different. It will both give us life and threaten the life that we have come to know, for by it we experience both our beginning and our end. We see in it both manger and cross. We know from it both salvation and judgment.”
We sit with John in his prison cell, hearing about this Jesus. Jesus calls us forth, calls us to follow him, to follow him on the way of life. We pray, Stir up your power, O Lord.
Stir up your power, Lord, and make us run out to see what is going on, what you are doing. Stir up your power, Lord, so that we allow ourselves to be healed, and that we reach out to others in our desire to help. Stir up your power, Lord, and let us see you all the way from the stable to the stardust, let us see you in every drop of water, everything. Stir up your power, Lord, and transform us into your people. Amen.