Like A Whore In Church: Advent Begins In The Dark

Devotional:

Isaiah 1.21-31

How the faithful city has become a whore! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her – but now murderers!

Weekly Devotional Image

Many of you know that I am part of the Crackers & Grape Juice podcast team. Every week we put out 2-3 episodes ranging from interviews with theologians, to unpacking stained glass language, to reflecting on all of the Lectionary texts for the following Sunday. The team is made up of 3 United Methodist Clergy and 2 lay people and we originally started the conversations to keep our theological juices flowing but it has grown far beyond what we could’ve ever imagined. For instance: this year we had our 300,000th download.

A few months ago we decided to produce a daily Advent devotional with contributions from some of our favorite guests, and from the team itself. I drew the unlucky straw of writing our second devotional, following the first by Bishop Will Willimon. If you would like to subscribe to the Advent devotional (receiving each one by email every day) or simply read them as they come out you can do so here: www.AdventBeginsInTheDark.com 

Below is my attempt at approaching the unenviable text from Isaiah 1.21-31…

IMG_5924-1024x536

There’s a reason that we don’t read Isaiah 1.21-31 out loud at church.

When we think of Advent we conjure up in our minds the Chrismon trees and the lights surrounding the altar. We remember the purple and pink advents candles and the red plumage of the poinsettias. We consider the plight of Mary and Jospeh to the small town of bread knowing not at all what their future would hold.

We like our religious observances to be orderly and helpful and we don’t even mind a sermon that steps lightly on our toes because we know that everyone has room for improvement. But then when we hear these words from the 5th gospel, we experience some painful theological whiplash.

The faithful city has become a whore!

She was once full of justice but now she is full of murderers!

Who wants to hear about that kind of stuff in church?

In her book Advent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus Christ, Fleming Rutledge writes, “For many years, I thought that, during Advent, one was supposed to pretend that Jesus hadn’t been born, so that we would be more excited when Christmas came. Needless to say, this stratagem didn’t work. For me, it was a revelation years later to learn that the last weeks of Pentecost and the first weeks of Advent look forward to the second coming of Christ… In Advent, we don’t pretend, as I once thought, that we are in the darkness before the birth of Christ. Rather, we take a good hard look at the darkness we are in right now, facing and defining it honestly, so that we will understand with utmost clarity that our great hope and only joy is in Jesus’ final victorious coming.” (Advent: The Once & Future Coming Of Jesus Christ, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids Michigan, 2018), 58.

It is far too easy, today, to take passages like this one from Isaiah and read it through a somewhat anti-semitic lens as if Jesus is the wrath of God being poured upon God’s people. Preachers will foolishly wax-lyrical about the idolatry of God’s people from the past all while giving God the glory for arriving as the baby in Bethlehem

But that kind of reading leaves us imagining that Advent is all about pretending that Jesus hasn’t been born, and it prevents us, to use Fleming’s words, from taking a good hard look at the darkness we are in right now.

Whether we like to admit it or not, we are still the faithful city that has become a whore. The people we look to for guidance and leadership, in politics/business/churches, are rebels and companions of thieves. We worship them and ourselves thinking they/we can provide our salvation when we know how quick we all are to run after those things that cannot give us life. 

We are all coming of age in a world where it is far too easy and far too convenient to ignore the plight of the marginalized while strangely finding comfort in the words of a hymn like Away In A Manger. There was “no crib for a bed” because people like you and I are so consumed by our own needs and desires that the cause of other does not come before us!

But that’s not the kind of message we want to hear during the season of Advent. No, we want to hear about how Jesus’ birth will warm our hearts. We’d rather imagine the animals snuggled closely providing comfort for the King of kings and Lord of lords.

But what if we are the darkness that needs to be blotted out by Jesus’ light?

Throughout the history of the church, Christians have had a remarkable propensity to read themselves into a biblical story. When we hear about the two on the road to Emmaus we imagine ourselves as one of those two listening to, and breaking bread with, Jesus. When we hear about Prodigal Son we imagine God welcoming us back with open arms after going down the wrong path.

And yet when we read about God destroying the rebels and the sinners, we inexplicably reject the notion that we could be the rebels and sinners that need destroying!

What a time to be God’s church! Advent is the season we conjure up the darkness among us and in us and proclaim the bitter and strange truth: We cannot save ourselves.

No amount of Christmas lights, no number of presents under the tree, no perfectly arranged dinner table can rectify the wrongs we have perpetuated in this world. We have become whores to our own desires and dreams at the expense of the orphan, and the widow, and the sojourner, and the marginalized.

Just consider a headline from the newspaper this morning: “America’s ‘War on Terror’ has cost the US nearly $6 trillion and killed roughly half a million people with no end in sight.”

What would the rest of this strange and bewildering season look like if we insisted on facing and defining the darkness honestly rather than sugar-coating it with chocolate calendars? 

How might our steps toward Christmas change if we admitted the challenging truth of our own sinfulness before calling it out in someone else?

What habits and practices will we need to crucify before God’s church can experience a new resurrection?

Isaiah’s declaration about the inherent failures of the whoring city doesn’t preach easily. Few pastors are dumb enough, or brave enough, to proclaim these words from the pulpit. They run the risk of running off those who came with expectations of the warm manger scene rather than the destruction of all things.

But today, here in the midst of Advent, we are like oaks whose leaves wither, and we are like gardens without water. We might look around and see families with perfectly behaved children, or individuals who appear perfectly put together, but all of us are perpetuating a world in which our own righteousness has somehow become more important than God’s righteousness.

Advent, therefore, is the right time to look into the heart of our own darkness with the understanding that our greatest hope, and our only joy is in the once and future coming of Jesus Christ. 

Advertisements

Devotional – Psalm 29.2

Devotional:

Psalm 29.2

Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name; worship the Lord in holy splendor.

Weekly Devotional Image

It is rare for me to face the altar during worship. Unlike lay people, I spend most of my Sunday mornings staring into the faces of a bunch of people rather than at just one person in a robe. Worship, therefore, becomes a time when I try to guide people along a path that leads all of us to discover more about what it means to love God and neighbor, though I do it from a slightly different vantage point than everyone else in the sanctuary.

However, on Christmas Eve, we all joined together for at least one moment as we held our candles and the words of “Silent Night” filled the sanctuary.

Because the moment only comes once a year, I do whatever I can to savor it. After lighting the ushers’ candles so that they can spread the light throughout the sanctuary, I quickly made my way over to my wife and son and we all sang together. At some point I stopped signing and just listened to the harmonies wash over me. At some point I glanced around the room to rest in the glow of candlelight reflecting off the faces of the young and old alike. Christmas Eve, and in particular when we sing silent night, is one of the moments where it really feels like we worship the Lord in holy splendor.

I think it feels so special because it is so different from everything else we do. Usually, we do whatever we can to avoid the darkness of life by surrounding ourselves with devices that shine brighter than any flame – we stream music all the time to the degree that it becomes difficult to appreciate a single song for what it can convey – we move so quickly through this world that we don’t enjoy the presence of strangers, nor do we appreciate the beautiful complexity of humanity all around us.

But on Christmas Eve, it’s a little different.

candlesHanded

I am grateful for the experience I had on Christmas Eve, but I also want to find ways to experience that same feeling of difference regardless of the holiday. I want to live and move in this world such that I can truly appreciate my God and my neighbor without taking them for granted. I want to ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name each and every day so that I can remember how blessed I really am.

God has been so good to us, and I hope all of us can appreciate what God has done more than once a year.

An Old-Fashioned Christmas

Isaiah 9.2-7

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

           Merry Christmas! There’s just something different about Christmas. No matter how young or old we may be, no matter what kind of year precedes this night, Christmas Eve never fails to brighten our spirits. I look forward to this night unlike any other night with a kind of joyful anxiety: I know this holiday carries with it more meaning than can be contained in any sermon, and yet to share the story of the incarnation is one of my greatest privileges.

But there is a question I must ask: Why are you here tonight? Some of you were raised in this church and can’t imagine being anywhere else. Some of you have come alone, and others are with large families taking up an entire pew. Some of you have been planning to be in this place at this time for weeks, and some of you decided to come on a last minute impulse. Some of you have been dragged here against your will, out of loyalty or guilt. And some of you are here perhaps for the very first time.

Some of you are young and full of hope and anticipation; most of your Christmases are still in front of you. Some of you who are older are filled with memories of Christmases past that will never come again. Some of you are looking forward to getting back to the presents and the trees, and some of you dread going home. So hear this: whoever you are, and whatever you’re feeling, I’m glad you’re here.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined.

_the_holy_family__nativity_scene___another_commiss_f6de659b784c8c14ecc1ee8b95fa4fa8

I ask a lot of questions, it comes with the job. But around this time of year I tend to ask the same question over and over: “What’s the best Christmas present you’ve ever received?” And the funny thing is, people have the hardest time answering. And not because they have so many gifts with which that have to weigh out and evaluate their answer, but because they just can’t remember.

For instance, can any of you remember what you opened three years ago on Christmas morning? What about last year?

Of course, there’s a better question to ask: “What’s one of your most beloved Christmas memories?” People can answer that one, and the response is almost always about spending time with a particular person; a beloved spouse, or child, or grandmother, or friend.

That’s what we remember most about Christmases past, the people we spend time with. It’s all we have to give to another, it’s all we really want to receive, and it’s what God gives to us.

Not a present under a tree, not a trite response to a prayerful need. God gives himself to us at Christmas.

There’s just something about Christmas that’s different. And there’s nothing quite like an old-fashioned Christmas. Do you know what I mean? A Christmas where all the kids actually showed up, all the presents were wrapped in time, there were no iPhones to distract us from conversations, no drones to charge before their first flight. Old-fashioned Christmases were all about the family, and the singing of carols, and feeling the warmth of the fire.

My father grew up in Germany, and his most vivid memories of old Christmases were waiting to see what would happen to the Christmas tree. Because unlike our contemporary trees filled with pre-lit LED lights that can do more than a stage production, his Christmas trees were covered in real candles. And on every Christmas Eve every candle would be painstakingly lit, and my father would sit there, like any young child would, waiting for the whole thing to catch on fire.

An old-fashioned Christmas.

There’s a church in our community that worships in a new building, but they still have the original sanctuary on the property. And all year long it just stands there off in the corner like the forgotten island of misfit toys, until Christmas Eve when they open the doors, brush off the dust, light the kerosene lanterns and have an old-fashioned Christmas service. That was the case, until a few years ago when they forgot to open a window, and the kerosene lamps sucked up all the oxygen and parishioners started passing out left and right.

But a real old-fashioned Christmas, which is to say a biblical Christmas, is altogether different. The strange new world of scripture opens up for us a scene where kings rage and wickedness rules the day, where the threat of taxation forces young couples to retreat to the comfort of their parents’ homes, and countries who think of themselves as the very best have forgotten the very least.

            You know, completely unlike today.

It’s strange how Christmas, at least the version we encounter at the mall, becomes a dream. We escape into the Christmases of the past, falsely assuming they held a tinge of perfection. But in the bible, Christmas is no dream; it is reality. And it is one that begins in the dark.

The darkness – evil, sin, suffering, distress, destruction – they are very much part of the world, even if we’re made to believe they are absent during Christmas. We live in a time of war, violence, anger, and wrongful use of power. And the darkness is not just out there, beyond the comfort of the sanctuary, it is very much here as well. The darkness of family fights, disease and death, aging parents, rebellious children, fear and guilt, loneliness, and shame.

And we have to take the darkness seriously, even when we’d rather not. We take the darkness seriously because Isaiah certainly did, because darkness is very much part of our experience, and because darkness is what the light of Christ makes it’s way into.

This time of year challenges us to search for meaning. I mean, every bad Hallmark channel movie struggles to define the reason for this season, but the closest we can get to the meaning of Christmas is right here in Isaiah: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.

Light is how we experience the presence of God, the arrival of grace, mercy, and peace. Light shines in the darkness.

That’s why we always end Christmas Eve worship with the lighting of candles. It is a strange and beautiful thing because it begins in the dark!

Our candles, as a witness to the one Christ candle, burn as a promise, a pledge, and perhaps as an act of defiance. Our flickering candles are what the life of faith look like as it resists the evil temptations of the world.

It looks like our faith because it is fragile.

Our flames are as fragile as a new baby born into the worst circumstances.

opt-the-day-after-christmas from Life Magazine Jamie Wyeth

But new life always starts in the dark, whether it’s a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, new life starts in the dark.

It is a strange, subversive, and dynamic way to change the world. It runs counter to all our assumptions of what it means to hold power. It is fragile like a flame, like a baby born in a manger, and like our faith can be at times.

But one flame, one baby, one faithful hope can be all that it takes to spark a rebellion that changes everything.

An old-fashioned Christmas is challenging because it is truer than all of the perfect manger scenes on our mantles and inflated on our front lawns. The incarnation of God is not some spiritual and mythical concept; it is very much the totality of God taking on flesh to enter this world of ours with all its agonies and joys, sorrows and splendor.

For a fleeting moment, we might experience a time where all is calm and all is bright while we are in this place holding our candles high. But we do so with the knowledge that the world still marvels at the darkness. So come to feast at this, Christ’s table, greet one another in the love that Christ offers us, and declare your defiance of the world’s expectations through the fragile flickering flame.

Because tonight, a night unlike any other night, we join together to wonder at the mystery of God’s power embodied in the fragile flesh of a newborn baby. Tonight, we join together as God’s light that shines in the darkness. Tonight we remember what an old-fashioned Christmas really looks like. Amen.

Devotional – Psalm 85.9

Devotional:

Psalm 85.9

Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.

Weekly Devotional Image

I spent a lot of time last week considering how I might impress upon the congregation the need for darkness in order to appreciate the light. I weighed the options of telling stories from my life when I was particularly afraid of the dark and therefore grateful for the light when it arrived, I pondered the possibility of asking the congregation to announce their fears until someone said something about darkness, but I ultimately decided to shut off all the lights in the sanctuary for the majority of the service.

We therefore were guided by candlelight (which made singing from the hymnal particularly challenging!) but my hope was in the fact that we would all consider the darkness in our own lives in a new and different way. Additionally, while using Isaiah’s language about our righteous deeds being nothing more than a filthy cloth, I challenged the congregation to confront the truth of their sinfulness in a way often missing from the mainline church these days. And finally, I even talked about nuclear weapons to drive home to point about admitting our recklessness with the power we’ve been given and the need to repent.

After worship ended, I stood by the narthex doors shaking hands with everyone on their way out and someone said, “Pastor, I don’t know if I’ve ever been afraid in church before, but I was today. And I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.”

The-Fear-of-the-Lord-is-the-beginning-of-all-wisdom

Fear, perhaps more than any other emotion, is the typical response and reaction from those who encounter God in scripture. Again and again we read the same words from the angels, or from God, “Do not be afraid.” But there are also many times in scripture when fearing the Lord is exactly what we are told to do.

Fearing God has less to do with being spooked when the sanctuary is dark and more to do with recognizing that God is God and we are not. When we perceive the great gulf between God and humanity, we are forced to consider our sinful souls and the need for God’s grace. Therefore fearing God might be just what we need this season.

Whereas the world worries about whether or not all the right gifts are under the tree, Christians worry about whether we’re living into the reality of God’s kingdom here on earth. While families hang lights on gutters, we wonder whether or not we have really clothed ourselves with Christ’s righteousness. And as individuals assume that the reason for the season is some plump red-dressed man, or remembering the names of all the reindeer, we know that God, whom we fear, has come near.

Advent Begins In The Dark

Isaiah 64.1-9

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence – as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil – to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. These is no one who calls on your name, or attempters to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

Advent begins in the dark. And, of course, it’s hard for us to wrap our minds around this strange beginning, not only to a season, but also to a new year in the life of the church. After all, our sanctuary has changed. Gone are the white sheets of Christ the King Sunday, tucked away are the green banners from Ordinary Time. Today is a new day in the life of the church and in each of our lives. Today is a day of purple and blue, of royalty and repentance; today we begin in the dark.

For many churches in many places, Advent is filled with joy and hope. Pastors sprinkle their sermons with tidings of good cheer, and wishes of merry Christmases. The sentiment of the season is one of smiles, laughter, and bright light.

            But Isaiah speaks a different word.

From ages past, no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.

Although the life and time of Isaiah differs from ours in tremendous ways, there are similarities. We know, like Isaiah, that our reliance on a massive political accumulation of power, rather than a pursuit of love and divine justice, has brought us everlasting turmoil. We know, like Isaiah, that our culture has less to do with the peace of God and more to do with individual hopes and ambitions. We know, like Isaiah, the temptation to throw everything into violent forms of power while ignoring the people tasked with doing such.

e2055566bd428e7b78afeb573b09d0e3--advent-candles-beautiful-christmas

From the dark place of reflection, we read Isaiah’s words about God tearing open the heavens and shaking the foundations of the earth, but when we try to imagine it in our minds we don’t think of the new heaven and the new earth of revelation. Instead, we have visions of devastating destruction like floods, earthquakes, and perhaps even nuclear war.

During Advent we might want our God to look and act more like the chubby man who slides down the chimney with gifts, but Isaiah presents us with an image of God as angry and silent.

And that is the tension of this season. The words from the prophet are even harder to swallow for those of us who have already put up the tree, who have hung all the lights, who have turned our radio stations to the never-ending array of Christmas tunes. But Advent has always held the tension of God’s judgment with God’s promise.

            We have all become like one who is unclean; all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We have sinned, and God has moved away from us.

Last week, in our Sunday School class, we wrestled with the always difficult subject of forgiveness. We talked about actions that feel unforgiveable and how difficult it is for us to wrap our heads around the fact that God’s love is for all people, no matter what. And in the midst of the discussion, someone from our church mentioned that beyond individual forgiveness, it might be even harder to forgive entire groups of people for terrible atrocities. He probed us to think about Germany and Japan, to ponder the devastation waded against nation by nation. How can we forgive those kinds of things?

Perhaps, the only way to get to a place of offering forgiveness, the only way to take steps out of the darkness that marks the beginning of Advent, is recognizing our wrongs as well.

A couple weeks ago I heard a story on the radio that has haunted me ever since. As a teenager in 1955, Paul Zimmer was assigned by the military to serve at Camp Desert Rock, Nevada. He was there to witness the testing of atomic bombs. He thought it might be a cool assignment, or at the very least, it would produce stories that might be a good way to pick up girls in the future. He spent a lot of time smoking cigarettes and chumming it up with the other young men, but every couple days he and the others would be convoyed in the middle of the night and marched into the desert.

There they would find long thin trenches dug into the earth like scars from a giant. They wore steel helmets, with little else, and they would wait.

And now I’ll use his words: “I never became fearful until I heard the countdown over the loud speaker. And I only became terrified when I saw the flash. It was bright enough, that even with my eyes closed, I could still see the bones in my hands over my eyes. The shockwave crashed over the trenches and we were then told to open our eyes and watch. We saw the mushroom cloud, with strange purples and blues billowing into the sky above.”

“I saw 8 atomic blasts in total, each of different sizes and deployments. Sometimes the shockwave was so powerful that the walls of the trench would cave in and we struggled to climb out of the grave dug into the earth. And, again and again, we were given the all clear and marched forward into the blast area to wear witness. Bearing witness seemed to be the entire reason we were there.”

“One bomb was three times the size of the one we dropped on Hiroshima, and when we walked forward the air was filled with the stench of ozone, small bushes and trees had evaporated into thin air, and small animals were scattered on the edge of the blast radius whimpering in pain. We walked forward and we passed crumpled vehicles and turrets, mannequins with melted faces, and mangled test animals. No one ever asked us to write a report, nor did anyone ever ask what we saw, because (it turns out) they were watching us. They wanted to see how young men responded to an atomic blast.”

img_3715

Over the years I’ve begun to realize that I am one of the last living people in America to have actually experienced close-up explosions of atomic bombs. And now, in my late years, when I think about my experience, I feel it is my responsibility to witness to the sights and the sounds that still ring in my head even today. I feel it is my duty to remember the reckless absurdity of it all, the being buried alive, the walking past death and decay, and the waking up to do it all over again.

We live in a world still shrinking under the threat of nuclear war. Tweets and temptations to push the button ring out across the globe. And while we want our Advent season to be nice and pretty and light, there is a real risk to maintaining the lives that we have grown so comfortable with.

Zimmer ended his story by saying this: “We keep threatening to release these bombs, and I suspect that one day we will. Most of us have forgotten what we are capable of, but I have not.”

(For more on Zimmer’s story: Secret Information)

Advent jolts us out of Ordinary time, where we’ve gone all over the map (so to speak). Isaiah speaks to us on this day with invasive news that it’s time to repent, and to think about fresh possibilities. That’s a tough thing to swallow these days, particularly when we are more moved by feeling good than by being good.

Right? I mean how many of us will fill that empty space under the tree with presents in hopes that those gifts will fill the holes we feel in our souls? How many of us are so consumed by a desire to judge that we forget the need to reflect? How many of us are actually stuck in the darkness of Advent without any of the light of Christ?

If we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t want to hear about nuclear explosions at this, the most wonderful time of the year. We want something pretty and something happy. But I think Paul Zimmer’s witness is as prophetic as Isaiah’s. The hope of Christmas has not looked away from the darkness but straight into it. That, after all, is the message of the incarnation. God comes to us in flesh, in the brokenness of the world, to redeem the world.

But we’re not there yet.

As Christians, though we move through the liturgical calendar every year, we are stuck in Advent. We live in the darkness of Advent, between the first arrival of God’s Son in Bethlehem and the final arrival of God’s Son in the New Heaven and the New Earth. We’re stuck in the tension between the ways things are and the way they ought to be, until Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet.

But there is hope in this strange Advent time and it comes from an unexpected place. If we put our trust in princes, or politicians, or even plutonium, we will be disappointed. We cannot receive lasting comfort from this broken world of ours where it feels like the end is always a buttonbush away. Our hope and comfort must come from another place, a place beyond our ability to grasp and comprehend, a place of ultimate divine humiliation and divine exultation, a place that is both beginning and end, a place that isn’t even a place: God.

Hope in God is a strange, vexing, and transformative thing. Hope in God is what comes with a broken heart willing to be mended. Hope in God comes when we are able to look in the mirror, and say from the depth of our being, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am a sinner.” Hope in God comes when we realize that God is always the light in the darkness, but without the darkness we cannot see the light.

The good news we anticipate on Christmas will come, it will be brighter than any atomic blast and it will fundamentally change everything about the world. God will come again and tear open the heavens. God will reorient the world in such a way that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. God’s justice will rain down like waters. God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. God will destroy evil forever.

As Christians, yes, we sit in the shadow of the cross and in the darkness of Advent. But we also know the end of the story, we know that greater things are still to come. We know that only God can shake the foundations of the earth. We know that hope in God is unlike anything else in existence. We know all of this because we know that the promise in Mary’s womb comes to fruition in the empty tomb. Amen.

Advent

The Cross in Creation – Karl Barth and Genesis 1.1-2

Genesis 1.1-2

In the beginning when God created the heavens and earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

barth-bw

While I was in seminary I spent one of my summers helping Bryson City UMC in Bryson City, North Carolina. Bryson City is surround by the Great Smokey Mountains and is easily one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been in my entire life. It was an incredible experience that directly shaped the way I do ministry today.

During my time at the church I was invited to participate in a weekly lectionary group with local clergy. Every Monday morning the pastors and priests of Bryson City would get together to talk about the scripture readings for the following Sunday. We met at the large Baptist Church, ordered breakfast to be delivered, and then we would take turns reading from the bible and shared what we thought we would preach about on Sunday.

Week after week I heard from clergy of all different denominations (Presbyterian, Baptists, Catholic, Methodist, etc.) as they wrestled with God’s Word and how to proclaim it from very different pulpits to very different people.

On one hot morning in the middle of July I found myself surrounded by those familiar pastors and priests as we read the texts aloud. The lectionary always had four prepared readings for each Sunday on a three-year cycle: a reading from the Old Testament, the Psalms, an Epistle, and a Gospel. I don’t remember what the other readings were that morning, but I do remember that I was asked to read Genesis 1: In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…

When I finished, as was our custom, we waited for individuals to speak up about what they planned to do with the test during worship. Silence filled the room. So I decided to ask the obvious question, “I anyone planning to preach on Genesis 1?” The silence remained. I remember thinking to myself, “How strange is this? We’re talking about the first lines of scripture in the bible and no one is preaching on it in Bryson City this week.” It was obvious that most of the clergy wanted to move on to a different reading, but I felt compelled to ask another question: “Have any of you every preaching on Genesis 1?” One by one they confirmed my suspicion; not one of those pastors, priests, ministers, or preachers had ever proclaimed a sermon on the beginning of creation.

While they moved on to a different reading and a different conversation, I silently began calculating from my chair: In that room we had over 100 years of preaching represented. Over 100 years of preaching, more than 5,200 sermons, and not one of them had ever preached from Genesis 1.

Why do we ignore Genesis 1? What is it about the text that makes us afraid to bring it up in worship or in bible study?

On some level I think it is good to be afraid of God’s Word; that fear reminds us that God is God and we are not. But Genesis 1 is not something to be ignored or forgotten.

557046

Of all the writing I’ve read on Genesis 1, it is Karl Barth’s exegesis of the text that gives me hope for its return to the pulpits and congregations of our churches.

Barth, unlike so many modern theologians and pastors, rejects the fear and presumption that there is dissonance between creation as recorded in scripture and the scientific method. Instead of attempting to rationalize the theory of the Big Bang with the details of Genesis 1, and instead of struggling to line up Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection with the order of creation in scripture, Barth rejoices in the knowledge that the earth was in a hopeless situation of chaos and utter darkness and God chose to transform reality through the Word. The “how?” and “why?” of creation is simply answered with “Word” and “love.”

Writing and reflecting from this vantage point gives Barth the ability to freely respond to the words contained in Genesis 1 with a freshness that is often lost in the church today; his exegesis of Genesis 1 is a worthy read for clergy and laity alike.

In §41.2 “Creation As The External Basis Of The Covenant” (III.1 The Doctrine of Creation in Church Dogmatics) Barth begins his exegesis with the very first words of God from the Word of God.

The first word in the Hebrew Bible is bereshith, which roughly translates to “start” or “beginning.” In English we render this as “In the beginning…” but for Barth the distinction is important. To begin with “beginning” tells us “that this history, and with it the existence and being of the world, had a beginning, i.e., that unlike God Himself it was not without a beginning, but that with this beginning it also looks to an end.”[1] There is no other word that can quite compare with the one that inaugurates God’s holy scripture. From the beginning of all things God created a beginning to have an end. The Lord did not create the world like a watchmaker and then step back to see how it would run. God was intimately involved in the creative act knowing full and well that there was a necessary end, or conclusion, to the creative act. Unlike an author who begins a story without knowing how it will come to close, God created from beginning with an ending.

For years I’ve read the creation account from Genesis 1 and thought of it just like that: an account of creation. The words were there on the page, though they hardly jumped out at me. Like those pastors in Bryson City, Genesis 1 is one of those chapters in the bible that I have not so subtly avoided because of the difficulty of rationalizing it with modern science. And yet Barth writes about the first two verses of scripture with such conviction that it challenges me to re-engage with the text and see the beauty of what God did, and is doing.

Verse 2 (the earth was a formless void…) has been similarly read with haste and overlooked for the richness it holds. Everything else, which is to say everything neutral or against God’s will, ceased to exist when time began with God’s action and accomplishment. The whole of creation was worked into being and order by God in time. In God’s freedom to create was the earth brought into meaning through God’s action and through God’s word to create.

1101620420_400

The challenge of verse 2 has vexed theologians and Christians alike for centuries regarding the chaos, whether or not God created it, and if God willed a reality of chaos into existence. This, I think, has factored into the disappearance of Genesis 1 from pulpits because we are unsure of how to speak about evil in the world, and whether or not God ordained it.

The question of God’s role in the creative act resulting in, or presupposing evil, is usually limited to two answers: God either did create the darkness and evil, or God did not.

Barth totally rejects this dualistic presumption.

Instead, Barth begins by confronting what is actually stated: “In verse 2 there is absolutely nothing as God willed and created and ordained it according to verse 1 and the continuation. There is only “chaos.” … that which is absolutely without basis or future, utter darkness… According to this phrase the situation in which the earth finds itself is the very opposite of promising. It is quite hopeless.”[2]

For Barth the question over evil and whether or not the violent and chaotic state of the world is self-originated or willed by God pales in comparison to the fact the earth was in a hopeless situation of utter darkness and God chose to transform reality through the Word. Verse 2 therefore posits a world in which the Word of God had not been uttered. The “nothingness” of creation is utterly destroyed and rendered impossible by the possibility of God in the creative act.

The ugliness of the existence prior to the Word of God did exist almost like a shadow of the actual creative act of God. And because it was like a shadow, in the freedom of humanity we can look back and return to that past and bring forth the shadow of verse 2. In so doing, by rejecting the Word of God, the past defies its own nature and becomes present and future. However, God totally and utterly rejected and rejects the shadow and speaks forth the Word to shine in the darkness.

The temptation of humanity to return to the shadow is ever present. Whenever we deny mercy to God’s creatures, we are retreating to the moment precisely before the Word of God. It is in our broken and sinful nature that we reject God’s Word and substitute our own. The shadow of darkness is around us whenever we encounter death and destruction. But no shadow can compare with the one of the cross: “This – this moment of darkness in which His own creative Word, His only begotten Son, will cry on the cross of Calvary: ‘My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?’ – will be ‘the small moment’ of His wrath in which all that is indicated in Genesis 1.2 will become real. For all the analogy to other kinds of darkness, there is no other moment such as this.”[3]

In the death of Jesus Christ, in the shadow of the cross, humanity encounters the true and total darkness prior to God’s Word. But it is through Jesus Christ (as the Word) that God will reconcile creation to God’s self. In the one incarnate creature, at that particular moment and time in the cosmos, the Word will again become the Light over all creation. The brilliance of the empty tomb shines like the first light hovering over the darkness in Genesis 1.2.

The “old things” of creation prior to the Word have radically passed away in a dynamic and divine act of the Lord speaking the Word and through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The first two verses of scriptures contain the fullness of all God’s scripture. In beginning we see the ending. In the darkness we see the cross. In the light we see the empty tomb and resurrection. What Barth does with scripture is like what a Jazz musician does with the form of a tune; Barth improvises over the lines and draws connections to melodies that we have scarcely imagined.

To reclaim the brilliance of Genesis 1, to jump into the strange new world of the bible like Barth, will give us the strength to encounter creation and believe that it is worthy to be preached and proclaimed. But more than anything, it will give us the vision to see creation and declare, like the Lord, “it is good.”

 

[1] Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics III.1 (Peabody, Massachusets: Hendrickson Publishers), 99.

[2] Ibid., 104.

[3] Ibid., 110.