The Mystery in the Mess

The Great Mystery 

One of the most beautiful chants in the Christmas mass is “O Magnum Mysterium,” translated:

O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
our Saviour, Jesus Christ.
Alleluia!

In the hustle and bustle leading toward Christmas, you’d be doing yourself a big favor by taking a quiet moment to watch the choir of King’s College, Cambridge,sing it here. rubens-big

Each Advent as I move closer to Christmas Eve, I am more convinced that Anglican Bishop, Geoffrey Rowell, got it right when he described the Christian faith as “a revelation and a mystery–a revelation to be received and a mystery to be lived out.”  He went on to say that “notes of awe, wonder, reverence and reserve” are “essential characteristics of Christian believing.”  

There is a time and a place for intellectual analysis, skeptical debate and academic research around the doctrine of the incarnation, but Christmas Eve is not the time and the manger is not the place.  Here, the only appropriate response is awe, wonder, reverence and humility as we celebrate the mystery of the Word becoming flesh among us.

Charles Wesley caught the mystery in one of his little-known Christmas carols:

Let earth and Heaven combine,
Angels and men agree,
To praise in songs divine
The incarnate Deity,
Our God contracted to a span,
Incomprehensibly made man.

See in that infant’s face
The depths of deity,
And labor while ye gaze
To sound the mystery
In vain; ye angels gaze no more,
But fall, and silently adore.

He deigns in flesh t’appear,
Widest extremes to join;
To bring our vileness near,
And make us all divine:
And we the life of God shall know,
For God is manifest below.

Mystery in the Mess

And here’s the thing: Whatever else the incarnation means, it means that the great mystery of God’s love in Christ is alive among us in the complex, conflicted, confusing mess of our ordinary lives and our broken world. The great mystery is not an esoteric flight from reality, but a present experience in our very real world.  The incarnation is not just a doctrine to be believed, but “a mystery to be lived out” in the hustle and bustle, the joy and pain, the power and the politics, the hope and despair of our lives each day.

In fact, followers of Christ are called to be the continuing agents of God’s reconciling love and grace, not just on Christmas Eve, but on the other 364 days of the year.

Paul combined God’s mysterious work of reconciliation in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus with our work of reconciliation in the world when he wrote:

All this is God’s doing, for he has reconciled us to himself through Jesus Christ; and he has made us agents of the reconciliation. God was in Christ personally reconciling the world to himself—not counting their sins against them—and has commissioned us with the message of reconciliation. (II Corinthians 5:18-19)

When it comes down to it, the great mystery is not only that God came among us in Jesus, but that God intends to go into the world in the lives of people like every one of us.  Now, that’s a great mystery!

Grace and peace,

Jim

 

Advertisements

Advent In “Trump World”

An Advent Attention Grabber

I’ll confess that the title is, in part, an attention grabber.  My news producer daughter would call it a “teaser.” Since you’re reading this, it evidently worked! But there’s also  truth in it.

With the election Donald Trump, we have entered into a new political world. There’s nothing “normal” about this President-elect. In many ways, we are now in uncharted territory; a new world in which Trump will influence the shape of our life together in disruptive and potentially damaging ways.

We are also in Advent. On the church’s calendar, Christmas isn’t here yet. Advent is the season of waiting for something that is yet to come; the time of longing for something that cannot be purchased online or at the mall; the weeks of hoping for a vision that is yet to be fulfilled.  People of biblical faith see the birth of Jesus in the context of what God has done in the past, is doing in the present and will accomplish in the future. We live in hope. (Romans 8:19-25)

Living the Vision

I’m just back from Columbus, Ohio, where I spoke on biblical hope to the clergy of the West Ohio Conference. The messages were grounded in Isaiah’s visions of God’s intention for this world which are among the lectionary readings for Advent:  Isaiah 2:1-5Isaiah 11:1-10Isaiah 35:1-10. (Please take a moment to read them.) swanson_peaceable_kingdom_7

I pointed out that these visions:

  • were given to Isaiah in desperate times when everything in the social and political world was stacked against their fulfillment;
  • are not esoteric, out-of-this-world visions but are entirely this-world visions of how God intends this world to be and will, in fact, become;
  • are consistent with Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God coming on earth as it is in heaven; and
  •  invite faithful people to participate now in their coming.

The hope we affirm in Advent is the assurance that one day God’s saving, redeeming purpose which was revealed in the words, will and way of Jesus will be accomplished in this creation and we can get in on God’s action as we live and act in ways that are consistent with God’s vision.

Advent Hope In “Trump World” 

So, what does it mean to be faithful to God’s purpose in the new world into which our recent election is taking us?  A time in which the realities of the world around us seem to be stacked against the prophetic vision of peace,harmony, justice for the poor, and the healing of racial and social divisions.

Some people woke up on November 9 ready to celebrate that the new day had come. I’ve seen people on Facebook declare that God intervened and elected Donald Trump. (God might be surprised at that.)  Others are still wrestling with disappointment, despair and anxiety. Because both of those responses are very much alive in most United Methodist or mainline congregations, I reminded the pastors of things things that are true to our hope in every time and every culture.

  •  Wherever you are on the continuum between celebration and despair, let me remind you that God is not a Republican or a Democrat. God does not elect the President; the people do.
  • Let me remind you that this nation, as much as we love it, has never been and never will be the Kingdom of God on earth. Like every other nation and culture, our nation stands under both the mercy and the judgement of God. To whom much is given, much is required.
  • Let me remind you that according to the New Testament, our primary citizenship is in the Kingdom of God. Our ultimately loyalty is not to the flag, but to the cross.
  • Let me remind you that no political party exists in order to be a tangible, flesh and blood, real world expression of the Kingdom of God on earth. That’s the job of the Church.  That’s the task to which God calls us!
  • Let me remind you that Satan’s most relentless temptation is for the church to align itself with political power.  Jesus rejected that temptation in the wilderness. Whenever the church becomes aligned with any political party or power, the gospel always gets lost in the bargain.
  • Let me remind you that our task, as partners with God in the coming of the Kingdom, is to hold our nation and our lives accountable to the vision of the prophets and the values of the Kingdom revealed in Jesus Christ.  When our nation’s polices or our leaders’ behaviors align with the values of the Kingdom, we give thanks. But when our nation’s policies or our leaders’ behaviors are not consistent with the values of the Kingdom of God, it is our task to  call them to account and pray for God’s mercy.
  • Let me remind you, in the words of Desmond Tutu, “Victory is assured! Because the death and resurrection of our Savior Jesus Christ declare forever that light has overcome darkness, that life has overcome death, that joy and laughter and peace and compassion and justice and caring and sharing, all and more have overcome their counterparts.”

If we believe that one day the kingdoms of this earth really will become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ;

If we believe that one day swords will in fact be turned into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks and nations shall learn war no more;

If we believe that one day every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord;

If we believe that one day the hungry will be fed, the broken healed, the poor raised up and the powerful brought low;

If we believe that God has invited each us to participate in the coming of that vision, then we have a word of hope that can hold us when everything seems to be coming apart around us.

That’s biblical hope. That’s the stronghold of hope that can hold us prisoner, the kind of hope that can sustain us when everything is stacked against it. It’s the hope of something that is yet to come; the commitment to a vision that is yet to be fulfilled.

The prayer of Advent is always, “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.”

Grace and peace,

Jim