Saturday, December 17, 2011

Listening through the static

I had the pleasure of preaching this sermon at St. Thomas three years ago this weekend. It feels especially relevant again.

Well, it’s that time of year again. The Christmas industrial complex has cranked the volume up to eleven. But I, for one, am having a hard time hearing anything. Clearly I’m not going deaf. It’s just that, in all this noise, I can’t hear the one thing I’m listening for.

It’s like I’ve tuned in to a radio station a hundred miles away, and I’m desperately straining through the static to pick out the most important, life-changing words in the universe—the words that matter right now.

But there’s another radio station on an adjacent frequency. This one broadcasts from my own backyard. It uses many of the same words, but it doesn’t do them justice. It twists and distorts them. It sings of cheeriness and confuses it with joy. It assails me with information when what I really want is wisdom. It trumpets the benefits of belief but mistakes it for experience. It gives me both “Happy Holidays” and “Merry Christmas,” but the two phrases are fighting instead of wishing each other peace. And it ties it all together with a cacophony of shoulds and oughts, most of which have to do with spending money I don’t have.

As if that weren’t enough, there’s a third signal on top of the others, and this one is the strongest. Now obviously, in order to listen, you have to not speak. But how can I quiet my mind? My own shoulds and oughts are bumping up against the shoulds and oughts from the other dominant station, leaving me with a severe holiday migraine.

Bishop Jeffrey Lee of the Diocese of Chicago said recently, “It is so easy to be listening intently to what I presume is God and instead be hearing only my own interior monologue, mistaking it for the still, small voice that’s the genuine article. God seems to delight in hiddenness, obscurity, mystery.”

But does God have to remain so hidden so much of the time? I guess so. Apparently, that’s the only thing that ever works. It worked in King David’s time, and it worked because Nathan was listening.

In our story from the second book of Samuel, King David is getting his life in order. His enemies have been squelched. The land is at peace. Now David can finally carry out the reforms he’s been wanting for so long. And his first step is to build a temple for God.

Now, this is a most appropriate, pious plan. It’s both honorable and innovative. David wants to thank God for the military victories and the good fortune of the Kingdom of Israel. Finally, after all these years, the Promised Land has been conquered and settled, and David is not going to take it for granted. The king is going to build a monument to God’s sovereignty, grander than the royal palace. How countercultural! What a bold demonstration of faith!

David runs the plan by the prophet Nathan, his closest advisor. And without blinking, Nathan says, “Brilliant! Go for it.” Nathan has his own internal monologue in which, of course, God wants to have a huge, glorious temple! God is so great, we should be obligated to do our best for Him! Certainly God’s house should be far grander than our own. And it’ll be a real poke in the eye at all the nations we’ve just defeated.

But God has something different in mind. And it’s a good thing that Nathan is listening when God speaks to him that night. God says: “Don’t build me a house. Let me build you a house.”

You see, God has led the people of Israel to victory many, many times, and always against the same enemy: fear. God has told the Israelites again and again that they will succeed, and they finally have. They’ve conquered their enemies and their fears, and now they can rest.

But the real strength of Judaism so far has been its inability to put down roots. As soon as there’s a temple, God knows the kingdom will grow complacent. Fear and complacency may be polar opposites, but they are both hostile to growth.

So God says to Nathan, “I do not require four-star accommodations. You don’t need to take care of me or defend my honor by making sure there’s a place worthy of me. You can’t create such a place, and I don’t want such a place. I just want you. I want you to be my Holy of Holies. In fact, I will build you a house, and then we can both live in it.”

Well, you can’t say God doesn’t try. Through Nathan, God stops David from building that temple. But then David’s son Solomon comes along, begging and pleading for a temple. Finally, like an exhausted parent, God gives in and says, “Alright already! Build your temple and see what happens. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

One generation later, the complacent kingdom is in disarray. The nation of Israel splits, and the two sides are both eventually conquered, first by the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, then the Persians, then the Greeks.

A thousand years after David, the Israelites are still an occupied people. Now the Romans have conquered the known world. But through a combination of strict religious observances, carefully recorded Scripture, and the distinctive mark of circumcision, the Jews are still Jews—still proud, still chosen, and still listening through the static for God’s voice. But in successfully preserving their heritage, they have grown complacent again—at least, the religious authorities have.

It’s at this point in the history of Planet Earth that God says, “OK. The time has come.”

And then God raises hiddenness, obscurity, and mystery to a new level. God finally plans to start building that house … inside the body of a 14-year-old girl. And Mary, with all the bold, optimistic foolishness of a teenager, says, “Well, God … I guess you know best. Let’s do this.” It’s absolutely scandalous. And it’s the only way it could ever work.

It was the only way then, and it’s the only way now. Because today, at this very moment, Christ is coming into the world. Yes, Christ has died. And Christ is risen. (We’ll tell that part of the story in a few months … stay tuned.)

And after all that, Christ will come again … and again … and again. Somehow, we find in our Christian faith a meeting place for two seemingly contradictory worldviews: the Western worldview, in which everything happens only once, and the Eastern worldview, in which everything happens in cycles. Both/and.

The scandal of Christmas is just a regular part of our belief system now. We’ve gotten complacent, as evidenced by all the noise and rush coming out of Bellevue Square. But Christ will come again. We can’t understand that … in fact, nobody knows what it really means. It’s a mystery—hidden in the fabric of our own lives, our own stories. It’s an ever-expanding cycle of death, resurrection, death, bigger resurrection.

God is still building the house that began in Mary. And now, in the year we call 2011 and God calls 15 billion-something, God wants to live in … you. Are you listening? Do you hear God calling your name?

I’ve been trying to hear God’s call to me. And it’s rare, and it’s sweet, and it’s so full of longing I can hardly bear it. One of my favorite sages put it this way: “I’ve heard it too many times to ignore it/ It’s something that I’m supposed to be.” And one of his friends said, “I’ve never been there, but I know the way. I’m going to go back there someday.”

Do you realize what is being asked of us? We are to invite God in deeply. In fact, we are to open our very wombs to God. This is something that I, as a man, can’t completely fathom. But that’s what I hear when I really listen through the static. And if I can’t fathom it, I think that speaks well of its source.

Now do me a favor and touch that dial. Tune out the shoulds and oughts. In fact, turn off the radio completely. Practice silence.

[Stop reading this sermon, close your eyes, and be silent for a few minutes.]

Practice, practice, practice silence, and don’t give up. God is calling you right now, and God will find a way to get through on one signal or another. God plans to set up shop in you … in your body and soul.

But silence isn’t the only place to hear God. We listen by being open. We listen by turning outward to those in need. We listen by allowing the interruption to be the work. We listen by expecting that everything that happens in life is either sent by God, or will be used by God to draw us closer. We listen by shunning both complacency and fear, and deciding that we are the kind of people who pay attention.

In The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages, Joan Chittister writes this about the Christian life:

It is not a year’s experience; it is not a degree once gotten and then ignored. This is not a spiritual quick fix. It is a way of life and it takes a lifetime to absorb. Nothing important, nothing life-altering, nothing that demands total commitment can be tried on lightly and easily discarded. It is the work of a lifetime that takes a lifetime to leaven us until, imperceptibly, we find ourselves changed into what we sought.

In what remains of Advent, listen through the static. And this Christmas, may Christ be born in you. Amen.

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