Sunday, December 24, 2017

Listening Through the Static

sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation
The Fourth Sunday in Advent, December 24, 2017
Well, it’s that time of year again. But I, for one, am having a hard time hearing anything with all this noise. It’s like I’ve caught a snippet of a still, small voice on the radio, 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 courtesy of the Christmas industrial complex, and it has cranked the volume up to eleven. This station uses many of the sacred words I cherish, but it twists and distorts them. It assails me with information when what I really want is wisdom. What it calls joy is merely a complacent cheeriness. It talks of belief but propagates anxiety, a cacophony of shoulds and oughts, most of which have to do with spending money that most of us now know we will have a lot less of over the next decade.
As if that weren’t enough, there’s a third signal on top of the others, and this one is the strongest—the one broadcasting from within my own head. Now obviously, if you want 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. And that first station, the one I’m straining to listen for, is completely drowned out.
Bishop Jeffrey Lee of the Diocese of Chicago once said, “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. 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 counter-cultural! What a bold demonstration of faith!
Not only that: David thinks this move will be politically shrewd. Certainly God’s house should be far grander than our own. But it’ll also be a real poke in the eye at all the nations we’ve just defeated, with all their false gods of wood and stone. That’s right: consolidate power and wealth in the two towers of palace and temple, put a pious veneer on it, and everyone will have to respect us, both within the kingdom and for many miles around. How patriotic can you get?
David runs the plan by the prophet Nathan, his closest advisor. And without blinking, Nathan says, “Brilliant! Go for it.” 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. For centuries, God told the Israelites that they would succeed, and they finally have. Now they can rest.
But the real strength of Judaism so far has been to not put down roots. First the fight was about having a king, and God said no, but then relented. Now they want a temple. God knows that competing with and trying to imitate all the other nations around them is straight-up idolatry. If Israel continues on this path, the kingdom will grow complacent, and then, when challenged with difficulty, it will be torn in two by the forces of denial and fear. Trust in the God who freed them from Egypt will no longer be the driving instinct.
God knows all this. 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 all live in it together. As for your hard-won national borders, well, those borders will never contain Me. In your nation-building idolatry, when you come to abuse the poor in your midst, you’ll find that we can no longer to work together. You’ll find your worst nightmares coming true.”
You can’t say God doesn’t try. Through Nathan, God prevents 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 kingdom is in disarray. The rich few are fighting among themselves, and the poor are being trampled underfoot. The nation of Israel splits in two, and both nations are 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. And 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 those with relatively more power are arguing about the degree to which they should appease their Roman occupiers. And for the poor, there is no relief in sight.
It’s at this point in the history of humankind that God says, “OK. The time has come.”
Overshadowed by Patty Wickman
And then God raises hiddenness, obscurity, and mystery to a new level. God gets to work on building that promised house … inside the body of a young woman. 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. By being born of Mary, Jesus is able to say, “I have come to bring Good News to the poor.” He will live one brief human life. He will rail against the rich and stand with the oppressed, but he will sooner suffer and die than seize power, because he is showing us God’s true face. God is building that promised House of David in a human life, and this is the only way it could ever work.
It was the only way then, and it’s the only way now. Today, as has happened so many times before, the joyful scandal of Christianity has been twisted into something politicians exploit to gain more power. But God’s explicit concern for the poor and the powerless has never changed. At this very moment, Christ is coming into the world among our own complacent and fearful people.
We pray it every week: “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’s body. And now, this very day in history, 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, Kermit the Frog, 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, Gonzo the Great, sang, “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 open our very wombs to God. I personally don’t have the right parts to fathom this at all. But that’s what I hear when I really listen through the static. And if I can’t fathom it, perhaps 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.
[1 minute of silence]
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 very 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 is useful to God for drawing us closer. We listen by shunning complacency, and denial, and fear, and deciding that we are the kind of people who pay attention to what God is doing.
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.
Today, in the few hours that remain of the season of Advent, listen through the static. And this Christmas, this very evening, may Christ be born in you. Amen.

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