This sermon for the first Sunday of Advent was inspired by a sermon written by Ian Lawton entitled “The Mother of All Virgin Births” in which I was captivated by his use of the phrase “pregnant with possibility.” I read Lawton’s sermon after first reading John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg’s book “The First Christmas” in anticipation of Dom Crossan’s first visit to our congregation (2008). I was so eager to prepare the congregation for Dom’s historical approach to Christmas that I fear the sermon is overflowing, perhaps a little too pregnant with details. Luckily, the congregation was treated to the wonders of Dom Crossan’s brilliance for several days and learned well from the master about the delights of historical details. I post the sermon here, trusting that some of the details may be enlightening as we once again prepare ourselves for the Season of Advent.
Let me tell you a story from down-under; an Australian story that was doing the rounds a few years ago. Like all stories it may never have actually happened, but it is absolutely true because it happen again and again, in various and myriad ways. This story happened a while ago in Brisbane, Australia…
“The story begins in the dark. A university student named John was on the side of the road hitch hiking on a very dark night and in the midst of a storm. The night was rolling on and no car went by. The storm was so strong John could hardly see a few feet ahead of him. Suddenly he saw a car slowly coming towards him and slowly it stopped. John was desperate for shelter and without thinking about it; he got in the car and closed the door.
It took only a moment for John to realize that there was nobody behind the wheel and the engine wasn’t on! But the car started moving slowly. John looked at the road and saw a curve approaching. John was so scared, that he started to pray, begging for his life. Then, just before he hit the curve, a hand appeared through the window and turned the wheel. John, paralyzed with terror, watched how the hand repeatedly came through the window but never harmed him. Eventually, John saw the lights of a pub down the road and so gathering his strength, he jumped out of the car and ran into the pub. Wet and out of breath, he rushed inside and started telling everybody about the horrible experience he had just had. A silence enveloped the pub when everybody realized he was crying and he wasn’t drunk. Suddenly two other people walked into the pub. They, like John, were also wet and out of breath. They looked around and saw John sobbing at the bar, one of the men said to the other, ‘Look, Bruce, there’s that idiot that got into the car while we were pushing it.’
Spiritual Philosopher, Ian Lawton insists, “There is always more to life than meets the eye. There is more to life than what our sight is able to see. Our eyes don’t simply pick up information relayed from an outside world and relay it to our brains. Information relayed from the outside through the eye accounts for only 20 percent of what we use to create a perception. At least 80 percent of what the brain works with is information already in the brain. We only use a small fraction of our brainpower. We very rarely exercise the full potential of our physical strength. We rarely access all that is available to our senses. We rarely maximize the potential of our mind, body and spirit in harmony. There is always more to life than meets the eye.”
New Testament storytellers tell us that Jesus said, “I have come to bring you life, that you might have it abundantly.” Ian Lawton insists that, “Every moment in life is pregnant with possibility. Every moment awaits your sensual wonder so that you might birth new life in the moment; new possibility, new insight and greater wisdom.” Advent is a time of waiting and expectation; a time when we tell old stories; a time to be empowered, excited, and inspired to find in even the most ordinary situations of life the most extraordinary power, the most extraordinary wisdom, and the most extraordinary resources. Advent is a time of hope when we are more open and more trusting of that which we may not yet know, for surely there is a vast consciousness that even now remains hidden from us. There is so much more to life than meets the eye. Lawton encourages us to, “Consider even the humble word on a page. Each word is so much more than just a word on a page. Consider all that went towards bringing that word to the page—the bark on the tree, the water in the soil that grew the tree, the factory workers and the publishers who brought the book together, the context of the words on the page, the process of editing and revision, the intent of the author, the life and experiences of the author” not to mention the varied interpretations of everyone who has ever read this word before. Lawton insists that “We see the words on the page but there is so much more there. With just the slightest pause, we can begin to appreciate the symphony of activities and experiences, past and present that come together in each moment of awareness. Yet out of the symphony we typically hear only one or two notes. And these notes that we hear, are usually the ones most familiar to us.”
When it comes to the words in the Bible, we have to add a whole bunch of layers on top of the words on the page. Our vision is clouded by generations of religious tradition. Our minds become trapped in habitual understandings. Habits that we are all too often loath to give up. Habits that become more and more difficult to cling to in this age of information, where are minds are bombarded with details, facts and bits of information that force us to see more than we could ever have imagined. Our minds become overloaded and in an attempt to sooth our troubled souls we lull ourselves into sleep. But Jesus says, “Keep awake! Be alert at all times.” There is more to life than meets the eye. If we are willing to liberate ourselves from habits handed down for centuries we might just begin to discover treasures of wisdom in the words and the pages of the Bible. If we try to peer beyond the words on the page, we discover that there is more to our familiar stories than meets the eye.
Some time in the first century, around the year 30 a movement was started by a group of Jews who insisted that their rabbi a man named Jesus from the Galilee region in Israel had risen from the dead after being crucified by the Roman Empire.
They claimed that after his resurrection they had seen him, they had had conversations with him, and that they he had meals with them and then they said that he had ascended to heaven and that someday he would return. Now the world at this time was ruled by the Roman Empire this giant military global super power that stretched from England to India. The Roman Empire ruled the world. One of the most popular God’s of the Roman Empire was the god Mithra. Mithra’s followers believed that Mithra had been born of a virgin that he was a mediator between god and humans and that Mithra had ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of the gods. Another popular religion of this time centered around the god Attis. The followers of Attis believed that Attis had been born of a virgin and each year they gathered to celebrate the resurrection of Attis on Dec. 25. Which takes us back to the Roman Empire that was ruled by a succession of Emperors called the Caesars. The first one was Julius Caesar and when he died, it was said that a comet appeared in the sky and people said well of course that’s Julius Caesar the Son of God ascending to the right hand of the gods in heaven. Soon after this, Julius Caesar’s adopted son Augustus came to power and Augustus Caesar believed that he was the son of God sent by the gods to earth to bring about a universal reign of peace and prosperity. One of his popular propaganda slogans was there is no other name under heaven by which people can be saved than that of Caesar. Caesar inaugurated a 12 day celebration of his birth called the “advent of Caesar.” Even the greetings of the time tell a story; people would literally meet each other on the street and greet one another by saying: “Caesar is Lord” And so in the first century, to claim that your god had been born of a virgin, risen from the dead and ascended into heaven just wasn’t that unique The claims of these first Christians really weren’t anything new. Everybody’s god had risen from the dead, so what made their god so special. These first Christians believed that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection had implications for the entire universe. Their tradition had taught them that the world is broken and desperately in need of repair and that at some point in the future God was going to put it all back together. For them this future restoration had nothing to with leaving this world. It was all about the restoration of the renewing and the reclaiming of this world. They saw in Jesus’ resurrection as the beginning of this universal movement to put it all back together. This brought them into direct conflict with the Roman Empire because for the Caesars it was all about their belief that Caesar was making a new and better world through his power and with his armies and with his wealth. So, when Caesar wanted to send out a message to let everybody know about his latest military conquest or his latest accomplishments he would send out a royal pronouncement telling the masses about his grand deeds. These announcements were called in the Greek language “euangelioums” from which we get the words “good news” or “gospels” in English euangelioums translates as evangelical. The first Christians believed very passionately that the world was not made better through military power or political coercion this gospel that they were living had nothing to do with using political power to force people to live according to Caesar’s laws. For them this gospel was about serving the world especially those on the underside of the empire. For them this gospel was about serving and not ruling So they took the empire’s propaganda term: gospel and they used it to describe this new world that Jesus and his followers were making right under the noses of the Empire and their way, the way of Jesus was totally opposed to the way of Rome. So when we read accounts of the way they lived we read that they shared their possessions and that they cared for the hungry and they carried each other’s burdens. Because the gospel for them was about a whole way of life, a whole new world right in the midst of this one
Caesar had a word that he used to describe a city or a village or a province that worshiped Caesar as the Son of God or that acknowledged Caesar as Lord. Caesar would conquer with his army a new land and then demand that the inhabitants would confess Caesar as Lord and if they didn’t they would be crucified as a way of showing everyone what happens when you refuse to submit to the power of the empire. But if a group of people, a city or a village or a region did acknowledge and worship Caesar as the Son of God and their Lord, if they did accept Caesar as their saviour then their area became a worshiping center of the Empire and these worshiping centers were called “ec-lay-sea-a” the word ecclesia translates in English as “church.” So, these first Christians took the Empire’s propaganda term “ecclesia” and they used it to describe their gatherings the ones where they confessed that “Jesus is Lord.” Obviously the way they were living and the things that they believed raised all sorts of questions for those around them:
Who do you believe Caesar who thinks a new world, a better world is made through his brutal military and political power, by forcing people to do what he says, or Jesus who invites you to make a new and better world through loving acts of compassion and generosity; Caesar who killed Jesus on an execution stake or Jesus who refused to submit and insisted on another way all the way to the cross. Who is Lord? Jesus or Caesar? Whose empire do you find more compelling!
For the followers of Jesus in the first century, the gospel was an invitation to a whole new way of life and they lived this way because they had this profoundly mystical understanding of what they were doing with their lives. They called themselves the body of Christ and they believed that in these communities in these loving compassionate generous peace-loving communities they believed that Jesus was present in a way that went beyond words. So they’d invite people to join them to eat with them to celebrate with them to suffer with them and then they’d ask them after they’d seen the hungry fed the lonely loved and the poor honored they’d ask people: Do you think Jesus is here? Who do you think is making a better world: Jesus or Caesar? They believed that a church was a whole new living and breathing display of a whole new world that God was bringing about right here and right now. If our eyes remain prisoners to our habitual ways of seeing, then these bits of information challenge our understanding of who we are. But if we are able to awaken from our habitual ways of seeing, if we are able to liberate ourselves from habitual mindsets, a whole new way of being in the world is opened up to us.
The gospels were written to describe an experience that early Christians had with Jesus. The experience that they had of Jesus was one of wonder and inspiration. It felt to them like they were surrounded by a miracle that was growing larger every day. It felt to them like they were surrounded by virgin births. Every moment with Jesus, every teaching of Jesus was pregnant with possibility. The only way that they could put into words this profound experience of Jesus was with poetry and myth. So they used the notion of the virgin birth to draw together the best of the traditions’ poetry to describe a miraculous experience. There were lots of virgin births in stories around that time. The Christian story is not unique. Shrouding the story of Jesus’ birth in mystery was an attempt to both capture the sense of wonder and inspiration in his life, but also to place Jesus in the context of other inspirational stories.
In the first chapter of Matthew, Jesus is introduced with two different names: Emmanuel and Jesus. Emmanuel is the name for the great unknown, the mystery that comes and resides in the midst of life. Jesus, on the other hand, is the most common of first century names. Jesus is the name that is so ordinary, and yet Jesus filled this ordinary name with such an extraordinary life. So we have Emmanuel and Jesus. Emmanuel, the unknown–Jesus, the known. Emmanuel, the extraordinary–Jesus the ordinary. Emmanuel, the unseen–Jesus the seen.
While Emmanuel was the poetic, Jesus was the rational and they came together in one divine union. Jesus was the ordinary filled with extraordinary meaning. Emmanuel was the extraordinary manifesting in such ordinary ways. Matthew paints this picture of Jesus as both extraordinary and ordinary at the same time.
So it is in our life. We have both the most ordinary of lives and at the same time the most extraordinary possibilities in our life. That’s what divine union is all about, Emmanuel coming and dwelling even poetically in your life; filling the most ordinary of observations and thoughts and sensations with extraordinary meaning. Inspiring us to go deeper beyond our habitual mindset to reveal more from life, to find resources in your mind that we didn’t even know that we had, to see some of that “more than meets the eye” stuff that makes life so wonderful.