This sermon included quotes from James Carroll’s book “Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age” Carroll’s book is a splendid exploration prompted by Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s question “Who is Jesus for us today?”
Readings: Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8. Our sermon hymn was “God Is Within”, Text by George Stuart to the Tune Ar Hyd Y Nos = All Through the Night
Listen to the sermon here
While the world out there is caught up in the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season, we here in the church embrace the season of Advent. Our Advent worship invites us to slow down so that we can take a journey into the darkness. Last week, I talked about the importance of darkness in the birthing process; for the seed needs the darkness of the earth to germinate and grow just as surely as we humans need the darkness of the womb to develop. So, as we prepare ourselves to give birth to the Christ, I invite you into the darkness precisely because in the darkness gestation happens and gestation gives rise to birth.
This Advent, our liturgy’s lectionary, the prescribed readings for worship in most mainline congregations, turns to the Gospel According to Mark. All year long, except for a few Sunday’s a reading is selected from the Gospel according to Mark. The Gospel of Mark was written in the darkness. We don’t know who wrote the Gospel of Mark. Tradition did what tradition often does and this writing was attributed to Mark because it was customary for important writings to be attributed to an important person. The technical term for this is pseudepigrapha; a fancy way of describing the ancient practice of attaching the name of an important person to a piece of writing to ensure that that piece of writing garners some of the respect the name has acquired over the years. That’s why even though the four gospels were written long after the disciples of Jesus were around, each of these gospels bears the name of an Apostle. The gospels were not written by the disciples of Jesus. Scholars tell us that the Gospel according to Mark was written sometime after the year 70. That’s at least 40 years after the lifetime of Jesus of Nazareth.
The writer of the Gospel According to Mark wrote in the darkness of his time. This darkness was the continuation and a deepening of the darkness which began 65 years before Jesus was born, when the Roman general Pompey first swept into Palestine. Pompey’s army is said to have slaughtered some twelve thousand Jews as the darkness of oppression and despair descended the occupation of the land by the Roman Empire. Jesus’ own crucifixion was a direct result of this particular darkness; but Jesus’ crucifixion was just one of thousands of crucifixions. By the time the Gospel According to Mark was written, Jewish reactions to the oppressive occupation of the Romans had earned the wrath of the mighty and fearsome Roman Empire.Between the years, 66 and 73, then between 115 and 117, and finally, between 132 and 136 war between Roman and the Jewish people raged in what Rome called the Bellum Judaicum, “the Jewish War.”
The scale of destruction was staggering. According to the history books, millions of Jews were killed, Judea and Galilee were laid to waste, and Jewish communities throughout the Mediterranean were attacked en masse. Some historians have gone so far as to label the Jewish War “the first Holocaust”.
Rome perpetrated violence upon the Jewish people because the Jews refused to submit to Roman ways. The Jewish people refused to worship Roman gods, claiming YAHWEH the one, true God, and refusing to worship the various caesars and longing for a Messiah the likes of David to save them from their Roman over-lords. In the midst of this terrible darkness, the gospel-writer known as Mark crafted his story of one such Messiah. During this darkness, the carnage would have been omnipresent. Historians tell us that thousands of men hung on crosses and untold numbers of women were raped and forced into slavery, while a multitude of infants whose bodies were torn apart and left to rot. Rome was just being Rome. Demanding total submission of a people who refused to submit. YAHWEH’s people were just being YAHWEH’s people.
This standoff reached a climax when in May of the year 70 the Roman’s responded to a particular Jewish uprising with the destruction of the Temple and the raising to the ground of most of Jerusalem. The Temple was the very heart of Judaism; both the religious center of Jewish worship and the cultural center of the Jewish people. The people to whom the gospel-writer known as Mark addressed his story were in the midst of an apocalypse the likes of which would haunt the telling of the story of Jesus forever.
All four of the gospels, which have been handed down to us as canon, were written in the midst of this apocalypse and born of the pain of YAHWEH’s people. The Temple dominates the story of Jesus because the Temple had been destroyed by Rome when the gospels were born. Sadly, we Christians all too often read the gospel accounts without any reference to the Jewish War, which dominated the lives of the gospel-writers. Historians tell us that the view of Jerusalem from the years 70 would have included ten-thousand corpses hung on crosses ringing the Temple Mount.
Out of such darkness the four gospels were born. The gospel writers were obsessed with the plight of their people. Remember, there was precious little division between Jews and Christians at this time. Judaism as we know it, like Christianity developed after the destruction of the Temple. The Temple was the very heart of Jewish religious practice. As Jews, the followers of the Way would have looked to the Temple as the heart of Jesus’ ministry, for Jesus lived and died a Jew. The people of the Way lived and died as Jews. In the history of the Jewish people the Temple was the center of religious practice. The Temple was intimately connected to YAHWEH’s presence on Earth.
By the time of Jesus, the Temple Mount had been the historic heart of Jerusalem for at least a thousand years. The Temple was the House of God. Listen to what the historian James Carroll writes: “Jews were devoted to the Temple not for its physical splendor but for the devotion it inspired. That it brought them into intimate contact with the Holy One, in a setting whose magnificence could make the Holy One’s presence seem palpable, redoubled their love for the place. It was truly the navel of the cosmos, axis mundi, the house of God. But where is God when God’s house is destroyed? …scattered Jewish survivors of Rome’s mass violence in the year 70 were at the mercy of the dread that their God had abandoned them. Because their sanctuaries, religious symbols, and texts were destroyed in the Roman onslaught, and because they had driven from the living center and seal of the covenant—Jerusalem—the content of the Jewish religious imagination was in danger of being all but deleted.”
Now listen carefully, because here’s the reason I have subjected you to this history lesson, James Carroll writes: “instead of simply disappearing, as so many peoples crushed by empire had and would again, the Jews, even as the Roman brutalizing continued intermittently for decades, retrieved from the tradition new meanings of old revelations, a fresh interpretation of the interpretations.”
Those Jews who escaped the first holocaust, gathered in the city of Javneh on the coast of Palestine. There, they looked back into their history and extracted a new way of understanding God’s presence. What developed out of this darkness is what we now know as Rabbinic Judaism. Those new meanings of old revelations, those fresh interpretations of the interpretations that Carroll refers to, extracted from the history of the Jewish people what they had always known: that YAHWEH cannot be contained in a place because the Holy One is within.
Those Jew’s who survived that first holocaust also included the followers of the Way; the early Christians. Like their fellow Jews these early Christians needed fresh interpretations of the interpretations and so they looked into their past to Jesus who’d been looking into the history of his people long before the temple was destroyed and had extracted from that history an understand that the Jewish people had always know, that YAHWEH cannot be contained in a place because the Holy One is within. Jesus taught of an intimate relationship with the Holy One that dwells within, and pointed his followers to those around them insisting that in these others the Holy One also dwells and recognized the Holy One in these others, Jesus insisted upon the sacredness of all human beings and demanded justice for all.
Well when the Holy One cannot be contained in a place, when the Holy One is out dwelling in, with, and among the people, the Holy One cannot be located in a place, and then that place cannot be controlled in order to manipulate the people and this threatens the powers that be, and this threat cannot be tolerated, and so the Empire did what Empires do and so, Jesus was executed. But the followers of the Way looked to the Holy One within and refused to bow down to the powers that be. But the terrors that the followers of the Way changed and morphed over the decades and eventually the followers of the way, became the very Empire that once oppressed them. And so, it goes. The Holy Roman Empire took on the role of sovereign ruler of all that they surveyed. Over the centuries the Holy One was identified with Empire and the location of the Holy One was taken out of the control of the very ones in whom Jesus insisted the Holy One dwells. Centuries past and the Holy One was banished to Heaven, up there and out there. Oh, the powers that be allowed for the occasional sojourns in and among us. But for the most part God was in his heaven and all was right with the world just as long as the powers that be felt secure in their power.
So, here we sit in a new place of darkness. For centuries God has been up there and we have been down here and only occasionally do the two ever meet and those meetings have been mediated by the church and the church has delegated much of its power to the state, which will do whatever it takes including invoking the power of God, up there to influence how we behave down here. But over the centuries the various threats to this particular power structure have seen the place of God come under siege. We know that God is no longer up there. Science has taught us so very much. We also know that God cannot be contained by the church, or by the state. And here we sit, in our own version of the darkness. In our darkness, wars rage, people are oppressed, violence is perpetrated in the belief that might makes right, millions starve, while we feast, the earth is ravaged for the sake of our greed and every day whole species vanish from the earth. We are living in our very own apocalypse and the structures, ideas, and religious practices that helped us to tolerate the darkness are no longer capable of sustaining us, let alone nurturing us. Like our ancestors before us, we too must look back into our past to discover what we have always known. When our Jewish and Christian ancestors woke up to the reality that God was not in the Temple, they made new meanings of old revelations and they opened themselves to what was happening all around them and new wisdom was reborn: the wisdom that the Holy One lives within and around them.
In the midst of our darkness, we are learning so much about the nature of reality. Science is teaching us about the realities of the cosmos and revealing things our ancestors couldn’t begin to dream of. When God is no longer a person up there in the sky, where is God? When God is no longer personified in ways that can be controlled and manipulated by the powerful, who is God? When we stop creating images of God that are mere projections of ourselves, what is God?
Like the reality that God is not in the Temple, new realities are being revealed which shatter our illusions about God. In this darkness, we can choose to hoover in a corner and deny the reality that exists all around us, or, in this darkness we can gestate. We can anticipate our birth. We can look around and discover the wonders of the darkness the nourishments of the womb in which we are gestating. We can open ourselves to the One in whom we are held, trusting that we will be feed and nurtured, confident that the One who gives us life, will sustain us.
Something new is about to be born. The birth pangs may be painful, they may be disorienting, they may even be frightening. But we are being called into the light. We are being called to be born a new. We are also being called to help our sisters and brothers to be born a new. But, do not be afraid. The task of being born is indeed a daunting one. But just as surly as the Holy One survived the destruction of the temple, the Holy One will survive the destruction of our various personifications of the Holy One. For “One more powerful is coming. The One who is coming our various personifications of God are not fit to stoop to untie the Holy One’s sandal straps.”
Prepare the Way for Our God! Christ is coming. The good news is that the Holy One will wear sandals! So, look around take nourishment, do not be afraid. Christ is coming. Prepare the way for our God.