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As is our custom, during the season of Advent we journey into the darkness so that we might seek the Light. Together, in that sacred darkness we hear the voice of the one who cries to us from the wilderness. John the Baptist strides across the Advent stage to point us toward the One who is, was, and evermore shall be the Light. Each of the four Gospels highlights the plaintiff cries of this strange, wildman who shouts to us from the wilderness, which inhabits the darkest recesses of our collective consciences. According to the gospel storytellers Matthew, Mark, Luke and John this harbinger cries out warning everyone to repent, to turn around, to prepare the way for the One who is coming into our midst.
No one knows who wrote the gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We can say that Jesus’ disciples did not write them. The names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were given to the books long after they were written. Scholars tell us that the gospel known as Mark is the oldest, written sometime after the year 70, Matthew and Luke are dated somewhere between 80 and 90, and the Gospel according to John was written anywhere between 90 and 120. Last week I told you about the horrific context in which these gospels were written. The Romans were waging a full-blooded campaign against the Jewish people. 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 is 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 storytellers crafted their stories 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 were left to rot so as to terrorize the people. Rome was just being Rome, demanding total submission of a people who refused to submit. 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. It was 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. Each of these four gospels navigates this darkness in a very particular way. Try to imagine for just a moment that you are wandering around the ruins of Jerusalem a decade or so after the destruction of the Temple. All your life you have looked to the Temple and the Holy of Holies as the dwelling place of Yahweh your God. Your religious practices, your cultural life, even the economic structures on which you rely all revolve around the Temple. You cannot think about or imagine Yahweh without referencing the Temple. The Romans have destroyed the Temple. How could this happen? Why did Yahweh allow this to happen? Why are you and your kinfolk being punished? What could your people have done to deserve this?
You are not alone in asking these questions. The rotting corpses of those who came up against the mighty Roman Empire fill your nostrils with the stench of defeats so enormous that the unspeakable crosses your mind: “Where is God when God’s dwelling place is destroyed?” “Has YAHWEH abandoned the children of Israel?” “Why else would God let the Romans execute Jesus?”
Some of Jesus’ followers began to doubt that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. They would have been taught what Jesus had taught. They would have heard of Jesus’ teachings about non-violent resistance. They would have heard of Jesus’ insistence upon justice for the poor and the marginalized. They would have heard of Jesus’ claim that the reign of God is at hand. They would have been taught of Jesus’ insistence that they love their enemies as well as their neighbours. Perhaps in the midst of the carnage that their enemies had wrought, Jesus’ teachings began to look less attractive. Perhaps John the Baptist with his talk of the axe being laid to the root of the tree, and every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit being cut down and tossed into the fire, was a far better candidate for the title of Messiah? After all, it might just be kind of nice to take a winnowing fork to your enemies to clear the place and gather your friends close and toss your enemies to be burnt in the unquenchable fire.
Marcus Borg often warns readers of the Gospels not to ask if things really happened the way the gospel-story-tellers wrote them, but rather, “Why did the gospel writers write their stories the way that they wrote them?” Could it be that all four Gospel writers wanted to make absolutely sure that none of their audiences were left in any doubt about just who the Messiah is? What better way than to have John the Baptist clearly say, “I am not the Messiah” and then have the John point directly to Jesus as the ONE who is coming? Could it be that the Gospel writers were trying to make it clear that John the Baptist’s ways were not the way forward?
The Temple lay in ruins and Jesus had been executed. Jesus had insisted that He and the Father are One, and that as much as you do onto the least of these you do on to me. In the teachings of Jesus, they were challenged to see the Christ in one another. Jesus taught them that God dwells in and with them. For the gospel storytellers Jesus would take the place of the Temple, for in Jesus, Yahweh lived and breathed. In the life and teachings of Jesus they saw the Wisdom of God embodied. In the life and teachings of Jesus, they saw the LOVE of God embodied. In the life and teachings of Jesus, they saw the ONE who could deliver them from the Romans, even as the Temple lay in ruins. In the life and teachings of Jesus, they saw the Christ, the one in whom God dwells. In the destruction of the Temple, the followers of Jesus discovered what they had always known, that YAHWEH cannot be contained in a place because the Holy One IS within and around them.
From within the darkness of the crisis perpetrated by the destruction of the Temple two new religions were born: Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity. Rabbinic Judaism inspired the Jewish people to seek God not in a place but in the life of the people, as they turned to the Torah to inspire them to encounter the Divine in the stories of the people and in their collective struggle to live. The Jewish people looked to the life of the people and discovered the Wisdom of God in their midst. As Rabbinic Judaism thrived, Christianity inspired the followers of Jesus not to seek God in a place but in the life and teachings of Jesus whom they would herald as the Christ, the wisdom of God who lived and breathed and found beautiful expression in Jesus the Christ who lives in the people who are the embodiment of Christ.
Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity, two religions born of shared experience, destined to follow parallel paths that would often intersect with tragic consequences. Nearly two-thousand years have passed since the birth of these two ways of knowing and relating to the Holy One and once more the darkness surrounds us. Justice and peace, the promise of Shalom continues to elude us.
As we wander in the darkness, we cannot help but notice the rotting corpses of our own crisis. Millions die needless deaths as a result of greed and hatred. The poor cry out to us as we privatize and monetize the gifts of the earth and line our pockets with treasure extracted from the weak and the powerless. The oppressed cry out for justice as we militarize the keepers of the peace and shots ring out while the judgments of the power structures leave those whose skin is not lily white breathless. Fear abounds as we bomb whole populations guarantying the birth of terrorists who perpetrate horrors the likes of which make the Roman Empire appear meek. Wars and rumors of wars rage on as the Earth suffers the ravages of our abuse; the ice-caps melt, the oceans rise, and children are taught to fear the sun. Injustice, oppression, poverty, disease, racism, and hatred, abound.
Just like our Jewish forebears and our Christian ancestors we look for a Messiah, a Saviour to rescue us from the crisis we have wrought. Where is God? Has YAHWEH abandoned us? We look to the heavens, but God is not there. The temples we erect to house God are dominated by the very evils that inspired the crisis creation is enduring. God is not there? Where is God?
Science and reason have exposed our images of God as mere idols unworthy of worship. In this darkness, we long for a saviour to rescue us from our very selves. Like our ancestors who endured the crisis of the Temple’s destruction we too must seek new meanings from old revelations and open ourselves to what is happening all around us so that new wisdom can be born in us. We have been blessed with the wisdom of the Holy One who dwells among us. The sacredness of creation in all its many expressions cries out to us like John the Baptist, repent, turn from your ways, repent and prepare the way for our God. 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?
Religion is an art form. Like all art, religion takes practice if it is to live and grow and find expression in ways that inspire truth and beauty. Like all art, religion’s truth and beauty is judged by a religion’s ability to inspire us to live life more fully. So, let us look to our Christianity and judge this art form by its ability to inspire us to live more fully, to love more deeply, and to create justice and peace in all the earth. For religion, like any art form, when it is practiced well, inspires us to live, to love, and to create. Let us judge our practice of the art of Christianity by Christianity’s ability to inspire abundant life on earth. Let us judge our images of divinity by their power to inspire life, love, justice, and peace, the necessary components of abundant life on Earth.
God survived war’s destruction of the Temple. God will survive science’s destruction of our personifications of God. The Holy One is not confined to a place. Nor will God be held captive to our various personifications of the divine. The Source of All that IS, the One who lies at the very heart of reality, the Divine Mystery who nourishes, grounds, and sustains us, will survive our inarticulate, often misguided practice of religion. The Holy One, lives and breathes in, with, through, and beyond all of creation. The Wisdom of the Holy One, that which we call the Christ, has the power to save us, if we open ourselves to the reality that Christ, is born in us when love abounds. The Wisdom of the Holy One, the One we call the Christ, has the power to inspire the abundant life that our human nature, indeed that all of creation longs for.
So, let Christ be born in us. Let the Wisdom of God, the One we call the Christ find glorious expression in, with, through, and beyond us. Where is God in the darkness we have wrought?
God is here. Right here. Right here. Right now.
Let us open ourselves to the Holy One who is LOVE. So, that we might practice the art of Christianity in ways that will inspire abundant life in all of creation.
Let Wisdom be born in us. Let Christ be born in us. Do not be afraid. For the One who is coming is far greater than all our images, personifications, and idols. The One who is coming is Christ the Wisdom of God who from the beginning of time has found glorious expression in, with, through, and beyond creation. The One who is coming is Christ the Wisdom of God who lives and breathes and loves in, with, through, and beyond us, inspiring abundant life in all of Creation.
Let Christ be born in us! So that we can embody the LOVE of God for the world so that justice may abound and all may know the peace of abundant life. Let Christ be born in us!