This sermon relies on the work of John Philip Newell in his book, The Rebirthing of God: Christianity’s Struggle for New Beginnings. On this, the first Sunday of Advent our readings included “The Star Within” a creation story by Dr. Paula Lehman and Rev. Sarah Griffith, Luke 21:25-36, and John 3:1-9. A deliberate choice was made not to use the traditional Advent reading from Jeremiah so as to avoid the trap of the false Christian appropriation of the Hebrew prophets as foretellers of Jesus as the Messiah. Listen to the sermon here
A very happy new year to you all! On this the very first Sunday of the Church year, in churches all over the world, congregations have sung out their pleas for advent. Advent from the Latin verb “to come:. O Come, O Come Emmanuel, loudly and with gusto, or softly but with earnest desire, that Emmanuel “God with us” would come and put an end to our anxious longing to escape the darkness. I love all the blue, with just the hint of evergreens. I love the images summoned up in our liturgical silences, of darkness, wilderness, longing and expectation. I love the idea of coming in here as sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of our consumer culture’s lead up to the Christmas season. I love the music, I could sing O Come, O Come, Emmanuel during all four Sunday’s of Advent and never tire of all eight of its plaintive verses. Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord, Preee—pare Ye the way of the Lord, There’s a Voice in the Wilderness crying, Comfort, Comfort Now My People, Each Winter As the Year Grows Older, we’ll have no Christmas carols in Advent even if you please!!! Soon and Very Soon, we are going to see our God, wait, wait, wait, for it ….let the malls over-dose you with carols…let us wait… Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus.
People, Look East, Hark! A Thrilling Voice Is Sounding! Let the world fill up on Christmas cheer, shop till they drop. For we in here are Lost In the Night. Light One Candle to Watch for Messiah. Hark, the Glad Sound! Prepare, Prepare, Prepare, we’re not there yet! Wait! Awake! Awake! As the Dark Awaits the Dawn. Wait for the Lord. Prepare the Royal Highway. Four blue Sundays, contemplate, keep silence, get ready to Fling Wide the Door, the Unexpected and Mysterious, Creator of the Stars of Night, let the silence speak to us, as our Ancient Love, prepares the way for our God. Hope, Joy, Love, Peace shall be ours if we but wait.
Every year while the church heralds Advent, the world greets Santa. For years I’ve loved this valiant attempt to hold on to allow the child to gestate, while the world casually tosses the baby into the muck and the mire of busy streets, crowded malls and boisterous, drunken, celebrations. I still treasure the memories of my first Advent seasons. I came to the church when I was just fifteen years old. I had never even heard of Advent. I was excited about my first Christmas in the church. I wanted to soak it all up. I expected Christmas carols, and stories about the Christ Child. I had no idea about the darkness of the wilderness. My first inkling came on the Saturday before the first Sunday of Advent. The Lutheran church where I was introduced to life in and among Christians, was comprised mainly of Scandinavians who had more Advent traditions than you can shake a Yule log at. Don’t get me started on the lutefisk!!! No, gelatinas lye fish for me if you please, just save the rullupylsa for me, and maybe just maybe I’ll have a little pickled herring, but pass the aquavit and let a few icy shots loosen us up and before you know it … off da… we’ll all be warm from the inside out.
T’was the day before and all good little Lutherans, their Advent wreaths do prepare. Four candles of Hope, Joy, Love, and Peace to light our way through the dark and dreary cries of John the Baptist who for the few weeks of Advent damns us all as we brood of vipers, burn as the wild man shouts “Repent, Repent” from that very first wreath making party I was hooked. Content to wait and watch, while the world dashed and rushed its way toward Santa’s grotto, I hung out in the blue world of the church, holding on to the centuries old traditions of the church’s Advent celebrations. One of the hardest things about leaving home to come to Ontario to begin Seminary, was missing out on the Advent celebrations with the friends whose love and nurture got me into the church in the first place. Every year for about twenty years, we gathered together each and every Advent Sunday for church followed by a slap-up meal at which we lit our homemade Advent wreaths. Advent was the season of Hope, Joy, Love, and Peace, for me and I loved it then, and I love it now.
Well, if I’m honest I do love Advent still. It’s just, well it’s just those Advent hymns…I’ve long since gotten over the exclusive language as we wait for the King who Shall Come (only Christians could say that with straight faces?) I must admit that the near absence of the women, who after all are the stars of the show and hardly get a mention, poor old Elizabeth even the mute Zachariah outshines her, and Mary well poor little Mary, the Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came with his heavenly hosts to drown out the Magnificat with his Gloria’s oh highly favoured lady. Tinkering with inclusive language helps a little, but at the heart of all those hymns are the Advent texts. Each and every first lesson, carefully selected to use the Hebrew Scriptures as if they were literally written accounts of prophets predicting the birth of Christ. Every preacher worth their salt, struggles to make these ancient texts relevant knowing full well, because they learned in seminary that prophets can no more predict the future than preachers can stop the masses from shopping till they drop.
Isaiah, Jeremiah, Malachi, Zephaniah, Micah, must be rolling in their graves each Advent Sunday as the church abuses their names with words they may never have uttered, in ways they never intended so as to point the finger at Jesus. The abuse of these faithful Jewish prophets is enough to make this trickster of the hermeneutical arts weep. And as for the feminist theologian in me, well I want to scream at the apparent rape of Mary
and the suspicion inspired by our failure to embrace the fullness of life’s wondrous mysteries in favour of that screaming wild man John the Baptist who isn’t fit to tie the sandals of any self-respecting Messiah’s feet, but thanks to Handel’s Messiah, he gets a front row seat at our Advent liturgies, spouting a baptism of repentance against which Jesus insisted upon a baptism filled with grace. Prepare the way of the Lord as if our God, the creator of all that is, was, and ever shall be, is frozen in time…back there somewhere, leveling valleys and making the crooked straight, while the innocent continue to suffer and the weak wash up on our beaches.
I do love Advent. Our instincts at this time of the year, to linger in the darkness a while make sense in the face of all the turmoil that the world endures; our waiting and our longing, for Emmanuel; for God to be with us are absolutely correct. But our nostalgia for what never really was, may be keeping us from the memory of our future. Traditions are beautiful. Traditions can ensure that we endure. But if traditions become all about preserving what once was, we run the risk of enduring our traditions in the vain hope that by repeating the past, we can somehow change the future.Surely, the ONE for whom all this waiting and longing is about, is not about preserving the past but rather about embracing a future in which everything changes. If our texts hold us in a world that never was, with it’s three-tiered universe, and humans we barely recognize as human, how will we summon up the courage to meet and engage the cosmos? If the God of whom we sing, requires a saviour to be sacrificed in order to save us all from satan’s power, oh wait, no carols yet… if this God of whom we sing is too small to be the ground of being in a cosmos so vast our brains can’t even begin to contemplate it’s limits, then who can this Jesus be for us, but nothing more than a cartoon Santa Claus, who comes bearing gifts we no longer need or want?
That there is darkness all around us we have no doubt. But the mysteries of our deepest selves point us toward the mysteries of the immense cosmos of which we are made and from this wilderness our longings are expressed in questions our ancestors couldn’t begin to imagine. It’s enough to drive this humble preacher mad.
So, hear me as I cry out from the wilderness of unknowing, Prepare the way for our God. In my madness, I am reminded of a story I’ve told you once before. It’s the story first told by a man who sought to treat those we once cruelly labeled as mad. Carl Jung was one of the fathers of modern analytical psychology. In the book “The Rebirthing of God”, theologian John Philip Newell tells a story about Carl Jung…the story goes like this: Even as a boy Carl Jung had prophetic intuitions, although for many of these he did not find language, or the courage to speak, until many decades later in his life. As a twelve-year-old boy in Switzerland, walking home from school one day past Basel Cathedral with its shining new spire, the young Carl Jung became aware of an image rising up from the unconscious. He was so horrified by it that he tried pushing it back down. But it kept insisting on coming forth. When finally, as he explained years later, he allowed himself to name what he was seeing, he saw that above the spire of the cathedral was the throne of God. Descending from the throne was ‘an enormous turd” that smashed into the spire and the walls of the cathedral crumbled.”
Newell insists that, “We are living in the midst of the great turd falling. In fact, it has already hit the spire, and the walls of Western Christianity are collapsing. In many parts of the West that collapse can only be described as seismic. In another twenty-five years, much of the Western Christian household, as we have known it, will be no more. One only has to look around on a typical Sunday in most of our mainstream Christian churches. Who will be there in another quarter of a century?”
Newell writes “There are three main response or reactions to this collapse. The first is to deny that it is happening. The second is to frantically try to shore up the foundations of the old thing.” The third, which Newell invites us into, is to ask: “what is trying to be born that requires a radical reorientation of our vision. What is the new thing that is trying to emerge from deep within us and from deep within the collective soul of Christianity?”
Newell goes on to tell of an encounter he had, “a few years ago after sharing Carl Jung’s dreamlike awareness of the enormous turd at a spirituality conference in the United States, when a woman came up to him at the end of his talk. The woman explained that she was a midwife and that in her twenty-five years of midwifery she had noticed that the turd nearly always comes before the birth. In other words, what is it that we need to let go of to prepare for new birthing?”
The religious right has highjacked the phrase born again and to hear some Christians tell it, being born again requires that we become something other than ourselves. We’ve all heard and read too many sermons that call us to deny our human nature, turn from our sinful nature and be born again. I have grown to hate the term born again. But this idea of new birth lies at the heart of Jesus’ teachings and points not to denial of who and what we are, not a turning away from our humanity, but rather allowing that which lies deep inside of us to come forth again.
Julian of Norwich reminds us that we are not just made by God, we are also made of God. All of creation sprang forth from God and is of God. Being born anew is setting free that which lies deep within, what is at the heart of all things—made of God—being set free to emerge in radically new ways. As Newell puts it, “The Rebirthing of God is precisely this.
It is point to a radical reemergence of the Divine from deep within us. We do not have to create it. We cannot create it. But we can let it spring froth and be reborn in our lives. We can be part of midwifing new holy births in the world.”
Within us is the likeness of the One from whom we have come and of whom we are made. We are made of the Love that lies at the very heart of reality. We are made of the light that was in the beginning. We are made of the Wisdom that fashioned the universe in all of its glorious interrelatedness. We are made of the LOVE that longs for oneness, for justice, and for peace.
Imagine if you will, a church born anew, a church that seeks to be a midwife to the rebirthing of the sacred; a church that seeks to facilitate the rebirthing of relationship among all that is of God, a church that not only celebrates creation but presides at the birth of emerging new relationships between the creatures of the earth and the forests of the earth.
Advent blue is a dark blue not a light sky blue. From within the depth of that darkness new birth awaits. Let our Advent traditions give way where they must so that we can prepare the way for the re-birth of God, in, with, through, and beyond us. For those of us who love the traditions of Advent, this birthing may be filled with pain, but surely not more pain than we can bare for the sake of those whose pain surpasses ours, in ways they are longing for us to understand.
John Philip Newell reminds us that, “We are earthlings. We do not have the capacity in and by ourselves to save the earth. We do, however, have the capacity to serve the earth and to nurture its deep energies for healing, to allow it the space and the time to renew itself.” Newell insists that the church is uniquely placed to be a blessing to the world. He writes: “The church’s role is to serve that deep knowing and to help translate it into how we live together with the earth.” He invites the church to, “a new humility, to serve the holy wisdom that is already stirring in the hearts of people everywhere, the growing awareness of earth’s interrelatedness and sacredness.”
I am reminded that the word humility comes from the word humus, which means earth. The church is being called to humility, to remember it’s earthiness. To call all of us to a kind of sacred midwifery, to facilitate the new birth of that which lies within the earth and deep within the heart of humanity. The humility to which we are called is to serve the earth and her creatures for we are one. Yes, there wild men in the wilderness, prophets of old calling us to wake up, for even the wild ones have wisdom to teach us, the way forward must be mindful of our traditions, but not bound by them. We must wake up, prepare ourselves to make a pathway in the wilderness. If Christianity is to be born anew, we must be about the work of rebirthing God, the One in whom we live and breathe and have our being. Institutions are not alone in their love of traditions, each of us treasure traditions that hold us into patterns of behavior that may not be as life-giving as our memories would have us believe. Particularly at this time of the year, we find ourselves doing things simply because that’s how we’ve always done them.
This Advent season, let us ask ourselves what we need to let go of so that something new can be born? What do we need to let go of so that LOVE can be born in, with, through, and beyond us?