“Well Pleased”

O.K., I will without abash tell you that I am big fan of the PBS series “Downtown Abbey.”   If you didn’t happen to watch it last year, you missed a glimpse back into a different time and place, the orderly and polite society of Edwardian England.  

            It is a society that is strictly ordered and fastidiously maintained. The fabric of society is clear and precise, but much of the drama and intrigue of the series revolves around the “thin places” of that fabric.   People stepping ever so slightly out of line, entertaining radical thoughts of changing the way things have “always been.”   We observe these small, tentative, highly disapproved of steps out of the established order for the sake of finding new life.

But you know, our society is not so different.
   We too, as course as we have become, still have our sense of decorum, of what is out of bounds, what one just does not do. 

You don’t go to a sporting event wearing the colors of your opponent.

You don’t use a Marine Corps Uniform as a fashion statement, wearing it because it looks cool.

One does not, as it turns out, try to take a jar of homemade jam or a muffin with a jelly like icing in a jar onto an airplane in the post 9/11 world; for it will not make it through TSA checkpoints, common sense notwithstanding.

In the church too, we have our strong desire to have things done politely and in good order.
   We cite our constitutions.   We construct our committees and teams.   We defer decisions to proper channels, and determine policies and procedure to do things in the proper way.   We have our opinions about what is proper in worship, in groups, in the way to conduct business.

We talk about all of those things in terms of “fabric” don’t we, this interweaving of politeness and order?  
The Fabric of society is such that it should be maintained.

But in Mark’s Gospel, when God comes into this world, it is like this….. RIIIIIIIIPPPP……

            9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

            This is what pleases God in the baptism of Jesus…things are torn apart and the polite and orderly as a value to be held above all else is cast aside. There is nothing polite or orderly about the ministry of Jesus as it unfolds.   He spends time where he should not, with the sinners and tax collectors, and pays no heed to the Pharisees or the Temple. 

He does not politely turn aside from beggars or the blind.

He does not keep a safe distance from the unclean, but allows them to touch him, and reaches out to touch them in return.

He makes heroes of villains, lifting up the virtues of the Samaritans and Gentiles, and attributing faith to them; while pressing and criticizing the Pharisees, the “good church folk” for their lack of compassion, or their insistence on ritual, or their love of detail, pointing out the specks in the eyes of others while ignoring the log in their own eye.

This is what God did in Jesus, and it begins at the Baptism in Mark’s Gospel.
  God rips open the fabric of the world.  God has done this for a reason.  Heaven has been torn open so that it cannot be mended. 

The Spirit that descends upon Jesus will be a restless spirit, driving Jesus to the wilderness.
  Blowing where it wills, it is a Spirit that cannot be contained back behind the veils any longer.  It will fall and alight upon whoever is open to it, whoever receives it.  We make God out to be a God who likes orderliness, but how do we explain this?   How do we understand a God who would choose to violently rip his own creation so that his Spirit can roam free?

And just in case you think I’m a bit off the mark here, look ahead in the story.  

The curtain of heaven is torn when Jesus is baptized.

The curtain of the Temple will be torn from top to bottom when Jesus dies on the cross.
   There is violence at both ends of this story of Jesus.  Tearing, rending of the things that are meant to hold back God, or designed to put God in God’s “proper” place… up in heaven, or locked within the Temple.

This is what baptism is about, both Jesus’ baptism and ours.

It is, in a sense, about a violence done to us, an irreparable change.
   It is the end of the polite separations we would like to make between God and ourselves.

It pleases God to rip into our world.

It pleases God to see his Son, the beloved, receiving this Spirit that drives him.

It pleases God, dare we say, to see us receive that same Spirit and to find ourselves driven as Jesus was.

It pleases God to see us driven by the Spirit to serve.

It pleases God to see us driven to question the polite boundaries of society, to reach out to the unclean, and to allow the unclean to touch us.

It pleases God to see us driven by our Baptism to act in unwise and incautious ways in order to proclaim the forgiveness of sins, to drive out the demons of this world, and to heal the sick and mend the brokenhearted.   

“You are my beloved child, with you I am well pleased.”
  That is what God says to Jesus when the heavens are ripped open and the Spirit starts to drive him.

Dare we begin to believe, that God would have the same to say to us?

What are we to make of a God who does such violence to the beauty of his creation?

Such a nice heavens, and orderly creation, torn to shreds.

This is why God does violence to the creation in baptism.
   God tears away the things that separate him from us, and declares that WE are more beloved than all of that.  More precious and glorious to God than the wonders of the heavens are you…he’ll rip through them to get to you.

More precious and glorious than the finery of the Temple and all its wonders are you… God will tear those linens from top to bottom to be loose in the world among his people.

The veil, the polite veil of good order and seeing to our own interests first has got to be torn for the Spirit to begin to move freely in our lives and in this world.   Polite society is at an end.   The Kingdom of God is at hand.  Thanks be to God.

What Old Eyes See

Happy New Year!   Welcome to 2012, and to the wondering about what this new year will bring and what it will hold for us.

            It is a year that comes with a little freight, thanks to the Mayan Civilization whose long count calendar ended in 2012.  Hollywood has made much ado about how this predicts the end of the world, but in reality it has more to do with the fact that the Mayan civilization died out at around 900 A.D. and there were simply no longer any astronomers to work out the next long count calendar, or for that matter, Mayan Insurance Agents to distribute them. 

            Still and all, we do look always at the dawn of a new year with the eyes of speculation.  What will this year bring, we wonder?

            This year that specter of pondering is enhanced by the Gospel lesson for the first Sunday of Christmas, where we see in Luke’s Gospel the “old eyes” of Simeon and Anna looking upon Jesus and “seeing” in him great things.

            It is a curious story.

            Simeon is sitting around waiting for his own death, after all.

            Anna, the prophet, has been in the temple continually since being widowed, which only makes sense because that’s where widows go to get their alms, the dispensation from the Temple to meet the needs of daily life.

            So what we have in this story are two welfare/medicare recipients.  They are social security drawing codgers who are hanging out in the temple, largely ignored by those coming and going to do their business.  

            Like two old people on the park bench of their day, they remain invisible until the child Jesus is brought in for his routine check-up following circumcision.   Then it is that those whom we often assume have dull eyes step front and center into the picture with brilliant clarity.  

            Simeon scoops the child up out of his mother’s arms and right there in the midst of the bustle and hubbub of the temple courts, begins his words of praise.  We have made of them a song, but for Simeon it was not so much something to be sung as it is the musing of one who has long been on the watch for God.

            Here is Simeon, a man who is righteous. 

            Here is Simeon, a man who is devout.  

            Here sits Simeon, a man who is, in other words, hopelessly out of step with everything going on around him.   

            You have seen his kind before.

            He’s looking for the “consolation of Israel,”—whatever that is.  

            He is looking for something different than the way things used to be, but also something quite different from the current status quo.

            He has old eyes, and looking what does he see?   He sees a child, a mother and father, and very little else. 

            And yet, somehow the power of the Holy Spirit gives his eyesight a boost beyond appearance.

            “This child,” he says “is destined…..” 

             And then suddenly the words of an old man are hung upon with such precision that they ring out through the ages.

            “This child….”

            The “consolation of Israel” as it turns out is not about going back to the way things used to be, or the restoration of a nation, but it is something that is something new that is about to encompass the whole world, and everyone.

            As hopeful as this old man’s vision is, there is sadness in it.   He gets to see just “this” much of what God is about to do, and then he goes in peace, content that God is at work bringing about God’s promises.

            This child of destiny will be the source of the piercing of his own mother’s soul, the old man also predicts, or sees.

            As he lays his old hands of blessing upon them, he does so knowing that he will not see the ending of this; only this beginning.

            Oh, and as Simeon is doing his thing, Anna the prophet also kicks in, but we don’t even get to hear her words of prediction, only that she too praises the child and speaks of him to all those who are looking for the redemption of Israel.  

            That too, is curious, for you would think that the words of a prophet would trump the musings of an old man, but not in this case.  This is Simeon’s moment, and what he says ends up being the pattern for how things will play out.

            What are we to make of this in the dawning of a New Year?

            Well maybe just this.   While we don’t know what 2012 will bring, we do have a glimpse into the God who enters this human story of ours in time and space. 

            He is born of simple parents.

            He is subject to the existing laws that determine what will be, whether that be Caesar’s Census, or the laws of purification, or the laws of gravity and the cosmos.   He enters this world of limitation and finds a way to work both within them, and to set them aside when the need is great.   The storm will be stilled.   Water turned to wine.  The lame will walk, the blind see, and the mentally disturbed made whole.  

            He is destined for the rise and fall of many, and in the coming year certainly we will see that once again, as people rise, and people fall.  

            Maybe on New Year’s Day it is good to ask to have Simeon eyes that see more than what the world presents.

            Maybe on New Year’s Day, it is not a bad thing to be reminded that it is o.k. to be out of step with culture, and that there is an advantageous to striving for righteousness, and to set aside time to be devout, because maybe that helps you see things that others too busy with the bustle and hubbub cannot see.

            Maybe on New Year’s Day, we have a chance to join with Simeon in looking at all that this child is destined to be for a world that will largely ignore him today, because it is tired, or hung over, or too busy swishing and pinching at the latest technology.

            We look at the start of new year, not so much for the consolation of Israel, as for that thing that Simeon glimpsed, the Kingdom of God coming upon us, which is not about nostalgia or restoration of what used to be so much as it is about God completing what God first began in creation.

            Welcome to 2012, the year we may glimpse God’s salvation for all, and find ourselves to be a part of it.