The Third Sunday of Advent
December 16, 2012
Dr. Pam Birrell
Surpassing Human Understanding
This is not at all the sermon I intended to give today. I had something very much different in mind. I was going to start with the story of a friend who papered her bathroom walls with postcards, including the one that said, “Gravity; it’s not just a good idea. It’s the law.”
But then Friday’s school shooting happened, and in the face of that tragedy, I needed and wanted to change course. After that horrifying event, we began to hear all the familiar questions and opinions. “How could this kind of thing happen?” “How can we stop it?” Voices and questions come from all sides and we are caught in a maelstrom of despair, confusion, and pain.
In the days to come there will be much speculating as to the causes and cures for events such as these. We will hear psychologists interviewed on television giving their version of the reasons for such events, from so called “mental disorders” to drugs (illegal and legal) to poor parenting to video games (don’t always believe what they say). We will hear politicians arguing about violence and gun control. We will hear religious figures arguing about the theological reasons it happened. I have already heard a preacher say that it happened because we aren’t inviting God into our schools since we have limited school prayers. When it comes down to it we have to admit that we just don’t know why things like this happen. It surpasses human understanding.
So we ask the next question which seems obvious enough, “What should we do?”
Sound familiar? This is the question the people asked of John the Baptist. They lived in a time much like ours—and time of empire—a great divide between the rich and the poor, unfair taxation, rampant violence and broken hopes.
And his answer comes to us from today’s Gospel. Let’s put in context: You brood of vipers! You think you are so great! And you call yourselves Christians. You are not so great. God could raise up stones that would be better behaved and more worthy than you are. I tell you; you must repent or be destroyed! Look around you at what you have wrought! You are not bearing good fruit and will be thrown into the unquenchable fire by the One who is coming!!
Feel better now? Notwithstanding the ending of that Gospel, burning in unquenchable fire if we don’t behave is most definitely NOT good news!!
But the question remains: What should we do? Many of the answers you will hear in the next days and weeks are much like the answers that John gave. Keep following the laws and rules of society, and be generous and good, we’re in this together. And there is a certain stage in our lives when this is the proper question and the proper answer. There are rules to follow if we are live together in a civilized society. We need to be generous and unselfish and uphold the social order. Is that the best we can do as human beings?
Perhaps so. I don’t know about you, but I find this question and John’s answers wholly unsatisfying and shallow. For someone who is described as so counter cultural it’s interesting that he just tells us to follow the rules and be good. I am ready to dismiss John. And then I remember what Jesus says of John: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (Matthew 2: 11)
I think that Jesus is saying that John’s way of thinking is as good as we can get on our own. He represents our human effort and that is important. And he is right. We must make that effort to prepare a way for the Lord. But Jesus says there is more. John, and therefore we, are less than the least in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus is not just calling us to better behavior and following the established order. He is calling us to a new consciousness, an entirely new way of being. He is calling us to the kingdom.
The kingdom is not a place, but a consciousness within us where we confront our deepest longings, our inmost hopes and inner selves. It is most often dismissed by our materialistic and comfort seeking culture. It is a place not of rules and behavior but of dreams and poetry, not of logic but of love. It takes us deep within ourselves and the heart of God. It surpasses mere human understanding.
Even Kingdom questions are different that the questions that come from our human understanding. It doesn’t ask, “What should we do?” It asks, “Who are we in our deepest being? How can we live in the deep mystery of life in the truest possible way?” It is where Jesus is born in us. It is an experience of deep interbeing, as the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh calls it. The Sufi Poet Rumi talks about a field beyond “right and wrongdoing”. “I’ll meet you there,” he says.
And it is a place of meeting—true meeting with others, beyond judgment and expectation. It is where we experience our deep connection with each other and all things. It is the place from which true healing springs.
A few years ago, a friend of mine lost her son at birth. Here is some of what I wrote to her. I offer it to the parents of Newtown, CT, and I offer it to you all, since many of us have faced tragedy as well:
I just wanted to let you know what I've been thinking and praying. I am so sorry for the loss of you son. He was special and so loved and looked forward to. In your loss of him, you have been called to wild places—places of deep grief, profound loss, and intense heartache. My heart aches with you. You have been called beyond where most of us will be called to travel.
My prayer is that in these wild places, you will find unexpected surprises in the pain and desolation—calm pools of deep peace, open landscapes of profound beauty, and deep caverns of rest and intense splendor. I pray that you will find solace in the gentle glance of a loving friend, comfort in the tenderness of wind and sun, consolation in the unending support of all of us.
Most of all, I pray that in this journey, your soul is stretched, opened, and enlivened with true life, and that your heart is expanded past limitations it didn’t know that it had. I pray that through it all you allow the winds of grace to move your spirit in ways more and more truly in harmony with the deep life that lives in and through us all.
Once, I knew a graduate student who lost his son of 5 months to SIDS. He observed that, walking around the streets of Eugene, there might be others like him, and wondered how many people we meet in a day who carry such tremendous loss. It opened him to a new dimension of existence and the knowing that that is how we must be with each other—as though we all have such pain, or such capacity for pain, in our souls. And perhaps that is one of the gifts for you in all of this suffering—the ability and the capacity to join with others at that level where most people fear to tread—and yet the only true healing place.
In the meantime, you will ache for him, in the depths of your body you will know that a real part of you has been lost forever. You will cry and be angry and have emotions that we don’t even have names for. Let it all happen to you. Let it happen. Let the life of Christ live through you and open you to the new life he promises.
This is the promise of Advent. It is not only a cheerful waiting for the birth of the baby Jesus. It is a deep and quiet waiting for the dawning of the coming of the kingdom within. It is being open to the indwelling Christ and the pain, connection, and comfort that he brings. It is beyond human understanding, and it does bring that peace that truly surpasses all understanding.