Archive for December, 2010
An Ordinary Night
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
Christmas Eve, 2010
It was an ordinary night, like any night. To all appearances, it was an ordinary family, like any family. It was a humble family of the working class–of no particular distinction. Not an Emperor; not a king; not an aristocrat–not even a religious leader such as the Sadducees ot Pharisees. It was a night in an ordinary place in the remote fringes of the Roman Empire. Bethlehem was a small town of no particular distinction in the Roman Empire. Not like Rome, or Athens, or Alexandria, or Damascus, or Corinth, or Ephesus. And it was an ordinary birth, as all human babies are born. He was in many respects an ordinary baby–in need of protection, care, and suckling from His mother.
Yet to those who had eyes and ears, it was an extraordinary night. Magi from the east knew that it was an extraordinary night. These were wise men of the Zoroastrian religion, who studied the stars and saw an extraordinary star in the sky. Elizabeth and Zechariah knew that an extraordinary birth was about to take place, for they had been told so by the angel Gabriel. Ordinary shepherds on night watch also knew that it was an extraordinary birth. A whole chorus of angels had appeared to them and told them so. And His mother knew that this was an extraordinary night, and an extraordinary baby whom she had just given birth to. Her husband Joseph and she had been told so by the angel Gabriel, also.
Only to those who had eyes to see and ears to hear, was Christ’s birth anything other than ordinary. Only to those who had eyes and ears, was the birth of Christ something extraordinary. Only to those with eyes and ears, was Christ’s birth the coming of God into our material world.
Caesar Augustus knew nothing of it. None of the other petty kings and princes of the Roman city-states knew who had been born that night. King Herod, ruler of the very province of Christ’s birth, knew of Christ’s distinction only from the foreign Magi who had come from Persia to worship the baby. And Herod didn’t even know the place in his realm where this birth happened.
That’s the way God wanted it. That’s the way God is. God does not appear to anyone in the clouds of glory, descending from the sky for the whole world to see. God doesn’t force Himself on anyone. Rather, God invites us quietly to come to Him. And there is no more powerful way to call forth a loving response than to come to us as a baby. It is a baby’s unique power to calm, to soften, to stir the heart, and to call forth love. A holy awe surrounds all babies. And baby Jesus was no different in this respect.
But Jesus’ soul was God Himself. Although born of a human mother, Jesus’ origins were from on high. The angel Gabriel tells Mary that, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” Mary was carrying in her womb God incarnate, God who had taken on human flesh. This means that love itself had become human; love itself had taken on a material body. The source of all innocence was now an innocent baby. Innocence itself had become human, had taken on human flesh. Can we imagine what it must have felt like to be in the presence of that baby! To those who could feel, there would be no mistaking what child had been born to Mary.
Things are not all that different today. When we come to God today, it is in the midst of our ordinary lives. The world doesn’t stop; the heavens don’t open; God doesn’t appear in the clouds of glory. Rather, like that ordinary birth 2,000 years ago, God comes to us in the midst of our ordinary worldly affairs. It is we who must pause in our ordinary lives; it is we who must open our eyes; it is we who must seek the Christ as we go about our lives in this world. If we don’t seek that star; if we don’t hear the angels; if we don’t pause in the presence of that holy innocence, we will not find the Christ–just as the whole Roman Empire knew nothing of that extraordinary night and birth.
Let me illustrate this with a metaphor from this Christmas season. Like a lot of us, I rush around the stores looking for the Christmas gifts I want to buy for my loved ones. I dodge the crowds, and wait for cashiers–and I admit it, sometimes I wait impatiently. In the middle of all this, there are those baby strollers. As I hurry down the aisles of the shopping malls, there are those strollers in my way. Sometimes I dodge around them without breaking stride. Then, though, there are other times. There are times when I slow my pace; I look in the stroller; and I gaze on that baby’s face, bundled up in winter clothes. I look at the parents who are trying to shop while pushing around their precious baby. This is a time to stop and wonder at the mystery of birth and the innocence from which we have all started our lives. It is a holy moment in the midst of our ordinary lives.
More and more it seems that in society today people are working longer hours and more days. Just to make ends meet, we can take on extra work, or work longer shifts. Our free time is being squeezed out by the demands of this world. But we can never do without a place for God in our lives. It may not mean coming to church on Sunday morning. But somewhere, at some time, we need to open up to God. Just as He came to earth quietly, God will not impose Himself on us. God quietly knocks at the door; we must open it.
If our eyes remain closed, we will never see the wondrous Divine-Human who came to earth 2,000 years ago. But if we are like the shepherds; if we are like the Magi; if we are like Zechariah and Elizabeth, then we will see with wonder that glorious birth that happened 2,000 years ago. Christ will be in our lives and live in our hearts. Christmas time will remind us of the joy of our Savior who entered into our world so long ago and remains with us today. And in the ordinary affairs of our ordinary lives, an extraordinary miracle will transpire. Christ will be born within us.
The Virgin Will Be with Child
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
December 19, 2010
Isaiah 7:10-16 Matthew 1:18-25 Psalm 80
This morning’s readings emphasize women, specifically Mary. The Isaiah passage talks about the virgin who will be with child. It is foretold that this child will be called Immanuel. Immanuel in Hebrew means “God with us.” The passage from Matthew talks about Mary specifically, who is carrying our savior, God with us, Jesus Christ.
It is fitting and proper for us to dwell on the place of women in Christianity. When they play a pivotal role in the narratives, as is the case this morning, we need to pay especial consideration to their place. Unfortunately, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, men tend to dominate the narratives and theology. This is especially the case in Protestant Christianity, where the role of Mary is considerably reduced from her role in Catholicism.
Mary plays a unique role in the Christmas story. She is the one who carries our Lord in her womb and gives birth to the Savior of humanity. And yet, Mary is in a vulnerable place in Jewish society–as vulnerable as Jesus Himself was as the baby born of Mary. Matthew shows us how the fate of women is beholden to the power of men. At the very beginning of the story of Jesus’ birth, Joseph is about to divorce Mary. Without a husband, women in the Jewish world were helpless, since men controlled all the money, land, and power. So even the mother of our Lord was subject to the will of her husband. And in our society today, in many cases, women are still victims to the will of their mates. When couples separate, most often it is the woman who is left to care for the children, and in too many cases without help from the father.
Fortunately in the Christmas story, an angel of God announces to Joseph that Jesus was conceived in Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. And this miraculous conception makes Joseph’s marriage holy and indeed, ordained by God. Even in ordinary human marriages and ordinary human births, we are confronted by a miracle. When an egg is fertilized a miraculous process is initiated by which a full human being is formed out of the mother’s own body. The baby is nurtured by the mother’s food. The mother’s blood flows through the baby’s veins. The baby grows and matures into a complete person who is completely distinct from its mother. And then when the baby is delivered from the mother’s womb, it is as if a part of the woman has left her body. Medical science still cannot discern how this gestation takes place. We don’t know how a cell becomes a heart, or the lungs, or a kidney, or a brain. This is a miracle that God oversees and that leaves us in wonder.
The attachment that a mother has for her child is perhaps the strongest loving attachment known to the human race. And there are references scattered throughout the Gospels to the role that Mary played in the life of Jesus. We find in Mary those same qualities that define mothers today, and that have defined mothers throughout the ages. Again and again, we find that it is Mary who cares most for her child, and who knows Him best. When Jesus stays behind in the temple talking with wise rabbis, and the holy family notices Him missing, it is Mary who worries about Jesus. She says, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you” (Luke 2:48). Then, when Jesus becomes an adult, knowing His powers, it is Mary who urges Jesus to perform His first miracle. This is the story of the marriage feast. They run out of wine and Mary asks Jesus to help out. Like a typical young adult, Jesus tries to get out of it, “Dear woman, why do you involve me? My time has not yet come” (John 2:4). Like a typical mother, Mary ignores Jesus’ protestations and tells the servants, “Do whatever He tells you.” They bring jars of water to Jesus, who then turns the water into wine, performing His first miracle urged on by His mother. And finally at the end of Jesus’ ministry, His mother stood by her son at the cross. In every way, we see a mother’s love exemplified in Mary. Although a holy woman, chosen by God to bring salvation into the world, Mary was still a mother, and lived and loved as mother do today and have through the ages.
Telescoping back a little, we can consider another bond of love. I mean the holy family. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus form an ideal image of Christian family. It is an ideal family, and an ideal I fear we are losing to a very great extent today. In Matthew’s birth story, we are told that Jesus will be the Savior of humanity. I have just said that we are losing the ideal of the Christian family, and here, society needs so much to recognize its need for a savior. Unfortunately, I have noticed that those most in need of salvation are the same people who seem self-content and feel that they need no savior. Yet the brokenness we see in family life today calls out for salvation and healing. Many couples today have split up, leaving their children with family life that lacks wholeness. For whole personality development, children need strong male and female role models. Yet in so many households today, we find single parents–which almost always means single mother households. This situation leaves the mother with the burden of working, housekeeping, and childrearing all on her own. The amount of quality time that a mother can devote to her child is being squeezed out by the demands of life in this broken world. And there are even worse scenarios to consider. As Sister Lucinda can tell us, many households are broken and scarred by domestic violence. Not only are relationships strained, but actually abusive and violent to the extent that flight is the only solution. I will give Sister Lucinda time to speak to this situation, if that is her inclination. Our families are very much in need of salvation. The brokenness of our fallen world is most painfully felt in the abusive households that our society has generated. As in the days of Christ, we are still a culture very much in need of healing. Very much in need of a Savior.
There is a final relationship that this morning’s readings bring up. We have considered the relationship between mother and child. We have considered the relationship between members of a family. We now turn to our relationship with God. For ultimately, the Bible readings for this morning are about the birth of Jesus Christ, our Savior. This suggests the mystical relationship of the spiritual marriage. The relationship between Christ and the community of believers is compared to a mystical marriage in many places in the Bible. In several places in the Gospels, Jesus says things like, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast when he is with them?” (Mark 2:19). Or in Paul we find,
He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds it and cares for it, just as Christ does the church–for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery–but I am talking about Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:28-32).
And in Revelation we are all invited to the marriage feast of the Lamb, “Then the angel said to me, ‘Write; “Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!”‘” (Rev. 19:9).
Swedenborg describes God as infinite love and infinite wisdom. God enters our minds and hearts when we acquire wisdom and let God’s love into our hearts. When the union of love and wisdom that God is, enters us as the finite love and wisdom we acquire, then we are married to God. God is in us and we are in God. This is spiritual marriage. And everything we have considered above depends on this spiritual marriage. A mother filled with God’s love and wisdom cares for her child and raises him or her to be a good citizen and spiritual individual. A couple who is filled with God’s love and wisdom knows how to care for each other’s needs and knows how to show love in healthy ways. And every person finally has a spiritual loving relationship with God, which is the primary and most essential relationship of all. Jesus came into the world to bring a fallen world back to God. And with Christ’s incarnation, the world was given a new way to come to God through the person of Jesus Christ. This love relationship is eternal. This love relationship lasts beyond the grave. And this love relationship brings healing to a broken world. This is the ultimate significance of that mother’s child, who came into this world 2,000 years ago.
A Banner for the Peoples
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
December 5, 2010
Isaiah 11:1-10 Matthew 3:1-12 Psalm 72
Once again this Sunday we find extremely optimistic readings from the Old Testament and rather frightening readings from the New Testament. Our responsive reading this morning from Psalm 72 was about a renewed and glorious earth. The righteous Messiah was to endure forever–as long and the sun and moon. In his days the righteous will flourish and prosperity will abound. Crops will abound and all the nations outside Israel will be blessed through him. Clearly, this is no ordinary ruler, no human king. This prophesy is about a cosmic Messiah, a king who is a divine being with power beyond any mortal. We can see in the reading from Psalm 72 that over time, the hopes for a Messiah grew far beyond the role that an ordinary human could fulfill.
We find a similar grand prophesy in Isaiah. Isaiah talks about a shoot from the stump of Jesse sprouting. Jesse was King David’s father, so the shoot from Jesse would be a descendant of King David. This is the Messianic promise that God makes with David. God promises David that there will be one of his children on the throne in Jerusalem forever. In 2 Samuel 7, God tells David, “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever” (16). After the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, there was no Israelite king on the throne–let alone a king from David’s lineage. So prophesies began to come out promising that some glorious day in the future, the king from David’s lineage would come to Jerusalem and take the throne there. It is such a king that Isaiah refers to when he talks about the shoot from the stump of Jesse.
But in Isaiah, too, we see that the Messiah hoped for is superhuman. The kinds of things this Messiah would do no ordinary human could. When this Messiah comes, the whole world will be transformed. The whole cosmos will be reconciled to God. In the days of this Messiah, “The whole earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (11:9). Peace will abide throughout the earth.
The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat
the calf and the lion and the yearling together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox (11:6-7).
This Messiah will be filled with the Spirit of God:
The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him–
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding
the Spirit of counsel and of power,
the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD–
and he will delight in the fear of the LORD (11:2).
These expectations are called apocalyptic expectations. They refer to a reconciliation between God and the entire cosmos. In some apocalyptic writings, God Himself will rule over a restored universe. In the readings we have heard this morning, the final apocalyptic age will be ruled over by the Messiah, from David’s lineage. These apocalyptic hopes were very prevalent in the time of Jesus. And exactly what the Messiah would be was mixed up according to several versions, as is typical of any doctrine.
We encounter these apocalyptic expectations again in our New Testament reading from Matthew. The big difference between the Matthew account of the apocalyptic age and that of Psalm 72 and Isaiah 11 is where we are on the timeline of events. Psalm 72 and Isaiah 11 talk about the time after the great cosmic battle between light and darkness that precedes the end times. John the Baptist talks about the battle itself. His words are somewhat frightening as he speaks about the coming Day of Yahweh. John says, “The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10). This statement is about the nearness of the great battle between light and darkness. Jesus Himself made a similar remark in the Sermon on the Mount. There He says, “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire (Matthew 7:19). John then talks about the coming Messiah with similarly frightening words, “His winnowing fork is in his hand and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering the wheat into his barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (3:12).
In some ways Jesus fulfilled the Messianic hopes of the Israelites and in some ways He didn’t. Both Matthew and Luke are careful to trace Jesus’ lineage through King David. This genealogy establishes the claim that Jesus can be the Messiah. However, He didn’t drive out the Romans and establish a throne in Jerusalem as many Israelites had hoped He would. In this, Jesus did not fulfill the Messianic hopes of many. On the other hand, Jesus did become that “banner for the nations” that Isaiah had talked about. Jesus was a superhuman being who healed, was filled with the “Spirit of the LORD,” as Isaiah claimed He would be–or as Matthew puts it, the “Spirit of wisdom and righteousness.” Jesus did reclaim the lost sheep of God, and brought Godliness to a fallen world. Considered from the cosmic power of His ministry, Jesus did fulfill some aspects of the hopes for the Messiah. Jesus was truly a God-Man, that Isaiah had prophesied about.
Then when we consider the effects of Jesus’ life and ministry, we see just how much He established a new cosmic age in the world. Recall that in the world in which Jesus lived, the Classical gods were the popular world religion. It was an age of Jupiter, Apollo, Demeter, Vulcan, Persephone, Diana, and the whole pantheon of Roman and Greek deities. Not only was Christianity a new religion, it was forbidden by the state on pain of death–horrible death, as Romans were so good at. Yet Christianity thrived and grew as an underground movement for three-hundred years. The good news of Jesus and love was unstoppable. In 313 AD the Emperor Constantine passed the Edict of Milan which made Christianity legal, and the great Roman Empire became a Christian Empire with Constantine as its first Emperor. The face of the whole western world was transformed.
Jesus had truly become a “banner to the peoples” with His ministry of peace, love, and healing. His message replaced the religion of an entire empire. The impact of Jesus was truly that Divine Human that the Messiah had become in the prophesies. But sadly, it seems that the world wasn’t transformed to the extent the apocalyptic writers had hoped for. The lion, leopard, and the wolf are still the same fierce predators they had always been. And humanity is still the fierce savage that he was in the past. Wars are still waged, blood is still spilled. The earth is not filled with the knowledge of the LORD as the waters of the sea. It seems that spirituality has not only not filled the world, but may be fading in strength from our society.
In the Bible there is a term that occurs in places. There is always a “faithful remnant” that remains after conquests. So after Babylon conquered Judah, a faithful remnant remained that still worshipped Yahweh. I see this in our world today. While it may look like Christianity is fading. While it may look like spirituality is on the decline. There is still a faithful remnant of Christians in the world who practice Christ’s gentle teachings. Those who come to church, come here because they want to worship, not out of bare custom. We don’t see the workings of God above. Nor do we know what plans He has for our world. It was the pagan Romans and Greeks that embraced Christianity when it first dawned on the world’s consciousness. Christianity was not embraced by the Jews to whom Jesus came. Perhaps it is those we see in the world that are unchurched who will be the first to embrace the New Jerusalem in whatever form it descends from heaven in.
Meanwhile, our task is clear. We call ourselves Christians, and for us, following in the way of the Christ is our task. While we may remain open to wisdom traditions from all ages, we will form our foundations on the teachings that Christ gave us 2,000 years ago. The words He spoke are timeless and fathomless. They are just as alive to us today as they were to his followers 2,000 years ago. As we seek to let Jesus into our hearts and lives; and as we seek to let His Spirit flow through us, we are being baptised daily with the Holy Spirit and with fire, as John the Baptist said Christ would do for us. Ours is not to bemoan or worry about the future of Christianity in the world. Ours is but to do our best to practice Christianity in our individual lives and to act in society to transform our social policies into more humane and just institutions. For such is what Christ would have us do, even as we await that better world where:
the wolf will live with the lamb.
the leopard will lie down with the goat
the calf and the lion and the yearling together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox (11:6-7).