Advent Week Three
Oscar Wilde famously quipped, “If you’re not too long, I will wait for you all my life.” There is something both funny and sad about this. Research has shown that Americans spend roughly 37 billion hours waiting in line each year. I suspect that total might be higher this year.
As we wait for this virus to pass and a vaccine to take hold, I want to tell you about a Japanese concept known as ‘ma.’ It refers to a gap, pause or negative space between things. Think about the time between ordering a hamburger and actually receiving it. You wait and your stomach growls, your mouth waters, or you get frustrated and “hangry” as others get their orders before you.
The beautiful thing about ‘ma’ is it offers us a great way to practice mindfulness. To live in that gap of time, fully present and aware of the world in and all around us.
I recently put this technique to the test while standing in a long line to get into Trader Joes. While most people stood there with their face buried into their phones, I made a mental list of all the things I was grateful for. As I did, I began to feel more relaxed and see the blessings of God all around me. And my mood transformed from frustrated and bored, to feeling calm and alive.
Advent is a season of waiting. A time to be present with God and be transformed in the process. The question for us is: How do we fill in the gap of time between now and when Christ is revealed in the world?
For the third Sunday in advent, we return to the proclamation of an unknown prophet who wrote this part of what is commonly known as third Isaiah. These words of hope were written in the aftermath of the Babylonian exile. The Israelites had waited a long time to go home and to begin the restoration of the Holy Land.
The prophet offers them this poetic reminder of who they are and what they are called to do as they rebuild their lives from the rubble of war. Some five hundred years after they were first spoken, Jesus would stand in synagogue in his hometown and read these very words to the congregation as he himself ushered in the Kingdom of Heaven in a new and yet familiar way.
Read Isaiah 61:1-4; 8-11
It is commonly believed that these verses from Isaiah center around the theme of salvation and mission. Perhaps that’s why Jesus read from this particular scroll when he did. As the story goes Luke’s gospel, Jesus returns to his hometown. The people are excited. Word had gotten out that he was a rabbi whose yoke, his interpretations and teachings of scripture, were new and exciting.
Similar to what this unknown author of this Isaiah passage is doing - recalling older traditions found in Torah and molding them in new ways. His mission is clear, “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Salvation has come for those who are afflicted. Debts will be wiped away. And the land will be returned to its rightful owners. Imagine your Congressperson proclaiming salvation like this he or she would be run out of town.
It shouldn’t surprise us that when Jesus read this passage, he too was revealing a bit of himself and his calling – that he has come to fulfill the redemptive grace of God. It’s funny what we call good news today was enough to send the folks in the pews running after Jesus to kill him. How blasphemous that he, the lowly carpenter’s kid, was going to be the one who save them.
Most Christians today have no problem professing that Jesus is their savior. But how many have ever been bold enough to ask, what is it that I need to be saved from? Somewhere along the way, salvation has come to be defined as being saved from God's punishment and avert going to hell. This seems to be counter intuitive to God’s hesed, or steadfast love. It makes God’s grace seem so petty and small. Like it’s based on quid pro quo.
A bigger problem I have in this way of thinking is that it puts the focus of our mission on filling up heaven with as many people as possible and has very little to do with actually doing the work to make people want to go there in the first place. Like Gandhi said, “I like your Christ, but not your Christians.” Too many people who say they believe in Jesus, but with little intention to actually follow what he calls them to do. That hypocrisy, I fear, is chasing people away from God’s love and grace instead of drawing them in. Where is the good news in that?
I think both Jesus and Isaiah challenge us to name salvation, not as making reservations for life after we die, but a way to live life before we die. If this is so, then salvation is not a free pass through the pearly gates. It’s about being transformed right here, beginning right now. It would mean our mission as followers of Christ must focus only on how we participate in this world.
Which takes us to the words in Isaiah. Like I said, he’s taking old promises and making them new again. His words of hope for God’s people are drawn directly from Torah, the story of life and how to live it. More than an extensive collection of laws God gave to Moses, Torah teaches us how to care for all of God’s creation...and live with abundance in God’s shalom.
We have a neighbor, Eli, who is a bighearted Moroccan Jewish immigrant from Israel. When I was in seminary, he was always curious about what I was learning. One day I saw him and said I had learned the meaning of life. And Eli laughed, “Oh really? Tell me, what is the meaning of life?”
I looked him in the eye and said one word, “Torah.”
Eli’s smile and said, “So now you know. But what about your Jesus?”
I thought for a moment and told him, “Jesus is the only one I know who lived Torah perfectly. By following him I have the key to living an abundant life.”
If Jesus is nothing more than the living embodiment of Torah, then he is still a savior. Following his teachings, his way of living life, is what saves us from doing harm to others. It invites us to be peace makers just as Jesus was. Our mission then, as the body of Christ, is to live Torah – which can be simplified in the way we love God, love others, and serve both.
And let us not forget those others we are called to love include those who are named as the recipients of the good news: the oppressed, the broken hearted, the captives and prisoners, the mournful, the faint of spirit. As followers of Christ, we are called to be missionaries who proclaim God’s favor among the nations so that God’s salvation will be known in a world not yet fully redeemed.
To stay well in the midst of all that’s happening in our world these days, Henri Nouwen advised us “to stay close to the small, vulnerable child that lives in our hearts and in every other human being.” That small child he speaks of is the Christ within us. The divine imprint of God’s love etched in all of creation.
Advent is a time of waiting. As we wait, let us use the time to look within ourselves and in the eyes of others to see the small Christ child and act accordingly.
Like Catherine Doherty wrote, “Christians are called to incarnate Christ in our lives, to clothe our lives with him, so that people can see him in us, touch him in us, recognize him in us.” But is that how we are spending our time? Have we let the busyness of the world get in the way of living Christ? As you think about that, take her words to heart.
When we allow the Christ in us be seen in us, then we might be more incline to act with love and compassion. It’s in those moments we begin to understand the power of God’s saving grace. “The immense problems of war, of social injustice, and of the thousand and one ills that beset our world, can be solved only if we begin to see, love, respect, and reverence Christ in the eyes of another, then they will change, and society will change also.”
What this means for us today is simple. When we allow the Christ in us be seen, we can meet cruelty with the compassion of Christ. When we allow the Christ in us be seen, we can face injustice with the fairness of Christ. When we allow the Christ in us be seen, we can speak truth and kindness even when others speak maliciously and lie. We can bring unity to division. Peace to unrest. And calm into anxiety and fear.
Whenever we liberate others with loving and forgiving hearts, our hearts are also set free. When we comfort those who mourn with Christlike compassion, our spirits are comforted as well. When we practice the way of Christ, we become more like him and less like us. We become transformed people.
I think this is what Paul was hinting at when he wrote, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so you may discern what is the will of God – what is good, acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2).
When we allow the Christ in us be seen, we live into who God made us to be beloved children who transform and redeem the world back to God. As followers of Christ, it’s our mission to reveal God’s salvific work ushering in the kingdom of heaven, right here and right now, by living Christ who perfectly embodied Torah.
Richard Rohr wrote, “Humanity needs a Jesus whose life can save you even more than his death. A Jesus we can practically imitate, and who sets the bar for what it means to be fully human.” This is why the concept of ‘ma’ is so important. In those times of waiting, we can fill the gap by living Christ. I like to breath slowly and say this mantra over and over as I wait:
Christ come into me
Christ come out of me
Christ come into me
Christ come out of me
Practicing mindfulness and ma is so simple anyone can do it. Anyone can offer a smile or a kind word to a stranger. Or text to a friend that simply says, “Thank you for being in my life.” Simple acts of kindness and generosity are a great way to let Christ shine through you. But remember, in order for Christ to be seen, Christ must always be present and visible.
And for some strange reason God has chosen us for this task. God entrusted you and me to give birth to the Christ within us so others may be awoken to his presence and see God’s glory. Let us go now, out into the world like “a garden that causes what is sown to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all nations.” Our world needs the light of Christ to shine through the darkness we are mired in.
So go be the incarnation of Christ by living out the Gospel with your life.
Go give birth to God’s divine and perfect love “as faithfully and fearlessly as a woman in labor who holds nothing back in order to bring new life into the world” (Rohr).
Go and shine the light of love and life that is in you...now and forever, Amen
let us pray:
Gracious and Giving God
open our eyes so we can see you.
Open our hearts so we can receive you.
Open our hands so we can share you.
Open our mouths so we can proclaim you.
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year B Vol. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008; pp. 50-55.
Rohr, Richard. The Universal Christ. New York: Convergent, 2019; p. 107.
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has been blogging under the name: Jesus not Jesús: Looking for Christ in the face of strangers. You can read his posts and browse his archives by clicking here.
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