The Way Toward Birth – Dawning Light

A Sermon on Isaiah 11: 1-10 & Luke 1: 67-79Ken Kovacs
Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs, Ph.D.
Catonsville Presbyterian Church, Catonsville, MD

Come with me to the place of birth and rebirth.
Come, beloved of God, to the place of renewal and new beginnings.
Come, Holy ones, to the place of your resurrection, the place of life.
Come with me down the narrow way that leads to the broad fields of salvation.
For the road is before us.  The journey beckons.  The path calls out your name.  Venture toward the place of light and illumination.  Step out.  Trust it.  Follow.

Yes, Advent means “coming.”   In this season we remember the original coming of Jesus, his birth in Bethlehem, the place of God’s incarnation, and prepare for his future coming again. Yes, advent is about arrival.  In this season we remember the arrival of God and the promised future return of Christ.

However, Advent is also about another “coming,” another “arrival.”  It’s about our arrival at the place of birth, the place of God’s incarnation in us.  It’s about Jesus’ coming into our lives, his arrival, in our flesh.  It’s about Jesus being born in us.  There’s a 15th century poem that goes like this:

Lo, in the silent night
A child to God is born
And all is brought again
That ere was lost or lorn.
Could but thy soul
Become a silent night!
God would be born in thee
And set all things right. (Anonymous)

Where is the place of Bethlehem in you?  Yes, the incarnation is about Jesus.  “For in him,” Paul wrote, “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Co. 1:19-20).  Yes, it’s about Jesus, but the significance of his birth is not merely the mystery of God enfleshing humanity – that’s significant, don’t get me wrong.  But now follow-through with this insight, what does it really mean? Bring it closer home still, “in here,” within.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) urged us to recall, the very core of Christ’s being is always related to the self, pro me, for me.[1] What does it mean pro me, for me?

We come to see that what God did in Jesus reveals to us something of who God is and how God acts and what God loves to do in us.  The incarnation—in-carnatio—means, literally, “going into flesh.”  That’s what God does:  always has, always will.  Christmas calls us to see the way of God in us, in creation.  Once we see it at work in Jesus, we can see the pattern at work all around us, in the world, in our lives.[2]  God is in the birthing business, as it were, and delights in bringing universes and things and, most of all, people to life.  God has this uncanny habit of taking delight in novelty, in making all things new, extending horizons of hope where there’s only despair and darkness, of breaking forth light in the night and dazzling us with the dawn.

Robert Frost (1874-1963) got it right, here, in this poem:

But God’s own descent
Into flesh was meant
As a demonstration
That the supreme merit
Lay in risking spirit
In substantiation.
Spirit enters flesh
And for all it’s worth
Charges into earth
In birth after birth
ever fresh and fresh.[3]

I think Frost gets it right because he realizes that the incarnation is not a one-time occurrence but something that has fundamentally changed and is changing the very structure of our existence.  In the incarnation we discover a “demonstration” that God is forever “risking spirit” by being active in the world and our lives.  The Spirit enters and for all it’s worth charges into earth – where?  Yes, in Jesus, but in birth after birth, ever fresh and fresh.  In your birth and my birth ever fresh and fresh, doing something new.

You see Frost’s view takes Christianity away from being primarily a belief system that we simple believe in, a list of theological ideas that we subscribe to, of intellectual assent that we offer, a devotion to a historical figure, or a weak inane do-goodism, takes us away from these views of Christianity and moves us toward something that we participate in, to an experience, a human journey of divine dimensions.  It’s the journey that counts:  your journey, my journey, individually and together.  Yes, Mary can say, “My soul magnifies, glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior (Luke 1:46-47).” but she, too, demonstrates something for us.  What will it take for us, for you and me, to be able to say that our souls are magnifying and glorifying, intensifying and reflecting the love of God and therefore we rejoice?  The journey to that point, to that kind of realization, to that confession is the way toward birth; it’s the journey of faith.  It can happen in a moment or it can take a lifetime, but it’s the journey that counts.  Advent, Christmas Epiphany – the Incarnation – add the Transfiguration, Lent, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost are all about God making this journey toward us and then inviting us to make the journey toward God and showing us the way.

Yes, the journey will take us through dark places.  Yes, we will get lost.  Yes, it will seem like there’s no hope.  Yes, there will be hardship and loss.  That’s what Judah knew in its own journey with Yahweh.  Life will be tough and difficult, full of pain and suffering, sometimes because of the faith we hold (or that holds us).  But – hear the good news – Isaiah tells us, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.  The spirit of Yahweh shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD” (Isaiah 11:1).  A shoot shall come out from what appeared to be a dead tree cut to its roots. Life will emerge from apparent death.  Something new is about to take place.

Now, from our Christian perspective, we hear these words and immediately think of Jesus.  We hear “spirit” and think of the Holy Spirit.  But these were not Isaiah’s reference points.  He’s not necessarily taking about a future Messiah.  But what he is talking about is the generative power of God.  “The tradition of Isaiah,” Walter Brueggemann reminds us, “never ceases to be astonished at the newness and never fails to summon God’s people to hope and expectation in the face of discouraging circumstance.”[4]  Yahweh will come and do a new thing, because Yahweh delights in creation, in newness.  The coming of Yahweh is generative, irresistible, an authorizing “wind,” a spirit as force that “enlivens, gives power, energy and courage,” so that the bearer of this spirit “is recognized as one designated, who has the capacity to do what the world believes is impossible.”[5]  That’s what Yahweh will do in and through “him,” whoever “him” will be.  Whoever is the bearer of the spirit of Yahweh generates a new historical possibility where none was available.  He – she – will do something new. Again, Bruggemann makes the point that Isaiah’s poem here in chapter eleven is essentially about transformation, the kind of change that takes place when the Spirit is guiding us.  This vision of the wolf living with the lamb, this “peaceable kingdom,” “is one of the most remarkable assertions in the Bible, that there will be ‘all things new’ in creation when God fully authorizes the right human agents.”[6]

The first followers of Jesus saw in him one such “agent” fully authorized by the Spirit of Yahweh.  They saw within Jesus, God doing something new.  In him they witnessed “the tender mercy of God.”  For in him, as Zechariah said, they saw the dawn breaking forth in dazzling brilliance, “giving light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1: 78-79).

To guide our feet into the way of peace.
To guide our feet into the way.
To guide our feet.
To guide.

God’s own descent
Into flesh was meant
As a demonstration
That the supreme merit
Lay in risking spirit
In substantiation.
Spirit enters flesh
And for all its worth
Charges into earth
In birth after birth
ever fresh and fresh.

This week we will celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, celebrating with friends and family the most distinctive theological claim of Christianity, the incarnation, which sets us apart from every other religion on this earth.  The history is important.  But history doesn’t save us, it doesn’t renew us, it doesn’t allow us to participate in the ongoing presence of the Spirit who moves through creation.  Yes, we can celebrate what took place in the past, but what about celebrating the ongoing realization of Christ’s incarnating presence in our lives?  Is Christ stuck in the past or is he an ongoing presence being born again and again in humanity?

Last year, a friend posted a photograph on his facebook page.  It was an image of a manger scene.  The figures appeared to be made of clay or ceramic.  You can see a donkey, a cow, some sheep.  Mary and Joseph are there on either side of the manger full of hay holding the baby Jesus.  But if you look closely at the figure of Jesus he is being held firmly in place with a white, plastic strip—a cable tie—that wraps around the belly of the baby Jesus and manger.  “This baby Jesus isn’t going anywhere,” the facebook caption read.  (Oddly enough, this morning I found a cable tie on the ground, on the driveway between the church and the church house.)  My friend is a student at Princeton Seminary.  I asked him, “Where is this crèche?”  “Mackay,” he replied.  “Mackay at Princeton Seminary?” I asked, surprised? Mackay is the name of the student center on the Princeton Seminary campus.  “Oh yeah,” he replied.  Now, seminarians are known for their many pranks.  I was involved in several.  So I can appreciate why the administration had to take precautions that the baby Jesus didn’t get stolen by seminarians.

I felt there was a good sermon illustration in there somewhere. The more I thought about it I wondered, isn’t that what we love to do, both in the church and in the academy:  keep Jesus fully secured in his crib, locked in one location in space and time, fearful that he might be “stolen” from us.  What if he is present with us here, in this space and time, in us?  What if the crèche is empty, what if the Christ child is waiting to be birthed anew in us, “in birth after birth, ever fresh and fresh”?

This is what the wise and, some might say, dangerous Dominican theologian Meister Eckhart (c.1260-c.1327) said centuries ago, this was what he trying to get across in his teaching and preaching back in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.  “The Creator is constantly creating and the universe is constantly being created.”[7]  Eckhart wrote, “It is given to every person to become the child of God, substantially indeed in Christ, but in himself or herself by adoption through grace.”[8]  The incarnation calls us, again and again, to discover our identities as sons and daughters of God.  For “what good is it to me,” Eckhart asked, “if the son of God was born to Mary 1400 years ago, but is not born in my person and in my culture and in my time?”  That’s our question, too.  Just add 600 years.  He asked this question confident in the answer that God continues to create in us. We can have the same confidence.  “God is here—in this very place­—” Eckhart insisted, “just as much incarnate as in a human being long ago.  And this is why God has become a human being:  that Divinity might give birth to you as its only begotten Son [and Daughter], and as no less….  The Creator gives birth to the divine child in the innermost part of the soul and gives birth to you with its only begotten Son as no less.”[9]

Risking spirit in flesh – in birth after birth after birth. Ever fresh and fresh.

Amazing.


[1] See Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christ the Center, trans. Edwin H. Robertson (New York:  Harper & Row, 1978), 47-48.

[2] I am grateful to Fr. Richard Rohr for this insight/comment.

[3] Robert Frost, “But God’s own descent,” In the Clearing (New York:  Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962), 7. I’m grateful to my good friend, the Reverend Alex “Chuck” Coblentz for first sharing this poem with me.

[4] Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1998),  98.

[5] Brueggemann, 99.

[6] Brueggemann, 102.

[7] Matthew Fox on Meister Eckhart in The Coming of the Cosmic Christ:  The Healing of Mother Earth and the Birth of a Global Renaissance (San Francisco:  HarperOne, 1988), 122.

[8] Eckhart cited in Fox, 121-123.

[9] Eckhart cited in Fox, 121-123.

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