Comings and Goings
Sunday, January 6, 2013
I know where you’re coming from.
It’s a common, homely phrase, and it is a bit handier than the more grammatically correct, “I know the place from which you come.” It’s an affirmation that we might use to let others know that we appreciate their position, that we are listening, that we are trying to see how things look on their side of their own eyeballs.
“I know where you’re coming from.” But do we? Where are we coming from, and knowing that, will it help us get wherever it is we are headed? One task of our religious faith is to move us, to get us along on our way. All three Bible readings today refer us to comings and goings, each in its own way. And each brings alive a new perspective on the fact that no matter where we’ve been or where we are headed, God comes to us.
If we think on Advent-themed readings in Isaiah, we ought at least to know where Isaiah was “coming from.” A pretty good five letter word for it would be gloom. After years of captivity by their enemies, far from Palestine, in exile in Babylon, the people of the promises had just about become the people kept on the premises. Many Israelites were entirely ready to sink down roots in Babylon and just get on with whatever life was to be had there. Two generations of Israel’s children had been bom never having seen the promised land.
Then comes this enchanting word of Isaiah: “Arise! Shine! for your light has come!” Eight times in chapter 60, Isaiah uses the word “glory.” Now, that’s a much misunderstood Bible word. Ask an average person what “glory” means, and you are likely to see head scratching before you hear an answer. It’s a floor wax; it’s something a football star gets; it’s the name of an old movie about the War Between the States.
But the Old Testament most commonly uses the word “glory” to refer to times when people sensed God’s presence in a special way. Now the dead last place anyone expected to find even a hint of God, let alone a shred of the glory of his presence, was in the midst of their exile in Babylon. Yet, there it was. No need to set out in search of the enlightenment of God. It has come to us. It was an early sense of what believers have come to know over the generations: no matter where we may be, or be coming from, God comes to us as redeemer, as savior, as one who can make even the most hopeless situation new all over again.
How does God come to us? Often, not as we might expect. Tucked away in the 3rd and 6th verses of Isaiah’s prophecy are these words,
And nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your rising.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
It is one of many clues in the Old Testament that the glory of God is not reserved only for chosen people, but that chosen people are the vehicles by which the glory of God might come to all people everywhere. It is because of this Isaiah text that we sing “We three kings...” Matthew doesn’t mention kings at all. God comes, we know that. Isaiah affirms it. But where are we going once he has touched our lives? For that, we can turn to Ephesians.
God Comes to All
Paul’s word in Ephesians confirms emphatically what Isaiah’s prophecy had only suggested. The coming of Christ was such an important event, it couldn’t be reserved for the people of Israel alone, but was destined to be the means by which all people, Jews and Gentiles, might come to know the glory of God’s redeeming presence. While the New Testament problem in Paul’s time was to get Jewish Christians to make room for Gentile Christians in their gatherings, it is certainly not our problem. In our time the problem is getting Gentile Christians to make room for other Gentiles!
Am I right about this? Just consider that the old mainline Christian denominations have been dwindling away rather pathetically during the last thirty-five years. We can be thankful that some churches have found ways to maintain their membership over the last decade, but these churches have been the exception. And some of the denominations which have grown dramatically have not been without a host of their own troubles and strife. What has been lost in the shuffle? People. People have been lost when churches and denominations place institutional survival above serving the people God places around them. Does God need lots more Presbyterians? Well, I believe God could use lots more Presbyterians, but not half as desperately as God seeks out more people who have felt the tug of the gospel good news to bring that news to others from deeply convicted hearts.
There is an old story about a king named Ebrahim ibn Adam. Ebrahim was wealthy according to every earthly measure. At the same time, however, he strove sincerely and restlessly to be wealthy spiritually as well.
One night the king was roused from sleep by a fearful stomping on the roof above his bed. Alarmed, he shouted: “Who’s there?” “A friend,” came the reply from the roof. “I’ve lost my camel.” Perturbed by such stupidity, Ebrahim screamed: “You fool! Are you looking for a camel on the roof?” “You fool” the voice from the roof replied. “Are you looking for God in silk clothing, and lying on a golden bed?"
Where are we going to go once God has found us? Where are we coming from? From the comfort of the pews of this beautiful church, of an unstudied religious faith that we may not have bothered to probe for a quarter of a century (this is a subtle boost for adult Christian education!)? From the comfortable point of view of people who are safely “in the kingdom” while thousands in our own community haven’t yet found the front door of a church?
From a prison cell where he was sent for the crime of proclaiming his faith, Paul suggested in the letter to the Ephesians that we might find God more readily if we accepted that our calling as Christians includes a responsibility to tell others about the Word of Life with conviction.
In Coming, God Prepares Us To Be Sent
One last story, then I’ll stop. Our third passage, from Matthew, reminds me of one old legend about the three Magi who came seeking Jesus. In it the three of them are drawn together by their common vision of the beautiful star that bids them to seek a newborn king. They follow this star across deserts, mountains, and plains, until it stands over a grotto in Bethlehem. But when they look into the grotto they see only a young peasant woman and her husband with a newborn child. They turn away in disappointment. After they have gone some distance, however, they discover they have lost the star and with it the memory of where they have been. They are lost between a forgotten homeland and a vanished destination.
Overwhelmed by a sense of despair, they realize they have allowed their earthbound judgment to lead them astray from finding the new thing God would bring to pass. Despondent, they come upon an old well. It is a well known to the local people by the brilliant reflections it produces. They collapse in despair at the side of the well until one of the three, hoping to quench his thirst, looks into the depths of the well and there finds the reflection of the lost star! Looking back into the sky, they see the star again. They are led back to the grotto where they pay homage to the hidden king, born where the standards of the world would least expect to find him.
This is the king we serve. No matter the land, the culture, the life experiences from which we come, this is the king who joins us on our journey to wherever we are going. He comes. He comes to all. And he opens in us a new possibility for fuller life through ministry in his name.