In our humanness, Hope.
ADVENT 1 (Grace Embodied, Part 1)
Genesis 1:26-2:9, 2:15-25, (and some of Genesis 3)
There are things we can’t control. Like this crappy weather. Or the calendar. We are carried along on the current of life and here we are, once again bumping up against the time of year most fraught with expectations, and staring down the last page of 2018 with all the millions of things that get jammed into December.
It’s Advent. Advent is the beginning of the church year, and the church version of the countdown to Christmas. As the world around us comes to the end of a year, we have come to the beginning. We’re returning to the silence, the darkness over the face of the deep before the Creator says “Let there be Light” and life begins.
Every year the Church cycles through this pattern of seasons of worship that help us understand our story inside God’s story. In Advent we use the color deep blue to signify the darkest night just before the dawn starts breaking in, and we see it as a time of hushed waiting, of longing for God inside the promise of Christmas, that God is with us.
Come, Lord Jesus.
This first week of Advent the theme is Hope. Hope is anticipation. Hope trusts that it will be so: the promise will be fulfilled. All wrongs will be made right. There is something beyond us that is pulling us forward into a new thing, and it cannot be stopped. This is the message of hope.
Before God spoke life into being, there was nothingness, and the Spirit hovered over the waters of the deep. And there was hope.
Because first there was God. God is a relationship of giving and receiving, one in three persons in freedom bound to each other in generosity and self-emptying love.
And because our scriptures hold two different stories of the beginning, we know some very important things about God. The first is that God is a speaking God. God speaks from nothing and something comes to be. God declares and it is so. And then God calls it good.
This is a God who brings forth life with a word. Then God rests.
Just before God rests, God makes human beings, male and female in God’s image, and God tells them to take care of the world, and brings them into relationship and rest with God. Connected uniquely to God in all creation, they are invited into dialogue with God, drawn into a conversation already taking place within the Trinity. That’s the first Creation story. From nothingness to being, from speaking, creation, culminating in human relationship with the God who speaks, creates and rests.
The second story of the beginning is a love story, intimate and risky. In it God is vulnerable, by choice. Humans don’t come last in this story, they come before everything else, held in God’s hands and breathed into life by God’s own breath. Made from the dust of the earth, Adamah, is this creature of the earth, Adam. When the earth creature, the Adam awakens, all that is true is what is true – being completely known and loved by God, the source of being, the source of all life. Fully known. Fully loved. Fully in dialogue with God, connected and whole, Created and cared for. This is reality and it has never yet been otherwise.
And this creature gets to witness and share in God’s act of creation. God opens the process to this special creature, inviting the human creature also to speak, to name the other creatures. And whatever the earth creature calls them, that is what they are.
We’ve been talking this year about grace and the first grace the human ever knows is to be embodied. It is our creatureliness itself. It is that we need God, we are made by and cared for by God. We are not God, we are not God’s equal, we are not angels or transcendent beings. We are, literally, earth creatures. Creatures connected to, from and returning to, the earth, living inside bodies that are trapped inside the confines of time and space.
We are embodied, and we meet God’s grace from within these earthly bodies.
Let us consider for a moment our bodies - our persistently beating hearts and insatiably curious and malleable minds, our limbs that work in coordination with each other most of the time, and our senses designed to help us most fully experience and interact this world from within this body we are given, with all its limits and all its possibilities – that we could mix and heat things from the earth and create and taste such things as curry and caramel and coffee! That we could run races! And build airplanes! And teach other humans how to walk and talk! Our bodies are astounding and marvelous. They are also limited.
We are made of the stuff of dust, the stuff of stars, yes, but the stuff of dust too. We stink. And we get sick. And we get tired. And have allergies, and parts of our bodies that don’t work like they should. And we get old. And we start out super weak and dependent – we are really only mostly able-bodied for a very short time of our time here on earth, actually, always coming into and out of different abilities. We are not invincible, and not unlimited; each of us comes with an expiration date.
Human beings are finite, dependent creatures.
And this is grace.
We need God.
And so God ministers to us. God provides for us. God loves and cares for us, and we are designed to receive that. To be loved. To trust our maker. To know our place alongside other earth creatures. To care for the other creatures upon it that we are so bound to on this earth we can’t escape. To live on it, and in it, and from inside our own creatureliness, to speak and listen to God.
But we can’t do this alone. We are not alone, solo, individual creatures. For just a short time God tried this out, and it didn’t work. To be made in the image of a relational God, whose love Father, Son and Spirit spilled out into creation to be shared and spread, the human needs also to be in relationship, we need also to belong to other than just ourselves, and even other than just God. The conversation requires discussion partners.
So God makes the first earth creature sleep, and takes from it bodily tissue with which to fashion a corresponding partner – a helper, which is the same Hebrew word used for God as our Helper, a rescuer. And when this earth creature awakens and sees one like itself but different, it is rescued from what it was to now be what it is meant to be. Once there is female, now there is for the first time male, once there is an other, a you, there is now also a self, a me, and now the image of God can be reflected in a relationship of dialogue, a vulnerability of knowing and being known, a mutual conversation, a community.
Now there is belonging. Belonging to God is complete even as we belong to each other. Belonging to each other is part of our belonging to God. And they walked in the cool of the garden and conversed with God, and it was good. And this too is grace.
But to be so creaturely! How risky and weak it feels! How strong and safe it must feel to be God! Not to be bound by the constraints of time and space, or life and death, or bodies and needs! To know all; to be invulnerable!
So they eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the one boundary God set up and said, Do not do this, is the thing they do. And when they cross this boundary their eyes are opened, and they see they are naked and are ashamed. Their vulnerability becomes a deficit, a danger; their nakedness transparency. Self-protection, competition and blame roar up within them and between them, and they hide from God.
We earth creatures try to be more than we are, to transcend our limits.
We now know what is happening at every moment in virtually every corner of the earth.
We extend our reach to digitally become enemies with those we don’t know and friends with those we’ve never met.
We keep the lights on and the screens lit to work around the clock, always available and always responsive.
We eat everything we feel like, and drink till we stop feeling.
We hold in front of ourselves false images of fake bodies and then contort ourselves around diets and drugs and gurus and equipment to become something we are not.
We ignore our responsibility for the earth, and its creatures, pursuing our own invincibility instead. We resent and punish others human beings for their weakness or need.
We, in so very many ways, suppress our creatureliness, ignore our vulnerability, disregard our interdependence, and deny our need for a minister, (that is, for others to care for us). And so we become disconnected. We disintegrate. We lose our very selves, our primary identity and belonging, and we hide. We hide from ourselves, from others, and most futilely, from God.
This conversation God has begun, this dialogue, this relationship, means God, in freedom, has chosen to be bound to this creature, has chosen to love, and therefore also to have the possibility of being rejected. To give this creature a Yes means it might also say No. To give it capacity to speak means it might also be silent. Or use words to hurt. To love this creature means God might also be scorned by it.
My beloved creatures, where are you? God asks, coming to the conversation and finding nothingness, as though they have uncreated themselves. Why are you hiding from me?
At first they don’t answer, they are hiding behind leaves from the Source of all life.
Because now shame feels more powerful than trust, and weakness seems more dangerous than disconnection.
So when God’s voice speaks to them they do not answer back.
But God’s love comes first and last and all throughout. No matter what and always they, and we, belong to God. So when God finds them, and they confess their nakedness, their shame, their weakness, God sees their agony and clothes them, not because they need clothes, but because they need a minister. Human beings need a minister, even when we think we don’t – maybe especially then - and God will always minister to us. When we turn our backs on God, God will drape over us a warm, protective garment, and help us face our own humanity.
At the very most core of us we are from God, and for God, and the parts deep beneath our knowing know - body, heart, mind and soul - what it is to be known and loved by God.
And at the core everything, before and after and apart from and throughout the cosmos, is this God who is love, who gives God’s very self for us.
This is grace. God’s self-emptying, self-giving, ministering love that doesn’t need to, but does it all anyway.
This relationship is not up for grabs.
But here’s how this works- we are creature, and God is creator.
We are human and God is divine.
We are dependent, and God is independent, but chooses out of love and grace to share God’s own self with the world. God decides to get tangled up in this conversation with us from here on out.
In fact, in a few weeks, we are going to celebrate that God forfeits independence and invincibility and becomes dependent too – taking on the earth creatureliness that we are bound in, and becoming bound to us and alive alongside us. Christmas is God taking on the limits of a human body with an expiration date, to keep this conversation going.
My beloved ones, where are you? God asks, as we hide in shame and see our vulnerable,
soft bodies and tender hearts and questioning minds as ugly, weak, shameful and in need of changing.
But Advent is about noticing and trusting and watching for God.
So let's begin Advent in the grace of our own creatureliness.
Let’s feel our moving bodies and our aching hearts and our messy thoughts and gross humanity.
Let’s take in the smells around us, and wiggle our fingers and toes, and gaze on something or someone lovely and complex.
Let’s listen to music and words, and feel how we need other people to know us and we need to know ourselves alongside them, and notice how if we’re honest we crave something a little bit more perfect than we ever actually experience.
Let’s observe our limits, witness our new abilities and new disabilities - the ones we’ve made peace with and the ones we’re just uncovering.
Let’s recognize our dependence on each other and God, and respond to our needs, like sleep when we are tired, food when are hungry, tears when we are sad, laughter when we’re happy, and connection for the continually reloading need for listening, speaking, touching.
We are not God. We don’t have unlimited power. We can’t know the divine mystery, but neither can we screw up the divine plan. So this Advent, from our embodied place as creatures, let’s look to our Creator. Let’s enter into the ongoing conversation with the limitless, transcendent God, who improbably answers our vulnerability and need by coming vulnerable and needy.
Let’s listen to the God who speaks, and see the world as God sees it – deeply interconnected, beautiful and complex, and call it good.
Let’s see ourselves as God sees us – part of the glorious whole, each one gorgeous and intricate, each one not meant to be isolated and alone.
No matter what we do or don't do, we can’t stop ourselves from dying. But neither can we stop love from redeeming the whole world.
Inside our creatureliness, inside our inability to be more than we are, there is our grace. It is the place God speaks to us. It is where the conversation happens. It’s where hope begins.