Archive for December, 1998
Have you ever trusted a dream enough to act on it when you wake up? I don’t know about you but some of the things I dream about are not fit for the light of day. We do things in dreams we just wouldn’t dream of doing in daylight.
And most of our dreams don’t even make sense. One minute you’re chasing a black dog up a set of never ending stairs and next minute it’s not really a dog but a cow and it’s asking you for the time of day. Or—and this is a typical one for me—I turn up for a Sunday mass and I’m not ready, can’t find my shoes, homily’s not done, can’t make out the words of the gospel.
OK so some dreams do make a sort of sense—they remind us of our anxieties or nudge us not to forget our desires. And, if you are to believe the psychologists, there’s a lot more in there lurking about waiting to be understood.
But there are other kinds of dreams too—dreams that seem to speak with a special voice. There’s a tone to them or a feeling or an image that we wake up trusting. A voice that seems to affirm a decision made long ago. Or an image that prods us into taking that step we’ve been wondering about for a while now. These are the dreams that seem to tell us what we already know but haven’t paid attention to yet.
Ahaz, the king, doesn’t want any of that kind of dream in his life. I mean you can’t go running a country by asking God to keep on showing you what to do. God has better things to do than worry about politics. Better to leave the politics to the politicians and let people do their praying in church where God belongs. Ahaz does not want to be disturbed from his own path.
I guess Joseph didn’t want that either. I guess his ambitions were for an ordinary life, cutting his wood, shaping it. Betrothed to Mary, a good wife in the making, marriage soon, a household blessed by children. But all that had been already ruined by her betrayal, pregnant by someone else. Enough to break your heart when you’d trusted her so, enough to make another man want revenge. Only a word in the right ears and Mary could be stoned to death for breaking her vows. But Joseph isn’t that other man. He just wants to get on along his own path and set Mary aside quietly with no harm done. That’s when the dream tells him what he already knows somewhere in his heart. And from then on, his life is not the one he thought it would be.
Christmas is coming, as always, wrapped in dreams. The dreams of angels for peace on earth and good will among nations. The dreams of families across the globe for healing, and hope, and lasting joy, and enough to eat. At Christmas, those two dreams bump into each other. We do so want peace and hope and healing. But we also don’t want our lives disrupted. We don’t really want God to interfere with us … won’t someone else do?
But this Christmas the bombs are falling, the president is impeached, and God knows what other craziness is disturbing our lives. What are our dreams asking of us in this mess? What do we have to dream so that God can be with us this Christmas? But more importantly what do we have to dream so that God can be with someone else this Christmas? That’s the harder dream to dream. Or perhaps it’s not harder to dream—since God is dreaming it in us already—perhaps it’s just harder to trust.
December 20th, 1998
“It was the best of times and the worst of times…” that’s the way to start a book. “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit” isn’t bad either, though my favourite is probably, “A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” From out here in front I could see all the veiled horror that greets those first words of Matthew’s “An account of the genealogy of Jesus…” You can’t even get into a contemplative rosary-like rhythm with those ‘was the father of’s the same way you used to be able to do with the begats. And you stand a better chance of injecting interesting intonation when you read aloud from the telephone directory.
So has Matthew blown it … lost his chance of a stellar opening? And has the church turned here for a dramatic fanfare to begin the countdown to the nativity only to blow a bum note?
Well, slipped into that numbing litany, are enough subversive details to make you sure that Matthew has a clever message to communicate. For a start the list is back to front … or at least the standard genealogy pattern is a list of descendants and not a book of ancestors. Then there’s the unconventional pattern of descent: the line runs through Isaac and not Ishmael the older son; it passes through Judah the fourth of the sons of Jacob. So it’s not an ordinary family tree. The way to David and on to the Son of David follows divine reckoning and not human. Then there’s the four women pointedly inserted into this long list of men. Tamar who is so determined to add a child to this book of generations that she disguises herself to have sex with her father-in-law, Judah. Rahab, once a prostitute in Jericho who collaborates with Israelite spies in the fall of her own city. Ruth, the woman of Moab who leaves her home to go with Naomi wherever she will go. And Bathsheba, taken by King David after he murders her husband, Uriah. Yes, says Matthew, God has gone to some lengths to bring the story to this point. Keeping the plot going by whatever means necessary, even dragging in convenient foreigners when the story line threatens to wander. And what a story! Adventure and horror, sexual intrigue and murder, incest and idolatry. “But,” as Eleanor of Aquitaine says in “The Lion in Winter,” “what family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”
Well here we are close to the climax of that family history. Fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the Babylonian deportation, and fourteen from there to Christ. Oh, and how Matthew wants us to notice those three fourteens. Even enough to cut out three or four kings to make the numbers fit. Three fourteens: human genes, human blood, and human destiny entwined in a divine drama.
Here comes the triumphant crescendo: Eleazar was the father of Mathan. Mathan the father of Jacob. Jacob the father of Joseph and Joseph the father of … No! The last fourteen is only a thirteen. Jacob the father of Joseph who is precisely not the father of Jesus but just the husband of Mary of whom Jesus was born. Forty one generations of human struggle and expectation all set aside at the last minute. Jesus the messiah is grafted onto the family tree. He may be Son of Abraham but not by blood. All that history is a thing of the past. Instead, something new is about to happen. Something we couldn’t prepare for. Something we couldn’t predict. Something beyond extrapolation. God makes a new start. Wisdom herself, Divine Sophia, is about to be born to make the world over. And that wordless baby will speak the word to give the world a fresh start.
December 17th, 1998
John has never been a patient man. It’s not patience that drives you to take up the prophet’s staff, the hair shirt and the disgusting diet. It’s not patience that drives you out among the desert’s ravines to rave over the coming destruction. It’s not patience that has you mouthing off to all- comers about their hypocrisy and evil. No, there’s a thirst for change, a hunger for ending, a hurry to get it all over with. “Even now the axe is laid at the roots of the tree!” he thunders. “It’s all over. Get ready! Be prepared! Because I, John, have a road to build and when it’s built God will come down on you all like a blaze. He will stride down that highway, winnowing fan in hand, reaping the harvest and destroying the stubble. And as for you Herod, friend of Rome, king of adulterers, living with your own brother’s wife, as for you, beware! Beware the end coming to you.”
Patience? No. But why, when he has done his part, built his highway in the desert, even baptized the one to fulfil the vision, when he’s done all this, why is he in prison waiting? Why is nothing happening? Where is the sound of the axe against the tree, the scent of fire on the wind, where is the uproar of Israel in rebellion and Rome on the run? Where is it?
So John sits there impatient, hope fading, doubt growing. Paces there, uncertain. Was I wrong? About Jesus? Has he let me down? Why is he doing nothing?
Advent turns around in that question. All the waiting, all the patience and all the hope are distilled into that question, a question we have all asked at sometime or another. Have I been wrong to trust Jesus? How can he have let me down like this?
So John asks the most heartbreaking question in the bible and asks it for all of us: “Are you the one … or must we wait for someone else?”
And should you laugh or should you cry over Jesus’ answer? “Tell John what you hear and what you see: the blind see, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, the poor hear good news, and, yes John, the ones who manage to believe in me are happy.”
John is deaf and blind. Not just because he’s locked up in a hole somewhere, cut off from events but because he’s locked up in a vision of death and judgement, reaping and ending. Where John wants an end, Jesus is bringing a beginning. John is drunk on the desert’s stark beauty but Jesus wants to make a garden of it, a place for people to live and love, without sorrow, without lament.
So to John who doubts him, Jesus says “look and see … the evidence is here … can’t you see the desert blooming, the sorrow melting, the fear falling away?”
It’s a question without an answer … at least in the text. We hear no more from John. We don’t know whether he dies defeated or not. We don’t know whether he learns to see what Jesus sees. But Matthew, the gospel writer, asks that question of John expecting you and me to answer it. Matthew’s John is the last and greatest prophet of a dead age, an age that Jesus has left behind. Between John and Jesus there stands a great gap. A chasm of understanding. And the bridge across is only through that question: “Can’t you see the desert blooming?”
Well can we? Can we rejoice in the present and still hope for the future? When we are unjustly imprisoned, unfairly impoverished, when we are sick before our time, or even just unaccountably saddened by life … can we still not despair, not give in, not grow bitter … but look for signs of life, and welcome them with joy. Because even in the darkest times God continues to do good.
It’s not just a matter of being an optimist or being a pessimist … as though the world might be either wonderful or awful depending upon how we look at it. It’s about reality. Is God’s kingdom really among us? Or have we hoped in vain? Is Jesus someone we can trust? Or have we been led up the garden path?
We have to ask him this morning: “Are you the one or must we wait for someone else?” Ask him!
December 13th, 1998