The morning after thanksgiving, I was awake before anyone else, so I drove down the street to the neighborhood Starbucks to get a cup of coffee and a bowl of oatmeal. About a half an hour into the most vapid, insipid Christmas music imaginable, the gentleman sitting next to me said, “sit here any longer and I’m going to go nuts. I hate Christmas.” I had to sympathize with him. Though I don’t hate Christmas, I do indeed find the processed Christmas of Starbucks, be it the day after Christmas with its obvious Black Friday marketing purpose or at a more reasonable midway point through December, offensive.
I am currently reading a book about the dysfunction of the three branches of our government, called It’s Even Worse Than It Looks. The authors are offended. They’ve been students of the constitution and observers of an increasingly broken process since the 1980’s. In the first half of the book they give vent to their frustrations and in the second, offer proposals to return function to the two houses of Congress and the White House. Their proposals seem sound. And it is clear they are passionate about them. They are as offended by what they observe in Congress as I am by the Christianity pedaled in Starbucks on Black Friday.
I found myself pondering the similarities between me and the authors of the book I’m reading. They’re passionate about government and I’m passionate about Christianity and all of us are offended by current manifestations of the object of our passions. They use political theory to propose processes whereby the common good can be bolstered and I preach religious ideas in the hope of building new community. The problem of course, is that both discourses have been greatly discredited by their out-of-touch manifestations.
. . .
A month ago, as I was planning worship for Advent, I thought I might preach on the lectionary texts for this first Sunday in Advent — not because they inspire me, but because they offend. All of the texts for today are about the hope of a coming of judgement day, a second coming replete with fear and fire and destruction and fury. I can’t tell you how frustrated I am by this vein of our tradition. On so many levels it has crept into our thinking and corrupted it.
But instead of offering a mini version of It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, instead, let me ignore the noise, block out Bing Crosby and the Red Nosed Reindeer that offer empty promises, an easy path through the fog to Christmas, and a hollow feeling on the 26th — and return to the longing of the heart that is known (or was known) as Advent.
Our main text for this morning, as for so much of Advent, comes from the Old Testament. In this case a psalm of lament, a song longing for restitution. It too, like the political book I’m reading, is a cry for wholeness of nation, a longing to be united again, and functioning. For years, Israel has been raided by opposing forces, almost at will, her people taken into slavery, her cities and temples ruined. Life is a mess. And the people cry, “O God of hosts, restore us; show your favor that we may be delivered.”
That’s the way the Tanakh, the official Jewish translation has it. The King James Version has it, “Turn us again, O God, and cause thy face to shine; and we shall be saved.” and the New Revised Standard Version does not much differ: “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.”
The all express a longing, and a longing for a presence. But what the heck does it mean to long for God’s shining face? Here we are back to the out-of-touch-religion business. The only people that see shining lights or glowing faces are in trouble.
The answer lies, as it so often does in a translation issue. In the fourth century, one of the great church fathers, St. Jerome took upon himself the task of translating the entire Bible into Latin. It is known as the Vulgate. He and two others that I know of, translated the last phrase of that verse this way: “Show us your face and we shall be saved.”
There is a good reason that this Latin translation did not win out. And you’ve probably already guessed it — God does not show his face.
It put it that way on purpose for these two things, God’s masculinity and God’s invisibility, go together in our history.
The philosophical traditions of Greece and Rome have played an important role in the development of Christianity. It was the Roman Stoics in particular who argued that God is a father because Fathers are remote and strong. A fatherly love was demanding. It’s ideal of love because the Church’s ideal for God.
John Calvin, one of those who accepts the Vulgate translation of Psalm 80:3, is a product of his time, and to no one’s surprise, talks about God as Father. What is surprising though is that he also reflects on God’s motherliness and seems to think that this is a better way to think of God. Calvin thinks that the strength of God’s care is not really about overwhelming power, as our usual reading has it, but about the kind of love a mother expresses toward her newborn that no father can come close to matching. What for the Greek and Roman philosophers was a weaker kind of love, for Calvin was THE love to emulate and therefore the real strength of love.
Calvin’s voice, like the Vulgate’s voice, has been drowned out, by a clamoring for a God of power and might. A remote God on high, who is in control of his world.
Our psalm for this morning does reflect some of this remoteness. You can hardly go anywhere and not get hit over the head by this patriarchal insistence on God’s almighty power. When Moses works with God in the desert and on the mountain, he faces God, he pleads with God, he stands in the breach — all relational images — but what’s the image you remember most? “You cannot see my face, for no one shall see me and live!” The anger of God against human foibles is famous and need not be recounted. In the New Testament Jesus preaches about God’s love, about God’s care even for the lilies of the field and the birds of the air — but he also, probably not his words, but the words of the Gospel writers, says that no one has ever seen God. The letters carry this theme further. Timothy writes, “God dwells in an unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see.” We could go on. You get the point. Out of touch religion.
But buried within it, for those with ears to hear, are snatches of the original, primal sense of a God who cares, that matters, who is related to us.
An extraordinary example of this is from the book of Genesis. Jacob has cheated his brother Esau out of his birthright and dreads meeting him face to face. Hearing that Esau is coming to meet him with four hundred men, Jacob divides his own people and their possessions into two groups. That way, one may escape while Esau attacks the other. He sends a diplomat out to meet Esau bearing gifts. To his astonishment, Esau leaves his four hundred men behind and runs to great Jacob, he embraces him, and he calls him “brother.” He says to him, “I have enough, brother, keep what you have for yourself. Not trusting, Jacob presses Esau to accept his gifts — for when the gift if accepted, some obligation, he feels entails. But Jacob refuses, perhaps because he is already obligated — as his next word to him suggests — “To see your face is like seeing the face of God.”
Not only does Bing Crosby and Rudolph assail our senses when we walk into stores, worse, we see all around us appalling scenes of hatred and bigotry and violence. It is despairing. It’s even worse than it looks.
But then a face appears in the crowd — to you — and in that intimate moment, you are reminded of justice and mercy and goodness, as they are written into the very consitution of our world. There shining in the face of a stranger to whom you’ve winked or nodded or offered a hand, there in the familiar face of a spouse or child or parent. And suddenly the pattern of events is refigured. Suddenly the lead story in the Wall Street Journal tells of a police officer, off the record, but recorded by a passing tourist’s cell phone camera, offering a pair of boots and warm socks to a barefoot homeless man. The police officer, we discovered once he became known, had purchased the boots and socks at a nearby store. He said in an interview by the paper, “When I brought out the shoes, it was just a smile from ear to ear,” the police officer said. “It was a great moment for both of us.”
One final word. There is no denying that God is sometimes just plain hidden from us.
I believe that this is less a theological issue and more a psychological issue. The fact of the matter is that we are beset by desires — people place expectations on us we can never meet, or things before us that we year to have, our own minds are battlegrounds of competing wants and temptations. Some of these desires are not good for us and they blind us to the face of God.
Advent, with its insistence that we let the light shine out of darkness, functions like prayer. Advent is a purposeful opening of our souls, our hearts, our minds to the face of God so that we can be the kinds of people we really want to be — grace-filled presences to one another. Amen.