Delivered at Ames UCC on November 29, 2015
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Sermons are written to be heard rather than read.
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Advent: A new year has begun. Advent: a season of anticipation and preparation. Advent: a reckoning with revelation. Advent: a searching look beyond Easter’s tomb.
Despite what marketers and even our own wishes would tell us, Advent is not a preparation for Christmas. Advent is a preparation for Christ’s coming after the birth, after the baptism, after the miracles, after the revolt, after the execution, and after the resurrection. In Advent we lay the groundwork so that each of our discrete scriptural encounters with Jesus between Christmas and Easter remain within the cosmic context of God’s presence and love.
In Advent, we are reminded of the open-endedness of God’s story.
Which I think it somewhat hard for us. I don’t think human beings do so well with open-endedness, particularly as it relates to something we cannot easily see or feel against our skin, as with God.
Let’s take Josiah for example. Josiah was another king of the southern nation of Judah. They had, fortunately, survived the Assyrians that Hosea and Isaiah worried about so much in our previous weeks’ readings.
Josiah’s father displeased God and Josiah’s son displeased God, but Josiah is himself held out as the best of all kings. As the perfect example of a good and faithful servant, Josiah undertakes the renovation of the temple.
On delivering instructions to the high priest through a court officer, Josiah learns that a scroll has been uncovered. This is easy for us to imagine: All manner of documents and doo-dads get squirrelled away in houses of God.
Soon everyone gathers at the temple, the priests and the prophets, the rich and the poor. Josiah reads from the scroll: It is the book of Deuteronomy. Josiah’s temple priests had uncovered or rediscovered a copy of the book of Deuteronomy, the last of the five books of the Torah.
Deuteronomy is also the book from which we receive the Ten Commandments as well as a multitude of instructions for worship at the temple. If that book had been missing, had those commandments and instructions been lost altogether or just in written form? What had the people of Judah and Israel been adhering to if not the covenant between God and Moses? Or had the Ten Commandments survived in oral tradition but all of the other rules been lost to the inevitable changes in ritual life?
This passage reads that Josiah promised
…to put into practice the demands attached to the covenant, as written in the book,…
so it sounds like their commitment is to the detailed religious laws in addition to the promises made between Moses and God.
This makes complete sense to me. Here is a piece of writing, not too common then to say the least, from within the temple itself. It talks about their beloved Moses and describes how to worship at the very temple they are standing within. And it is from an earlier era. An era when God seems to have been more present and visibly active in the world.
But it also bothers me. It bothers me that a piece of canvas or papyrus would suddenly trump their lived experience of God. God had not been absent to the people of Judah just because the scroll was. God was still accessible and even breaking regularly into daily life through prophets.
Why did the written word get precedence, enough to completely upend their religious practices?
We have a similar relationship to written scripture, though in a slightly different way: For Christians, in a general sense, the Bible and its contents are set, with some minor variations between the Orthodox, Catholic, Coptic, and Protestant.
But new Christian scripture has been and continues to be discovered.
How many of you have heard of or read the Nag Hammadi texts or Dead Sea Scrolls? They were found in the Levant in 1945 and 1947, respectively. Among them are a variety of holy writings, including additional gospels.
These gospels are like those that have been enshrined in the Bible in that they tell the story of Jesus from the perspective of one disciple or the community that gathered around that disciple. But they do so in unfamiliar ways.
For example, in the Gospel of Mary, Peter gets angry at the suggestion that Jesus would ever speak to a woman privately. Mary asks if he is accusing her of lying. Another replies,
Peter, you have always been hot-tempered. Now I see you contending against the women like the adversaries. But if the Savior made her worthy, who are you, indeed, to reject her? Surely the Lord knows her very well. That is why he loved her more than us.[i]
Then in the 1970s, the Gospel of Judas was found and it states that sometimes Jesus would be among the disciples in the form of a child.[ii]
Just two weeks ago, a story broke:
Last January, Geoffrey Smith, a scholar of early Christianity at the University of Texas, noticed something startling: an eBay listing for an ancient Greek papyrus fragment of the Gospel of John—with an opening bid of only $99.
But there was more. On the other side of the papyrus, from about 250–350 AD, was “an unidentified Christian text.”
What? What is this other text? Was it simply not identified by Dr. Smith to the reporter or is as yet unidentifiable? Meaning, has it not yet proved to match existing, known scripture or is it a wholly new portion of scripture?
You had better believe I tried to find out. If Mary’s gospel has Jesus loving her best and if in Judas’ gospel Jesus was a shape-shifter, there is no telling what this snippet might reveal.
But I don’t think it would matter at all to the practice of Christian faith. Whereas Josiah and his people allowed a piece of writing to upend their religious practice, I think that the piece of writing we now call the Bible would prevent us from doing the same. It’s two sides of one scriptural coin: Either way the written word is in charge.
But what about the living God? How do we leave room for the holiness which is not and cannot be bounded by a leather cover and spine?
By embracing Advent’s look beyond the cross and tomb.
The Christmas story is so familiar and dear to us, and I would not have it any other way. But the God in Jesus Christ is well past the manger now. The infant has become something far larger and more powerful than the man of Galilee.
That holiness vibrates with the force of a thousand whales singing in the sea, at a scale as vast as the universe. Advent reminds us that Christ is unbound. Jesus Christ is unbound, unshackled, unfettered, and unpredictable. No amount of Biblical literalism or protectionism can stop the holy force experienced on Easter morning.
That is the kind of presence we call out for today. Today when we can watch Laquan McDonald’s murder over and over, today as women continue to be denied control of their own God-given bodies by gunmen, it is the ever-rising Emmanuel, God-among, that we yearn for so deeply.
Yes, we dedicate ourselves to the study of the books we have received. We celebrate them like Josiah and his followers.
But we stake our lives, on the open-ended truth that the books point toward. The Biblical canon might be closed but God has not been closed off.
In these dark, frightening days, keep the candle of hope lit with one eye on scripture and the other on creation. The flame may start small, but God will light our path anew.
[i]Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels. (New York: Vintage Books) 1979, 99 64–65.
[ii]Pagels, Elaine and Karen L. King. Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity (New York: Penguin) 2007, p. 109–122.