Monday, November 28, 2016

Sermon: "In Living Color: Landscapes", Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; Mark 8:27-33; Revelation 21:1-7 (November 27, 2016)


Sermon video here.

(First in an Advent series, "In Living Color")


When I was a kid, I was part of a prestigious children’s choir in my hometown. It was so prestigious, in fact, that we were always asked to sing in the city-sponsored performance of Handel’s “Messiah” each year—you know, every kid’s dream. I got to sit through two or three hours of classical music in the itchy skirt, starched button-down shirt and red bow-tie that was my choir uniform, all while listening to God’s Word in the form of classical music. No wonder I became a pastor, huh?

At any rate, this was an annual holiday tradition for me, from about the time that I was 8 until I was 12 or so. Year after year, I’d dutifully put on the torturous outfit and resign myself to that fact that I’d be sitting, wiggle-free, with my fellow choir members in order to help the City of Rochester properly celebrate Christmas. I did love Christmas, after all. It was my favorite holiday. It was the least I could do in exchange for all the joy and excitement of the season. If Handel’s “Messiah” meant Christmas, then I was on board.

So imagine my surprise when my mom eventually informed me that “The Messiah” isn’t actually Christmas music. She told me that if you pay attention, you’ll hear passages of scripture that describe Jesus’ birth, death, AND resurrection—Handel even includes passages from the book of Revelation! This absolutely blew my mind. What were we doing singing about all this stuff at CHRISTMAS TIME?!? And I couldn’t even begin to comprehend what that weird book of Revelation had to do with anything. This seemed, to my pre-theologian mind, to be an outrage. However, being a kid, I had very little say in the matter, and continued singing my part of “The Messiah,” through my indignation, year after year until I aged out of the choir.

While “The Messiah” didn’t make sense to me for many years, that doesn’t mean that the composer didn’t know what he was doing. In some ways, I think that Handel is a better theologian than I am. Artists sometimes do things that don’t immediately make sense to us in order to communicate a deeper truth. If we give it a chance, Art has a way of helping us understand things that are outside the realm of scientific deduction and reasoning, outside the comprehension of the intellect. Things that must be taken on faith. If we’re open to it, Art is able to speak to the heart in a way that bears witness to a spiritual reality that seems foreign to our logic-dominated minds: God’s reality.

As human beings, we like our reality to consist of details and specifics. We tend to balk at generalities and “big picture” thinking. I read a study recently—I can’t remember where—that found people respond more readily to the perceived need of an individual than a group, even if the need is exactly the same. That’s why personal crowdfunding sites like gofundme and kickstarter can easily raise millions of dollars in a matter of days or even hours, whereas non-profit organizations seeking to help entire communities struggle to fund their work at all. The specific is simply more attractive to us than the undefined—it’s just the way our brains work.

Visual artists capitalize on this tendency of human attention to gravitate towards the specific. In the art world, the thing that we focus on is called the “positive space”, and the background—the part that’s meant to be ignored—is the “negative space”. This organizes our visual field nicely: the subject jumps to the front of our consciousness, so we don’t have to waste mental or emotional energy trying to pay attention to every little thing going on in the image as a whole. We’re allowed to ignore the negative space. We’re EXPECTED to ignore it.

Sometimes I think that we approach the liturgical year from an artist’s perspective, separating out the positive space from the negative space. Today marks the first week of Advent…so how many of you are thinking about Easter? About Pentecost? How many of us are even sparing a though for Christ the King Sunday—a day that we celebrated JUST last week?? For us, in this moment, all of that is negative space. And we’re unlikely to see anything unusual about this way of thinking, even when it’s brought to our attention. Take 8-year-old me, for instance. I spent all year looking forward to Christmas, and when December finally arrived, you’d better believe that I wasn’t thinking about the crucifixion: my mind was a wonderland of presents, tinsel, and a tiny baby savior. I was so fixated on the positive space that there was no room in my mind for anything but the immediate future.

But while plenty of art (like portraits and still-life paintings and object studies) cater to this human tendency and train us to distinguish between positive and negative space according to where our attention “should” be, this isn’t the only way to see what’s in front of us. It’s certainly not the way that God perceives things. And, I think, it’s not the way that Scripture challenges us to view our faith. Consider our readings for this morning. Three very different passages from three very different parts of the Bible. Each encompassing a vital part of God’s plan. From Isaiah: a prophesy often thought to be a reference to the incarnation of Jesus Christ, and certainly referring to the salvation of God’s people. From the Gospel of Mark: Jesus’ prediction of his own death and resurrection. And from Revelation: a description of the New Heaven and the New Earth, where all of creation declares God as Lord and King. Each of these passages may seem like isolated stories—independent particles of faith—but they’re actually interwoven pieces of God’s magnum opus. Each is essential to the other; none can be ignored. There is no new life with God, no New Heaven and New Earth, without Immanuel, God-with-us. And God’s incarnation has little to no purpose without Jesus’ death and resurrection. And Jesus’ redemptive work through the cross is merely an event in history without the context of God’s New Creation—God’s will done on Earth as it is in heaven. It’s all deeply connected.

Scripture, then, paints more of a landscape than a portrait. The positive and negative space isn’t sharply defined; the sum of the whole is as important as each individual detail. The big picture is the whole point. THIS is what I finally realized after years of silently scolding Handel for his non-Christmas Christmas work. This is why he wrote the Messiah the way he did—he wanted to reflect this essence, Scripture’s landscape. For God, there IS no negative space; every element of every moment of every story is there for a reason. And if we only focus on one part, we might miss something extremely beautiful and incredibly holy.

Now, according to that study I mentioned earlier, this generalized, landscape-type thinking doesn’t come naturally to us. Like, at all. So we people of faith try to keep our minds open to this big picture in different ways. For many Christians, the solution is to read a passage from the Old Testament, a Psalm, a Gospel reading, AND an Epistle every single week. This isn’t overkill or distraction—this is a deliberate choice to help keep the landscape in our view. This is also why many Protestant pastors follow the Revised Common Lectionary, which is a schedule of scripture readings that more or less covers the entire Bible over the course of three years. This tool helps keep us from turning our faith into a portrait of the human Jesus, or a still-life of the Hebrew people, or an object study of the early Church. It helps us to see the landscape as God has given it to us.

Of course, even with these safe-guards in place, we resist the big-picture view. We all do. We don’t want to complicate our celebrations and cloud our minds with all that extra information and troublesome context. Shortly after I began to realize why Handel wrote “The Messiah” the way he did, about a year into seminary, I came home for Christmas and experienced this resistance firsthand. My family and I were at the candlelight service on Christmas Eve at my home church, and, of course, we shared Communion. Afterwards, my mom leaned over to me and said, “Ya know, I get why we do it, but I really wish we hadn’t taken Communion tonight. It’s such a downer.” Think about that for a moment. My mother, the primary source of my childhood Christian Education, the Pastor’s Kid, the woman of incredible personal faith, surprisingly didn’t want to think about death on the same day she was celebrating life. She clung to her seasonal snapshot of Jesus and rejected the landscape. Now, believe me, I’m not telling this story to illustrate how clueless or ignorant she is—she’s not. She understood the bigger picture; she told me so herself. But in that moment, she didn’t want to have to look past the calmness to see the chaos, or the simplicity to see the complexity. She just wanted to ignore the negative space for a little while.

I can’t say that I blame her. It’s a lot to take in at any given time, and it can be overwhelming. And at a time of year when things can get overwhelming pretty quickly, that’s the last thing that most of us want. But ignoring the negative space doesn’t mean that it’s not there. It just means that we’re missing a part of the landscape—a crucial part.

For a culture that’s generally so eager to jump right past Advent straight to Christmas, we sure do resist seeing the bigger picture of the season. But there’s so much to see—God is a talented artist! Advent is a gift in this way. Instead of speeding straight to the Christmas celebration, it forces us to stop and notice the negative space that we might not have seen before. It invites us to recognize the true scope of this seemingly simple story that we tell year after year, the true depth of God’s love for us. It’s not just a portrait of a baby named Jesus born over 2000 years ago; it’s a landscape that transcends time and space: a work of art that God is still painting today.

So, at least during the four weeks of Advent this year, your assignment from me is simple: look around. Notice the parts of the faith landscape that you personally tend to ignore. We need to see the WHOLE picture so that we can understand exactly what it is that God is doing. We need to notice EVERY detail so that we can understand exactly who we’re called to be as the people of God—how we contribute to this work of art. We need to take in the ENTIRE landscape so that we can be prepared for Christ’s return and God’s ultimate victory.

Don’t shy away from the hard parts, the ugly parts, the unpleasant parts: don’t forget that King Herod ordered babies killed to protect his own power. Don’t forget that there was no room for God and Mary and Joseph after a long journey. Don’t forget that this Jesus was born into a world of pain and suffering and hate. Don’t forget that he was denied and betrayed by his own friends and abandoned by the very people he came to save. Don’t forget that despite all this, we still live in a sinful and broken world and that each of us is a part of that sin and brokenness.

But also: don’t forget that through it all, Jesus is Lord. God is sovereign. Don’t forget that death does not have the final word: for God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Don’t forget that love always wins: because neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Don’t forget that when we pray, “Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done,” we’re asking God to fulfill a promise that was made at the beginning of time, claimed by Abraham, fulfilled through Jesus Christ, and will go on and on long after history ceases to be recorded by humankind. Don’t forget that faith is more than just the positive space—it’s the big picture.

Don’t forget to take in the whole view: there’s a lot to see.


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