Advent Sermon, 1st Sunday, 2006!
Demonstrations of Doubt
Rev. Adam Tierney-Eliot
The Eliot Church
December 3, 2006
"The Days are surely coming," says God through Jeremiah
"When I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel."
This is a statement of certainty and optimism. It urges us to look forward with anticipation to the sure fulfillment of prophecy. This certainty is a hallmark of much of modern faith, be it Christian, Jewish, Muslim or any other of the great world religions. There is the sense of absolute truth. We see this understanding in the architecture of the great cathedrals and the rituals of the church. We see it particularly during Advent, when so many people are preparing for Christmas, for our annual celebration of the birth of Jesus
This story of Christmas--one that many churches begin preparing for today--is a powerful one. It is a story that, in many ways, transcends our actual beliefs. But, of course, as moving as the story may be, many of us who gather here today to help usher in the Christian New Year and with it the holiday season, probably have a few questions lurking in the back of our minds. There are doubts sitting and whispering in the corners of our hearts
Our newspapers are filled daily, not with the news of the coming Commonwealth of Heaven, but with news of war and famine and tales of natural disasters that ruin lives and communities. The suffering continues in spite of the promise of prophets like Jeremiah. For many of us, the very stories, themselves, from the Creation in Genesis through the Christmas nativity and on to the resurrection, have become harder to comprehend and believe in the light of two thousand years of growth and discovery.
Our doubts can wear on us and wear on those who would just like to believe and want us to believe, too (to be happy, maybe when we are not,to worry about “putting the Christ in Christmas” when, perhaps in deference to our Jewish and Muslim friends, we do not). Still, we gather on this first Sunday in Advent to once again experience and remember the teachings of the prophets and heroes of the Biblical past. We gather together to celebrate Christmas just as dissenters of the past did--people like the Universalist Olympia Brown, the Unitarian Fredrick Henry Hedge, and (while his father, Lyman forbade it growing up), the Congregationalist Henry Ward Beecher--all of whom we have spoken about this past month. We gather just as they did to live out a faith founded on love.
Why do we do it? Why do we celebrate this holiday even when we have questions? Well, the asking, of course, is natural, it is part of our tradition. It is a tradition of debate that goes back to the Bible. There we can find plenty of people who aren’t so ready to accept the party line. There is Peter, of course, and Thomas, apostles who required convincing on many occasions. There is Zekariah, from one of our readings today, unwilling to believe the angel of God, saying, “How will I know that this is so?” (Luke 1:18)
The Gospel writers, themselves, disagreed with each other--each book representing a different tradition and a different audience. The texts are filled with contradictions as each early Christian community or school of thought attempted to have their perspective heard and understood. This merely proves that in faith and scripture, it is hard to find any absolutes.
For example, in the Gospel of Luke we find the virgin Mary and her husband-to-be, Joseph traveling to Bethlehem where Mary gives birth to Jesus in a barn. In Matthew, however, Jesus and Mary apparently already live in Bethlehem and Jesus is born in a house. The writer of Mark, the oldest Gospel, seems to feel that the circumstances of Jesus’ birth are not remarkable enough to record (which is strange when one considers the claims made by Matthew and Luke). In fact, the earliest texts in the Bible are Paul’s. He doesn’t mention the virgin birth, either, and the Gospel of John refers to Joseph as Jesus’ father, without any qualifications that would indicate that his fatherhood was adoptive rather than biological.
Knowing all of this, it seems almost too much to point out that the Hebrew word (Almah) in Isaiah--a word that Matthew cites to legitimize Jesus as the main character in a messianic prophecy, and that our Bibles have translated as “virgin”--lacks the biological implications that we usually associate with it. It refers instead to a young woman who has recently been married but isn’t yet pregnant.
The jury is out on the historical veracity of the Christmas story as we know it, as it is on many aspects of scripture. However, that doesn’t mean we have to box up our ornaments and take down the tree. Nor must we anoint ourselves the town Grinches.
All of these points of theology, either known or intuited by many of us here today, have less to do with why we celebrate Christmas than we might think. Norman Vincent Peale once said that, “Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful.” There is something magical about this time, A beauty and a goodness that tries hard to break through the shell and cynicism of our modern minds.
Our understanding of the Bible and its contradictions isn’t a reason to throw it away. Instead, it reinforces an approach and acceptance of the fact that (In the words of Bible Scholar and priest Father John Dominic Crossan) “It is possible to take the Christian message seriously, without having to take it at all points literally.” The spirit after all, is still there, strong and holy. For all that the tradition has done to present our faith as one monolithic system of beliefs, the fact remains that from the very beginning there have been different ways to understand it. We, in the tradition of our forebears are well within our rights to demonstrate our doubt. Our doubts keep us honest. They excite and energize us. They allow us to find, in all the competing signs, the true light and spirit of the season.
One thing that the liberal church does well is to articulate what we do not believe. Much less frequently (and often with an overabundance of modifiers and conditions), we say what we do believe. This Christmas season gives us the opportunity to do both. For at the root of our faith is an idea, one that all of the Gospel writers can agree on: That God is in the world. Wherever and whatever else God may be, God is in the world and in us and between us.
Today we read responsively from a piece inspired by the Magnificat, when the gospel of Luke quotes Mary as saying,
“My soul magnifies the sovereign God
And my spirit rejoices in God my savior
For God has looked with favor
On the lowliness of this servant”
God is with us and in us. God is with and in all the lowly servants, just as it was for Mary and the Commonwealth of Heaven exists for us all--women and men of all races, all nations and creeds--in our joy as well as in our deepest suffering--no matter how painful, no matter how dark.
It is telling that the great Roman critic of the Christians, Celsus, objected to the idea of the virgin birth of Jesus, not because he thought such a thing impossible--the Emperor Augustus, for example was supposed to have been the son of the god Apollo--no, his objection was that such a thing would happen to the least of these. Not to an emperor but a carpenter. Not to a warrior but a rabbi.
The story of the birth of Jesus is a parable in some sense lived by us each year. It is lived by us in rituals and retelling and is meant not to widen the gulf between us and God, but to help us bridge it. To help us bridge the gap through the life of a man who did and said extraordinary things.
The great irony may be how isolated the holidays can make us feel, so let us all try to celebrate this universal message of peace and of love, to remember that God is with us all. Amen