My son Michael and his wife Mariama are expecting their first child early in March of next year, and we are all very excited about it. Whenever I ask either of them about the baby, they usually report that it is very active and doing a lot of kicking. My response to them usually is: “I’m sure it’s a boy!” Now they have not told me if they already know the gender of the baby, nor have I asked. Nevertheless, although my general knowledge of obstetrics is extremely limited, and although I have never been pregnant, over the years I have often been right in predicting that a very active baby in the womb is male rather than female. Baby boys seem to play football or basketball even before they are born.
It is not surprising, therefore, to read in the Gospel for today that two pregnant cousins, Mary and Elizabeth, were having a conversation about their fetuses, and that at least one of the babies was jumping in the womb. In Luke 1:44 we find Elizabeth making this report to Mary: “For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.” John’s mother rejoiced at the presence of the mother of Jesus. This morning, I wish to take that report a step further, and to claim that Baby John himself rejoiced at the presence of Baby Jesus, and he jumped for joy on the inside.
There was so much about John the Baptist’s affirmation of Jesus in his own preaching ministry, and so much admiration of John by Jesus, that there must have been a bond between them which began long before they were born. John recognized in Jesus something Messianic, something extra-ordinarily divine, someone whom he recognized as the Lamb of God, the One who would be the Agent of God’s redemptive work, taking away the sin of the world. Jesus, for his part, spoke of John in the highest possible terms. There was no greater person ever born of a woman than John, he said. Between themselves, therefore, they literally embodied the fact of the presence of God in a most remarkable and transforming way. John prepared the way for Jesus. He even trained some of his chosen disciples, such as Andrew. Jesus affirmed John’s prophetic and baptismal ministry as his own acknowledgement of his divine mission.
The man who leaped in his mother’s womb for joy at the presence of Christ also leaped on to history’s page with the task of announcing the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. He ushered in an Emmanuel awareness. “Emmanuel” means “God is with us”. God’s presence was proclaimed in a radically new and unmistakable way. No more symbol, no more mysterious sign, no more religious omen, no more fickle expectations, no more politically naive notions of caste or covenant, of ethnic heritage or religious preference, no more social prejudice masquerading as divine selection. God had come to Earth in human flesh.
The dividing line between Advent and Christmas had become irrelevant, for, with God, Advent and Christmas are the same. Both were being experienced on the same day, and at the same time — whether it was December 24, or March 25, or August 24 — The Coming One had come. Is he here yet? Yes, he is! For in Christ, God was doing a new thing, God was reconciling the world to God’s self. That Christ was to be for all time the supreme manifestation, the supreme revelation, the ultimate explication, if you like, yes, the unique and irrevocable means by which all Christians would name the name of God. So when John the Baptist jumped, John jumped for God. For Jesus Christ was, and is, and ever will be, the supreme demonstration, in historical terms, of what we mean by GOD.
During this Advent season, we have been exploring from this pulpit, the theme of what it means to be a Christian in this new millennium. What does it cost, what does it take, how does it pan out, to be a Christian in this post-modern world? My simple answer is that we must practice the art of the presence of God in Christ. Now what exactly does this mean? Quite frankly, I am not quite sure what it all means, nor do I believe that anybody else knows exactly. We are all trying our best to work it out; and, as you know, nothing beats a trial but a failure. But let me tell you what I think it can mean for us.
I believe that a Christian today is called to be an awareness-builder. To build awareness, one has to become conspicuous. People have to see and know that you are there, and what you are there for. Jesus called it witnessing. You cannot build awareness unless you are prepared to jump like John, jump for God, jump for Christ, jump for the Gospel. You cannot be lost in the womb, or else the womb will soon become a tomb. You cannot be lost in the crowd, or else the crowd will soon become your grave. To build an awareness of the presence of God in your own life and life-style, is to make available for others that radiant energy over which God alone has perfect control. You are simply required to let God be God.
Second, I also believe that a Christian today is called to the fresh task of a radical spirituality. You may have noticed that there are two key words in the Christian stock exchange that are being rapidly marketed with expansive appeal. One is the word “forgiveness”, and the other is the word “spirituality”. If you pull them up on the Internet you will see exactly what I mean. Our call to radical spirituality is to rescue the Christian duty of forgiveness, and the life of the spirit, from the marketplace, with all the scientific, economic, political, psychological, and pragmatic baggage with which they have been saddled. This radical spirituality calls for an uprooting of these core Christian virtues from the bondage of the marketplace, and for replanting them where they truly belong, that is, in the heart of the crucified Christ. Forgiveness and spirituality must be firmly rooted at the foot of the throne of God’s grace. We must come to believe again and again that God’s grace is sufficient, yes, even in this new millennium. We must find a radically new way to “let go and let God.”
Third, I believe that a Christian today is called to become fully engaged in a life of strategic advocacy. An advocate is one who speaks out, acts up, comes forward, rises for, and holds on. An advocate does all this on the behalf of someone, or something else. Every Christian knows who our true Advocate is — He is Jesus Christ, who, in the language of our Creed, sits at the right hand of God. But what does it mean to be strategic? It means that we cannot dance to every tune in town, we cannot join every band-wagon on the road, we cannot issue a statement for every cause, we cannot rush in where angels are keeping out. We must never forget that Jesus in his earthly ministry refused to be dragged into every controversy that was brought before his notice. “Who made me a judge or a ruler over you?” he once asked a young man. Strategic advocacy means that we are to value our Christian engagement as a ministry of presence; but that ministry often requires our strategic absence as well. It is an absence that invites God’s unseen presence to work in many miraculous and creative ways. Omnipotence is a divine attribute; it is not a human requirement, no, not even for Christians.
Fourth, I believe that a Christian today is called to become an agent of uncommon justice. One of the strongest links between the Hebrew and Christian traditions is the focus on divine justice as an inescapable moral and spiritual commitment. We have read today from the book of Micah. In Micah 6:8 we have that most cardinal requirement for a right relationship with God: “…what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Yes, when justice stands on its own in the common place, in the public square, mercy and truth are not always there to be found. For common justice worships at the altar of common sense, and common sense is not always common to everyone; and certainly not to the least, the lowly, nor the locked out. To be agents of uncommon justice, therefore, Christians are to embody in their own lives the highest virtues of God’s justice, seasoned delectably with loving-kindness, humility, patience, and truth, with a generous supply of a passion for freedom thrown in. Uncommon justice means that differences do matter. They matter because they are to become God’s invitations to us to use them as bridges towards a higher level of human community; rather than as barriers for a deeper sense of human security.
Please allow me, in passing, to use this special opportunity to say a word of farewell to our Diocesan Bishop Ronald Haines, as he demits office in a week’s time. Bishop Haines has served this diocese well, and he can honestly say with Frank Sinatra, “I did it my way.” Yet, he tried to make his understanding of God’s way his way. He has said of himself that he has sought to be credally orthodox, scripturally centered, ethically consistent, and socially responsible. I think it would also be true to say that our bishop resolutely refused to be re-made in anybody else’s image, just as much as he declined to re-make anyone else in his own image. Anyone who knows this town well will readily recognize that as a virtue in itself. Further, Bishop Haines sought in so many courageous and singular ways to integrate the ethic of Christian justice into the ethos of the diocese that he led. Only time will tell how far he was able to accomplish this objective. Let us pray that God’s grace and strength will accompany both him and his dear wife, as they seek new pastures green in God’s happy hunting grounds.
What then, does it mean to be a Christian in the new millennium? What does it cost? How does it work? At the very least, we are to become who we are already. Millennia come and go, but God does not change. God is not seasonal, neither is the Word of God, nor the will of God. Christianity is not just a religion, it is also a life. It is a life that requires of us today, awareness-building, a radical spirituality, strategic advocacy, and uncommon justice. And yet, Christianity is more than a life, it is also an art.
Nothing is more pivotal for our understanding of the Christian calling today, since we are so heavily encumbered by the consuming power of technology. Art is the answer to the challenge of technology. Christianity is an art, an art of life. We are to practice the art of the presence of God in Christ. We can only do this effectively if we are prepared to keep our “I”’s open. [I mean the letter “I”] This art of life calls for Christian Imagination. It calls for Christian Intelligence. It calls for Christian Irruption. It also calls for Christian Illumination. These four “I”s — Imagination, Intelligence, Irruption, and Illumination – will surely help to keep the art of the Christian vocation in today’s world ever open to the creative urgings of God’s Spirit.
The Spirit of God is the nearness of God. The Spirit of God is the presence of God. The Spirit of God is the convulsive action of God, a God who groans with us, struggles with us, laughs with us, cooperates with us, and even invites us into a fight. For you always fight with the one you love, in order to make that love stronger. It is this irruptive and re-creative love of God that we celebrate today and every day. It is this transforming art of witnessing to God’s love that we demonstrate today and tonight with our poinsettias and our alleluias. By this we proclaim to the world that we are indeed the most modern practitioners of God’s enlivening presence, for we, as the children of God, are led by the Spirit of God, and enriched every day by the fourfold gifts of the Spirit.
And what are these gifts? Gifts are otherwise known as charisms. What are these charisms that can make us charismatic artists of Christ’s presence in our world today, and also charismatic shapers of the world tomorrow? They are, first of all, the gift of Enlightened Discernment; we see the world through special eyes. Second, we have the gift of Moral Engagement; we claim the world for God by our struggle for good over evil, and love over hatred, and justice over greed. Third, we have the gift of Spiritual Upliftment, we are called to a higher order of being, for we are risen with Christ, and we seek those things that are above, and not the base pleasures of life. Fourth, we have the gift of Relentless Self-giving, we give of ourselves in sacrificial service, for we bear witness to Christ by serving rather than by being served.
If you feel the need to remember these fourfold gifts of the Spirit according to Davis, they should be fairly simple to remember by their first letters. The “D” is for Discernment, the “E” is for Engagement, the “U” is for Upliftment, and the “S” is for Self-giving. D-E-U-S happens to be the Latin word for “God”, and that is whom we have been trying to focus on this morning. To be a Christian in the new millennium is to practice daily in our lives, and in our lifestyles, the art of the presence of God in Christ.
To that God may we always boldly ascribe, as is most justly due, all honor, might, dominion and praise, both now and forevermore. Amen.