The Falling and the Rising

It is the first Sunday after Christmas. How do you navigate this ‘hangover’ time? Are you wandering now into the proverbial ‘deep valley’ after having experienced the ‘mountaintop’ of festive frivolity?

For some, the reality of the cost of gift giving has begun to sink in. Perhaps for you, your expectations were high coming into the season, only now to discover it was not what you thought it would be. For others still, the toys unwrapped on Christmas morn are already a tiresome bore, left on the shelf somewhere.

There is good reason to suggest that choristers ought to visit the nursing home with joyous carols, not before Christmas Day, but in the dog-days of late December and early January. It is this time that many of us may need a pick-me-up, more than ever. I am grateful some of you thought to organize a congregation meal together for Epiphany rather than when things are crazy in mid-December, when we are at the height of all expectation and activity.

We read in the Gospel text today, “Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary: “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many …” (Luke 2:34)

Notice the backward order of the words in the scripture — “falling and rising”. In the world, as it may be how we feel at this time of year, it’s ‘rise and fall’: The rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the rise and fall of the Third Reich, the rise and fall of a business tycoon, the rise and fall of a celebrity.

In Macleans magazine, they evaluate 2014 newsmakers in terms of “winners and losers” — and include the likes of famous Canadian radio host, Jian Ghomeshi, who “fell from grace”, we say, whose stardom rapidly disintegrated this Fall (Dec 8/15, Vol.127, Nos.48/49). This is the way we see the rhythm of history and what the world notices. First, one rises; then, once on top, the only way is the way down.

But with Jesus it’s the other way around. With Jesus, it’s fall and rise. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Anna fasts “night and day”, not ‘day and night’. Jesus did not fly directly up into heaven once danger flared. He suffered and died, and then was raised to glory. The movement is down, then up (Philippians 2:5-11). We fall, and from that lowest point, we rise.

You may just fall. But if you rise, it is because you have first fallen. Rising doesn’t come without falling.

If you have arisen, you would have done so rising from the ashes of defeat, failure, having come through some of the worst time of your life. If you have arisen, you would know what it means to be at ground zero. There is spiritual power and great wisdom in embracing your own vulnerability, your own limitation, your own shame, anger and fear.

There is inherent value in being open and honest about your pain — not denying it, not pretending it away, not hiding it, nor distracting ourselves from it. Because it is in facing our own ‘stuff’, even our own mortality, that we will experience the turn.

Simeon, the elder, can now be hospitable to his impending death after encountering the vulnerable, infant Jesus (Luke 2:22-40). There is no rising without first falling. Ironically, this is also the message of Easter. And this is how Christmas and Easter are indivisible: We can see it from the perspective of Mary …

Mary must have shuddered at Simeon’s words. Mysteriously he speaks of a “sword piercing her soul” (v.35). It is moving to think of Mary, feeling Jesus kick in her womb, hearing his first cry, nursing him, watching his first steps. After all, she will witness thirty years, which is telescoped into a single verse: “The child grew and became strong” (v.40). Jesus leaves home and marshals a following.

But wicked men turn against her son — who is pure, good, all love. Mary has to watch as Simeon’s prophecy is fulfilled. Her heart breaks as she sees the lifeblood she had given him drain out of his beautiful body on the Cross. The fall.

But then the rise, on Easter morn. Who, among all who witnessed Jesus risen from the dead, was more joyful to see him alive than his own mother? (thanks to James C. Howell, “Feasting on the Word” WJK Press, Kentucky, 2008, p.168, for his words and thoughts on ‘falling and rising’).

So, when we are at the bottom, how do we cope when “in the Fall”, and when we still await “the Rise”?

As I reflect about looking back over unhappy times in my own life, as I reflect on dashed expectations, disappointments and unfulfilled ‘wants’ — I wonder. I wonder if crying out for the Lord is a cry of despair, or a cry of hope? (thanks, Rev. Doug Reble, for this insight). For me, I have to confess: I would not give up on hope.

Because of Jesus. Mary and Joseph, in this part of the Christmas story, take Jesus to the temple in order to fulfill the letter of the Jewish law (Luke 2:22-24). Their diligence may raise questions for Christians who feel no obligation to the Old Testament’s laws. What is the purpose of the ‘sacrifice’ for their purification?

From a Christian faith perspective, we would say this child was in no need of any such purification. Jesus did not need to be purified. Karl Barth wonderfully wrote about Jesus’ baptism — which we shall read in a couple of weeks — that Jesus needed to be washed of sin; but not his sin, but our sin: “No one who came to the Jordan was as laden and afflicted as He” (cited in ibid., p.164).

No one ever came to the temple for purification as laden with sin — not his, but our sin. Jesus took it all on him. Jesus was purified, for our sake. Jesus takes it all on him — whatever burden we carry — so that we can have a new start, a fresh beginning. Therefore, we can hope.

In this coming new year, 2015, may you be blessed with hope. A hope which carries you through the weeks, months, or even years of “lonely exile” and into the peace, love, and joy promised in Jesus Christ. May your falling turn into a glorious rising, “soon and very soon”.

Alpha and Omega

All Saints Sunday – B (Revelation 21:1-6)

If you listen to CBC Radio One, you might have noticed that Jian Ghomeshi concludes most of his daily talk-shows, ‘Q’, by saying: “To be continued.”

He says this despite having completed all the interviews, listened to all the songs, and said everything he was planning to say that day. This is not a case of one of those suspense-filled, climactic endings that leave us hanging at the end of a show. This is not about coming to the end of a TV season finale when we are desperate for some resolution to a crisis, and those annoying words flash on the screen: To be continued …

No, at the end of ‘Q’ there’s no suspense, no feeling of in-completion, no loose-ends to tie up – as if Jian Ghomeshi should say something more. In fact, I often feel satisfied when he signs off. And yet at the end he still says, “To be continued”. Why?

Presuming his statement “to be continued” is something good that will be continued, could that expression be sitting on an underlying hope? That he’ll be around tomorrow to do whatever good thing all over again? Is he expressing a need to state in the present moment, despite having to end his show today, that there’s something worth betting on in the so-called ‘unknown’ future tomorrow? Is he implying that the story of his life and work as a radio-broadcaster is destined somewhere good?

I believe each of us can relate, to some extent. Because beneath all our activity and work, isn’t there a desire to see our lives as meaningful, as worthwhile? So, how do we establish meaning?

We tell stories.

We tell stories about our past, about events growing up when we were younger; we tell stories about the people we’ve met and places to which we travelled; we tell stories about loved ones – our children, our friends and relatives. We tell stories about things we’ve accomplished for which we are proud. We tell stories to make sense – good sense – of it all.

No wonder people are really into tracing their ancestry and genealogy these days – like never before. Web sites like ancestry.ca are getting huge hits for meeting a real human need. These are designed to help us tell our stories of origin – where we’ve come from. We have a beginning, to be sure. It’s worth telling.

I think, though, we have an easier time identifying where we’ve come from. Because we’re less specific, normally, about where we’re going. I was looking through some old history textbooks from high school, and noticed the typical depiction of historical events: an arrow going across the bottom of the page. Along the line are marked significant points in time, certain events worth noting.

But there’s no definite end. The line just points vaguely into the future, suggesting merely that “time marches on”. And I suppose with the hope that the future will resolve itself in subsequent beneficial events in history. Or at least history will move forward in a benign sort of way.

But where, exactly, are we headed? The dominant story of our culture seems to suggest we are headed “everywhere at once, which means of course we are headed no where in particular” (p.234 Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol 4).

T.S. Eliot wrote, “In my end is my beginning” (East Coker in Four Quartets, New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1943, p.32). The answer to both questions – where we are from and where we are headed – is the same: God. Our ultimate origins are in God, and our ultimate destination is in God as well. Our final destination is the same as where we started.

The book of Genesis begins the Bible – it helps us in broad terms to understand our origins. The book of Revelation ends the Bible – it helps us in broad terms to understand our ultimate destination.

We started ‘good’ with God. When God created everything, as recorded in the first chapters of Genesis, the first thing God says is, “It was good”. Then the Fall, then sin, then our brokenness, suffering, division and violence. We know that story intimately – the in-between parts.

But how well do we appreciate the beginning and the end – the bookends of history, so to speak? Do we choose to have hope that our story does not end in the present, sometimes crappy circumstance of our lives? Do we affirm by our attitude and behavior that the story will continue to its ultimate ending? We affirm at funeral services: “Death has not the final Word”. So it must be back to God – back to union in the goodness of ourselves in God. And not only in some netherworld fantasy. But in a real, meaningful, concrete way ….

…. should we live our lives today ‘as if’. What if we lived today from the perspective of both our origin and final destination in Christ? What if we lived in the moment in the sight of God who is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and end? Who sees us as we were originally purposed, originally created? What if we lived today to regard ourselves and the world as God originally intended and to whom we ultimately will return?

What if we embraced our true identity as the “saints” of God? What if we had the gall, the courage, the faith, to affirm daily – especially in the midst of some suffering, even – “to be continued” – towards a good resolution?

One way we affirm our lives “to be continued” in Christ affects our life together — in family, in church, in business.

Wherever now there is division and conflict, we can make decisions based on viewing our existence from the perspective of eternity. We can choose to be bold and make choices however difficult and risky to forge ahead building relationships and communities that work toward a common good.

And I believe deep down we know this to be true. Last week, I was speaking with a Roman Catholic lay person and she mentioned that our Lutheran services of worship are so similar. Even the words we say in the liturgy were familiar to her. After a pause to let her observation sink in, I added: “We really should get our act together as Christians”.

The creation of a new community in communion with God is not the result of history but the purpose of it. Our beginning is our end and our end is our beginning.

Through it all, God’s home is among mortals. God and humans dwell together. This means that our ability to work with others is a part of creation. We have the capacity to cooperate, enabling us to achieve that which would be impossible to the lone individual, to the lone congregation, to the lone denomination, to the lone branch of Christianity.

The book of Revelation is at heart a book of consolation and a vision of comfort for a people in distress and suffering great loss and conflict. The visions in the book point to a particular and hopeful destination for people of faith. That implication alone is power to order and direct our lives in the here and now – to stay on the path, together.

These days, let’s not just be about claiming our individual ‘personhood’; let’s claim our sainthood in Christ Jesus, Lord of all.

Amen. To be continued ….