12/9/18: A Particular Savior, Luke 3:1-6
A Particular Savior
First Lesson: Malachi 3:1-4
Second Lesson: Luke 3:1-6
Rev. Scott Dickison
Scriptures with this many biblical names are why they make some of us go to seminary.
This is a curious thing Luke does here, how he locates this story he’s setting out to tell with precision. Eight historical references, there are, in these first two verses introducing John the Baptist who will introduce Jesus. Eight! Luke begins with a wide lens on the Roman Empire and then focuses down through the different regions to the temple and then down to this wild-haired, wilderness prophet. The devil is in the details, we’re so often told, but it may actually be the divine that’s there waiting for us in the details.
Or there in the “particular,” you might say. The exact, the specific. The individual, even. Of course, this is not where most religions or religious folk spend most of our time. We prefer to stay in the realm of universals: abstract truths and principles where we can guard our hearts and not leave ourselves open to be moved or touched or even be held accountable. So we talk about love in general, peace in general, joy in general. The problem is that none of these things exist in general. They’re only alive in the particular. We can be told that “God is love” a hundred times, but until we’ve felt loved by another, this truth, this deep and powerful and beautiful and disarming and mysterious truth of God’s love and God being love won’t really mean much of anything. We can talk about the power of forgiveness and the depth of grace, but until we’ve had reason to truly seek these things we can’t know the stakes of them. And until we’ve been asked to truly offer these things we can’t know the costs. I know we’re a “trespassing” church here, but in many other places they pray each week for God to “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” I remember that translation never meant much to me until after college when I began to receive paperwork for all these student loans I’d signed up for as a 17 year old thinking it was all Monopoly money. Suddenly I knew the weight of this prayer. Debt in general is quite different from debt in the particular.
And as with most things spiritual, children have a much deeper, innate sense of this than the rest of us. The particular is all they know! The spiritual is all they know—the interior. Yes, from time to time they stumble upon the universal, but always by way of the particular, their own world and experience and rich, rich interior life. I put two pieces of bread in the toaster the other morning for my sons and in the 90 seconds it took for that bread to become toast they had been through the 5 stages of grief waiting for it. They were agonizing—saying to me, Daddy, waiting is the hardest thing!
I said, Yes it is. You know, boys, we spend most of our lives waiting for something.To which they stared blankly, and then the toast popped up.
Have you ever tried to put a child to bed with just any old stuffed animal? It doesn’t work! Most of them, if they need a stuffy—as we call them in our home—need a particular stuffy. They need their gaga or the booboo or their binky or whatever name they’ve somehow attached to this precious, precious thing. Can’t find said stuffy and try offering something else? Be prepared for a long night. There are not stuffies in general, only stuffies in particular.
Or when a child loses her first pet and her parents, in an attempt to do anything to ease her pain, say, Sweetie, we’ll get you a new puppy. And she we will say to them, But I don’t want a new puppy. I want my puppy. There are no pets in general, there are only pets in the particular.
And Luke reminds us the same is true of Christ. There is no Christ in general, there is only Christ in particular.
We’ve missed something important in the story of Advent and Christmas—really, the Christian story and the wider biblical story beyond that—if we rush past the particular to general or the universal. If we linger in the abstract without first acquainting ourselves, involving ourselves, with the particular. The story of Jesus did not happen “once upon a time,” it happened in the 15th year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius. Luke reminds us that Christ is not simply an abstract principle, Christ is a person. A person who came and lived at a particular point in history, with other lives and other history happening around him. I’m always fascinated in Bibles by those timelines that show biblical history on one line with word history on the other. Now most dating in the bible is up for debate and so these things are educated guesses, but they remind us that this is a particular story we tell amid many other stories. But it’s by plunging into the depths of this particular story that we come to know better the full story.
This past Friday night several of us were invited to attend a beautiful Shabbat dinner hosted in the home of my dear friend Joe Charness. Joe’s wife Sarah is a rabbi at Robins Ari Force Base and along with their daughter, Yael, they’ve cultivated a wonderful community that gathers in honor of the Sabbath each Friday night. Most of the people who attend are not Jewish, which is what Joe prefers. He’s a gifted teacher and finds great joy in opening up the depth of the rituals of Judaism to those with fresh eyes to see them, as a way of creating space for the divine that we all know and encounter in our own individual faiths. There’s something to be said for interfaith work that seeks the lowest common denominator, but there’s something special that happens when we’re invited into, and allow ourselves to enter, the full depth of another faith.
Joe spoke beautifully about how Jews understand the Sabbath, of course as a day—a moment in time—but how from this, the Sabbath is also understood to be a way of life. The word Sabbath, he said, can mean both to stop and to dwell. And so it’s through taking on a practice of stopping to enjoy the beauty and blessing of life that we come to dwell in this beauty and blessing that is available and present to us at all times, if we would be present to it. It begins in the particular and opens to the universal. It’s no accident, he noted, that the letter of the Hebrews in the New Testament refers to Christ as God’s Sabbath rest—Christ as the Sabbath. A moment but also eternity. A person but also a savior. A particular savior.
Any faith that is all spirit and no flesh isn’t biblical faith. It isn’t incarnate faith. And this is how it must be—it’s how it can only be. We come to know of the spirit through the flesh. We come to know the eternal by locating ourselves completely in the here and now. The richness, the beauty, the texture of the present moment. It’s only when we’re fully aware of this moment that we glimpse the eternal. When the morning sun pours through the kitchen window at just the right angle and produce the most luscious orange glow.
When you’re away from the city lights at night and find yourself in the depth of starlight.
When you stand at the grave of a loved one.
And since it is this season, when you hold a newborn in your arms.
Eternity squeezed into a single, small body. This is how it must be: the more at home we are in our own flesh, the more at home we are in the spirit. The more in touch we are with the texture of this world the more we know the landscape of the next.
Annie Dillard, in her classic memoir of nature and discovery, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, at one point says to imagine a revolving globe on a stand—a contoured globe with mountain ranges and ridges of the ocean floor. But then imagine how it really is,she says.These heights aren’t just suggested; they’re there—and that’s not all there is. There’s a whole different level of detail and complexity that could never be represented on a globe. The globe merely hints at it. The great Roman philosopher,Pliny, she says, who knew the world was round, figured that when it was all surveyed the earth would be seen to resemble in shape, not a sphere, but a pineapple, pricked by irregularities.
She imagines looking out over the landscape not even of the world but of your neighborhood, and seeing all that’s there: the houses and trees, the tiny grades up which children drag their sleds. It’s all so sculptured, three-dimensional, casting a shadow, she says.
What do [we] make of all this texture? she asks.What does it mean about the kind of world in which [we] have been set down? The texture of the world, she says,its filigree and scrollwork, means…there is the possibility for beauty here, a beauty inexhaustible in its complexity, which opens to my knock, which answers in me a call I do not remember calling, and which trains me to the wild and extravagant nature of the spirit I seek.
The texture of the world—isn’t this it! The particularity, the detail. This is where the beauty is, and where beauty is, there is the divine.
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness,” Isaiah tells us.
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth; and allflesh shall see the salvation of God.’ ”
The voice of one, speaking of the salvation of all.
We claim that the story of Christmas—the story of God coming into the world in a new way—is a universal story. It’s this impossibly big thing, and heaven knows our seasonal celebrations often feel larger than life, for better or for worse. But before this story was about the universal, it was about the particular. It begins with one voice, crying out from the wilderness, anticipating the healing of all people—of all flesh.
Before it’s about the creator of the universe coming down to earth through the womb of a young woman in the form of a tiny baby, it’s about a tiny baby being born to a young woman, and growing to live one human life that would reveal God’s dream for all creation. A life of boundless love and compassion, a life lived close to the poor and vulnerable, a life spent around tables with friends with food and drink and surely laughter, surely tears. A life of great grief and suffering and sorrow, but also a life of abiding peace, and boundless joy. I full life—not an easy life, heaven knows—but a full life. A life animated by God.
There is no incarnation in general, only incarnation in particular. It happened, we’re told, once before completely, in the person John prepared us for.
The invitation of this season is that it would happen again. Not simply in the Christ for whom we wait. But that it would happen in us. That it would happen in you.
Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 140-141