We start today with cowboy boots… Just kidding.
We start today with John the Baptist. He is a familiar character in the Bible: ”a voice crying out in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord,make his path straight…” To us he may seem an early flamboyant cameo character designed to get our attention. But the people who heard him were energized by what he was talking about. Which I suppose means we should take a closer look. So, it’s time for a closer look (that is for you Seth Meyer fans).
I’m fond of reminding us that the people who were hearing the words of Jesus, or John the Baptist for that matter, were well tuned to stories from the Bible. And so, to hear: “I will send to you the prophet Elijah,” not only queued them to Isaiah chapter 40, but also, Malachi chapter 4.
Now what’s interesting about this is that the prophet Isaiah is the first prophet in the Old Testament; and the prophet Malachi is the last prophet in the Old Testament. And furthermore, not only is Malachi the last prophet, but also, the last book in the Old Testament; with the second to last sentence of this last book in the Old Testament being: “I will send you the prophet Elijah.”
And so, the Old Testament prophets start with the coming of Elijah, and finishes with the coming of Elijah; and when a guy shows up in the wilderness who looks like Elijah, and sounds like Elijah, during a time when the community feels disenfranchised and isolated, beat up by Roman, and seemingly out of sync with God; they grab their flasks of water and head to the river Jordan to see what is going on.
And what they find is a guy who looks like Elijah, and sounds like Elijah, and has a very clear message: “Repent and return to the Lord.” With six words he sums up the entire sweep of Old Testament prophecy from Isaiah to Malachi consolidated into a single mantra: “Repent and return to the Lord.”
Repent in Greek is metanoia which means to change your mind, or your direction, or your pattern; to stop what you’re doing, and do something else… and what that something else is for the prophets in every situation is: seek God first. Their underlying assumption in this injunction is that when you put God first everything else is better. Community is better; work is better; relationships are better. Beauty and goodness are more apparent. There is an interconnectedness of creatively and spontaneously with laughter and friendship; compassion and forgiveness; even peace.
Joy becomes the steady state of one’s personhood when we seek God first. That is what the people who went to see John the Baptist were longing for. That is what we all long for as well. John the Baptist gives us the key: “Repent and return to the Lord.” These six words are a key, not the answer. That is an important distinction: a key continues the story, an answer finishes it; a key unlocks a door to another room, an answer nails that door shut. The spiritual journey is about keys not nails; it is about questions not answers; it is about the continuation of the story.
And that is the point I want to make today; the story of turning back to God, the story of seeking God first continues on in us. Advent is the season that reminds us that we are part of this story. It does so by tweaking that yearning; our Desiderium visionis Dei… Thomas Aquinas’ Latin catch phrase for “the soul’s ardent longing for God.”
In Advent we settle into this longing, freed from the myth that yearning can be quelled by stuff or tasks; allowing our souls to be rightly oriented toward God… set on the straight path, to use John the Baptist’s words, towards God. We are liberated to unlock the door with the key of repentance and return to the Lord. But where do we find this door? Where is it located?
We know, as St. Augustine of Hippo reminds us, that behind the door “we will find rest in God.” Which is hopeful, but what is more helpful is St. Augustine’s insight that: “You are closer to me, O’ Lord than I am to myself.” Let me say that another way:God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. It is as if we are the house into which we go to engage God.
Or, to confuse the metaphor, imagine setting your skis in the ruts of the tow-rope lift, and grabbing the rope so as to have your yearning for God pulled into the deepest part of you. If God is closer to us then we are to ourselves, then we encounter God by reverse engineering our yearning back to its point of origin. By grabbing the rope of repentance we return to the Lord. And it is there, at that point of origin that we find our rest.
Thomas Merton calls this place we seek Le pointe vierge, the virgin point. Merton writes: “At the center of our being is a point of nothingness, which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God” (Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, p. 158).
This place has a name: the soul. To arrive there, to arrive at the soul, is to reveal, as Albert Einstein wrote: “The illusion of our separate self, and to reclaim that we are part of a greater whole” (Einstein, Mathematical Circles Adieu, pg. 119, para).
The paradox of the deep, internal spiritual journey is that when we arrive at the subterranean network unlocked by a mantra like: “Repent and return to the Lord;” our souls are opened to other souls and to all souls; what we find in the cavernous deep of our selves is that there is a common story of what it means to be interconnected, caught up in a communal ardent longing for God, which is not just my soul’s principle purpose, or your soul’s principle purpose, but all souls’ principle purpose together. It is by going deep that we experience our unity, and together are drawn forward, into the future, toward union with God, which, as I taught last week has a name, coined by Tielhard de Chardin: Point Omega.
And the wonderful secondary benefit of this unity is that it unleashes for humanity a creativity and spontaneity; laughter and friendship; compassion and forgiveness; peace and joy. And who doesn’t want a little of that in their life?
In fact, that is the life that we seek to unleash right here at Epiphany. I was reminded of this the other day in an e-mail that I received from a rather astute theologian who is a part of the Epiphany family. She began by reminding me how the Bible is a series of stories that continue on…like the continuation from Isaiah to Malachi eventually revealing a key, or maybe just a little bit of joy within a community.
She continued: “So, what happened when you got home from church last Sunday?” What she knew that others may not is that prior to my sermon last Sunday my wife had not yet seen my cowboy boots, nor did she know I had purchased a pair. It hadn’t come up.
So, after church on Sunday, it seemed appropriate to show her the boots. I did so, to which, after the appropriate amount of dutiful admiration, she observed: “How do you know these are cowboy boots?” I was a little surprised, and may have gotten a touch defensive, replying: “I found them on a website that sells cowboy boots as well as other cowboy accoutrement.” She raised her eyebrows… I continued: “I know it was legitimate because of all the cowboy boot pop-up ads I’m getting.” “Are you going to wear those to Evensong?” She wondered. If I wasn’t going to, I was now.
If you haven’t been to Evensong I encourage you to come. It is a beautiful service designed to open a door to the soul. It also attracts a community of characters who gather in the Chapel for fellowship and refreshments after the service. It’s actually a lot of fun, spontaneity, and laughter, most of the time.
As usual the service was spiritually refreshing. Afterwards I wandered into the Chapel for refreshments, and was asked by someone if those were my new cowboy boots. As if they needed to ask. But I am polite, I was raised right, so I nodded as I lifted my toe and twisted my heel so, they could have a closer look.
A second head turned to join my inquisitor in the examination and said: “Those don’t look like cowboy boots,” followed by the first remarking: “You should probably apologize to the congregation for misleading them by calling those cowboy boots.”
Fortunately, we do have some angels at Epiphany, and one of them materialized next to me, providentially from Texas, wearing her cowboy boots. Turns out she has a few pairs and knows something of cowboy boots; unlike those boot doubters from Council Bluffs Iowa and somewhere near Milwaukee. Anyway, she identified my boots as roper boots, a subspecies of cowboy footwear; the kind a ranch hand might wear when bailing hay, or splitting fence rails, or cleaning up after the horses, that someone else is riding… in a different style of boot.
And so, I say to those cowboy boot doubters: “Repent and return to the Lord.” Together we grab the rope of repentance, or pull on our roper boots and wander down into the depth of our souls this season of Advent. And along the way, it is my prayer, that you encounter community that looks something like Evensong or Lessons & Carols or worship services to experience beauty; and then gather afterwards for fellowship, and maybe some laughter, and hopefully joy.
Those are some of the ways in which Epiphany is organized to call our attention to the depth of our unity; and how we are all together drawn soul to soul to soul, by God, by the rope of repentance in some cases, toward the point Omega, toward union with our Lord.