by Edea Baldwin
November 23, 2007
A few weeks ago, just before we began our celebration of the Advent season, I stood here before you and spoke of the prophet Habakkuk. Last time we saw him, Habakkuk had been looking around at the prosperity of nations who worshipped idols, at the good fortune that seemed to come to people who behaved as if there were no consequences to fear. God had just given the prophet some news that seemed too incredible to be true… God explained that He would use these idol-worshippers to discipline His people. We left Habakkuk feeling full of doubt and confusion, standing upon the ramparts of the city, waiting for God’s answer to his cries for understanding.
Habakkuk’s name means “to embrace” or “to wrestle.” His name is fitting, for he does both of these things. He embraces God as his Lord and Creator, and yet he wrestles with Him, expressing his concerns and begging God for the knowledge to understand God’s ways. We are standing on those ramparts beside Habakkuk, asking similar questions, expressing the same kinds of doubt.
Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do the innocent suffer? Why do the wicked prosper? Why is life so hard?
Why are people living in Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Iran, and Iraq seem to hate one another enough to commit suicide to destroy one another?
Why do some adults take out anger, frustration, and psychological perversions on the most helpless and innocent of children?
Why do so many people care more about the events in the lives of Paris Hilton, Brittany Spears, and Lindsay Lohan than they do about the genocide and famine in faraway places like Darfur and Somalia?
Why do dishonest, greedy people seem to be better off sometimes than those who try to practice honesty, who strive to live lives marked by integrity?
Why do Christians fuss and fight and split over variant sexualities, gambling, and women in leadership while hiding hearts full of rancor, pride, spite, prejudice, and downright hatred?
I believe that our hearts cry out to God, echoing these questions and many other personal concerns. I believe that we are standing together with Habakkuk, listening for a word from God.
Now I’m going to make a leap here… but try to make that leap with me.
God has spoken that Word, has given it flesh and bone in the body of His own Son. The word was made flesh and dwelt among us, the Bible tells us. All the answers we need for all of those doubts and questions must be found in Jesus.
We Western Christians usually place our focus on how Jesus, the Living Word of God Incarnate, atoned for our sins and gave us new life through His suffering, death, and resurrecction. But there is another half of Christianity that most of us are barely aware of: the Eastern Orthodox Churches. For Orthodox believers, Jesus’s birth is just as vitally a part of our salvation as is His atonement on the cross. Orthodox Christians see tremendous significance in the fact that God veiled Himself in our weak flesh. They believe that, in doing so, God was remaking us in His image, an image that sin had shattered. When Christ is referred to in the New Testament as the new, or second Adam, He is bringing new life to His people in a very real way, not only sharing our humanity, but sharing His divinity.
Demetrios, Archbishop of the Greek Archdiocese of America, said it this way in a recent letter to believers: “In His humility was His power. In entering our humanity, our Lord exalted what had been made low by sin and death, As the Son of God Incarnate, He affurmed the divine imprint on our creation.”
The Greek word for sin is hamartia, which literally means “missing the mark.” In our human weakness, we are unable to know ourselves and God clearly. One writer used the metaphor of being lost in a storm: “it is as though God were calling out to us and coming after us in a storm, but we thought we heard His voice in another direction and kept moving away from Him.” Our spiritual vision is clouded by the things of this world that clamor for our attention. We constantly act in ways that seem good at the time, but that actually make us feel incomplete and dissatisfied.
The incarnate Christ saves us not only by what He did on the cross, but also by Who He is.Another Orthodox writer said, “The eternal Son of God took on our fallen human nature, including lur mortality, in order to restore it to the possibibility of immprtality. Jesus Christ died so that he might be ressurrected, and so that we one day might be resurrected to stand alongside him.
Here is a quote from Saint Augustine, from one of his sermons: “Man’s maker was made man that He, ruler of the stars, might nurse at His mother’s breast, that the Bread might hunger, the Fountain thirst, the Light sleep, the Way be tired on the journey, that truth might be accused of false witness, the Teacher beaten with whips, the Foundation be suspended on Wood; that Strength might grow weak, that the Healer might be wounded; that life might die.”
I ask today that you consider Christ’s birth in a new way. I think we should learn a lesson from our Orthodox brothers and sisters, and pay due reverence to the Word made flesh, to the Incarnation, in which God came down to His people and lived among them, that he might share in their weakness and impart to them His strength.
As our advent theme has reminded us, the world is turning… slowly, yes, it seems slow to our human reckoning. but it is turning into what God meant it to be. he is, even now, recreating His people, forging a new kingdom that is still invisible to the human eye but one day will shine with a glory unspeakable.
There is an unspeakably glorious future ahead of us, when the turning of the world toward God is complete, when He returns for His people and the new Jerusalem becomes a visible reality. but for now, we must stand with Habakkuk on the ramparts, keeping our eyes open, our ears listening, waiting and watching; And while we do that, our fig trees might not bud… our olive crop may fail… our fields may not produce… our sheep pens and cattle stalls may be empty… yet, we must rejoice in the Lord. We must choose joy.
Last time I spoke, I mentioned the sacrifice of faith. Now I ask all of us to learn how to give to our God the sacrifice of joy.
Joy through illness. Joy through the suffering and death of loved ones. Joy through emotional and physical weakness. Joy through unfairness and inequality. joy through injustice. In whatever circumstances we find ourselves, let us choose to be joyful in God our Savior, who came to dwell among us.
I would like to close by reading Psalm 80, which was one of today’s lectionary texts. I have copies of it in The Message, the paraphrase by Eugene Peterson that somehow says Scripture in ways that I can understand deeply. Picture the prophet Habakkuk and ourselves, speaking these words to God, now, as we await the mystery of His incarnation as the babe Jesus cradled in Mary’s arms…..