Sunday, January 5, 2014
“Happy are they whose hearts are set on the pilgrims' way. Those who go through the desolate valley will find it a place of springs.” - Psalm 84.4b-5a
This morning is the 2nd Sunday after Christmas, and it is also the twelfth and final day of the season of Christmas. Contrary to the culture which places Christmas celebrations before Christmas Day, the church year places the celebration of Christmas on twelve days beginning with Christmas Day. It is season in which we are to give ourselves to reflection upon the nativity, infancy and childhood of our Lord. Christmas, of course, is a celebration of a singular and unique birth, the birth of the Word made flesh. It is the birth of the Son of God who takes into his divine person our human nature. From this perspective, our Lord's nativity is not a repeatable event. Yet, there is another side to our Lord's nativity. In this birth, we can see the birth of every human child. There is the adversity of the mother carrying the baby to term, topped with an unpleasant and unwanted journey. From the warm and secure womb, there is the cold air into which the baby is cast out, wailing. There is the devoted mother holding and nursing the child, and the husband watching over and protecting both. Our Lord, like every child, is born into a world that is complicated. His, like all others, will be a life of trial and adversity. There will be the flight to Egypt, the religious persecutions, the abandonment by his friends, and finally the wrongful execution, an end that is poignantly foreshadowed by the gift of myrrh, a spice principally used in embalming. For every child and for this child in particular Shakespeare's words from King Lear ring true, "When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools."
This past week I was rereading the Gospel of John. In this Gospel, our Lord over and over again says that he has come from the Father and is going to the Father. He was sent by the Father in his birth and he returns to the Father in his resurrection and ascension. There is a similarity here with our lives: we come from a unity with our mothers in the womb, and then we are cast out into this difficult world. All our lives, we are sometimes consciously but mostly unconsciously trying to seek unity with a reality greater than ourselves. Whether we are aware of it or not, we want to be one with God. We are looking for eternity and permanence, but usually in the things of this world which of course are not eternal or permanent. But in Christ, we trust and hope that God is, in the words of Scripture, reconcil[ing] to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross (Col 1:20). Of course, our Lord's return to his Father and our return to God is not a question of going on a trip or a journey. No place can hold or limit God; we don't have to go anywhere to find God because, as Scripture says, the kingdom of God is within us. Our Lord comes from the Father to do the work he has appointed him to do, and he returns to the Father with that work accomplished. Our return to God is not about a journey, but about being reconciled to God as we know that we are fully forgiven and redeemed in Christ. All of our lives as Christians are spent trying to realize this reality that we can be made one with God the Father and his Son.
In the Psalm appointed this morning, the Psalmist writes, "Happy are they whose hearts are set on the pilgrims' way." The Psalmist describes the joy and expectation of those pilgrims who traveled several times every year to Jerusalem and to the temple for the religious feasts of the Old Testament. But as Christians we are also pilgrims. We are not going to any temples, but in soul and mind we are supposed to move towards knowing and enjoying God's presence anywhere and everywhere, as if we were in God's temple. You see, as Christians, we are told that all things are moving towards unity and oneness with God, and we are a part of this great movement, this great reconciliation. This means that our lives cannot and should not be static. Circumstances will change, successes will come but these will be outnumbered by disappointments, loved ones will pass, and yet in all of this, both good and bad, there is that movement of reconciliation, the pilgrims' way. Christians, hence, are life-long learners. They are those who realize that at various times in their lives they will recognize that they have said or done something amiss and will need to change course. Christians are those who understand that life is a journey, not a prison, a journey of learning and a pilgrimage into the love and communion of God.
You might be thinking right now that this sounds esoteric and far-removed from the everyday concerns of life, but my friends, just the opposite is the case. Again, the Psalmist supplies us with a helpful image: "Those who go through the desolate valley will find it a place of springs" or to quote the traditional Coverdale version of this Psalm "who going through the vale of misery use it for a well." The difficult place is the place where life-giving water is found. You see, it is the places and times of adversity that we most feel the care and love of God. In these times, he is feeding us and leading us to the waters of comfort. This life will often feel like the vale of misery, but God is working in the dark and troublesome circumstances of our lives. He was working there in that rugged stable in Bethlehem. He was there in the mid-night flight to Egypt, and He was there with our Lord on Calvary. In each instance, what might, to the world, look like disaster is the means through which God is bring about his purposes. In the stable, he gives humanity the babe. In the flight, he preserves the holy family and our Lord's future ministry. In the crucifixion, he brings about new life through our Lord's glorious resurrection. I pray that in your desolate valley, in your vale of misery, you may find a place of springs and a well of sustenance and refreshment. You are not alone. God is there, and as a pilgrim you will find in it a well.