November 27, 2016

When God Suddenly Says 'Yes'

This Advent we’ll explore aspects of Creation Spirituality in the lives of some of the main actors in the Christmas drama. First a brief overview of Matthew Fox’s definition of Creation Spirituality from his website
Fox explains “Creation Spirituality derives from the oldest tradition in the Bible (the J source) and it is the Wisdom Tradition in the Hebrew Bible–the tradition that scholars agree was the tradition of the historical Jesus...Honoring all of creation as Original Blessing, Creation Spirituality integrates the wisdom of Eastern and Western spirituality and global indigenous cultures, with the emerging scientific understanding of the universe, and the passion of creativity. It is both a tradition and a movement, celebrated by mystics and agents of social change from every age and culture. It is also the tradition of the historical Jesus himself since it is the wisdom tradition of Israel.”
Fox says, “Our inner work can be understood as a four-fold journey involving:
– awe, delight, amazement (known as the Via Positiva
– uncertainty, darkness, suffering, letting go (Via Negativa)
– birthing, creativity, passion (Via Creativa)
– justice, healing, celebration (Via Transformativa)
We weave through these paths like a spiral danced, not a ladder climbed.”

Now, on to the fun and meat of this series.
This week we’ll consider how the lives of Elizabeth and Zechariah were impacted along the ‘four-fold journey’ when God suddenly said ‘Yes’ to their prayers. The story is found in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke. Zechariah was of the tribe of Levi, as was his wife Elizabeth. The tribe of Levi was designated during the Exodus, to be the priests of Israel through the lineage of Aaron, Moses’ brother. (See Exodus 28:1) Zechariah is “chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood“ for the, once in a lifetime, opportunity to “enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense.” He was selected to go past the curtain of the Temple into the Holy of Holies. This was an awesome honor and great responsibility.
From the Gospel account we learn a little about Zechariah and his wife. “Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.” (Luke 1:6) In a society where childlessness was considered a mark of God’s disfavor, it must have been difficult to maintain their faith in the goodness of God. Yet somehow, the couple remained ‘righteous’. They clung to the belief that God is good and that God can bring something good out of seeming sorrow or disaster.
Then came the day when Zechariah was in the Temple and God said a surprising and resounding ‘yes’ to their prayers. “There appeared to [Zechariah] an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth…He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God…to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’” (Luke 1:11-17)

The Via Positiva tells us that God wants to give us good things and has created everything ‘good’. We may insist that we believe God is good, seeing God at work in vague ways, such as in nature. Then something happens, like an answer to years of prayer. Then the distant God becomes almost too close.
Sometimes when God acts it is hard to believe at first. Zechariah, despite being a priest with years of experience in worshiping God, was unable to comprehend the action of God in his own life. “Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.’” I don’t know if I’d have had the courage to argue with an angel. On the other hand, there probably are times when God is trying to give me a wonderful surprise and I am blind to it.
Stop and Think: From the beginning God has said ‘it is good’ about all creation. God continues to want to gift his creation with good things.
Has there ever been a time when you may have rejected something God wanted to give you? Have you clung to your old belief in how God acts and remained blind to something new that was happening in your life?

The Via Negativa is the place where we may feel uncertainty about whether God really means what God says. It is the time when we feel separate from God, or even turn our back on God.
Zechariah was unable to comprehend and accept the gift that God wanted to give him. He argued with the angel, who replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” (Luke 1:19-20)
I suspect that any doubt Zechariah had was erased when he realized that Gabriel wasn’t joking. He lingered in the Holy Place perhaps trying to talk until everyone ‘wondered at his delay’. When he finally emerged from the sanctuary, “he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak.” (Luke 1:22)
Zechariah was probably embarrassed by being unable to talk. He probably wanted to explain to the High Priest why he took so long. He likely also would have liked to share the news from his angelic vision. After all, the angel had told him, “He will…make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 16-17) Gabriel had spoken words prophesying the imminent coming of Messiah and Zechariah was unable to tell anyone. The long anticipated Promised One was near, and Zechariah was silenced.
Stop and Think: Zechariah doubted God and could not speak. The Via Negativa often makes us stop and reevaluate our faith. His silence gave him time to think about God’s creative and re-creative work.
Has there been a time when your doubt about God’s action in your life gave you time to pause and consider your faith or ministry or life journey?

The Via Creativa is a time when we begin to see how God is acting and what is being ‘birthed’. In the Gospel we learn, “When his time of service was ended, he went to his home. After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion.” (Luke 1:23-24)
Imagine for a moment what Elizabeth felt and thought when Zechariah came home mute. Fear for his health must have been uppermost until he reassured her that he was healthy. There was certainly talk among the neighbors about ‘poor Zechariah’. If it was me, I would be angry about that. Luke does not give us any indication that Zechariah was able to communicate with Elizabeth about the promise from Gabriel. Maybe, being the wife of a learned priest, she knew how to read and he wrote her a note. Perhaps he just made signs to her like he did to the other priests and the congregation.
When Elizabeth discovers that, like Sarah of old, she is pregnant even though she is elderly it was a pleasant and almost unbelievable surprise. We get a glimpse of the scorn she endured from other women for her childless years by her comment, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” After five months, when she is completely certain that she is truly pregnant, with baby bump is showing, Elizabeth dares to venture out into public again.
I can imagine that her pregnancy was the cause for even more gossip. Through it all, Elizabeth could walk proudly, serene in the knowledge that she was finally going to have a child. Then at about 6 months along, she gets an unexpected visit from her cousin from Nazareth. Luke tells us, “In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’” (Luke 39-45)
Mary’s arrival is further affirmation of God working actively in the lives of Elizabeth and Zechariah. Elizabeth recognizes that Mary is the chosen Theotokis (God-bearer). In fact, John in utero recognizes it as well. The two women share a time of mutual praise to God.
Stop and Think: The Via Creativa brings us back toward God and understanding that God is present and active.
When have you experienced God’s presence so clearly that you knew everything was going to be alright, even if the way forward wasn’t yet clear?

The Via Transformativa is the part of the path where we begin to become partners in God’s creativity and work of Redemption. For Elizabeth this started when she became pregnant. Mary’s visit affirmed to both women that miraculous things were happening in their lives and in the world. “Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.” (Luke 1:56-57)
For Zechariah, it was not until “the eighth day they came to circumcise the child” that he came to the Via Transformativa. When “they were going to name him Zechariah after his father...his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’…they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.” (Luke 1:59-66)
Zechariah is given back his voice, lost to the Via Negativa of doubt. He then is “filled with the Holy Spirit” and begins to prophecy about the transformation of the cosmos through social justice and re-creation. “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:68-79)
Stop and Think: The Via Transformativa brings us back to relationship with God and with God we begin to work for the good of the world.
What is on your heart to ‘prepare the way’ for the Lord or to ‘give light to those who sit in darkness’?

Next week, we’ll look at another main character in the Christmas drama: Mary of Nazareth. 

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