This year’s Advent threw up theological ideas that opened up flickering ideas I have had down the years. I find that happens. Surmises on the fringes are given a more central place in a coming to clarity.
I was very taken this Christmas at the different perspective that God becoming incarnate, in the baby Jesus, gives us of God. I heard a sermon that left me quite cold. Oh it was sound in a rattling out cliches that ticked some theological bingo card phrases. As I unpacked it I realised that I was uneasy by how distant God felt during it.
The words used were all a little too Old Testament. I felt like Isaiah in the Temple as recorded in Isaiah chapter 6. I was made feel not so much in awe as frightened to be in the presence of this God. Like Isaiah I felt - ruined.
In its juxtaposition around Christmas I realised that the baby in the manger is a different perspective on all of this. God is no longer distant. His transcendence becomes immanence to shepherds and mystical star gazers. God’s behind the veil privacy becomes intimacy to a teenager girl…. and in the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus to us all! As I wrote almost 30 years ago, before Pope Francis seemed to steal it this past week, God is now close enough to whisper.
For me the birth of Jesus is a seismic shift in God’s dealings with humanity and in the human understanding of God and how we then should live.
In my Boxing Day (St. Stephen’s Day) sermon I was reaching to find a phrase to explain this shift. Oh the Old Testament is not over and ripped up as an early Church heretic called Marcion suggested BUT this year more than any other I was acutely aware of the shift. How can I articulate it? In the sermon I failed to find a phrase.
The next day I was listening to one of my Christmas gifts and there it was. Old words, familiar but handing me the keys to my surmise:
“That was the river
This is the sea”
I am listening to the 1989 incarnation of The Waterboys all fiddles, accordions and bodrans instead of their 1985 big music that first gave us This Is The Sea. Perhaps it’s the more mystical trad sound of 1989 but as I sang along my soul smiled. That’s it. I found it! The best description of the watershed between the Old and New Testament.
The 39 books of the Jewish Scriptures is like the river. As Paul wrote in his letter to Galatians (v 23-25) about this watershed:
Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.
Brilliant. This guardian, Paul talks about, is like the banks of a river, holding us in until maturity comes in Jesus and eventually the Holy Spirit’s indwelling post Pentecost. From Jesus arrival, the banks are no longer needed. So we flow out of that great river of Old Testament salvation history into the sea of its New Testament fulfilment.
God comes across in a different space, reconciliation is a done deal when Christ’s cross rips the veil of the Temple in two. Jesus teaches us that a fulfilment of the law is the same water as the Old Testament river but it takes a different grace centred, law nailed to the tree, persona, behaviour and outworking.
The invitation to follow Jesus is like being invited into the sea. The truth, now flesh and blood, sets us free. Life in all its fulness is never possible when we row back up the river to live like children under a pedagogue.
Religion always prefers the control, the pharisaical rules and regulations of the river and strict judgmental teacher. Religion is frightened of freedom. Religion prefers the God at a distance to be appeased still by right rules.
The sea is the same but fulfilled, the same but matured, the same but almost altogether different as a human being’s relationship changes to his or her nursery teacher. The teacher was there. The teacher is not contradicted. Yet life in the sea no longer needs. The flesh and blood truth of the baby in straw has set us free.
So, for me, 2022 will be a study of other ways this seismic shift changes the spiritual life. How following Jesus out in the sea differs from that old constricted life on the river and where we have dangerously allowed ourselves to get swept back unto safety by the theologically immature who tempt us to be less than we are (Just like Eden) with words that sound so sound but are confined by the banks of that old river.
I hope to share these surmises here on Soul Surmise as well as in Sunday sermons!