Benediction Online

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Salvator Mundi

The National Gallery in London has just unveiled a newly discovered painting. In 1958 Sothebys sold it for less than $100, and a few years ago it turned up in this country in an estate sale. Then it was a dull and dark painting of little merit, thought to be a poor copy of a missing painting by Leonardo de Vinci which scholars knew had once hung in the court of Charles 1. It took years of painstaking restoration to remove the layers of grime and added paint in order to reveal the original, a beautiful de Vinci painting – Salvator Mundi – the Savior of the World.

I suspect that for many of us, the Christmas story is like that painting. We know about it but we have put it away at the back of our minds to be pulled out once a year. It is covered by years of neglect, it has been painted over and changed into a minor thing of little beauty or importance except commercial hype. We have lost sight of the possibility that under the over-familiarity and the Hallmark glitz there is something of great worth.

We are cynical about the gospel narrative – scholars tell us that there is no independent account of the census which sent Joseph and the very pregnant Mary to Bethlehem. How likely is it, we ask, that she was a virgin? How likely is it that shepherds saw angels and went rushing to the town to find a baby in a stable? In our skepticism we lose sight of what is important – it’s not the details of the story but the meaning underneath.

The brief reading we heard from the letter of Titus sums up what is important in six words. “The grace of God has appeared”. The grace of God is always present, has always been present throughout eternity but now, in Jesus Christ, it has appeared. Jesus is God’s grace given physical, human form.

That is why we are here tonight. We know instinctively that somewhere underneath it all is something that we need, something that we long for, the knowledge of God’s grace and God’s salvation.

I love the word grace. It carries a number of meanings – it suggests beauty or elegance; it is pleasing or attractive; it can mean love and kindness or a favor bestowed by a superior; and finally it means mercy, clemency or pardon. God’s grace. God’s grace is found in Emmanuel – God-with-us. This is the astonishing news of Christmas which is always new because we so quickly forget – God is with us. God is elegantly and lovingly with us, holding out his hands to help us, always ready to welcome us into the mutual relationship with the divine which is the one thing that makes life fulfilling.

Let us briefly consider what it might mean to say that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace. In his earthly life we are told that Jesus healed, he cast out demons, he taught people to love and forgive, he transformed lives and then, betrayed by his friends he died an excruciatingly painful death only to be resurrected a few days later. What does this tell us about God’s grace?

It tells us that the grace of God-with-us brings healing, freedom from the things which enslave us and transformed lives as we learn to love and to forgive. It tells us that God-with-us has experienced the pain and difficulty of being human and living in a physical body and that whenever we are betrayed and let down by our friends, whenever we are hurting and in pain, that God is especially present. It also tells us that death is not the end. So we can take risks and experiment because life goes on, life always triumphs.

In the busyness of everyday living, of the innumerable activities that make up our lives it is easy to forget God’s grace and to think that it is all up to us. But God’s grace is always available. It is never forced on us. Like any Christmas gift we have to receive it and open it. We all get many opportunities in our lives to turn towards God and ask for God’s grace. Each time we turn God down it becomes harder for us to open and receive her gift. But tonight, tonight is one of those special times when the curtain between the seen and the unseen is very thin. Tonight is an opportunity. Tonight God’s grace is offered to you.

The painting which was hidden under the centuries of grime and amateurish over-painting was the Salvator Mundi – the Savior of the World. In this icon Jesus has his right hand raised in blessing while in his left he holds a crystal globe. The Salvator Mundi is not holding a symbol of the individual soul, but a symbol of the planet. At this time of planetary crisis, when climate change is threatening life as we have known it, it is good to remember that God’s grace and salvation are not just for us as individuals.

God’s grace is available for the whole planet as we go through this tumultuous time. Sometimes people ask me why God allows suffering to happen. For God to intervene without our invitation would be to remove the gifts of freewill and creativity which he has given us. God does not do the work for us - she does it with us. God-with-us, Emmanuel.

So the big question is: are you willing to accept God’s gift of grace and to work in co-creation with him to transform yourself and the planet? Are you willing to roll up your sleeves and do the hard work of restoration, co-operating with God in clearing away all the blocks that prevent you from being a clear channel for God’s grace to flow through you into the world bringing healing and transformation? Are you willing to take your part in bringing God’s grace to our troubled planet?

Are you willing to be part of the great work of bringing the true face of Salvator Mundi to the world?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Make Straight The Way of the Lord

Canticle 15
John 1:6-8, 19-28

I have been pondering the role of John the Baptizer as the voice crying in the wilderness. I’ve always thought of his living literally in the wilderness, but perhaps the wilderness can also be understood as the state of people’s hearts. They had wondered such a long way from the path of God that they could no longer hear and respond to God’s voice.

Perhaps if John had not prepared the people for Jesus by his own message of repentance and baptism, Jesus’ ministry would have been much more difficult. John’s message and John’s witness changed the way people thought about the world so that they were ready to hear Jesus. Have you noticed how the Occupy movement has helped to change the national conversation from focusing on debt to a focus on the gap between the top 1% and the rest of us? John’s message started people thinking about repentance and change, and prepared the way for Jesus.

Advent is the season of preparation, the season to consciously focus on the work we need to do to be ready for the second coming; to prepare for Christ to become more fully the center of our lives. God does not exist to do our bidding. Although we know that we are at our most vibrant and alive when we are Spirit filled and Christ centered, we cannot demand that the Spirit fill us or insist that Christ be reborn in our hearts. God is radically free. We know that He always hears our prayers and answers the longing of our hearts but we cannot control how and when She acts.

What we can do is prepare the space. We can start to live as if it were true. What difference would it make if your life more radically Christ-centered? How would you behave differently if your life were more Spirit-filled? Start to live like that.

What do you need to clear out of your mental attic or sort out in your psychic basement? Where is there a lack of integrity or a withholding of love? Where do you lack the confidence in God’s love to step into the person you know yourself to be?

So often we hold back. We allow ourselves to be too small. Whether it’s because of laziness or lack of confidence, we don’t step into our place as the daughter or son of God. It is time now for us to start living as if we really are God’s children. It’s time for us to occupy the space that God has prepared for us. In one of those wonderful paradoxes that fill our spiritual lives, God has already prepared the space for us to occupy even as we are preparing ourselves to open a greater space for God to occupy.

This is not a one way relationship. When we pray, God does not have to jump to do what we say. Neither does God tell us what to do without allowing us to make our own choices. Amazingly enough, our relationship with God is the relationship of one free being with another, and it is a relationship of love. So in her immense and indescribable love for you God is already preparing the place for you to step into as you decide to prepare your life for God to step into.

It’s fortunate that God is not a genie in a bottle who appears to do our bidding, because we often do not know what it best for us. The three wishes that we think will bring happiness often lead instead to greater misery as we focus on ourselves in isolation from Spirit and in isolation from each other. God’s will for us is not something to be feared – why would God ask us to do anything that is against our basic nature or against our flourishing? God’s will is always generous and spacious even when it is the opposite of what the people around us tell us to do.

As we step into the space of God’s generosity we find increasing connection and spaciousness as we loose our tight grip on trying to make things better for ourselves and allow ourselves to experience the Body of Christ – the people of God gathering to worship and serve God in a way which none of us can do as individuals.

So this is the season not only for preparing gifts but also for giving to God the things that stop us being generous and spacious. The places that we hold tight and secret. It’s time to let go of the anger you have cherished against your father; it’s time to let go of the pride which stops you asking for help; it’s time to ask God to gracefully remove all the things in your life which prevent you from being the vibrant, generous Christ-like child of God you were created to be. As you seek to make straight the way of the Lord in your heart, you will find that angels are working with you, you will find that Jesus himself is there, you will feel the wind of the Holy Spirit blowing newness and hope through the windows that you unshutter.

John was not the light, he came to bring witness to the light. We are not the light but Christ living in us and working through us is the light. It is our task to continue everyday to occupy that space. It is our task every day to work together with the Holy Spirit to change the attitudes and habits that prevent us from fully allowing the light to shine. It is also our task to witness to the light – to help others to see the hand of God at work in the world, and to bring hope.

Wherever we look there are people and situations in need of hope. Our hope is in God who will work in, and through, and round us to bring new life to all who seek Her.

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.