Sunday, November 30, 2008

Advent 1: The Absent God

“Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man, setting out on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge.”

“Restore us, O Lord of hosts,
Show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.”

O come, O come, Emmanuel.

It is Advent. It is dark and I cannot see. Something’s coming. Let the Adventure begin.

One of the most enigmatic ideas in scripture is that of the Absent or Hidden God. It is a major theme in every one of the scripture passages appointed for today. If God were not hidden, then the prophet Isaiah could not ask God who has “hidden himself” to “tear open the heavens and come down.” Nor would the psalmist ask God to restore the light of his countenance so that we might be saved. In the Epistle, Paul writes to a community in Corinth who is awaiting the return of a Christ who has been taken away prematurely into heaven, as one untimely born, before we could understand him. Finally, in the Gospel Jesus himself evokes a leafless fig tree growing tender as a symbol of things to come and speaks of a master leaving home and putting his slaves in charge.

The idea of an absent God, a God who leaves home, is so incredibly and deeply troubling that most of us explain it away as metaphor: God is never absent from us, but sometimes it feels as if we are absent from God. It’s we who go away, not God. Right?

But what if it isn’t just a figure of speech? What is God really does go away? What if God really is absent sometimes? What if all those parables are, at some level, true, like the one we read only two weeks ago: “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.” What if God really did entrust the earth to us and went away, curious to see what we would do with the master’s treasure?

What would that mean for us? What does it say about God?
Isaiah, writing in the 6th century BCE after the Exile, has returned to the Promised Land and finds it a shambles. He writes:

We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.

Isaiah suggests that whenever God turns away his face, we lapse into bad behavior. Without God, we go all to pieces. We live such a short time, like grass that fades, that we never see the consequences of our lives and actions. What’s the point of a God who is forever when I am just here for a moment?

What do we mean when we talk about God? Present or absent, what do we mean? This is a much harder question than it looks. For millennia, people have tried the most basic thing: to simply prove that God exists. It is impossible. It is as impossible as telling a fish who dwells way deep in the sea to prove the existence of water. Or for someone who is alive to prove the existence of life. Or, even better, for someone who is dead to prove the existence of death. The only way to God is in the experience of God, and knowing and understanding that experience raises problems of its own.

Belief in God, says the Buddha, can divert us from the practice of God. We can get so busy finding the one that makes us behave that we forget to behave at all. Prince Siddhartha/Shakyamuni Buddha was an exact contemporary of Third Isaiah. He taught that a person could walk the eightfold path and reach enlightenment without faith or belief in a supreme deity. He did not deny the existence of God, but taught that belief could often be unhelpful as it could sidetrack a person away from wisdom, compassion and goodness, which is to say, the task of living rightly, and lead them into bitter, doctrinal battles about God. All we need to do is look at the raging disputes that are going on in God’s name to appreciate the Buddha’s good sense.

All these paradoxes came up for me as I was reading one of the classic books on climate change, The End of Nature by Bill McKibben. Published in 1989, as a hole in the ozone layer caught the attention of the world, it is considered the first popular book on the subject. It caught the attention of no one other than Al Gore, dubbed “the Ozone Man,” by then president George H.W. Bush. The End of Nature is a pretty powerful little book. Its first chapter is living proof that we knew then almost everything that we know now about global warming. Except for banning chlorofluorocarbons, we didn’t do much with what we knew. Mostly, for the next decade and a half we denied the problem by building bigger houses, driving bigger cars and heating up the economy to such a fever pitch of consumption that it, too, generated carbon. No matter how disturbing this is, there’s nothing new here. It is the second chapter that surprises. McKibben writes that humanity has by now so messed with the natural world that there is nothing natural left in it. We have killed lakes, clear-cut forests, fished out seas and leveled mountains and if we have managed to revive some of this, they will never be the natural ecosystems they once were. These restored lands are not wild but domesticated. We have pumped so much carbon into the atmosphere that it is closing in on us. Ice caps are melting. Storms are brewing. Species are going extinct and crows are taking over your neighborhood and all of this is caused by humans. There is no more nature separate from us into which we can go for refuge and renewal. The days when the progression of seasons formed a stable backdrop for human life is gone. Weather is a wild card. We cannot live in the changeless assurance that winter will be followed by spring, summer and autumn as we go about our daily tasks. We have turned earth into a theme park, and she is about to take us on a wild ride.

So I’m reading this and pondering it on my dog walk and nodding my head when all of a sudden I do a double take. What is this man talking about? When has nature ever been a backdrop? Are we not part of the world? Has Nature ever been a force of stability anywhere except in Hallmark Cards and Currier and Ives prints? We are mammals. We may be strange and terrible, but we cannot be unnatural.

Whatever we are doing to nature, we are also doing to ourselves, and to think otherwise is pretend we are separate from the Great Web of Life which is to say separate from Creation which is to say separate from the Creator which is to say we have separated ourselves right into a state of sin that no amount of church attendance is going to get us out of unless we wake up to the truth. Which is exactly why Jesus says, “Keep awake. You do not know. Keep awake.”

To look to Nature for stability has never been a good idea. The Greeks proposed the idea of a God who is unchanging because Nature was so frustratingly changeable. The Greeks strove for a kind of perfection that now we know can be found only in death. The essence of life is change. The real gift of the Seasons is the opportunity they give us to practice change. We practice sacred time so that we may live wisely in sacred space. God is leading us somewhere. In our western culture we fear change. We believe that life is fragile, that we only live once, that once our brief light goes out, night is one perpetual sleeping. We write tomes of history and philosophy, but we find no peace in our ideas. We build towers and computers, but cower in our beds like children. Jesus, like all the wise ones, knows that no matter how skilled we are, we spend most of our lives in a haze. I think I know God but I don’t. As long as God makes me angry, or wanting to punish a neighbor for his wrong headed views, or found my own church, or any of that, God is absent from me. I may love my opinions, but they are not God.

But when I catch myself knowing this, then am I blessed, for I have stumbled into Advent. It is dark and I cannot see. Something’s coming. Let the Adventure begin. For God will open the heavens. The real God, not the idol I cling to in my fear, will appear. Into the emptiness of our separation, in a dark night over a ruined earth, the heavens will come down, not as a fearsome storm, but as life. God will be born as a tiny Child. There is no separation. God is one of us. AMEN.

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