Today is the second day of 2011, the first Sunday in the new year, the beginning of the week when we remember the joys and recuperate from the excesses of the holiday season and return to the daily rhythms of life. Some of us are courageously embarked on abiding by resolutions made on New Year’s Eve; others of us have given up already.
Sigmund Freud said that life is always lived under conditions of stress. As we face into January, with all of its opportunities and challenges, we are addressed in this morning’s scriptures with three powerful messages that I believe all of us need to attend to. This morning’s homily, therefore, is less of a sermon than a midrash, the Hebrew word that means literally “investigation”. The rabbis developed midrash as a way of exploring the scriptures for both their plain and spiritual meaning. It’s a way of getting out of a passage everything that might lurk hidden inside. Our three Bible readings speak more directly to our shared conditions of stress this morning than anything I could say on my own. So let’s spend the next few minutes listening to what Matthew, Jeremiah, and Ephesians have to say.
We’ll start at the end and work backwards. First, from Matthew:
Now after the wise men had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. [Matthew 2:13-15a]
We could ask why such hostility greets the baby Jesus. Though for us comfortable 21st century first world Christians, the birth of Jesus is a happy, even joyous occasion, for those who lived under Roman domination in 1st century Palestine the birth of the Messiah was a dangerous political event. Jesus is a marked man from the beginning. As the Biblical scholar N.T. Wright puts it, “The shadow of the cross falls over the story from this moment on. Jesus is born with a price on his head.” [Matthew for Everyone, Part I, p. 14] As Freud put it, life is always lived under conditions of stress. The Jesus story wouldn’t be worth very much to us if he had been born into a hermetically sealed environment. Jesus is not the boy in the bubble. He is out there, exposed to life in all its dangers, chances, and hopes. He lives life, as we do, under conditions of stress. His journey will take him to a variety of different places. He will experience love, community, and adulation. He will also know pain, alienation, and despair. In this he is just like you and me.
And just like you and me Jesus will have to navigate losses and happiness under the loving guidance of the One he calls his Father. And he’ll be able to do that because he knows what the writer of the letter to the Ephesians and the prophet Jeremiah want you and me to know, too.
Listen again to these words from Ephesians:
I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe. [Ephesians 1: 17-19]
Many of you have heard me say that Ephesians is my favorite book of the Bible. It probably wasn’t written by Paul himself, but whoever did write it—a next generation follower of Paul’s—had a profound grasp on the implications of the Gospel for the church, the world, and for everyday human beings like you and me. During a particularly trying period of my life I carried a card in my jacket pocket with the passage I just read on it, and I would read that card at least once a day and reflect on what is said there.
The first thing we hear is that the writer prays that “the eyes of our hearts” may be enlightened. We’re asked to see not with our heads but with our hearts. Our heads get us into trouble all the time. Our hearts are not so easily misled. In Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck’s brain tells him that he should turn in the runaway slave, Jim. But his heart tells him otherwise. My teacher Henry Nash Smith called Huck’s dilemma that of a “sound heart and deformed conscience”. The writer of Ephesians is here asking God to help us look at the world—at others and ourselves—with our hearts. What would your life be like if you followed your heart instead of your head? What kind of a person would you be, what kind of relationships would you have, if you saw yourself and others with the eyes of your heart? You’d probably be more accepting, forgiving, and tolerant both of other people and yourself. You’d probably spend your time doing things that both expressed your passions and responded to others’ needs than you do by living life conventionally, wearing what Oscar Wilde called “the shallow mask of manners”. Seeing life with the “eyes of your heart enlightened” in itself would be on its own a great and wonderful gift.
But, as they say on TV infomercials, “Wait, there’s more!” Ephesians’ author goes on to say that, when the eyes of our hearts are enlightened, he prays we might know three things: first, the hope to which God has called you; second, the riches of God’s glorious inheritance among the saints, and third, the immeasurable greatness of God’s power for us who believe.
Hope, riches, and power. These are the three gifts that we will know when we see life, the world, others, and ourselves with the eyes of our hearts enlightened. Hope: we are to know the hope to which God has called us. That’s not just any hope. It’s not even the conventional hope that animates most of our lives. Hope in this context is theological hope; it’s hope that, when all is said and done, as Dame Julian of Norwich put it, “all will be well”. The Christian hope is cosmic, universal hope. It is the hope that God is in the process of drawing all things and all people to perfection and glory. That, not some cheap imitation, is what Christian people hope for. When the eyes of our hearts are enlightened we will be oriented not to false hope but to real hope. And our hope will be trustworthy because the One who prompts that hope in us makes promises that are always fulfilled.
Riches: We live in a culture confused about riches. More of that in a bit. But for now: the riches our writer speaks of are the riches of God’s glorious inheritance among the saints. Translation: yes, life is always lived under conditions of stress. But just as Jesus was given strength to live life under the shadow of the cross, so you and I have been given that same strength to meet the exigencies and contingencies of life as well. Jesus knew who he was and to whom he ultimately belonged. Secure in that knowledge, he took up with outcasts and took on the powerful and hypocritical forces of his day. You and I share the glorious inheritance among the saints. We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, always cheering us on. The journey may not be easy but it will all come out right in the end.
And then there’s power. The kind of power the Bible talks of is not the kind of coercive force that you and I experience or wield in our day-to-day life. The power Jesus and Paul speak of is more like connectedness, like being tuned in to the depth and purpose of God. The immeasurable greatness of God’s power for us who believe does not mean that we will be able to handle snakes or coerce others to our will. It means that as we are aligned with God’s love and will for us and for the world we can be agents of joy and blessing and hope. That is what the author of Ephesians means when he speaks of hope, riches, and power. Something much bigger and deeper than we are is being worked out through the very stuff of our lives, work, and relationships. And the more we look with the eyes of our hearts the more we will know that’s the way it is.
And then, finally, there is the beautiful imagery from the prophet Jeremiah. He’s usually a grumpy prophet, but in this passage he speaks of the new post-exilic life of Israel in abiding pictures of abundance. Listen again:
They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion,
and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD,
over the grain, the wine, and the oil,
and over the young of the flock and the herd;
their life shall become like a watered garden,
and they shall never languish again. [Jeremiah 31: 12]
The final scriptural gift for us on this Second Sunday after Christmas is the gift of abundance. Most of us most of the time have fallen out of touch with real abundance. What we think of as abundance the rest of the world would see as excess. We observe the so-called “holiday season” by acts of overindulgence about which many of our New Year’s resolutions revolve. Our style of life is so based in an ideal of consumption that we have forgotten what real plenty, what true abundance, actually looks like.
Jeremiah was a desert person speaking to desert people. The images of the abundant life he uses are the kind of things that people accustomed to desert living would understand immediately. Grain, wine, and oil. New lambs and calves in the springtime. God’s people will live in a “watered garden,” and they shall never languish again. To the extent that you and I have confused excess with abundance, we do languish. A life given over to consuming can never be satisfied. There will never be enough clothes, jewelry, cars, gadgets, second and third houses to fill that craving. A life given over to abundance—to plentiful grain, wine, oil—that is a life in touch with the rhythms of God’s world and creation. We languish because we think there is never enough. But, to borrow a phrase from Ephesians, when we look with they eyes of our hearts at what is around us today, we see that in fact we are together, here, in a watered garden now.
Even lived under conditions of stress, life can be rich and plentiful, powerful, hopeful, and abundant. If we look with our hearts and not our heads, if we orient ourselves to the plenitude of all that we have and are, we can experience grace and blessing and hope even in the midst of anxiety, tension, and loss. And so, as you seek to navigate the challenges and blessings of this new year, remember these words from Ephesians,
I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.