3 Advent 2017: Thunder in the Desert

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Isaiah 61:1-7
John 1:6-8

From “The Broken Body”
by Jean Vanier                                              

Our brokenness is the wound through which
the full power of God
can penetrate our being
and transfigure us in God.

Loneliness is not something from which we must flee
but the place from where we can cry out to God,
where God will find us and we can find God.

Yes, through our wounds
the power of God can penetrate us
and become like rivers of living water
to irrigate the arid earth within us.
Thus we may irrigate the arid earth of others,
so that hope and love are reborn.


“I am thunder in the desert! Make the road straight!”

I love that scene,
it is right out of a movie.
“Who are you?”
“I am thunder in the desert!”

Think George C. Scott, James Earl Jones, or Samuel L. Jackson playing the role of John the Baptist –
or to add a kind of kooky, kinky wrinkle, think Christopher Walken.

It’s a dustup
between the highly coiffured and well-scented privileged establishment
and the grouchy, rough-mannered activist who plays them
for the fools they are.

It is the strong resonant voice
of the prophet
who knows very well the power of words,
annunciating missiles he has been handed
from a power greater than himself.
He releases those words
into the atmosphere,
freeing them to deliver their payload.
But the poor shopkeepers of order
and control
have no inkling
that such words have power,
more power than they will ever know –
until it is too late.

It is a big scene,
as is the one from Isaiah
who laid the rebar and paved the road John the Baptist walks on.
Big stuff, all of it.

But I want to listen underneath the loud.

On this 3rd Sunday of Advent,
the last one before Christmas Eve,
I want to listen underneath all of that bigness and loudness and conflict,
for the “still point” Eliot writes about,
and to that pool of “brokenness
in the wound through which the full power of God can penetrate our being…”
envisioned by the poet, Jean Vanier.

The cervix of the rational world
is growing thin,
and making way for our birth
into the more mystical dimensions
of the cosmos.

In this moment,
we are standing in a double-exposure
of two worlds that are always present to each other
at one and the same time,
as watercolors bleed into one another yet never fully join.

The Beast of War snorts
and heaves as loud as ever,
its hot breath dripping from enraged nostrils.
But in places least expected, wolves
decided to curled up with lambs –
and not with mint jelly on the side either –
but to snuggle into their fluffy-wool.

It is always like that, both/and:
beasts of war and wolves and lambs.

Even as some among us in this community
suffer the haunt of grief,
the lamentation of fractured relationships,
the anxiety of illness,
or the sudden threat of more limited income,
at the very same time
the breath of God sings like an oboe
slow-dancing on the wind.

“Yes, through our wounds,
the power of God can penetrate us,” the poet says,
and indeed, the song of God brings healing
to someone with cancer,
peace to another with mental torment,
rest to yet another who has been racked with pain.
We cannot see rhyme or reason in it,
and it won’t be neatly ordered by our small minds
or the application of a skim coat of pure reason.
It is not our universe after all.

Still, listen down underneath it all,
for the movement
and the shifting
and the quiver.

It may not be easy to do,
feel the thinning of the veil
pulled taunt between two dimensions.
Our penchant for the rational and orderly
is likewise stretched,
but more like a latex glove over our brain.

The slow mechanical grind of gears driven by a blind eye
to anything that is not replicated in a laboratory –
or able to be measured with our best abacus,
slide-rule, or computer –
we will not believe,
we do not see,
and so, we insist it must be refused
like all such talk of the mystical.

So, let’s side-step the rational and let that skinny old dog lie.

Instead, with the imagination and intuition,
and even with our emotions,
let’s try to see and touch,
feel and maybe even taste and smell,
the thinning of the veil between God and Creation.

Now, in truth, literally,
we know the veil is so thin that it almost isn’t there;
so shear it really doesn’t appear.
The veil between God and Creation
allows movement “between” –
a kind of semi-permeable membrane
that gives shape without structure.
It is a double-exposure of believable and unbelievable
that can sometimes be especially intense.

It is the same as when those invisible negative ions,
right after a thunderstorm,
nearly caress the skin and stroke the brain.

So listen.
Take a deep breath and let it out slowly,
and just listen for it…

  • deep breath here

…The 3rd Sunday of Advent
is stretched so tightly across the next eight days
that if we look real close,
we can almost see little faces looking back at us
from the other side – little noses
and lips smooshed up against the invisible
but opaque pane of days.

The sounds of a newborn Christmas Day
can almost be heard, even now.

But that skinny old dog of untamed reason
is still sleeping in the corner,
content to lay there between meals
and guard our movements.
It is the practical,
thoughtful mind that insists
we travel down the well-worn rutted road,
following the tracks of proven wagons wheels
that came before.

That dog will bite our heels
if wander up out of the rut.
You may be listening to that prove-it-to-me voice
right now, the one inside every head
ticking down the list of things to do before Christmas arrives.

There is the grumbling about commercialism
and keeping an eye on weather forecasts,
and let’s not forget the snarling about
flu, politics, and the current mishmash of tribalism.
The rational mind is not merely mathematical
and a steady engineer,
it also is a nagging parent
hassling us about getting it all done.

But still, there is the other voice
quietly humming from within the chamber
of our hardened hearts.
At the still point perhaps, but maybe everywhere,
there is also that cooing, whisper-of-a-song
that bids us to look again
at the winter landscape
and see if we can’t also find
a sign of spring hidden there.

It is always like that, both/and – two voices
but we only have one actual strand of attention.
We have to choose which voice gets most of our attention.
We do not, and should not,
deafen ourselves to the voice we do not choose,
simply give one prominence at any given moment.

As Christmas draws us closer and closer
with its strange magnetic power,
the unbelievable is poking through that thinning veil
between God and Creation.
It is poking through and tickling our resistance.
It is poking through
and drawing the attention of our cynical, hassled,
rational inclination to just get through it all.

As much as we insist on the intellectually credible
we also yearn for a lifting of the veil on the mystical.
It is always like that, both/and –
resisting and yearning.
All this worship stuff we do
is only an attempt to say something intelligent
about the unbelievable holiness
that moves like smoke through history,
and sings its song
in the ear of our otherwise routine
and unremarkable lives.
All the Bible readings
with their antique images;
all our hymns, both jolly or morose;
all our poignant stories and poems;
the overly formulaic prayers;
the predictable rhythms of the Communion –
all of it, is just our way of stuttering.

None of what we say or do uncovers
any big “truth.”
There is no tidy summary of God
to unwrap yearly in a digestible formula.
All of this thing we do, on Christmas or any given Sunday,
is a highly articulate stammering.

As the veil between God and Creation thins
like a cervix in preparation for delivery,
we suddenly realize
that our most eloquent statements of faith
crumble into nards of nothingness.

That is the beauty of such thin moments.

So watch
and listen
and wonder.
Don’t wake the dog.
Let it lie.

Watch, listen, and

As the Christmas story unfolds in front of us,
and all the manic craziness we do dusts up around it,
put away your fine analytical skills.
Don’t try to figure out the moment.
Don’t apply logic to the thinning veil.
Don’t dissect and evaluate it until it’s gone.

listen, and

In other words, experience it.
Feel it.
Enjoy it, even if it doesn’t all feel good.
You can wake up the dog later and give it a bone.

But in the thin moment watch, listen, and wonder.

That’s just a little advice for the season we are in –
because sometimes we forget.
We have entered a thin moment
when there is a tapering of the border
between God and us,
in which strange things may be afoot.
So watch, listen, and wonder –
and, of course, enjoy.