Rev. Danielle K Bartz November 26, 2023
Matthew 1:18-25, Luke 2:15-19, Matthew 2:7-14 “All is Calm”
Astute observers of the bulletin will see that I labeled this Sunday as the “Sunday Before Advent”. This is, strictly speaking, not an actual liturgical day on the Christian calendar, though I wonder if it should be. The season of Advent is, as I am sure you know, a season of preparation. It is meant to be a time to prepare ourselves for the coming incarnation – for God taking on human form and living amongst us. This is, as the Gospel of Thomas says, “the Wonder of Wonders.” Advent is meant to get us ready to fully experience that wonder. But, I have come to think it might be necessary for us to prepare for this coming season of preparation.
Advent is my favorite season of the year because it is intended to be a time of quiet contemplation, of focused prayer and reflection. As a heady introvert, a season that tells me my job is to be in quiet contemplation, well – it just doesn’t get any better than that. However, each and every year I find that I am torn between doing just that, and the busyness this season brings in our world. And I am not talking about my work as your minister, planning for the various extra things that happen here in Advent – that is all planned and readied before Advent begins. I mean everything else. I find myself seeking ways to be busy and by the time Advent is over, I realize I haven’t done much of the contemplative work that I like so much about this season.
And that is because I, like so many of us, have given into the narrative that busyness and exhaustion are somehow indicators of our value. That to be worn out is a sign of success. That a full calendar is a status symbol. This is probably truer for people in the middle portion of their lives, as I have noticed that my elders are much better at taking time to rest than I am. But, I do think, that for nearly everyone, the preparatory season of Advent has become a season of doing ‘all the things’ – which means many of us get to Christmas and are too worn out to wonder at the miracle of the Christ-child.
Luckily, in the very story of the Christ-child appearance we find reminders, and perhaps motivation, to rest during not only this season but all the seasons of our lives. We see how God continues to use us even in our sleep, how quiet reflection is a way to experience the presence of the Divine in our lives, and that dreams, brought upon by sleep, can actually create in us possibilities to counter the evils of empire and destruction that have plagued our world for generations.
We all, at times, give into the temptation of believing we are only serving God by doing. That our value in God’s eyes is directly tied to the things we do. That the more tasks we accomplish, even if they are just busy work, is another brick in our homes in heaven. By giving into this temptation is to forget that God is ultimately in control. Listen to this story in Matthew, one that we don’t often read during Christmas:
“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah[a] took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be pregnant from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to divorce her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had given birth to a son,[b] and he named him Jesus.”
While he slept, Joseph was reminded that God is in control, that the same God he served in his waking hours was the same God who protected him while he was drooling on his pillow. If Joseph, upon learning that Mary was pregnant, had acted brashly, without taking time to rest and sleep, then the wonder that was to come would have been mired in the harsh reality of the time for unwed women. It was in his rest that Joseph was reminded that God would be with them, no matter what was to come.
Much in the same way that rest reminds us that God is in control and that we are not solely responsible for all the work of this world, rest also gives us the space to marvel at the presence of God. We cannot marvel and run errands – unless we just want to marvel at the size the crowds at the check-out line. We cannot ponder the divine when we are begrudgingly heading to one more event that, if we are honest with ourselves, we really don’t want to go to. Even in this season filled with so much, we can take time to slow ourselves and rest in the presence of God, much like Mary in this reading from Luke:
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them, 19 and Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.
One of my favorite pieces of religious art is an icon that depicts Mary holding what looks like a sacred scroll while Joseph is tending to the infant Jesus. It depicts this moment of Mary pondering all the things that have happened and been told to her. It shows Mary marveling at the presence of the divine in the front of her. She is shown to be at rest.
There is a reason I remind you at the beginning of worship to settle your minds, your bodies, and your spirits to worship God. Worship can be difficult if we are not settled. Humans are easily distracted, so it is often with intention that we must quiet ourselves and often our surroundings in order to be reminded of the presence of God in our midst. God is always there, always, even when we are too busy to notice. But, that presence is captivating if we can be still long enough to treasure it and ponder it in our hearts.
Finally, in her book “Rest Is Resistance” self-described ‘nap bishop’ Tricia Hersey argues that claiming our right to rest resists the violence that is wrought upon our spirits by the sins of hyper-capitalism. She does this ministry by creating art installation projects that are actually sanctuaries for sleep. Those who visit the art are encouraged to take a nap in its midst. Because, she believes, rest is the ultimate way to resist the pull of evil upon our lives.
This might sound, on the outset, odd. And I admit I resisted this call to resistance. However, I found myself compelled by it when I had a dream, a literal dream when I was sleeping. In this dream I was talking with a musical composer of unknown identity. This composer was talking with me about the musical concept of counterpoint, how divergent melodic threads in music can come together to create for the listener a moment of realization that transports them to a different plane of the music. It a realization of what can be done when the struggle against instead becomes a movement of togetherness. Neither melodic line is required to change itself, instead it finds a meeting point and creates a transcendent harmony.
This metaphor of counterpoint has become, for me, the key to understanding the possibilities of humanity in all of our diversity to bring about the realization of the Kingdom of God. I’ll stop there, because I could easily go off on a whole tangent about this, but the reason I share it is because it came to me in my sleep. In all of my waking hours I struggled to see this possibility of resisting the evils of empire that plague our world. But when I allowed myself to stop struggling and just to rest, God gave me a guide. One that may only make sense for me, but one that continues to carry me. Remember these words from the Gospel of Matthew:
Then Herod secretly called for the magi[a] and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out, and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen in the east,[b] until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped,[c] they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. 13 Now after they 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.” 14 Then Joseph[d] got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt.
It was because of their dreams that the magi did not return to Herod who sought to use them to further his plans for domination. It was in his dreams that Joseph saw a way to save his family from that domination. Our dreams provide for us possibilities of what can be. Sometimes they are fanciful. Sometimes they are warnings. Sometimes they are an articulation of the hopes we have and a guidance from God to turn that hope into reality. Our dreams give us the space we need to imagine something new, which is an act of resistance in a world that considers dreams of possibilities to be a threat.
Beloved Community, our nativity story is filled with examples of how rest is not a stumbling block to God, but rather a way that God moves in our lives. As we prepare to enter into the preparatory season of Advent, let us all give ourselves permission to slow down and rest. To remember that God uses us, even in our sleep, to bring about God’s promise. To remember that we can only truly marvel at the presence of God in our lives when we can slow and settle ourselves. And that it is in our dreams, dreams brought out by solid sleep, that can show us the possibilities of how we too can resist empire and bring about God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Beloved Community this season is one of joy and brightness. And it is a season that, when we allow it to be, all is calm. Amen.
Loving and gentle God, you allow us to always find rest in your embrace, for your love of us is not contingent upon anything at all. For this unconditional gift, we give you great thanks and it is in that spirit of gratitude that we come before you in prayer.
We looked forward, God, to this season of joy. And we also know, that sometimes we can become so worn out that we forget that you are present in our lives. Help us not only to embrace the joy of this season, but slow down enough to allow ourselves to marvel at the coming miracle of wonder. Create in us room that we can settle into, room enough to see you.
One of the ways God that you create that room in us is when we come to you in prayer. So now in these moments of silence we simply stop and rest in you.
Good and Great God, the coming wonder of your incarnation is one we anticipate with eagerness. So, we pray all of this and so much more in the name of Jesus Christ, who embodied you and showed us how we too can be filled with your love. And we pray in the way he taught…Our Father…