Sermon 11/27/2016: Agnostic in Advent

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The Cloud of Unknowing, 2008. Guy Laramee

Sermon by pastor Jennifer Davis Sensenig

Isaiah 29:17-24; Matthew 1:1

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Emmanuel–God with Us

A couple of days before Thanksgiving dinners were served across the country, a hundred people or so gathered in Liberty Park to appreciate the poultry workers in our local community. We gave thanks for their hard work both in the plants and after hours as they organize to speak collectively to the industry owners and managers who could improve labor conditions and do what is right when workers are injured on the job. We gathered to pray, listen to stories, sing, march and deliver a message to the employers. It was fitting for both Thanksgiving and a prelude to Advent.

This Advent we are welcoming Emmanuel. Prayer and worship–whether in a park or a traditional church building is a way of welcoming Emmanuel–God with us. Living with gratitude and placing our lives in the service of the meek and needy in the world is a way of welcoming Emmanuel. The Biblical witness is that God is always with us, that we cannot go God where God is not, but isn’t there a difference between just assuming God’s presence and welcoming God’s presence and power into our lives? In the gospel of Matthew, which will be in focus throughout this new church year, Joseph is a model for welcoming Emmanuel. Just when he had resolved on a plan for dealing with an unwanted pregnancy, Joseph instead accepted the instructions of an angel and welcomed Mary and the baby into his life. In the gospel of Luke, Mary is a model for welcoming Emmanuel, and names her son. In Matthew, it is step-father Joseph who names him, Jesus. What Joseph thought he knew about God and faith unraveled and he was able to welcome Emmanuel.

The gospel of Matthew begins: An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Clearly there is a back story to Jesus and it has something to do with Abraham, David, and the promised Messiah. In this gospel the whole Old Testament–the lineage of Abraham & Sarah, the reign of Israelite and Judean Kings, and the prophetic tradition of a Messiah are all understood as a centuries-long welcome of Emmanuel, who, according to Matthew’s account, is born to a woman, adopted by a man, embraced by some, rejected by many and will be with us to the end of the age. In this gospel soon after his birth Jesus is threatened by the King of Israel and his family becomes refugees in Egypt for the first few years of his life. Today, we join this lineage of those who welcome Emmanuel. Whether we are women or men, children or elders we enter into Advent with the hope of meeting God who is welcomed by the patriarchs, kings, and prophets of history not as a rival, but an alternative to their power, who comes as a child and becomes a refugee.

Agnostic in Advent

This past week when a CMCer was talking with me about life, faith and theology, she admitted that secretly there are some Christian things that she doesn’t believe, that she never mentions to anyone. This was my confirmation that I needed to preach on being agnostic in Advent. Grammatically speaking being atheistic means not believing in God. Being agnostic means not knowing. In Greek gnosis means knowledge, so agnosis is unknown or not knowing. In everyday usage being agnostic means not knowing…about God. If ever there is a time for Christians to be agnostic it’s during Advent. You see, the whole season of Advent upsets our ultimate certainty and any self-satisfied knowledge we’ve accumulated about the divine. For religious folks, and here I’d have to include myself, who think we have God figured out, along comes Advent and we have to admit that we don’t know. And for those of us who are simply uncertain, skeptical, questioning, or struggling in our faith, along comes Advent and we remember that not knowing is part of the spiritual life, even a sign that God is with us.

Prophetic Hope

Our reading from Isaiah begins: Shall not Lebanon in a very little while become a fruitful field, and the fruitful field be regarded as a forest? Well, maybe…in a little while, but when the prophet was speaking Lebanon looked pretty empty and barren. Maybe there is a seedling pushing up through the soil, but one could hardly bet on a future forest. The prophet’s promise of the deaf hearing and the blind seeing, and the meek and needy receiving fresh joy is a message of hope–Advent is all about hope–but it’s also an acknowledgement that at least at this moment we don’t hear; we don’t see; we are needy; we don’t know. On that day…the meek shall obtain fresh joy and the neediest of all people shall exult in the Holy One of Israel…the tyrant and those who deny justice to the one in the right, shall be cut off. I think of the immigrant and refugee poultry workers who are not treated fairly. They don’t know how or when their hopes will be realized. According to our prophets current injustice won’t last forever, but right now we don’t how God’s presence and power is at work in the situation.

When we don’t know, when we don’t hear, when we don’t see God’s presence or power in the situations that most concern us, we grow anxious. Being agnostic–not knowing–is not comfortable, especially if we belong to the church. Aren’t we supposed to have strong, vibrant faith at all times?! Rather than accepting our agnosticism as part of the spiritual journey, we sometimes fill in the knowledge gap with our efforts or with 21st century escapist indulgences–entertainment, toys, stuff, food & drink, work. And all this is very tempting when our dominant society is doing 27 shopping days until Christmas, while the church is doing Advent.

Silence and Unknowing

What if this Advent we let ourselves be agnostic, not knowing, and experience the gap between our knowledge and…God. Perhaps that gap, that Advent womb of unknowing, is where God’s presence is made known, like the quickening of a child in her mother’s body. Perhaps God prefers a bit of uncluttered space, a mind not yet resolved–or at least dreaming as Joseph was, an empty belly in order to be powerfully present in our lives. Historically the Advent season of the church year is one of hope, and it includes a lot of penitential practices–giving, fasting, confession and silence. These practices create the space and the place for our unknowing, and an opportunity to welcome God in a fresh way.

The psalm appointed for the last Sunday before Advent is psalm 46. It’s a big confident psalm that begins: God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. It ends with that familiar verse: Be still, and know that I am God! My experience with being still is that before the knowing, there is some unknowing, or not knowing. For me, being still opens up some agnostic emptiness, where my self-assured theological convictions or thoughts about God unravel a bit, perhaps enough that I can begin to love God.

If you know me, you know that I take a week of silent retreat during Advent. I’m headed to Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, VA tomorrow. If you haven’t planned ahead for a retreat this Advent, or if that isn’t an option for you because of the expense or your stage of life, then you may need to welcome Emmanuel with some stillness and silence in your ordinary days. That’s probably best anyway. So far stillness and silence has never pitched me into a complete crisis of faith, but it’s awkward, especially for a pastor.

It’s alright to be agnostic in Advent, or whenever, and I think the beginning of Matthew’s gospel shows this in humorous way. It starts out with a geneaology. There were 14 generations from Abraham to King David. 14 generations from David to the exile and 14 generations (sort of) from the exile to Joseph. But all of this history and knowledge sort of unravels because the genealogy doesn’t lead directly to Jesus. The tail end says: Eliud was the father of Eleazer, and Eleazer was the father of Matthan, and Matthan was the father of Jacob and Jacob was the father of Joseph, and Joseph was the…husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah. The stuff of genealogy, the carnal knowing and the historical knowing, ends in an awkward silent gap of unknowing. Joseph wasn’t the father, but he welcomed Mary and the baby into his life, into the world.

This Advent, if you find yourself not knowing whether and how to believe in God, remember that you’re not alone. The saints who have gone before us didn’t register as agnostics, but they described a lot of unknowing, wondering, questions, and spiritual struggles. Throughout the Bible God often works through people who are uncertain, who have no idea who God really is. And throughout the Bible those who are overly-confident in their knowledge of God–especially the Pharisees, especially in Matthew–are the ones who are spiritually stuck.

A traditional Advent reading from this gospel is about being agnostic. It comes much later in the story when Jesus is speaking like a prophet of a future age of justice and peace. He says: About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father…So keep awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. Not knowing is not a bad thing. So let’s enter Advent quietly, without knowing when or how God’s desire to be with us will be fulfilled. We don’t have to invent this approach to our spiritual lives. It’s just true. We don’t know how God will be with us this Advent season. Rather than making us anxious as if faith might slip through our fingers, being agnostic in Advent means that we’ve loosened our grip, created a space, acknowledged our hunger, named the real needs of our lives and the life of this world. Be still… [/otw_shortcode_content_toggle]

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