A New Look at Advent-Part 4
Text: Mark 16:20
And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it.
Over the past few weeks we have been engaged in a new way of looking at the symbolism of the Advent candles. For review, most of us are aware that the candles normally are symbolic of things like Joy, Hope, Love and Peace and those symbols are always appropriate for the Christmas season.
But this year I have been asking you to look at the candles in a new way, with new symbolism. Part of that new way of looking at the symbolism of the Advent candles is to look at the symbols as a progression, or a pathway, one building upon the other to reach a final goal. The first symbol we considered was annunciation and we spoke of the power of the spoken word. Last week I had some fun with the second symbol, preparation. I spoke about how in some cases preparation is critical, but sometimes Jesus comes to us in ways that are impossible to prepare for. Preparing for Jesus can be a little oxymoronic in that way.
Today I want to move to our third symbol, which is confirmation as we explore our new way of looking at Advent candles and the symbolism behind those candles. As we continue to explore this idea, I want to remind you that this exercise serves two different purposes. The first purpose is that through these new symbols I am hoping that the Christmas story itself takes on new and deeper insights for you. Perhaps you gain a new perspective on the Christmas story because of this series. But I also want you to be able to apply these symbols to your own lives. As we consider these symbols as a progression, or a pathway to follow, this can lead us to great accomplishments in our own spiritual disciplines and other places in our lives.
This is particularly true with our symbol of confirmation today. Looking at confirmation through the eyes of the Christmas story is a very different experience than looking at the presence of confirmation in our own lives. I will try to keep the two approaches clear for you, but be aware there is also a substantial amount of overlap between the two.
That being said, I want first to address the notion of confirmation with regard to the Christmas story. I believe that many individuals within Christian circles when asked about how the word confirmation may apply to the Christmas story, they would respond that Christmas is confirmation that Jesus is the Messiah. That Jesus fulfills all the prophecies of the Old Testament and the coming of the Christ child is the salvation of the world as foretold by prophets in antiquity. This is a really big deal for some people. It must be confirmed by the fulfillment of prophecy that Jesus is and was what the Christmas story claims, and their belief and their faith is grounded upon that belief.
I searched a little bit on line about all the prophecy that Jesus fulfilled. The best example of this exercise I found was on a web site called “According to the Scriptures”. On this web site they conclude that Jesus filled no less than 353 different prophecies and this confirms beyond any shadow of a doubt that Jesus is who he says and the Christmas story is absolutely true.
Now I don’t want to attack anyone’s faith or burst any bubbles, but this borders on the side of ridiculous. Perhaps this is a good place for the Pastor Chuck disclaimer, which I throw into the mix with some regularity, saying that these are my thoughts and ideas, and they don’t have to be your thoughts or your beliefs. But I do ask that you at least think about it.
Here’s the thing, at least for me. First of all, it is pretty easy to write a story about Jesus fulfilling all the required checkpoints of the Messiah 100 years or so after everything has already happened. You can place Jesus anywhere you need him to be and you can have him say whatever you need him to say.
The second item is that I wish that Christianity could someday learn to play nice with others. You know when you are in kindergarten and the kindergarten teacher sends home that first evaluation being able to play well with others is a big deal. You would think that what five-year olds can learn and figure out Christianity could learn as well. But alas many of us do not. What we don’t realize is that in our efforts to make certain we are always right, we alienate a good portion of the rest of the world.
With regard to the Christmas story, I would like to suggest that we look for confirmation beyond our own borders and beyond our own perspectives. Here is just one example, there are many others. I have spoken before about the ancient sacred text of the Tao Te Ching. This document was born out of the eastern religious traditions and an individual by the name of Lao Tzu is credited for the actual text of the Tao. The Tao itself rivals the age of our own sacred text, the Bible. It is considered to be about 2500 years old, which places it older than our New Testament, but younger, perhaps, than portions of our Old Testament.
I want to read a few verses from the Tao in the 25th saying in this collection of sayings. There are 81 different sayings in all, and this one is from saying number 25.
“There was something formless and perfect before the universe was born. It is serene. Empty. Solitary. Unchanging. Infinite. Eternally present. It is the Mother of the Universe. For lack of a better name, I call it the Tao. I call it great. Great is boundless; boundless is eternally flowing; ever flowing, it is constantly returning.”
Now listen to the prologue of the Gospel according to John. This is chapter one, verses 1-5 of the gospel of John. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Is it just me, or do these sound a lot alike? Is the basic premise not the same? Are not both of these texts recognizing that there is a Divine presence that has orchestrated the design of the universe since the beginning of time?
For me, this is the kind of confirmation I seek. A common experience of the Divine. A common understanding of the human condition and how our human response to our Divine creator shapes our everyday lives. This is confirmation. This kind of confirmation confirms for me that our understanding and our legends and our myths support what has been known for millennia. This is confirmation, at least for me, with regard to our understanding of the Christmas story.
But I have also asked you to consider what confirmation looks like as we apply these constructs to our everyday lives. How do we know we are on the right track? How do we know that what we are doing is working? Sometimes this is pretty easy, other times it is much more elusive. If we have a goal to exercise more or lose some weight, that is pretty easy to measure. If, however, we have a goal to become more spiritual, that is less precise.
I want us to look again at the text I read a few minutes ago. This text from Mark talks about the signs that accompanied the message. Here again is the actual text; “And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it.”
The text states that the message will be confirmed by signs that accompany it. In the case of our own self-development, that message is predominantly to ourselves. We want to learn a new spiritual discipline, we want to understand spirituality better, we want to learn to control our anger or overcome a bad habit. Our message to ourselves can be any number of things. As we pursue this, we can watch for signs.
I have a unique interpretation of this process and it works for me. It may not be appropriate for you, and it may not make any sense to you, but I offer it as just one example of the kind of confirmation I am talking about.
In all areas of my life I try to remember to be sensitive to the ways of the Spirit. For me, and I stress that this is for me, it may not be for you, there are three things I try to always keep in mind. First, I try to receive everything with thanksgiving. Even when it seems bad or not what I want or it is a hassle, I try to remember to be thankful. An attitude of gratitude works miracles.
The second thing I try to remember is to pay attention to resistance. Sometimes you get really focused on something and you decide that is how it needs to be. Let’s just say, for example, that you have decided you need to buy a new refrigerator. But when you go to make the purchase, something happens that makes it difficult or impossible for you to get it done. So you try again at a later date, and you encounter difficulty again. This experience is what I call resistance. At that point, I back off from an idea and try to just wait for some confirmation. In the case of the refrigerator, at least for me, it became apparent we did not need to make that purchase. That is confirmation. I can’t offer an explanation of this other than to say it has taken decades of practice to become sensitive to this thing I call resistance. When I feel it, and I ignore it, I am almost always sorry.
The third thing I try to pay attention to is becoming attached to a particular outcome. In other words, sometimes we feel like there is only one solution to our problem. There is only one thing in the world that will make us happy. There is only one path forward, and we become attached to that particular outcome. It has to be a certain way or else it won’t work.
I have heard often that sometimes when we pray for something, God says “no”. I don’t believe that to be true in the way we understand it. I don’t think God ever says yes or no, what changes is our acceptance of what is, and how we interpret that event in our lives. When we have become attached to a particular outcome, any other path forward looks like a “no”. I try to guard against becoming attached to a particular outcome.
I’m certain that most of us have had the experience of wanting a particular thing to happen and it doesn’t for whatever reason. It might have been a new job or something else, but it just didn’t work out. Then, perhaps a year or two later, you remember the incident, you remember how disappointed you felt, but you now realize that what happened was actually the best thing that could have happened. Has anyone else had this experience? Yeah, me too. That is confirmation. Confirmation that we need to accept all things with gratitude, confirmation that we pay attention to resistance and confirmation that we need to avoid attachment to things. This attachment can come in the form of being attached to a particular outcome, but we can also become very attached to the need to be right. This of course can create myriad of troubles and relates directly to what I was saying earlier about our understanding of the Christmas story.
I have covered a lot of topics this morning and have not given each subject as close or thorough an investigation as I would have liked. But we have only so much time and a limited attention span to boot. That is one of the reasons I like to make every sermon available in print. This is one of those you might want to read again because this wasn’t just food for thought, this was an entire Christmas dinner for thought.
Go in peace, and if I don’t see you tonight, Merry Christmas! Amen.