1In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"
To Find the Larger Life
What grabs my attention in this Gospel lection for the Second Sunday in Advent (December 6, 2009) is the last line: a quote from the prophet Isaiah, traditionally considered to be about Bethlehem and the baby, “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
Two words especially.
Beginning with “flesh,” behind which is the Hebrew word basar, unlike our English usage for flesh, which mostly suggests carnality, to be contrasted with spirit, which (spirit) is supposedly the more noble and holy aspect of our lives. The mindset of the Hebrew, however, allows no easy distinction between flesh and spirit. To Moses’ way of thinking we are what we are, these pounds of flesh, bone, breath, spleen, muscle, mind, heart, and soul, an indivisible unity, all of it, including soul, entirely mortal.
"Flesh" in the lection’s context means us, humanity, the whole blooming gang of earthly creatures made in God’s image and likeness.
And it means us in the realities of our lives, which are anything but sweet and lovely most of the time. Oh, sorry, yours probably is (sweet and lovely); mine isn’t. Mine is messy. Filled with regrets. Triumphs overmatched with stupidities. Gestures of kindness motivated by self-serving. Lofty notions of peace and brotherhood undercut by too many moments of pettiness. Trying to authenticate an image of myself as wise and noble, while suspecting I am, after all, empty. Life, certainly my life, viewed from the inside out, is messy.
Like the way it begins, in childbirth, whether in Stamford CT or in Bethlehem, a swamp of fluids, messy, messy… and profoundly beautiful! It’s the way we all get here, no shortcuts, not for me or you or Jesus. It is for this flesh, brought to the light of day from a woman’s body, this mortal flesh, with all of its contradictions, futilities, and, yes, ecstasies, this glorious mess, that the star shines, the angels sing, and the shepherds kneel.
God forgive us for trying to tidy it up, kidding ourselves into thinking it’s something it isn’t, embarrassed we are by our humanity, wishing it were more “spiritual.” As if the solemnity of prayers and pomp pleased heaven more than a raucous evening of self-forgetful chatter with friends. As if holiness consisted in folding our hands and pursing our lips like angels (an ironic intent if ever there was one, considering the reputation in Scripture of angels). Flesh we are; and if there is no virtue in caving to the flesh’s base urges, neither is there greater applause at the throne of grace when we prostrate ourselves like ordinands in the chancel at St. Peter’s. Get over it, Christian: it’s this flesh, this too mortal flesh, into which the Word is made (remember? John 1:14), a flesh that God, in the doctrine of the church, gladly, willingly took for himself, at which the salvation entering at Bethlehem is aimed.
So let’s consider the other attention-grabbing word in the Isaiah quote, “salvation.” If ever there was a churchy word, this is it. Stand in the pulpit with me in days of yore and watch grown men’s eyes glaze over while women smile with bemused toleration when that word, salvation, finds its way into my discourse. It conjures up visions of beatific rapture, like one of those Renaissance paintings of the nativity that fancies the Bethlehem barn as a palace or cathedral, cherubim and seraphim (whatever they are!) flying around, and mother Mary, fresh from her birthing ordeal, looking nonetheless like a modest contestant in a beauty pageant.
But salvation, in its root meaning, is designed to address the needs of this messy flesh. Specifically, our yearning to roam wide and free, to reach out freely, expansively. Like a prisoner set free on the far side of the jailhouse gate. Like a suburban bichon unleashed in Vermont’s open fields. Like a schoolchild after the last bell on the last day of school, skipping down the sidewalk. Like a workhorse no longer in harness, now roaming a verdant pasture: that was my father-in-law’s metaphor for his month of vacation in the green hills, when the preacher he was became a carpenter.
Or like this preacher in retirement on a Saturday night. Well, you’d have to be one to understand… the soundness of the sleep, the indifference toward the alarm clock, the thoughts of the breakfast menu and not the inadequacy of the sermon. That’s salvation, stepping out into broad and spacious places, of the mind no less than the feet. It is delivery to that place where regrets no longer compromise joy; where "Hallelujahs" sing double forte; where kindness has no second thoughts; where ideals are reality; and where self-esteem is confirmed by a fullness of heart, soul, mind, and strength.
This flesh is destined for that salvation. And we have seen it, seen it lived, seen it birthed, seen it killed, seen it risen. An abundant life, expansive in its love and compassion, free from the narrow confines of the moment and place’s conventions and cruelties. Jesus, it was and is. Flesh of our messy flesh, leading us into a far wider world of everlasting dimension.