Saturday, December 03, 2011

Meaning Exactly What?

I want to spend this year with you examining the Search for Meaning. While it is true that a good many people in church on any given Sunday have found plenty of meaning in the Good News of Jesus Christ, many more are hanging around the edges wondering where they can find meaning, if there is any meaning, or whether the Church has anything to say that would help make sense of their lives. Even a great many people who already think of themselves as faithful Christians surely know that the journey with God in Christ is one that never settles on a particular meaning but always pulls us forward to explore possible meanings that we have not yet imagined.

Seeking for meaning will take us into all sorts of places. We will find ourselves looking at various stories, scratching around for the purposes in the story-originators’ minds as well looking at the features of the stories themselves. We will step back from various scriptures and ask how they connect with what is going on in our personal and corporate lives. We will also look at what I call the anti-gospel: the ever-present reality of things that promise meaning but which in the end rob us of meaning and purpose. We will meet shadowy figures and haunting themes that stalk through the Bible like ghouls whose echoing laughs mock the search for meaning, whose ploy is to seduce us into settling for easy answers and pious formulas so that we can steer safe of the risks of searching deeply.

Like any search, the one for meaning is a hunt with no guarantee of a trophy at the end. We never know whether we will find any meaning better than what we could patch together right now in the next five minutes. That is why so many people probably don’t want to fool with a search for meaning. To them—maybe you are among that number—there is no reason to search for meaning because it is perfectly obvious what the meaning is. After all, they were taught “the meaning” of things and of life in school or by their parents or indeed by the Church. All they have to do is to assume that whatever things mean is what they mean, and go on about their business. There is no scarcity of meaning, nor any dearth of systems that can supply it readily enough. We can go shopping for meaning just as we can go shopping for many things. Books and film, political parties and ideologies, a vast supply of things cooked up by the world’s various commerce systems, and a long parade of religious and philosophical alternatives provide a veritable bazaar of meaning. But most of those things, including some near and dear to my heart, are not in the end worth much unless they align with the Truth.

So this is not just the search for anything meaningful, which is not really all that hard to find. It is the search for meaning that actually lasts and outlasts everything else. If I were unconcerned about any but the stouthearted, I would stick a little notice up in the narthex that said something like, “Search for Meaning. Only the brave dare enter.” But my instincts are just the opposite. I believe that most of us are a little antsy, at least, if not downright scared, of beginning a search for meaning, unless we already have begun. And I want to sound a note of reassurance that comes out of the mouths of angels throughout the sacred story: “Fear not.” You have nothing to lose by asking questions. Not your balance, not your faith, not your life. But you have quite a bit that you might gain if you happen to discover along the way that there is a pearl of great price that you might have walked right past had your eyes not been open to looking for pearls. And should that one discovery change your life for the better, you will be glad you signed on to the search.

So much for prologue. Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. What do we make of John the Baptist? He appears for two weeks in Advent each year, and then comes back for a reprise on the First Sunday after the Epiphany. Beyond that, we don’t hear much about him. He is here today proclaiming his baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins because his is perhaps the clearest voice we hear telling us what it means to prepare for the coming Reign of God. And that is what Advent urges us each year to do. The Reign of God, mind you, not the celebration of Christmas, unless you understand that Christmas has something to do with the Reign of God, which would make you a rare bird indeed. John the Baptizer lets his hearers know that he is not the focus of that Reign, but the forerunner of a more powerful One that was on his way. The Coming One would inaugurate the Reign of God in an outpouring of God’s Spirit that could be described as a baptism, so effusive would be his power.

Now the search for meaning is not the same as pigeonholing something like this story in a ready-made grid of ready-made meaning. Fully 65% of us here this morning could do that without even blinking. That is because the function of the story is obvious: it is a prelude to the story of Jesus. The figure of John is likewise obvious: he is an announcer, a forecaster, the opening act in a story of salvation that is to center in the ministry of Jesus. But stand further back and what do you see? Possibly you see that John is a game-changer. He articulates a message (repentance) and an action (baptism) that on the long haul were to reorder reality for an enormous number of people, one might even say the whole world. For this message of repentance went beyond personal rehabilitation and became a call to humans to change from self-preservation to sacrifice, from tribal protectiveness to inclusiveness. And baptism went from being an act of personal purification to being an entrance rite into the Christian community, which dared to believe itself to be living in union with the Risen Jesus and therefore with God. Simply by seizing the moment; by giving voice to the groundswell of discontent with the way things were going and the way people were living; by allying himself with the old prophetic tradition that spoke truth to power; by refusing to conform to the expectations of respectable society; by thundering a sermon of inner change to accompany the outward washing of baptism; and perhaps most of all in refusing to make himself the star of his own show: in all these ways John changed the game.

Do you see any meaning in that? Who is a herald of the Reign of God right now? Are you? Am I? If we know anything at all about God, we know from the human experience that we call “history” that God is on the side of the poor and the oppressed; that God is busy welcoming the outcast and the sinner; that God’s righteousness transcends the moral pettiness of convention and shakes the foundations of power. Whose are the voices that announce the essential claims of justice? And, by contrast, whose are the voices that decry nearly any motion to change things in the direction of greater sharing in the common weal?

Sometimes our life on this planet can seem inordinately complex, like the mass of wires and cords under my desk at home that form a clot of interconnections past all order and comprehension. But that is just an illusion. There are complex problems, but there are a few truths that need to be heard. One such truth is fairness. Another is honesty. A third is kindness. It is not possible for one to speak the Truth unfailingly and still be nice all the time. But we can make room for and recognize the Baptizer when he appears. We can even be the ones who are the baptizers ourselves, announcing the coming Reign of Truth and Righteousness. It involves not going to the store and buying a coat of camel’s hair and a new supply of health food so much as it entails calling people, beginning with ourselves, to account. The Reign of God is coming whether we like it or not. We can join the forces of Peace and Justice, or we can serve the old order which is always about protecting the interests of the powerful. The little baptism of today is just a foreshadowing of an outpouring of Spirit tomorrow. One is coming who is mightier than any you see or hear today. And that one is the both the Alpha and the Omega, the Source and the Destiny of all Meaning.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2011

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