Saturday, 1 December 2012

Submission and Spirituality - Some thoughts for the start of Advent


Isaiah 1:12-20
12 When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more; 13 bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
14 Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.
16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes;
cease to do evil, 17 learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.
18 Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.
19 If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land;
20 but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword;
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

1 Thessalonians 3:9-end
9How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? 10Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.
11 Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. 12And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. 13And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

John 3:1-10
3Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ 3Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ born anew');" 4Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ 5Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, you must be born from above.” 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ 9Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ 10Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

Submission and Spirituality
I want to begin with a statement that may sound a little surprising. Advent is about preparing to submit to the God who submits to us. Let me repeat that. Advent is about preparing to submit to the God who submits to us.

What I want to do with this is unpack it a little by thinking about what we mean regarding submission, and the place submission has within our religion, because it’s one thing to say that humans are meant to submit to God, and even that I want to question, but what about the idea that God submits to us? That, surely, is an outrageous thing to suggest. Or is it?

But first, what place does submission have to play in the role of our spiritual lives? You see everyone submits; it’s a part of the lives that we lead, so to ignore it as an aspect of our spirituality would be nonsense. Day by day we all do acts of submission. The only choices you and I have are as to what we are going to submit. We can choose, but one way or another we’re all going to submit.

You arrive at work and your supervisor asks for a piece of work rather sooner than you expected. You can choose to defy her, but you know it’s your job that’s on the line so you submit, perhaps wisely knowing that she’s only asking for it because she, too, is submitting to someone else’s request for something faster than expected.

Of course you may wish to advance up the company so that you’re calling the shots and not having to submit to anyone, but I would suggest to you that in this case all you’re doing is submitting to your own desire for power. Is it not odd, don’t you think, that even a desire for power requires an act of submission to that desire?

Or how about the relationship you have with your children? Surely here you are the one in charge? Children are supposed to do what we tell them or face disciplinary consequences, yet you, as a parent, are submitting to your own human desire to procreate, and when you teach them or discipline them you are submitting to a desire that you can help them to be the best that they can possibly be.

We may not like the idea because submission is not something we think of as something to be proud of, but the point I am making to you is that without submission there would be chaos. Indeed I would go so far as to say that this is precisely what the Anglican church is experiencing at the moment. Forty two out of forty four dioceses have expressed their desire to see women consecrated as Bishops. Seventy five percent of the population of the church have expressed their desire for this.

Yet the arrogant fundamentalist evangelicals and ultra-conservative catholics on General Synod choose not to submit to the desire of the people that they are supposed to serve and instead voted with their own preference. The result has been the appalling upset that has been caused, and all because the process of due submission to the needs of the many were ignored. Without submission there is chaos.

So, having established the need for submission in everyday life, what bearing does this have on our spiritual lives? Let’s turn to the Bible readings we’ve had to think a little more in depth about this because it seems to me that there is an evolving picture in the relationship between God and his people.

The reading from Isaiah is a clear example of a divine demand for submission to God’s selfless desire for the needs of the oppressed rather than the selfish human desire for one’s own wants. The rulers and leaders of the nation were thinking only of themselves and not of those further down and at the bottom of the economic ladder. To be honest, this passage could be read to the governments and bankers of the modern western world, and perhaps with the same warnings of consequence.

The commands are there in verse 17: “...learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow”. The consequences of submission are then laid out for us in verses 19 and 20:, “If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword.”

In essence God says, submit to my desires for the good of all and you shall prosper in the land, but if you submit to your own selfish desires for yourselves I will strip it all away from you. The choice is not whether to submit or not; the choice is only with regards to what we submit to. Submission to the desires of God is an act of reciprocal love. Submission to self is an act of selfishness from which nobody benefits in the long run.

Touching briefly on the new testament reading, we can imagine the joy that St. Paul and his coworkers feel at the way in which the believers at Thessalonika are growing in holiness and suggest that the reason for that is their growing ability to submit to God’s desires for them.

But it’s the reading from John’s gospel which begins to tie this all together for us, when Jesus talks to Nicodemus about being born again. This is the ultimate act of submission when we think about it for the most helpless condition that a human can be in is as a baby. Much of what Jesus is saying about being born again, or born from above, or being born of the Spirit or wind comes down to this, a willingness to start again, to become vulnerable.

Becoming a follower of Christ is to be willing to become vulnerable, to start again, to submit to the knowledge that we begin as spiritual little children. And the miracle of all of this is that God is demanding nothing of us that he does not himself submit to.

We use the season of advent to prepare for the Christ Mass, the time when we celebrate God being born as a human, God submitting to being born as a vulnerable, helpless child, utterly dependent on his parents, Mary and Joseph, for everything. God demands no submission from us that he has not already subjected himself to.

And this is perhaps the greatest miracle of Christianity, and the factor which differentiates it from many other spiritual paths. In our faith we submit to the God who submitted to us. You see Jesus’s whole earthly existence moved him towards the day when, as his heavenly Father asked of him, he submitted to the will of the Jewish and Roman leaders.

Jesus could easily have come down from the cross on which he was hung. You can imagine legions of angels poised, ready to aid him. But he instead submitted to the will of the leaders. And the reason for that was his willingness to submit to the will of the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Not my will be done, but yours”.

Jesus gives us the template for appropriate submission. We submit to God’s will because he asks us to. In many aspects of life we submit to things because there’s an exchange going on; we think that if we submit we will receive a reward. Maybe that’s why you submit to God now, because you think it’ll get you a reward. But what if I said that to submit for that reason is not an act of love.

We submit to God because God is God, not as an exchange, in the hope of receiving something.

But one last thought. Submission does not need to come unthinkingly, and God willingly listens to our protests. God plays fair with us. When God asked Moses to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt, God did not appear in all his overwhelmingly powerful glory, giving Moses no choice in the matter; he instead appeared in such a way that Moses felt able to say no.

Eventually Moses submitted to God’s will, but God met him part way; God rewrote the plan he had to cater for Moses’s insecurities.

Simply put, God asks for our submission but doesn’t demand it. If it had been me in the Garden of Gethsemane, I’m pretty sure I would have walked away...

...and God would have let me. (Although he’d have come running after me.)

So this Advent, let us prepare ourselves to submit to God out of love, not out of fear or out of a desire for gain through some kind of exchange. And remember, God requires nothing of us that he has not already submitted himself to.

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