We learn as much from children as we teach them. Last week, my son drove home from school, got out of the car, and rather than coming inside our home right away, he made his way over to the maple tree in our yard, got out his phone, and took a photo of the tree, which was on fire with fall color.
The maple leaves were a mixture of red and yellow, and the afternoon sunlight was making the whole tree glow. It was like a work of art, a masterpiece alive with God’s grandeur, to quote from Gerard Manley Hopkins.
But as he took the photo, I realized how many times I had driven right by that tree and its foliage without even taking notice of it. For days, the leaves had been changing, and while I saw the tree, I didn’t really see it. Do you know what I mean?
My son inspired me. Later that day, I studied the tree and paused to really look at the leaves, the delicate veins and serrated edges. I looked at the leaves that had fallen to the ground. They hadn’t dried and withered yet; yet their ephemeral nature made them even more beautiful.
My son knew what he was doing when he took the photo. There was something about that tree that made you want to preserve its beauty by taking a photo, painting a picture or writing a poem.
That something is glory, a word we hear in our Scripture today and throughout the Bible. Glory, and here I follow the writer, C. S. Lewis, means two things:
First, glory means fame or appreciation. We glorify athletes who have won a championship, artists who display virtuosity, and saints who witness to the love and compassion of God. At our best moments, we give glory to God, appreciating the One who made the tree aflame with fall color.
Second, glory means luminosity, as in a thing or creature that the light of God streams through. The stained glass windows in this church are luminous. So is that maple tree in my front yard. My son, stopping for a moment to appreciate the beauty of the tree, was luminous.
When the light and love of God flow through people and things, we know that we are on holy ground. We’re like Moses when he pauses at the burning bush. It’s the pausing, looking and listening that matter most.
Go with me for a moment out to the wilderness where Moses is shepherding his father-in-law’s livestock. Amidst the busyness of his ordinary work, he takes a moment, just like my son, to pause and notice beauty in an ordinary and seemingly insignificant part of God’s creation. That bush that Moses paused to look at was no different than any other bush. That tree that my son admired is an ordinary tree.
The difference is in how we look at things and people. Do we slow down enough to appreciate the luminosity of the camellias in full bloom? Do we listen for the arias of birdsong at sunrise? Are we open to the light of God shining through each other’s eyes?
Moses turns aside to see. He pauses long enough to notice God’s glory burning in an ordinary bush. He’s astonished that the bush burns and isn’t consumed, just like that tree in my front yard burned with God’s grandeur but wasn’t consumed.
This reminds me of something that the poet, Mary Oliver, once wrote. Oliver, who now lives in South Florida, lived for most of her life in Provincetown, an artist’s colony at the very end of Cape Cod.
Most of her poems are careful studies of the natural world written during her daily walks through woods and coastal landscapes. You might think that Oliver would have gotten bored with the same old trees, bushes and flowers, the same expansive views of dunes and water.
Just the opposite. For Oliver, every day is like the first day of creation. She never approaches things and people as if she’s seen it all. Instead, we hear words like these in her work: “Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”
That is what this season of Advent is all about: paying attention, being astonished, telling about it. We see this in our first reading today from Baruch.
The scribe Baruch was an assistant to the prophet Jeremiah, who we heard from last Sunday. Like Jeremiah, Baruch has a word of consolation for us. He envisions the people of Israel returning to Jerusalem after their exile in Babylon.
They can leave their grief and pain behind like old clothing and “put on forever the beauty of the glory from God. Put on the robe of righteousness that comes from God; put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting; for God will show your splendor everywhere under heaven.”
The scribe then envisions God’s people pausing to pay attention. They are to look and be astonished that God is gathering people from east and west, all of them summoned by the unifying Word of God. No one is left out. Every single person can burn with God’s glory.
Baruch, inspired by Isaiah, another prophetic artist, goes on to say that God is shaping the land like a master sculptor: every high mountain and the everlasting hills will be made low; every valley shall be filled up so that God’s people will be able to make their way safely home.
Baruch, like Mary Oliver, not only pays attention and is astonished. He tells us about what it will be like to come home to God in vivid terms:
“The woods and every fragrant tree have shaded Israel at God’s command. For God will lead Israel with joy, in the light of his glory, with the mercy and righteousness that come from him.”
Over and over, Baruch sings of God’s glory, that burning and beautiful light that attracts us to God, draws us to love and serve each other, and shines out to every dark place where God’s people live in exile.
We witness this same theme in the Gospel reading. Luke, ever the historian, begins by going through a laundry list of luminaries in the ancient world: Roman emperors and governors, religious authorities and officials.
The most interesting thing is that the Word of God sidesteps these power brokers and goes out instead to the wilderness, where John the Baptist dwells.
It’s no accident that so much creativity happens on the margins of human society rather than the center: think of Railroad Square in our own community, Mary Oliver in Provincetown, the artists in Key West, and the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert.
Perhaps those at the center of things, luminaries without any true luminosity, are too busy, too distracted to pay attention, to be astonished and tell others. Perhaps they, like we all do, just take ordinary people and things for granted. Today, I want you to look at John the Baptist differently. Rather than seeing him as a cranky prophet or a zealous messenger, I want you to see John as an artist.
He’s grown up in the wilderness, a place of solitude that makes one pay attention, be astonished by the beauty of God’s creation, and tell others about the glory and beauty of God.
Astonished by God’s grace and forgiving spirit, John takes a page out of Baruch’s playbook and pays attention to God’s people who stream to him from east and west. John is a voice crying out in the wilderness, and like Baruch, he sings of a God who is a master sculptor.
Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
John the Artist is inviting us this Advent to pay attention, to be astonished, to tell others of the glory and beauty of God.
But first we will need to slow down and step aside and see like Moses, to study the leaves on a tree, to treasure a painting, to commit a poem to memory, to listen to music that touches our soul, to look for the beauty of God in the light of each other’s eyes.
“There are no ordinary people,” C.S. Lewis reminds us in his sermon The Weight of Glory. “You have never talked to a mere mortal.”
Earlier in the sermon, he proclaims, “The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it . . . It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship . . . It is in the light of [this] overwhelming [possibility], it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.”
Along with Baruch, John the Artist, Mary Oliver and C.S. Lewis, you and I aren’t ordinary people. We’ve never spoken with a mere mortal. Luminous with God’s light, we bear each other’s glory daily on our backs. In our readings today, God has given us instructions for living life: pay attention, be astonished, tell others of the beauty and glory of God.
A sermon preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee, FL on December 9, 2018.