Thursday, January 10, 2013

Empty: Unwrapping the Gift (1)

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2013/01/06 Epiphany
Children, Matthew 2.1-18
Message, Philippians 2.1-11

What do you get for the man, or woman, who has everything? A new car? New jewels? Expensive vacation? It’s a practical question every Christmas regarding at least one person in your family. It’s the thesis that generates a Hollywood thriller (Michael Douglas and Sean Penn in The Game). It’s fodder for entertainment and sports celebrity talk shows. And, have you ever considered that "Twelve Days of Christmas" carol? What do you get for someone who has everything? And, what do you do with three french hens?

Many of us must fall into that category more than we would admit. Have you noticed a pattern to your Christmas gifts? Any of you get a sweater or fleece pullover on a yearly basis, even though you haven’t worn out the old ones? One more tie to add to the collection? A new ring – but didn’t you get amethyst a couple years ago? A new tool? I know that some of us make a living with tools, and the right tool is a special thing. But for the rest of us, a set of screwdrivers, a couple pliers, a hammer and socket wrenches do just about anything. And, if not, duct tape or WD-40 will take care of everything else on at least a temporary basis.

Ties don’t take up much space. But sweaters, fleece, and sweatshirts take up a lot of room. When you run out of space, what do you do? You make more space – buy another dresser, get one of those cardboard boxes to slide under the bed. But, after enough time, you won’t have room for everything. You’ll actually need to get rid of stuff. Whether you already have everything or your family just lacks creativity in their giving plans, to unwrap the gift, to receive the gift, to put it to work, requires making space. And the best way to do that is to get rid of whatever is taking up all the space.

It goes back to the first Christmas. Joseph and Mary come into Bethlehem for the census, she is about to go into labor, but "there is no room" (Luke 2.1). To receive a gift – whether a new sweater, a partridge in a pear tree, or Jesus himself – you have to "make room".

This is where we come face to face with the first step in "unwrapping the gift" – a theme we encounter in the Christmas story as well as in the marvelous early hymn that Paul quotes in his letter to the Philippians. It is the theme of the "empty self". Jesus, "though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness" (Philippians 2.6-7). Jesus is the model for the "empty self".


"For we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it" (1 Tm 6.7). Peter Rollins, an Irish philosopher and storyteller, reflects on this Scripture by talking about the two births of an infant. First, physical birth, and second, the birth of consciousness. With the birth of consciousness, which in child development begins between 6-18 months, we discover an internal self and recognize that we are separate from the outside world. This is when "separation anxiety" becomes part of our experience. And, it is the root of the human experience of loss and absence, the idea that something is missing from our lives, that we are empty and need to be filled. (See Peter Rollins, 2012, The Idolatry of God, pp 12-14.)

And we spend our lives trying to be filled or fulfilled. We cram our time and space with so much stuff and nonsense, collecting stamps or friends or lovers or newspapers. And we are not satisfied. To unwrap the gift of God, to receive Jesus as "Emmanuel: God with us", we’ve got to make room. We’ve got to clear out the clutter. We’ve got to give it away.

Otherwise, if we had the resources, we would become like those the prophet Isaiah bemoaned: "You who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land!" (Isa 5.8). Perhaps at that point, once we have filled up our lives and our land with stuff, we will discover that we are truly empty.

Now, the ironic thing about this desire to be filled, this search for what we have lost is that we never had "it" at all (Rollins). We simply grew up enough to recognize that we are separate from other things. We were separate and unique, all along, we just did not recognize it. And the pursuit of what is lost, of what we need for our fulfillment, whether self-destructive in the obvious sense or not, is simply a rabbit trail. We bring nothing into the world, we take nothing out of the world. Being human is being empty. That’s one more reason why Jesus must be emptied: He becomes fully human, without (amazingly) ceasing to be God.

Juergen Moltmann, probably the most significant living theologian, talks about Jesus as model for the "empty self". He refers to the Greek term for "emptied" in Philippians 2, kenosis, and says that "the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are kenotic beings; they empty themselves to be filled with one another" (personal notes, Sept 2009, Conversation with Juergen Moltmann, event by Tony Jones/Doug Pagitt). Here in Philippians, in this ancient Christian hymn, Jesus "empties himself" of privilege, of power, of prerogative as part of his choice and call to humble himself and become human. But that is not his whole purpose in emptying himself. He empties himself to make room for you and me. "In my Father’s house are many rooms" (John 14.2, NIV). And, instead of letting all that space fill up with clutter, with junk, Jesus empties himself and turns out dad’s place to make space for you and me.

One of the great images for the emptied self is the open hand. A closed hand holds on to something, possesses something, is "filled". An open hand possesses nothing, only emptiness. But only an open hand can receive a gift. And only an open hand can give a gift. When we treat our emptiness as a condition, as something wrong with us, as a sign of what we have lost, we become self-centered. We grasp and clutch and hold on for dear life. And, in the end, we still feel empty.

But our emptiness is part of the image of God in us. If the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are kenotic beings, if they empty themselves to make space for one another, then the design of our emptiness is to make room for one another, and to make room for God, in our own lives. And the appropriate way to do so is not by grasping and clutching and holding on for dear life. The appropriate way to do so is with empty hands, both receiving the gift and passing it on, both being filled and being poured out.

As we look to unwrap the gift of God in our lives, in this new year, I urge you to begin by practicing emptiness. Empty a closet. Empty a box of junk. Empty a day on your calendar. (Doing so on a weekly basis is what the Scripture calls "Sabbath rest".) In a peculiar way, we find ourselves more human when there is unfilled, uncluttered emptiness in our lives. And, not so unexpected, we likewise find ourselves better able to connect to others with integrity, without the veneer of power or desire. Greatest of all, we find the room to welcome Jesus and discover that he has made room for us.

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