Monday, October 24, 2016

"A Point of Emptiness"

I used to preach with PowerPoint. Not like I do now, with just the scripture on the screen so people can see it, but also with intricately designed slides full of outlines, diagrams, and artwork that illustrated each point. I have always spent a lot of time in sermon preparation because I believe the Holy Spirit honors good planning. But I think in those days I spent more time on the PowerPoint presentation than on the sermon. Any given sermon might have twenty slides to click through, not including the scripture. The story of the Prodigal Son could have a picture of a father embracing his son. A sermon on giving might feature scattered images of pots of gold, people holding their wallets and shrugging, or empty offering plates. The audio-visual team downloaded the sermon on Sunday morning and clicked through it, and I moved through the slides on my tablet at the pulpit. Then one Sunday something went wrong. From a technical perspective, I don't know to this day what happened, but the effect was that the message was gone and could not be retrieved, either from the sanctuary computer or my tablet. So during Sunday School I had to scramble to re-create the sermon from memory, and preach without PowerPoint as a prop. Know what happened? It turned out better than it did before. I had to start over in order for the message to be what it needed to be. I had put in a lot of my own effort, but I believe God used technology problems to show me that I had to get to a point of my own emptiness and say, “Now what, God?” Then, and only then, the Spirit could flow within me.

In the second chapter of John’s gospel, we see three points of emptiness that needed to come together in order to create a miracle at the wedding of Cana. We find emptiness in the wine cups, Jesus' openness in a time that was not yet full, and the stone jars. For Jesus, emptiness is not a problem, but it is the raw material God uses to work wonders. Richard Rohr writes: 

"When we are nothing, we are in a fine position to receive everything from God. As Merton says…, our point of nothingness is 'the pure glory of God in us.' If we look at the great religious traditions, we see they all use similar words to point in the same direction. The Franciscan word is "poverty." The Carmelite word is nada or "nothingness." ...Jesus speaks of being "poor in spirit" in his very first beatitude."[i]

At Cana, the first point of emptiness was found at the bottom of the guests’ wine cups. Psalm 104:15 says that wine makes people’s hearts glad, making it clear that in this story the wine represents joy. It’s not until the people’s cups are empty that Jesus can make new wine and fill them again. In the same way, when our lives are joyless, it’s often not until we reach a point of emptiness that we are prepared to let Jesus fill us. Too often we are so full of ourselves that there’s no room for Jesus’ joy. Only when we empty ourselves of our selves can there be enough room for a miracle of gladness.

The next point of emptiness comes in Jesus’ openness in a time that was not yet full. Paul Masson’s slogan used to be, “We will sell no wine before its time.” Jesus would have had a similar slogan, but for the insistence of Mary. Verses3-4[ii] say, “The wine supply ran out during the festivities, so Jesus’ mother told him, ‘They have no more wine.’ ‘Dear woman, that’s not our problem,’ Jesus replied. ‘My time has not yet come.’” When the Bible talks about time being “full” it means an occasion when all things are ready in order for a significant event to happen. Jesus was saying that his time wasn’t full—in fact, it was empty. Yet, though He wasn’t yet ready to act, He was open to consider that there might be a bigger plan unfolding. This is why He was willing to relax His grip on His own self-determination, and empty Himself of His ego. In this emptiness, He allowed His empty heart and hands to be filled in order to do God’s will. When we make ourselves similarly open, great things can happen in our lives.

The final point of emptiness is found in the great jars that Jesus used to turn water into wine. Made of stone and used for ritual purification, these vessels represented the Old Testament Law which, in its emptiness, was unable to bring joy and fulfillment to God’s people. Yet it’s when we come to the bottom of the Law and realize that it cannot save, that’s when we recognize our need for a Savior. Without emptiness, we can’t come to the point of being ready for God to fill us. But when we allow God to replace our cold, stony religion with the living water of true faith, transformation can happen. Only emptiness can make us ready to receive this kind of miracle.

The great composer Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) lived much of his life in fear of deafness. He was concerned because he felt the sense of hearing was essential to creating music of lasting value.
When Beethoven discovered that the thing he feared most was coming rapidly upon him, he was almost frantic with anxiety. He consulted doctors and tried every possible remedy. But the deafness increased until at last all hearing was gone.
 Beethoven finally found the strength he needed to go on despite his great loss. To everyone's amazement, he wrote some of his grandest music after he became totally deaf. With all distractions shut out, melodies flooded in on him as fast as his pen could write them down. His deafness became a great asset.[iii]

I wonder, what areas of your own life feel empty right now? Do you feel drained, like the bottom of a cup where the joy is gone? Do you feel unready for the next big thing, unsure of yourself, and unwilling to step into the unknown? Have you reached the bottom of religion and found nothing but cold empty stone? Perhaps it’s just this point of emptiness that you need, in order for God to do a miracle. Hope is found in emptiness. In Genesis 1:2, we read, “The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.” First, there had to be emptiness, before God could create. If you’re at a point of emptiness, remember that God’s spirit is hovering over you still, ready to make something new. As long as you’re full of yourself, you can’t be filled by God. But when you’re empty, there’s room for God to work wonders. I pray that when you reach a point of emptiness, you’ll see it as a good thing instead of bad, and that you’ll then open your heart and hands for God to do something new.

[i] Richard Rohr's Devotion: A Point of Nothingness.  Friday, August 5, 2016.  Adapted from Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (Crossroad Publishing: 1999, 2003), 76-78.
[ii] All scriptures taken from the NLT.
[iii] Daily Walk, August 9, 1993. September 22, 2016. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you .I needed this message..feeling empty.