December 15, 2013 by Ken Dale
Sitting in my office Friday morning I couldn?t help but be thinking of how to understand ?space? when we think of ?sacred space.?? It was challenging, to say the least, to be in a space ? sitting at my desk but also in a space where I wondered if there we would be gathering together on Sunday morning ? the forecast was for snow Saturday night and all day Sunday ? with bad traveling conditions.? Would the sermon be delivered?? My point is how do we understand that word ?space? ? it could be a place where one is present, but it could also be a state of mind, or presence of mind, if you will.? I wondered if it is actually that presence of mind that makes the place a sacred space.? Nights I have difficulty sleeping I often get up and look up at the stars ? that too is sacred space ? looking into space and being reminded of the vastness of God?s creation is often somehow calming and peaceful — yet another experience of ?sacred? ?space.?
This sanctuary is a sacred space for me and for many.? What makes it sacred is what happens in this space.? It is a space where the holy is encountered.? It may be a time of prayer with one person sitting in the room or it may be a time of worship with a community of people gathered.? Considering ?sacred space? brings me to a very similar experience of considering ?sacred time.?? Perhaps that sacred time is what?s makes any ?space? sacred.
Our focus text this morning is the encounter between Elizabeth and Mary.? It is a wonderful story that speaks of sacred space ? sacred time ? a sacred moment.? We know from earlier in the chapter that Elizabeth bears John and Mary of course, is bearing Jesus.? Elizabeth and Zechariah, we know from early in chapter 1 of Luke, are righteous people but they had no children.? This was a disgrace for Elizabeth.? Zechariah, a priest in the order of Abijah, has a vision of the angel Gabriel who speaks to him in the temple.? But because Zechariah does not believe what he is told, his ability to speak is taken away.? He is told that they would bear a child who would be called John and who would be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth.? Zechariah does not believe this possible because of his age, and that Elizabeth also ?is getting along in years.?? Mary too has a similar vision ? equally as unbelievable ? except Mary?s response is ?Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.?
The encounter between these two expectant mothers is set in the context of God at work in and through ordinary people, such as we considered last Sunday.? And what a powerful image that John leaps in the womb!? Elizabeth says ?blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.?? And then Mary?s words that begin, ?My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God??? These are both people of faith ? who believe that God is active in this world and active in and through them and the events of their lives.
Let?s switch over to Isaiah for a bit!? The prophet brings the word of God to the people of God who are in exile and be brings a word of hope through some very powerful images.? Again ? images of God at work ? ?Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.? Say to those of a fearful heart, ?Be strong and do not fear!? Here is your God?? – all followed by ?the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped… the lame shall leap like a deer, the tongue of the speechless sing for joy??? ?the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.?
Can you imagine being held in captivity and someone sharing those words of hope ? as promise of God?? Again ? a person of faith speaking to a people of faith, who perhaps have lost faith and understandably so.? Yet that is faith ? being hopeful in times of uncertainty, trusting God to be at work, perhaps in ways that remain unseen or unknowable ? it is trusting God to be present and at work, perhaps even when God seems absent from it all.
It brings to mind Fred Buechner?s reflections in a sermon titled ?Love.?? In it he reflects on the crucified Jesus hanging on his cross crying out to God ? ?why have you forsaken me??? Yet even feeling abandoned by God, still he cries out to God.? Buechner says that Jesus is able to do so because the love he has for God is rooted ultimately in God?s love for him.? As people of faith we are no different.
So by faith ? what space cannot be sacred ? if sacred space is where we encounter the holy ? the Divine ? perhaps in a moment of solitude, perhaps in the face of another individual, perhaps in the setting of community.? But we need to be mindful of those sacred spaces that just are ? I have always found church sanctuary to be such a place and entering for many reasons.? I remember many years ago just a week before Christmas a young mother ended up in the hospital after an allergic reaction to food.? When I entered the emergency room they were transferring her to the intensive care unit and they were assisting her with breathing.? She had two small children and I remember when I got back to the church I headed for the sanctuary for prayer but I almost felt like I was heading (marching?) into God?s office to have a word with God.? Yet we also go to such places of sanctuary to be still and know that God is, to be comforted in times of sorrow, assured in times of uncertainty, in search of wholeness in times of brokenness.
It is faith ? and that state of being in God?s presence ? that makes any space sacred.? I cannot help but close with what I found quite challenging to my longstanding inner-battle between the secular and the sacred at Christmas.? It comes from Quinn Caldwell?s Still-Speaking devotional yesterday.? He speaks of how ministers spend a lot of time struggling against the culture?s consumerist interpretation of Christmas.? But then wonders if we go too far and raises the question of the possibility of God co-opting the cultures co-optation of the day of Christ?s birth.? He concludes God may actually approve (and work with) Christmas things that may have nothing to do with the birth of Christ.? His list included:? Elvis? Christmas Album that makes the whole family ?sing together while performing a complex operation involving a saw, a tree, a small living room, electricity. and water without killing each other, it?s holy.?? He also concludes that while shopping can get out of hand, searching for a great gift to make someone happy can be a profound experience.? That one really hit home for me ? as much as I may dislike shopping, I love the giving part of it all.? He reminds us that Christmas cards, which may also get out of hand, do help us keep in touch and help the lonely feel connected.
Sacred space indeed.? It is that space, wherever and whatever it may be? in which we encounter God?s Spirit and are open to that Spirit to be at work.? May Quinn Caldwell?s prayer also be our prayer as we draw ever closer to the sacred space that is Christmas:
God, you can make anything holy. Bless my celebrations when they increase my love, make me generous, or open me to your world. If they do the opposite, make them go the way of last year’s fruitcake.