December 10, 2017

Series: December 2017

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Jeremiah 31:6-9a

6 For there shall be a day when sentinels will call

  in the hill country of Ephraim:

‘Come, let us go up to Zion,

  to the Lord our God.’

7 For thus says the Lord:

Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob,

  and raise shouts for the chief of the nations;

proclaim, give praise, and say,

  ‘Save, O Lord, your people,

  the remnant of Israel.’

8 See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,

  and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,

among them the blind and the lame,

  those with child and those in labour, together;

  a great company, they shall return here.

9 With weeping they shall come,

  and with consolations I will lead them back,

I will let them walk by brooks of water,

  in a straight path in which they shall not stumble;



          If I asked you to draw the most recognizable Christian symbol on the front of your bulletin, what would you draw?  In fact, go ahead and do it if you’d like.  How many of you drew the cross?  This is the symbol of the Christian faith and has been since the beginning, right?

          Well, not so fast.  There has actually been many important symbols for the Christian faith.  For example, the lamb was a key symbol of Christ early on, Jesus understood through the sacrificial system of his day, restoring right relationship with God.  In the second century Clement of Alexandria recommended the dove as a suitable image, along with a fish, a ship, a lyre, and an anchor.[1]  Could there be a better symbol for our location than an anchor?  It’s biblical, coming from Hebrews 6:19:  “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul….”  Jews that preceded Christ likely adopted the anchor as a symbol during the time of King Seleucus, who used it on currency because he had been born with a birthmark in the shape of an anchor.[2]  Christians, too, have taken others’ symbols and made them their own.  You are not surrounded by greens at Christmas because of anything Jesus said.  Much of the decor we see this season stems from pagan rituals down to the very day we chose to celebrate Jesus’ birth, December 25, birthday of the Sun God (Mithra). Even the peacock has been used by Christians to remind us of the promise of eternal life, drawing upon a legend that predated Christianity and held that the flesh of the peacock does not decay.[3]  

          From one bird to another, Celtic Christianity has long preferred the wild goose as symbol of the Holy Spirit over the more passive dove, though it’s unclear, at least to me, how that preference originated.  These lively and divers, even playful, symbols stand in stark contrast to the heavy cross, which only came into dominance when Christianity became the religion of empire, an oxymoron if you ask me.  The Emperor Constantine claims famously to have seen a vision before a battle in which he saw a cross and the words, “Conquer by this sign,” and thus he sends his soldiers into battle with crosses painted on their shields.[4]  This was then used to pressure otherwise unenthusiastic soldiers to fight.  Similarly, bloody renderings of the crucifixion only came into fashion with Constantine, and the crucifix, a display of the cross with Jesus still on it, did not arise until the 6th century.[5] 

          Aside from Christmas filling your coffers of trivia for your annual holiday party, why does any of this matter?  Because we grant symbols enormous power and they shape our behavior more than we might realize.  Think of what desecrating or even disrespecting the flag in some form of protest has incited over the years?  Or, do you remember the reaction in the 1980s when artist Andreas Serrano submerged a crucifix in urine?[6] 

In addition, we choose our symbols based on what we want to portray. Sports teams rarely use cute and cuddly mascots because they prefer to be seen, and act, ferociously.  When was the last time you donned body paint, drove across the bridge, and cheered at the top of your lungs for the Oakland Kitty Cats or the San Francisco Baby Deer (a particularly unpopular team in Belvedere)?

          What exactly does the cross connote?  Primarily, suffering, and it should.  Jesus underwent a brutal state execution intended to intimidate others from getting out of line.  In its brutality, the cross has been a helpful sign to some of Christ’s solidarity with the suffering.  I wonder, however, if it also plays out in some unhelpful ways.  Have we, at times, become confused into thinking all suffering is redemptive?  Some suffering is necessary and righteous—being jailed for standing up against an unjust law or practice, sacrificing to care for a loved one in an extreme time of need.  Some suffering, however, is simply meaningless, if not downright abusive.  What have we done if we have set up suffering as the standard for the faithful life?  You are only faithful if you are suffering. 

Today we light a candle of joy. Might joy, not fleeting happiness based on superficial things, but deep joy, might it be an important measure of our life in Christ, in God?  Jesus speaks of wanting the joy in his followers to be made complete, made full (Jn. 15:11).  Why should our religion exist to make us feel bad?  Responsible yes, bad no.  I happen to think responsibility flows from joy more freely than it does from obligation and misery.

Today’s passage from Jeremiah is replete with joy. The people have “survived the sword,” survived suffering and they are instructed, “take your tambourines and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers….”  Dance, says God, plant vineyards and enjoy the fruit (Jer. 31:2-5). 

Jeremiah prophesies that there will be a day when the people who have been scattered will be brought home. “Sing aloud with gladness,” says the prophet, “raise shouts…See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here.  With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back, I will let them walk by brooks of water” (v.8-9).  The image of this God is of the great gatherer.  God gathers them and tenderly nurtures them, leading them beside the waters, as they return weeping with joy.

It reminds me of the 23rd Psalm or the recurring biblical image of the good shepherd.  We often speak of shepherd boys, but it’s actually quite a feminine image, the shepherd gathering in, tending, providing for and protecting.  It’s fitting because, as theologian Harvey Cox reminds us, one of the two main symbols for early Christians was Christ as the “Good Shepherd.[7]”  Not Christ being torn apart on the cross, but Christ ever gathering the scattered in, guiding them, and leading them to green pastures and cool waters before returning them to the fold for the night.  The shepherd would endure the cross for the sake of the sheep, but the shepherd doesn’t exist simply to die for them; the shepherd came to care for them.  Christ didn’t come to glorify suffering.  Christ came to glorify caring, to glorify God, what God has made and what God has freely given.  Christ glorifies the protecting of what is vulnerable.

The other main symbol for Christianity was the fish.[8]  If you were unsure if another was a Christian or you weren’t sure it was safe to be overheard identifying as such, you would draw and arc in the dirt with your foot.  The other would complete the arc, forming the basic outline of a fish.  Again, Christians took a symbol widely used by Greeks, Romans and other pagans and made it their own.[9]  The Greek for fish, icthys, became an acronym, Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter (Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior). The fish, as you know, is all over the Bible, from story of the fishes and loaves to Jesus talking about people being fishers of people.

Why did it not assume dominance? Well, remember, there is power in symbols, and not everyone likes the power the fish conveys.  Among other things, the symbol of the fish carried with it from its pagan roots, a feminine connotation, because it was a pagan symbol for fertility.[10]  In the symbol itself is a representation of the woman’s reproductive organ.  Especially as the Christianity moved from being a movement to an institution, and a patriarchal one at that, such honoring of the sacred feminine was suppressed.  You can see even in Scripture that as the writings get later, farther from Jesus and the letters Paul actually wrote—which are not all the ones attributed to him—the Jesus movement started to get more conservative.  Over time, they accommodated to the norms of the empire in a way that they probably thought ensured their survival.  Sadly, some aspects of the gospel, including the clear presence of the feminine in and around Jesus as well as true Paul, were pushed down and sidelined. 

Today, part of what is being called forth in this moment in which we are again seeing the folly of patriarchy reveal itself is the rebirthing of the sacred feminine. This is not just about honoring women, though that is certainly part of it, but recognizing we all contain masculinity and femininity, individually and collectively.  Both the masculine and feminine have positive forms.  What has gone on for too long is the dominance of a perverted masculinity, a distorted one.  What is trying to emerge is righteous masculinity and a more righteous balance with righteous femininity.  Laughing at all of this, or rolling our eyes, is of course is an option, one often chosen.  This defensiveness is usually rooted in some place of insecurity, but this rebirthing is underway.  The evidence displayed by the imbalance we are witnessing all around us should ultimately be enough to encourage us to take this seriously and to get ready ourselves. 

Take out your bulletins again. I am not asking you to erase the cross, but do not be afraid to complete the picture, complement the picture.  Add a shepherd’s crook to the top, complete the arc forming the fish, and watch what happens to your faith and to ours. 

Would you pray with me,

Great gathering God, we have been taught much of your suffering and we honor the lengths to which our beloved Jesus went to show us your love even unto the cross. We yearn to open ourselves more fully as well to the reason Jesus did what he did, that we might have life and have it abundantly, that knowing full well the bitterness of the world we might learn experience the sweetness of life as well. 

Make this house of prayer one that not only dwells in the pain of the world, or engages in the endless chase to do enough or be enough, or deciding we can never rest until we, too, feel crucified. Spring up a little resurrection in us, or a birth of new life, of incarnation, You coming again and bringing the deepest of joys into this precious world.

Gather us in, we who have been separated from your joy, your love, your protection, your provision. Gather those scattered by sickness, and those who have been scattered by caring for them too.  Gather those who have been scattered by violence, large and small (there is no small), that they might be brought safely into a loving fold.  Gather those who have been scattered from fire, and help us to listen to what Mother Earth is trying to say to us.  Gather us in those who are scattered this holiday season in grief.

Give birth to a new joy in us not just on Christmas morn, but today. Why wait, God!  Today is the perfect day for such a gift.  Let us be joyful.  Let us be thankful.  Let us be reckless givers of joy to those around us and let us be receivers of that joy from others when we need it most.  We pray these things in the name of the Good Shepherd who has made us fishers of people, Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior.  Amen.





[5] Ibid.;


[7] Harvey Cox, The Future of Faith.

[8] Ibid.


[10] Ibid.