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He is coming, but who is he and what difference does it make that he is coming? We are promised someone will lead the way, to bring us back to the original source of our hope. This is the advent promise. It is nothing new. Actually many of you hear it every year. It is the treasure that has been forgotten in our busy lives, it is the story that returns once again to grant us hope of salvation. Over the year we have distorted our lives with things that have no permanence and are reminded by the birth of a little child the announcement that there is something greater for our lives. It will burn away what is not pure and will scrub away the things that obscure our view of what we are supposed to be. Jesus will be the messenger that brings us back to what we already knew, to remind us that the hopes and fears of all our years are met in him.
I had only just left the fundamentalist background of my childhood when I became a member of the First Presbyterian Church in Lincoln, Nebraska. A friendship with the young adults minister had blossomed and I was asked to take a mission trip with him to Russia. I was honored and raised the money through the support of my new church.
This World Council of Churches group was to be a part of an ecumenical team that would stay at an orthodox monastery that had been given back to the Russian Orthodox Church after the fall of the Soviet Union. The 500-year-old Iverski monastery was uniquely located on an island and had once been a great monastery in Russia. During the Soviet era it had been turned into a hotel. So, it was understandable that the 5 hermits that populated this place needed some help in their first few years of occupation.
Our summer was mainly filled with innocuous jobs like weeding cemeteries and gardens, chopping wood for winter and clearing an ancient bell tower that had been struck by lightening. The rustic conditions were matched by the living conditions. Even in July and August it was quite chilly, we slept in cells and I was in the hallway on a wooden floor. For food we ate a daily ration of lentils and drank water straight from the lake in which we bathed. It was one of those experiences romantic for a young man and not so much the older one gets.
One of the most amazing parts of our time at Iverski was the time we spent around the artists that were restoring the crumbling 500-year-old paintings inside the cathedral at the monasteries center. These frescoes had been neglected over time and flaked away from the concrete walls and copula domes. The ones that could be seen were a merely faint impression of the amazing work that someone had invested in this holy place years before. Some even bore the indignity of etched graffiti. Each day the painters would enter the cathedral and climb intricate scaffolding that had been erected around the walls and snaked their way up into the five copulas. These scaffolds obscured the view heavenward and when one entered the church the work of the painters could be heard hidden far above.
We had begged and cajoled them to take us up on the scaffolding, but had been sternly denied. That was until our last week at the monastery. That was when the painters decided to grant us access to their heavenly realm. I must admit that this was quite a feat for someone like me who is terrified of heights. After climbing up the first rickety ladder the rest of the scaffold was an ascending ramp that seemed to wound around the circumference of the church forever. Finally we made it to our destination, the top of the apse.
As we neared the area that the painters were working I squinted my eyes in the low lighting to see the work that had been created on the wall. As I looked closely I could see the swirling strokes and lines of black paint and a murky figure began to appear. These chaotic swirls were not a completed painting but the beginning form of something that would eventually be worked and worked until it had the form, depth, color and perspective of a fresco. Next to completed works of angels this imposing figure looked eerie and apparition like. After staring at this figure for what seemed like 10 minutes I realized that I was looking at Jesus. They were working on the central figure of Jesus. Then when I looked at the swirls long enough I could almost imagine what the completed picture would look like when done. Jesus was emerging from the initial strokes and brushes of an artist into a complete form inside my mind.
We find ourselves in a similar place again. We are much like that church, with ancient worn paintings of stories that are vaguely familiar hidden deep within us. Yet, Malachi reminds us that the messenger is already at work, with strokes and marks on our lives that will culminate with the story. If we stare at the marks and strokes long enough we will be able to recognize a familiar and astounding form. It is the incarnation, the God walks amongst us. It is the only story that matters or that can change everything in our lives. So, we are one more day, one more step closer to remembering our purpose here on earth. Keep looking at the story and it will continue to form into something that can completely transform your life.
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