Just like the Prophets

Psalm 15:1-2 1 God, who may dwell in your tabernacle? who may abide upon your holy hill? Whoever leads a blameless life and does what is right, who speaks the truth from [their] heart.

Introduction

Did you know that the Sermon on the Mount was probably given in the hills?[1] I mention this little detail because there are texts and stories, teachings and preachings that we’re very familiar with, so familiar that we are prone to pay them less attention. We take them for granted and lock them in some form in our memory. We are familiar with the tonality and the cadence of the textual rhythm. We can recite some of them from memory. We may be more familiar with some over others; we may even know the blessed statements show up altered in other gospels. Maybe it’s time we did what Jesus’s disciples did: follow Jesus and sit with this divine Rabbi, [2] listening (again) to these words meant for those who follow Jesus out of the river Jordan, even those of us who sit here these many years later. As we do, may we come into an encounter with the love and passion of God anew, for God’s Word seeks to awaken us from our slumber, provoke to animation calcified hearts, invigorate sluggish souls and exhausted minds, graft us into God’s mission on the earth,[3] and to place us into the great prophetic tradition of God’s representatives bringing God’s love and life and liberation to the captives.[4]

Matthew 5:1-12

Before beginning our dive into the statements, I want to address a little, teensy-weensy textual thing: the word, markarioi is fairly hard to render into English. The complication comes in that “‘Macarisms’ are essentially commendations, congratulations, statements to the effect that a person is in a good situation, sometimes even expressions of envy.”[5] This isn’t “blessed by God”,[6] but “happy”. They are happy who… However, this is misleading in our context because it is not as if the person is happy but that they find themselves in a happy place demanding envy from others.[7] In short, these statements are not merely colloquialisms about happy go lucky, but describe and commend the good life,[8] and not the good life or an ethic for back then but even now, for us.[9] To be envied is to do and be like this…

To be envied are the beggars for the Spirit, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.[10]

The “poor in spirit” are not those who lack God or have weak character. Rather, these are the ones claimed by God but poor, those held captive by oppression, those refused the material liberation of God. [11] These people know their need for God, cry out to God, call on God, and take God as God. It is these who have the kingdom of God because they are with God[12] and loved by God and in this love the kingdom is now and to come.[13]

To be envied are the ones who mourn, because they, they will be comforted.

Like those before who are “poor in spirit” and those who follow (the meek and those who hunger and thirst), those who mourn have comfort in that they are those who are with God because God is in our suffering.[14] And in being with God, having God’s life and love there is the possibility that this heavy grief will not always be so, that there is more to this material existence than what can be seen and touched right now.[15]

To be envied are the meek, because they, they will inherit the earth.

Meekness here harkens back to “poor in spirit”, these are the ones who love their neighbor as themselves, serving the neighbor in their freedom, feeling compassion and sympathy for the plight of their neighbor. The meek live among the sufferers in this life and make it their aim to alleviate that suffering, to bring God close.[16] For these meek ones are servants of all, live by the law of love for their neighbor before God, and are the ones who inherit the earth at the expense of those claiming the earth for themselves now at the expense of their neighbor.

To be envied are the ones who hunger and thirst for righteousness, because they, they will be satisfied.

Those who are hungry are hungry for justice, those who are thirsty are thirsty for righteousness; and this hunger and thirst fuels the embers of the fires of God’s love and justice.[17] These are the ones who desire earnestly (2x!) to live into the calling of God on their lives made known through their baptism and faith in God, and to participate in God’s mission of love, liberation, and life in the world. These are they who step into the responsibility of representing God in the world and eliminating alienation and isolation.[18] By this activity they satisfy their hunger and thirst for justice and righteousness come.

To be envied are the merciful, because they, they will be shown mercy.

Just like those who judge will be judged and those who forgive will be forgiven, those who show mercy will be shown mercy. In other words, those who are merciful are those who offer grace to other fellow humans trying to get from point A to point B, those who share in the pain in the world and celebrate the joy, those who are willing to let go of societal standards of “an eye for an eye”.[19]

To be envied are the pure in heart, because they, they will see God.”

This is less about being sinless and more about being declared pure apart from your material and social circumstances that would render you “unclean” for lack of “outward purity”.[20] Godliness is about one’s trust and faith in and love of God made most manifest in love of one’s neighbor; it’s not about being ritualistically clean and upright thus removed from being able to love one’s neighbor no matter what.

To be envied are the peacemakers, because they, they will be called children of God.”

Those born of God are born of love, of life, of peace. Thus, the peacemakers are not those who merely present a peaceful demeanor in the world, benefitting only themselves. These are they who “make peace” by causing reconciliation where there is estrangement, reuniting others, and letting love do what love does: turn the enemy into the beloved.[21]

To be envied are the ones who are persecuted on account of righteousness, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs. You are to be envied whenever people revile you both persecute you and say all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be fully of joy, because your reward is great in the heavens, for in this way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Of interest here are those who are blessed because they are persecuted and not only because they’re upright, but upright specifically related to following Jesus.[22] It’s not a lifestyle that is good, but one that adheres to the authority and principles of Jesus; this is the reason for the persecution. In adhering to the radical demands of Christ by pursuing justice, peace, mercy, and love in the world,[23] the disciples will end up challenging the self-conceptions of others who live according to the world[24] and persecution will follow. Then Jesus does something at the end of the text, according to Matthew, he draws a correlation between those who do his will with the prophets. Those who follow Jesus and do as he did are grafted into the great line of prophets, those who declare God’s kingdom come, those who advocate for the sufferers and oppressed are those who share in the great prophetic tradition and participate in the prophetic voice.[25]

Conclusion

Beloved, the “sermon among the hills” is the foundation of our ethical activity in the world. Loved by the radical God of Love made known to us in Christ, we love radically like God, risking our creaturely comforts and daring to stand out[26] we bring and declare this love into the world.[27] We’re called by and in faith to be born anew into a new life defined by God’s will and desire to seek and save the lost, to liberate the captives, to bring good news to the poor and destitute, those struggling to live and exist. We are created anew to be God’s representatives in the name of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit in the world. We are to feel our discontentment with the world because God is discontent with the way the world is for God’s beloved.[28] We’re to press into God by pressing into the plight of our brothers and sisters, in this the light breaks through the darkness, hope defeats hopelessness,[29] and love births life.[30]

The following is taken from Ernesto Cardenal’s poem, “Coplas on the death of Merton”,[31]

Love, love above all, an anticipation
of death
            There was a taste of death in the kisses
                        being
                                    is being
                                                in another being
            we exist only in love
But in this life we love only briefly
and feebly
            We love or exist only when we stop being
when we die
            nakedness of the whole being in order to make love
                                    make love not war
                        that go to empty into the love
                        that is life


[1] RT France, in his commentary, makes the compelling case that the location where Jesus sits and teaches his disciples in this pericope are “hills” rather than a mountain (which is the technical translation of to oros). France uses the corresponding text in the gospel of Luke which describes Jesus as going down to this location…

[2] R. T. France The Gospel of Matthew The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Gen. Ed Joel B. Green. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007. 157-158.

[3] Anna Case-Winters Matthew Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2015. 71-72. “The Sermon on the Mount, in its clarion call to a radically different way of life, does unmask the sinfulness of the life we now live—turned in on ourselves as we are. Indeed, it makes our need for God’s grace very clear, but the message also moves and motivates us toward the higher righteousness to which Jesus calls us. It does so not by giving a set of prescriptions to be followed in a legalistic manner but rather examples of life oriented by the love of God and neighbor.”

[4] Cardenal, Solentiname, 89-90. “WILLIAM: ‘And Jesus compares us with the prophets. The prophets in the Bible were not so much people who predicted the future as people who denounced the present. They were protesting against the celebrations in the palaces, the cheating on the weights and the coins, the things that they bought very cheap from the labor of the poor, the swindles of widows and orphans, the abuses committed by the mafias of priests, the murders, the royal policy that they called prostitution, the dependence on foreign imperialisms. And it’s true they also predicted something for the future-the liberation of the oppressed. Christ says that our fate has to be like the fate of those prophets.’”

[5] France, Matthew, 160-161.

[6] France, Matthew, 160-161. The Hebrew equivalent of Makarios is asre rather than the more theologically loaded baruk, ‘blessed (by God).’ The traditional English rendering ‘blessed’ thus also has too theological a connotation in modern usage; the Greek term for ‘blessed (by God)’ is eulogetos, not makarios.

[7] France, Matthew, 160-161. “The sense of congratulation and commendation is perhaps better convened by ‘happy,’ but this term generally has too psychological a connotation: makarios does not state that a person feels happy … but that they are in a ‘happy’ situation, one which other people ought also to wish to share.”

[8] France, Matthew, 160-161. “The Australian idiom ‘Good on yer’ is perhaps as close as any to the sense, but would not communicate in the rest of the English-speaking world!…Beatitudes are descriptions, and commendations, of the good life.”

[9] Case-Winters, Matthew, 71. “I would propose that the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount is a fitting ethic nor just for ‘the interim’ and not just tor an inner circle, but for followers of Jesus in all times and places. It has been pointed out that a new way of life is at the heart of the gospel call.”

[10] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[11] Ernesto Cardenal The Gospel in Solentiname Trans. Donald D. Walsh. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2010. 82. “I said that in the Bible the poor are often called anawim, which in Hebrew means ‘the poor of Yahweh.’ They are so called because they are the poor of the liberation of Yahweh, those that God is going to liberate by means of the Messiah. It’s like what we now understand as the ‘oppressed,’ but in the Bible those poor people are also considered to be good people, honorable, kindly and holy, while their opposites are the oppressors, the rich, the proud, the impious.”

[12] France, Matthew, 165. “‘Poverty in spirit’ is not speaking of weakness of character (‘mean-spiritedness’) but rather of a person’s relationship with God. It is a positive spiritual orientation, the converse of the arrogant self-confidence which only rides roughshod over the interests of other people but more importantly causes a person to treat God as irrelevant. To say that it is to such people that kingdom of heaven belongs means (not, of course, that they themselves hold royal authority but) that they are the ones who gladly accept God’s rule and who therefore enjoy the benefits which come to his subjects.”

[13] Cardenal, Solentiname, 83. “And OSCAR’S MOTHER: ‘It seems to me that the kingdom is love. Love in this life. And heaven is for those who love here, because God is love’”

[14] Case-Winters, Matthew, 76-77. “The first four beatitudes declare blessing for those who were traditionally understood as being defended by God: the poor, those who mourn, the meek, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, justice.”

[15] France, Matthew, 166. “For those who, as God’s people, find their current situation intolerable and incomprehensible, there are better times ahead.”

[16] France, Matthew, 166. “‘Meek,’ like ‘poor in spirit,’ speaks not only of those who are in fact disadvantaged and powerless, but also of those whose attitude is not arrogant and oppressive. The term in itself may properly be understood of their relations with other people; they are those who do not throw their weight about.”

[17] Cardenal, Solentiname, 86. “MARCELINO: ‘He blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice. Hunger and injustice amount to the same thing. Anyone who hungers for food also hungers for justice. They are the ones who are going to make social change, not the satisfied ones. And then they’ll be filled with bread and social justice.’”

[18] France, Matthew, 167-168. Dikaiosyne “It is thus better understood here not of those who wish to see God’s will prevail in the world in general or on their own behalf in particular, but of those who are eager themselves to live as God requires, those who can say, as Jesus himself is recorded as saying in John 4:34, ‘My food is to do the will of the one who me.’”

[19] France, Matthew, 168. “‘Mercy’ is closely with forgiveness, but is broader here than just the forgiveness of specific offenses: it is a generous attitude which is willing to see things from the other’s point of view and is not quick to take offense or to gloat over others’ shortcomings (the prime characteristic of love according to 1 Cor 13:4-7). Mercy sets aside society’s assumption that it is honorable to demand revenge.”

[20] France, Matthew, 168. “In the context of first-century Judaism, with its strong emphasis on ritual ‘purity’, the phrase ‘pure in heart’ might also be understood to imply a contrast with the meticulous preservation of outward purity which will be condemned in 23:25-28 as having missed the point of godliness…”

[21] France, Matthew, 169. “This beatitude goes beyond a merely peaceful disposition to an active attempt to ‘make’ peace, perhaps by seeking reconciliation with one’s own enemies, but also more generally by bringing together those who estranged from one another.”

[22] France, Matthew, 172. “A significant new note in comparison with v. 10 is that the cause of persecution is not simply ‘righteousness,’ the distinctive lifestyle of the disciples, but more specifically ‘because of me,’ a phrase which makes it clear that this discourse is not just a call to conduct but is grounded in the unique authority and radical demands of Jesus himself.”

[23] Cardenal, Solentiname, 88. “ALEJANDRO: ‘And he says that they are going to be persecuted because they seek justice, and for that also he blesses them. Because it’s clear that people who look for this kingdom have to be persecuted.”

[24] France, Matthew, 169-170. “The pursuit of ‘righteousness’ (v. 6) can arouse opposition from those whose interests or self-respect may be threatened by it. Already in the commendation of the merciful and the peacemakers these beatitudes have marked out the true disciple not as a hermit engaged in the solitary pursuit of holiness but as one engaged in society, and such engagement has its cost. As the following verses will spell out more fully, to live as subjects of the kingdom of heaven is to be set over against the rest of society which does not its values, and the result may be – indeed, the uncompromising wording of this beatitude suggests that it will be—persecution.”

[25] France, Matthew, 173. “Those who have spoken out for God have always been liable to the violent reprisal of the ungodly. In the light of that heritage, to be persecuted for the sake of Jesus is a badge of honor. The phrase ‘the prophets who came before you’ perhaps suggests that Jesus’ disciples are now the prophetic voice on earth (cf. 10:41; 23:34).”

[26] France, Matthew, 159. “The sharply paradoxical character of most of its recommendations reverses the conventional values of society—it commends those whom the world in general would dismiss as losers and wimps; compare the presentation of disciples as ‘little ones’ in 10:42; 18:6, 10.14; 25:40 (cf. the ‘little children’ of 11:25). The Beatitudes thus call on those who would be God’s people to stand out as different from those around them, and promise them that those who do so will not ultimately be the losers.”

[27] Case-Winters, Matthew, 77. “In a way the beatitudes are ‘more description than instruction;’ they are a kind of report from the other side of radical commitment for those who have entered into life within God’s community of love and justice. For those who have ‘crossed over’ there is genuine blessedness. They are living-even now-in the reign of God.”

[28] Case-Winters, Matthew, 78. “If we would-even now-live under the reign of God, there are implications. The alternative reality will chaff against the present reality. To love as God loves is to be discontented with the present reality. ‘Until the eschatological reversal takes place, it is not possible to be content with the status quo.’ In our discontent, we may pray with William Sloane Coffin, ‘Because we love the world. . . . we pray now… for grace to quarrel with it, O Thou Whose lover’s quarrel with the world is the history of the world…’”

[29] Dorothee Soelle On Earth as in Heaven: A Liberation Spirituality of Sharing Trans. Marc Batko. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1993. 50-51. “Christian hope in the tradition of the supernatural virtues, that is, of virtues poured into us by grace, is distinguished from the hope of the observer by sharing, cooperation, and participation. Chrisitan hope is hope in which I share in the production of another state. The hope of peace lives with the peacemakers and not beyond them. Participation in the struggle distinguishes this hope form the contemplative observation that is optimist once moment ad resigned the next.

[30] France, Matthew, 171-172. “Light is of no use under a bowl. It is the town conspicuously sited on hill which people notice. And the outcome of distinctive discipleship is intended to be that other people will notice and, though sometimes they may respond with cynicism and persecution, ultimately the light will have its effect and they will recognize and acknowledge the goodness of the God is its source, Disciples, therefore, must be both distinctive and involved. Neither the indistinguishably assimilated nor the inaccessible hermit will fulfill the mandate of these challenging verses.”

[31] Ernesto Cardenal Apocalypse and other poems Trans. Thomas Merton, Kenneth Rexroth, and Mireya Jaimes-Freyre. Eds. Robert Pring-Mill, Donald D. Walsh. New York, NY: New Directions Publishing, 1977. 47.

Burning Ember of Divine Fire: Resistance!

Psalm 27:8-10 Even now God lifts up my head above my enemies round about me. Therefore I will offer in God’s dwelling an oblation with sounds of great gladness; I will sing and make music to Abba God. Hearken to my voice, God, when I call; have mercy on me and answer me.

Introduction

Recently I encountered a little reminder: “Your feelings let you know that you’re alive.” My knee jerk reaction was: “Maybe I could use less knowing??” I feel so much right now. Every day seems to compound the previous one, ushering in deeper hues of the feelings from before accompanied by new ones or ones long dormant. Huh, I’ve not felt that shade of gray in a while… A lot of it revolves around being dissatisfied with the way things are, dissatisfaction threaded through with worry that this is it, this is all, this will be the new normal from now on. I know I’m not alone; I think we all carry heavy emotional burdens right now. There’s a lot to feel; and feeling the feels carries great risk. What if it is too much for me to bear and it crushes me?

It might. That’s the risk. That’s why we numb.

The urge to numb our dissatisfied inner worlds is on the rise. There are times to numb, you’ll never hear me advocate for human life sans devices helping us catch a break from the turmoil of our external and inner worlds. However, it seems that for the past three years the need to numb is more prevalent. If I’m numb I can’t feel that subtle worry settling in the marrow of my bones. If I’m numb, I can ignore the deeper shades of gray. If I’m numb, who cares if things stay the same or get better… If I’m numb, I can’t feel that dreaded dissatisfaction. I can’t feel anything in fact.

One of the marks of the living is the ability to be dissatisfied; to be dissatisfied is to disagree with death. To feel our feelings—whatever they are, even if they are painful—opens up the door to the reality that somehow and somewhere life is coming more in line with the principles of death rather than the dictates of life. To dare to feel means taking straight-on the real feeling of being truly dissatisfied. What if it is too much for me to bear and it crushes me?

It might. That’s the risk. That’s why we resist.

Isaiah 9:1-4

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness–
on them light has shined.

Isaiah’s text emanates hope completed and yet to be realized. The light has shone and his audience will see it. In a deliberate play of verbal tenses, Isaiah’s hope is visceral and tangible. You can feel Isaiah’s excitement as he proclaims these words to a downtrodden people, those trapped under mills-stone sized oppression, those stripped of their liberty and reduced to the margins of society.

Isaiah is one of the great prophets of Israel who stands between God and God’s people, representing God’s love and desire for the people and representing the people’s angst and dissatisfaction to God; the prophet is the sympathetic one, the one who identifies with God and with the people.[1] The divine pathos—the divine passion—of God for God’s people encourages Isaiah to declare to the people that their cries are heard, their tears counted, their pain felt (personally) by God. In the same breath, Isaiah is given the courage to stand and step against the death dealing characteristic of the kingdom of humanity; with divine passion, Isaiah articulates the divine no! to oppression and violence.[2] Judgment has come for those who harm God’s beloved.

Isaiah’s language fluctuates between speaking on behalf of God and for the people; this fluctuation highlights the duality of Isaiah’s existence trapped in this articulation of mutual love.[3] He carries the emotional, thundering content of divine speech into the world to ears longing for liberation like parched tongues eager for water, and then moves to articulate the depth of gratitude and praise from God’s people to God.[4] Isaiah, and all prophets who came before and follow after, are aligned to the divine concern and the human concern—they’re sympathetic to what is going on both in heaven and on earth and they are eager not only to speak God’s loving and liberative reign but also to act cooperatively against human tyranny.[5]

This human tyranny, for Isaiah, works against the livelihood of God’s people, restricts thriving to an elite few, submerges feeble and weak human bodies deep into the waters of misery, injustice, and alienation; and, for Isaiah, this isn’t acceptable. In sympathy with the people and with God, Isaiah is committed to pronouncing the judgment of God[6] on those who oppress God’s people, and is empowered to proclaim a better way to live in the world and to communicate a strength to respond to the dissatisfaction of the way things are.[7]

For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.

Isaiah, in this brief section, articulates the longed-for liberation of the people. Their yoke (of oppression) that stretches across their shoulders is broken. This is not merely a spiritual thing that Isaiah articulates, it’s not as if God’s people are burdened by the violence and condemnation of structures wired against them but they aren’t really; it is this way and the response is to ask God to break the rod of the oppressor and to rid themselves of this yoke. But it’s not about Israel rolling over and waiting for God to show up; God is with them, the prophet represents this fact. Isaiah wakes the people out of slumbering numbness and asks them to look and see their plight. They are in darkness; they need light. They are yoked; they need liberation. “THIS IS NOT NORMAL!” Isaiah Thunders! He joins them up into God’s love for them, the beloved, and exhorts them to feel what has too long been buried and trapped, refused for fear.

Life demands feeling even the very worst of emotions, so Israel can live in a way that resists death. For death is not just of the body, it can happen before, as they walk around and go through their days. Israel must be summoned into their plight, to feel it, to remember they are alive…even if it might be too much for them to bear, even if it might crush them. Because…

It might. That’s the risk. That’s why they resist.

Conclusion

You [God] have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.

To wake up, to feel one’s dismay, to be dissatisfied with things as they are is the deep calling to deep, it’s the divine summons to take up the cross and follow, it’s the loss of self that’s the gaining of self, it’s being alive. Ultimately, it’s the beginning of our resistance to that which is dead set on stealing our life and refusing our liberation to be fully thriving human beings. To be dissatisfied with the way things are is the burning ember that becomes the divine fire of love that is resistance against death on behalf of life. To resist death, we must live; we must risk the vulnerability of being human and fleshy, thinking and feeling creatures and live…even now, even when things are gray and bleak, midwinter humdrum. We must respond to Isaiah’s summons and wake up and look around, and be on our guard against slipping back into hibernation. We must remember that the God whom we encounter in Christ by the power of the Holy spirit is, to quote Dorothee Sölle and her husband Fulbert Steffensky, the very God who

“…stands on the side of life and especially on the side of those to whom life in its wholeness is denied and who do not reach the point of real living. God is not on the side of the rulers, the powerful, the rich, the affluent, the victorious. God takes sides with those who need him. He sides with the victims.”[8]

As those who are positioned to follow Jesus out of the Jordan, we are exhorted through Isaiah’s words to live and not just barely. We’re exhorted to live as those who have seen a great light, those who have reason to rejoice, to celebrate, to live tremendously, to live fully, to fiesta,[9] to have joy, so that we can mock, resist, and refuse death and destruction its façade of power over us. We are exhorted to join in life’s great songs against death; we are called to identify and sing with those who suffer more than we do.[10] In life’s desire to live we must advocate and raise our voices in celebration of life—for our neighbors and siblings, thus for ourselves—to remind death we’re still alive, dissatisfied as hell but still very much alive.


[1] Abraham K Heschel The Prophets New York, NY: JPS 1962. 308. “In contrast to the Stoic sage who is a homo apathetikos, the prophet may be characterized as a homo sympathetikos. For the phenomenology of religion the prophet represents a type sui generis.”

[2] Heschel, The Prophets, 308. “The pathos of God is upon him. It breaks out in him like a storm in the soul, overwhelming his inner life, his thoughts, feelings, wishes, and hopes. It takes possession of his heart and mind, giving him the courage to act against the world.”

[3] Heschel, The Prophets, 308-309. “The words of the prophet are often like thunder; they sound as if he were in a state of hysteria. But what appears to us as wild emotionalism must seem like restraint to him who has to convey the emotion of the Almighty in the feeble language of man. His sympathy is an overflow of powerful emotion which comes in response to what he sensed in divinity. For the only way to intuit a feeling is to feel it. One cannot have a merely intellectual awareness of a concrete suffering or pleasure, for intellect as such is merely the tracing of relations, and a feeling is no mere relational pattern.”

[4] Heschel, The Prophets, 309-310. “´It is such intense sympathy or emotional identification with the divine pathos that may explain the shifting from the third to the first person in the prophetic utterances. A prophecy that starts out speaking of God in the third person turns into God speaking in the first person. Conversely, a prophecy starting with God speaking in the first person turns into a declaration of the prophet speaking about God in the third person.”

[5] Heschel, The Prophets, 309. “The unique feature of religious sympathy is not self-conquest, but self-dedication; not the suppression of emotion, but its redirection; not silent subordination, but active co-operation with God; not love which aspires to the Being of God in Himself, but harmony of the soul with the concern of God. To be a prophet means to identify one’s concern with the concern.”

[6] Heschel, The Prophets, 171. “No one seems to question her invincibility except Isaiah, who foresees the doom of the oppressor, the collapse of the monster.”

[7] Heschel, The Prophets, 309. “Sympathy, however, is not an end in itself. Nothing is further from the prophetic mind than to inculcate or to live out a life of feeling, a religion of sentimentality. Not mere feeling but actin will mitigate the world’s misery, society’s injustice or the people’s alienation from God. Only action will relieve the tension between God and man. Both pathos and sympathy are, from the perspective of the total situation, demands rather than fulfullments. Prophetic sympathy is no delight; unlike ecstasy, it is not a goal, but a sense of challenge, a commitment, a state of tension, consternation, and dismay.”

[8] Dorothee Sölle and Fulbert Steffensky Not Just Yes & Amen: Christians with a Cause. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1985. p. 82

[9] Ada Maria Isazi-Diaz Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996. p. 131.

[10] I’m influenced here by the work of The Rev. Dr. James H. Cone in The Spiritual & The Blues. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1972. p. 130. “Whatever form black music takes it is always an expression of black life in America and what the people must do to survive with a measure of dignity in a society which seems bent on destroying their right to be human beings. The fact that black people keep making music means that we as a people refuse to be destroyed. We refuse to allow the people who oppress us to have the last word about our humanity. The last word belongs to us and music is our way of saying it. Contrary to popular opinion, therefore, the spirituals and the blues are not songs of despair or of a defeated people. On the contrary, they are songs which represent one of the great triumphs of the human spirit.”

Courage to Retrieve the Beloved

The following is the text of my short offering during a service last night (1/14/23) in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. at American Lutheran Church, Grand Junction:

It was a beautiful Mother’s Day. We gathered the kids, an aunt and uncle, and headed out to celebrate the day. Our destination was Miracle Rock (aka Potato Rock). We reached the stunning geography, admired the rock, and decided to mill about, and let the toddler down from her hiking-backpack. For what 18-month-olds lack in fine motor skill they make up in large motor function; my daughter could run. And she did. She was! In moments, a blink of an eye, with no warning, she bolted out of reach before we knew what was happening. Her new-found freedom provoked her confidence and, to her, the entire world spread out and needed to be suddenly investigated. But what she couldn’t see, her parents did: the edge. We called her. She didn’t stop. We started to run after her but she was too far ahead of us; we wouldn’t make it in time. Plus, wouldn’t chasing her become a game? No way to catch her as the deadly horizon drew closer. Desperation kicked in; reality fell like a heavy blanket. Out of options! With what felt like seconds left to change her trajectory, to interrupt her path, I waved off my husband and did the only thing I could do in that moment. I gathered up every ounce of strength I had, and I hollered: “LIZA! STOP!” so loud every muscle flexed, and I sent myself backward. But she stopped. Mom-voice hopped up on the steroids of love and life, she stopped. Mid stride, feet from the edge, she collapsed into a ball on the ground and wept. My husband was closer than I was and able to retrieve our weeping mass of baby; she was safe.

Love sounds her maternal yawp against looming destruction, life fights back the tentacles of death.

There’s a confession embedded in the theme of today’s service; the exhortation to develop courage means we must reckon with the fact that if we had courage we lost it. Where did our courage go? Maybe its buried under lethargy; everything feels so exhausting right now. Maybe our courage is gagged by forgetfulness; we move on faster and faster from traumatic events (because terror is becoming normal). Maybe our courage is trapped under fear; there’s no assurance and security right now (sending three kids off to school 5 days a week, my one prayer is please bring them home to me tonight). Maybe our courage is confused; disoriented behind weaponized walls of cis-het whiteness, patriarchy, and Christian nationalism. Or maybe our courage has atrophied; malnourished by lacking creative and curious activity, starving for hope and mercy. Whatever the reason, we must confess we do not have more courage than we did nearly three years ago and whatever we had then is now gone. The world is not better, it is not safer, it is not more alive.

Love sounds her maternal yawp against looming destruction, life fights back the tentacles of death.

While we stand in a very vulnerable place, aware of our lack, there is good news. It’s here, in the fleshiness of our confession where we’re beckoned by love’s voice into the arms of life out of the threat of destruction and out of the grip of death. These two need be our despotic rulers no more; because here in this meeting in the vulnerability of confession, clutched by love and life we are reconciled with our courage to resist their tyranny. Courage is not mustered up from the isolation of ourselves by ourselves, it cannot come to the surface if we continue to turn more and more in on ourselves by ourselves. Rather, it is born (again) in our triune comingling with life and love; because, in our individual confessions we see and hear that we are not alone, we stand in and with a great crowd of other witnesses. Consumed by the divine spirit of life and love we are invited to start again not alone but together. We are exhorted to take hold of our courage again, together. Here, with each other, we begin again, we begin anew. Here, with each other, we are emboldened to stand up however we can, reanimated with verve and vigor. Here, together(!) we are resurrected out of lethargy, out of fear, out of forgetfulness, into love’s land of daring curiosity and life’s audacious creativity; repowered to dream dreams, to have visions of possible impossibilities, to imagine the creation of better worlds marked by liberation and justice for all. Here we find what was lost: ourselves, each other, and our voices. And if we find these, we find courage abundant because we are a force to be reckoned with together.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, in his Sermon “Paul’s Letter to American Christians,” said,

“The greatest of all virtues is love.…In a world depending on force, coercive tyranny, and bloody violence, [we] are challenged to follow the way of love. [We] will then discover that unarmed love is the most powerful force in all the world.”[1]

Here, together, in the word of love and life we are given the potent and visceral force and strength (the courage!) to sound our maternal yawp against looming destruction, to actively join in life’s fight against the tentacles of death to retrieve the beloved (our siblings and ourselves) from the tentacles of death.


[1] The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Paul’s Letter to American Christians” Strength to Love Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2010. 153.

Solidarity to Love and Liberate

Psalm 29:10-11 God sits enthroned above the flood; God sits enthroned as Creator for evermore. God shall give strength to God’s people; God shall give God’s people the blessing of peace.

Introduction

Coming off of abundant spontaneous good will and festivity of the Thanksgiving-to-New Years season can be a letdown, a big one. So, in the gray of January we find ourselves seemingly dropped off at the curb in the wind and ice of winter. Lights are still up for now…but they will slowly come down over the next few weeks. Brightly lit trees will go the way of compost. The beautiful candles of our Jewish siblings celebrating their sacred festival of lights have long been blown out. Presents have ceased to come in; Christmas cards, too…even the late ones… *clears throat. School’s looming return draws nigh, work summons us return, and the “normal” grind resumes.

(In fact, we all know that depression and self-harm surges during this time after the holiday season. If you’re feeling that dip, that dark cloud, that existential sadness, please know you, beloved, are not alone; please reach out and ask for help. The cheer might have died down, but love for you has not died down in the least.)

So, in the midst of packing up the remnants of celebration we need something to divert our attention. Some good news. We need something that transcends our limitedness of time and place, something that is independent of our calendar, something that is outside of us, something that can call us to look out, away from ourselves, and wonder…We need something or someone who stands with us even when it feels like everything has just left us…

Matthew 3:13-17

But John was obstinately preventing him saying, “I, I have the need to be baptized by you, and you, you come to me?” And answering, Jesus said to him, “You permit this moment, for in this way it is right for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then [John] permits him. And after being baptized, Jesus at once came up from the water and, behold, the heavens were being opened for him, and he saw the spirit of God descending as if it were a dove and coming upon him…[1]

Mt 3:14-16

Here, Matthew invites us to look upon Jesus’s baptism by John in the River Jordan. Matthew’s account focuses less on the scene surrounding the baptism, and more on the interaction between Jesus and God in this moment of solidarity with humankind.[2] Jesus traveled from Galilee to/toward (πρὸς) John who is waist deep in the Jordan baptizing people to wash them of their sin. In other words, Jesus doesn’t stumble upon John, his buddy, his relative, and think he’ll just pop into the Jordan real quick for a little visit and, heck, why not get baptized, too. This is an intentional journey, a divine intentional journey.

Thus why John is both surprised and resistant to Jesus showing up and getting baptized. Even though John opened up the idea of baptism to incorporate everyone (lay and leader alike),[3] he didn’t intend to open it up this much. This doesn’t make sense, Cuz, we both know you aren’t like the rest who come to me, you are the not-so-regular one! John’s resistance makes sense and is, from our perspective, theologically accurate: I, John, have the need to be baptized by you! John knows who Jesus is; but Jesus knows that his solidarity with humanity[4] necessitates participating in this moment, this event, this encounter with God in humility and dependence. This is why Jesus commands[5] John to allow it: it is necessary and right and good so to do.[6] For this righteousness that must be fulfilled is the very will of God—it is divine vindication of the oppressed, it is deliverance for the captives, it is salvation for the dying,[7] and it’s for God’s people.[8] The one who stands before John is the representative of the people.[9] Jesus is thoroughly of the people for the people; and this is part of the mission of divine love in the world born those many years ago in a meager cave among animals and shepherds.

But Matthew doesn’t stop with the solidarity of Jesus with humanity. There is one more move up his story-telling sleeve: Jesus is also the human in solidarity with God. As soon as Jesus came up from the water, the heavens tore open making way for the descent[10] of God’s spirit as if it were a dove. Once again, a dove is sent out over the waters to find a place to land, and it lands; this time, though, it lands not on some long unseen tree-branch rising from the departing waters, but on the long promised shoot from the stump of Jesse parting the waters.[11] And in this moment, God speaks, And behold a voice out of the heavens saying, “this is my beloved son, in him I am well-pleased.” Make no doubt about it, those who were merely bystanders partially wet, hanging out in the Jordan on that day, were ushered in as witnesses to Jesus’s divine sonship; everything that happens from this moment on, is as God’s mission[12] of love in the world.[13]

Conclusion

Just like on Christmas, we are invited again to come and see. This time our location is not a cave, but in the water; it is not among animals and shepherds but a host of other “regular” people ushered into the event. And we witness what was long hoped for all those years ago: God in solidarity with humanity, humanity in solidarity with God. We are beckoned to come and see and witness this great moment pointing to what will come when Jesus will (once again) stand in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, the captives and those sentenced to death.[14]

Remember, on Christmas Eve, I said:

“That night, as Mary labored, a new story was born and with it hope. That night, as Joseph sought the midwife, a new story was born and with it, peace. That night, when the shepherds arrived, a new story was born, and with it, joy. Because—on that night—Love showed up and changed everything forever.”[15]

In this moment, told to us by a voice located in ages past, we are reminded love didn’t just show up once; it kept showing up. God’s relentless mission of divine love in the world didn’t end when the curtains closed on Mary, Joseph, Jesus, and the shepherds and animals. It kept going, it kept growing, and now it stands in the River Jordan baptized by John to demonstrate that God’s righteousness is made full not only through incarnation but through deep, deep solidarity with humanity, and it won’t stop not even in the face of death.

As soon as Jesus leaves the Jordan the divine mission of hope, of peace, of joy, and of love is on the move and nothing will ever be the same again.

Come and see the one baptized as you are, Beloved. Come and see a new story on the move. Come and see a better way to live.[16] Come and see divine love do the only thing it knows to do: love and liberate the captives, to love and stand with you and never ever forsake you.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[2] R. T. France The Gospel of Matthew The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Gen. Ed Joel B. Green. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007. 118. “But for Matthew the importance of the event is not in the baptism itself, but in the revelation which follows it, which culminates in the declaration that Jesus is God’s unique Son, a theological position which has been assumed in 2:15 but is now brought into the open.”

[3] Case-Winters Matthew, 51. “In extending this practice to everyone, John is in effect declaring that everyone stands in need of conversion, signaling their repentance and turning to God. Even the religious leaders stood in need of baptism.”

[4] Anna Case-Winters Matthew Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2015. 50. “One way we might understand Jesus presenting himself for baptism is as a sign of his solidarity with sinners. In this context, ‘to fulfill all righteousness’ is to be with God’s people, stand in their place, share in their penitence, live their life, die their death.”

[5] ἂφες aorist active imperative 2nd person singular (verb). Jesus is telling John to let it happen.

[6] France, Matthew, 119. “The substance of Jesus’ reply is clear enough: John is to overcome his scruples and carry out the baptism requested. Whatever may be their ultimate relationship, this is the right course ‘for now,’ and Jesus will be, now as throughout the gospel, perfectly obedient to the will of God. But the explanation given does not spell out why this is ‘the right way for us to fulfill all that is required of us.’”

[7] Case-Winters Matthew, 50. “We might also inquire into the meaning of ‘righteousness.’ In the Hebrew Scriptures the term (tsedaqah) is not so much about sinless perfection as it is about right relationship and the fulfilling of covenant obligations. It is about the establishment of God’s will that justice should prevail everywhere. God’s righteousness is connected with ‘vindication,’ ‘deliverance,’ and ‘salvation’ (tsedaqah is alternately translated by these terms). God’s righteousness is seen in God’s special regard for those who are powerless or oppressed and stand in need of justice.”

[8] France, Matthew, 119. “The usage of dikaiosyně (which I have translated ‘what is required’) elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel indicates a basic meaning of the conduct which God expects of his people.”

[9] France, Matthew, 120. “The most obvious way in which Jesus’ baptism prepares for his mission is by indicating his solidarity with John’s call to repentance in view of the arrival of God’s kingship. By first identifying with John’s proclamation Jesus lays the foundation for his own mission to take on where John has left off. Further, as Jesus is baptized along with others at the Jordan, he is identified with all those who by accepting John’s baptism have declared their desire for a new beginning with God.”

[10] France, Matthew, 121. “Isa 63:19 (EVV 64:1) asks God to tear (LXX anoigō, as here) the heavens and come down to redeem his people. The opening of heaven is the prelude to the divine communication which follows and especially to the visible descent of the Spirit.”

[11] France, Matthew, 122.

[12] Case-Winters Matthew, 51. “Just as God’s Spirit was at work in Jesus’ conception (Matt. 1:18) and now in his baptism (3:16), so the Spirit will lead him throughout his ministry. The first stop is the wilderness into which Jesus is ‘led up by the Spirit.’”

[13] France, Matthew, 124. “[God] is declaring in richly allusive words that this man who has just been baptized by John is his own Son in whom he delights. From this point on Matthew’s readers have no excuse for failing to understand the significance of Jesus’ ministry, however long it may take the actors in the story to reach the same Christological conclusion (14:33; 16:16; 26:63-64). It will be this crucial revelation of who Jesus is which will immediately form the basis of the initial testing which Jesus is called to undergo in 4:1-11: ‘If you are the Son of God…’ (4:3, 6). And there, as in the account of the baptism, Jesus’ sonship will be revealed in his obedience to his Father’s will.”

[14] W. Travis McMaken Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth. Emerging Scholars. Minneapolis, MN: 2013. 227 “…Jesus’ submission to baptism by John was not only expression of solidarity with sinful humanity. It was also a substitutionary event wherein Jesus acted in the place of sinful humanity… In submitting to John’s baptism of repentance in view of impending eschatological judgment, Jesus Christ not only acted with but also as sinful humanity, displacing that humanity and enacting the repentance required of it. He was baptized in our place. But Jesus’ baptism was not merely the first step on a road that would lead to a substitutionary work on the cross’ rather, it was itself a substitutionary act that with his work on the cross constitutes Jesus Christ’s saving history….In a way, Jesus’ baptism by John and the following descent of Spirit is a prolepsis of the whole saving history of Jesus Christ—and perhaps especially of his death resurrection and sending of the Spirit—that stands at the beginning of his actively messianic ministry.”

[15] https://laurenrelarkin.com/2022/12/24/love-changed-everything/

[16] Ref. to Helmut Gollwitzer’s sermon “Reason at Last, of Another Kind” from The Way to Life: Sermons in a time of World Crisis. Trans. David Cairns. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981.

Love Changed Everything

[1]Psalm 96: 11-13 Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad; let the sea thunder and all that is in it; let the field be joyful and all that is therein.

A New Hope

Mary was very pregnant that night. She probably looked as she felt…exhausted. As far along as she was, everything ached. I imagine her deep and profound desire to lie down and rest. There wasn’t anything special emanating from her. She was just another pregnant person. How many other pregnant people were seen that night? How many other babies were born that night? How many children born before this one? No one in Bethlehem felt the urgency to make sure she was well cared for; no one had the time or the space to make room for her. That night, there wasn’t anything to be done but to offer up some meager space among dirty animals, trampled hay, and dirt, in crisp air of a Bethlehem night. Is this all there is for me and my baby? Exhausted eyes survey the meager estate. Nascent maternal guilt blossoms in hope’s absence, mom whispers her first I’m sorry to her enwombed beloved. I wish I could give you more

When the contractions started, Mary gave herself over to them; she had no choice, she was now in service to life. As she labored on earth, the host of heaven was still. The entirety of the divine residence of angels and archangels watched with bated breath as this woman did a regular thing: bear her first child, a son… But what the host of heaven knew was this: this regular body and this regular act of birth were bringing for this not-so-regular child…the son of God, the prince of peace, the one of ancient of days, the humble judge, the embodiment of divine love, and a new story for the world. For this child, heaven held its breath as Mary brought him forth out of darkness into light so he would be the light going into the darkness, the word piercing the silence, the divine reply to ages of human longing stuck in sorrow, pain, suffering, and captivity, those who cried out through clenched teeth and broken hearts: is there something more? Is there something better than this!? Those too exhausted to hope.

God chose this body and this regularity of being born to enter the world and identify with the depth of the pain of the human predicament. God could’ve shown up and skipped this banal and regular step; God could have come in glory and not in precarious vulnerability. However, God chose not to skip it but to embrace it, to experience it, to identify with God’s beloved from the beginning of life unto the end. It is this divine child born of Mary, this one who is God of very God, who will stand in solidarity with humanity and change the trajectory of everything with a new Word.

That night, as Mary labored, a new story was born and with it, hope.

A New Peace

Mary wasn’t alone that night, walking steadily into that event, one step at a time. Joseph was with her. This regular guy was going about his regular life before God intervened and shuffled everything. Now he was moving along with Mary, the one who was to bear the son of God into the world and he…trusted? Somehow, this was all the work of God, yet he questioned everything. But, even still, he walked with Mary. He walked with this mother of this child that was not his. Will God actually show up, like the Angel promised? Anxiety simmering pushing out peace.

The many closed doors to decent lodging didn’t help things. He was eager to get this very pregnant Mary to security, to a place where she could rest[2]she looks so tired. When the option for the humble estate of wood, straw, and animals came, it was a stroke of fortune even if not ideal. Provision. We’ll make this work, at least for tonight. He breathed. But not for long. When the contractions started, Joseph knew he must do one thing: find a midwife. (So goes another telling of the birth of Jesus.[3])

Then something altogether new and different happened while he sought this Bethlehemite midwife. Joseph was momentarily disentangled from everything, suspended in time and space as the cosmos seemed to come to a screeching halt, as if God was slowing it all down in order to set the whole thing in a completely different direction.

“And I, Joseph, was walking, and yet I was not walking. And I looked up to the vault of heaven and saw it standing still, and in the air, I saw the air seized in amazement, and the birds of heaven were at rest. And I looked down to the earth and I saw a bowl laid there and workers lying around it, with their hands in the bowl. But the ones chewing were not chewing; and the ones lifting up something to eat were not lifting it up; and the ones putting food in their mouths were not putting food into their mouths. But all their faces were looking upward. And I saw sheep being driven along, but the sheep stood still. And the shepherd raised his hand to strike them, but his hand was still raised. And I looked down upon the winter-flowing river and I saw some goat-kids with their mouths over the water but they were not drinking. Then all at once everything returned to its course.”[4]

When God steps into our timeline and into our space things do not keep moving as if it’s all normal. Everything stops. Time is slowed down and space is parted from itself making room for more and bigger and better. God doesn’t break into our realm like a thief. Rather, God takes our realm into God’s self, disrupts us, gives us new ground to stand on; God’s people are ruptured from death’s grip and ushered into the life of God’s reign, into something new, given a different story, and a different way of living in the world.

That night, as Joseph sought the midwife, a new story was born and with it, peace.

A New Joy

That dark night was no different than the other nights. Here they were, once again, tending and guarding their flocks of sheep, chatting here and there to stay awake.[5] This life was quiet, even if deprived and rather dangerous…keeping the flock safe took a lot of work and strength and risk.[6] The census going on caused additional anxiety, fear, and made that heavy blanket of oppression draped over these humble shepherds seem a bit heavier.[7] How many more sheep would they lose from their flocks when the census was over?[8] Against this evil empire they were helpless, more helpless than against a vicious and voracious wolf.[9] Spirits were low that dark night; joy was nowhere to be found.

Then the angle showed up, out of nowhere. The shepherds were rightly terrified. Here they were, in the dark of night, doing their job, minding their own business and then: FLASH! They were enveloped in the heavenly glory of the Lord. In seconds they went from no ones to some ones, illuminated by a great light, and being addressed by one from the host of heaven…who were they to warrant such attention?[10]

And the Angel said to them,

“Do not be terrified! For behold, I herald good tidings to you of great delight for all people! A savior is brought forth for you today in the city of David who is Christ the Lord! And this will be the sign for you, you will find a newborn child having been wrapped in swaddling clothes and being laid in a manger!”[11]

Before the shepherds found their voices, they were greeted by an army of the host of heaven who joined the angel and praised God, saying: Glory in the highest to God and upon earth peace with humanity of good pleasure! And then, like it began, it was over.

The shepherds were summoned by God to come into this event, into this space…and, that night, they went. The unclean were called; the oppressed were summoned; the meek were beckoned to come and see how good God is, how much God was for them, how much God loved them. When they arrived, they found Mary and Joseph, and the divine newborn child was, as the Angel said, lying in a manger wrapped in swaddling clothes. Here, these unclean shepherds stood in the direct presence of God without having to change, become pure, clean, or right. There was no shame, no condemnation, no guilt, no offerings had to be made, no rituals performed; they just came, looked, and touched the very small and vulnerable foot of God. And here the audacity of joy on a dark night bubbled forth in the space given to them to rejoice.

That night, when the shepherds arrived, a new story was born, and with it, joy.

Conclusion

All that had been was now coming undone; the savior, the son of God, was born, surrounded by wood, straw, dirt, animals, an exhausted woman of color, a humbled man, and dirty shepherds. On that night God showed up and Love claimed Love’s land and did the only thing Love knows to do: seek those who are cast off and call those who thought they were too far off to hear, too unloved to be desired, too nothing to be something…It’s here where we enter the story. As we listen in and look on, we step into that menagerie of humans and animals gazing upon the newborn child. We become a part of those also loved and summoned to witness this divine event of love in the world and to encounter God on this night. Tonight, we are invited to experience the divine disruption of a new word, a new story pointing to something better, giving us hope. Tonight, we are disentangled from what was by this new story and liberated into the realm of peace. Tonight, we are given time and space to have joy and to dare to rejoice. Tonight—by this new story, by this new word—we are found on Love’s land wrapped up in the lap of Love.

That night, as Mary labored, a new story was born and with it hope. That night, as Joseph sought the midwife, a new story was born and with it, peace. That night, when the shepherds arrived, a new story was born, and with it, joy. Because—on that night—Love showed up and changed everything forever.


[1] *This sermon is an edited version of the Christmas Eve sermon from 12/24/2021. Found here: https://laurenrelarkin.com/2021/12/24/on-that-night/

[2] The Protoevangelium of James 17:3-18:1

[3] The Protoevangelium of James 18:1

[4] The Protoevangelium of James 18: 2-11 Trans Lily C Vuong (https://www.amazon.com/dp/1532656173/ref=cm_sw_em_r_mt_dp_uk52Fb7QPGNMN)

[5] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher, eds. (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010). 34

[6] Gonzalez Luke 33.

[7] Gonazalez Luke 33, 34

[8] Gonzalez Luke 33

[9] Gonzalez Luke 33

[10] Gonzalez Luke 34

[11] Translation mine

Love, Even Now

Psalm 80:16-18 Let your hand be upon the person of your right hand, the son of humanity you have made so strong for yourself. And so will we never turn away from you; give us life, that we may call upon your Name. Restore us, God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

Introduction

I know last week I mentioned that rejoicing and having joy feels decadent in the midst of our context, however, I misspoke. Maybe love feels decadent, needing to ask: can I risk this? Can I risk love? The past few years make a person feel a little iffy about love. In an environment illuminating the transitoriness of life and people, why love? How do I keep loving when things and people are yanked out of my grasp? Can I throw bands of love into a void without anything to cleave? How do I love others in a world forcing me to compete rendering the other person either as my meal ticket or in my way? Love takes energy I don’t have; I’m crawling over the threshold at night. I have barely enough left for myself, don’t make me risk what little that is. I’m laid bare, I’m exhausted, I’m at my wit’s end … Love? Actually love so I can just be hurt again…again? I just can’t.

Most days maybe it feels safer and easier to cast off love than to embrace it. Maybe if I talk about love and loving others I’ll get that dopamine rush I crave as if I’ve done something loving or have loved someone. Maybe if I close my eyes and plug up my ears long enough, I can drown out the cries of the unloved. Maybe if I keep pressing my inner garbage down far and long enough, I won’t realize I need love. Love like fire can be suffocated, and a heavy spirit will do such.

The heartbeat of love weakens.

Isaiah 7:10-16

Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore God will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”

Isaiah 7:13-14

God,[1] through Isaiah, asks Ahaz to request a sign, a big one, “let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven” (7:11b). It’s an interesting request. A sign not only preceded a divine event but was also a means by which prophetic utterances were validated or invalidated.[2] I would jump at the opportunity. But Ahaz? No. He declines, refusing to “put God to the test” (7:12b). At this point nothing seems wrong. Ahaz shouldn’t put God to the test, right? Alas, Ahaz’s response demands a quick reply of divine admonishment.

According to Isaiah, Ahaz’s inability to do what God asked indicates a much larger problem. The way Ahaz responds to God in disobedience is the thermometer by which the rest of God’s people are judged.[3] Even if individual disobedience is allowed for, there is still the issue of individual disobedience to God being indicative of the atmosphere of the society in which the individual is found, right? It’s not like Ahaz operates in a vacuum; it’s not like Ahaz isn’t influential, right? So, Isaiah declares God’s exasperation and weariness toward God’s people. So, seems nooooone of you are content exhausting each other, you must also exhaust me?!

Isaiah continues, here’s the sign God will do what God promised: a young woman of child-bearing age[4] will be with child and she will name him Immanuel. Where Ahaz could’ve requested a very clear sign, God will deliver God’s sign: something small, unsuspecting, and vulnerable. Ahaz could have asked for a chariot to descend from the clouds; a sign that was big, clear, and powerful. Now? Nah, fam, your sign, Ahaz, is a baby born to a woman; oh, and his name will be Immanuel. *winks*

The name, Immanuel—meaning “God-with-us” (hinting at trust in God) [5]—was rather original, but the other parts of that sign are rather unoriginal. God’s sign will be nestled in the lap of a ritually unclean woman who just gave birth. Here, in this precarious unseemliness, God’s blessing[6] and promise[7]of deliverance is held. Will you dare to see it, break your own rules to lay hold of it?

Prophets are caught up in the divine pathos—the divine passion—of God for God’s people. Here, Isaiah is so caught up in the blast from heaven[8] that he is wearied as God is wearied over Israel’s saccharine homage and the self-centered ceremonies. [9] Isaiah’s heart breaks for God’s people, just as God’s heart breaks. Isaiah becomes consumed with the “injured love” of God, it takes over his whole being. He, like God, is exhausted with the people’s disobedience and desertion of God’s love and law of love.[10] In this, Isaiah feels God’s sorrow because the hearts of God’s people have wondered far off; they do the rituals but there’s no love.[11]

Yet, Isaiah feels God’s patient and eager love for Israel. Isaiah feels the pain of his people, longs for them to be healed and mended, to come back to God the source of love and life. He wishes for them to stop leaning on their own understanding and ability to haphazardly get from one day to another, often getting lost between.[12] Isaiah loves God’s people because the firm ground where Isaiah stands is in God, in light, in life, in love. Isaiah isn’t dependent on himself to muster up love, rather it is given to him by God who is love, it comes with the deed to the land he stands on in God. To be with and in God, to be caught in the divine pathos is to be caught up in the divine love and the prophet, at that point, cannot do anything else but love God’s people.

The heartbeat of love revives.

Conclusion

Remember,

  1. Hope exists because there’s another story to be told. And if there’s another story to tell, then there’s another way to conceive the world. And if another way to conceive the world, then another way to be in the world.”
  2. “this hope—this other way to be in the world because of a different story—is the means by which peace becomes a gift to us…”
  3. “Hope anchored in God’s story is the capillary of divine peace extracting us from that which entangles us, giving us new ground to stand receiving space to have joy…”

This space we’re given where we have joy because of being at peace, because our hope is in God, is the space of love. The holy ground on which we stand is love’s land and herein does love exist with and in us. Thus, we can love, even now. Remember, passivity isn’t an option here. The intervention of God is wholly outside of us and wholly not outside of us. Love exists because God is and God is within us.

Anyone born of God is born of love; anyone found in God is found in love; anyone inspired by the substance of God is inspired by love. In other words, while love is risky and something I don’t want to do because I’ve lost enough already, yet because I follow God, love is the only thing I can do. To follow God is to follow the way of life and love, good luck not loving. Hope exists; therefore peace exists; therefore joy exists; therefore love exists. Isaiah reminds us, Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel… God with us!

Love exists because it’s the unstoppable animating force of divine substance which is love. Love exists because it has neither an end nor a beginning. Love exists because my feet are on the solid ground of God. Love exists because there’s another way, a way that love will find, a way bringing life and liberty to everyone. Love exists because possibility has yet to cease to be. Love exists because we are together and, somehow, we keep making it day after day, walking with each other and not away from each other. Love exists because in the midst of the chaos and tumult of our world we have hope, and if we have hope then we have peace, and if we have these, we have joy, and if we have all of that, we our found nestled in the lap of love.

The heartbeat of love quickens.

The stories we’re surrounded by, Beloved, are not the only stories; they’re not the final word. There’s another word. When everything appeared turned in, when no room was found for love and life, God made a way becoming knowable in the midst of dirt, hay, and animals, in the lap of an unclean woman, being the humble sign of divine promise, Immanuel…God with us!”


[1] Brevard S. Childs Isaiah: A Commentary. The Old Testament Library. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2001. 65. “One would expect the subject of this oracle to be Isaiah, especially from the larger context (cf. vv. 11 and 13), but the reference directly to Yahweh as the subject functions to emphasize the divine authority of the offer that follows. It is not merely a suggestion from the prophet, but an invitation from God himself to request a sign.”

[2] Childs, Isaiah, 65. “Within the prophetic corpus, as distinct from the Priestly source of the Pentateuch (e.g., Gen. 9:12). a sign is a special event, either ordinary or miraculous, that serves as a pledge by which to confirm the prophetic word. The sign precedes in time the impending threat or promise, and prefigures the fulfillment by the affinity in content between the sign and its execution.”

[3] Abraham K Heschel The Prophets New York, NY: JPS 1962. 16. “Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible. If we admit that the individual is in some crime measure conditioned or affected by the spirit of society, an individual’s crime discloses society’s corruption. In a community not indifferent to suffering, uncompromisingly impatient with cruelty and falsehood, continually concerned for God and every man, crime would be infrequent rather than common.”

[4] Childs, Isaiah, 66. “The noun is derived, not from the root ‘to be concealed’ as suggested already by Jerome, but from a homonym, meaning ‘to be full of vigor,’ ‘to have reached the age of puberty.’ Thus the noun refers to a female sexually ripe for marriage. The emphasis does not fall on virginity as such and, in this respect, differs from the Hebrew be’túlāh.”

[5] Childs, Isaiah, 66. “The mother gives the child the name Immanuel, God-with-us. The name does not occur elsewhere in the Old Testament, but the close parallels {rom the Psalter (46:8, 12) make clear that it is an expression of trust in the presence of God integral to Israel’s piety.”

[6] Childs, Isaiah, 68. “The meaning is the same in v. 15. The sign of Immanuel is also the pledge of blessing. Within the same short period of time the blessings anticipated in the name will be visible tor the faithful who believe in the messianic rule of God. The language of curds and honey testifies to the selfsame new eschatological reality as that of the great joy of the harvest in 9:3(2), or of the earth ‘full of the knowledge of the LORD as water covers the sea’ (11:9).”

[7] Childs, Isaiah, 68. “The sign of Immanuel (‘God-with-us’) must serve, not just as a pledge of judgment (v. 17), but also as a promise of the future, the sign of which the name anticipates by its content. It has long been recognized that the image of ‘curds and honey’ has a dual meaning. It can be a symbol of desolation, when no food is left in a devastated arable land except the wild produce of the wilderness. However, it can also be a symbol of abundance, such as a land ‘flowing with curds and honey.’”

[8] Heschel, Prophets, 16. “The prophet’s word is a scream in the night. While the world is at ease and asleep, the prophet feels the blast from heaven.”

[9] Heschel, Prophets, 81. “In different words addressed to the king, the prophet conveys his impression of the mood of God: As happened in the time of Noah and as is happening again, God’s patience and longsuffering are exhausted. He is tired of man. He hates man’s homage, his festivals, his celebrations. Man has become a burden and a sorrow for God.”

[10] Heschel, Prophets, 81. “But the sympathy for God’s injured love overwhelms his whole being. What he feels about the size of God’s sorrow and the enormous scandal of man’s desertion of God is expressed in the two lines quoted above which introduce God’s lamentation. “Hear, then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also?” (7:13.)

[11] Heschel, Prophets, 207-208. “God not only asks for justice; He demands of man ‘to regard the deeds of the Lord, to see the work of His hands’ (Isa. 5:12; cf. 22:11), ‘to walk in His paths’ (Isa. 2:3), ‘If you will not believe, you will not abide’ (Isa. 7:11)…It is not only action that God demands, it is not only disobedience to the law that the prophet decries …The fault is in the hearts, not alone in the deeds.”

[12] Heschel, Prophets, 86. “Isaiah, who flings bitter invectives against his contemporaries, identifies himself with his people (1:9) which are to be ‘my people’ (3:12; cf. 8:10; 7:14). His castigation is an outcry of compassion. He sees his people all bruised and bleeding, with no one to dress their wounds.”

Joy, Even Now

Psalm 146:4-6 Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help! whose hope is in their God; who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them; who keeps God’s promise for ever; who gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger.

Introduction

Every so often I look up words I know well because I know them too well; maybe I’ve lost the nuance of the word. Did you know “joy” and “happy” are not the same thing? Did you know “joy” participates in “happiness”? Joy carries the idea of “delight” and “well-being”, it’s got heft, substance, something that sticks to the bones like a really hearty stew in the middle of winter. Joy participates in exuberant exhibition of emotion and subtle contentedness of bliss. In its verbal form (to joy, joying, joyed) it takes on an extra measure of itself, “to experience great pleasure or delight: REJOICE”[1]

When was the last time you rejoiced? When was the last time I rejoiced?

If there’s a way to unjoice or dejoice or be ajoice, that’s me. I cannot recall the last time I had “joy”. I’ve had excitement. I’ve had pleasant surprises making me temporarily happy. I’ve laughed, chuckled, smiled at times. I’ve even been “content”, but that’s a slippery slope because one can be content in dire circumstances through “normalization” and “desensitization” (akin to surrender, giving up, numbing out). But “rejoice”? Have joy? IN THIS *wave arms about* ECONOMY?

If it’s been a while since you last rejoiced or had joy, you’re not alone. It feels decadent to have joy. The heaviness I’ve carried about for the past (nearly) three years has rendered me unable to be seized by something as beautiful as joy let alone something causing me to rejoice! Joy in the midst of violence? Joy in the midst of death? Joy in the midst of chaos and strife? Joy in the midst of sickness? Rejoice?! WHY. What about the gloom and doom of our socio-political world gives me the reason let alone the time and the space to have joy, to rejoice? I’m fine with drab and meh; I know drab and meh.

The heartbeat of joy weakens.

Isaiah 35:1-10

Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
God will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
God will come and save you.”
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

Is. 35:3-7

It’s like Isaiah knows the turmoil of our inner worlds. Of us he doesn’t speak, though; we’re invited into this moment through words caught by ancient scrolls. Israel is his concern, the poor, the weak, the hindered, the oppressed, the widowed and orphaned, the exhausted, the threatened. Prophetic words as fruit of the prophet encountered, embraced, and captured by the divine pathos—the divine passion—of God for God’s beloved. The prophet embodies the love of God for God’s people, and the prophet’s words reflect that love, signal to it, make it audible, manifest it. They ebb and flow between sour and sweet, but all the words are dedicated as a love note from The Lover to the Beloved. Sour notes fit a melody when sweet ones speak in reply; the musical communique penetrates ears and hearts of those to whom the tune was written, eager to resuscitate feeble lungs and rejuvenate unsteady legs.[2] Isaiah’s words here in chapter 35 are filled with the promises of God; it’s in God Israel’s exhorted to anchor their hope as the conduit of divine peace.[3]

Israel can only handle so much darkness and distance; the human spirit is resilient to a point. To keep throwing one’s anchor into the void of nothingness begins to break even the heartiest of souls. When God is perceived as far, distant, gone, negligent, Israel grows faint circling around the vortex of death, exhausted by the hopelessness and peacelessness of being trapped under the kingdom and rule of humanity. But then, Isaiah. Isaiah comes calling out the decrepit kingdom of humanity and declaring the reign of God. The speaking of God’s promises unentangles Israel from their chaos (unpeace) and becomes the story interrupting their captivity which is the foundation of their hope. The prophet declares not an old thing, but a new one.[4] Words cut through the oppressive gloom, pierce brutal silence, and rupture Israel’s melancholic lethargy. It’s in these words from prophet to people, “God becomes near and clear,” and the agony of a hopeless and peaceless existence dissipates.[5] Shema, O Israel, hear the footfalls of your God drawing near, look and behold[6] your God, the God of love and life, the substance of your hope, the source of your peace, the space for your joy.

And the ransomed of God 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.

Is 35:10

The heartbeat of joy revives.

Conclusion

Remember, “Hope exists because there’s another story to be told. And if there’s another story to tell, then there’s another way to conceive the world. And if another way to conceive the world, then another way to be in the world.”[7] Also remember, “this hope—this other way to be in the world because of a different story—is the means by which peace becomes a gift to us…”[8] If hope exists because there’s another story and another way to be in the world, and by this peace exists, then we can also say that by the same means does joy exist. Hope anchored in God’s story is the capillary of divine peace extracting us from that which entangles us, giving us new ground to stand receiving space to have joy, even now. But, remember, passivity isn’t an option here. The intervention of God is wholly outside of us and wholly not outside of us. Joy exists because God is and God is within us.

There’s an audacity in Isaiah’s prophetic words daring to proclaim joy and rejoicing. Just like with divine love and life, joy sourced in the story of God is revolutionary. It’s not naïve, it’s not blind. Joy, like prophetic declaration, cuts through the darkness and gloom, not with some saccharine happiness, but with boldness arriving with something other, something new, something alive. Isaiah reminds us: we’re not dead yet. Dead bodies do not rejoice; living ones do. Hope exists, and therefore peace exists, and in this space joy and rejoicing exist. Stepping into that space daring to laugh, see beauty, and have delight in yourself, in others, in creation, and in God becomes a form of revolutionary resistance against the death and doom lurking about the kingdom of humanity—like a rainbow parting the stormy sky. Isaiah’s announcement is a summons to a party, a big one: Come, O Israel! Because of hope, come and sing! Because of peace, leap and dance! Your Beloved is near! Come and Rejoice! I dare you!

Joy exists because the story of God disrupts us long enough to give us space to see things as they are, to gather us together, and to sing. Joy exists because there’s a struggle against struggle that is divine and beautiful, the very essence of love and life and fruit of hope and peace. Joy exists because we don’t need to bury our heads in the sand, remaining ignorant to the suffering in the world, oblivious to our own suffering; rather, we can have the audacity and boldness to look it square in the eye and go beyond it. Joy exists because, to quote Ada Maria Isazi-Diaz, “The struggle for survival…is not only a struggle not to die, not only a struggle to live but only barely. It is a struggle to live fully.”[9] Joy exists because somehow in the midst of the chaos and tumult of our world we have hope, and if we have hope then we have peace, and if we have these, we have the space for joy.

The heartbeat of joy quickens.

The stories we’re surrounded by, Beloved, are not the only stories; they’re not the final word. There’s another word. When everything looked lost and drab, when gloom and doom seemed to be the only words whispered on the wind, another word broke through, heralding good news in the middle of the night to those far off, And the ransomed of God 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.”


[1] Miriam Webster’s Online Dictionary.

[2] Abraham K Heschel The Prophets New York, NY: JPS 1962. “The words of the prophet are stern, sour, stinging. But behind his austerity is love and compassion for mankind. …Indeed, every prediction of disaster is in itself an exhortation to repentance. The prophet is sent not only to upbraid, but also to ‘strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees’ (Isa. 35:3).” 12.

[3] Heschel, The Prophets, 12. “Almost every prophet brings consolation, promise, and the hope of reconciliation along with censure and castigation. He begins with a message of doom; he concludes with a message of hope.”

[4] Brevard S. Childs Isaiah: A Commentary. The Old Testament Library. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2001. 258. “Moreover, salvation is not merely deliverance from Babylonian captivity, but rather sharing in God’s new creation (65:17ff.). Isaiah 35:10 picks up this same theme, ‘sorrow and sighing will disappear,’ which is finally elaborated in its fullest form in chapter 65.”

[5] Heschel, Prophets, 193. “Agony is the final test. When all hopes are dashed and all conceit is shattered, man begins to miss what he has long spurned. In darkness, God becomes near and clear.”

[6] Heschel, Prophets, 193. “God is invisible, distant, dwelling in darkness (1 Kings 8:12). His thoughts are not our thoughts; His ways in history are shrouded and perplexing. Prophecy is a moment of unshrouding, an opening of the eyes, a lifting of the curtain. Such moments are rare in history.”

[7] Lauren R. E. Larkin “Advent 1 11.27.22”; “Hope, Even Now” https://laurenrelarkin.com/2022/11/27/hope-even-now/

[8] Lauren R. E. Larkin “Advent 2 12.4.22”; “Peace, Even Now” https://laurenrelarkin.com/2022/12/04/peace-even-now/

[9] Ada Maria Isazi-Diaz Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996. p. 131.

Peace, Even Now

Psalm 72:18-19 Blessed be God, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous deeds! And blessed be God’s glorious Name for ever! and may all the earth be filled with God’s glory. Amen. Amen.

Introduction

Do we know what peace is? I mean, do we really know what peace is? I know we know how to use the word, but I’m not convinced we use it correctly. Peace isn’t necessarily about being calm or having control; and it’s not about being alone. Yet we use the word “peace” synonymously with all of those words. Peace carries qualities of those words, but also isn’t those words.

Peace seems to be something received through the process of becoming separated from something entangling and holding me captive. Peace comes as I am pulled out of the thing entangling me, placed on different ground from that which entangled me, and I’m found as me even in the midst of not-calm, in chaos, and with others—those things having lost their control and influence over me. Peace becomes mine because it is given to me from elsewhere in the collision of another story disrupting and interrupting the story I’m trapped in. In this way I have peace not because I have mustered up calm, or have asserted control, or am (finally) alone but in spite of having none of them. Peace is given to me, it becomes mine, and I move forward with it and in it.

But what happens to peace if my world can only offer me more of the same, and it’s not a very good same? What is peace in a world catapulted into a pandemic turned endemic? What is peace in a world where you don’t know when the next tragedy and catastrophe will happen? What is peace in a world where you must fortify your boundaries and never cease being hyper-vigilant? What is peace in a world where some get liberty and others don’t? What thing can the world offer me to intersect and disrupt me?

The heartbeat of peace weakens.

Isaiah 11:1-10

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

Isaiah 11:1-4

Isaiah greets us with a prophetic utterance declaring a new thing in the midst of something old. Caught up in the divine pathos[1]—the divine passion—of God for all of God’s people,[2] Isaiah declares to the people that what was destroyed will be made new. God will not abandon God’s people to their world with its stories of exile and separation, of isolation and captivity.[3] God will step in and alter not only the trajectory of the history of God’s people, but will disrupt them and intersect them where they are and usher in something new and glorious in their midst.[4]

For Isaiah’s audience, the imagery of a shoot—a branch—coming up from a stump invoked thoughts of divine activity[5] and disruption. The stump is the result of destruction; everything looks as if it’s done, dead, and gone. The only life a stump partakes in is the life of the devourers, the creatures returning the stump to the earth. But Isaiah declares, that which looks dead is the medium for divine life: a shoot shall come forth. In other words, according to Isaiah, this shoot from the stump of Jesse is by God’s doing and not by human hand. No work of humanity—no matter how glorious—can summon anything from a stump if that stump is unable to generate anything. In other words, the rule of humanity is eclipsed by the reign of God,[6] and humanity’s conception of right and wrong, justice and injustice, peace and tumult are exposed as corrupted, unable to bring forth the liberation of the captives God desires.[7] God will bring it forth according to God’s will of love and life and righteousness and liberation.[8]

For Isaiah the actuality of what is—even if dire—is the realm of possibility for God’s creative word out nothing. The day rises and the day sets; out of the setting of the sun the rising of the sun is ushered in. The actuality of the night works toward the possibility of morning, as it was yesterday, so it is today, and so may it be tomorrow. As prophet, Isaiah’s hope is anchored not in actuality (the descending night) but in possibility (in the coming morning, the new day[9]). It’s anchored in something outside of himself, outside of his world as he knows it; it’s anchored in God and that in God there’s another and better way to live and this better way is disruptive. Here, Isaiah is encountered and intersected, lifted out of the muck and mire of the situation Israel finds itself in and placed on the ground of a different story told by God and not humanity; in this does Isaiah find his peace.[10] And not just any peace, but the peace of God, rendering the entire cosmos complicit in God’s love,[11] transcending boundaries of flora and fauna, and restoring creation unto God and unto itself.[12]

The heartbeat of peace revives.

Conclusion

Last week I told you, “Hope exists because there’s another story to be told. And if there’s another story to tell, then there’s another way to conceive the world. And if another way to conceive the world, then another way to be in the world.”[13] By the same means does peace exist. This hope—this other way to be in the world because of a different story—is the means by which peace becomes a gift to us even now. Too often we jump to the peaceful imagery of the lion laying down with the lamb imagining that nothing happens with us—waiting for peace to come to our environment. But, like last week, it’s a mistake thinking Isaiah advocates for passivity. The intervention of God is wholly outside of us and wholly not outside of us. Peace exists because God is and God is within us.

We are principle characters in this story, we are the object of divine desire—the whole cosmos and us—and in being the object of divine desire we are intercepted and disrupted. The one who comes, the righteous one, will beckon and call God’s people unto God. The burgeoning shoot growing from the stump of Jesse, the stump signifying a lack of hope becomes the foundation of hope and the means of peace not just around Israel, but within them. God is not finished with Israel. As Isaiah declares, “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of [God] as the waters cover the sea. On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of [God], and [God’s] dwelling shall be glorious,” (Is. 11:9-10). God will contend with Israel but not in terms of death and destruction (not on their terms) but in terms of life and love (on God’s terms).

Peace exists because the story of God outside of us interrupts our cobbled together Frankenstein stories and the narratives the world hands us, the ones we’ve swallowed whole unable to imagine something better and different. Peace exists because this story of God causes us to stop and look up; in this story we’re given a moment to pause, to resist succumbing even more to the enslavement of working ourselves to death, to a hierarchy of human beings based on skin color, gender, and sexual orientation, to losing ourselves for material gain. Peace exists because we are called to consider the shoot of the stump, God’s activity intruding into our world and here we are detangled from frantic and anxious behavior desperate to control something…anything in any way. Peace exists because somehow in the midst of the chaos and tumult of our world we have hope, and if we have hope then we have peace.

The heartbeat of peace quickens.

The stories we’re surrounded by, Beloved, are not the only stories; they’re not the final word. There’s another word. In the midst of all that appears dead and forsaken, a tiny, vulnerable baby will be born to a single, unwed mother, in a cave; and this word will draw all who have ears to hear unto God, On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of [God], and [God’s] dwelling shall be glorious.”


[1] Abraham K Heschel The Prophets New York, NY: JPS 1962. 310. “It is such intense sympathy or emotional identification with the divine pathos that may explain the shifting from the third to the first person in the prophetic utterances. A prophecy that starts out speaking of God in the third, person turns into God speaking in the first person. Conversely, a prophecy starting with God speaking in the first person turns into a declaration of the prophet speaking about God in the third person.”

[2] Heschel, Prophets, 169. “The prophet may be regarded as the first universal man in history; he is concerned with, and addresses himself to, all men. It was not an emperor, but a prophet, who first conceived of the unity of all men.”

[3] Heschel, Prophets, 169. “It is the God of Israel Who summons the mighty men to execute His designs (Isa. 13:3, 5). Who calls the nations of the world into judgment, and it is He Whom one day all nations shall in Zion (Isa. 2:2 ff.; 11:10; 18:7).”

[4] Heschel, Prophets, 183. No longer looking at Nineveh but Jerusalem “In that day the root of Jesse shall stand as an ensign to the peoples; him shall the nations seek, and his dwellings shall be glorious (Isa. 11:10).”

[5] Brevard S. Childs Isaiah: A Commentary. The Old Testament Library. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2001. 102. “The naming of Jesse signals a sure continuity with Israel’s past, but serves as a reminder of David’s humble beginnings and of a promise grounded in divine election rather on human pride and royal pretension (2 Samuel 7). … [stump] the of God’s purpose after the hardening, after the destruction of the land, and after the unbelief of Ahaz, true Israel still has a future because of Immanuel.”

[6] Childs, Isaiah, 102-103. “The following verse proceeds to describe the charismata suitable to the office. He is endowed by the spirit of God to be the bearer of ‘the whole fullness of divine powers’ (Delitzsch). The gifts are set forth in couplets: wisdom and insight, counsel and might, knowledge and fear of the Lord. The spirit is the source of all new life, and a contrast is immediately who did not understand (1:3). And who heard but did not comprehend, who saw but did not perceive (6:9).”

[7] Heschel, Prophets, 184. “Had the prophets relied on human resources for justice and righteousness, on [humanity’s] ability to fulfill all of God’s demands, on [humanity’s] power to achieve redemption, they would not have insisted upon the promise of messianic redemption, for messianism implies that any course of living, even the supreme efforts of man by himself, must fail in redeeming the world. In other words, human history is not sufficient unto itself. [Humanity’s] conscience is timid, while the world is ablaze with agony. [Humanity’s] perception of justice is shallow, often defective, and his judgment liable to deception.”

[8] Childs, Isaiah, 103. “These verses then portray the nature of the coming ruler’s reign according to the will of God, which has been assured by his spirit-filled-endowments. The dominant emphasis falls on the righteousness (sedeq) and equity toward the weak and vulnerable of the world. In this sense, vv. 1-9 continue a major theme introduced in 9:6ff. Again one hears the implied contrast with Israel’s unrighteous behavior that resulted in oppression of the poor and senseless acts of violence (3:5,14). For the prophet Isaiah, the coming of the messianic age is not construed as one of heavenly sweetness and light. Rather, the attributes of counsel and might in governing are exercised in forcefully constraining the wicked and adroitly discerning both the good and the evil of human society (v. 3b).”

[9] Heschel, Prophets, 185. “The prophet is a person who, living in dismay, has the power to transcend his dismay. Over all the darkness of experience hovers the vision of a different day.”

[10] Childs, Isaiah, 103. “The effect of the righteous rule of the Messiah is depicted in terms of age of universal peace that embraces both the human and animal world.”

[11] Childs, Isaiah, 104. “Isaiah envisioned was not a return to a mythical age of primordial innocence, but the sovereign execution of a new act of creation in which the righteous will of God is embraced and the whole earth now reflects a devotion ‘as water covers the sea.’”

[12] Childs, Isaiah, 104. “Prophetic picture is not a return to an ideal past, but the restoration of creation by a new act of God through the vehicle of a righteous ruler. The description in vv. 6-9 is a massive extension of the promise in chapter 9 that focuses on the eschatological deliverance of God’s people.”

[13] Lauren R. E. Larkin “Advent 1 11.27.22”; “Hope, Even Now” https://laurenrelarkin.com/2022/11/27/hope-even-now/

Hope, Even Now

Psalm 122:7-9 Peace be within your walls and quietness within your towers. For my brethren and companions’ sake, I pray for your prosperity. Because of the house of God our God, I will seek to do you good.

Introduction

If you’re feeling a bit reticent jumping into upcoming seasonal festivities, I don’t blame you. The atmosphere is more pregnant with dread than with hope, more threaded with despair than expectation, more infused with turmoil than peace. Advent arrives and it feels too early. Not yet…I cannot feel the things I should feel. My inner world is threatened with lethargy and plagued with thoughts of giving up. More death? More hate? More lives lost, families thrust into grief and mourning, more senselessness and violence? Festive lights bedecking houses and trees look less like stars and more like tear-drops frozen in time.

I struggle with the energy to try to understand how such malice against beautiful and beloved bodies holds people so tightly. How was their self-acceptance and joy a problem to you? The safety of space dedicated to Queer celebration and revelry torn asunder by the invasion of contempt and rancor. Why? I keep asking. And just months after Uvalde? When do we learn? How much longer do we pretend this isn’t a massive issue? When will the lies and cognitive dissonance fail to numb and keep us locked in destructive patterns of social and political life together? How much longer will the despotic tyranny of hate, evil, and death hold life captive? Is this all there is?

The heartbeat of hope weakens.

Isaiah 2:1-5

‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that God may teach us God’s ways
and that we may walk in God’s paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
God shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk
in the light of the Lord!

The prophet Isaiah declares the reign of God. Prophetic witness oriented toward God’s union with God’s people, and the union of God’s people among themselves.[1] Isaiah heralds the coming kingdom of God, and in doing so highlights the discrepancy between the reign of God and the rule of humanity. Under the rule of humanity, kingdoms and nations are set against each other, each poised in aggressive defense against the other—the enemy. But Isaiah declares that under the reign of God nations and kingdoms will be united, rendering boundaries and battlements pointless for nations will stream into the house of God set high above all other human made castles of brick and mortar.

Isaiah declares that under the reign of God many peoples seek to gather in the House of God to learn God’s ways and to walk in God’s paths. Rather than choosing the failing and long expired ways and paths of humanity,[2] the people will choose what is different intending to chart different courses from the ones they charted for themselves ending in war and death fueled by hatred and obsessive self-supremacy and power.[3] According to Isaiah, it’s God’s loving desire for all people, the entire earth, to live in the realm of love and life, the realm of God, [4] leaving behind the kingdom and rule of humanity and the atmosphere infused with antagonism and death.

Isaiah’s proclamation punctures the blinds his people wear, letting the light of divine glory and desire shine and illuminate better ways. As the people keep drunk on cups of violence and arrogance, power and avarice, Isaiah introduces the living and restoring water of God.[5] God will come to dwell among this lowly nation, weak in comparison to neighboring kingdoms, and will take up the royal seat here. Not the great nations of humanity, but the small nation of God, Jerusalem,[6] will be the epicenter of divine love and life, tendrils emanating outward, impacting all the other nations, beckoning them to follow the way of God, the way of love and life. From Jerusalem, all will be beckoned to ditch that which makes sense according to human standards and is in opposition to the will of God. From Jerusalem the people will be lured to walk bold rather than timid in the midst of a world throbbing with pain and agony; they will bend toward the justice and judgment of God and not of their own machinations.[7] Instead of forging new weapons bent on destruction and death—the fruit of war[8]—the people will turn their weapons into tools to nourish and flourish the fruit of life. Rather than being students of violence and destruction under the rule of humanity, they will drink in and feed on the knowledge of God; “Passion for war will be subdued by a greater passion: the passion to discover God’s ways.”[9] For Isaiah, and the other prophets, humanity’s obsession with power and might, is indicative of a terminal sickness ending only in death; there’s a better way, say the prophets, a way leading to life and liberty, joy and community.[10]

The heartbeat of hope revives.

Conclusion

Hope exists because there’s another story to be told. And if there’s another story to tell, then there’s another way to conceive the world. And if another way to conceive the world, then another way to be in the world. One of the mistakes we make is reading Isaiah through the lens of passivity; when we do, we neglect the core of what Isaiah declares to his people: Behold, Israel; shema, Israel! Look and listen to your God; resist the evil machinations of human hearts bent on power and weaponized violence, on destruction and death and follow the way of your God, the way of love and life. The intervention of God is wholly outside of us and wholly not outside of us. Hope exists because God is and God is within us.

When Isaiah implores, “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of God!” He turns the focus of the narrative away from the ways of his people—stuck under the rule of humanity—and refocuses the narrative on God. In this way the people are beckoned out of themselves and toward God. But Isaiah doesn’t stop there. He doesn’t leave his people just staring at God, just listening to God. Let us walk; let us look, let us hear, and let us walk. To be beckoned out of one’s self and to God is, in God’s anthropological economy, to be beckoned into God and thus into one’s self walking in the world in with love and life and not death and destruction.

Hope exists because what we see, what we hear, what we experience in the world under the rule of humanity isn’t the only thing to see, hear, and experience. Hope exists because things can be different, love can silence destruction, life can triumph over death. Hope exists because two patrons of Club Q said “No!” resisting hate and death in the name of love and life. Hope exists because we, too, can say “No!” and resist the lies and myths the kingdom of humanity keeps handing to us. As one of the patrons of Club Q wrestled the death dealing weapon from the hands of the shooter, we can yank the narrative and the story out of the hands of those telling us this is the only way to live. No. We don’t have to be violent, we don’t have to hate, we don’t have to be stuck under lies that another person’s self-acceptance and joy threaten us.

We’re beckoned by Isaiah, Beloved, to stop and still, to look and hear. We are asked to see that there’s the way of humanity and the way of God. We are beseeched and implored to reconsider, to refocus, to reimagine something better and bigger. We are summoned out of the necropolis suffocated by the tyranny of death’s cold, bony hand into the country of the living as citizens of God. We are lured by the fullness of divine love and life to be ramparts and bastions against death and destruction, to be God’s threat to powers dead set on violence, to be—referring to Helmut Gollwitzer—a little bit dangerous advocating for life and love in the face of death and hate.[11]

The heartbeat of hope quickens.

The stories we’re surrounded by, Beloved, are not the only stories; they’re not the final word. There’s another word. And this other word God is so passionate about God will become this Word to liberate the captives imprisoned by destruction and death, calling out to all who have ears to hear, [C]ome, let us walk in the light of God!”


[1] Abraham K Heschel The Prophets New York, NY: JPS 1962. 169. “The prophet may be regarded as the first universal man in history; he is concerned with, and addresses himself to, all men. It was not an emperor, but a prophet, who first conceived of the unity of all men.”

[2] Brevard S. Childs Isaiah: A Commentary. The Old Testament Library. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2001. 30-31. “In v. 4 God’s role is described as adjudicating justly among the nations. His reign is universal in scope, and the ‘many peoples’ portrayed as now living in peace and harmony are those who have gone to the mountain of the Lord to walk in his ways. The description of eschatological rule is not part of a human social program; indeed, the demonic threat of a return to war remains still virulent (Joel 4:9ff. = ET 3:9ff.). Rather, ‘the holy city, New Jerusalem descends out of heaven from God as a bride adorned for her husband’ (Rev. 21:2).”

[3] Heschel, Prophets, 183. “The sword is the pride of man; arsenals, forts, and chariots lend supremacy to nations, War is the climax of human ingenuity, the object of supreme efforts: men slaughtering each other, cities battered into ruins. What is left behind is agony, death, and desolation. At the same time, men think very highly of themselves; ‘they are wise in their own hearts, shrewd in their own sight’ (Isa. 5:21). Idols of silver and gold are what they worship. Nineveh, ‘the bloody city, all full of lies and booty,’ held the world in spell with her ‘countless harlotries,’ with her ‘graceful and deadly charms’ (Nah. 3:1, 4).”

[4] Heschel, Prophets, 169. “Isaiah proclaimed God’s purpose and design ‘concerning the whole earth’ (14:26), and actually addressed himself to ‘all you inhabitants of the world, you who dwell on the earth’ (Isa. 18:3; c£ 33:13; 34:1), delivering special prophecies concerning Babylon, Moab, Damascus, Egypt, Tyre, and others (chs. 13-23). It is the God of Israel Who summons the mighty men to execute His designs (Isa. 13:3, 5), Who calls the nations of the world into judgment, and it is He Whom one day all nations shall worship in Zion (Isa. 2:2 ff.; 11:10; 18:7).”

[5] Heschel, Prophets, 183. “Into a world fascinated with idolatry, drunk with power, bloated with arrogance, enters Isaiah’s word that the swords will be beaten into plowshares, that nations will search, not for gold, power or harlotries, but for God’s word.”

[6] Heschel, Prophets, 183. “Jerusalem, in contrast, was ‘a quiet habitation,’ little known to the nations except as a target for invaders. But in the vision of Isaiah the nations will no more turn their eyes to Nineveh, the seat of human power, but to Jerusalem, the seat of divine learning, eager to learn God’s ways, eager to learn how to walk in His paths.”

[7] Heschel, Prophets, 184. “Had the prophets relied on human resources for justice and righteousness, on man’s ability to fulfill all of God’s demands, on man’s power to achieve redemption, for messianism implies that any course of living, even the supreme efforts of man by himself, must fail in redeeming the world. In her words, human history is not sufficient unto itself. Man’s conscience is timid, while the world is ablaze with agony. His perception of justice is shallow, often defective, and his judgment liable to deception.”

[8] Heschel, Prophets, 73. “War spawns death. But Isaiah was looking to the time when the Lord ‘will swallow up death for ever, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces’…. Israel’s security lim. (25:8; see p. 183). Israel’s security lies in the covenant with God, not in covenants with Egypt or other nations. The mysterious power of faith maintains: God alone is true protection. Such power will not collapse in the hour of disaster…”

[9] Heschel, Prophets, 184.

[10] Heschel, Prophets, 160. “When the prophets appeared, they proclaimed that might is not supreme, that the sword is an abomination, that violence is obscene. The sword, they said, shall be destroyed.”

[11] W. Travis McMaken, Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1017).150-151. “What overcomes this ecclesiastical banality is encounter with the church’s resurrected Lord, with ‘the Easter story [that] broken into our world, bringing with it a power, a world-overcoming revolution, which makes everything different in our life, which forces the church into a totally different direction.’ This encounter delegitimizes the church’s banality and demands that the church become an agent in proclaiming this world-overcoming revolution through word and deed. Instead of leaving the church to its comfortable domestication, ‘the one thing that matters for the church is that she should be both a danger and a help to the world.’ Gollwitzer’s ecclesiology calls for a dangerous church because a church that is not dangerous is not help at all.”

Grateful Ungratefulness

The following segment, running about 5 minutes, is from an event I had the honor of participating in with an organization I’m a member of on behalf of the church I run. The Grand Valley Interfaith Network celebrates THANKSGVIN during the week of Thanksgiving and incorporates a variety of the sacred traditions within the Grand Valley area. Each year there’s a different theme, and all participants are asked to speak (briefly) on that theme from their tradition’s perspective. This year the theme was “Gratitude”, and was hosted by American Lutheran Church pastored by the Rev Valerie Carlson (she’s awesome!). My segment starts at about 55:00, and hopefully I’ve queued it up here (below) correctly. The text is below the video.

I’m ungrateful.

The sun rises and the sun sets; hate still tramples about stealing life from beloved bodies. Joy and rapture cut short while love and acceptance is silenced by violence. Their happiness, their liberty to be, their life unacceptable to those who believe such things are reserved only for the elite, the powerful, the white, the heteronormative, the conforming, those who worship at the altar of Moloch drinking lustfully from terror’s cup, bending the knee to weaponized malevolence, consumed by the venom of malice. This world is colder and dimmer because Daniel Aston, Kelly Loving, Ashley Paugh, Derrick Rump, and Raymond Green Vance no longer participate in this material life, no longer darken doorways of their family and friends, no longer take up beautiful space.

I’m ungrateful.

We are sick; we have an illness. We pretend it’s not wreaking havoc on every cell of our body. We go from one horrific incident to another as if this is all normal. Humans killing humans isn’t normal. Stock piling militarized weapons isn’t normal. Our silence is acceptance of conditions not oriented toward life, isn’t that abnormal? Think about it. Where is our desire to live? Where is our verve for liberation? Where is our fight against death? Why are we rolling over, pulling the covers over our head, and waiting for the next incident to flicker onto and illuminate our screens? When do we stand up in this boat being rocked by the appetite of voracious and rancorous waves and winds and sound our maternal yawp protecting our own? How many more lives must be lost before we holler our divine spirit’s “No!”? How many children, brothers, sisters, moms and dads, lovers and friends, must be violently and suddenly yanked way before we tell those damned waves and winds to shut up and sit down? How long? How many more? Do we not care?

I’m ungrateful.

I’m a pastor; I’m called to serve life not death. I’m a child-bearer; I’m called to push forth life not death. I’m a teacher; I’m called to cause space and place for life to thrive and not death. I’m an ethicist; I’m called to advocate for life over death. I’m a human; I’m called to share and participate in life with others in retaliation against death. So, I’m ungrateful because this society repeatedly chooses death over life, and I’m not okay with it because it goes against who I am and my calling, it rails against a God of life and love, and puts those whom I love—those whom I’m charged to love by God—in grave threat and danger. But then, as I linger here in my ungratefulness, my anger, my frustration, my solidarity with those whom I love I realize: they are worth fighting for. You are worth fighting for, life and love are worth fighting for. And, for that I am very, very, very grateful.