To Live and To Love is To Change

Sermon on Jeremiah 18:1-11

Psalm 139:16-17  How deep I find your thoughts, O God! how great is the sum of them! If I were to count them, they would be more in number than the sand; to count them all, my life span would need to be like yours.

Introduction

In seminary, my professor mentioned a philosopher who didn’t think change was real. When Dr. Witt said this, half my face squinched up. He said, “Yes! That’s the right reaction!”

I couldn’t really wrap my head around the idea that someone somewhere thought change wasn’t real. I mean, yes, I understand you can see different moments of existence as separate and independent phases of existence, like stepping from one stone to another. But what the heck do you call the process and momentum of going from one stone to another? Sorcery? The entire process of going from one thing to another, from one place to another, from one conception to another is change because it necessitates the process of what was giving way to what will be. These aren’t independent phases; it’s one substance being reformed, transitioning into another form from a previous one.

Physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, we change. We’re not the same as we were yesterday; we will not be the same tomorrow as we are today. Who here is still a baby? Who here sees things in the same way as you did a year ago? Too much has occurred (physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually) bringing you out of one form and into another. In fact, you’re not the same now as you were when you sat down this morning—you’re different!

While you’ll always be human—made up of the substance of flesh and bone, conscience and essence—you’re constantly changing in and around and with that substance as you come into alignment with yourself as yourself. New information in any form causes us to change. With the smallest amount of new information, we change ourselves, our presence in the world, our view of the world, and our activity in the world.

I know that change is terrifying; it threatens our comfortableness, it takes from us that which we have known, it makes us anxious as we are ushered into what feels like chaos. Change forces us to either move with change’s momentum, struggling and scrambling to a new ground, like running up a landslide. Or change causes us to struggle and scramble to fight against it’s momentum, like trying to redirect a waterfall from the bottom up. As much as we may dislike it and the discomfort that comes with our rupture from “normal”, change is a thing and it’s not going anywhere. Nothing stays the same, everything changes. It’s as constant as God’s love and might be of the same substance.

Jeremiah 18:1-11

The word that came to Jeremiah from [God]: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.

(Jer. 18:1-6)

Jeremiah is known as the “suffering servant.” While I’ve never read about a prophet of Israel who was the “easy-breezy servant”, Jeremiah seems to have a special summons into the divine pathos (passion) of God for God’s people. He is caught in the middle between Israel’s plight and God’s disdain for that plight. Essentially, especially here in chapter 18, Jeremiah’s stuck between what is and what will be, caught in the oncoming divine activity rupturing Israel’s what-has-been to bring forth Israel’s what-will-be,[1] captured like a deer in the headlights of God changing God’s mind.[2] Because God loves Israel, Israel will be God’s people even if it means starting over from scratch.[3]

So, Jeremiah is sent to a potter’s workshop to witness a revelation from God.[4] Jeremiah watches the scene unfold before him. He witnesses this potter work clay into a vessel, but it’s no good. The clay, according to Jeremiah, is marred[5]. Then, Jeremiah watches as the potter takes all that was before and crushes it into a shapeless mass of mud, starts over, and reforms it…not into what it was before, but into something completely different.[6] And then God’s words settle upon Jeremiah,[7] Did you see that? I’m the potter, and Israel’s the clay. I’ll start over, I’ll refashion Israel into another vessel.[8] Israel will be my people, and I’ll be Israel’s God. I’ll not forsake Israel and they’ll be the vessel of my presence in the world for the world.

There are two things to point out here. The first is that while the action of crushing the clay vessel into a formless mass of mud is violent, God does not ditch the substance of the clay. Rather, God changes directions and reforms it. This isn’t a stubborn, obstinate God, incapable of changing their mind. That God compares God’s self to a potter willing to start over and form a completely different vessel from what was indicates that not only is change a part of the divine person, but also that God will not forsake God’s people—the clay is still on the wheel, still the focus of God’s eye, mind, heart, and hands. The idea that God doesn’t change is only true when speaking of God’s substance, which is love; God loves, God is love. To say God never changes God’s mind is a truncated view of God. (Doesn’t love change our minds?). God changes God’s mind and God always loves you. Therefore, this crushing, reformation, and transformation is the handmaiden of God’s love: the door’s open for mercy and return, repentance and forgiveness. The marring and crushing aren’t the last words.[9]

The second thing to point out: Israel will go through a transition from what they were into what they will be. In that the clay is still on the wheel, still in God’s hands, Israel will be reformed into a completely different vessel. The entire first testament speaks to death never having the last word,[10] not only according to the repeated theme of repentance and forgiveness, but most notably in a story about a great storm flooding the earth; after which God promises, that…that….I will never ever do again.[11]Thus, the clay is still on the wheel; thus, life still wins, because God’s character is to love, to have mercy, and to bring life.[12]

Change hurts. Israel will go through their death and be brought through it into new life; Israel will be a vessel of good in the world, righting wrongs, bringing the world into alignment with the will of God. What is God’s will? The reign of life and liberation: the captives are set free, the hungry eat, the thirsty drink, the naked are clothed, the houseless housed, the threatened comforted, and the living are summoned from death into life.

Conclusion

So, change is scary. Change is hard. And it’s necessary. Our world must change. We must change. If this planet is going to recover, we must change. If humanity is going to have a fighting chance beyond another century, we must change. If we want violence against people of color, indigenous peoples, and LGBTQIA+ people to end, we have no choice: we must change.

If I want this world to be a better place for my daughter and her two older brothers, I must muscle up, roll my sleeves, and get to work, embracing all the change I can—and that necessarily means confessing where I’ve been wrong, where I’ve participated in violent ideologies and systems, where I’m captive and complicit. I must walk through my fear and discomfort, resisting the status-quo, in the name of love and life.

This change is the encounter with God in the event of faith in Christ. I must die to what was and allow God to mold me into another vessel, resembling the Christ, bringing me into new life, a life powered by the Holy Spirit, one better equipped to serve God’s people, bringing water to the thirsty, food to the hungry, clothes to the naked, shelter to the houseless, love to the unloved, liberation to the captives, comfort to the threatened, and life to the walking dead.

And the Church, too. We, you, me and this entire institution must give itself over to the transition of death into new life, we must be willing to let go of what was and sink into God who’s eager to bring us through the void into what will be. God will have a vessel in the world to right wrongs, to demythologize corrupt human systems, to call things what they are, to bring love to the people devoured by power and greed; the question is: will we be a part of that vessel? Will we take up our cross and follow Christ, who we claim to be the suffering servant of God and humanity, who’s the first born of the dead, fully God yet forsook equality with God to live and die and rise in solidarity with humankind? Will we, like Jesus, dare to set aside what-was so that what-will-be can come forth?


[1] Abraham K Heschel The Prophets New York, NY: JPS 1962. 173. “Awareness of a problem means awareness of a conflict or a tension between two ideas, forces or situations. In this sense the prophets discovered the problem of history as a tension between what happens now and what may happen next. The future is no simple continuation of the present. Just as the present, in their eyes, represented a violation of what was established in the past (Israel’s commitment to God), so may the future overturn the seeming solidity of what is being done in the present.”

[2] Heschel, The Prophets, 173-174. “Moreover, the situation here and now is but a stage in the drama of history. Whatever happens now affects the past; it either shapes or distorts events that are going on. By history we do not mean the ‘gone’ or the dead past, but the present in which past and future are interlocked.”

[3] Heschel, The Prophets, 174. “Life is not as fate designs, nor is history a realm to be tyrannized by man. Events are not like rocks on the shore shaped by wind and water. Choice, design, is what determines the shape of events. God is at work on man, intent to fashion history in accord with Himself.”

[4] Heschel, The Prophets, 174. “Jeremiah was told to go to a potter’s house where he would receive a revelation.”

[5] Rabbi Dr. H. Freedman Jeremiah: with Hebrew text and English Translation. Ed. Rev. Dr. A Cohen. Soncino Books of the Bible. 6th Impression. London: Soncino Press, 1970. 125. v. 4 (marred) “Thomson witnessed such a scene which he describes as follows: ‘From some defect in the clay, or because he had taken too little, the potter suddenly changed his mind, crushed his growing jar instantly into a shapeless mass of mud, and beginning anew, fashioned it into a totally different vessel.’ The application of the simile is not that the house of Israel is bound to be fashioned ultimately as God wishes, as might be concluded from verse 4, but that God dispose absolutely of the destinies of Israel and every other nation, in the same way that the potter does whatever h pleases with the clay.”

[6] ibid.

[7] Freedman, Jeremiah, 125. “The familiar sight of the potter at work with his clay suggests to Jeremiah’s mind a parallel to the working of God with His people. Chapter xviii describe the process of remaking a misshapen vessel and applies it to the fate of the nation.”

[8] John Bright Jeremiah: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. The Anchor Bible. Eds. William Foxwell Albright and David Noel Freedman. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965. 125-126. “Then a word from Yahweh came to Jeremiah explaining to him the meaning of this (vss. 5-6): Yahweh is the potter, and he can do with Israel as the potter does with the clay. But the point is not, as some think, that Yahweh will continue to work patiently with his people and, in spite of the fact that they may temporarily thwart him, will in the end make them the ‘vessel’ that he had intended them to be. This is to misunderstand vs. 4, the point of which is precisely that the clay can frustrate the potter’s intention and cause him to change it: as the quality of the clay determines what the potter can do with it, so the quality of a people determines what God will do with them.”

[9] Heschel, The Prophets, 174. “Sin is not a cul de sac, nor is guilt a final trap. Sin may be washed away by repentance and return, and beyond guilt is the dawn of forgiveness. The door is never locked, the threat of doom is not the last word.”

[10] Heschel, The Prophets, 104. “And yet, Jeremiah did not think that evil was inevitable. Over and above man’s blindness stood the wonder of repentance, the open gateway through which man could enter if he would. Jeremiah’s call was addressed to Israel as a whole as well as to every member of the people (18:11) …”

[11] Heschel, The Prophets, 297. “…the pathos of anger is by no means regarded as an attribute, as a basic disposition, as a quality inherent in the nature of God, but rather as a mood, a state of mind or soul. In both its origin and duration, anger is distinguished from mercy. It is never a spontaneous outburst, but rather a state which is occasioned and conditioned by man. There is a biblical belief in divine grace, in a mercy which is bestowed upon man to a degree greater than he deserves. There is no belief in divine arbitrariness, in an anger which consumes and afflicts without moral justification. The pathos of anger is, further, a transient state.”

[12] Heschel, The Prophets, 197. “The normal and original pathos is love or mercy. Anger is preceded as well as followed by compassion (Jer. 12:15; 33:26). For punishment to be imposed upon the people, God’s ‘love and steadfast mercy’ must be suppressed…Even in moments of indignation, His love remains alive.”

Our Stories This Story: Us

I recommend reading/listening to the sermon from Ash Wednesday, which functions as an introduction to this Lenten series. You can access it here. For the previous sermons in this series, (“The Youth”) click here,(“The Parents”) click here, and (“The Worker”) click here, (“The Old”) click here, and (“The Others”) click here.

Sermon on Isaiah 53: 1-9

Psalm 22:28-30 To [God] alone all who sleep in the earth bow down in worship; all who go down to the dust fall before [God]. My soul shall live for [God]; my descendants shall serve [God]; they shall be known as [God’s] for ever. They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn the saving deeds that [God] has done.

Introduction

What have I become?
My sweetest friend
Everyone I know
Goes away in the end
And you could have it all
My Empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt[1]

Nine Inch Nails “Hurt”

We’ve become a people who pass on death rather than life.

I wish I had better words. But I don’t. We very literally pass on death. We bring life into the world and then that life must come to terms with the fact that it will die. It’s the burden of existence: death. There is no point in time where life is actually safe from the threat of death. Cribs aren’t safe. Car seats aren’t safe. Homes aren’t safe. Businesses aren’t safe. Stores aren’t safe. Schools aren’t safe. Playgrounds aren’t safe. Beaches and mountains aren’t safe. Roads aren’t safe. The air isn’t safe. As someone who has lost three pregnancies, not even my body is safe from the threat of death. We are fragile, fragile beings in a world that carries the dialectic of life in death and death in life.

I hurt myself today
To see if I still feel
I focus on the pain
The only thing that’s real
The needle tears a hole
The old familiar sting
Try to kill it all away
But I remember everything[2]

Nine Inch Nails “Hurt”

We, ourselves, carry the dialectic. New and stronger muscles demand the death of weaker ones. The genetics that give us life and uniqueness also bring the death sentence, sometimes realized too young. Dearly held conceptions of reality that carried us at one point, die to allow new ones in. Hearts thump vibrantly in new love and then break when love turns sour. We give life to new technologies making our life better only to watch them bring us death.

I wear this crown of [Dung]
Upon my liar’s Chair
Full of broken thoughts
I cannot repair
Beneath the stains of time
The feelings disappear
You are someone else
I am still here[3]

Nine Inch Nails “Hurt”

Diving deeper in to human existence, can we even love others, if we don’t act very loving to ourselves? Between habits that have become hindering rather than helpful and narratives that haunt and loom over our mind and spirits, we destroy ourselves in an attempt to survive. It’s a paradox: we will do whatever it takes to survive even if it means dying.

Should I mention our inability to create long-lasting and life-benefitting systems and judgments? We render judgments about others and things, about the world that end up bringing death and not life, or bring life to just a few and take it from others…many, many others deemed worth the sacrifice. Even systems starting off well-meaning and decent become septic when we—in our voracious hubris—would rather die than see something new take its place. We’d rather that people suffer than maybe change the way we think about things because that change would require us to die to something that has brought us (too much?) comfort over the years. We’d rather leave behind people who love us because they’ve changed rather than dare to change with them. We’d rather grow cold than admit defeat or fault.

We’d rather sentence a good man to death than allow him to bring us life.

Isaiah 53: 1-9

He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.
Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people.
They made his grave with the wicked
and his tomb with the rich,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

Isaiah 53:2c-6, 8-9

The agony articulated by one of the Isaiahs is our agony.[4] Today, this is where we are. Agony. We are in agony because we are exposed. Exposed to the core. Some how we must hold our goodness of divine creation and our guilt of complicity in the myriad forms of death swirling all about us. We can be good and guilty. We can be beloved and guilty. (We must ditch the binary of guilty is bad and not-guilty is good. If we can’t, we’ll find ourselves justifying more and more death and violence and our confessions will become more and more false.) We can be good and guilty of participating in systems, narratives, ideologies, theologies, dogmas, doctrines that harm other people and ourselves. I know I am guilty of this. I know you are guilty of this. We are all convicted here.

Isaiah’s prophetic prayer highlights that whether we know it or not, whether we want to admit it or not, we are in agony and are suffering. This suffering is not the product of divine chastisement; it’s the product of our own hands.[5] We are caught up in the muck and mire of the tension between being held captive and being complicit in our suffering and the suffering of others. Isaiah says, all have gone astray, we have all turned to our own way.

So much so that we’d rather sentence a good man to death than allow him to bring us life.

Conclusion

We are in agony, we are suffering, we are led astray, we are isolated, and we are exposed.

We clamored for Jesus’s death and we got it. The judgment of God is surely upon us. Today, in this story, we are reminded that Jesus bore our iniquity…because he bore our very, very bad judgment informed by the doctrines and dogmas of the kingdom of humanity and not the kingdom of God. The weight of that judgment, as we watch and witness the death of God by our hand, renders us to our own death. Today, our stories come to a cataclysmic head-on collision with God’s story; none of us survive.

Today, we realize we do not know what we are doing…


[1] Nine Inch Nails “Hurt” Chorus

[2] Nine Inch Nails “Hurt” Verse 1

[3] Nine Inch Nails “Hurt” Verse 2

[4] Abraham Heschel The Prophets New York, NY: JPS, 1962. 149.

[5] Heschel Prophets 151

The One of Peace

Sermon on Micah 5:2-5a

Luke 1:46b, 53-54 My soul proclaims the greatness of God… God has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich God has sent away empty. God has come to the help of God’s servant Israel, for God has remembered God’s promise of mercy… 

Introduction 

It’s nice to be in charge, right? It’s an ego boost to be the boss, the one where the buck stops. It’s fun to be the leader, the one who decides this and that, and here and there, the one who tells this and that person what to do and what to say. The more power the better, right? For isn’t it in the acquisition of power and dominance—the incessant climbing of the occupational ladder—where I achieve my true human liberty and freedom? As I climb up, I’m freed from the constraints of the lower echelons of human existence, and I finally have that long awaited liberty where none can tread on me. The higher up I move along this ladder, the more I acquire the rewards and accolades of this system, and the more I’m lifted out of the muck and mire of obligation to anyone else. (There’s something wrong with someone who is content with the middle or, God forbid, the lowest rung of the ladder; who wants to stay there?) Here, at the top or near the top, I’m my own law. Here, I am respected. Here, I’m freed from the tyranny of others. Here I’m that which I have strived for: powerful. I get to holler at subordinates and underlings, echoing Eric Cartman from the cartoon series, South Park, “Respect my ah-thor-ah-tah!” It’s nice to be in charge, right?  

Or is it… 

Once I start seeing my leadership in the schema of the personal acquisition of power—and the continual pursuit there in—I will ignore that the ladder I am hoisting myself upon is always made up of the human bodies I was charged to guide and lead in the first place. The bodies will be used to an end to satisfy the unquenchable thirst of a bloated and an autonomous self, untethered from the mores of being human: the humility of existence made tangible in the willing and sometimes not-so-willing self-surrender of the self to other humans in the activity of love. To climb that ladder as far as I can, I must turn off the “human” part of my humanity, which—if you are doing the math—renders to near zero “humanity.” And the farther-up I go pursuing the acquisition of power and privilege, the deeper-in I’m pushed into what can only be described as a solitary confinement with walls built of competition and fear– it only takes one slip (slide?) to fall from that glory. It’s nice to be in charge, right? 

Or is it…. 

Micah 5:2-5a 

And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, 
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. 

And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great 
to the ends of the earth; 

and he shall be the one of peace.  

Micah 5:4-5

The bulk of Micah’s message (from the beginning of the book to the end) is embedded in Micah’s mission to expose the sins of Jacob and Israel, being the first prophet to declare the destruction of Jerusalem.[1] What sins does Micah expose? In short: moral corruption. The long of it is that there is violence (from the wealthy and powerful) and the proliferation of lies.[2] And the even longer of it is: the heads of the houses of Jacob and the rulers of Israel “abhor justice and pervert equity” and the brick and mortar of their cities are the wrong-doing of the leaders and the spilled blood of the people.[3] And, according to Micah who is emboldened by the passionate Spirit of God in the face of such violence,[4] God will not tolerate this depraved leadership, profiting off of the bodies and souls of God’s beloved.[5]

In the prophesy, Micah, so moved by God’s Spirit, transitions from exposing sins and naming the trespasses of Israel’s and Jacob’s leaders to speaking of one who will be raised up from the small clan of Bethlehem of Ephrathah. This one will be of old and of the ancient of days. This humble one from a humble tribe will be called out to lead God’s beloved in the name of God and in the Spirit of God: delighting in unconditional and unceasing love, forgiveness, mercy, and humility.[6] Specifically in our portion of the text, Micah’s prophesy moves toward a God who rejects the idea of letting iniquity run amok[7] even if the city itself is complacent.[8] so, God comes, and in that God comes, there will be forgiveness and peace because when God comes, so to comes the true leadership of Israel defined not by humanity but by God, the one of peace.[9]

Conclusion

Micah’s words haunt me. Israel’s leadership has run away with Israel for its own power and privilege. And God is coming to rescue God’s beloved. Woe to that leadership so bent on self-aggrandizement and power and authority and privilege; violent leadership that uses the beloved as a means to their own end will be exposed in God’s light of truth. Leadership so bent in this way is in direct opposition to God and God’s conception of leading and can meet no other end in God but death. God has a very specific interpretation of what it means to lead, especially leading God’s beloved: it is done through mercy, kindness, humility, love, and forgiveness. To be completely frank, God doesn’t like it when human leaders forget themselves and become drunk with power and abusive and violent, resulting in the oppression and marginalization of God’s beloved. God will come and rescue the beloved from such domination. Thus, the judgment of this prophecy is targeted at me, the leader of God’s beloved—and others like me holding power and authority. God will come for the beloved and in that the beloved is sought and liberated from oppressive and violent leadership, so too will the violent and oppressive leaders be liberated. It’s nice to be in charge, right? Or is it?

With what shall I come before the Lord,
    and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
    with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
    with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:7-8

It’s into the presence of God I am called. I am pulled off my ladder of power and am dragged onto the carpet; I am beckoned into the light; I am exposed by the Spirit’s prophetic utterance still fresh on Micah’s lips. I am asked to come close and to hear and to see what means to be a good leader. And, it’s not defined in the way that I think it should be: through the acquisition of more and more power and lording it over those under my charge. It won’t look like making people feel small so I can feel big. It won’t even look elite, special, or privileged. Rather, this good leader will look remarkably like a humble and vulnerable infant wrapped in meager rags, laid in a manger, dwelling among the creation in its earthy glory, surrounded by dirty shepherds and an exhausted woman of color. I am asked here: can you lead like this? For here lies the true leader, the one from the ancient of days who knows no end of time but is now a tiny baby in swaddling clothes: humble and accessible to anyone; can you lead like this…of the people for the people? Can you love them like I do?

That this prophetic utterance of Micah is for me it is for you, too. Because divine love does not remain dormant when the beloved is in need: hope exists. We can, right now during this season of Advent in 2021, hope. We can hope because we dwell in and are invited into a story of God acting on behalf of the beloved by coming in the judgment of God’s love to give life to all the beloved trapped and held captive in violent systems—when the captive is set free, so too will the captor be set free through death into new life. We are all beckoned—leaders and the lead alike—to walk humble with God and like God, in love and mercy and forgiveness and humility. And we are called to walk this way not just here in this place, but out in the world, furthering the elastic reach of divine love in the world and for the beloved out there.

O come, Desire of nations,

bind in one the hearts of all [hu]mankind;

bid thou our sad divisions cease

and be thy self our King of Peace.

O come, O come Emmanuel,

and ransom captive Israel,

that mourns in lonely exile here

until the Son of God appear.


[1] 1 Abraham J. Heschel The Prophets “Micah” New York: JPS, 1962. 98 “Micah, a contemporary of Isaiah, apparently regarded the purpose of his mission to be ‘to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin’ (3:8). He was the first prophet to predict the destruction of Jerusalem.” 

[2] Heschel Prophets 98. “In his eyes the fatal sin is the sin of moral corruption. The rich men are full of violence, and the inhabitants speak lies: ‘Their tongue is deceitful in their mouth’ (6:12).”

[3] Heschel Prophets 98 “The prophet directs his rebuke particularly against the ‘heads of the house of Jacob and the rulers of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity.’ It is because ‘they build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong’ (3:9-10) that Zion and Jerusalem will be destroyed.”

[4] Heschel Prophets 99. “To the soul of Micah, the taste of God’s word is bitter. In his love for Zion and his people, he is tormented by the vision of the things to come…” 

[5] Heschel Prophets 99. “Here, amidst a people who walk haughtily (2:3), stands a prophet who relentlessly predicts disaster and disgrace for the leaders as well as for the nation, maintaining that ‘her wound is incurable’ (1:9), that the Lord is ‘devising evil’ against the people: ‘It will be an evil time’ (2:3).” 

[6] Heschel Prophets 99. “Micah does not question the justice of the severe punishment which he predicts for his people. Yet it is not in the name of justice that he speaks but in the name of a God who ‘delights in steadfast love,’ ‘pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression’ (7:18).” 

[7] Heschel Prophets 100 “Yet, there is reluctance and sorrow in that anger. It is as if God were apologizing for His severity, for His refusal to be complacent to iniquity. This is God’s apology to Israel. He cannot forget ‘the treasures of wickedness in the house of the wicked’ or ‘acquit the man with wicked scales and with a bag of deceitful weights’ (6:10, 11).”

[8] Heschel Prophets 100 “‘Answer Me!’ calls the voice of God. But who hears the call? ‘The voice of the Lord cries to the city’ (6:9), but the city is complacent.”

[9] Heschel Prophets 101 “Together with the word of doom, Micah proclaims the vision of redemption. God will forgive ‘the remnant of His inheritance,’ and will cast all their sins ‘into the depths of the sea’ (7:18 f.), and every man shall sit under his vine and ‘under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid’ (4:4).”

Who Can Stand?

Sermon on Malachi 3:1-4

The Song of Zechariah Luke 1:78-79 In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Introduction

Judgment. We love to hate it, and we love to do it. When we are judged or when we judge other people, we are experiencing a moment where either we are being evaluated by someone else or we are doing the evaluating. In being judged and judging, we are failing to measure up or someone else is. In positioning oneself as judge or being caught in that eye of judgment creates an imbalance of power: someone in the equation is holding more of the power. It makes sense why Christians are exhorted—by Jesus!—not to judge other people by the externals, because there’s more to a person than what meets our eye. This is why we don’t like being judged because, hey, maybe I’m just having a bad day, don’t judge! Like being an exhausted parent with two toddlers and a screaming infant in a store and expressing frustration; I’m not a bad mom, don’t look at me like that because I was snappy with them…and no, I’m not going to miss this phase…stop.

We judge others (and others judge us) to self-validate, and this desire for self-validation exposes that our judgmentalism is less about the other person and more about us: we are found lacking when we find lack in others. And the way we judge others reveals our hypocrisy. Our judgment of others, our eagerness to remove the speck from their eye while ignoring the log in our own, is the action that exposes the fundamental problem of a hardened heart caught in a desperate fight to be worthy, to be loved, to be thought good. And we will do whatever it takes to be worthy, to be loved, to be thought good, so we thrust ourselves on that hamster wheel of performance and find anything to self-validate even if it is by the failures of others… at least I’m not like her…

But I am; I am very much her. I’ve been in the shoes of so many people I’ve judged in my feeble attempts to make myself feel better about myself. I’ve been that “bad” driver, that “bad” mom, that “bad” teacher, that biased and stuck thinker, that arrogant and pedantic scholar…the one who was too angry to forgive, to hurt to admit it, too comfortable to fight for peace and justice… And if we can feel safe here and are willing to be honest, I bet I’m not alone. We all have similar confessions.

I know, it’s not Lent. And yet, I know I’m heading down a lent-like train of thought but stay with me. What if part of this stark realization is part of the good news of Advent? What if coming to terms with who and what I am in all my robust humany glory, makes the expectation of Advent more spectacular?

Malachi 3:1-4

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight– indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

Malachi 3:1-2b

The message of Malachi is as follows: God knows those who fear him and those who do not, and He desires his people to repent and turn to Him and Torah (3:7). Malachi, in prophetic tones, asks the people to consider themselves, to take a deep look at who they are in their daily life and as worshippers of God—are they helping or hindering the relationship between God and God’s people? [1] The warning that Malachi ends with in his short prophetic disputation[2] is a word of judgment: utter destruction hangs in the balance if the people do not realign with God and with neighbor. For all intents and purposes, Malachi cries out: Pay attention! He pleads with his audience, Take heed; this is serious! Judgment comes! And this minor prophet closes with a question: on whom will judgment fall?

The God of Israel is the God who heard the cries of Israel from the bowls of suffering in Egypt and is the same God who then came and rescued Israel from that captivity and ushered them into freedom. If this is the same God of whom both the major and minor prophets speak of and speak for, then we can be certain this is the same God who will also deal with people who abuse God’s people, who hinder them from God, who steal their livelihood, who judge them as inferior, failures, maybe even inhuman. In being unloving toward their neighbor, they do not love God and “profane the covenant.”[3] God will come, and God may be angry when God does.

But here’s the complex thing about God, the God worshipped in Judah and Israel is not bound to our mythic conceptions of the small and petty angry god who never stops being angry.[4] Our strict either/or interpretation of emotionality is exceptionally problematic. Emotional states are not ontological definitions. Even here in Malachi, as he leaves his people with a question about the coming judgment of God, God’s love is eternal; God’s anger isn’t.[5] God’s anger is momentary and happens, but it doesn’t abide forever; God’s love does.[6] It abides, because love is an ontological definition: divine love—the love that has been since the very beginning of the cosmos—isn’t a fleeting emotion or feeling but a permanent presence, an eternal reality forever moving into infinity, always in pursuit of the beloved. It’s this love that exposes the beloved not unto death for death’s sake but unto life.

Conclusion

Malachi closes his proclamation and disputation with the twin questions “On whom will judgment fall?” and “Who can stand?” And when our eyes meet with these words, our heart races and things get warm under the collar, looking around—with panic and fear—we are speechless. We fear the answer. We fear this divine judgment, this divine anger, will fall on us and crush us. We know who we are deep down; we know we are guilty: guilty of infractions, disobedience, not-love, of desperately trying to make our selves better than others, of unfaithfulness, ignoring, pretending, and judging.

But, what if in this profound and visceral exposure is our life? What if in our bold grasp of what is and who we are we find actual life? This isn’t to say you are rotten or horrible or an object made for destruction; none of that. Rather, it’s to turn that inner judge on oneself in the light of truth, and it’s in this light of truth where we find life.

God’s judgment does come, and it will fall on us, and under it we will not be able to stand. God will come to earth, born to an unwed woman of color. And this baby whom this woman will nurse, we will curse; the one whom Mary will birth, we will sentence to death. In that wrong judgment of an innocent other, we will be encountered by the right judgment of God. We will be exposed, fully. Face to face with God, we will be illuminated—from head to toe, from the core of our being to edge of our skin—by the essence of divine presence: Love.

Don’t get me wrong: you do not escape the rendering unto death of divine judgment; in being fully exposed in the light of love made known to us in the Word of Christ—the proclamation of God’s love in the world—you will collapse under the weight of what you see. But, in that collapse you fall into God, and that means falling farther into the source of love and life. It’s this love and life you receive back because God does not leave the beloved in the depth of the abyss of death but calls her out and onto the solid ground of life.

Where we expect destruction and death (death unto death), there is new creation and new life (death unto life). We expect that in God’s coming judgment we will be destroyed by wrath, but we are met with the consuming love of God who renders the beloved new by bringing her through death into new life in God, fueled by the Spirit of God.

Divine Love comes, born vulnerable and placed in a manger wrapped in meager swaddling rags. This one, Jesus the Christ, the son of Mary, will bear the burden of the full weight of God’s Love. It’s this babe who will bear the burden of bringing God’s love to everyone even if it means going outside the city limits. It’s this child of parents fleeing oppression who will bear the burden of standing in love and solidarity with human beings suffering in pain and sorrow, in toil and strain, stuck in captivity even if it means his life for theirs.

Beloved, in the expectation of Advent, Love comes… on whom will it fall? Who can stand?


[1] Ehud Ben Zvi “Malachi” The Jewish Study Bible JPS (Oxford: OUP, 2004). 1268. “The readers of the book of Malachi are asked to look at some pitfalls in everyday life and in the cult at the Temple, and particular at how they affect the relationship between the Lord and Israel, resulting in a lack of prosperity. Issues concerning proper offerings, marriage practices, and tithes are especially prominent in the book.”

[2] Zvi “Malachi” 1269, “The use of a disputation format … allows the readers some limited form of self-identification with the actions of the evildoers, and as such serves as a call for them to examine themselves and repent.”

[3] Abraham J. Heschel The Prophets “Jeremiah” New York: JPS, 1962. 170. “In the words of a later prophet [after Jeremiah], ‘Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our fathers?’ (Mal. 2:10).”

[4] Heschel, Prophets, 289. “The ancient conception that the gods are spiteful seems to linger on in the mind of modern man, and inevitably the words of the Hebrew Bible are seen in the image of this conception. In gods who are spiteful, anger is a habit or a disposition. The prophets never speak of an angry God as if anger were His disposition. Even those who dwell more on His anger than on His mercy explicitly or implicitly accentuate the contrast”

[5] Heschel, Prophets, 289. “Again and again we are told that God’s love or kindness (hesed) goes on forever…we are never told that His anger goes on forever.”

[6] Heschel, Prophets, 290. “Anger is always described as a moment, something that happens rather than something that abides. The feeling expressed by the rabbis that even divine anger must not last beyond a minute seems to be implied in the words of the prophets…”

God Comes, Emmanuel

Sermon on Jeremiah 33:14-16

Psalm 25:3-5  Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long. Remember, O Lord, your compassion and love, for they are from everlasting. (48)

Introduction

Exceptional grief and sorrow don’t last forever. I remember a couple of years ago, around this time, that I entered into a period of marrow-deep sadness. At the end of 2019, a few negative external events collided with an already present sorrow blended with grief abiding in my soul, and then I was swept into the deep waters of sadness. While I was functional—the gift of being a detached observer—I felt the pain when I was alone. Then, as 2019 turned 2020 and 2020 let down it’s mask revealing itself for the virus laden threat to human existence that it was, I was further pushed into the depths of those deep waters, feeling as if I was just barely keeping above the threatening abyss opened below me.

One chilly afternoon in the middle of a deep south Louisianan winter, I sat on a couch in my therapist’s office expressing my pain through tears, she told me, this intensity of emotional pain only lasts for 45 minutes; if you can make it through 45 minutes, it will alleviate. Your body and mind and soul know they can only handle so much. I trusted her. So, the next time I felt the suction into darkness and pain, instead of trying to numb or run from it, I just sat there in and with it like a blanket draped over me—the intensity of sorrow and grief washing over me, and then, like she said, it would lift. It would not lift completely, but it lifted just enough for me to catch a breath, stretch, fall asleep, care for my kids, and sometimes even laugh and see beauty in what was before me and with me.

Nothing excruciating lasts forever. It can feel like excruciatingly painful moments and events last forever, but they don’t. Even in the deepest and most profound sorrow, things will lighten up emotionally. Even in the scariest moments, that fear will lighten up. Rage will dissipate. Even extreme bliss and happiness will mellow. (This is why there’s caution against chasing the dragon of “happiness”; you cannot sustain such an eternal and infinite sensation; it’s why it’s okay to be “okay.”) While it’s probably easier for most of us to climb down from extreme happiness than climb out of extreme sorrow, it’s nice to know extreme sorrow and grief do not linger forever.

Jeremiah 33:14-16

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”

Jeremiah 33:14-16

Our First Testament reading is from the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah is the weeping and suffering prophet. The words of Jeremiah’s prophecies tell of a soul who felt incredible pain, felt the threat of doom, the urgency of repentance because he felt the tremors and the footfalls of divine presence drawing nigh and with it, divine judgment; but nothing he did or said could cause the people to respond. So, he lived with an immense feeling of failure.[1] “He screamed, wept, moaned—and was left with a terror in his soul.”[2]

Through these feelings, the divine word sought God’s people, the beloved. Jeremiah exhorted—through prediction—pestilence, slaughter, famine and captivity (ref. Jer. 15.2).[3] God’s judgment was coming: turn and repent! Jeremiah cried. But when that judgment came to Israel and Judah, Jeremiah switched gears; the prophet of sorrow became the herald of good tidings offering hope and comfort to those who were heavy burdened.[4]  Jeremiah, in our passage, is in this role, and he tells the people of God, the God who fulfills promises who is fulfilling God’s good word.[5] The wailing and weeping, the long suffering and existential dread, the fear of threat and weight of burden will not last forever, says Jeremiah. God will rescue! God will redeem! God will save! God will comfort and bring rest! God will act! Do not lose hope Jerusalem; shema! Do not lose hope, Judah; shema!

This God on whose behalf Jeremiah speaks is the God of the covenant—the covenant made with all of Israel—the covenant through which God yoked God’s self to Israel, forever being their God and they forever God’s people. This covenant will be fulfilled not through the obedience of Judah and Jerusalem, but by God and God’s self; it is this that gives the covenant that eternal and divine actuality. It will never and can never be violated; God will keep it.[6] Weeping, writes Jeremiah in chapter 50, the people shall come and seek God who has come near, who is near in comfort and love, in rest from burden and weariness.[7] The true shoot of Jesse, the scion, the heir will come;[8] the Messianic King comes to make manifest God’s divine presence and eternal love to God’s people and to bring in all who suffer and weep, those who grieve, those who are in pain, those who are wearied.[9] Extreme sorrow and grief do not and will not last forever.

Conclusion

Everything that we’ve been through in the past (near) 20 months has not been taken in as single unit. Walking through a global pandemic and social upheaval, barely keeping our hearts and minds and bodies and souls intact isn’t something we do all at once. Rather, we do it 45 minutes at a time. I know that the demand to keep walking, to keep getting up, to keep breathing one breathe at a time can feel daunting in times like this. I know you may feel like you just can’t keep going at times; but I know you can.

I know you can because you’re not alone; and you’ve not been alone—even if it felt like you’ve been alone and isolated. The truth is, you’ve been embraced by God and by the eternal cloud of saints who move ahead, alongside, behind, and with you. And I know this because I’ve had the honor and privilege to be called to walk with you these past twelve months. Through ups and downs, masked and unmasked, in moments of chaos and calm, in change and consistency, I’ve watched you walk, one foot in front of the other, one step at a time, through this time—this very historical and very difficult time. And you’ve done it every day with God and with each other, bonded together through the divinity of profound and real love. And the only thing I’ve needed to do, because God’s love for you presses upon me, is remind you that you are the beloved.

And as we enter this new season of liturgy and worship of Advent, let us be consumed with that deep abiding knowledge and peace that comes with the ever-present love of God. Let us come into expectation, let us be brought (together) to the brink of curiosity as we await—with breathless anticipation—the humble arrival of the divine Christ, God’s love born in flesh into the world to reconcile the world to God, to eliminate any and all thought that there’s any such great distance to be crossed to God by God’s people.  

Beloved, extreme sorrow and grief will not last forever, behold, Immanuel, God with us.


[1] Abraham J. Heschel The Prophets “Jeremiah” New York: JPS, 1962. 105. “Jeremiah’s was a soul in pain, stern with gloom. To his wistful eye the city’s walls seemed to reel. The days that were to come would be dreadful. He called, he urged his people to repent—and he failed.”

[2] Heschel Prophets 105

[3] Heschel Prophets 129. “For many years Jeremiah had predicted pestilence, slaughter, famine, and captivity (15:2).

[4] Heschel Prophets 129. “However, when calamity arrived, in the hour of panic and terror, when every face was turned pale with dark despair, the prophet came to instill hope, to comfort, to console …”

[5] John Bright Jeremiah: A new Translation with Introduction and Commentary The Anchor Bible. William Foxwell Albright and David Noel Freedman gen eds. 2nd Ed. 1986 Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965. 296. v. 14 “fulfill the promise. Literally ‘…the good word.’”

[6] Heschel Prophets 129-130. “The climax of Jeremiah’s prophecy is the promise of a covenant which will mean not only complete forgiveness of sin (50:20), but also a complete transformation of Israel. In time to come God will give Israel ‘one heart and one way’ and make with them “an everlasting covenant” (32:39-40), which will never be violated (50:40).”

[7] Heschel Prophets 129. “The rule of Babylon shall pass, but God’s covenant with Israel shall last forever. The day will come when ‘the people of Israel and the people of Judah shall come together, weeping as they come, and they shall seek the Lord their God They shall ask the way to Zion, with faces turned toward it, saying, Come, let us join ourselves to the Lord in an everlasting covenant which will never be forgotten’ (50:4-5). Jerusalem will dwell secure under the watchword, ‘The Lord is our vindication’ (33:16).”

[8] Bright Jeremiah 296. v. 15 “a true ‘Shoot.’ Or ‘Branch (so many EVV), i.e., a scion…But Note (vs. 17) that here the promise is broadened to include not merely a single king, but the continuing dynasty.”

[9] Bright Jeremiah 298. “The name Yahwehsidqenu, which is there applied to the Messianic king, is here transferred to Judah and Jerusalem, while the promise of the true ‘Shoot’ of David is referred (vs. 17) to the continuing dynasty rather than to a single individual. Moreover, the promise is broadened to include a never-ending succession of Levitical priests who serve beside the king.”

and The Possibility Opens

Sermon on Jeremiah 31:31-34

Psalm 51: 11-3 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence and take not your holy Spirit from me. Give me the joy of your saving help again and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit. (49)

Introduction

I was diagnosed with Dyslexia as a young girl. I didn’t read “right”. From what I recall, letters jumped places, words flipped about, the sentences moved to their own beat—every written page was a gymnastics competition and those words were gold medalists. The diagnosis strapped me with insecurities about my intelligence and a disdain for reading. According to the diagnosis, I didn’t have the potential to read well because I was a “bad” reader. I lived into the idea that I wasn’t a “reader. My act of reading exposed I didn’t have the potential to read well. In our performance and production driven economy, it’s the actuality of the act that is esteemed. I wasn’t a reader because my actions demonstrated that I wasn’t.

Referring to Aristotle’s Metaphysics: this is what is known as actuality having priority over possibility. Aristotle’s ontological priority of actuality over possibility equates to the simple equation: yet v. not-yet. “Yet” being more important than “not-yet”; “not yet” means nothing if it is never actualized into “Yet”. Even though the actual is derived from the possible (the “yet” from the “not yet”), the possible strives toward the actual (like a seed striving to become actualized as a plant). [1] For Aristotle, actuality is both origin and goal of the possible, thus the possible serves and is subordinate to that actual.[2]

In that possibility serves actuality, actuality has primary position over possibility. Actuality is preferred and determines what the possibility was. So, we can say: one wasted their potential by not realizing it into actuality. Oh, she had so much potential! we say of people who have made “bad choices.” (As if potential can be “wasted” away if it’s not acted on.) The smart student who gets Ds also gets the obligatory look of disappointment. There was potential but it was never actualized as act; thus the potential is inferior in value to the actual and rendered as pointless apart from action.

But what if Aristotle was wrong?

Jeremiah 31-34

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah…But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

Jeremiah 31: 31, 33

Jeremiah prophesies about a new covenant God will make between God and God’s people. This new covenant will, according to Jeremiah, “…not be like the covenant that I [God] made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke…” (Jer 31). According to Jeremiah, it is not the fault of the content of the previous covenant, but the fault of the people: [3] they are unable to perform according to the covenant established on the far side of the Red Sea as they stood in the shadow of Mt. Sinai receiving the revelation of the law, Torah.[4] Leaving the Torah outside of the people as words carved in stone—as a thing to be actualized out of human possibility—was failing. The command to love God imparted to the stones, needed to be imparted to the hearts of the people.[5] The people needed the actual to manifest the possible.

In Deuteronomy the great Shema of chapter 6 is the heart of Jewish liturgy. The word shema means: to hear so deeply that you do.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Deuteronomy 6:4-9

While Israel promised that they would obey this and other commands they received from God, they didn’t. This didn’t render the Torah, the revelation of the Law, in error or wrong; rather, it exposed a deeper and bigger issue: a human inability to hear so well and so deeply that love comes forth. (The possibility of doings wasn’t manifesting into act.) In Dt 10,[6] God commands Israel to circumcise the foreskin of their hearts so that they obey God’s commands. But then, in Dt 30, Moses prophesies God’s promise that God will circumcise their hearts so that they will love God as they should.[7] The people needed the actual to manifest the possible.

Jeremiah is picking up on that promise. God is going to act on the inner life of Israel so that the love of God and of God’s people is written on their hearts of flesh rather than on tablets of stone. Relying on manifested human potential as act wasn’t working. Jeremiah stands in solidarity with God in God’s passionate zeal for God’s beloved people and creation.[8] He is filled with the divine pathos hearing God’s voice and feeling God’s love and heralds to the people this new promise: God will act not only on behalf of but also in God’s people. God will act on and in the people in a way that will create possibility for obedience to love; God will manipulate actuality, parting space like water and stopping time like the rains of the heavens and create room for the possible. Jeremiah exhorts and encourages, Shema, O Israel!

No longer will Israel have to wrestle with the inner failure of potential failing to become actual, with hearts that listen but do not truly hear. Rather, they will be caught in the divine activity that is oriented toward possibility. When God sweeps in and moves God’s people, in that actuality there is possibility. Thus, we say with confidence: with God all things are possible. God acts in our time and space, in our material realm and makes room for things that were not but now can be. In God’s economy it is not that possibility serves actuality, that potential serves act, but the opposite: actuality serves possibility, act serves potential, and the possible has primacy over what is actual.

Conclusion

It was in high school, during the later half of Junior year, where I wanted to receive untimed testing for the SATs. I was, as the test concluded in elementary school, dyslexic. My guidance councilor thought it was a good idea, but I had to be tested first before I’d be granted untimed testing. So, I sat for a test. A week later I sat with the examiner as she gave me my results. She explained before she went over my test that the test answers are scored on a scale of 1-14, 14 being the highest number and 1 being the lowest. The higher the score, the less a need for untimed testing. She opened my results and showed me a list of 14s and 12s with a 10 here and there. She laughed kindly, I’m sorry, there’s no way I can recommend an untimed test with these high scores. I was baffled. Where did my dyslexia go? I asked. Apparently, your brain fixed it, she replied. Becoming a good reader had nothing to do with “potential” made “actual” but about actuality making space and time for the possibility of being a good reader.

We take the actual and make it the final because we are taken with our deeds and actions as the final verdict of who we are as human beings on this planet; we’ve believed the lie that actuality has priority over possibility. We put too much stock in actions as determinant of who and what a person is. And this means we are focused on the past that we miss the divine activity of the future right in front of us for us.[1] We get wrapped up in what is, we miss what could be. What is isn’t all there is. And what is allows us the creativity and imagination to dream of what isn’t yet. As those encountered by God in the event of faith, we are people of possibility rather than only actuality. Here in lies our hope. A pandemic has disrupted what is; so, what could be? Where can we go from here? Can we dare to be people who face the anti-Asian racism plaguing this land, that eight lives were taken for no other reason than hate? Can our society meet the survival needs of people who find themselves stuck between two choices, work or don’t work, where both end in death? Can our society fight for the lives of Black, Indigenous people of color? Can our society become a safe place for people to be who they are, what they are, and love those whom they love freely?

What we have now doesn’t have to be what we have tomorrow; what we’re accustomed to isn’t all there is. Possibility has priority over actuality. There’s more than what the eye can see. Because sometimes the man on the donkey is a divine king in disguise and a state sanctioned instrument of death becomes a tool for the victory of life. For the beloved, what is isn’t ever all there is.


[1] Heschel Prophets 211 “Here, knowledge is not the same as thought, comprehension, gnosis or mystical participation in the ultimate essence. Knowledge of God is action toward man, sharing His concern for justice; sympathy in action. Inner identification with God’s will and concern is the goal of the new covenant…”


[1]   The quotation is from Aristotle’s Metaphysics “(2) In time it is prior in this sense: the actual which is identical in species though not in number with a potentially existing thing is prior to it. I mean that to this particular man who now exists actually and to the corn and to the seeing subject the matter and the seed and that which is capable of seeing, which are potentially a man and corn and seeing, but not yet actually, so are prior in time; but prior in time to these are other actually existing things, from which they were produced. For from the potentially existant the actually existing is always produced by an actually existant thing, e.g. man from man, musician by musician; there is always a first mover, and the mover already exists actually. We have said in our account of substance that everything that is produced is something produced from something and by something, and that the same in species as it” 1049b 19-28.

[2]   Eberhard Jüngel “Possibility”. 99-100. Referring to Aristotle: “So actuality is the origin and goal of all that comes into being, and possibility exists for the sake of actuality. Possibility stands in teleological relation to actuality.”

[3] JPS Study Bible Marvin A. Sweeney “Jeremiah” Eds Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler Jeremiah 31:31 New York, NY: OUP 2004 “The new covenant has been interpreted by Christians as a prophecy of the new covenant though Jesus (New Testament means new covenant), but here it refers to the restoration of Israel after the Babylonian exile and the reconstruction of the Temple. According to this passage, it is not the content of the new covenant which will be different, but how it is learned.”

[4] Exodus 19:1ff

[5] JPS Study Bible Jeremiah 31:33-34 “God places the Teaching, i.e., the Torah, in the inmost being or heart of the people so that the covenant cannot be broken again. This idea is developed in later Lurianic kabbalah, which maintains that all persons have a divine spark within. Since it is so inscribed, there will be no need for the Torah to be taught.”

[6] Deuteronomy 10:12-22, “12 So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God[c] and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being. 14 Although heaven and the heaven of heavens belong to the Lord your God, the earth with all that is in it, 15 yet the Lord set his heart in love on your ancestors alone and chose you, their descendants after them, out of all the peoples, as it is today. 16 Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer. 17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, 18 who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. 19 You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. 20 You shall fear the Lord your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear. 21 He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and awesome things that your own eyes have seen. 22 Your ancestors went down to Egypt seventy persons; and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars in heaven.”

[7] Moreover, the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live. The Lord your God will put all these curses on your enemies and on the adversaries who took advantage of you. Then you shall again obey the Lord, observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today, and the Lord your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings, in the fruit of your body, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your soil. For the Lord will again take delight in prospering you, just as he delighted in prospering your ancestors, 10 when you obey the Lord your God by observing his commandments and decrees that are written in this book of the law, because you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

[8] Abraham J. Heschel The Prophets New York, NY: JPS, 1962. 25 “The prophet is not a mouthpiece, but a person; not an instrument, but a partner, an associate of God. Emotional detachment would be understandable only if there were a command which required the suppression of emotion, forbidding one to serve God ‘with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might.’ God, we are told, asks not only for ‘works,’ for action, but above all for love, awe, and fear. We are called upon to ‘wash’ our hearts (Jer. 4:14), to remove ‘the foreskin’ of the heart (Jer. 4:4), to return with the whole heart (Jer. 3:10). ‘You will seek Me and find Me, when you seek Me with all your heart’ (Jer. 29:13). The new covenant which the Lord will make with the house of Israel will be written upon their hearts (Jer. 31:31-34).”

[9] Heschel Prophets 211 “Here, knowledge is not the same as thought, comprehension, gnosis or mystical participation in the ultimate essence. Knowledge of God is action toward man, sharing His concern for justice; sympathy in action. Inner identification with God’s will and concern is the goal of the new covenant…”

In Rags and Wood

Sermon on Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Canticle 15: My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. Amen

Introduction

Sermons on love are often so lofty the subject—God’s love—becomes too other worldly and abstract, beyond human grasp, and of no earthly good. These sermons leave congregants grasping at the actuality of God’s love like grasping at oil; there’s nothing in your hand but the residual of what brushed past it. Preachers get in pulpits on Sunday and proclaim the word of comfort—God loves the beloved and the beloved is us (all of us)—then turn around and make that word so abstract and comfortable the divine love communicated about is not communicated to those who have ears to hear. It’s safer to preach abstract love that doesn’t touch down in the material realm in action and conviction because God forbid those coins cease hitting beloved coffers. We love the idea of divine love for us. If we’re honest, we don’t know what that means apart from some safe ideas we’ve memorized from Sunday school, gathered from the repetition of creeds, and absorbed by the incessant bombardment of dogmas.

Love is a remarkable and profound thing surging through the cosmos since the beginning of time—love neither started with us nor will it end with us. While the neuro response to love—both loving and being loved—is locatable in the brain and we can describe the way it feels, science and her scientists cannot figure out the why or the source or, coupled to attraction, the reason it’s this person and not that person. While society has historically tried to dictate who we can love, love knows not artificial man-made boundaries—love transcends and tears down walls and fences built to keep some in and others out. Love is more than a feeling and full of action in a material world.

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God…” (Is. 61:1-2b)

Isaiah begins by confessing: the “spirit of the Lord God is upon” me. He speaks of something beyond comfortable feeling; he speaks of ruah. Ruah, a word used to describe the breath of God animating soil in Genesis, is the spirit of God, the pathos, the passion, and the emotion of God. [1] It is this spirit that is upon Isaiah. This spirit anoints Isaiah…to do what? Not to perform sacrifices, not to stand high and mighty, not to be clad in fancy robe behind tables decorated with gold and fine stone, not to swing incense, to be solemn, or to be feared for his authority. [2] Rather, it’s significantly humbler than we could imagine. Isaiah’s anointing by the spirit of God is to herald good tidings to the oppressed, to bind and have mercy on the suffering, and to proclaim liberty to the captives. In other words, it’s to proclaim to God’s people God’s great love for them.

Isaiah speaks of being endowed with the proclamation of God’s dynamic and active love to God’s people (Ruah). He also speaks of a divine day of favor and divine day of vengeance. Isaiah intentionally throws allusion to the year of Jubilee detailed in the book of Leviticus (cf. chapter 25). The liberative activity of God’s love coming in material form to God’s people is physical and not merely psychological—debts forgiven freeing both the debtor and the creditor. [3] Thus, the juxtaposition here of God’s favor and day of vengeance is intriguing. Make no mistake, Isaiah is intentional with his words. And I’m sure, as we like to do, that day of vengeance is sitting a bit heavy. But don’t lose heart just yet, stay with me; this isn’t bad news. The day of favor and the day of vengeance are one and the same day.

The twin divine decree sounding from Isaiah’s mouth is one of comfort and confrontation, and both are oriented toward the divine art of divine love: God loves God’s people. Isaiah is exhorted by the spirit being upon him…

“…to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion—to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.” (Is. 61:2c-3).

To comfort those who mourn is to confront those who caused the mourning; to take away ashes and crown with garlands is to raise up those who were made low and to remove the distinction with those who were (already) raised up, thus lowering them; to embolden spirits is to give strength to those who are weak making them as strong as those who were strong. To bring comfort to captives through their liberation is to come into confrontation with captors by liberating them from holding captive.* To bring good news to the oppressed is to confront the oppressor and illuminate the oppressor’s own oppression in the system. God’s love liberates all people from violent and oppressive kingdoms of humanity. [4]

“For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed” (Is. 61:8-9)

Isaiah proclaims God’s desire: justice. God loves justice and hates robbery and wrongdoing. Echoing other prophets of Israel: God cares about those who are suffering under and because of unjust systems. For Isaiah and the other prophets of Israel, there is a tight link between God’s love of justice and our right worship. There’s no way around it. You can be the most pious person, wear all the right robes, say the words, bow here and kneel there, you can perform the most sacred of ceremonies, but if you are also actively participate and uphold oppressive and violent systems in word and deed, your worship is “detestable” to God. [5] According to Isaiah, there’s one way to serve God: love. Specifically, the love of neighbor in the pursuit of God defined justice and righteousness, mercy and peace.[6]

Let us not forget the way Isaiah opened up this proclamation: ““The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me..” (Is. 1). It’s come full circle. This spirit which is also God’s desire and pathos has become Isaiah’s. [7] The math here is simple: being indwelled with God’s spirit, Isaiah’s desire is the same as God’s: a love of justice and dislike of robbery and wrongdoing. Thus, it is for us. As those encountered by God in the event of faith, brought out of death into new life, that new life in the world is marked by the pathos of God: active love for justice and righteousness, mercy and peace.[8]

Conclusion

“For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations” (Is. 61:11)

God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven, Isaiah proclaims. God’s love will triumph. In other words, divine justice and righteousness prevails over injustice and unrighteousness. The day of divine favor for the oppressed will be the day of vengeance for the oppressor and love will win both out of death into life.

But…How? In a dire and precarious way no one expects: a baby born to a young woman. God will descend into the human predicament to suffer the human predicament and will not remain above it. This is divine love: to come low, to descend to the beloved. “The coming of Jesus is the bond, the event of descending love, is the appearing of new life, of life undreamt of, of eternal life in the earthly life.”[9]

Born thy people to deliver,

born a child, and yet a king,

born to reign in us for ever,

now thy gracious kingdom bring.

Love drives us toward and into each other’s burdens, to share the weight, to call things as they are, to provide relief and to comfort. This love knows no bounds, it descends to the depths of human existence, into the muck and mire of suffering and pain and grief; it searches out across vast spaces looking for the beloved who is missing; it surges into the fringes and margins of society to proclaim in word and deed “Beloved” to those who’ve only heard “unlovable”. [10] It’s not found in our personal piety defined by the superiority of our self-righteousness, it’s not found in glory but in humility,[11] not in gold but in wood, not in rich and clean robes in stone buildings but swaddled in rags in a manger.


*The Work of David Justice on Martin Luther King, Jr., and King’s conception of the Beloved Community and Creative Rage does excellently to detail out in more detail how the liberation of the oppressed is good news for the oppressor.

[1] Abraham J. Heschel Prophets NY, NY: JPS, 1962. 315. “The word ruah means, according to standard dictionaries, ‘air in motion, breath, wind, vain things, spirit, mind.’ What was not noticed is that one of the chief uses of the word ruah is to denote pathos, passion or emotion—the state of the soul. When combined with another word, it denotes a particular type of pathos or emotion.”

[2] Heschel Prophets 195 “Sacred fire is burning on the altars in many lands. Animals are being offered to the glory of the gods. Priests burn incense, songs of solemn assemblies fill the air Pilgrims are on the roads, pageantries in the sacred places. The atmosphere is thick with sanctity. In Israel, too, sacrifice is an essential act of worship. It is the experience of giving oneself vicariously to God and of being received by Him. And yet, the pre-exilic prophets uttered violent attacks on sacrifices…”

[3] Brevard Childs Isaiah: A Commentary TOTL. Louisville, KY: WJK 2001. 505. “…the theme of proclaiming liberty in ‘the year of Yahweh’s favor’ (v.2) is formulated in the language of the Jubilee year…and articulates succinctly the great change in Israel’s fortunes initiated through God’s favor. Finally, to ‘bring good tiding’ … is to assume the mantle of the herald…who first sent out the message of God’s return to his people in power.”

[4] Childs Isaiah 506. “It has also been rightly pointed out that the description of Israel’s deliverance has shifted a way from Second Isaiah’s portrayal of captivity and exile to that of release from economic slavery within the land.”

[5] Heschel Prophets 195, “However, while Samuel stressed the primacy of obedience over sacrifice, Amos and the prophets who followed him not only stressed the primacy of morality over sacrifice, but even proclaimed that the worth of worship, far from being absolute, is contingent upon moral living, and that when immorality prevails, worship is detestable.”

[6] Heschel Prophets 195. “Questioning man’s right to worship through offerings and songs, they maintained that the primary way of serving God is through love, Justice, and righteousness.” See also: W. Travis McMaken’s book on Helmut Gollwitzer, Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer (Fortress Press, 2017). “These, then, are the principles—or facets of God’s identity as revealed in Jesus Christ—that guide Christian political responsibility: peace, justice, and mercy,” p. 91.

[7] Childs Isaiah 506. “The speaker in these verses is clearly God, who confirms the word of the servant figure. The grounds for the mission of the one endowed with the spirit in vv. 1-7 rest on God, who loves justice while hating injustice.”

[8] McMaken Our God Loves Justice “These, then, are the principles—or facets of God’s identity as revealed in Jesus Christ—that guide Christian political responsibility: peace, justice, and mercy.” 91 And, Speaking in terms of principle, however, the demand is more exacting…’The conversion to which the Christian community is daily called by God’s Word also includes the renunciation of their integration in the dominant system of privileges and their active exertion for justice, and so for social structures no longer determined by social privileges’…Christians are called to resist the social structures that imbue some with privileges while disadvantaging others.” 113-4 . And, “But if Marx turns theology into politics, Gollwitzer transforms politics into theology. That is, he clarifies for us that there is no such things a theologically neutral political position. Either one advocates and undertakes political steps to combat the socioeconomic privilege that oppresses immense swaths of the world’s population, or one is a heretic—unfaithful to the God encountered in the event of faith. For this ‘wholly other God wants a wholly other society’ in which all forms of privilege are abolished and social structures ever increasingly approximate the true socialism of the kingdom of God. And why does God want this? Because our God loves justice.” 166-7.

[9] Helmut Gollwitzer The Way to Life Edinburgh: T&T Clark 1981. 80.

[10] Gollwitzer 79. “…he did not remain above, did not count his superiority a thing to be grasped at, but came down into human existence, into a slave-existence, to a place where he was spat upon, trodden down, and put to death. Thus anyone who wishes to find the ‘above’ of which the whole Bible speaks, must, w strange though it may seem, go right down below here on earth. The paradox is that what is of the earth, the thought that is of earthly origin, is actually a striving upwards, everyone wants to get on top; while on the contrary what is here called the true divine ‘above’, is a string downwards, and is only to be found at the lowest point of the earth, on the gallows among the most downtrodden and outcast of society, with one who has no longer a place in it, in the grave which is the destiny of us all.”

[11] Gollwitzer 79. “There in the depths the Lord of glory of the religions is not to be found, but the servant God of the Gospel, the ministering, self-sacrificing brother Jesus who ‘and no other one’ is the living Lord of the Gospel.”

Disruptive Comfort

Sermon on Isaiah 40:1-11

Psalm 85:8-9: “I will listen to what the Lord God is saying, for he is speaking peace to his faithful people and to those who turn their hearts to him. Truly, his salvation is very near to those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.” Amen (50)

Introduction

Have you ever thought about the word “comfort”? What is comfort? If you ask me, I may reply with some description of the darker recesses of a library, hidden from sight, nestled among books, coveting the quiet, the alone, and my beloved texts like Gollum and his precious. If you ask one of my children the answer may involve some form of “no school” and “video games” and “friends”.

Comfort is something we describe with adjectives soliciting the tactile senses and align more with “comfortable,” which contends with bodily senses. But are the words “comfortable” and “comfort” synonymous? I’ll argue they’re similar but not interchangeable. When we talk about something being comfortable we imagine some of the images mentioned a moment ago (things that bring us relaxation and pleasure), or a fuzzy robe with corresponding slippers, or a bed, or a couch, or a pair of jeans, or those old sneakers. Comfortable is something that doesn’t disrupt our state of rest; it affirms it. In fact, when presented with too much of what is comfortable, we become complacent with numbness. The old axiom exists for a reason: lethargy breeds lethargy. We can become so comfortable in what is because it is what is, it is familiar and known and doesn’t require that we reach too far out of our own spaces. In fact “comfortable” encourages resistance to anything infringing on that which is comfortable and known and familiar. It’s why change can be so scary.

But comfort is something altogether different because it disrupts us and our rest, our groove or rut, and our familiar and known. To bring comfort to someone is to alter their state in a way so they can catch that breath, breathe a sigh of relief, come down a few notches, and, sometimes, to push us into that scary unknown and unfamiliar.

Comfort comes as a person, a word, a space, an action thus it is disrupting. Something enters our sphere seizes us, speaks to us, creates space for us, and moves us into a different spot.  Comfortable keeps you where you are; comfort moves you. Comfortable is denial; comfort comes with acceptance. Comfortable is the saccharine colloquialism smoothing over tension, sadness, anger, frustration; comfort is the honest, “damn, I’m sorry…” that enters the tension, the sadness, the anger, frustration. Comfortable is pretending you don’t see that dragon; comfort is everyone you know showing up to fight it. When comfort arrives, in whatever form, we are never the same as we were before, and we are altered in some way forever—death into new life.

Isaiah 40:1-11

Through the humble yet bold voice of the prophet Isaiah, God declares, “Comfort, O comfort my people…Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…” (40:1-2a). It is time to move Israel from one state to another,[1] and God declares that God’s ministers are to bring comfort to Israel. According to the text, it is God’s presence with Israel that will bring comfort; it’s God’s voice, God’s word that soothes the troubled soul and the broken hearted. Thus, the ministers of God are to bring this voice and this word to God’s people. They are to elevate the heads of the Israelites, much like a mother gently grabs the chin of her distraught child and with love in her eyes and reassurance in her smile moves the child into comfort. Israel is beckoned by the great prophet, look to the Lord your God and be comforted and have joy, for deliverance and restoration come![2]

Israel plagued by captivity and complicity, tumult and turmoil, despondency and desperation needs the good divine word to instill them with profound divine joy. Israel is not only plagued for her own internal and external issues, but by a mutuality in suffering. Israel suffers as the nations around her suffer, too. As they are held captive, so is Israel; as they are in pain, so, too, is Israel. [3] As God feels the pain of God’s people, so does God’s people feel the pain of those around them.

A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’ (Is 40:3-5)

Isaiah declares God’s forgiveness, peace, and restoration to Israel; the great comforter comes, joy will exceed sorrow, God’s presence will eliminate exile, redemption will overturn condemnation. Here in Isaiah, God reaffirms that God is their God and they are God’s people. [4] And thus, Israel is commissioned[5] to fulfill Israel’s great call: to be the “herald of good tidings” to the nations, [6] to proclaim the word of God, God’s truth and God’s comfort.[7] “…lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings…say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’” (Is 40:9).

The revelation of divine glory will be seen and witnessed and beheld by all. [8] God will gather up God’s flock like a shepherd, God will tend and carry the weak, smoldering wicks God will not snuff out, broken reeds God will not break. God will come for God’s people a group defined no longer by boundary markers, but which will extend beyond Jerusalem to all Judea, into Samaria, and unto the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).

Conclusion

How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal. She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her…Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper… (Lam 1:1-2, 5).

The words of Israel’s lament to God here in these opening verses to the book of Lamentations, echo our current feelings of being abandoned. Lonely, widowed, weeping, held captive by foes, and without comfort. 2020 has thrust us deep into a long season of chaos soliciting our crying out. And while we may be able to find things that are comfortable it’s to numb the discomfort we feel; yet, the more we reach for the comfortable, the further comfort remains. We need not what is comfortable but to be comforted; we need to be disrupted in such a way that we see things as they are for what they are and to feel the umbilical connection to the rest of humanity who is sick, who is in pain, who grieves, and who fights for the right to breathe.

God’s presence has always meant comfort for God’s people manifest in the people’s liberation from captivity by forces internal (Israel’s sin) and external (those who are holding Israel captive)—this is salvation. Thus, the promised divine nativity of the Christ, God born in flesh, will be salvation for all flesh and this salvation is still intrinsically linked with human liberation. And this liberation isn’t solely from mythical forces of evil, threats of hellfire, and the intellectual burden of a burdened conscience. It is bodily liberation from religious tyranny, from marginalization, it is healing from sickness, it is bringing in and bringing together those who have been forced out and into exile by the rulers and authorities, it is dismantling of malignant systems born to create hierarchy between divine image bearers.[9] Jesus is the word of God, the word of comfort, born into the world to save and redeem God’s people…all of God’s people bringing low the high places and raising up the low places. So, we, as those who have been disrupted become disruptive, like Israel declaring the divine word of comfort rousing the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.

Hark, the voice of one that crieth in the desert
far and near, calling us to repentance
since the kingdom now is here.
Oh, that warning cry obey!
Now prepare for God a way;
let the valleys rise to meet him
and the hills bow down to greet him.[10]

Advent is a season designed for disruption. The announcement that the divine nativity draws near and being asked to sit and wait and re-experience Israel’s pain and anguish waiting for God to act is to be disrupted in a marvelous way. God’s promised comfort comes and disrupts our comfortableness. Borrowing from Isaiah, John declared, “prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Mk 1:3). In the announcement that God comes, we, the comfortable, have been disrupted by the divine word of comfort of the afflicted, Jesus of Nazareth the Christ. The divine word of comfort comes to desperate ears, tired eyes, and exhausted bodies. All is disrupted. Behold, salvation comes to God’s people; the great comforter arrives in flesh to liberate (disrupt the captivity of) the captives.


[1] Isaiah 40:2b-d, “…that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”

[2] Abraham J. Heschel Prophets Ny NY: JPS 1962. 152, “To extricate the people from despondency, to attach meaning to their past and present misery, was the task that the prophet and God had in common ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye My people, says your God’ (40:1). And also, ‘I, I am He that comforts you’ (51:12). ‘As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you’ (66:13). His comfort comes from compassion (49:13), and will bring about joy (51:3), deliverance from captivity and the restoration of Zion and Jerusalem.”

[3] Heschel 149, 40:2 “As a rule we reflect on the problem of suffering in relation to him who suffers. The prophet’s message insists that suffering is not to be understood exclusively in terms of the sufferer’s own situation. In Israel’s agony, all nations are involved. Israel’s suffering is not a penalty, but a privilege, a sacrifice; its endurance is s ritual its meaning is to be disclosed to all men in the hour of Israel’s redemption.”

[4] Childs 297, “Most important is that God confirms his relation with the people of Israel. He is their God and they are his people, a formula that reverberates as a distant echo from the ancient covenant tradition.”

[5] Childs 296, “Seitz writes: ‘God speaks again from the divine council as he had done formerly in Israel’s day…[T]he word of God goes forth directly, commissioning the heralds of good tidings’ (245).”

[6] Childs 300, “Zion and Jerusalem are now personified as the evangelists of the good tidings. They are appointed to proclaim the news to the cities of Judah.” And 301, “Zion and Jerusalem are not portrayed simply as awaiting the coming of imminent salvation. Indeed the emphasis is not primarily on the return of the exiles, but focuses foremost on the coming of God. Jerusalem and Zion are now described from the perspective having already received redemption. Their task is rather one of the proclamation of the good news to the remaining cities of Judah.”

[7] Brevard Childs Isaiah TOTL Louisville KY: WJK 2001. 294, “in the prologue of chapter 40 God announces his will for a new dispensation toward Israel of forgiveness, peace, and restoration. His redemptive message is then proclaimed from the heavenly council as a confirmation of the truth of his word, and redeemed Jerusalem is called as a herald of the good tidings.”

[8] Childs 298, “A voice from the heavenly council now picks up the divine message of coming redemption with a cry that continues the urgent imperatives to a plural addressee…Then the imagery of the highway is further expanded. Valleys will be raised, mountains levelled, and the rough terrain made flat. This is in preparation for the unveiling of the glory of God that will be revealed to all.” And 299, V.5 tie to chapter 6 “The prophet overhears the liturgy of the seraphim bearing witness to the whole earth’s being filed with God’s glory. However, the point of his experiencing God’s presence in chapter 6 is that only to the prophet was the revelation disclosed. However, in chapter 40 a sign of the inbreaking of a new age of salvation is that the glory of God will now be revealed to all flesh.”

[9] This paragraph influenced by this quote from James H. Cone For my People: Black Theology and the Black Church  Ny, ny: Orbis, 1984. 80, “In the process of rereading the Bible in the light of black history, black clergy radicals concluded that both biblical and black histories revealed God’s unqualified solidarity with the poor in their fight against injustice. This revelation disclosed God’s salvation as being identical with human liberation. In the United States, black theologians were the first to identify liberation with salvation, and thus with the ore of the Christ gospel. It was in this context that they began to refer to God as the liberator of the oppressed Hebrew slaves in Egypt and to Jesus as the liberator whom God has anointed ‘to preach the goodness to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, an to set a liberty those who are oppressed’ (Luke 4:18, 19, RSV)”

[10] “Comfort, comfort ye my people” hymn 67 v.2

Divine Nativity Draws Nigh

Psalm 80:3, “Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.”

Introduction

When we moved to Louisiana, something drove me crazy having nothing to do with the new culture or context but with one simple human verbal behavior: it’s okay. That phrase and its twin, “It’ll be fine,” met me at nearly every turn. At school, at church, among my neighbors, anytime someone asked me how I was doing and settling in, my reply was met with a quick and sweet, “it’s okay,” “it’ll be fine,” or the more sinister “don’t stress…”

But, see, things weren’t okay.

I *was* stressed. I had just asked my family, my partner and three young children, to move to an unknown location for me to take a job I had no idea if I was going to be successful. We left family and friends and home to make new friends and make a new home. Little things like where do the plates go and does it make sense to put the silverware here and can we seat 5 this way in that room caused stressed and anxiety even if small. Resettling and re-establishing…stress was part of that, anxiety was part of that. I was a mix of sadness having left that place and those whom I loved and excited about meeting those I would grow to love. And even if I knew full well that a new normal would present itself, nothing was “okay”.

We dismiss others’ anxiety and stress because it strikes to close to our home. If I can calm you down with a quick “It’s okay” then I can keep my own anxiety and stress under control. Don’t bring your mess here, that phrase says, I’m barely keeping the closet door shut on my own mess. We gaslight ourselves with the “it’s okay” and we drag others into that altered reality to make it true for us. I tell you it’s okay because I need them to be okay because I’m afraid things aren’t okay. And, deep down we know:

Things are not okay.

The grim reaper stands on every corner of every neighborhood looming over hearths and homes, reminding us our fleshy existence is reduceable to dust by a sub microscopic infectious agent. Covid’s count and toll creep closer and closer to unnecessary heights. Things are not okay. Racial tensions surge as white people across this country make the bold statement that white supremacy is just fine. Black bodies are being destroy and most white people will go to brunch bemoaning the anger and the charged political and civic atmosphere. Things are not okay. We are anxious, stressed, isolated and alone, our pillow damp with tears of frustration and sadness, we have no idea what comes tomorrow, and feel that each new day is one more where risk exceeds reward. Why? is fresh on desperate lips and exhausted bodies bear the when?… When will this be over? Why is this happening? When will we have life and liberty for all people? When will it be okay to embrace and touch and sing with my neighbor without fear? Why does this hurt so much?

Isaiah 64:1-9

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence…to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” (Is 64:1-2)

These prescient words preserved in Isaiah 64 address the weight of why and when. Isaiah shares the yoke of suffering and stands in solidarity with oppressed and burdened people. [1] The request is that God makes God’s self known in such a way that the earth quakes and nations tremble.[2] A holy plea for revelation of divine presence setting the world right, establishing justice and peace, and stripping power from corrupt leaders. The book of Isaiah is replete with images of divine glory manifest in ways reorienting human beings to what they are: human. To see God revealed in God’s splendor is to also realize our humble: not God. [3] This is Israel’s call: to direct the eyes and ears of all people of all nations to this God who has done “…awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence” (Is. 64:3).

The world Isaiah speaks from and to is sick and is in a desperate way. There is, Isaiah sees, a deep and fleshy need for the revelation of divine intervention of divine presence. Isaiah’s voice cries out on behalf of all the people suffering, cries out for those who have lost their voice under the weight of oppressive rule and regulation, and cries out in solidarity with the marginalized. [4] What we have here in this Isaiahic moment is petition, prayer, and plea. In recalling God’s divine engagement and encounter with and for Israel in the past, Isaiah confesses Israel’s need for God to do again what God has done before.[5] “From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him” (Is 64:4). [6]

This confession is twofold: it is both a confession of what is needed and what has been done. Isaiah takes up the priestly mantel of confession on behalf of the people:

“You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed” (Is. 64:5).

When Israel feels abandoned, when help seems distant, they grow weary in keeping the law. It is easier to give over to selfish desire than to fight against it; it is easier to give into greed of power than resist; it is easier to play along with oppressive systems than to stand with the oppressed, calling out the oppression; it is easier to be violent than just; it is easier to confuse evil and good than to call a thing what it is. “We are like a polluted garment, our virtue like filthy rags, and as for God, he has hidden his face from us.”[7]

One scholar renders 64:5 like this,

“You meet him who joyfully works righteousness, they remember you in your ways. Because you were angry, we have sinned. For a long time we have been immersed in them; how then can we be saved?”[8]

The feeling of hopelessness is visceral. It’s been so long and you’ve been so absent, how then can we be saved? There has been so much violence and so much oppression and so much death, how can we be saved? Isaiah puts words to Israel’s lament, her frustration, her confession, and her fear. Isaiah knows that things are not okay; and as far as Isaiah can see, it won’t end well if God remains silent and seemingly absent (64:12). [9] Israel cries out: Do you hear our cry, O Lord? How Long?!

O come, O come, Emmanuel

And ransom captive Israel

That mourns in lonely exile here

Until the Son of God appear

Conclusion

Things are not okay. But hope is not tethered to facts and is the flip side of divine love. That we love, there is God; that we hope, there is God. Israel’s feeling of being abandoned and her cries to God are seen, heard, and known by God. Isaiah’s recounting of God’s activity with Israel is to draw his audience into the story line of Israel and her encounters with a God who hears and acts. It is God who made the covenant with Abraham and kept it through threat and famine. It is God who heard the cries of Israel so intimately and intensely that God knew in God’s being the pain of his people and acted by calling Moses to liberate the captives. It is God who comes to dwell with Israel, to see her forward in to fertile and fruitful existence, out of death and into life.

Today we enter Advent as those who are grafted into Israel’s story through encounter with God in the event of faith. It is part of our tradition to slow down here, to pause and reflect, to resist the urge to run to the liturgical “it’s okay” of Easter’s promise of future resurrected life, to viscerally feel the deep pining pleas of Israel for God to hear and to act, and to ask the desperate question: how can we be saved?! 2020 has made this penitential feeling and corresponding question easy. While I cannot tell you when the travail of souls and burdened bodies will end, I can point you to a distant light illuminating this midnight sky over our heads, warming the fringes of this long chill, drawing our eyes from death and destruction around us up toward life and hope. It is this light that will invigorate us to stand where we are and be present; to get up once again and take our places in this world knowing that what is isn’t all there is, that possibility has priority over actuality. It is not the dawn of the sun, but the bright star of the Son of God, the Christ.

Advent begins the ascent of this bright star high into the midnight sky, signaling the depths of divine hearing and knowing. Hold tight and stand firm, Beloved, do not lose heart, the great encounter with God in the divine nativity draws nigh.

Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel


[1] Abraham J. Heschel The Prophets New York, Ny: JPS 1962. In re: second Isaiah “The message of Second Isaiah as he is conventionally called, is of no age. It is prophecy tempered with human tears, mixed with a joy that heals all scars, clearing a way for understanding the future in spite of the present. No words have ever gone further in offering comfort when the sick world cries.” 145

[2] Brevard Childs Isaiah: A Commentary The Old Testament Library Louisville KY: WJK 2001. “The prayer returns to the urgent plea for God’s direction intervention from above: ‘O that you would rend the heavens and come down.’ That the plea is for a theophany is clear from the imagery of quaking mountains, flaming fire, and streaming liquid.” 525

[3] Heschel “The grandeur and presence of God are strikingly apparent, heaven and earth are radiant with His glory it is enough to lift up the eyes on high and see Who created these (40:26). Yet men are blind; spiritually, they live in a dungeon. Israel’s destiny is, as we have seen ‘to open the eyes that are blind.’ Yet the tragedy is that the servant himself fails to understand the meaning of his mission.” 156

[4]  Childs “The form is that of a communal complaint that shares much with the common oral pattern of the Psalter, but especially with other late psalms such as Psalms 76, 106, Nehemiah 9.” 522

[5] Childs “The wording evokes again reference to God’s past intervention with the awesome signs of power displayed when he descended at Sinai and the mountains quaked. The confession of God’s sole rule as sovereign also reverberates from the Sinai tradition: ‘You shall have no other gods before me’ (ex. 20:3), but now understood as an affirmation of God’s uniqueness (‘no eye has seen any God besides you’).” 525

[6] Childs “The voice of faithful Israel had confessed its own unrighteousness in the light of the appalling conditions of national wickedness (59:1ff.). Then in 59:15ff. and 63:1-6 the promise of salvation is repeated with the coming of God as redeemer, but must first be preceded by God’s terrifying judgment on his people…In 63:7ff. the voice of faithful Israel is heard in a prayer that contains all the stereotyped features of the complaint: recital of God’s past mercies, confession of sin, call for divine intervention, and plea for aid in need.” 522

[7] Childs 526

[8] Childs 521

[9] Childs “this proposed reading seems radically to reverse the traditional theological sequence of first the sin, then the divine judgment….In my opinion, the power of the verse lies in the unexpected sequence, which is an ad hoc formulation, and its literary function lies exactly in its outrageous formulation. The sentiment is not to be abstracted into a theological principle, but serves only to identity the frustration of the confession community. The statement is congruent with the intensity of the rest of the lament that follows…” 525

Zion Comes; The Christ is Born

Isaiah 53:1-10 (Sermon)

Have you ever been trapped? I have. I’ve been trapped by my big brother. As kids, he’d chase me through the house, yelling, “Pick your exits!” Meaning: make the choices you need to make to get outside. However, I’d panic and make just one irrational choice, and end up hiding deep in a closet or locked behind the bathroom door. Waiting…waiting for help or for the menace to leave.

I’ve felt trapped when as a young adult struggle against a destructive lifestyle that was running me into the ground. I was powerless against these forces that were controlling my days and night. No matter how hard I fought, I couldn’t break free from self-destructive behaviors. I was trapped and I need help, something or someone to intervene.

Have you felt trapped? Unable to break free? Liberty just so close but so far away?

I’ve felt trapped now, not always knowing what to do or how to move forward. Sometimes we put on a façade that things are all put together, but they aren’t always put together. False confidence, soothing and charming grins, and white lies pave our fool’s gold paved roads.  Bills demand, cars break, foundations crack, family strains, and there seems to be no way through.

And I’ve not mentioned the world yet; feeling trapped and being trapped are realities in our world.  Our world seems to groan and sigh under the weight of oppression and injustice, sicknesses and despairing unto death. The world and her inhabitants are weary to the point of death. As I’ve asked many times before: is hope lost?

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.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.” (Is 35:3-4)

Isaiah addresses the people of Israel in words of hope; hope in darkness. In the chapter preceding the one read, God promises to execute judgment on the nations. Thus, God demonstrates his great power over the nations and his promise that a cosmic battle will ensue to defend his own. Those who come against the beloved, will have to contend with God himself and his retribution.i God does not play nice with those who use their power for evil, get drunk on authority and greed, oppress and willingly participate in the oppression of those who can’t help themselves. Mark Isaiah’s words: Zion will come to Israel; justice will flow; salvation will be Israel’s by the retributive power of God.

A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
but it shall be for God’s people;
no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.

No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there. (Is 35:8-9)

Hemmed in on all sides, Israel can’t defend itself from the oppression of the surrounding nations and enemies. The oppressive nations and enemies will be parted like the waters of the red sea at the boarder of Egypt; God will usher Israel out of enslavement and captivity into Zion, life, and salvation. As if lead by the hand through that verdant garden nearly forgotten, God will walk Israel through a deadly desert on his road, protected on every side.ii

Israel will not travel on just any road, but on the “Holy Way,” the golden road paved by God himself.iii And this road is for Israel and Israel alone; for those called and sought for by God, those freed and liberated by God, those whom God defends and rescues. It is these who are the clean and pure who are in God’s company.iv Isaiah prophesies, “Behold, God’s on the move; ‘He will come.’ All will be well; keep your hope, small nation.”v

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining

It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth

Long lay the world in sin and error pining

‘Til He appears and the Soul felt its worth

A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices

For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn

Fall on your knees; O hear the angel voices!vi

This movement, this divine arriving, this promise all will be well is the crux of Advent. We wait, along with Israel, for the great “Holy Way” of God to be made before us, for God to place our feet upon its firm foundation. With Israel, strengthening our hands and our feeble knees, fortifying fearful hearts we wait for our God. And in a way no one expected, he shows up. He shows up in tangible redeeming love.vii

It’s in the arrival of a vulnerable baby, the one born of Mary, who will be the way, the truth, and the light through the deadly desert into Zion and Salvation. It will be upon his back our burdens will be laid as we walk unburdened out of our cages and our captivity into liberty and freedom. It will be by his hand we are led into God’s presence, where the unclean become clean, the slave become free, and the lowly are lifted. The birth of the Messiah, the Christ, the one pined for under the weight of sin and error is the advent of God’s cosmic battle against the powers of sin and death running rampant in the world. It’s in Christ, born in a manger, where those trapped reach out and grab not cold, restraining metal (bars and chain-link), but the warm, liberating, loving hand of God, and who are brought into great joy and gladness, into rest and peace, into life our of every present death.

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we
Let all within us praise His holy name
Christ is the Lord; O praise His name forever!viii

 

 

i Brevard S. Childs Isaiah The Old Testament Library Louisville, KY: WJK, 2001. 255About chapters 34 and 35, “The relation is that of a reverse correspondence and together they summarize the two major parts of the Isaianic corpus: God’s power over the nations, and the exaltation of Zion for the salvation of Israel. The crucial decision to make regards the peculiar function of these chapters in their present position. Chapter 34 picks up from chapters 13-23 the call to the nations to bear witness to God’s sovereign power and to his imminent cosmological retribution. The geographical sweep is far broader than in chapters 28-33. Already the rod of punishment has been transferred from Assyria to Babylon (13:15), and the proud boasting of Assyria before its destruction (chapters 36—37) is paralleled by the taunt against the king of Babylon (chapter 14).  

ii JSB; JPS. “Isaiah” Benjamin D. Sommer. eds. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler (Oxford: OUP 2004). 852. “This ch [35[ is the converse of the previous one: In ch 34,  a land inhabited by Judah’s enemies becomes a desert; in ch 35, the desert is transformed so that Judean exiles in Babylonia can pass through it with ease on their journey to Zion. Normally, travelers from Babylonia to the land of Israel would move northwest along the Euphrates, then southwest through Syria, avoiding the route that went directly west through the impassable desert. But this prophecy insists that the exiles will be able to go directly and quickly through the desert, because the Lord will provide water and safety for them there. This passage borrows extensibly from Jeremiah’s prediction of the exiles’ return in Jer. 31.7-9. It amplifies that prediction, while changing its historical referent from another (Israelite) exiles in Assyria to southern (Judean) exiles in Babylonia. It also deliberately recalls the vocabulary of Isaiah 32.1-6.”  

iii Childs 256“The same typological tendency to transcend the specificity of earlier texts and to extend the prophecy in a more radically eschatological mows cam to in chapter 35. The same imagery of Second Isaiah recurs–the eyes of the blind opened, the transformation of the wilderness, the highway for the returnees–yet the images have increasingly taken on a metaphorical tone. The highway is not just a means of improving the route home, but now is portrayed as a holy path reserved for the pure of heart.  

iv JBS 856 “No on unclean: Since God would personally accompany the exiles (v. 4), they would have to be in a state of ritual purity.”

v Childs 257. “…chapter 35 immediately launches into an elaborate portrayal of the salvation of Israel. The imagery is not only closely related to that of chapters 40ff.—the desert blossoming, the joyful singing, the seeing of Yahweh’s glory—but the vocabulary of v. 4 offers a parallel to 40:9-10: ‘Behold, your God! He will come.’” 

vi Oh Holy Night 

vii Abraham J. Heshel ”Chastisement” Prophets New York, NY: JPS, 1962. 194.”God’s anger must not obscure His redeeming love.”  

viii Oh Holy Night