Burning Ember of Divine Fire: Resistance!

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah 9:1-4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love, Even Now

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

Introduction

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

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

The heartbeat of love weakens.

Isaiah 7:10-16

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

Isaiah 7:13-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

The heartbeat of love revives.

Conclusion

Remember,

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

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

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

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

The heartbeat of love quickens.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joy, Even Now

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

The heartbeat of joy weakens.

Isaiah 35:1-10

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

Is. 35:3-7

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

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

And the ransomed of God shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Is 35:10

The heartbeat of joy revives.

Conclusion

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

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

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

The heartbeat of joy quickens.

The stories we’re surrounded by, Beloved, are not the only stories; they’re not the final word. There’s another word. When everything looked lost and drab, when gloom and doom seemed to be the only words whispered on the wind, another word broke through, heralding good news in the middle of the night to those far off, And the ransomed of God shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”


[1] Miriam Webster’s Online Dictionary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace, Even Now

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

Introduction

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

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

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

The heartbeat of peace weakens.

Isaiah 11:1-10

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

Isaiah 11:1-4

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

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

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

The heartbeat of peace revives.

Conclusion

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

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

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

The heartbeat of peace quickens.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope, Even Now

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

Introduction

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

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

The heartbeat of hope weakens.

Isaiah 2:1-5

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

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

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

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

The heartbeat of hope revives.

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

The heartbeat of hope quickens.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[9] Heschel, Prophets, 184.

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

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

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.”