In the End the Beginning

Psalm 118:22-24 The same stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes. On this day the Lord has acted; we will rejoice and be glad in it. (41)

Introduction

“On this day the Lord has acted; we will rejoice and be glad in it,” (Ps 118:24). Are there any words more fitting than those for today? Today we rejoice in the activity of God by the power of the Holy Spirit in the risen Lord Jesus Christ: the one who was crucified, died, and was buried, the one who descended to the dead, and the one who was raised from it. What appeared to be gone, was the furthest thing from. What sounded like bad news, wasn’t. What looked like sure failure became a means for something else. All because a rock was moved, and a tomb was opened. What seemed the end, was the beginning.

Today is a day—according to this story—where everything that was, is (now) not the only thing there is. Today is the day we celebrate an action so divine in substance and impact that someone walking out of a tomb—who had been sealed in—became possible. That’s not the trajectory of activity when it comes to tombs. When you’re sealed in with a massive stone, you do not come back out. But divine action made the impossible possible; the new was ushered in.[1] On this day the possibility opened. In the end, the beginning.

Today is a day—according to this story—where all the doors of the building are thrown open. Today is the day we celebrate a redefinition of what it means to worship God and to be God’s people. What was restricted to wood and stone, to brick and mortar is now set loose into the world in spirit and flesh. The very thing that kept God separate from the people was destroyed. The temple veil was torn in two, and the holy transcended and coupled with the common bypassing the rulers and authorities, seeping into the fringes and margins of society.[2] On this day the temple opened. In the end, the beginning.

Today is a day—according to this story—where the entire sky bursts forth with love and hope and peace. Today is the day we celebrate the cessation of incessant rains[3] and the rising of the sun with healing in its wings.[4] This sun shines down, enlivens and invigorates chilled and tired bodies drained from resisting and enduring separation and silence. The sun breaks through the clouds of chaos bringing comfort and peace to those minds exhausted from trying “…to be a man with/A peace of mind/Lord, I try/I just can’t find/My peace of mind”—borrowing lyrics from a talented former student of mine.[5] On this day the sky opened. In the end, the beginning.

Today is a day—according to this story—where the very ground underneath violently shook. Today is the day we celebrate great divine movement of the earth opening again. This time, God and God’s self dropped into the pit of Sheol; drawing light to shine among the darkness of the dead.[6] Here God searches and finds and looks upon the face of Korah, and as God’s hand extends God declares: Beloved, not even the exile of death and the pit can separate you from me. On this day the earth opened. In the end, the beginning.

Mark 16:1-8

Then very early on the first day of the week [the women] went to the tomb after the rising of the sun. And they were continuously talking to themselves, “Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?” (Mk 16:2-3[7])

Mark 16:2-3, translation mine

Mark highlights the humanity of the women, thus showcases the divine action of this story.[8] The beginning of the gospel passage opens with what feels like minutia. At the completion of the Sabbath, being Saturday night,[9] the women—Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome—purchase spices and perfumes to use on Jesus’s entombed body. Then, early the next morning, they head out.

Apart from Jesus being buried in haste the previous Friday evening, none of this is worth writing home about. Nothing—so far—is out of the ordinary. In fact, Mark robes the story in so much humanity, he writes about the women worrying as they walk to the tomb. The greatly great stone occupied their conversation as they walked. Our English translation misses the extent this stone bothered the consciences of the women. In Greek, it’s an imperfect verb indicating a continuous action. Thus, they didn’t just ask themselves once about who will roll away the stone; they literally talked about it the entire time.

And then looking up and beholding/gazing that the stone has been rolled away; for it was exceedingly great.

Mark 16:4

Then suddenly all conversation comes to a dead halt. The women lift their eyes and behold: the very thing they were worried about is removed. The stone was rolled back. What was a regular scene is now an irregular one enveloped in supernatural activity.[10] Our translation loses the emotion here. The women didn’t just look and see. As the tomb comes into view, they lift their eyes up from having been talking among themselves, and, as they draw near to the tomb, they see…it…#wut? They gazed and beheld the scene: the greatly great stone was rolled away. Their hearts raced as they gazed in disbelief while trying to make sense of an impossibility made possible. Everything changes here.[11]

As they step inside the tomb, they do not see the dead body of Jesus of Nazareth, which they expected to see. Rather they encounter one whom they did not expect: a young man clothed in bright light, an angelic being.[12] Thus, onto disbelief there is added great astonishment and fear. Their entire world does not make sense.[13] Then, adding to the topsy-turvy situation making itself known, the brightly clothed young man says, “Do not be greatly astonished! You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene the one who was crucified; he was raised, he is not here. Behold the place where they placed him” (Mk 16:6). The tomb is open, there’s an angelic being casually seated inside, and Jesus’s body is not there with the declaration that he is risen.

And they went out and fled from the tomb for trembling and bewilderment was holding the women; and they said nothing to no one; for they were terrified.

Mark 16:8

For these three women, fleeing and running in fear and trembling is a very human response considering a remarkable and an unbelievable encounter with the impossible being made possible. He whom they saw crucified and dead was raised[14] and gone out.[15] When time and space shift and change, when the narrative takes a surprising turn, when the thing that is going to happen does not happen, fear and trembling is a right response. When something overhauls reality, you are put on a collision course with the possible and reality reshaping and altering; it’s terrifying. It’s why real love is scary and hard to accept and receive (as Rev. Jan brilliantly made note of on Thursday). Real, unconditional, nonperformance-based love is terrifying because it undoes everything you think you know to be real, to be true, to be actual. The narrative you’ve been given by the world and crafted in your head about you and the world is exposed as myth by real, unconditional love. Thus, good news can be as terrifying as bad news because it radically alters and transforms the reality of the one who hears such good news.[16] And so, the women run and are afraid. But, in the end, the beginning.

Conclusion

As Mark’s gospel suddenly ends on a note of fear, we are propelled back to the beginning.[17] As the women run from the tomb afraid and in silence, we follow and find ourselves located back at Mark 1:1, “The beginning of the good newsof Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”[18] The end of Good Friday is now the beginning that is Easter. This is the source of our hope that springs eternal. Today we come into encounter with this God who raised Jesus of Nazareth the Christ from the dead. And today our world is turned upside down by the “mystery of divine love…acted out in human history,” to quote Rev. Emil. Today, in the end the beginning.

Today is a day—according to our story— where everything that is, is not the only thing there is. Today is the day we dare to embrace this divine event and step into the possible. Today we dare to dream of what could be for us and for all those around us. Today we dare to reject what has always been and believe, anything is possible with God. Today, the possibility is opened. In the end, the beginning.

Today is a day—according to our story—where we sit in a similar predicament as did the founders of this humble church. Today we are eager to (re)claim our building, to enter it, to be bodily present with others. Yet, we are asked to reconceive what this building means considering divine activity redefining the temple. Can we open the doors and throw open the windows extending divine love to the fringes and margins, spreading good news in word and deed? Can we remember that we were once homeless and without shelter?[19] Do we really believe that God is not restricted to a building but resides in each of us? Today the temple is opened. In the end, the beginning.

Today is a day—according to our story—where the sky is illuminated with love and hope and peace. Today is the day we celebrate the rising of the Son with healing in its wings for bodies drained from enduring a pandemic, witnessing human life being destroyed, social upheaval, confusion, and isolation; for bodies exhausted from trying to find peace where peace doesn’t reside. Today the sun shines down, warms and energizes our chilled and tired bodies, rejuvenating hope and bringing forth the sapling of long desired peace. Today the sky is opened. In the end, the beginning.

Today is a day—according to our story—where the very ground underneath our feet shook. Today is the day we celebrate the fracturing of old structures and the exposure of the errors and faults of our human judgment and human made systems and kingdoms as the God of life and liberty reigns victorious over death and captivity. We rejoice in the freedom and liberation that is brought in the divine love for the whole world. In the risen Christ, we hear and feel chains and shackles dropping as all the captives are released from the effects of sin and death into new life. On this day the earth opened. In the end, the beginning.


[1] Jeremiah 31:31-34; https://laurenrelarkin.com/2021/03/21/and-the-possibility-opens/

[2] John 2:13-22; https://laurenrelarkin.com/2021/03/07/and-the-temple-opens/

[3] Genesis 9:8ff; https://laurenrelarkin.com/2021/02/21/and-the-sky-opens/

[4] Malachi 4:2

[5] Cameron Seaton “Peace of Mind” Cry Me A Song 2020

[6] Numbers 16, Psalm 88; https://laurenrelarkin.com/2021/02/17/and-the-earth-opens/

[7] All GNT translations are mine in this portion of the sermon

[8] R.T. France The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text NIGTC Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans 2002. 675, “The setting for the discovery is remarkably down to earth, with the women coming to fulfil the previously omitted duty of anointing Jesus’ body with perfumes, worrying bout how they were to get into the tomb, meeting there a young man who tells them that Jesus has risen and gives them a message for the disciples and Peter, and running way frightened from this unexpected encounter. This is not the stuff of a heroic epic, still less of a story of magic and wonder, and yet what underlies it is an event beyond human comprehension: the Jesus they had watched dying and being buried some forty hours earlier is no longer dead but rise, καθως ειπεν υμιν. It is in this incongruous combination of the everyday with the incomprehensible that many have found one of the most powerful and compelling aspects of the NT accounts not of Jesus’ resurrection…but of how the fist disciples discovered that he had risen.”

[9] France Mark 676, “As sabbath finished at sunset on the Saturday, the phrase διαγενομενου του σαββατου probably refers to the Saturday evening, the first time after Jesus’ hasty burial when it would be possible to buy perfumes.”

[10] France Mark 678, “Rather than arranging with Joseph’s servants to come back with them, they were now trusting to luck that someone would be around to help. But from the dramatic point of view their anxiety is important as the foil to their discovery that the problem was already solved…The unexplained removal of the stone thus begins to create a sense of superhuman agency in the narrative.”

[11] This is Mark’s written intent. The Greek here at the beginning of v.4, και αναβλεψασαι θεωρουσιν…, is an attendant circumstance construction of an aorist participle and a present indicative main verb. The attendant circumstance indicates that something brand new is happening, there’s new action on the table and the author wants you to take note of it.

[12] France Mark 678, “Other features of Mark’s description add to the supernatural impression: he is wearing white, and the women are terrified.”

[13] France Mark 679, “For εκθαμβεομαι…conveys a powerful mixture of shock and fear, and this is followed by τρομος και εκστασις leading to a precipitate flight from the tomb in 16:8. Such a reaction is more consonant with a meeting with an angel than with an ordinary young man, and his first words to the women convey the same impression…”

[14] France Mark 680, “τον εσταυρωμενον, however, poignantly describes what the women at present believe to be the truth about Jesus. Having themselves watched him die on the cross, they have now come to attend to that tortured body, and that is what they expected to find in the tomb. That whole tragic scenario is reversed in the simple one-word message, ηγερθη, though the clause that follow will spell out more fully what this dramatic verb implies.”

[15] France Mark 680, “The women, even if they were unaware of Jesus’ predictions, could not mistake the meaning of this verb in this context. But the νεαωισκος goes on to make it clear that he is talking not merely about survival beyond death but about a physical event: the place where Jesus’ body had been laid…is empty. The body has gone, and from the promise made in the following verse it is plain that it has gone not by passive removal but in the form of a living, travelling Jesus. However philosophy and theology may find it possible to come to terms with the event, it is clear that Mark is describing a bodily resurrection leading to continuing life and activity on earth.”

[16] France Mark 682-3, “…in Mark the sense of panic is unrelieved. The words the women have heard were entirely good news, but their immediate response is apparently not to absorb the message of the words but to escape as quickly as possible from the unexpectedly numinous situation in which they have been caught up.”

[17] France Mark 680-1, “The announcement of Jesus’ resurrection is not an end in itself, but the basis of action, which for the women is the delivery of an urgent message, and for the disciples to whom that message is sent a journey to Galilee in preparation for the promised meeting with Jesus…Life, discipleship and the cause of the Kingdom f God must go on.”

[18] France Mark 672, “…the Mark who began his story on an overt note of faith in Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God (1:1) and has reminded his readers quite blatantly from time to time of that faith, is not likely to leave any room for doubt about its reality at the end. By the time mark wrote his gospel the message of the resurrection and the soties of meeting with the risen Jesus were so widely in circulation and so central to the life of the Christ church that there was in any case nothing to be gained by concealment: what is the point of being coy about what everyone already knows.”

[19] Reference to a document about the early history of Nativity by Bruce Jones

and The Temple Opens

Sermon on John 2:13-22

Psalm 19:13-14: Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins; let them not get dominion over me; then shall I be whole and sound, and innocent of a great offense. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

Introduction

Anger is scary. We’ve all been angry. We know the feeling of anger showing up in our bodies. It can literally feel like an alter ego rising to the surface; and, that’s scary. No one likes to feel possessed by something, especially something uncontrollable, erratic, and irrational. Anger has enough strength and power to feel like it’s taking the helm of your mind and body.

For centuries anger has been vilified. Sure, there may be an epicurean philosopher here and there advocating for anger as it is. However, what’s in many texts and treatises about anger is that it must be subjected, dominated, and controlled; never allowed into the visceral. The only right anger is calm, cool, and collected anger of the rational mind always in control. It’s not to be passionate, embodied, visceral anger. We are trained to see anger as an unforgivable emotion. So, we are never given any space to learn to navigate it in ourselves and with others. It’s that emotion that stands far off, threatening if it gets to close.

So, with little experience, we perpetuate the vilification of anger and fumble about wrestling with divine anger. What do we do with divine anger if good anger is invisible and bad anger is visible? If God is love, is anger another expression of God’s love? To resolve the cognitive dissonance, we make divine anger the sudden outburst of an angry (but loving) father disciplining his child. In this exchange, you’ve caused the extreme response; you’ve brought him to this point—no rational man would let himself get so angry unless there was a cause because visible anger is irrational. So, God gets angry at us and punishes us justly as a disciplinarian father would punish.

But what happens if we reconceive anger, allowing it to be normal? What if having pathos—emotions and passion—isn’t bad? What if we see divine anger as part of that defensive maternal anger of God waging war against forces acting against the beloved? What if anger and love aren’t the same thing but rather two separate emotions operating concurrently? There is a beautiful fury of maternality that will rescue children from the jaws of mountain lions, will wage war at all costs against systems designed to hinder and harm bodies and voices, will bring forth life amid death.

John 2:13-22

And the Passover feast of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up into Jerusalem. And he found in the temple the ones bartering/selling oxen and sheep and doves and the ones being seated there (as) moneychangers, and after making a whip out of a cord of rushes he threw/cast out all the sheep and oxen from the temple and he poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned the money changing tables. And to the ones bartering/selling doves he said, “Take away these from this place! Do not make the house of my father a market house!”

John 2: 13-16, translation mine

As Jesus enters Jerusalem during the Passover festival,[1] he enters a temple. There’s little said about the time between when Jesus enters and discovers the established temple marketplace. So, we don’t know if Jesus was surprised or not to find such a thing. All we know is that he enters, finds, is angry, and makes a whip.[2] The point of the story isn’t Jesus controlling his frustration or anger. The point of the story is that Jesus is angry and acts on that anger.

Being the second chapter of John, the author has barely established that Jesus is someone who has this authority. Since we know this story well, we come to the text with little excitement. But for a moment, imagine participating in the original audience. What we have thus far is the divine miracle for water into wine at a wedding and then an immediate transition to Jesus driving out oxen, sheep, and doves form the temple. The author is cultivating the authority of Jesus that is both spiritual and material. Jesus has the authority to command the material of water to turn into the material of wine. This material control emphasizes Jesus’s divinity—for only God can do this. Concurrently, Jesus has the authority to walk into a temple and drive out what is established through human authority, and this establishes Jesus’s authority over the temple. Again, that’s only for God and God’s chosen priests. So: Who is this? Where’s his authority? Why is he so angry?[3]

The answer to that isn’t provided by the text. For all intents and purposes, this appears to be a rather irrational response by Jesus. Anyone would have been accustomed to such practices being performed in the temple. Yet, Jesus is angry about it. What was commonplace and status quo, what was common sense to the people and the rulers of the temple, the teachers and scribes, was not the stuff of divine rationality. So, Jesus enters the temple sees a mockery being made of the house of his father, and he’s angry.

If Jesus is who John says he is, then anger is very much a part of the divine pathos. If this Jesus is the word incarnate, the word made flesh, the one who was with God in the beginning and was God, then what is happening in word and deed is divine speaking and acting. The anger of Jesus is divine anger and it’s good. Why? Not solely because it’s divine in source, but because of the reason. The money changers and the ones bartering/exchanging oxen and sheep and doves were taking advantage of the people. It was a financial system rigged around the sacrificial system that united Israelite and God. It was not a system for temple authorities and temple merchants to make a few extra bucks to pad prestige and power. The sacrifice was to be personal, of one’s own property, field, herd; not bought with a few copper coins, a shekel here and there; that’s not sacrifice. It was to come from where it hurt not from where one didn’t quite feel it. Also, this system forced those of lower and meager status to feel the hierarchy of wealth, neither being able to bring of their own stock nor to buy the good sacrifice. In response to this abuse and extortion, Jesus, the word incarnate, the son of God, fashioned a whip and sent everyone and everything running, he flipped tables and poured out coins. His anger cleared out the temple; his love preserved the beloved, people held captive in a violent system.

Conclusion

Divine anger swept through that divine space of stone and wood and overhauled and disrupted every human made system. God loves God’s people, God loves God’s creation, God loves God’s cosmos, and that divine anger and judgment surged forth like a mother protecting her children from a threat. No one messes with those whom and that which God loves; if you wouldn’t step between a mama bear and her cub, don’t step between God and God’s people. Oppression and extortion, violence and threat of the people brings a full-on confrontation with the God who flung the stars to the furthest edges of space, burst through nothingness with somethingness, separated the waters of the red sea, and dropped a zealot of the law bent on persecution onto the ground of grace and gospel.

This is the God who wages war in anger against death and hell to keep you from it by destroying it forever. It’s not you God angers at, it’s sin, it’s death, it’s systems bent on destruction of relationships, of people, of minds and hearts and souls. God’s love of you doesn’t send you first through God’s anger and then into God’s love; rather, God’s love of you moves you out of the way of God’s anger. God’s love stands between you and God’s anger as God wages war with what keeps you hindered, wounded, starved, thirsting, and sick. God is not angry at you; God loves you fiercely, so much so that God will take the battle into God’s self in the event of the cross—an event of love protecting the cosmos from the judgment reserved for sin and death and destruction.[4] Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, will die on an instrument of the state in solidarity with humanity in it’s plight and stuck under and in sin as the one who knew not sin. It is not that God pours out God’s anger on the Christ to punish him for our sin, but that through this death of the righteous one at the hands of humans stuck in chaotic and antagonistic death dealing systems and governments, God’s anger and judgment will be poured out on sin, death, hell, destruction and anything else operating to steal life from God’s people.

And divine love will win and have the final word because death cannot conquer love and cannot conquer grace, righteousness, mercy, peace, all that the Christ is.[5]

It’s this word that becomes the word of the foundation of our baptism and new life in and following Jesus out of the Jordan on the way to the cross. This word is our word and activity in the world as we act in and with God’s mission to move the beloved out of the way of judgment of violent systems, ideologies, and doctrines. We love because we are loved first.


[1] Bultmann John 122-3, The reason for Jesus’s journey up to Jerusalem is a festival, which is the Passover. Functions as a date. We know when this happened.

[2] Bultmann John 123, “No account is given of the impression this made on Jesus, nor are we told explicitly of his judgement on them; rather in v. 15 we are told what he does, that he makes a whip out cords and clears the temple of the business which is being conducted.”

[3] Bultmann John 124-5, The Jews (v.18) “They ask for an authorization which will show the lawfulness of his action. The Evangelist will certainly have taken the σημειον asked for here, as in 6:30, to be a miracle which would prove his authority; as will the source, which makes Jesus answer by the announcement of a miracle—even if it is of a different kind to that expected by the questioners.”

[4] Bultmann John 127, “The building of the temple lasted 46 years, and Jesus wants to rebuild it in three days. By contrast with this absurd interpretation of the saying its true meaning is given in v. 21: Jesus spoke of himself, the ‘temple’ refers to his body’ that is, the saying is about his death and resurrection.”

[5] Bultmann John 129, “Thus by setting the picture of the τελος alongside that of the αρχη, the Evangliest gives us a portorayal of the meaning and fate of the revelation, and consequence of the fate of the world: in Jesus God is present, pouring out his fulnesss on [humanity] in his perplexity; and in him faith sees the glory of the Revealer. The world, however, has to face the attack of the revelation. It demonstrates its unbelief by autocratically demanding from the Revealer a proof of his authority. He will indeed prove his authority, but this proof is for the world the judgement which in its blindness it calls down on itself. Thus in these two symbolic narratives motifs are announced which will run through the whole of the Gospel.”

and The Earth Opens

Ash Wednesday Homily on Numbers 16 and Psalm 88

Psalm 103:1-2 Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy Name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.

Ash Wednesday Meditation

In the book of Numbers there’s a story about a man named Korah of the tribe of Levi who, with a couple of his Levite friends, gathered about 250 chiefs of the congregation of Israel and rose up against Moses challenging his authority and presence as Israel’s leader. Korah spoke to Moses, “‘You have gone too far! All the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. So why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?’” (Num 16:3). The accusation from Korah dropped Moses to his knees, so the story goes. Moses saw the accusation from this son of Levi not as one against him but against God. And so, Moses tells Korah that God will tend to and deal with this situation in the morning. So, morning dawns. Moses instructs the bulk of the congregation of Israel to move away from Korah and his two friends. Once the majority of Israel is safe, Moses says to everyone,

‘This is how you shall know that the Lord has sent me to do all these works; it has not been of my own accord: If these people die a natural death, or if a natural fate comes on them, then the Lord has not sent me. But if the Lord creates something new, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up, with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you shall know that these men have despised the Lord.’

Numbers 16:28-30

Moses stopped talking. And then:

The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, along with their households—everyone who belonged to Korah and all their goods. So they with all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol; the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly. All Israel around them fled at their outcry, for they said, ‘The earth will swallow us too!’ And fire came out from the Lord and consumed the two hundred fifty men offering the incense.

Numbers 16:31-35

From dirt they were taken and to dirt they returned.

In the Psalter, Psalm 88 picks up this story. Korah is remembered in Israel’s hymns; the psalmist giving voice to the one who dropped to the bottom of the pit when the earth opened up underneath his feet:

You have put me in the depths of the Pit,
    in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
    and you overwhelm me with all your waves.
You have caused my companions to shun me;
    you have made me a thing of horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
    my eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call on you, O Lord;
    I spread out my hands to you.
Do you work wonders for the dead?
    Do the shades rise up to praise you?
Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
    or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
Are your wonders known in the darkness,
    or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?
But I, O Lord, cry out to you;
    in the morning my prayer comes before you.
O Lord, why do you cast me off?
    Why do you hide your face from me?

Psalm 88:6-14

Psalm 88 has no happy and uplifting ending. The psalmist is not rescued from the pit and darkness is the only thing that accompanies them day and night. God seems absent and distant. And maybe even more than that, God appears to be gone. Not for lack of trying, the one stuck at the bottom of the pit cries out day and night, pleading with an entity that might have left them there to rot. Here enclosed in walls of dirt they suffer, here in the dust they are in agony, and here in the darkness they cry out and….silence.

From dirt they were taken and to dirt they are returned.

These are the mournful, sorrowful, anxious filled, agonizing, words of Ash Wednesday. Today is our reckoning with God—each of us embarks on our own journey into divine encounter. Today we each come into close proximity with the divine and the holy and are exposed as stuck and sick. Today we each recall how fragile our lives are—vulnerable to virus and infection, to breaks and fractures, to mental breakdown and heartbreak. Today we each are reminded of how often we have failed ourselves and others, broken promises, played the charlatan with her act together, opted for self-gain over self-gift. Today we each clearly hear all the voices and see the faces we turned deaf ears and blind eyes toward as they asked for help, for acknowledgment, for dignity. Today we each are brought to our knees in our humanity remembering that our time here is finite. Today we each collide with the ruse of free will and autonomy. Today the ground opens underneath us and swallows each of us. Today we each drop all the way down to the bottom of the pit, landing on hard ground and are consumed by darkness. Today we each echo the psalmist, “You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my companions are in darkness” (Ps 88:18).

There is no way to bypass Ash Wednesday and proceed straight to Easter. For those of us sitting here in 2021, the new life of Easter is hinged on our encounter with God in the event of faith that is the death of Ash Wednesday. We must each walk this long and arduous path of self-reckoning and self-exposure spanning the time from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday. I cannot protect you from it; in fact, I must lead you into it. Today they weight of my stole feels more like the heavy of a millstone than the light of fabric; today I anoint you not with oil but with ashes and dirt.

From dirt you were taken and to dirt you will return.

Don’t lose heart, beloved; hold tight to the mercy of God. There is no end of the earth so far, no pit so deep, no darkness so dark, no dirt and dust so thick where you, the beloved, are out of the reach of the love and mercy of God, from where God cannot call you back unto God. Not even death itself can separate you from love and mercy of God.

He forgives all your sins
and heals all your infirmities;
He redeems your life from the grave
and crowns you with mercy and loving-kindness;
He satisfies you with good things,
and your youth is renewed like an eagle’s.

Psalm 103:3-5

In Rags and Wood

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

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

Introduction

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

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

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

Born thy people to deliver,

born a child, and yet a king,

born to reign in us for ever,

now thy gracious kingdom bring.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Divine Nativity Draws Nigh

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

Introduction

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

But, see, things weren’t okay.

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

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

Things are not okay.

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

Isaiah 64:1-9

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

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

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

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

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

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

One scholar renders 64:5 like this,

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

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

O come, O come, Emmanuel

And ransom captive Israel

That mourns in lonely exile here

Until the Son of God appear

Conclusion

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

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

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

Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel


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

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

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

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

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

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

[7] Childs 526

[8] Childs 521

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

Sojourner Truth, Embodiedness, and the Erotic

Sancta Colloquia Episode 301 ft. The Rev. Dr. Kate Hanch*

In this episode of Sancta Colloquia, my first ever guest, Kate Hanch (@katehanch), allowed me to talk with her (again) to celebrate the 3rd season of Sancta Colloquia. What a crazy and wild ride it’s been since we first talked. So much has gone on, so many conversations had, so much has changed due to growth. This time Kate discussed Sojourner Truth and her influences and deification of the erotic, specifically intersectionality and black feminism. Kate explains who Sojourner Truth was and her vital impact in preaching and embodiedness. Kate shares about Truth’s own embodiedness when she walks away from her slave master with her son; she doesn’t run, Kate stresses, she walks. And there is everything embodied and present in walking, specifically walking away. Kate emphasizes that there is humility in the lives of women that is not humiliation or shame but more about vulnerability and openness to God and to others. In this way, bodies can become as God (deification).  We have bodies and we experience the world and God in our bodies; we experience others through our bodies. Kate explains that sanctification, through the lens of Sojourner Truth’s life and preaching, is an ongoing process and a coming together with the erotic. Kate pushes the erotic energy of connection of this mystical union toward God and toward others. In a world that is (too?) obsessed with the erotic only as sexual gratification of taking from an other, Kate, with Truth, allows for a broader and more robust definition which see the erotic as self-embodiment and not just sexual gratification. Self-embodiment goes hand in hand with self-awareness (being in your body and aware of it, the intentionality of being) and this self-awareness is, for Kate, part of the erotic. As the conversation moves, Kate exhorts the listener toward waking to the image of God within. That this awakeness is about being powered (from the self) and not empowered, which implies that the power is coming from without–your power is coming from within. And you are not merely given a body (embodiedness) but you are bodied: you are a flesh and blood creature experience the divine sensations of the body and this fuels your substantial presence in the world (living into ourselves and enjoying ourselves with our bodies–minds connected to a body–erotic connecting to coming closer to God in sanctification). Sojourner Truth reminds us that we live and love (agape, philos, eros) in our bodies, we receive and take into our bodies, we give from our bodies…we self-give with humility and interdependence.

 

Intrigued? You should be. Listen here:

 

Kate recently defended her PhD dissertation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. It is entitled “Prophetic Humility: A Feminist Theological Account.” She reads medieval women and 19th century black women preachers as theologians, tracing a humility that is not humiliating from their work. Kate grew up Baptist in Missouri. She attended Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City where she received her MDiv. She was ordained at Holmeswood Baptist Church, a Cooperative Baptist Church in Kansas City, where she served on staff before starting her doctoral education. While working on her dissertation, she has taught at the graduate, undergraduate, and continuing education levels through multiple institutions. Her scholarly work is published in the Liturgy JournalThe Review and Expositor, and Perspectives in Religious Studies. She has a chapter entitled “Light from Pre-Reformation Women’s Theological Contributions” in the book entitled Sources of Light: Resources for Baptist Churches Practicing Theology that was released in 2020. She also has two other chapters under contract in edited volumes about women and theology.

Kate currently serves as an associate pastor at a Methodist church in St. Charles, Missouri. She lives in the exurbs of Missouri with her husband Steve. She likes laughing, hiking, and singing along with Weird Al Yankovic. Follow her on twitter at @katehanch or Instagram at @kate_hanch.

Recommended Reading:

Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches

Joy Bostic,  African American Female Mysticism: Nineteenth century religious activism
Margaret Washington, Sojourner Truth’s America
Jeroen Dewulf, The Pinkster King and the King of Kongo: The Forgotten History of America’s Dutch-Owned Slaves
Kelly Oliver, Witnessing: Beyond Recognition
Sojourner Truth, Narrative of Sojourner Truth, Compiled by Olive Gilbert and Frances W. Titus, With a History of Her Labors and Correspondence Drawn from Her “Book of Life.” Also a Memorial Chapter, Giving the Particulars of Her Last Illness and Death. Battle Creek, Mich., 1884
Nikki Young, “Uses of the Erotic” for Teaching Queer Studies,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 40, no. 3-4
Keri Day, Religious Resistance to Neoliberalism: Womanist and Black Feminist Perspectives (New York: Palgrave Macmillan US: Imprint: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016)

Prayer as Unity

Seventh Sunday of Easter Meditation: John 17:11

(Video at the end of the post)

And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” Jn 17:11

I’m always humbled when I read about Jesus praying. It highlights that I don’t pray enough and rely on my own reason and will to do things. I find myself seemingly autonomously going from moment to moment without feeling the need to pause to pray. I convince myself it’s because of a “robust” doctrine of the Holy Spirit and a deep awareness of the perpetual presence of the Spirit residing in me…but it’s comical really. I’m fooling myself.

The reality for me is prayer feels like work, work that I often don’t have the energy to do. On top of sheer exhaustion from all the demands and the instability of chaos and confusion, prayer feels like work with nonexistent results. A work that goes ignored, is met with silence, and with more suffering, sorrow, and sickness. Even though I’m very familiar with the doctrines and dogmas surrounding prayer and why I should do it, more often than not prayer exposes just how alone I am, how desperate I am, how hurt, scared, confused, and stuck I am. I don’t like that.

But, that’s the point. Life reduces us to the powerless ashes from which God’s divine creative activity and flair calls forth a powerful phoenix. This is the encounter with God in the event of faith, the being wholly dependent on a wholly other God, the death giving way to new life robust in, deeply aware of, and bringing glory to God. Life out of death is the divine means by which God is glorified.

And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.” As Jesus prepares to leave the disciples, they are faced with their own “hour” whereby they are left alone in the world as Jesus suffers, dies, is raised, and goes to the Father.[1] The intersection of Christ’s hour with the disciples’ hour is both the completion and the consummation of the love of God for the whole cosmos made manifest in the event of the cross. [2] This is the trajectory of Jesus’s ministry on earth unto death: as Christ is the embodied love of God which the disciples experience bodily, so too are the disciples in world as they move forth from their hour of encounter with God in faith, in prayer.[3]  The metanarrative of scripture is aimed to this fact: it’s about God’s love for the world, for Israel, for each of us.[4]

Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” The small band of disciples extends, by the Holy Spirit, to the ends of the earth, making disciples and adding to the union for which Jesus prays. Thus, while we are alone and wholly dependent on a wholly other God, we aren’t alone. Prayer unites each of us individually to Christ, the Revealer, and in being united individually to the Revealer we are united to each other into the eternal body of Christ.[5] As we pray in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are in communion with God and thus brought into the beautiful and timeless community of saints: past, present, and future.

 

[1] Bultmann John 487 “In 12.23 this ωρα had been described as the hour of his δοξασθηναι. The difference is purely one of form—it is described as the hour of his μεταβηναι εκ του κοσμου τουτου. For it is introduced here to show its significance for the disciples. For them, it is primarily The Hour, because he is going; they have still to learn that this μεταβηναι is at the same time a δοξασθηναι.”

[2] Bultmann John 487-8 “But the reader is immediately made aware his μεταβηναι is not only the end, but at the same time the consummation of his work: αγαπησας εις τελος; he showed them his love right to the end, which means at the same time, right to its completion This is not of course a biographical comment designed to show the extent of Jesus’ heroism—that he remained true to his own, ‘right up to his last breath’; the intention is to show that even the end itself is nothing other than an act of love, nay more, that it is the necessary end, in which the work of love he had begun finds its consummation.”

[3] Bultmann John 488-9 “It is not necessary after ch. 10 to enlarge on the question who the ιδιοι are. Τhey are his own (10.14) whom the Father has given him f 10.29). And although they are the object of his love, whereas in 3.16 it was the κοσμος that was the object of the Father’s love, this distinction between the two involves no contradiction, but is quite appropriate. Of course the love of the Son, like that of the Father, is directed towards the whole world, to win everyone to itself; but this love becomes a reality only where men open themselves to it. And the subject of this section is the circle of those who have so opened themselves.”

[4] Bultmann John 488 “But it is only looking back at the end of his ministry that we can see the whole of it clearly: it was never really anything other than an αγαπαν τους ιδιους.”

[5] Bultmann John 489 “In the actual situation as it was, this circle was represented by the twelve (eleven); but the use of the term ιδιοι here, and μαθηται, is significant; it shows that they are the representatives of all those who believe, and it also shows that they are being viewed in terms of their essential relation to the Revealer, which is grounded not in the temporal but in the eternal.”

Encounter and Rebirth

Sermon on John 14:1-7

I recorded this sermon for the Rev. Josh Andrews and the Methodist Churches he cares for (Trinity United Methodist Church in Spencerville, Ohio; and, Westside United Methodist Church in Lima, Ohio). The text follows the video.

 

I love the explicitly obscure imagery in this conversation between Jesus and his disciples. The story of the house with many “dwelling places” seems to be a break from what came before in chapter 13 where Jesus foretells Peter’s denial. Yet, a theme overlaps thus binds the two chapters together: discipleship.[1]

“Jesus said, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’” (Jn 14:1-4)

Moving swiftly from prophesying Peter’s denial to speaking of peace, faith in God, and a dwelling place with the Father actually makes sense when you place it under the umbrella of “discipleship.” What the disciples—especially Peter—do not understand is that good discipleship starts not with us choosing to follow after God; rather it begins with God’s preparation of a place for us and God’s coming to get us. Thus, disciples are where Jesus is, or where Jesus is there are the disciples. (One can’t exist without the other.) Just as we are born in the flesh by our mother where our mother is and into a space prepared for us by her; so too are we spiritually reborn by God where God is and into a space prepared for us by God.

I don’t want to vilify Peter. His profession in chapter 13 (and echoed by Thomas’s question in our passage) makes sense according to his logic: if this is the long-awaited Messiah, then yes, Peter’s going to go into battle for him; he’ll lay down his life for Christ–like a good soldier in the midst of battle for his General. If we know anything about Peter, it’s that he’s wonderfully human, and in this we are all pulled into the story—no matter how much we may think we would’ve gotten it. Peter’s logic here is air-tight; but it’s wrong. He won’t die for the Messiah, rather, the Messiah will die for him.[2] Thus, to be a disciple of Jesus, to follow where Jesus is headed necessitates not the risk that death might occur in a battle for life, but that life might occur as a result of death.[3] Dare we come to the end of ourselves and … find more, abundantly more?

The path that lies ahead for the disciples is through Jesus, and this will necessitate a death: a death of what has been held true, a death to dogma and doctrine, a death to human made idols, a death to our reason, our common sense, and our rationality, our self-justification, and a death to our self anchored in false narratives. For all of these things are on a collision course with God in the revelation of God in the event the cross. The disciples will not be entering into battle against the tyranny of other nations; rather, they will enter into confrontation with the tyranny of themselves, rendered and returned to dust.

“Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’” (Jn 14:5-7)

Where Jesus is going the disciples cannot follow and they cannot lead. They must let Jesus, the Christ, make the “way” both for himself and for them.[4] Thus, in that Jesus is going to make the way for them, he’ll be the way for them and this renders Jesus as the inseparable “way and goal.”[5] Salvation occurs when one is brought into encounter with God in the event of faith, this happens and is the means by which this happens to the person. Jesus’s death on the cross and his resurrection re the way and the goal for a disciple.[6]

If Jesus is both the way and the goal for the disciple and by which the disciple is defined, then, according to John, to be a disciple is neither mere mimicry of Jesus nor surging ahead of Jesus with weapons bared. Rather, it is to be found in Jesus—Jesus is the way. Not a doorway, not a gateway, but the way: the path from which the disciple never veers and is thus also the goal for the life of the disciple. It is in Christ where the one who hears the call of God and is forever changed and altered, the one who could not hear but now has ears to hear—to hear so deeply that they can’t unhear what they’ve heard, and they are always hearing truth and receiving life. The Christian, the believer, the hearer never moves from her location in Christ but is plunged deeper and deeper into Christ thus into truth and into life. [7]

The language of John describes the disciple of Christ being the one who dies and finds life. The one who is encountered by God in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, is returned to the very dust that is the substance of the earth, thrown into a wholly other God being wholly dependent on the self-disclosure of this God that God is love, and finds not death unto death but, by the presence and activity of divine mercy and grace, finds and receives the fulness of life. It is this one who is yanked out of her previous existence and thrust into a new one that is oriented in God toward her neighbor in a living, true way.[8]

All of this is so incredibly abstract and heavy. What does it have to do with my life? With me? I intellectually understand that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life; but then I don’t know. Or, do I?

As I read and meditate on this text written so long ago, something sparks a maternal familiarity; something I know deep in my gut, something my body tells me she’s done. And then, like a freight train, memories overwhelm me.  I know this…I know what Jesus is describing… This is none other than birth language. We are born of women in the flesh and are made “people”; we are reborn of God by faith and are made disciples. The maternal heart, pregnant with desire for the beloved, and the unconditional sacrificial love of God shining through the text–cloaked to the casual observer, like Jesus’s divine sonship is to anything but faith.

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’  Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.’” (Jn 3:1-6)

 

I know this language because I’m a mom, because I’ve nurtured and brought life into the world through my body, that my children are my children and perpetually so because of an eternal relation between mother and child—no matter how doubtful, how confident, how meager, how substantial, how rocky, how wonderful, how distant, or how close. Forever it is my voice, my scent, my touch, my very heartbeat that my three children will know and recognize better than anything else in the world. It is their presence, their bodies, their laughs, their cries that will perpetually tug at something located in depth of the core of who I am. Birth is not the end of the symbiotic connection between mother and child; it is the very beginning, it is the way.

In the process of bringing forth life, a mother will lay her life down for her child, one whom she knows and yet does not; she can’t do anything else, she will, through every groan and each contraction, look death in the face and say: my life for this one. Her body will be broken, the water will spill, and the blood will run; and, what looks eventually like sure death will be become the event of abundant life. She will birth this child at the expense of her own body, she will make a place for this child, she will carry this child, she will nurture this child… where she is, there the child will be also. And where the child is, there, too, will she be.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him,” (Jn 3:16-17)

Love* is the divine tie that binds, the substance that unites and draws bodies together, that needs no reason and sense yet makes so much sense and is its own reason. Love just loves. Nothing stops it: not time, material, distance–not even death can stop the power and dynamic movement of love. It’s the great eternal mystery of all time; it is the substance of God, made flesh in Christ, and dwelling among us and in us now in the presence of the Holy Spirit uniting us back into God. Love loves in the midst of the closeness intimacy and from the furthest edges of infinity. Love loves.

It is in divine love that is our common location with each other and with God. This divine Love is both agape and eros: it goes out, it seeks, and it takes the beloved back into the lover. Love causes the lover to always be with the beloved. The lover never forgets the Beloved because by love the beloved is always with the lover. Love is the path and the destination.

In the encounter with God in Christ in the event of faith by the power of the Holy Spirit, you are reborn in and through love. And this Love is the way, it is truth, it is life. God is love; God loves you; you are reborn of God by faith. you are forever the Beloved.

Happy Mother’s day.

 

 

*This and the following paragraph are adapted from this post: https://laurenrelarkin.com/2020/05/08/love-and-solidarity/

[1] Bultmann The Gospel of John: A Commentary Trans GR Beasley-Murray, RWN Hoare, and JK Riches. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1971). 595-6

[2] Bultmann John 598, “…he does not know that he cannot enter the field ‘for’ the Revealer, but only the Revealer for him…It is therefore clear that the following of Jesus is not an act of heroism.”

[3] Bultmann John  597, “Thus the following of Jesus has become a possibility in this double sense—as world-annulment and as following into the δοξα—only because of Jesus’ victory over the world; it is therefore possible solely through faith in the Revealer, in whose υπαγειν the victory over the world is accomplished.

[4] Bultmann John 605, “By describing himself as the way Jesus makes two things clear: 1. his case is different from that of the disciples; he does not need a ‘way’ for himself, as the disciples do, rather he is the way for them…”

[5] Bultmann John 605, “The way and the goal are not to be separated as they are in mythological thinking. In the myth the redemption has become embodied in a cosmic event, and therefore-contrary to the intention of the myth—it is conceived as in intra-mundane event, as a divine history, which takes place apart from the existence of man, who is referred to it as the guarantee of his future.”

[6] Bultmann John 605, “…the redemption is an event which takes place in human existence through the encounter with the Revealer, with the result that the believer’s present is already based on his future; his existence is eschatological existence; his way is at the same time his goal.”

[7] Bultmann John 606-7, “That means that there is no ‘short cut’ to the correct understanding of αληθεια and ζωη. The discovery of this αληθεια is not something established once and for all, at men’s disposal, such as could be communicated in ‘condensed form’ like a truth of science; on the contrary everyone has to take the way to it for himself, for only on the way does this truth disclose itself. Similarly Jesus is the truth; he does not simply state it. One does not come to him to ask about truth; one comes to him as the truth. This truth does not exist as a doctrine, which could be understood, preserved, and handed on, so that the teacher is discharged and surpassed. Rather the position a man takes vis-à-vis the Revealer decides not whether he knows the truth, but whether he is ‘of the truth,’ that is to say, whether his existence is determined by the truth, whether the truth is the ground on which his existence is based. And as in Christianity everyone has to start for himself from the beginning, so too there is no such thing as a history of Christianity within world-history, in the sense of a history of ideas or problems, in which one progresses from stage to stage, from solution to solution; each generation has the same original relation to the revelation.”

[8] Bultmann John 606, “Εγω ειμι η οδος: this is pure expression of the idea of revelation. The Revealer is the access to God which man is looking for, and what is more—as is implied in the phrase Εγω ειμι and is stated explicitly in words ουδεις κτλ.—the only access. Not, however, in the sense he mediated the access and then became superfluous…On the contrary, he is the way in such a manner as to be at the same time the goal; for he is also η αληθεια και η ζωη: the αληθεια as the revealed reality of God, and the ζωη as the divine reality which bestows life on the believer in that it bestows self-understanding in God. All three concepts are bound to each other by the word Εγω: just as Jesus is the way, in that he is the goal, so he is also the goal, in that he is the way. He cannot be forgotten in the of the goal, for the believer cannot have the αληθεια and the ζωη as acquisitions at his own disposal: Jesus remains for him the way. Of course that is not to say that αληθεια and ζωη are a goal that is always to be striven for and that is an infinite distance away; on the contrary, in going along the way the goal is reached. Not however in the sense of Stoicism or idealism, where the goal is ideally present in the infinite way…nor is it a ‘perpetual striving to make the effort’; rather it is the state of existence that is subjected to the actual word of Jesus within history, for there God is present. But the believer finds God only in him, i.e. God is not directly accessible; faith is not mystical experience, but rather historical existence that is subject to the revelation.”

Love and Solidarity

Farewell Letter to my Students

 

 

Three years ago, I was in Colorado minding my own business, mothering, puttering around the house, thinking theological things, wondering what the future held for me as a newish transitional deacon in The Episcopal Church. Never once did I think that my phone would ring, that I *would* answer it, and that the familiar voice on the other end would ask, “Do you want to go teach World Religions in deep south Louisiana?” When that exact thing happened one afternoon, that question was met with a quick, “Nope. I’m not qualified for that…I don’t know a thing about any other tradition.” After some discussion and very crafty convincing by my friend, I reluctantly and skeptically gave in, “Although we both know that in no way, shape, or form should I be teaching high school kids anything and that I’m better fit for the inanimate world of books, I’ll go ahead and talk to them.”

I’m glad I did.

From the moment I stepped on Campus in 2017, I knew this was home. And it was, and it is. I can say honestly, one of the best decisions I ever made was moving my family across the country and teaching 11th and 12th graders theology and religion—and eventually 8th graders, too. I wasn’t convinced I’d be good at it, and I don’t know if I was; but, I knew that this was where I was supposed to be.

Every student who has passed through my door and sat at my desks has taught me more about what it means to be a teacher, an adult, a Christian, to be me than any book I’ve read (and I’ve read a few). Every encounter, discussion, argument, banter, and painful (painful!) silence, were the moments through which I fell more in love not only with my job, but with you. This is by far the best job I’ve ever had and definitely the hardest one to leave. But love loves, and love knows when to leave.

As my family weathers chaos and global pandemic, it’s become clearer to us that the geographical distance that exists between us and our parents is too large. Pandemic wedded to the tangible reality that our parents are getting older and won’t always be with us, thrust us into serious conversations about our immediate future. After thoughtful and careful evaluation, I was faced to make that choice that was right and excruciatingly difficult: leave my students. Love knows when it must let go.

I like to fully invests in what I’m doing and into my relationships. As I looked at what was ahead, I knew that my place needed to be alongside my parents, doing for them what they did for me many years ago. As my parents carried me in their arms through crowds and gatherings, and used their voices to sooth my fears and concerns, it is now my turn to use my arms to carry them and my voice to sooth them. I knew I couldn’t also be here (fully) for you; I’d be divided.

As a middle-aged adult I span the gap between two generations. My children need me and so too my parents. This means, that, with only two hands, I must let go of something to grab hold of my parents. And since my children are yet too young to be released, I had to let go of my job. While I have tried to find a workable solution to make everything fit, I cannot. (And trust me, I tried; if you don’ believe me you can ask Ms. Fournet or Coach Dardar or Ms. Neal-Jones, they know I tried and they know how much I loved this work and how much I *do* love you.)

And I do love you; you’re the Beloved. Love is the divine tie that binds, the substance that unites and draws bodies together, that needs no reason and sense yet makes so much sense and is its own reason. In the fall I preached that love loves. And it does. Love just loves. Nothing stops it: not time, material, distance–not even death can stop the power and dynamic movement of love. It’s the great eternal mystery of all time; it is the substance of God, made flesh in Christ, and dwelling among us and in us now in the presence of the Holy Spirit uniting us back into God. Love loves;, in the midst of the closeness intimacy and from the furthest edges of infinity. Love loves.

Others have moved from here, I am moving from here, you will move from here, but the tie that binds is love. It is in divine love where our common location resides. This divine Love is both agape and eros: it goes out, it seeks, and it takes the beloved back into the lover. Love causes the lover to always be with the beloved. As I move to Colorado, my love for you will not lessen even though there will be geographical distance; in love distance is non-existent. The lover never forgets the Beloved because by love the beloved is always with the lover; thus, you won’t be forgotten.

So, my Beloved, thank you. Thank you for letting me be your teacher, for trusting me with your thoughts, ideas, bodies, and minds; thank you for making my world and life bigger, better, and brighter because you each exist; thank you for showing and teaching me so much, for your patience and your forgiveness; and thank you for being you—the world is a more beautiful place because you are.

With that and with all my love…catch ya on the flip side…

Love and Solidarity,

Rev. Lauren R. E. Larkin

Zion Comes; The Christ is Born

Isaiah 53:1-10 (Sermon)

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

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

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

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

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

Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.” (Is 35:3-4)

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

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

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

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

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

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining

It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth

Long lay the world in sin and error pining

‘Til He appears and the Soul felt its worth

A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices

For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

vi Oh Holy Night 

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

viii Oh Holy Night