The Cedar Sprig and The Baby

Ezekiel 17:22-24 (Homily)

*I don’t believe in Bible reading plans, but I do read my bible every day—a chapter on some days, a small passage on others. I take my time and meditate on what I’m reading as I go. One cold, winter morning, back in Colorado, my attention was particularly pricked as I was reading through a part of text from the prophet Ezekiel. The book of Ezekiel of the Old Testament is full of mysterious imagery and prophecy of Israel’s exile and destruction. While there is a word of hope of restoration, the bulk of the book is rather troubling. But none of that caused me to stop and contemplate. It was a portion about a tree planted on a mountain that snapped me out of my early morning mental fog.

I lived in the high desert, so maybe the idea of a great big cedar providing shade and comfort from the burning sun of the summertime or the cold wind and snow of winter sounded good to me. Or, maybe the idea of anything green and verdant appealed to me considering it was the middle of a white Colorado winter. Whatever it was, this tree caught my eye.

In this portion of our passage, God is promising to plant a great and “noble cedar” from a sprig God is going to break off from another. And God will plant this sprig, this tender one on a high mountain, so that it will become a “noble cedar.”

You know what grows on the top of a high mountain? Nothing. Well, nothing substantial, nothing qualifying as “noble.” The top of a mountain is typically bald because the environment is too frigid and the conditions too treacherous for foliage to grow let alone allow for a transplanted cutting to take root and grow and become mighty. What caught my attention that morning was God promising to plant a “tender one” on the top of a mountain; certainly, this is sure death for a cedar sapling. What a precarious thing for God to do.

In the midst of a book that is primarily [1] comprised of prophetic utterances of judgment against the current, corrupt, oppressive, militaristic, and hopeless monarchy of Jerusalem and Israel, [2] why prophesy about a great cedar on a mountaintop planted and grown from a sprig?

Birds of every kind will nest in it; they will find shelter in the shade of its branches. All the trees of the forest will know that I the Lord bring down the tall tree and make the low tree grow tall. I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish.

Because the tree is the word of hope in this passage—not for the leadership of Israel but for those who are suffering under the leadership.

The tree will be so mighty in stature that winged creatures of all kinds will be able to find shelter in its boughs. Cedars protect those creatures who find shelter in them from harsh and inclement weather—they are the perfect safe-haven from cold winds and bitter precipitation. This particular cedar planted and nourished by God will be a beacon of hope to all who look upon it, and they will know that God is still active, that God’s power is still magnificent, and that God hears the deep cries and intimately knows the suffering and oppression of God’s people (Exodus 2:25; Acts 9:4-5).[3]

This cedar will stand as the promise of an answer to the repeated cries of the troubled, downtrodden, and the broken hearted. But even more than being a static symbol of hope for the people of Israel and Jerusalem, it’s a dynamic word for the people: God is on the move. This great tree is on a collision course with God.

That God so loved the world he sent his son into it as a vulnerable baby: a baby conceived by the Holy Spirit was born of a virgin woman; the fully divine and fully human Christ would enter the world defenseless, naked, and tender. What a precarious thing for God to do.

And just as God promised that the sprig in Ezekiel would become a great and mighty cedar, so too will this baby grow to be great, becoming the Son of the Most-High God (Luke 1:32). Through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension the cosmos receives her loving messiah, her merciful king, her faithful high-priest.

The sprig of the high mountain top and the baby of Christmas have the same fate in Easter: to be the final answer to all of humanity’s pain and suffering, to bear the weight of sin and bear life into the world, to break down strongholds and redefine justice. For this great man, Jesus, who is God, will carry this great cedar to the top of a high mountain. He will climb upon this great cedar, and this great cedar will bear the entire weight of Christ as he bears the entire weight of our sin and the brokenness of the world succumbed to the powers of sin and death; and this cedar will holdfast those three nails.

Like the winged creatures mentioned by Ezekiel in our passage, in the boughs of the cross and the limbs of our crucified and resurrected Christ, we receive our comfort and the fulfillment of our hope, it’s in the safe and protective shade of the Cross where we hear the divine “it is finished” to our pain and suffering, to our grief and fear–where the rejected are accepted, counted as God’s own, children and heirs of the long awaited great king; where the captives are set free, the oppressed relieved, the hopeless are hopeful, the voiceless have a voice, and the refugee finds refuge.

 

 

1 “Ezekiel” The Jewish Study Bible Tanakh Translation Eds. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler JPS Oxford: OUP, 2004. 

2 Walther Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament Vol. 1 Trans. J.A. Baker. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1961. “Jeremiah and Ezekiel look from the monarchy of their own day, for which they can see no future, to a new order established by Yahweh himself, in which the ruler appointed by him will have become a theocractic official very different from the contemporary political and military king…This opinion on the part of the prophets was certainly strengthened by the fact that in despots like Ahaz, Manasseh and Jehoiakim they saw on the throne particularly blatant examples of human self-will in hostility to Yahweh” (Eichrodt 451) 

3 “The cedar, the grandest of trees, will tower over all the other trees, and all will see the power of God, who is responsible for the fall and rise of Judah” (Jewish Study Bible). 

 

*A longer version of this homily was given at The Cathedral Advent. Birmingham, AL, in 2017.

The Silence of God, God of the Void: A Reflection for Holy Saturday

Silence is disturbing. Personally, I’d rather know bad news than sit with myself in the midst of silence of reply. I’d rather a verbal explosion go off, leaving word shrapnel strewn about; that’s something I can tangibly make sense of, examine, create order with. Give me baskets piled high of “what-you-actually-think”, and no matter how much pain I may have, at least I have something to work with and to fight with. The whole idea that “no news is good news” escapes me; I find no comfort in having nothing with which to do battle against. I can’t kick against silence; there’s nothing to fight in the void.

God gifted me with the ability to be a very good and efficient problem solver. A MBTI INTP, I live to order chaos, to make precise connections over vast intellectual distances, to build and construct and expand and to push and to see just how far this *thing* can go (be it object, idea, or my own person). Thus I would naturally expect that God would meet me as I am: give me riddles to solve, puzzles to put together, ask me to follow along a trail of thoughts dropped by God’s divine hand so that when I arrive at the end I can, as if by intellectual paint-by-number, assemble these thoughts to get the full picture I’ve been desiring.

But rarely is this so. Rarely?…Better yet: never. That I expect God to meet me in such a way is my own demand on God, it is my own form I’m forcing God into. I forget that God self-discloses God’s self. The reality is that my encounter with God in the event of faith is often in the midst of total silence, where I feel as if I am suspended and hovering above a void and an abyss that it is threatening to take me into it. Where my repeated whispers of “Why?” are pulled from me only to float off into the distance and seemingly evaporate like a lone cloud does as it floats over the dry Colorado desert. Where my “Where were you when…?” stack up and collect dust and become brittle, like old books long forgotten. Where the word “hope” has no value and where doubts of God seem to ontologically define my spirituality and my personhood.

I’m not alone in this particular encounter with God in the event of faith. According to one scholar, Elie Wiesel has a similar conceptualizing of God,

“For Elie Wiesel the struggle of the survivor is not merely an inquiry with the mind while knowing in the heart but a shattering of that knowledge, that trust in God. Wiesel’s God is not a God who gave man freedom in history but rather a God who promised deliverance and remained silent in the hour of Israel’s greatest need, a God who made it impossible to believe in the promise of future deliverance. Wiesel’s theodicy is a theodicy of the void. His God is a God of silence. Wiesel’s struggle is to live in the face of the void.”[1]

Everything that has been held dear is shattered and rent asunder. Like Wiesel, everything I’ve put my “hope” in is and has been demythologized. The stories become like playground taunts to my pain and suffering, to my deep abiding questions. The God I’ve historically worshipped is, in the silence and in the face of the void, demythologized; and I come face to face with God’s Thou-objectivity as it is and not as I assume it to be. I’m exposed as the one who has worshipped the stories and not the one to whom the stories point: God. Thus, I am demythologized.

Recently I was reminded of a concept Luther articulates early in his lectures on Galatians and one that I use frequently with my students when explaining the journey of faith. Faith is a journey into darkness[2] not up and into the light but down and into the darkness, being lead by the hand and not by our own sight. Luther writes,

“Here let reason be far away, that enemy of faith, which in the temptations of sin and death, relies not on the righteousness of faith or Christian righteousness, of which it is completely ignorant, but on its own righteousness or, at most, on the righteousness of the Law. As soon as reason and the Law are joined, faith immediately loses its virginity. For nothing is more hostile to faith than the Law and reason; nor can these two enemies be overcome without great effort and work, and you must overcome them if you are to be saved. Therefore when your conscience is terrified by the Law and is wrestling with the judgment of God, do not consult either reason or the Law, but rely only on grace and the Word of comfort. Here take your stand as though you had never heard of the Law. Ascend into the darkness, where neither the Law nor reason shines, but only the dimness of faith (1 Cor. 13:12), which assures us that we are saved by Christ alone, without any Law. Thus the Gospel leads us above and beyond the light of the Law and reason into the darkness of faith, where the Law and reason have no business.[3]

In the event of faith, we are ushered out of the light and into the darkness; we are completely undone unto death of the self that was. Where faith is undone unto it’s own death. Where our self-created depictions of God are undone unto their death. Where we are thoroughly and completely brought to nothing in the divine silence and in the void.

“Therefore we are nothing, even with all our great gifts, unless God is present. When He deserts us and leaves us to our own resources, our wisdom and knowledge are nothing. Unless He sustains us continually, the highest learning and even theology are useless… Therefore let no one boast or glory in his own righteousness, wisdom, and other gifts; but let him humble himself and pray with the apostles (Luke 17:5): ‘Lord, increase our faith!’”[4]

In the silence, stalwart faith turns to haunting doubt; hopeful stories are exposed as hopeless myths; reason is exposed as enemy; and I am left naked and exposed and in what feels like certain death. I let go of the things I’ve had a death grip on and give in to the pull of the void. Arms clinging to unsubstantial things go limp and unfurl to the left and right; head drops back and eyes close waiting to be sucked in and all the way down into nothing, in to the void.

But in this silence, in this seemingly deathly void, there is life. The “I am who and what I am” is. I am in God’s intimate embrace, locked deeply in the divine kiss summoning me from death–resurrection from the dead–and as I wake and the divine kiss pulls back, one word, “hope”, remains, trailing on my lips.

We rush from Good Friday to Easter Sunday clinging to the stories therein as if these were our only hope. We skip over Saturday because it has no story to offer us, no story for us to anchor our faith in, no words that we can cling to when we face doubt and despair. We skip over Saturday because silence is disturbing and the void feels most threatening. But maybe, maybe it’s the silence of Saturday that is the most divine because we are brought deep into the darkness, into the silence, into the void and asked to die to everything we’ve held on to for life.

To have faith in God’s activity in the world depicted in the stories handed down to us makes sense but is not the substance of faith but of the rational. Rather, to have faith in the wake of the cessation of divine activity, when words aren’t spoken and heard, where there’s nothing to cling to but God’s ambiguous and alarming “I am” is the substance of faith. To have faith today, when it doesn’t make sense because all seems lost and gone, is the substance of faith. And this is the substance and demand of the silence and void of Holy Saturday.

 

 

[1] M. Barenbaum “Elie Wiesel: God, the Holocaust, and the Children of Israel”. See also, Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God and his reference to Elie Wiesel’s Night, pp. 273-4.

[2] Dr. David W. Congdon mentions this concept of Luther’s (via Rudolf Bultmann) on this episode of Whit Hodge Podcasts: https://soundcloud.com/whitehodgepodcasts/s2-e1-everyone-be-saved-dr-david-congdon

[3] Martin Luther Lectures on Galatians: Chapters 1-4 LW vol. 26. Pp. 113-4. Emphasis, mine.

[4] Ibid, 114.

Easter’s Present: Hope Springs Eternal

He is risen!

Hallelujah!

The Lord is risen indeed!

Hallelujah!

I’m not one to put more emphasis on one aspect of the liturgical calendar over and against another aspect. I know the importance of holding in tandem all the events of Christ: birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Though I do hold these events in tandem, each one solicits from me a different response. Christmas brings with it anticipation and expectation: the baby has been born, the great rescue plan is under way! Christ’s life solidifies that I can have that expectation and anticipation; he is the perfect one, his is the same mission pursuit as the One who sent him: to seek and save the lost, to heal up the brokenhearted, to set right what was wrong, to defend the defenseless (to mention a few). Good Friday thrusts me in to solemnity that leads to my own death as I witness Christ’s death because he so loved the world that he couldn’t leave the cries of the burdened and oppressed go unheard. Easter is the brilliant light in the darkness; Christ’s resurrection draws from me a deep sigh of relief: my hope finds its grounding and fulfillment. The ascension reminds me: God is with me, God is working in the world, perpetually making things and people new and overhauling the dead.

As a rational and logical person I hold these events of Christ’s activity toward and on behalf of the world in tandem, but as someone who has suffered violence at the hands and words of other humans, Easter pulls strongest: hope springs eternal.

As a sufferer, I need to be called out of myself in the midst of my suffering, I need to be called to look not down at myself (turned/turning inward) but up at Jesus, raise my face to see this very God who is merciful and unyielding in His love; who, by the life of His one and only Son, through the event of the incarnation and the cross, has declared “it will not always be so.” Darkness, depression, sorrow, suffering, grief, loss, and pain have been given their verdict: no; and we have been given ours: yes.

Suffering has a unique way of drawing us to the Suffering God who suffered for us on the cross, who was raised from the dead and has declared that the suffering of this life will not last forever, that it is not the final word, and that He has conquered it. Suffering draws us to this God who is not far off when we are at our worst, ugliest, decrepit, sick, infirm, maimed, even when we are angry at Him about our own suffering or the suffering of those close to us.

Suffering draws us to this God who has come close and breathes into our breathless lungs—lungs carried in bodies exhausted from the battle, pelted by the hail-storms of pain and loss, bones made brittle by unfulfilled pleas and petitions. It is this God who breathes into our lungs and re-creates us from the dead, gives us real and true life and new hearts, who causes us to love him and to love others and uses all those things intended for evil for good. Even in suffering, the Light cannot be overcome by darkness.

This is Easter: hope. The resurrection of Christ from the dead is our hope. Hope that is so vibrant and fertile that it is the sole reason so many of us who have suffered incredible pain still walk this very earth. Our hope is historical, it is current, and it turns our faces toward the future because the promises of God have been fulfilled, are being fulfilled, and will be fulfilled. The resurrection of Christ is the event that reverberates through the halls of time; it is the voice that echoes: “hold-fast; I am.”

The event of the resurrection of Christ gives the broken-down, the oppressed, the suffering, the down-trodden future hope that (in it’s most amazing and beautiful way) reaches back to the now and gives it life, life abundant. Future oriented hope in resurrection makes this current life vibrant technicolor rather than drab monochrome. We can walk through this life with our scars, because a new body, a new life waits, one free from the muscle memory of pain and fear. We can bear the pain of loss and sorrow deep in our bones and carry on in life because the future hope of resurrection and reunion reorients our gaze upward toward the one who defeated death once and for all. We can fight for and free the oppressed because our future oriented hope gives us the audacity and freedom to do so in the here and now, to live into thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Hear ye, beloved, these comfortable words:

“He will swallow up death for all time, And the Lord GOD will wipe tears away from all faces, And He will remove the reproach of His people from all the earth; For the LORD has spoken” (Is. 25:8).

And the Lord GOD has,

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”

56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

58 Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Cor 15)

Today, Easter, hope springs eternal because Christ is risen from the dead.

Hallelujah!

He is risen indeed!

Hallelujah!

The Silence of Saturday

On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.  Luke 23:56b

John, in his gospel, records that Jesus’ last words from the cross on Friday were, “It is finished” (19:30). Luke records, “Father into your hands I commit my spirit” (23:46b). Both Matthew and Mark have recorded as Jesus’ last words, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (Matt 27:46b; Mark 15:34b). These records of Jesus’ last words from the cross have always brought me immeasurable comfort. But then again, I know the full story. My eyes dart from the “it is finished” in John to the “Now on the first day of the week” of the resurrection story located just  a few inches lower on the page.

Chronologically speaking, I’m missing an entire day as I read along in my bible: the Sabbath. And, technically, that’s today: the day in between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  I jump ahead to the end because I have the end to jump to, I never sit here, in Saturday, in the silence, in the doubt of what had just happened. I rush from getting Easter baskets ready to planning how I’m going to execute Easter dinner while throwing a quick thought to where we’re going to go to church Easter morning.

The reality is: I’m not worried and so I don’t ever think about today: Saturday, the day before Easter, the day before the whole story would unfold.

But maybe we should think of it, consider it, stop and just imagine this day 2000+ years ago. For those who followed Jesus and loved Him and believed (by the power of the Holy Spirit) that he was the long awaited Messiah, this day was filled with nothing but doubt, filled with questions, maybe even despair and feeling abandoned. Was it all for naught? Was He lying? Was it some big ruse, some horrible joke? Were we duped?” Even as I type this blog post, my hands shake a little and tears form in the corners of my eyes; my heart can’t handle this day, my  mind is weighed down imagining what those brothers and sisters of mine suffered emotionally, spiritually, physically, mentally…Jesus had died…what now?

Imagine with me for a moment. Imagine tear soaked eyes looking up at Jesus dead on the cross. Imagine hearts torn in two like the temple veil, hope and expectation fleeing forth like birds out of a cage as they take his body down from the cross. Imagine minds in a panic, racing with questions and burdened with fear as the tomb is sealed shut. Imagine returning home just before dusk, entering into the Sabbath and rather than resting, you’re weeping; rather than worshiping God you’re questioning Him.

Imagine entering into 36 hours of the darkest dark night of the soul you’ve ever experienced.

While all of heaven, on that Saturday, waited with bated breath and excitement for the giving of the greatest gift ever given, for the fulfillment of God’s glorious promises, for Jesus to be raised from the dead, thus defeating it forever…

…on Earth…

…there was just…

…silence.