Divine Silence and Suffering

Sermon on Proverbs 1:20-33

Psalm 19:1-4 The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork. One day tells its tale to another, and one night imparts knowledge to another. Although they have no words or language, and their voices are not heard, their sound has gone out into all lands, and their message to the ends of the world.

Introduction[1]

“For waywardness kills the simple,
and the complacency of fools destroys them;
but those who listen to me will be secure
and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.”

Proverbs 1:32-33

On September 11th, 2001, at around 7:30 in the morning, I walked from the PATH station on 33rd street and headed over to my office, located 20 street blocks (about a mile) from the station in midtown, Manhattan. I walked through Times Square, weaving and wending by the command of traffic lights; walked by St. Pats, by the windows of Saks 5th Avenue, Rock plaza, and arrived at 53rd and 5th avenue. The walk was brilliant; the air was crisp, early fall was settling in; the sky was a bright blue, not a cloud in the sky; and the sun was bright and warm. This Tuesday seemed to promise perfection. Nothing could have prepared me for the next few hours.

What felt like moments later and just settling into the glorious banality of office life, a coworker showed up, wide eyed at my desk. A massive passenger plane flew into the North tower of the World Trade Center, just a little over a mile away from where I sat. “Like ‘hit’ one of the towers?” I asked. “No, like…into,” was my colleague’s response. Disbelief. What?! How is that even possible? Was it an accident?

I worked on the analyst floor with the guru of gaming and leisure stocks; we didn’t have TVs enough to manage the crowd, so we headed downstairs to the “Floor” (the Trading Floor). We crowded around every TV we could find and watched the billowing smoke of one of our iconic buildings comprising our skyline take the foreground, rendering that bright blue sky as a frame for destruction. As we watched, along with the world, another plane hit the South Tower. It was official: our world was under attack. We were immediately dismissed from work and released into the streets of New York City … But to where? To safety? Somewhere? The city went on lockdown and no one could enter or leave.

Proverbs 1:20-33

“Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice.
At the busiest corner she cries out;
at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:
“How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
and fools hate knowledge?
Give heed to my reproof;
I will pour out my thoughts to you;
I will make my words known to you.”

Proverbs 1:20-23

After getting to the entrances of Morgan Stanley (47th and Broadway), where my father worked, I was told, “We sent everyone home a while ago,” said the officer holding guard. Thinking fast, I pulled out my PalmPilot to check his address and doubled back heading over to my big brother’s apartment near Grand Central Station. The crowd of people was thick. Yet there was a calm about everything. Cellphones didn’t work, because the towers were down… We just moved as we could and as kind as we could. You’d think it would be crazy, like movie crazy but it wasn’t; fear like that manifests in disbelief; disbelief mixed with fear is very quiet.

I entered the apartment building and before I could say anything, the door man took one look at me and said, “Go; he’s looking for you. Go!” 7 floors later and I was embraced by the biggest hug I’ve ever received and given.

By a little after noon, Manhattan was quiet. It was so quiet. Eerie quiet. Big cities never get quiet. But this very big city was very silent. Nothing seemed to move apart from the lone pedestrian or the occasional fire truck, police car, or ambulance that zoomed down large avenues, sirens blaring, lights flashing, headed to Ground Zero. I could (and did) walk down the center of 5th avenue; it was the first and last time I’d do such a thing.

Manhattan and the surrounding areas would never be the same. We couldn’t go back to “normal” because that didn’t exist anymore. “Back to” isn’t the trajectory for “normal” when you’re constantly reminded of the horror and tragedy when walking by walls, bus-stands, and bulletin boards, plastered with pictures of loved ones who were never found, never recovered, never buried. Months and months, well into 2002; images of the once living haunting and following us until we were numb to their frozen smiles and twinkling eyes.

I was a new Christian, like baby new. Not even a year into walking with the Lord and here I was faced with evil, with tragedy, with suffering, and sorrow, grief and mourning. Where was God? Where was this God that I had just given my life to? There were no words being spoken, no waters parting, no rainbows filling the air. God was silent. And for many, and maybe even for me, God was dead or at least appeared to be.

“Because I have called and you refused,
have stretched out my hand and no one heeded,
and because you have ignored all my counsel
and would have none of my reproof,
I also will laugh at your calamity;
I will mock when panic strikes you,
when panic strikes you like a storm,
and your calamity comes like a whirlwind,
when distress and anguish come upon you.”

Proverbs 1:24-27

All the tragedy and all the sorrow and suffering we experience individually and collectively draw up from the depths of our being and our soul and our mind desperate questions. Why? Where were you? Where are you God? Why didn’t God stop the tragedy? Divine silence even more than divine judgment causes dis-ease, anxiety, and substantial pain in our very being. Where is God when we are in pain? Where is the Divine Comforter when our hearts are torn asunder through loss? Where was God on 9/11? And as fast as the questions arise so do the answers die.

I’ve spent most of my academic life in the pursuit of the question: where is God when we suffer? Where is comfort in divine silence? And there are times—like 9/11—where I come up wordless. The only I answer I have is the tears I shed because suffering is real; and I hate it. And I cry because I can, for there are those who can no longer cry. Where is God in moments of suffering, pain, grief, sorrow? How is God for us when some of us are now widows and orphans, left destitute and grieving? Is this suffering divine judgment?

“Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer;
they will seek me diligently, but will not find me.
Because they hated knowledge
and did not choose the fear of the Lord,
would have none of my counsel,
and despised all my reproof,
therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way
and be sated with their own devices.”

Proverbs 1:28-31

But there are times when I see clearly where God is: right there in the suffering. There among those who have breathed their last; there with those who are not even close to shedding their last tear. With the child who will never know their parent; the lover who will never hold their beloved again; the parent who has only that last email from their adult child. God is in the gallows[2]; God is in the rubble.

Conclusion

Woman Wisdom in our Proverbs passage speaks not to us—those caught in earthly calamity and suffering—but to death and his foolish lackeys: pain, suffering, grief, sorrow, violence, evil, horror, disaster, etc., and anyone who follows death’s lead. Fear of the Lord will not protect me from earthly pain and suffering, sorrow and grief; but it is my life amid them. The cosmic battle is lopsided, leaning in the favor of the God of life.[3] God of Life, Love, comes for God’s people and raises them into God’s self, into life; and therein death, pain, suffering, grief, sorrow, violence, evil, horror is condemned while Wisdom watches and laughs.

God is in our suffering, breathing for us when we can’t, holding us upright when our knees shake and quake. And the only reason I can say this is because Jesus the Christ, hung on a cross in solidarity with those who suffer in this world. Jesus was raised on the third day to be the fulfillment of the promise of life to those with whom he is in solidarity. Our God knows suffering; our God is the suffering God, our God dwells amongst suffering. This is one of the most radical things about the Church’s gospel proclamation: Jesus the Christ, God of very God, suffered in solidarity with the suffering and brings life to them.

God does dwell with those who are suffering. The dead do not suffer for they are in the fullness of God; it’s those who have been left behind who suffer, and God is in their midst. When tragedy hits, when suffering lands, when catastrophe wreaks havoc, there God is amid God’s people as we gather, come close, push towards each other in our suffering and pain and grief. God was at Ground zero every time a new search and rescue team stepped up to help; God was there in every emergency room as doctors and surgeons and nurses pulled together to mend the broken and resuscitate those they could; God was there in the massive lines of people eager to do whatever they could even if it meant waiting hours to offer a pint or two of blood; God was there in that quiet whispered hello from your neighbor and in the brief moment of eye-contact in passing; God was there in the meals that were brought, the arms that embraced, and the many services performed. And God continued to be present on that Manhattan Island, the surrounding state of New York, New England, the nation, and the world as people pulled together and prayed, but more: when they showed up.  

God is only as silent and dead if I stay silent and dead. But that silence is broken and that death turned to new life when I, a suffering grieving human being, reach out to you a fellow suffering and grieving human being; that silence is broken and that death turned to new life when I use my words and my deeds to be in solidarity with you as you suffer and grieve. God is present in suffering because we are present with each other in suffering.


[1] The following is adapted and expanded from this: https://laurenrelarkin.com/2018/09/14/god-is-in-the-gallows-god-is-in-the-rubble-homily-on-luke-28-20-in-honor-of-9-11/

[2] Inspired by Jurgen Moltmann and Elie Wiesel; Moltmann in The Crucified God articulates a powerful story from Wiesel about the hanging of three Jews in a concentration camp. 273-4

[3] Bruce K. Waltke The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 1-15 TNICOT Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004. 204

Born of Love

Sermon on Ephesians 4:1-16

Psalm 51:9-11 Make me hear of joy and gladness, that the body you have broken may rejoice. Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.

Introduction

Of my three children, Liza was by far the most active in utero. I felt her quick and swift movements early and often up until the very end of her 41 weeks. I’m not sure what she was doing, but Daniel and I often joked that she was busy building extra rooms and additions in her 98-degree cave. She was here, she was there, she was … wait, how did you get there?! Even our obstetrician had difficulty locating her heartbeat early on so that we could hear it for longer than a few seconds. You’d hear the rapid thump-thump-thump draw close to the doppler and then *poof!* like magic, she was gone. As she grew larger (she’d be about 10lb when she was born), I’d literally rock with her full-bodied movements. She didn’t just kick, she lambadad about, with a flamenco thrown in here and there.

It was just a few weeks out from what was to be her birthday, and I busy capitalizing on the quiet house with both boys off at school until 3:30pm. I sat at my computer and worked, writing up some notes on Thomas Aquinas. I felt her roll about. I rocked in response to her motions. And then, out of the corners of my eyes as I was typing, I saw my belly go left and right at the exact same time. I went from round to oblong because #theogbg decided she was in the mood for a full body stretch. I immediately put my hands to my now football shaped belly; I felt her hands and her feet. She was in there and I was out here, and we were one but not, but so much one in our distinction and symbiosis in love.

While birth would relocate her into her my arms and eventually in front of me, I knew that deep connection wouldn’t break once the link of the umbilical cord was broken. The symbiosis and distinction would take on new and vibrant colors and encounters, yet that very moment was the initial of a myriad of fractals of love in action as I would continue to stretch around her: through her activity, in response to her growth, and with her self-discovery and disclosure. And as she grows more and more, more and more will that bond of love, that realm of love adjust to bear the weight of the transformation of her, of me, and us together as one.

Ephesians 4:1-16

Therefore, I, the prisoner in and because of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you were called, with all humility and gentleness, with long-suffering, enduring one another in love; being eager to keep guard over the unity of the Spirit with respect to the bond of peace. One body and one spirit, just as even one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and father of all, who [is] above all both through all and in all. Now to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of the free gift of Christ.[1]

Ephesians 4:1-7

Our author begins chapter four of the letter to the Ephesians with a powerful “Therefore” tightly linked to an urgent beseeching for the Ephesians to walk worthily. What preceded this exhortation of exhortations is not now forgotten but is the foundation and motivation of the exhortation. The author hasn’t ceased to preach the gospel to focus on the community. Rather it’s the articulation of the gospel of Christ in imperatives[2] into the community; the emphasis is still on the divine activity[3] now manifest in the faith and love of the community. [4] The divine love in action toward humanity—unifying people previously separated and unifying God to God’s people—is now translated by its own self-disclosure into the community.[5]

There’s no way around it, what came before in the first three chapters is the fuel of the liberating power of divine love. It is in this way: The encounter with God in the event of faith in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit[6] changes us forever because we are enwombed in the totality of divine love and birthed into love’s service as this community of God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.[7] This is the rebirth that Jesus speaks of in the third chapter of the Gospel of John. In hearing the profundity of divine love for us as we are, we are transformed…forever.[8] We can’t unhear and unsee what we now hear and what we now see. We are bound to the source of our new life in love and now our activity with each other and in the world will be different than it was. Therefore, the author uses the seemingly small and subtle adverb, “worthy,” with the infinitive, “to walk”. Rather than just getting up and walking as you have been, walk like you’ve seen and heard the love of God for you and the cosmos. And necessarily we walk in community; our union with God in the event of faith is corporate as we are grafted into the body of Christ by faith and the power of the Spirit.[9]

What does this worthy walk look like for the community reborn of God symbiotically connected by divine love? The author urges his audience to walk with all humility and gentleness, with long-suffering bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit with respect to the bond of peace (vv. 2-3). Rather than being turned inward toward themselves, they are turned outward, with their faces lifted high, brazened by the glory and love of God, and turned toward their neighbor, to one another,[10] seeking and seeing the highest love for and in the neighbor for no other reason than they have first been loved.[11] Humility rejects the Ego’s assumption that it is more than it is and orients the eyes toward those of the neighbor; I don’t just see me, I see you and me. Gentleness isn’t weakness but rightly ordered self-control, knowing when and where to use force and when not to; I will ally with you in the fight and in rest.[12] Being realistic about the burden and demand of community, the community acknowledges the burden and shows up in that burden to walk with their neighbors through their trials and tribulations, to bear with the neighbor in their captivity and oppression, and to allow for the differences that exist in community; I will love[13] you as you are because I’ve been loved as is;[14] that’s what the miracle of love: it just loves.[15] And all of it oriented toward the unity of the community where love and the Spirit of peace stretch out over it, bringing it closer while allowing it to grow and expand.

Conclusion

What if I’m far from home?
Oh brother, I will hear you call.
What if I lose it all?
Oh sister, I will help you out.
Oh, if the sky comes falling down
For you, there’s nothing in this world I wouldn’t do.[16]

The humble enamored author of Ephesians directs us to see that we are grafted into this body of Christ through love and the Spirit, and reborn of this love thus of the same family with a familiar history with those in Ephesus and with each other. We, like those members of the early church, have been knit together in the womb of divine love, submerged in the amniotic fluid of love, and birthed anew into a new age of the reign of God with the first breath of divine love in our new lungs. And like those first followers of the way so long ago, we are urged by this divine Love to love the world: it’s wonderful and various inhabitants of flora, fauna, and anthrop[a].

In the ever expanding ὺμᾶς of the letter, once penned to a small few in Ephesus, we are caught up in the call to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which we’ve been called. We are called to be one in the unity of the diversity of community—not isolated but knit together sharing a common history and hope. We are called to know and feel the divine love of God for us manifest in Christ present in us by the power of the Holy Spirit and then to love as we’ve been loved.[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, or 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 is the material substance dwelling among us and in us now in the presence of the Holy Spirit uniting us back into God. Love loves—amid the closeness of intimacy and from the furthest edges of infinity…Love loves the beloved and the beloved loves.[18]


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted in the text.

[2] Markus Barth Ephesians: Introduction, Translation, and Commentary on Chapters 4-6 The Anchor Bible Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974 457, “A close look at the details of Pauline ethics will discover that the structure, the intention, and the individual parts of Paul’s admonition are invariably informed and determined by the grace which the apostle proclaims and to which he subjects himself and others. Christ is the key, the touchstone, the scope of all. Proclamation of Christ is made even when imperatives abound. It is beyond dispute that Pauline ethics are based upon, and implicitly contained in, his Christology and soteriology. Even if Paul had written nothing at all about ethical questions, imaginative interpreters might still have derived the Pauline ethics by inference from the Pauline kerygma. But it can also be shown that his ethical utterances contain the whole gospel.”

[3] Barth Ephesians 451, “Here ecclesiology and ethics are so completely identified that they can neither be separated nor distinguished. In the second, vss. 4-6, the contents and the fact of the church’s confession are called to mind to demonstrate how essential is oneness to the very being and life of the church. She can only live as confessing church. In the third, vss. 7-12, it is shown, by means of a comment upon a Psalm text, that the exalted Christ himself gives the church diverse gifts. Each of her members benefits from the gift given from above.”

[4] Allen Verhey and Joseph S. Harvard Ephesians Belief: A Theological Commentary Louisville, KY: WJK, 2011. 133, “The pattern is rather that the gospel comes to us in both the indicative mood and in the imperative mood? To be sure, the indicative is frequently (and appropriately) first and the imperative second, but in both the gospel is proclaimed. As an apostle and as a pastor Paul was always proclaiming the gospel, ‘the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith’ (Rom. 1:16). He did not stop proclaiming the gospel when in Romans 12:2 he urged the Roman Christians to ‘be transformed by the renewing of your minds,’ or when in Romans 15:7 he urged them to ‘welcome one another.’ Such imperatives are not a mere addendum to the gospel. They are the gospel in the imperative mood, calling for ‘the obedience of faith’ (Rom. 1:5; 16:26), summoning the churches to perform the gospel.”

[5] Barth Ephesians 426 “When the conjunction ‘therefore’ is used, at the beginning of a second, hortatory part of Pauline Epistles, it bears great weight; it emphasizes the logical dependence of ethical advice upon the preceding doctrinal statements….the content of Eph 1-3 is doxological rather than dogmatic. The direct connection of the ethical chapters with the praise of God rather than with a doctrine of God is a specific feature of Ephesians. The verb translated by ‘I beseech’ can also be rendered ‘I exhort,’ ‘I encourage,’ ‘I comfort,’ ‘I warn.’ While it includes a direct request (customarily expressed in Papyri epistles by the verb ‘I ask,’ erotao), the word preferred by Paul signifies a will of the writer that is at the same time personal, and urgent Its sense is stronger than that of the English verb ‘I exhort.’”

[6] Harold W. Hoehner Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2002. 520-1, “In concluding this section two observations should be noted. First, the Trinity is an integral part of this treatise on unity. The one body of believers is vitalized by one Spirit, so all believers have one hope. That body is united to its one Lord (Christ) by each member’s one act of faith, and his or her identity with him is in the one baptism. One God, the Father, is supreme over all, operative through all, and resides in all. All seven components are united in the Trinity. Some scholars such as Kirby think that baptism is central1 and some like Hanson think that faith is central, but in reality the Triune God is the center and model for unity- This is in keeping with the rest of Ephesians is known for its abundant references to the Trinity (cf. 1:4—14, 17; 2:18, 22; 3:4-5,14-17; 4:4-6; 5:18-20).”

[7] Verhey and Harvard Ephesians 132-3, “In Ephesians (and in the Pauline Epistles generally) ‘therefore’ signals a link, not just a transition. It is a moral theology in the first three chapters, announcing the ‘immeasurable greatness of [Gods] power’ (1:19), attentive to the grace and the cause of God, but always already with an eye toward the implications of the gospel for the lives of Christians and the common life of the churches. And it is a theological morality in the last three chapters, announcing the gospel now in the imperative mood, attentive to the sort of conduct, character, and community that are empowered and required by God’s grace and cause.”

[8] Hoehner Ephesians 504, “The aorist tense is ingressive, indicating that lifestyle of the believer. The aorist tense is ingressive, indicating that believer is to change his or her conduct from what it was previously. The adverb ἀξίος, ‘worthy, worthily, suitably,’ literally means ‘“bringing up the other beam of the scales/ ‘bringing into equilibrium,’ and therefore equivalent’” or “worthily, a manner worthy of, suitability.”… In Phil 1:27 its connotation is that the believer’s life should be worthy of the gospel of Christ and in Col 1:10 its connotation is that the believer is to live a life worthy of the Lord (cf. Rom 16:2; 1 Thess 2:12). In the present context the emphasis is on conduct that is in balance with or equal to ones “call.’”

[9] Hoehner Ephesians 504-5, “In the present context, the reference is not only to salvation by election and adoption by the Father (cf. 1:4-5), but also to their union into one body, the church. Therefore, the call to walk worthy of the calling refers not only to the individual believers but also the corporate body of believers.”

[10] Snodgrass Ephesians 197, “The focus on ‘one another’ is significant. This word occurs forty times in Paul’s letters. Christians are part of each other and are to receive one another, think about one another, serve one another, love one another, build up one another, bear each other’s burdens, submit to each other, and encourage each other. Christianity is a God-directed, Christ-defined, other-oriented religion.”

[11] Hoehner Ephesians 510, “This kind of love seeks the highest good in the one loved, and more particularly for the believer, it has the idea of seeking the will of God in the one loved. It is an unconditional love that does not seek a response in kind.”

[12] Hoehner Ephesians 507 (Barclay qtd in), “Rather, it implies the conscious exercise of selfcontrol, exhibiting a conscious choice of gentleness as opposed to the of power for the purpose of retaliation. Barclay states it well when he writes, ‘The man who is praus is the man who is always angry at the right time and never angry at the wrong time.’”

[13] Snodgrass Ephesians 197, “The Christian life is a life of putting up with other people, and this tolerance finds its ability and motivation in love (cf. Gal. 6:2). ‘Love’ and ‘putting up with each other’ are intertwined and mutually explanatory. Both are ways of valuing the other person.”

[14] Snodgrass Ephesians 197, “The focus on love is an extension the emphasis on love in 3:17-19. That is, the love experienced in Christ must be extended to others. The noun agape was rarely used outside Jewish sources and the Christian writings. A few secular occurrences ate now known, but clearly Christians injected the word with new content to talk about love relation to God—first love from God, then also love for God and for other people because of God. This love does not have its origin in human motivation; it is a choice made because of the love of God.”

[15] Hoehner Ephesians 509, ἀνέχω “- It means ‘to take up, to bear up, to endure,’ In the LXX it occurs sixteen times and in the canonical books it appears eleven times. It is used of Gods endurance of the Israelites’ vain offerings (Isa 1:13) or Jobs endurance through great trials (Job 6:11, 26; cf. also Isa 46:4). It also has the idea of restraint, as when God withheld the rain (Amos 4:7; Hag :10) or restrained himself from destroying people (Isa 42:14; 63:15; 64:12 [MT & LXX 64:11]). …In addition, it is used when Jesus asks how long he should bear with the disciples (Matt 17:17 = Mark 9:19 = Luke 9:41) or when Gallio bore with the Jews’ accusation against Paul (Acts 18:14). … Hence, this word has reference to bearing or enduring with respect to things or persons. In the present context and in Col 3:13 Paul asks to bear with those in the assembly. Thus, to translate this word ‘forbear’ is appropriate. Robertson suggests that it is a direct middle meaning ‘holding yourselves back from one another.’ In other words, differences between believers are to be tolerated.” And Marcus Barth Ephesians 461 “The neighbor—even the one who is a burden and whose character and behavior prove cumbersome…He is its very material. Love is not an abstract substance or mood that can be present in a man’s heart even when there are no others in sight and no confrontations are taking place. It does not exist in a vacuum, in abstracto, in detachment from involvement in other men’s lives. Rather it is a question of being surprised by a neighbor, accepting him, going out to him, and seeking solidarity and unity just with him even if this should mean temporary neglect of, or estrangement from, others. Such love is an event that takes place exclusively when one meets and lives with specific men, women, children, old people, relatives, and strangers. Love is always love of this or that person, love here and now, love shown under ever new conditions in ever original forms. Where there is love, there this and that person in his uniqueness is “borne” and fully accepted. Therefore “love” should not be defined as a virtue of the soul, not even as the highest virtue. It is an ever-new miracle which has to happen again and again just as the filling with the Spirit spoken of in the book of Acts was an ever new experience given whenever there was need of a spirited testimony. In Rom 5:5 the gift of love is identified with the gift of the Spirit, and in Gal 5:22 love is listed as the first “fruit of the Spirit”.

[16] Avicii True “Hey Brother” https://genius.com/Avicii-hey-brother-lyrics

[17] Snodgrass Ephesians 198, “Christians must maintain the unity of the Spirit because everything they hold of any significance they hold with other people. Seven items are preceded by the word ‘one,’ and in each case the oneness expresses both the uniqueness of the item and its foundational value for unity. All seven express reality that there is only one gospel and that to believe that gospel is to enter into the unity it creates. Christianity is a shared faith. No separate or merely individual faith exists, nor is there a different salvation.”

[18] Taken from a goodbye message delivered to the Seniors and Juniors of Ascension Episcopal School upon my resignation. Text and video here: https://laurenrelarkin.com/2020/05/08/love-and-solidarity/

Wrapped Up in Love

Sermon on Ephesians 3:14-21

Ephesians 3:20-21: Now to the one who has the power to do super-abundantly beyond all things we request…to [God] [be] the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus into all the generations forever and ever, Amen.

Introduction

The evening wasn’t much different than others. The only distinction was that a disagreeable verbal transaction occurred between me and my oldest son.[1] I can’t necessarily, at this point, recall the exact details of the engagement, but I’m pretty sure it had something to do with the time of evening and bed. What I do remember clearly was the near three-year-old standing at the top of the stairs yelling down at me, full of fury and ferocity (angry as the dickens!). The summary of what he yelled down at me, red faced with tiny fists clenched, was that I wasn’t a very good mom and he—at that moment—didn’t like me very much.

I informed him that he could have those feelings, but he needed to go have them in his room. Then I added: you can come out when you’re calm and sweet. I watched and listened to him go-ish to his room, slam the door, and proceed to throw things and vent that (in summary) I wasn’t a good mom and he—at that moment—didn’t like me very much. While I’m an advocate for taking time and space when emotions run high and heated, there was a something in the moment that shot through my heart and altered my perspective. In the midst of his anger—specifically at me—I felt the surge to go to him. But this isn’t what the parenting book says, went through my head as I tried to circumnavigate the increasing conviction to go to him. Hold your ground…Don’t give in. So, I didn’t move.

I stood there looking up the stairs and listened to my son rant and rave as much as his little lungs and heart would allow him. And then, Nah, this doesn’t feel right. I ascended the stairs and opened the door to his room—just barely missing the most recent airborne toy but not the current toddlery lambast. I walked in and wrapped him up in my arms and held him. As passionate as his mother is, he fought back with intensity. I held him to me. I love you so much. I whispered as he fought me. I said it a few more times, I love you so much. Then, what felt like suddenly, he relaxed and melted into my embrace as we sat on his bed. Then, I love you, too.

Ephesians 3:14-21

[I pray][2] that, [God][3] may give to you–according to the abundance of the glory [of God]—strength to become strong through God’s spirit in[4] the inner person, Christ being permanently settled[5] in your hearts through faith, having been fixed firmly and founded in love…[6]

Ephesians 3:16-17

One of the things that the author of Ephesians does here, in chapter three, is link the love of God to parental love. While the author uses the term “father”, the emphasis isn’t on “fatherhood” specifically. Rather, the emphasis is on accessibility and presence and acceptance that is a significant part of parenthood in general. According to our faith claims and this text, God is the parent of all peoples (3:15)—all are elected and adopted through Christ (1:5, 11) and there is now no dividing wall between those who are near and those who are far off (2:14-15). It is this tight correlation of God as parent—of Jesus Christ and of the people—that underscores the reality of God’s love for God’s people. God sees you; God knows you; God loves you like a mother loves her child even when he’s losing his little three-year-old mind.

Essentially, the author is highlighting positive disintegration: 1. There is the disintegration of the separation of people groups (there is now no longer an in group/out group dynamic at play); and 2. The disintegration of distance between God and humanity. This disintegration emphasizes a revolutionary way to think of God: close and personal. You are profoundly loved by a cosmically big God[7] who is not far off and strange, but who is close and familiar.[8] God is close and familiar not in an abstract purely spiritual way but in a material way evidenced by Jesus the Christ, God of very God, the Word and Love of God incarnate. And evidenced by the sending of the Holy Spirit (the Paraclete) who is of the same substance of God and who resides in you uniting you to God and giving you a new heart (you are the new temple of God).

It is the close presence of God that establishes divine love as the fertile soil you are rooted in and which is the firm foundation from which you grow.[9] You grow as you are and into who you are[10]; herein lies the increase of strength that is found in our union with God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.[11] God’s love for you[12]—unconditional love—creates space for you to exist as you are, to see yourself as you are, and to grow as you will into who you are more and more every day, every moment, in every step you take with Christ in love. And as you are loved fully by God, you know love. As you know love you are transformed by this love.[13] This is what love does.

Hear me here. Love’s goal is not to transform you, you are not a means to an end. Rather, love’s goal is to love you as you are, and as you are loved as you are you are transformed and strengthened—this is the beautiful byproduct of being loved, of being liberated, of being accepted as the marvelous person God created you to be.[14] And the more you relax into that love, the more you find yourself, and the more you find yourself (growing in knowledge and love of who God is and who you are) you can then love others as they are and just because. We cannot love well from a deficit or from self-hatred—if we do this, we will consume others by making them fit into our own stories. Instead, knowing who we are, loving who we are, we can love others well granting them love, liberty, and acceptance to be who they are as they are.

Conclusion

Being loved by God I knew that sending my son away from me (at that moment) wasn’t the right answer. God never asked me to calm down and become sweet before God would be with me. While there are significant benefits to learning to self-sooth, at that point and time my son couldn’t. I had to go to him just as God has come to me time and time again. Each time received and accepted; each time transformed. I’m not the same woman I was when I first encountered God in the event of faith; yet, I’m more fully me than I’ve ever been because of the love of God perpetually consistent and unconditional

Quinn relaxed into my embrace because my hold told him I wasn’t going anywhere, that love wasn’t going to leave him. I didn’t tell him to calm down or to stop fighting me; I merely held him and told him I loved him. This persistent and unconditional love and acceptance in that moment didn’t cause more tantrum or more toy throwing. Rather, it produced what no command or amount of quiet time on earth could ever produce: freedom, liberation, rest, and transformation. In being free to be who he was in that moment, he was truly free. This radical love and acceptance caused the transformation from fight to rest, rooted and founded in love.

Love, true love, persistent love, unconditional love, will wrap up us and soften our edges. It will pick us up and create safe space for us to reckon with ourselves: to be free to be completely honest with ourselves because we are truly and radically loved and accepted by God in love. Even in the thick of our worst, Love enters in and sweeps us up, embracing us and holding us tightly no matter how much and how hard we fight against it.

We are loved, deeply loved by a Love that does not know a limitation of depth, height, width, length (3:18-19). A love so magnificent not even death can separate you from it. There’s no conditionality attached to God’s love for you, the beloved. Just as Jesus went to the margins and the fringes and dwelled with those who were outcast, so does God’s love in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit seek you out always and everywhere. You cannot run hard enough or fast enough to outrun the inexhaustible love of God.

Love loves and knows not how to do anything else but love. You are the beloved, caught up in the majesty of the divine love that comes close to you and is not far off. You are heard, you are seen, and you are loved…wrapped up (tightly) in the arms of the God of Love and washed in the divine word: I love you, so much…I love you, so much.


[1] I did obtain permission from my eldest child before relaying this story in this context.

[2] Markus Barth Ephesians: Introduction, Translation, and Commentary on Chapters 1-3 The Anchor Bible Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974Ephesians 368, “Paul does not begin vs. 16 with the words ‘I ask,’ but he treats the statement ‘I bow my knees… that’ as an equivalent to “I pray that” (1:16-17); cf. the combination of “bowing the knees” and “praying” in Acts 9:40, 20:36. Three petitions may be discerned in what follows (a) 7 Intercession for the inner fortification of the saints; this is unfolded the prayer that Christ reside in their hearts (vss. 16-17)- (b) Supplication for interpreted by a request for knowledge of Christ’s love (vss. 18—19a). (c) Petition for perfection with God’s perfection (vs. 19b)….At this Point Paul’s thinking follows the form of devotion and meditation rather than that of deduction, induction, careful subordination or coordination.”

[3] Intentionally dropping the pronouns for God because the best way to refer to God is with “God”.

[4] I’m taking the εἰςas spatial translating as “in”

[5] Barth Ephesians 370, “The verb ‘to dwell’ denotes permanent habitation as opposed to sojourning, pitching a tent, or an occasional visit. The “heart” is in biblical diction man’s total identity and existence described under the aspect of his vitality, intelligence, will, decision. In the OT and NT the bowels rather than the heart are the seat of emotion. When in II Cor 6:11-12 Paul intends to speak of the emotive capacity of the heart he adds a reference to ‘bowels’ (or ‘compassion’). More frequently he mentions joy or sorrow without locating them in the ‘heart.’ The term ‘heart’ can also denote an essential trait of human existence hidden to the eye; Paul is as much aware as OT writers that not everything human is apparent on the surface. In Eph 3:17 he may have in mind not only Christ’s rulership over man’s reason, will, and decision, but also the hidden quality of a Christian’s existence. It is far from evident to every onlooker that Christ fills and directs the saints.”

[6] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[7] Barth Ephesians 368-9, “In 3:14-15 the title of Father pointed out God’s stable love, and the reference to ‘all families’ stressed God’s universal power. The inexhaustible ‘glory’ of God is the third and final presupposition of Paul’s prayer. The triad ‘love,’ ‘power,’ ‘glory’ and the reference to ‘riches’ were also found in 1:3-23. In remembering the ‘riches’ and ‘glory’ of the Father, Paul is convinced that God need not change or lose anything by granting the requests made to him. God is expected to act according to his nature, his character, i.e. his radiating love and power…”

[8] Klyne Snodgrass Ephesians The NIV Application Commentary Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996. 179, “Paul again emphasizes God as Father He refers to God as Father forty-two times in his letters, of which eight are in Ephesians. No other description of God is used so frequently in the New Testament. No doubt this goes back to Jesus’ teaching his disciples to address God as Abba, the Aramaic word for ‘father’ used by both children and adults but considered by Jews to be too familiar to use without qualification in relation to God, God is the Father of believers, but both a narrower and a broader use of ‘Father’ also occurs. More narrowly God is viewed as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which marks out the uniqueness of Jesus’ relation to the Father. In 3: 15 (and 4:6) the broader sense occurs: God as the Father of all humanity’s The emphasis in Ephesians on a cosmic Christ and a cosmic role for the church is based in an understanding of God as a cosmic Father.”

[9] Barth Ephesians 371, “Therefore, it is probable that in Eph 3:17 love is designated as the soil upon which the seedling can grow. The same love is also the ground upon which the building is to be constructed”

[10] Harold W. Hoehner Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2002. 479 “Hence, the inner person is the heart or mind of the believer whereas the outer person is the physical body that is wasting away. In the present context it is the innermost being of the believer which is to be strengthened with Gods power. That innermost being corresponds with the heart of the believer in the following verse.”

[11] Hoehner Ephesians 481, “The strengthening in the inner person results in the deep indwelling of Christ by means of faith (διὰ τῆς πίστεως see the use of this phrase in 2:8) and this takes place in the hearts of believers (εν tαῖς καρδίαις ὑμῶν). This demonstrates both the work of Gods Spirit in strengthening the believer and the subjective means by which the believer obtains this.3 However, it is not a reference to Christ s indwelling at the moment of salvation (Rom 8:10; 2 Cor 13:3, 5; Gal 2:20; cf. Col 1:27). Instead, it denotes the contemplated result, namely, that Christ may “be at home in,” that is, at the very center of or deeply rooted in believers’ lives. 4 Christ must become the controlling factor in attitudes and conduct.”

[12] Hoehner Ephesians 484, “In the present context Paul states that believers are firmly rooted and grounded in love. This root and foundation of love refers to God having chosen them, predestined them, bestowed them in the beloved, redeemed them, made them a heritage, sealed them with the Holy Spirit, made them alive, raised and seated them in the heavenlies, and placed them equally in one new person in the body of Christ. Therefore, for the believer, the origin of this love is God’s love.”

[13] Snodgrass Ephesians 181, “God’s love is the wellspring from which believers are nourished and the foundation on which they find stability. Being rooted and established in love enables them to perceive love, and from knowing love they are filled with the fullness of God. Love is both the source and the goal. When Christ permeates people, they know they are rooted in his love. From the experience of love they know love and are transformed.”

[14] Snodgrass Ephesians 182, “Love brings movement,- it causes things. To know Christs love is to be transformed by love and expanded into the fullness of God…In experiencing Christ Christians experience the fullness of his presence, and power. In experiencing that fullness they themselves are made full by Christ. That is, the/ partake of God’s own being and are made like him….The implication in Ephesians is that as believers encounter Gods love in Christ, they will be filled with love.”

Hope in the Mess

Sancta Colloquia Episode 401 ft. Bp. Jake Owensby

This episode with Bp. Jake Owensby (@jakeowensby) marks the start of Seaon FOUR. That’s right, I’m entering in my fourth year of hosting interview. This season will open with a few interviews with authors; how the season will close will be a, well, let’s say: it will be a “self-disclosing” event. Stay Tuned!

In this first episode of season four, I had the honor of talking with my former bishop, Bishop Jake Owensby of the diocese of Western Louisiana of The Episcopal Church. This interview focuses on his most recently published book: Looking for God in Messy PlacesA Book about Hope. We get to talk about why hope and why now? Bp. Owensby articulates well where his source of hope comes from, “Being the beloved in the eye of the Lover and that’s where my hope comes from. I am deeply loved.” It’s this being and knowing and experience deep divine belovedness that motivates Bp. Owensby’s work in this text as a message to help other people. Principally, Bp. Owensby communicates about our proclamation (either written or preached), “There’s one message; it’s the resurrection. That’s the message. That’s it…it’s God’s mighty work!” And it true; he’s not lying. Holding the story of Christ’s resurrection in one hand as we walk with people with the other, helping them and standing in solidarity with them, is the key to comprehending what it means to have hope when hope seems pointless even lost. If we weed out this very story of resurrection from our proclamation because it’s “not real” or “could never happen”–statements more about our logic and reason and not God’s mighty work–we lose one of the most cataclysmic narrative movements of divine life usurping death’s supposed last word. It’s here in the encounter with God in the event of faith that, for Bp. Owensby, where “All of [the] ways in which we’ve allowed or simply had to allow a way of living die and a new way of living emerge, that’s resurrection; that’s hard work.” Chaos, turmoil, fear, death, all of it has been stripped of it’s claim to the last word in this divine mighty work of God in the resurrection. Thus, we can have hope that what we see right now isn’t all we see. That maybe the mess isn’t messy but beautiful because in that mess there is God with us.

Excited? You should be. Listen here:

Interview with Bp. Jake Owensby

Jake Owensby is the fourth Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Western Louisiana. His writing and his speaking events focus on helping people find hope, meaning, and purpose in their lives. He is the author of five books, most recently Looking for God in Messy PlacesA Book about Hope. Jake has three adult children, two grandchildren, and lives in Alexandria, Louisiana, with his wife, Joy. Gracie their rescue pup is their constant companion.

Follow Bp. Jake Owensby on Twitter: @jakeowensby; on Insta: @jakeowensby; and on Facebook: Jake Owensby and Bp. Jake Owensby. Also, for more of Bp. Owensby’s writing, check out his blog: jakeowensby.com.

Other Books by Bp. Owensby:

A Resurrection Shaped Life: Dying and Rising on Planet Earth

Your Untold Story: Tales of a Child of God

Gospel Memories: The Future Can Rewrite Our Past

Connecting the Dots: A Hope-Inspired Life

The New Order Begins!

Psalm 20:5-6 We will shout for joy at your victory and triumph in the Name of our God; may the Lord grant all your requests. Now I know that the Lord gives victory to his anointed; he will answer him out of his holy heaven, with the victorious strength of his right hand.

Introduction

If I were to ask you what you do for a living, you’d use the verb “to be” to answer. At any social event, when asked what I do, I say, “I’m a priest.” (The responses to this statement are amusing!) The “am” in my statement is telling. I identify myself with my occupation in the world. “I’m a doctor.” “I’m a lawyer.” “I’m a teacher.” Etc. While, yes, people understand you are describing your occupation or vocation in the world, there’s also a lot of assuming and judging going on about who you are. If a doctor, then you must be smart. If a teacher, you’re kind. A lawyer…depends, who’s side are you on? A person’s activity in the world tells us who someone is; or we think it should. When we call someone a liar, it’s because they lie. A thief is one who steals. A murderer, one who kills.

We assume we can pinpoint who and what someone is based on their activity and presence in the world. If you are smart you will act smart, not acting smart must mean the opposite: dumb. We then create a binary of actions resulting in good or bad, right or wrong. A good person does good things; a bad person does bad things. A good person does the right thing and a bad person does the wrong thing. And then we create a system by which we treat people according to our judgments about them based on their actions and presence in the world. Good people who do good things are good and deserve good treatment; bad people who do bad things are bad and deserve bad treatment. We determine the worth of a person based on their good actions or their bad actions—life is expendable when you’re bad (or have any history of bad) verses when you’re good. We assume we know who someone is as a person by what they do in the world and how they conform to our binaric paradigm of good and bad/right and wrong.

A question haunts me here. What about me? Am I good? If I define myself through my actions and my adherence to the cultural standards of good or bad, right or wrong, then I can determine I’m good or bad. If I do good and right, I am good and right. But what happens when I do bad and wrong? Am I now bad and wrong? Is there any hope for me even if all my actions conflict with what we determine is good and right?

According to Paul, there is.

2 Corinthians 5:14-17

For the love of Christ is holding us together, because we are convinced of this that one died on behalf of all people, therefore all people died. And he died on behalf of all, so that the ones who are alive live no longer for themselves but to/for the one who died and was raised on their behalf.[1]

2 Corinthians 5:14-15

In our 2 Corinthians passage for today, Paul continues with the theme of bodies and perception that he began in 4:13-5:1. In chapter 5:6-8 Paul mentions that while we are at home here in this mortal body, we’re absent/exiled from the Lord. This isn’t dualistic thinking; but a distinction between that which can be perceived and that which cannot be perceived. Even though we are, right now, in Christ through faith by the power of the Holy Spirit, our hearts long to be in our eternal and glorified bodies like Christ and with Christ.[2] For Paul, this desire motivates his actions. Paul works in his mortal body to please the Lord[3] through his words and deeds in proclaiming Christ crucified and raised as the divine act of Love seeking the Beloved in the world. Yet, Paul—walking with Christ by faith[4]—longs for the consummation of the union with Christ in a real and bodily way that will come with death when he shows up at the throne of Christ.[5] At this throne, Paul explains, those of us who walked by faith in the body receive that which belongs to us and that which was lost, whether we did or endured good or bad[6]—not status or destiny is determined, but a sober assessment of what we did as those who claimed Christ and walked in the law of Love of God and Neighbor.[7]

In vv. 14-15, Paul proclaims that Christ’s love[8] for the world and in our hearts sustains and holds us together on this journey in the world walking by faith in mortal bodies—this love is the animation of our work in word and deed in the world. Christ’s death on the cross exemplifies how much Christ loved all of humanity. Paul explains that Christ died for all, and in that Christ died for all, all have died. The words are simple, but the thought isn’t. In our feeble human judgment of who is good and who is bad, we determined Jesus was worthy of being crucified and Barabbas was to be set free. What Christ’s crucifixion indicates is that we are, flat out, poor judges of people based on externals. We had God in our midst—the very source of life—and we sentenced God to death releasing instead one of our own who was very much prone to breaking the law and taking life. In the crucifixion of Christ, we are exposed…exposed unto death. This is the real death of which Paul speaks:[9] We are rent unto dust, the very dust from which we are taken. Our wrath at the good, our sin, put Christ on the cross and Christ suffers our sinful judgment; what we didn’t realize is that we died, too, by our own judgment in that event of exposure.

But God. But God in God’s vindication of good, of Christ, of God’s self, raises Jesus from the dead. And overhauls everything we did, have done, and will do. With Christ, God raises us, giving us life and not death. God’s love of reconciliation and restoration eclipses God’s retribution. We are given life, when our actions begged for a death sentence. Therefore, we live no longer for ourselves in selfish ambition but for “the one who died and was raised on behalf of all people.” And if we live for the one who died and was raised for all people, then we live for those whom Christ died and was raised.[10], [11] And this necessitates, according to Paul, a complete change resulting in refusal to categorically determine someone based on their presence and action in the world.[12] We lost that right—if we ever had it—when we told Pontius Pilate to crucify God.

Conclusion

So then from now on we, we perceive no one according to the flesh. Even if we have known Christ according to the flesh, but now we no longer know/do so. Therefore, if anyone [is] in Christ, [there is] a new creation/creature; the old order is rendered void, behold! a new order has come into being.

2 Corinthians 5:16-17

With intentional emphasis, Paul exhorts us: Christians are categorically forbidden from determining someone’s value, worth, dignity, right to life, (etc.) based on their actions. Paul minces no words here as he climactically exclaims: Behold! A new order has come into being! If anything functions to be determinative of Christian praxis and existence in the world it’s that we don’t determine personhood and human dignity based on human activity and presence in the world.[13] We participate in the divine activity of Love seeking the Beloved in our new ordering of our freedom for and toward others and not strictly for ourselves in selfish gain—this is the call of those who follow Jesus out of the Jordan.[14] We dare to proclaim in the face of opposition that in all instances this one is human and worthy of life and dignity and honor…when they’re wrong or even when they’ve done something bad. We’re are the ones who reject categorical determination of someone based on their actions, and especially refuse prejudging people based on their differences from the dominant culture. Those who walk by faith in this mortal body, are ushered into a new order of things. We reject anything having to do with a hierarchy of human being based on anything but that which cannot be perceived.[15] While there are consequences for actions, none of those consequences can equate to a loss of human dignity and worth and life.

This means we mustn’t have anything to do with prejudice of any type: skin color, gender, sex, sexuality, ability, and class. It means that Christians must let others tell them who they are and allow the complexity of human existence manifest rather than cut them off with assumptions and judgments because of what they look like, how they act, or how they are different than what the status-quo determines is good and right, as The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr explains.[16] It means, no matter what, we stand—by the law of Love in our hearts—with those whom society deems unworthy and undignified, this is part of the new order we are reborn into in our encounter with God in the event of faith, as the Rev. Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz declares.[17] It means that we—in our Christ born freedom and creative disobedience—reject any created order that is claimed to be the one and only way/life on earth, which categorically forces people to be against who they are in body, mind, and spirit to the point of destruction, refering to what Frau Prof. Dr. Dorothee Sölle teaches.[18] And it means, with The Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, that we participate with God in “bearing the memory of Christ in the world…[and] being the change that is God’s heaven.”[19]

[B]ehold! a new order has come into being


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[2] Murray J. Harris The Second Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text NIGTC Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 2005. 395-6. Εκ/εν “Paul has in mind the physical body as the locus of human existence on earth, the frail and mortal σωμα ψυχικον. His thought here is neither dualistic…nor derogatory. He is affirming that to be living on earth in a physical body inevitably means distance—indeed exile—from the risen Lord, who lives in heaven in a spiritual body. To be εν Χριστω does not yet mean to be συν Χριστω…Unlike Christ, Paul had his residence on earth, not heaven, but he recognized that this true home, his ultimate residence, was προς τον κυριον (v. 8); in this sense he was an exile, absent form this home with the Lord…And if an exile, also a pilgrim…But as well as regarding his separation from Christ as ‘spatial,’ Paul may have viewed it as ‘somatic.’ It is not simply a case of Christ’s being ‘there’ and the Christians’ being ‘here’; until Christians have doffed their earthly bodies and donned their heavenly, they are separated from their Lord by the difference between tow modes of being, the σωμα ψυχικον and the σωμα πνευματικον.”

[3] Harris 2 Corinthians 405, “Whatever his lot, Paul was always …. Possessed of confidence in God as the fulfiller of his promises (v.6) and always…desirous of pleasing Christ (v.9).”

[4] Harris 2 Corinthians 398, “…to walk in faith…is to keep the eye focused on things not yet visible…and not to have the gaze fixed on things already present to sight…”

[5] Harris 2 Corinthians 397-8, “The separation, Paul answers, is relative not absolute: though absent from sight, the Lord is present to faith, yet it is not until he is present also to sight that Christian existence will reach its true goal of consummated fellowship with him. Residence in the earthly σκηνος implies not the absence or unreality of communion with Christ, but simply its imperfection during the course of the Christian’s earthly life.”

[6] I’m playing with the definition of κομιζω (the first principle part of κομισηται, an aorist middle subjunctive 3rd person singular verb) in v.10.

[7] Harris 2 Corinthians 408-9, “Since, then, the tribunal of Christ is concerned with the assessment of works, not the determination of destiny, it will be apparent that the Pauline concepts of justification on the basis of faith and recompense in accordance with works may be complementary. Not status but reward is determined…for justification as the acquisition of a right standing before God anticipates the verdict of the Last Judgment. But, already delivered from εργα νομου…’ by justifying faith, the Christian is presently committed to το εργον της πιστεως…’action stemming from faith,’ which will be assessed and rewarded at Christ’s tribunal.” And, “…for Paul this φανερωθηναι involved the appearance and examination before Christ’s tribunal of every Christian without exception for the purpose of receiving an exact and impartial recompense (including the receipt or deprivation of commendation) which would be based on deeds, both good an bad, performed through the earthly body. The fear inspired by this expectation … doubtless intensified Paul’s ambition that his life should meet with Christ’s approval both during life and at the βημα…”

[8] Harris 2 Corinthians 419, “No one doubts that believer’s love for Christ motivates their action, but here Paul is concentrating on an earlier stage of motivation, namely the love shown by Christ in dying for humankind.”

[9] Harris 2 Corinthians 422, “When Christ died, all died; what is more, his death involved their death….But if…παντες is universal in scope in vv. 14-15, this death maybe the death deservedly theirs becomes of sin, or an objective ‘ethical’ death that must be appropriate subjectively by individual faith, or a collective participation in the event of Christ’s death by which sin’s power was destroyed. It is certainly more appropriate to see this αποθανειν of the παντες as an actual ‘death’ than as a potential ‘death.’”

[10] Harris 2 Corinthians 422, “Replacing the slavery to self that is the hallmark of the unregenerate state should be an exclusive devotion to the crucified and resurrect Messiah. The intended result of the death of Christ was the Christians’ renunciation of self-seeking and self-pleasing and the pursuit of a Christ-centered life filled with action for the benefit of others, as was Christ’s life…”

[11] Harris 2 Corinthians 430, “A new attitude toward Jesus Christ prompts a new outlook on those for whom Christ died…When we come to share God’s view of Christ…we also gain his view of people in general.”

[12] Harris 2 Corinthians 434, “Christian conversion, that is, coming to be in Christ, produces dramatic change…: Life is not longer lived κατα σαρκα, but κατα πνευμα. Paul implies that a change of attitude toward Christ (v. 16b) brings about a change or attitude toward other people (v.1 6a) and a change of conduct from self-pleasing to Christ-pleasing (vv. 9, 15), from egocentricity to theocentricity.”

[13] Harris 2 Corinthians 429, “First, Paul is rejecting (in v. 16a) any assessment of human beings that is based on the human or worldly preoccupation with externals. It was now his custom to view people, not primarily in terms of nationality but in terms of spiritual status….Paul is repudiating (in v. 16c) as totally erroneous his sincere yet superficial preconversion estimate of Jesus as a misguided messianic pretender, a crucified heretic, whose followers must be extirpated, for he had come to recognize ethe Nazarene as the divinely appointed Messiah whose death under the divine curse…in fact brought life…”

[14] Harris 2 Corinthians 434, “When a person becomes a Christian, he or she experiences a total restructuring of life that alters its whole fabric—thinking, feeling, willing, and acting. Anyone who is ‘in Christ’ is ‘Under New Management’ and has ‘Altered Priorities Ahead,’ to use the working sometimes found in shop windows and …on roads. And the particle ιδου…functions like a such a sign, stimulating attention; but here it conveys also a sense of excitement and triumph.”

[15] Harris 2 Corinthians 427, “Paul is affirming that with the advent of the era of salvation in Christ, and ever since his own conversion to Christ, he has ceased making superficial, mechanical judgments about other people on the basis of outward appearances—such as national origin, social status, intellectual capability, physical attributes, or even charismatic endowment and pneumatic displays….”

[16] Martin Luther King Jr. “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart” A Strength to Love “The toughminded person always examines the facts before he reaches conclusions; in short, he postjudges. The tenderminded person reaches a conclusion before he has examined the first fact; in short he prejudges and is prejudiced.”

[17] Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz Mujerista Theology Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996. 88. “The paradigmatic shift ai am proposing calls for solidarity as the appropriate present-day expression of the gospel mandate that we love our neighbor. This commandment, which encapsulates the gospel message, is the goal of Christianity. I believe salvation depends on love of neighbor , and because love of neighbor today should be expressed through solidarity, solidarity can and should be considered the wine qua non of salvation. This means that we have to be very clear about who ‘our neighbor’ is. Our neighbor, according to Matthew 25, is the least of our sisters and brothers. Neighbors are the poor, the oppressed, for whom we must have a preferential option, This we cannot have apart from being in solidary with them.”

[18] Dorothee Sölle Creative Disobedience Trans. Lawrence W. Denef. Eugen, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1995. (Original: Phantasie und Gehorsam: Überlegungen zu einer künftigen chrstilichen Ethik Stuttgart: Kreuz Verlag, 1968). “In traditional usage one speaks rather descriptively of ‘fulfilling’ obedience. The picture is that of a container of form which must be filled. So too with obedience. A previously existing order is postulate that must be maintained, defended, or fulfilled. But Jesus did not conceive of the world according to a model of completed order, which person were merely required to maintain. The world he enters had not yet reached perfection. It was alterable, in fact, it awaited transformation. Schemes of order are in Jesus’ words utterly destroyed–great and small, scholar and child, riches and poverty, knowledge of the Law and ignorance. Jesus did everything in his power to relativize these orders and set free the person caught up in these schemes. This process of liberation is called ‘Gospel.’ Ought obedience then still be thought of as the Christian’s greatest glory?” And, “I detect that we need new words to describe the revolutionary nature of all relationships begun in Christ. At the very least it is problematic whether we can even continue to consider that which Jesus wanted under the term obedience.” pp. 27-28

[19] Kelly Brown Douglas Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2015. 224. And, “The church is compelled as bearer of the memory of Jesus to step into the space of the Trayvons and Jordans who don’t’ know whether to walk slow or walk fast in order to stay alive. To step into their space is what it means for the church to being the past, which is Jesus, into the presence crucifying realities of stand-your-ground culture. Moreover, it is only when one an enter int the space of crucified class, with sympathetic understanding, that one is able to realize what is required for he salvation of God, which is justice, to be made manifest in our world.” 201-2.

God is Love

1 John 4:7-21

Psalm 22:24, 29 My praise is of him in the great assembly; I will perform my vows in the presence of those who worship him… My soul shall live for him; my descendants shall serve him; they shall be known as the Lord’S for ever.

Introduction

I’ll confess that over the past few years I’ve found it easier to say, “God is dead” than, “God is love.” It seems we are daily forced to navigate a world decorated with the placards of death and destruction, mischief and malice, greed and grief. With a single swipe up, we easily witness death’s toll rise as our sisters and brothers are seized by pandemic, suffocated in the grip of hatred and prejudice, and neglected for the preference of self-indulgence. It is hard to reconcile the manifold tragedy we see all around us and the claim “God is love.” The world feels absent love especially at a cosmic level. God feels gone.

I wish I could say (with confidence): even though the world feels divested of divine love, the church stands as a bastion of the perpetuity of this love. Sadly, I cannot. The very institution charged to carry on the precious treasure of the life-giving message of God’s love is also the institution that participates—by word and deed—in the same violence and destruction of so called “secular” institutions. It seems that the proclamation God is love and its twin “God loves us” are trapped under systems of the necessity of right thought wedded to faulty interpretations of what it means and looks like to be a follower of Christ. We’ve become mesmerized by our image and not God’s and what makes us feel pious and good. We’d rather quibble over fabric, wood, stone, and precious metal than throw open doors and arms tossing religiosity to the wind to embrace the “least of these.”

With so much pain and turmoil around us, maybe it would be better to throw in the towel, admit the failure of this divine experiment, and confess, with the 19th century genius existential philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche,

“…Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead.”[1]

Friedrich Nietzsche “The Parable of the Madman”

1 John 4:7-21

Beloved, let us love one another because Love is from God; all who love both have been birthed from God and know God…In this way the love of God was manifested in us, because God sent forth [God’s] only begotten son into the cosmos so that we might live through him. In this is love: not that we we[2] have loved God but that [God God] has loved us and sent [God’s] son as atonement for our sins. Beloved, if in this way God loved us, also we we ought to love one another…We we love because [God God] first loved us. [3]

1 Jn 4:7, 9-11, 19

According to John’s first epistle, love is from God because God is love. He goes so far to say that those who love are the ones who have been birthed of God. Then he quickly moves to describe how divine love is brought forth in those who have been born of God and thus of love. Harkening to the imagery of the gospel of John chapter 3—“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” (v.16, NRSV)—the author articulates: the love of God precedes our love for God. [4]

Pushing the imagery further, we can also say, in accordance with Gen 1, that the wind of God hovering over the formless void and the face of the deep is the same as love.[5] Everything about the cosmos is embedded and submerged in divine love. Divine love is the creative force animating the cosmos; the very fabric of our material being is nurtured and produced from love. Thus, even as God’s love predates our love for God. Love itself is older than time and recorded human history. We neither know of a time nor can conceive an era when love didn’t exist. (As Rev. Teri pointed out last week: God loved and loves the dinosaurs!) Our scope is cosmic: God loved and loves without end.[6]

And as God loved the cosmos into being so to does God in God’s love rescue the cosmos and its inhabitants from the plight of humanity by entering that very plight unto death. It is for this reason the epistle writer uses the events of Good Friday through Easter as the lens to comprehend the preceding and continuation of God’s love from one end of the cosmos to the other. God’s love is so profound that not only can it create but it can recreate. That which is dead can be made alive. Christ died on the cross, was buried, and then walked out of tomb. God’s love produced what is (creation) and then went beyond that to grant us the possibility of what could be (recreation).

The epitome of divine love is manifest in standing in solidarity with suffering and stuck humanity threatened with death and destruction and liberating them from it even if they brought it upon themselves. This is unconditional love, and therefore divine love can exist into eternity because it’s based on the eternal source that is God and not conditioned on this or that behavior of the beloved. Conditional love isn’t love; it’s a contract. There is no contract in God’s love language. God just loves because love loves. Where there is love there is God.

Conclusion

Going back to the quotation above from Nietzsche. The quote is only in part. The Parable of the Madman is more profound than the portion I referenced.

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him — you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

Friedrich Nietzsche “The Parable of the Madman”

Far from pessimistic, Nietzsche’s words partake of possibility and hope. God is not dead because we cannot kill Love. What Nietzsche refers to as “God” isn’t “God” but what we’ve crafted and fashioned to be “God.” And this “God” is dead. The false idols we have constructed of God and propped up in the name of God are the ones that are being exposed as monsters and must be torn down. The death and destruction we see abounding around us isn’t because God is dead; rather, it’s because we’ve baptized (in the name of God) the death dealing and life destroying structures and systems we’ve built and curated and these we must destroy because they are putrid and septic. The god we’ve presented to the world in our own flesh is a god who has been found wanting and we must kill this “God.” And the only way to do that is to love, to love to the fullest extent of the word and in the most radical interpretation. For where we love there is God, where God is there is life and light and liberation.

“The gravity of her situation settled in on her, closing in on her chest, making it difficult to breathe. Would she put the chains back around her neck or let them go and step forward into love? Her heart beat right up into her throat. She tried to swallow it down, but her mouth was suddenly dry. She sat perfectly still but within she was a child, flailing about, trying to push love away; until another part of herself pulled it to her, holding love out to her. It’s not what you want, it’s what you need. She stopped writhing and pushing and looked at it. She reached out and took love, still afraid. She held love in her hands, not knowing if she held it right…Tell God you are afraid. And thank Him. She couldn’t’ find a way to say she was afraid, but she could at least hold her fear and the love she feared out to Him. So she held our what He was forcing her to carry, her commitment to carry love without even knowing what that meant, her fear, all of it, and took one step forward, making herself say aloud, ‘Alhamdulilah.’”[7]

Laury Silvers The Lover

You are the beloved not because it’s a nice sentiment but because Love started this entire thing and sustains it, always in search of the object of love: you, the world and everything in it from the very small to the very big, the entire cosmos. You are the beloved because you’ve been wrapped up in this ancient and present activity of divine love. You’ve been swept up into the current of the activity of divine love, Beloved. You are the beloved because God is love and is not dead; praise be to God.


[1] Friedrich Nietzsche “The Parable of the Madman” The Gay Science Trans Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books, 1974 (trans). Original publication Die frölich Wissenschaft 1887.III.125.181-2.

[2] The double pronoun use here and following is due to the use of the pronouns with the verb in Greek which indicates an emphatic emphasis on the pronouns. It’s stressing that we did not love God but that

[3] All translations of the text are mine unless otherwise noted.

[4] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996.555 “…aorist indicates past time with reference to the time of speaking.”

[5] Gen 1:1-2 NRSV

[6] The statement here is based on the conception of the aorist verb used in the verse translated. This portion reads, “…αλλ’ οτι αυτος ηγαπησεν ημας…” the ηγαπησεν is an aorist active indicative 3rd person singular verb. Daniel B. Wallace explains that the aorist is best understood as, “as taking a snapshot of the action…” as opposed to a moving picture. And here, “The aorist tense ‘presents an occurrence in summary, viewed as a whole from the outside, without regard for the internal make-up of the occurrence.’” (554).

[7] Laury Silvers The Lover: A Sufi Mystery Kindle Direct Publishing, 2019.254

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

God’s Near

Sermon on Mark 1:14-20

Psalm 62:6-7 For God alone my soul in silence waits; truly, my hope is in him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold, so that I shall not be shaken.

Introduction

I never paid much mind to the impact of my voice. I spent a lot of time not wanting to talk in public. I was safer staring out the window of the backseat of the car as a kid, retreating to the back of the classroom and hiding as a student, and sitting in the pew furthest back as a new Christian. I’ve only considered my voice to be merely a voice to me and my inner circle but lacking weight apart from carrying words into the air. I didn’t put much thought into the reality that we come into the world knowing one voice well: the voice of the one who carried us for a little over nine months. It’s the first voice we know; the second being that of the other parent but in a muffled way. I recall with clarity the screeches of my babies quieting across the OR as soon as I spoke: it’s okay little one, mama’s here.

I put even less thought into the impact the voices of my children would have on me. I recall vividly standing amid a large group of moms at a birthday party for Jack when a child’s yelp and cry sounded from across the park where dads and kids were splashing in a shallow creek. We all went quiet listening. And then I took off. No other mom ran, just me because it was my kid and none of theirs. I knew that voice because it was the voice of my child, and he needed me.

While I learned something about the power of my voice by becoming a mother, this knowledge isn’t relegated to motherhood. The voices of siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews, grandparents and grandchildren, friends, lovers turn our heads and bring warmth to our insides; it’s their voices we miss terribly when they walk this timeline no more. We also love and miss the sound of the barks, meows, oinks, baaas, maaas, neighs, and moos (etc.) of the animalkind we care for.

Mark 1:16-18

And while passing by alongside the sea of Galilee [Jesus] saw Simon and Andrew–the brother of Simon—while throwing nets into the sea; for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Come (!) behind me, and I will make you to become fishermen of people.” And immediately they dropped the nets and followed him.

(Mk 1: 16-18, translation mine)

Mark wastes no time getting us from the announcement of the divine son Jesus the Christ (1:1), into the waters of the Jordan (1:9-11), dropped into the wilderness temptation (1:12-13), and to the calling of the disciples (1:16-20) by way of briefly articulating the good news (ευαγγελιον).[1] The thrust of chapter one is the announcement that the ευαγγελιον has come into the world; it’s this good news that John the forerunner of the Christ proclaimed waist deep in water, and Jesus, the Christ, fulfills[2] as the divine herald.[3] For Mark, the content of the ευαγγελιον: “…the time has been fulfilled and the kingdom of God is has come near; repent[4] and believe in the good news” (Mk 1:15).[5]

Mark isn’t mindlessly rattling off details about the beginning of Jesus’s ministry; Mark is writing to disciples who are presently facing persecution and is eager to show them what it means to be a good disciple. Thus, the calling of disciples accentuates none of this is their doing but God’s. Mark’s people heard the voice of God call them and responded rightly[6] by following just like Jesus’s disciples did. Therefore, they like these men, are with Christ amid the suffering and persecution. Mark establishes that faith and following are inextricably linked; hold steady, little church, Mark maternally comforts, keep the faith; God hears your cries and comes; God is with you.

God has heard the cries of God’s people; the good news is on the move.[7] And where does it go? To the downtrodden and exhausted. Jesus goes neither to the religious teachers and elders nor to those who are wealthy and lead, but to the simple men, throwing simple nets, to catch fish.[8] Jesus goes not to the temple but to the sea. Jesus goes not to the powerful rulers but to the powerless ruled—from these he calls his disciples; to these the kingdom of God comes near. It’s here among this imperfect, rag-tag, group of laborers smelling of sweat and fish and sea where the kingdom and kingship of God is secured.[9]

Jesus doesn’t ask them to follow; he commands it.[10] It’s a command commanding the action in its entirety (now): Come behind me! (Now!) Unlike other rabbis who were sought by future students, Jesus calls his disciples to follow him.[11] These disciples will ask not: can I sit at your feet, rabbi? Rather they will have to self-reckon: Will I come behind Jesus? Will I follow Jesus? The crux of the predicament being the necessity of an overhauling and upending of their lives as they know it. Simon (Peter) and Andrew, as well as James and John (vv19-20) are called into apprenticeship that demands leaving everything they knew as is to become was in order to embrace what will be.[12]

This is the core of what it means to “repent” (μετανοιετε) proclaimed in the good news. It’s not about some verbal “sorry” or about professing how wretched you are. Instead, it’s about being called to reconsider things, to change your mind/purpose in the world, to align with the will of God and not the will of humanity—these two things rarely aligning (if ever). Jesus tells Peter and Andrew they’ll no longer fish fish to eat but fish people out of harm’s way. If they follow their lifestyle will change.[13] If James and John follow, they’ll leave behind their father and his way of life.[14] These fishermen are the epitome of what it means to repent and believe: they heard the voice of love—who spoke the cosmos into existence—and they turned, dropped their nets, and walked with God. To repent and believe is not about verbal self-flagellation because of God’s wrath in some desperate attempt to make God love you. It’s about being made aware God’s love comes to you lovingly calling you into God’s presence like a mother seeking and calling her beloved child to her bosom. It’s okay little one, mama’s here.

Conclusion

Simon, Andrew, James and John heard love call them into love’s presence and couldn’t do anything else but drop their nets and follow love. They didn’t follow an abstract concept of elusive warm feelings, but a tangible, fleshy, active, living and breathing love walking in the world. They won’t follow perfectly, but perfection isn’t the point; Love walking in the world is. It’s this living, breathing, active love they’ll proclaim after Jesus leaves and sits down at the right hand of God. It’s this living, breathing, active love that’ll cost them not only their livelihood, but also their life breath as they proclaim a love that upended and overhauled their society and their status-quo. Following this active, living, breathing love and asking the self-reckoning question that day on the shore, changed not just their lives but the lives of many others.

This love, this active, living, breathing love set the world in motion, keeps it in motion, and comes near and calls us today. The same love that walked along the wet sand of the sea of Galilee, walks on the frozen ground of this Ute land at the base of the National Monument calling us. We are the sought, the Beloved. And, we, like the disciples, must ask the same question: will I come behind Jesus? Will I follow after Jesus?

To follow will upend your life; to follow love, God, Jesus, will overhaul everything you know to be true about the world. If you drop your nets, you’ll walk away from that which is rendered “what was” to embrace “what will be.” The encounter with God in the event of faith—working out through “repentance” and “believing”—is death to the old age and old person and new birth into the new age as a new person (not as “sinless and good” but as “new and filled with divine love of God’s spirit”). The kingdoms of humanity rage against the way of love of the kingdom of God. Paul exhorts the Corinthians to behave as if God’s eternality eclipses the mortality of our human institutions.[15] He asks them to follow love so that through them and by them something new comes forth from death. “For the external structures of this world are slipping away,” (7:31b).[16] It’s okay little ones, Paul comforts, God’s near. The new age is populated with new creations perpetuating love and life and light into the world and letting that which is of the old age slip away so that something new can be built in its place, letting the divine phoenix of life break from the ashes of death.


[1] RT France The Gospel of Mark NIGTC Grand Rapids, MI: 2002. 88. “The narrative moves on rapidly from scene to scene, carrying the reader on by its own momentum rather than by any formal structural markers.”

[2] France 90, “For now the reader is expected to know it already, or must simply take it on trust. There is no place here to spell it out, since John himself is no longer in focus, and to delay over the details of his story at this point would distract attention from his successor, who now takes, and will retain, his place in centre stage. The role of the forerunner is over; the time of fulfilment has come.”

[3] France 90-1, “There is an important element of continuity between John and Jesus. The same participle κηρυσσων which described John’s ministry (v.4) now describes that of his successor, and at least one of the elements in that proclamation is the same…[the overlap being the ‘forerunner motif’] but also the messianic herald of Is 40:9 52:7; 61:1 whose role is to announce ευαγγελιον…and who is himself the Spirit-endowed Messiah.”

[4] Μετανοιτε (first principle part: μετανοεω) in v.15 it is an imperative 2nd person plural verb: a command to repent. The verb can also be translated as: you change your mind/purpose. It can also carry the idea of changing the inner person in regards to the will of God. It’s as if you were going in one direction and you are caused to change your direction.

[5] France 90, “Verses 14-15…play a crucial role in Mark’s story, as the reference point for all subsequent mentions of the proclamation initiated by Jesus and entrusted by him to his followers. Here is the essential content of the ευαγγελιον to which the people of Galilee are summoned to respond.”

[6] France 93, “With the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, therefore, a new era of fulfilment has begun, and it calls for response from God’s people”

[7] France 90, “Down there, people had had to make a special journey to John, but now Jesus is going to where people are, in the inhabited areas of his own province.”

[8] France 94, “…the Messiah himself refuses to assert his authority by an impressive show of divine…pomp and pageantry. The kingdom of God comes not with fanfare but through the gradual gathering of a group of socially insignificant people in an unnoticed corner of provincial Galilee.”

[9] France 94, “They [the disciples called] may, and often will, fail him and disappoint him, but their role is crucial to the achievement of his mission, for it is through this flawed and vulnerable group of people that God’s kingship will be established.”

[10] δευτε οπισω μου: come (!) after me. Δευτε is an aorist active imperative 2nd person plural verb indicating the action being commanded is being commanded as a whole.

[11] France 96, “Rabbis didn’t call their followers; rather the pupil adopted the teacher. Jesus’ preemptory summons, with its expectation of radical renunciation even of family ties, goes far beyond anything they would be familiar with in normal society. It marks him as a prophet rather than a rabbi.”

[12] France 96, “Simon and Andrew are being called to follow Jesus as their leader, in a relationship which went beyond merely formal learning to a fulltime “apprenticeship’.”

[13] France 97

[14] France 97

[15] Anthony C. Thiselton The First Epistle to the Corinthians TNIGTC 585, “…‘Paul’s point is not the transiency of creation as such….but the fact that its outward pattern, in social and mercantile institutions, for example, has no permanence.’ To combine Barrett’s emphasis on social, political and commercial institutions with the notion of outward appearance with Hering’s ‘disappearing across the stage’ we translate the sentence as For the external structures of this world are slipping away.”

[16] Thiselton 585, “The crumbling of the present world order is indicated by παραγει γαρ το σχημα τοθ κοσμου τουτου…Paul’s eschatological frame indicates a dynamic cosmic process. Hence we translate, For the external structures of this world are slipping away.”

Disruptive Comfort

Sermon on Isaiah 40:1-11

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

Isaiah 40:1-11

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Divine Nativity Draws Nigh

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

Introduction

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

But, see, things weren’t okay.

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

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

Things are not okay.

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

Isaiah 64:1-9

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

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

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

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

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

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

One scholar renders 64:5 like this,

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

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

O come, O come, Emmanuel

And ransom captive Israel

That mourns in lonely exile here

Until the Son of God appear

Conclusion

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

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

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

Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel


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

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

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

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

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

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

[7] Childs 526

[8] Childs 521

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