In the End the Beginning

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

Mark 16:1-8

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

Mark 16:2-3, translation mine

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

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

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

Mark 16:4

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

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

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

Mark 16:8

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

[4] Malachi 4:2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and The Temple Opens

Sermon on John 2:13-22

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

John 2:13-22

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

John 2: 13-16, translation mine

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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.”

Beloved Bodies

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 6:12-20

Psalm 139: 13-15 I will thank you [Lord] because I am marvelously made; your works are wonderful, and I know it well. My body was not hidden from you, while I was being made in secret and woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my limbs, yet unfinished in the womb; all of them were written in your book; they were fashioned day by day, when as yet there was none of them. [76]

Introduction

Our psalm articulates the idea the psalmist is marvelously made. I’ve struggled at times to make such a bold statement. While I can say I’ve always considered the body to be brilliant artwork, I’ve not always been able to say it specifically about my body. It’s only been as an adult I’ve come to marvel at my own creation: it’s strength, it’s twists and turns, it’s bends and folds, it’s looseness and firmness, it’s life-marks left behind from life lived and being lived. The adoration being far from selfish and narcissistic; rather it affirms the creation I am in the story I was made into: as the one who came from others as marvelously made as I am and as the one from whom others came as marvelously made as I am.

I credit the shift in my thinking to the birth of my daughter. While I knew my body was important for my sons, I also knew they may not come under the same judgment because of their bodies as I did as a woman. In other words: I felt there was less pressure on me to care about what I thought about me. They, by being male, would have an ease in the world; very little closed to them because of their body. But when I held that beautiful little body of my daughter, writhing and screaming as she did, I felt an urgency to get myself straight. I knew I was strong; I knew I was intellectually capable. And I knew I lacked a certain confidence about my body. I held her and couldn’t help but feel the need to protect her from destructive societal and generational opinions about the female body in all its stages and at all its ages. I’d do whatever it took to bear the brunt of patriarchy so she could walk easier in the world; I’d follow behind women before me who fought to make this place safer and freer for our daughters.

I wish I could tell you the church was my faithful partner in this battle against the powers of oppression. Sadly, most of my battles over my body are fought here, in the church. The church and her purity culture participated in the battle against women and men in turning men and women against each other. What was to be one community of humanity (ref. Gen 2:18 ff) was torn asunder into us and other. And both of their bodies would be the site of battle. She’d lose her body and be torn to pieces; he’d lose his soul and become a discarnate shell.

1 Corinthians 6:19-20

Or do you not perceive that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit in you which you have from God and not of your own? You were bought for a price; indeed, esteem God as glorious in your body.

! Cor 6:19-20, translation mine

Paul’s small treatise on the body in 1 Corinthians 6 demonstrates the body is important. The idea that the soul is merely residing in the body is more a result of platonic influence on Christianity and less from Paul’s theology of the body. [1] Too often this passage is used more for abstaining from “sin” to keep the soul clean rather than as a celebration of our earthy somatic experience in the world (individual and communal). Far from being aliens inhabiting edgar suits,[2] Paul makes it clear: your body (σωμα) is important because it’s the site of cleaving to God by faith in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit that is the foundation of your baptism. [3] Paul compares the union of the believer with Christ by the Spirit to an indissoluble union. It’s this union that becomes strained when we partake in practices and behaviors misaligned with the Spirit in us. [4] Thus, our union with Christ isn’t strictly about our identity in Christ but how we live in the world, too.[5]

In short, the body and what you do with it is important. If it’s not, then I must ask why then be baptized and take communion? If our life in Christ is strictly about our soul being saved from the fires of hell, then why tend to the body in such intentional ways? If the body isn’t important as part of our human experience in the world, then why put so much energy into celebrating the advent of the incarnate divine child of Mary? If our bodies are pointless here, aren’t we essentially saying the body of our Lord is pointless, too?

Everything about our religious life in the church is material so both our spiritual existence and our material existence experience God in our bodies. The event of justification by faith apart from works is not a doctrine by which we elevate the realm of the πνευμα (spirit) over and against the realm of the σωμα (body). It is in this event of justification the body and the spirit are brought into righteousness in union (with God and with ourselves and with eachother). Thus, our actions in the world reflect the one who we are cleaved to and cleaves to us in the event of justification. [6] As we do in the world by the power of the Holy Spirit there Christ is for others in the world. [7] So, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 draws out the implications of our baptism of water and spirit of Acts 19 linking us in solidarity in following Jesus out of the Jordan. Paul makes it clear: what we do in the world tells the world who we are and who’s we are. [8]

Paul concludes with an exhortation to flee “fornication” or “idolatry”.[9] Through idolatry we forfeit our dominion and we hand ourselves over to being dominated[10] πνευμα και σωμα (spirit and body). As those who followed Jesus out of the Jordan in our baptism of water and the refining fire of Spirit, we are the temples of the Holy Spirit. This reference is intentionally material. Paul is making an intentional cultural and contextual connection between the temples housing gods or goddesses and the believer’s body being the house of God. [11] And, to be clear, Paul has in mind *all* bodies being the site of divine union and residence. So, I’ll ask again: if the body isn’t important why make such a bold and rather crazy statement? If my body isn’t important in this exchange, why would Paul spend time risking life and limb defending both resurrection of the body and the inclusion of gentile bodies in the body Israel along with Israelite bodies?

Conclusion

The body is important. Your body is important. It is through this body we experience the world and by which the world experiences us. Your body isn’t merely a vehicle for the soul but intimately and materially bound up with it. It is through this body time surges and courses leaving behind reminders of endurance. It is in the body where the declaration of holy resides; you in your body are the holy temple of the holy spirit; thus to desecrate this temple of muscle and bone is more of an affront to God than desecrating this temple of stone and wood.[12]

The body is important. And not just white bodies, but brown bodies, black bodies, indigenous bodies, transbodies, lgbtqia+ bodies, big bodies, small bodies, old bodies, young bodies, and differently abled bodies. There are no “illegal” bodies, and poor bodies deserve as much health and rest as those who are wealthy. It is not our place to determine what bodies are good or what bodies are bad because all bodies are sacred, all bodies are the target of divine love in the world; it is not for us to harm other bodies, reject other bodies, oppress other bodies because of their body. We are exhorted by Paul in this pericope to take seriously our bodies in the world and how those bodies act in the world. We are exhorted to live in ourselves for others, to be substantial people in the world who are divinely loved and who love divinely. For it is by this divine love that other swill know we are those who followed Jesus out of the Jordan (John 13:35). And we cannot support systems and institutions, ideologies and dogmas that ask us to oppress bodies; to do so would be to yoke ourselves to and be dominated by that which is not Christ. To deny an other of the fullness of somatic liberty is a means by which we grieve the spirit in us, the divine spirit given to us by God. We must, with Martin Luther King Jr. live a life marked by “a kind of dangerous unselfishness” and ask not the question “what happens to me if I help this other [body]” but, “If I do not help this [body] what will happen to [them]?”[13] Death for too long has stolen life from too many bodies; may our bodies participate in the revolt of life against death in the world.


[1] Anthony C. Thiselton The First Epistle to the Corinthians TNIGTC p. 462, “This supposed dualism of ‘levels’ is foreign to Pauline thought, but common place in those circles influenced by a popular form of quasi-Platonic thought.”

[2] Reference to Men in Black (1). Edgar is the body the alien termites strip the substance out of and then use the discarded flesh as the “suit” in which they walk in.

[3] Thiselton 458-9, “Paul rejects the quasi-gnostic dualistic notion that ‘spiritual’ issues are ‘above’ matters relating to the body. Quite the reverse is the case. Far from Pauline Christianity being what Nietzsche and the later Heidegger called ‘Platonism for the people,’ early Christian theology perceives the body as a temple sanctified by the Holy Spirit…united-as-one-entity with Christ…and a mode of being through which and in which the Christian self brings glory to God.”

[4] Thiselton 459, “As those who belong to Christ by redemptive purchase (6:20), Christians are to live out their bodily existence in union with Christ, indwelt by the Spirit, to the glory of God…”

[5] Thiselton 458. “This section demonstrates…the inseparability of Christian identity and Christian lifestyle, or of theology and ethics.”

[6] Thiselton quoting Käsemann from NT Questions of Today 464. Quoting Käsemann “‘For Paul it is all important that the Christian life is not limited to interior piety and cultic acts…In the bodily obedience o the Christian…the lordship of Christ finds visible expression, and only when this visible expression takes personal shape in us does the whole thing become credible as Gospel message.’”

[7] Thiselton 466 “Paul does indeed see the public, embodied life of Christ’s people as the instantiation of the gospel which points to, and thereby identifies, Christ for the world.”

[8] Thiselton 473 “It is precisely in how a person reveals themselves as what they are in the bodily and everyday life that what it means to be ‘in Christ’ emerges.”

[9] “Idolatry” is an acceptable translation of the word α πορνεια. It does mean in the literal sense “fornication” but the metaphorical definition is “idolatry” or “promiscuity of any kind.” While I do think Paul is directly using the word for fornication in a literal way (considering his time and context), I don’t think that it is a mistake to also include the metaphorical use of the word. I doubt that Paul would think it just fine to uphold violent systems just as long as you don’t have sex with a prostitute, in other words. Thus, it is my opinion that the sex imagery is to emphasize how important the body is and that when we choose to partake in idolatrous ways with systems, ideologies, practices, dogmas, institutions it’s as if you’ve physically linked yourself to that thing, like sex does between two people. Thus, we could say: those who participated in the coup against democracy to uphold white supremacy and patriarchy and oppression in the name of Christ, were promiscuous and strained their union with the Spirit while dragging their union with Christ through the mud; they voluntarily tore themselves (as limbs) from the body of Christ and oned (a reference to Julian of Norwich’s conception of the union with God) with a prostitute (white supremacy, patriarchy, oppression, Trumpism). And thus, we can say: they sinned against fellow creatures and against God.

[10] I’m using domination here playing off of the theme of the Greek word εξουσιασθησομαι(future passive indicative 1 person singular) meaning: I will be ruled over, I will be held under authority). I’d like to also point out that Paul employs the emphatic εγω here (Greek verbs come packed with their own personal pronoun endings) thus this is an emphasis for Paul: I I will not be held under authority…

[11] Thiselton 475, “The image of the god or goddess usually dominated the temple whether by size or by number (or both), and Paul declares that the very person of the Holy Spirit of God, by parity of reasoning, stands to the totality of the bodily, everyday life of the believer (σωμα) in the same relation of influence and molding of identity as the images of deities in pagan temples.”

[12] Thiselton 475, “The phrase ου εχετε απο θεου emphasizes both the transcendent source of the Holy Spirit who is Other and holy…and the gracious bestowal of the Holy Spirit as God’s free gift of love. Grace and judgment are held together: to desecrate the body is to violate God’s gift and to invite an unfavorable and awesome verdict on the part of God himself.”

[13] Martin Luther King Jr. I’ve been to the Mountaintop April 3, 1968. This was his last sermon before being assassinated. h/t friend and colleague The Rev. Dr. Kate Hanch for calling my attention to this sermon and idea. https://www.afscme.org/about/history/mlk/mountaintop?fbclid=IwAR3lVIJ7Vt9E96hGDgSyo1NQIvFyHW4I0VTVVpmuGGjzkPnF2lTHCK91MWc

Refiner’s Fire

Sermon on Acts 19:1-7

Psalm 29:10-11: The Lord sits enthroned above the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as King for evermore. The Lord shall give strength to his people; the Lord shall give his people the blessing of peace.

Introduction

The chorus of a Vineyard hymn, “Refiner’s Fire,” goes like this:

Refiner’s fire/My heart’s one desire
Is to be holy/Set apart for You, Lord
I choose to be holy/Set apart for You,
Ready to do Your will

I remember singing songs like this. I remember wanting “holiness” to be my one desire. I was so moved by this desire, I dedicated myself not only to the holiness of right thought but also to right action. This is the way active holiness was explained to me: not having anything to do with vile “secular” culture that is the playground of Satan and his demons waiting for unsuspecting Christians to wonder in and partake of his pleasing fruit and fall from grace through his seduction to damnation. I had to avoid anything deemed morally “bad”. This is what it meant to be set apart for Christ and holy: to keep myself clean from the stain sin (of “not Christian”). So, following recommendation, I tossed “secular” CDs, avoided “secular” movies, made sure my books were either the Bible or “Christian”, and ditched friends who weren’t Christian. I’d keep my mind on heavenly things and make sure my deeds aligned with them. I would go to Church every Sunday, memorize scripture, submit to men, and attend every bible study. This is how I was holy, and this was God’s will.

Sadly, that definition of holiness ran me into the ground. I had to spend my time focused on myself, on my image, on my presentation of myself so I could appear right with God. That definition of holiness was killing me, making me judgmental, condescending, angry, and starved for personal substance and presence and action. I didn’t reckon with myself, I just tucked everything I didn’t like in a box and shoved it somewhere else. It turned me so far inward that I couldn’t follow Jesus and I couldn’t see my neighbor and her needs. I was inside out, self-consumed, dysfunctional, and dead. This was holiness? This was being set apart?

Refiner’s fire/My heart’s one desire
Is to be holy/Set apart for You, Lord

Acts 19:1-7

…[Paul] said to them, “did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” But they [said] to him, “But we heard nothing if there is a Holy Spirit.” And [Paul] said, “Into what then/therefore were you baptized?”

Acts 19:2-3a; translation mine

The way the introductory Greek reads suggests Paul has intent to go to Ephesus to find those who believe in Jesus to ask some interesting questions.[1] When he finds them, Paul asks if they’ve received the Holy Spirit. This is Paul’s current crucial mission.[2] Paul wants to know: has God taken up residence with you and in you? The disciples reply they’ve not heard there is a Holy Spirit. Paul’s response? Another question: into what therefore were you baptized? While the question is simple the impact is profound. The disciples explain they were baptized by John. Wellokay…Paul says…but…: there is John and then there is Jesus; there is the verbal assent of repentance and then there is the bodily assent of practice; there is cleansing the outer person with water and then there is the refining fire of God’s cleansing the inner person; there is water and then there is Spirit.[3]

For Paul, John’s baptism with water is for the confession of sin and repentance. But it’s not enough. There’s more. There’s a trajectory involved in baptism that necessitates the presence of God in the life of the believer; it’s this presence, this Spirit, that unites us to God through faith in Christ. This trajectory is started by John, according to Paul, and it is finished by Christ. [4] John is the herald and Jesus the message. Not only their bodies must be baptized, washed, and dedicated to God but also their work, their discipleship must be baptized in Christ. It’s through repentance we die and are submerged in water; it is through this death we find life in the baptism of Christ and the Holy Spirit.[5]

“I have baptized you with water,” says John the Baptist. “[B]ut he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Mk 1:8

The one who is baptized last in the Jordan by John is now the first of New Creation, of the new order, of the new age, of the “new day.”[6] In being last in the waters of the Jordan and receiving the baptism of repentance with water by John, Jesus is the one who stands among the people and in solidarity with God. As the first of the new divine action in the world, Jesus of Nazareth the Christ, Emmanuel, the promised divine child of Mary, is God incarnate in solidarity with humanity in those same waters of death and new life. Jesus is in solidarity with God in God’s mission to seek and save the lost[7] and with humanity in its plight.[8] This is the one who will leave the Jordan and begin his ministry in the world focused on bringing in and including those who are shut out and excluded, mending the wounded, soothing the brokenhearted, and calling by name those whose names are forgotten.

In the event of baptism, Jesus’s history becomes our history[9]–we, with our histories (past, present, and future), are grafted into the history of Christ (past, present, and future). It’s in this event where our activity in water baptism is paradoxically identical with the activity of God in the baptism of the spirit.[10] It’s here we’re made holy, receive holy gifts, and do holy things because of the presence of God. (Where Christ is proclaimed there Christ is and holy activity is worked out in and through us.) We’re baptized by water and Spirit into Jesus’s mission and ministry. One by one, each of us is encountered in the waters of the Jordan, in repentance; one by one, each of us is encountered by God in the event of faith. Thus, in this baptism, one by one, each of us must reckon with ourselves and ask: will I follow Jesus out of the Jordan?

Conclusion

To follow Jesus means to love others and to love God, to stand in solidarity with the oppressed and to stand in solidarity with God. To follow Jesus in this moment means to come against empire (the deeper theme of Acts 19),[11] like Paul did, like the disciples eventually did, and just like Jesus did in his divine ministry and mission in the world. When Jesus leaves the Jordan the kingdoms of humanity come under judgment and are exposed for what they are: realms of death and darkness.

This week we witnessed a coup. A coup to uphold and maintain systems, ideologies, authorities, and persons in opposition to life. White supremacy and its dominant culture of whiteness reared its head and stormed the state house and demanded democracy be silenced so the empire of man can remain standing. It wasn’t solely about supporting Trump but ultimately what Trump represents: the old age of the evil empire of death and destruction. The message sent to black indigenous people of color, to the lgbtqia+ community, to our Jewish brothers and sisters, and to womankind was loud and clear: power and privilege and me and mine is worth destroying your life, liberty, and democracy. This is what narcissistic power does when it’s challenged; this is the fit privilege throws when threatened. I thought 2020 exposed just how bad things are; I stood corrected on Wednesday. We are in the process of being exposed. We have racial capitalism[12] deep in our bones and it’s dragging us, each of us, into darkness and death unto death. Be sure: this is not a “them over there” problem; it’s a problem for us. We are held captive and are complicit here. I am held captive and am complicit here.

Willie James Jennings writes,

Both the water and the touch become the stage on which the spirit will fall on our bodies, covering us with creating and creative power and joining us to the life of the Son. Through the Spirit, the word comes to skin, and becomes skin, our skin in concert with the Spirit.[13]

The word comes to skin, becomes skin, our skin in concert with the Spirit… This means that we, in our baptism with water and the presence of the Spirit and word come to skin, are intimately connected to the rest of humanity—in all shades of melanin. Thus, in no way can we support governments, people, actions, ideologies, institutions and systems designed to hinder and threaten lives. As sons and daughters of life and light, we are exhorted t to live in ways to make this world free and safe for our black and brown brothers and sisters in light and life. Womanist[14] theologian Kelly Brown Douglas writes,

It is time for us to be embodied realities of the black prophetic tradition and with moral memory, moral identity, moral participation, and moral imagination begin to create the world we ‘crave for our daughters and sons’…Now is the time. It is the time to live into God’s time and to create that new heaven and new earth where the time of stand your ground culture is no more.[15]

For those of us encountered by God in the event of faith, we must harken back to our baptism of water and the refining fire of the Spirit. We must begin with ourselves. Without this deep and painful self-reflection and self-work, there can be no substantial change. We must ask those very hard questions: how do I participate in these death dealing systems? How have I squandered divine holiness for human power and privilege? Where does anti-black racism live in my body, my mind, my heart? Following Jesus out of the Jordan demands we step into the light and be exposed, and we repent of our guilt. It means we begin again washed clean through the water of repentance and resurrected into the new life of the Holy Spirit in the name of Christ in union with God and God’s mission in the world on behalf of the beloved for this is holiness and for this we are set apart.


[1] Εγενετο δε εν τω τον Απολλω ειναι εν Κορινθω Παυλον διελθοντα τα ανωτερικα μερη [κατ]ελθειν εις Εφεσον και ευρειν τινες μαθητας… (Acts 19:1). I’m taking the aorist active infinitive ευρειν to have intentional direction of action thus as apposition in relation to the aorist active infinitive of [κατελθειν] which completes the thought of the aorist active participle διελθοντα: Paul passed through the higher part and came down into Ephesus. Why? Well, namely, to find some disciples. In other words and looking at the questions that follow in the dialogue between Paul and the disciples, he is intentionally looking for disciples to make sure they’ve received the Spirit.

[2] Willie James Jennings Acts Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Louisville, KY: WJK, 2017. 184, “These were not people who needed convincing. Their commitments to a new way were clear. Yet the questions are crucial.”

[3] Jennings Acts 184, “John was preparation. The way of repentance he declared in Israel was the stage for the one who lived that life of repentance for his people. John was a person, but Jesus was a person and a place of living. John was an event that flashed across the landscape of Israel. Jesus was the bringer of a new time that extends to all space.”

[4] Jennings Acts 184, “These questions expose not simply gaps in their discipleship but lack of clarity of its telos, its end, goal, and fulfillment. Clearly John the Baptist presented a renewal movement in Israel, a calling home, a clarifying work establishing the divine claim on a beloved people with a purpose. That purpose was to trumpet a new day in Israel. Paul is of that new day, and soon these disciples of John will also be of that new day.”

[5] Jennings Acts 184, “The saving work of God is always new, always starting up and again with faith…Paul invites these disciples to baptize their discipleship in Jesus, and thereby join their lives to his in such a way that they will lose their life in the waters only to find it again in the resurrected One.”

[6] Jennings Acts 184, “Baptism in Jesus’ name signifies bodies that become the new day.”

[7] Joel B. Green“The Gospel of Luke” The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997.187, “Working in concert with the endowment of the Holy Spirit, this divine affirmation presents in its most acute form Jesus’ role as God’s agent of redemption.…His mission and status are spelled out in relation to God and with reference to his purpose mission of redemption and establishes peace with justice in ways that flow determined by obedience to God’s purpose that the devil will test in 4:1-13.”

[8] Green 186, “Now however Jesus’ identity in relation to God and God’s redemptive project is proclaimed by God himself. Heaven itself has opened providing us with direct insight into God’s own view of things. That the voice of God agrees with those earlier voices (i.e., of Gabriel, Elizabeth, and the possible responses to Jesus. One can join Elizabeth, the angels, the narrator, an others who affirm Jesus’ exalted status an/or identity as God’s Son, or one can reject this evaluation and so pit oneself over against God.”

[9] Cf W. Travis McMaken The Sign of the Gospel “Barth’s discussion of Spirit baptism comprises a dialectical movement between two poles. One pole is God’s objective work of reconciliation in Christ and the other is the faithful and obedient human response to that work. Spirit baptism is where these two poles meet in a dynamic event of effectual call and free response. Barth’s discussion of this event draws upon and brings together many important strands in his theology, for here culminates the movement of the electing God’s divine grace as it reaches particular women and men among as elected in Jesus Christ. In this discussion, Barth walks the fine line between Christomonist and anthropomonist positions, neither creating the history of Jesus Christ as that which swallows the histories of human individuals, nor relegating Christ’s history to merely symbolic significance. Barth also does not denigrate the work of the Spirit or separate it from that of Christ. All of these things comprise a differentiated and ordered unity in Barth’s thought, aimed at grounding faithful human obedience on God’s grace in Jesus Christ.” 174

[10] McMaken Sign 174. “Spirit baptism comprises the awakening of faith that actualizes in one’s own life the active participation in Christ to which every individual is elected. This awakening demands and necessarily includes faithful and obedient human response. In the first instance, this response is faith itself. However, Barth argues that there is a paradigmatic way in which water baptism comprises this response. Water baptism constitutes the foundation of the Christian life precisely as such a paradigmatic response.”

[11] Barbara Rossing “Turning the Empire (οικουμενη) Upside Down: A Response” Reading Acts in the Discourses of Masculinity and Politics eds. Eric D. Barreto, Matthew L. Skinner, and Steve Walton. Ny NY: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017) p. 154 “‘In the οικουμενη all are Romans’: this fact—mourned by Agrippa but celebrated by Aelius Aristides—describes the first-century context both geographically and politically. It is the context we have to assume also for Acts. So, I would argue οικουμενη in Acts means ‘empire’. And this proves important for the reading of Acts 17 (both the account of the incident at Thessalonica as well the Areopagus speech) and acts 19 along with the trial scene we find there. What Paul is turning upside down is not the ‘world’ in the cosmic sense but rather the ‘empire’ or imperial world.”

[12] David Justice defines this term in his paper “Negating Capitalism: The Beloved Community as Negative Political Theology and Positive Social Imaginary” presented at AAR/SBL 2020 Annual Conference Virtual/Online forum Black Theology and Martin Luther King, Jr. 12/2020. Justice writes, “Racial capitalism, wherein racism and capitalism are mixed such that race is exploited to gain capital from racial identity…” p.1.

[13] Jennings Acts 185

[14] Womanism  is a social theory based on the history and everyday experiences of women of color, especially black women. It seeks, according to womanist scholar Layli Maparyan (Phillips), to “restore the balance between people and the environment/nature and reconcil[e] human life with the spiritual dimension” (from Wikipedia)

[15] Kelly Brown Douglas Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God. New York NY: Orbis, 2015. 227. Lorde quoted.

Revolution of the Light

Sermon on John 1:1-5

Psalm 147:5: Great is our Lord and mighty in power; there is no limit to his wisdom. The Lord lifts up the lowly, but casts the wicked to the ground. Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving; make music to our God upon the harp.

Introduction

I’ve never met someone who meets opportunity for exposure with open and eager embrace. Exposure can harm our body. Even the small forms of exposure provide enough discomfort to warrant avoidance. Anyone here like it when that wool blanket and down comforter are yanked back suddenly exposing your warm skin to chilly air? What about that cruel adjustment moment when eyes accustomed to dark are exposed to brightness? What about that little trip while you’re walking exposing the reality that you’re not as graceful as you thought you were? All I have to say is, “Hospital Dressing Gown,” and you all know what I’m talking about.

Exposure hurts and ushers in self-death when it reveals bigger problems. That thing keeping you stuck or that thing haunting your peace rears its head again and exposes your lack of control. Maybe it’s the fights that won’t go away; maybe it’s the threat of failure; maybe it’s the persistent sickness; maybe it’s the lie that was found out…these are exposures soliciting a death to self: I need help.

Exposure hurts. But exposure and its pain and death aren’t antithetical to life but the basis of it.

John 1:1-5

In the beginning was the Word, and the word was in the company with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning in the company with God. Everything was made through him, and not one thing having existed was made separately (from) him. In him there was life, and the life was the light of humanity. And the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot lay hold of it.

Jn 1:1-5, translation mine

The first part of the reading should sound familiar. Genesis 1:1 starts off identically (εν αρχη). The allusion in John 1 to the start of the Hebrew Scriptures is intentional. The Word is to be equated with God and the creative speaking power of God. The Word was God. The word spoken in Genesis 1:1 is the word piercing the silence of the cosmos, disrupting the darkness by tearing from it the light. The point is not creationism, but that God’s word and God’s deed are one and the same thing: God speaks and it happens; not a word falls to the ground void of substance of completed action.[1] For John, this word spoken at the beginning of creation is the Word that has come into the world in the baby born to Mary (Jn 1:14)—and not only to Israel, but to the whole world.[2]

With one hand John grabs the tip of the Hebrew scriptures and pulls them into view. With the other hand he drags the Greek philosophical tradition into view—signified by the word λογος. John uses the birth of Christ Jesus as the focal point to articulate the light that was called forth in Genesis 1 will expose the world and humanity unto life, unto glory and truth. For John the world is not its own Lord or “Law” but is created and sustained by the very Word of God; [3] it is not chaotic matter (the Greeks) but creation out of nothing. [4] In 5 words (εν αρχη ην ο λογος), John indicts humanity and its thought structures and assumptions. And we—those who listen in from here—also are indicted and confronted with John’s statements about the Word who was with God and is God. We are asked to reexamine everything we thought we knew, the terms and concepts we have grown (all too) familiar with and think we’ve defined rightly.[5] Here we’ve been exposed by the confrontation of the divine answer that is the Word made flesh and is the light of life of humanity.

John writes, “In him there was life, and the life was the light of humanity. And the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot lay hold of it.” The distinction between light and dark is one we move over quickly. We’re used to the idea that light happens at the flick of switch. In swift motion, the dark room is now illumined. It wasn’t, but now it is. But is it a simple change? The articulation of light into a room means that darkness must be converted. Darkness doesn’t run to other side of the room. What was dark is not anymore; it is light. It must cease being dark and become light.

When the light shines in the dark, the darkness in the path of the light is changed and transformed into not dark. Zooming in on the event you might see that which is light and not light, that which is darkness and not darkness. You might see particles in process of transition of giving themselves over to the light. There’d be a point where time would cease to matter as everything grinds to a halt as the activity of darkness changing into light gives over to the stillness of dark and light and not dark and not light—like a ball thrown into the air comes to a full stop before descent, there would be a cessation of darkness before there is lightness. There is a point in the conversion of darkness into lightness where it seems action seems to stop, where movement stops, where time becomes timelessness. There’s death—a cessation of everything. [6]

In the Christian Apocryphal work, Protoevangelium of James, the author tells of the moment Jesus is born, from Joseph’s perspective.[7] Listen,

“And I, Joseph, was walking, and yet I was not walking. And I looked up to the vault of heaven and saw it standing still, and in the air, I saw the air seized in amazement, and the birds of heaven were at rest. And I looked down to the earth and I saw a bowl laid there and workers lying around it, with their hands in the bowl. But the ones chewing were not chewing; and the ones lifting up something to eat were not liftin it up; and the ones putting food in their mouths were not putting food into their mouths. But all their faces were looking upward. And I saw sheep being driven along, but the sheep stood still. And the shepherd raised his hand to strike them, but his hand was still raised. And I looked down upon the winter-flowing river and I saw some goat-kids with their mouths over the water but they were not drinking. Then all at once everything return to its course.”[8]

Protoevangelium of James trans Lily C. Vuong

This is what happens to the world when divine exposure is born into it. The moment Jesus is born of Mary, time stops to make room for the light to enter the world that is trapped by darkness. Mary births the babe who is the light of humanity[9] that will convert darkness into lightness and death into life.[10] Everything comes to a standstill as God enters our timeline and completely overhauls it, flipping it on its head, moving space like the water of the red sea during the exodus, and thrusting the cosmos into divine truth. When God shows up, everything grinds to a halt and the world goes through a death as life motions to revolt against death.[11]

Conclusion

In the advent and nativity of the Christ child, we’re exposed by the light of life and shown we’ve been complicit with and held captive by systems and kingdoms of darkness of death. I mentioned before that 2020 is a year of exposure. This exposure hurts and will continue to hurt because none of us is done wrestling against the powers and principalities of this human world. It’s not easy to see how deeply embedded we are in the narrative of white supremacy. It’s painful to see greed and selfishness run rampant and realize those are our feet running and keeping pace with those we’re criticizing. It’s horrifying to realize our silence participates in propping up vile and malicious institutions, practices, ideologies when we’d rather not #saytheirnames or say #blacklivesmatter because it’s…more comfortable not to.

In the exposure inaugurated by the birth of the Christ in the encounter with God in the event of faith, we are brought out of the old humanity through death into new humanity.

To be exposed is to endure the transition of darkness into light—being reduced to the moment you are and you are not. To be exposed is to come to a full cessation and be changed from darkness into lightness through death. To be exposed is to see things as they are in the stillness of time and ask the questions so many are afraid to ask: is this all there is? Is this really the good and true and the beautiful? Is anything else possible? The exposure of the encounter with God in the event of faith brings life out of death through resurrection—it’s new life and you are a new creation, with new eyes to see and ears to hear. And you’re given a new mission in the world: joining in the revolt against the dark with the army of the light who is the oppressed, the marginalized, the suffering, the hurting, the dying. This is the mission of God in the world; this is the thrust of the nativity. Everything we think we know as right, and good, and true is in the line of fire of the great divine revolution of life against death humbly started by God born a baby boy to a young unwedded mother, wrapped in rags and laid in a humble manger surrounded by dirty shepherds.


[1] Rudolf Bultmann The Gospel of John: A Commentary Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1971. P. 20 “In the O.T. the Word of God is his Word of power, which, in being uttered, is active as event. God’s word is God’s deed, and his deed is his word; that is, he acts through his word, and he speaks in his action, and it is man whom he addresses.”

[2] Bultmann John 21. “The Prologue does not speak of the relation of the chosen people to the Word of God, but of the relation of the world to the ‘Word’.”

[3] Bultmann John p. 39. “The radical nature of the idea of creation is evident at this point: in the beginning the world did not, so to speak, receive as its own that which it then maintains by itself; both its beginning and its continuing existence are attributed to the Logos. Precisely this is the meaning of v. 4a: ο γενονεν, εν αυτω ζωη ην: the vitality of the whole creation has its origin in the Logos; he is the power which creates life.”

[4] Bultmann John p. 38. “The Greek view, that wants to understand the world as a correlation of form and matter, is also excluded: the creation is not the arrangement of a chaotic stuff, but is the καταβολη κοσμου (17.24), creation ex nihilo.”

[5] Bultmann John 13. “The concepts ζωη and φως, δοξα and αληθεια are the kind of motifs for which the reader brings with him a certain prior understanding; but he still has to learn how to understand them authentically.”

[6] Bultmann John p.32. “…in the person and word of Jesus one does not encounter anything that has its origin in the world or in time; the encounter is with the reality that lies beyond the world and time. Jesus and his word not only bring release from the world and from time, they are also the means whereby the world and time are judged: the first words of the Prologue at once prepare us for this.”

[7] For an excellent engagement with this text, please see Dr. Eric Vanden Eykel’s work located here: https://hcommons.org/members/evandeneykel/deposits/ It was his paper—”Then Suddenly, Everything Resumed Its Course”: The Suspension of Time in the Protevangelium of James Reconsidered—that I heard at SBLAAR 2017 and was profoundly impacted by. If you are interested in further pursuing apocryphal engagement, I highly recommend engaging with Dr. Vanden Eykel.

[8][8] The Protoevangelium of James 18: 2-11 Trans Lily C Vuong (https://www.amazon.com/dp/1532656173/ref=cm_sw_em_r_mt_dp_uk52Fb7QPGNMN)

[9] Bultmann John p. 43, “…φως comes to mean revelation. And where one speaks of a Revealer, one can describe him as the ‘Light’ or as the Giver of light.”

[10] Bultmann John p. 41. “In its original sense light is not an apparatus for illumination, that makes things perceptible, but is the brightness itself in which I find myself here and now; in it I can find my way about, I feel myself at home, and have no anxiety. Brightness itself is not therefore an outward phenomenon, but is the illumined condition of existence, of my own existence. Such brightness is necessary for life; so that from the first, and throughout the ancient world, light and life, darkness and death are seen as belonging together.”

[11] Bultmann John p. 47. “Yet the ζωη of the Logos does not cease to be the φως of men just because men have chosen the possibility of darkness. Rather it is only because the Logos is constantly present as the light of men that the world of men can be σκοτια at all. For darkness is neither a substance nor the sheer power of fate; it is nothing other than the revolt against the light.” I made revolution the work of the light because revolutionary violence is in response to oppression and suffering. Darkness’s response would be counter revolution. It is not light who responds to hold the status-quo, but darkness. It is darkness and death to uphold the status-quo and systems bent on destruction to keep your power.

Some Sölle

I recently read the short book Creative Disobedience by Dorothee Sölle. She was influenced by both Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Friedrich Gogarten. Her work is excellent, pastoral, tangible, accessible; dare I say she’s the best of both of these scholars. Also, considering my own work engages both Bonny and Fritz, it made sense to me to begin reading Sölle; seems she’s my older sister here in this odd theological family.

What I am providing here is not a book review; sadly, I’ve no time for a quality book review. Rather my aim is to provide some enticing quotes from the text, encouraging you, beloved reader, to go get it and read it and take it to heart. I will use bold to add emphasis to parts I want to stand out to you.

“Basically, however, in a completely authoritarian model of obedience one never asks the question ‘why.’ The world loses its significance and is degraded to being but the raw material used in practicing formal obedience. That which is done is uninteresting. When obedience concentrates itself completely on a higher and guiding ‘other,’ it becomes blind, that is, blind to the world. It hears the voice of its master in a very narrow and exclusive sense but it sees nothing. it accomplishes the act of obedience for its own sake, recognizing no additional significance.

“An attempt has been made to solve this dilemma by suggesting that the obedience requested and carried out is given freely. To be sure an obedience freely given does mean a displacement of the power relationship and allows the obedience subject to maintain a certain semblance of honor. But the problem of worldlessness and the lack of objective concerns inherent in such a person-oriented obedience is only sharpened. A critique of obedience cannot satisfy itself merely by maintaining that those who obediently submit choose to do so freely. Blindness toward the world and total irresponsibility are still lacking in this variant of the authoritarian model.

“An obedience that is blind to objective concerns and to the world, that merely listens to what it is told, has divest itself of all responsibility for what is commanded. Obedience and not what is to be done is the sole motivation.”

Creative Disobedience pp. 15-16

“But it is precisely spontaneity for which Jesus sets us free. That which he requires does not presuppose the order of the world; that order has yet to be established in the future. Insofar as the human must first discover what God’s will is, the future of the world remains open.

“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 enter 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 the se schemes. This process of liberation is called ‘Gospel.’ Out obedience then still be thought of as the Christian’s greatest glory?

“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.

Creative Disobedience pp. 27-28

“A society is imagined in which it is no longer necessary to deny someone people their own subjectivity. Such an inhuman demand destroys the person on whom it is made. Those who require such a degree of self-sacrifice, or include it in their life plan, lose their freedom. He who makes use of another person as a means of achieving his own ends not only humiliates that person but also degrades himself. To treat another person as if she were a thing is to become a thing oneself, a servant to the functioning of the very ‘thing’ being manipulated. By demanding sacrifice, such a person destroys his own freedom. As the one in control he becomes the one controlled. In alienating others from that which they wish to be and can become, he alienates himself. Because he concentrates on domination, on employing others as means to his own ends, he loses all the other possibilities open to him. For example, he no longer pays attention to anything that does not fit his purpose. He loses the ability to enjoy ling because he must constantly reinforce his life by accomplishments. The relationship between people is so interdependent that it is impossible for one person to prosper at the expense of another. In the long run such exploitation proves detrimental to both.”

Creative Disobedience pp. 34-35

“The stronger a person’s self-identity–that which we have previously referred to as his or her being a subject–the easier partial renunciation becomes. in borderline situations the expression ‘partial renunciation’ can be applied to the runcination of one’s own life for the sake of the other. However, even then it is impossible for such a person to relinquish his or her identity for the sake of the other. And so one could formulate the thesis: The greater one’s realization of selfhood the greater one’s ability for true renunciation. The more successful one is at living the easier it is for him or her to let go of life.

Creative Disobedience p. 39

“A person can, during the course of his lifetime, become more imaginative, or, on the other hand, he can give u more and more of his phantasy. He then becomes progressively poorer in his style of living and ever more fixed in that which he refers to as his life-experience or his understanding of people. This growing impoverishment of life takes pleasure in assuming the appearance of maturity, in feigning a full awareness of reality.

Creative Disobedience p. 51

“Jesus made people whole without asking for thanks. He fulfilled people’s wishes without requesting their validity. He allowed phantasy full reign without bowing to propriety. he took seriously the religious requirements such as fasting, the breaking of bread, and thanksgiving, but he was also able to put them all aside. He was at ease with friend and foe alike. The conventional classification of people in artificial groupings could be suspended at any time.

“He never brought new virtues and duties. It was fulfillment he offered to those with whom he dealt, a certain sense of wholeness, of well-being, which made virtue and its practice possible. He did not fulfill duties; instead he changed the situation of those whom he met. His phantasy began with the situations but always went far beyond them.”

Creative Disobedience pp. 52-53

“The liberated human being is so strongly aware of him or herself as a self-determining subject that partial denials become possible. The expression ‘partial denial’ may seen inappropriate when it is applied to Jesus, but I use it in order to underscore the fact that a person can never deny his own identity simply at the will of another. In this sense Jesus too never denied his own identity. It is more appropriate to say that his death was the final substantiation of his identity, of the unheard of assertion ‘I am the life.'”

Creative Disobedience p. 58

It appeared to be forgotten that for Jesus ‘God’ meant liberation, the unchaining of all powers which lie imprisoned in each of us, powers with which we too can perform miracles which are no less significant than those we are told Jesus himself performed. The feeling of possessing a full life, the fulfillment of Jesus, was lost. It was as if one wished to promise people something more and greater than the fulfillment of Jesus–a participation in divine life which is realized only after death. With the help of this beyond, this still to come, fulfillment was defamed, and the transformation of this earth in view of the possibilities for fulfillment remained subordinate.

“We still secretly feared that the realization of selfhood could only be achieved at the cost of others, suspected that it was the robbery of others, because we viewed the earth itself and the projected possibilities for fulfillment as constant and immovable. If instead the world is seen as moving toward a goal, if God is experiences as active in history and not merely posited as resting beyond nature, as eternally being, then the possibilities for fulfillment are multiplied. Then phantasy ceases to be a thing for children and poets–that which Christian history has made of it. The person is once again given the courage to say ‘I,’ without, in so doing, taking anything from anyone else.

Creative Disobedience pp. 64-65

In Rags and Wood

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

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

Introduction

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

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

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

Born thy people to deliver,

born a child, and yet a king,

born to reign in us for ever,

now thy gracious kingdom bring.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disruptive Comfort

Sermon on Isaiah 40:1-11

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

Isaiah 40:1-11

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Divine Nativity Draws Nigh

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

Introduction

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

But, see, things weren’t okay.

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

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

Things are not okay.

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

Isaiah 64:1-9

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

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

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

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

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

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

One scholar renders 64:5 like this,

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

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

O come, O come, Emmanuel

And ransom captive Israel

That mourns in lonely exile here

Until the Son of God appear

Conclusion

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

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

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

Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel


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

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

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

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

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

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

[7] Childs 526

[8] Childs 521

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