“Nothing Seems to Satisfy”: Craving Community

Psalm 130:5-7 5 My soul waits for God, more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning. O Israel, wait for God, for with God there is mercy; with God there is plenteous redemption, and God shall redeem Israel from all their sins.

Introduction

A byproduct of our habitual consumption is a growing inability to stick with a community beyond what it can give to and do for me. With my focus on me and my happiness and comfort, I’m less obliged to stick with something when the rubber meets the road.  Now, I’m not saying that someone should stick with a community that is violent in any way—be it socially, physically, emotionally, or spiritually violent. What I’m saying is that we have a consumer attitude toward our communities; as long as I’m getting what I paid for, or what I want, I’m in. If that changes, I’ll leave. I am irreplaceable, but this community? Replaceable.

The irony here is that if your community is easily replaceable—being able to easily switch one community out for another—you are, too. If you can slip in and out of groups easily, if you’re always on the hunt for something better, then you do not allow yourself any time to cultivate interest in the group or the group to develop interest in you. Remember from the Lent 2 sermon on identity, irreplaceability is hinged on someone or something taking an interest in you, loving you, desiring you, missing you when you’re gone, wanting you to return. As more of our communities fall to consumerism, the more we become lost in the sea of replaceability. In fact, our relationality is further compromised; how relational can we be when our communities are fleeting? And if our relationality is faltering, then so too is our identity because will anyone take an interest in me long enough to stick around? And if that, then we are destabilized because we’re left with only ourselves and our own skepticism where nothing is permanent therefore nothing is permanent.

We’re consuming our communities and nothing seems to satisfy.

Ezekiel 37:1-14

Then God said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am God, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, God, have spoken and will act,” says God.

Our prophet is Ezekiel, a prophet and priest of Jerusalem. He lived through the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, he’s a prophet during the exile to Babylon. It’s from this context Ezekiel speaks; it’s to the exiled people, those having lost their land, their temple, their community, Ezekiel brings the living word of God.[1] Ezekiel’s prophecies engage the imagination through the abstract and absurd.  In this particular prophecy, Ezekiel speaks from a valley of dry (dead) bones, where God dropped him off. Ezekiel’s story invigorates attention being more than acquired knowledge and “quiet insight”; “It is a startling event: a thunder in the world and a lightning in the soul.”[2] Those who have ears to hear begin listening: What about these dry bones surrounding our prophet who bears the weight of God’s divine hand?[3]

Ezekiel is commanded to speak to the dead bones, to prophecy to them the word of God. An absurd request, but nonetheless Ezekiel does. Ezekiel speaks the promises of God over these dead bones: I will, says God, bring breath to you, add sinew and ligaments, I will put muscle and flesh on you, and I will bring you back to life. As Ezekiel speaks these words promising life, the bones begin to move, come together. As they come together, they are being covered with sinew and flesh just as God promised. What once looked dead and dried up, alienated and isolated, too far gone to be of any good, are now bodies lying before Ezekiel.

Then Ezekiel is commanded to prophesy to the breath, to summon the four winds to come into these new bodies. And he did, and as he did the bodies became animated and living, standing up before Ezekiel. Then God spoke one more time: God promises God’s people will be brought out of death, out of dried-upness, out of alienation and isolation and will be made to be God’s people on God’s land once again. God will raise the dead because God will restore the people of Israel and restore them to each other and to their own land.[4] Life will triumph over death just as restoration triumphs over exile, because God’s word of promise doesn’t fall flat, it does what it intends to do. God holds Israel’s future, it’s not closed off; God isn’t distant but close, as close as breath in an animated body; Israel won’t spend eternity separated from each other, exiled from their community.[5]

Conclusion

Our communities seem to be dissolving right before our eyes; people come and go so quickly. The ties that bind no longer hold; this is one of the reasons why the church is suffering so much right now. The consumerism embedded in the fabric of the church creates a competitive environment between churches as they fight over the same group of people and trying to be unique. Sadly, in so doing they cease to be unique communities because they must offer what everyone else is offering and in at least the same but most likely in more entertaining ways. Pastors compete against pastors, worship leaders against worship leaders, youth leaders against you leaders. In this environment, you can’t risk actually being unique, because you may risk your spot on the field, competing against the others. In this environment, community must be forsaken for the bigger goal: bodies and dollars. But doesn’t this mean sacrificing the beloved of God for numbers? Doesn’t this defeat the purpose of being a church when we become just one more spiritual strip mall?

So, if nothing seems to satisfy, how do we oppose this dissolution of community, this threat of consumerism? We must look beyond ourselves and our deeds. We must be awakened to our deep-seated need and hunger for community.

We want community. We want a place where everyone knows our name, sees us, knows us, remembers our birthdays, where we can risk being unique, where we can have our irreplaceability affirmed, where we are needed and where we are missed when we’re not here. I’m crazy enough to think that church was once and can be that place again. Churches came into existence to be small communal events, to share a story and to share a meal, where it was safe to believe and have faith in God incarnate raised again, Christ Jesus; where the Spirit called each person to dare to love like God, daring to love those declared unlovable by the society around them.

Church is where you’re brought alongside that guy you don’t really understand, that lady who never says a word, that person who seems really eager to leave, that kid who likes to hoot and holler during the sermon, that whacky priest in stilettos. In church you’re asked see your similarity with all these various people sitting next to you, people you may not commune with Monday through Friday, but on Sunday you do. Every Sunday each of you sets aside everything making you different and you come to these pews to share in hearing an ancient story, recite and respond with the same words, and confess and receive absolution together. Here we come together and join at the rail, each of us empty handed with each other and with God. Here we are spiritually awakened by the power of God’s spirit and come to terms with our hunger for God.

In our hunger for God, we long for community. In our desire for God we are brought together to feast at God’s table as one body. In this community, we’re brought out of the death of alienation and isolation, and we are brought together; we are summoned out of death and into life with each other. It is here, in the midst of the divine hope and love where I find community with you, because you are the beloved of God and God is where you are; God is where we are in the hunger.

(for part 1 click here, part 2 click here, part 3 click here, part 4 click here)


[1] Sweeney, Ezekiel, JPS Study Bible. 1042. “The book of Ezekiel presents the words of Ezekiel son of Buzi, a prophet and priest, and one of the Jerusalemites exiled to Babylonia with King Jehoiachin in 597 BCE by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar (2 Kings 24.8–17). Like his older contemporaries Jeremiah, 1, Ezekiel lived through the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 586 and the early years of the Babylon exile.”

[2] Abraham K Heschel The Prophets New York, NY: JPS 1962. 444.

[3] Heschel, Prophets, 444. “‘The hand of God,’ a synonym for the manifestation of His strength and power (Isa. 10:10; 28:2; Deut. 32:36), is the name the prophet uses to describe the urgency, pressure, and compulsion by which he is stunned and overwhelmed. ‘For the Lord spoke thus to me with His strong hand upon me’ (Isa. 8:11). ‘I sat alone, because Thy hand was upon me’ (Jer. 15:17). ‘The hand of the Lord was upon me’ (Ezek. 37:1; 3:14, 24). The prophet very rarely speaks of God’s face; he feels His hand.”

[4] Sweeney, Ezekiel, 1114. “In its plain-sense meaning, the image symbolizes the restoration of Israel to its own land.”

[5] Sweeney, Ezekiel, 1042. “He wrestles with the problems posed by the tragedies of Jerusalem’s destruction and the Babylonian exile: Why did God allow the Temple and Jerusalem to be destroyed? why did God allow the people of Israel to be carried away into exile? What future is there for Israel?”

“Nothing Seems to Satisfy”: Craving Identity

(for part 1 click here, for part 2 click here)

Psalm 121:1-3 I lift up my eyes to the hills; from where is my help to come? My help comes from God, the maker of heaven and earth. God will not let your foot be moved and God who watches over you will not fall asleep.

Introduction

Do you know who you are? I know it sounds like a banal question, and maybe even moot. Of course, we all know who we are. I know that I am me, and I know that you are you. I know this because I am not you and you are not me. Thus, I’m sure that you know that you are you and not me because you are not me. If you were me and I were you, then we’d both be able to replace each other. And that means we would not be unique as individuals.

So, maybe I should rephrase the question: who are you as an individual apart from your relational roles and deeds? In terms of defining ourselves we default to our relationships, to our job, to our hobbies, to our interests and the activities therein to define ourselves not only to other people (to whom we feel a need always to be prepared to give justification for our existence) but also to ourselves. We cling to these things not only to define ourselves, but to validate ourselves and our existence. As we live in the wake of sola suspicio of our post-modern, post-enlightenment, even post-Theistic mindset, we are in a personal desperate way as we fight for something, anything to cling to affirm our uniqueness, validate our existence, and secure our identity.[1] But all of it is drift wood in this sea of tumult, chaos, and instability. There’s nothing secure enough in the material realm to cling that will give us a sense of self, an identity, a uniqueness and validation that won’t eventually become dust. Not even our own bodies offer us a stable constant, do they not betray us with time?

My identity is slipping through my fingers and nothing seems to satisfy.

Genesis 12:1-4a

God said to Abram, “…I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

We pick up again in the book of Genesis. Here, Moses, our faithful story-teller according to tradition, is telling us about the call of Abram. Chapter 12 in Genesis follows a colorful series of events: fierce cherubim and seraphim blocking off all access and reentrance to the Garden of Eden after the rather fateful “applegate” and subsequent curses (Gen 3), the first murder (Gen 4), various human civilizations being established (Gen 5), the appearance of the Nehphilim (the byproduct of the Sons of God knowing the Daughters of Humanity) (Gen 6:1-6), a massive and destructive flood (Gen 6:7-8:22), a rainbow of divine promise (Gen 9), and the Tower of Babel (Gen 11). It’s here, at this point in the story, where God (once again) begins anew, moving from a general approach to a specific approach: God will call one person, not for any other reason than God’s love for the whole world.[2]

God’s promises and blessing to Abram suggests a reversal of the curses uttered just chapters earlier.[3] These blessings and promises highlight that Abram has done nothing to receive them; they come as a “bolt from the blue.”[4] The idea that God cannot be with God’s beloved as a result of the fall back in Genesis 3 is rendered myth in this moment. God calls Abram and blesses him; where Adam, Eve, and the serpent leave behind paradise, Abram is invited into it: paradise is union with God. Herein is the foundation for the claim that the curses are being reversed: by God’s love, Abram will be a great nation (many children, one of whom will be the Messiah, the promised child of Genesis 3) and this nation will be a blessing to the rest of the world.[5]

In this moment of hearing the divine summons, Abram, in a moment, goes from a childless old man to the parent of many; here Abram becomes a new person, a new being by the Word of God summoning him to God’s self and thus into new life.[6] And not a new self for his own sake, but in this hearing of the divine summons, Abram is ushered into a new life for others. This other-orientated characteristic of his new life will become part of his new identity in God and with God as he becomes a conduit for God to bless other nations.[7] And in our context, the overflow of blessing and promise has already started: as Abram responds to God and finds his new life in God, Lot goes with him into this new thing.[8]

Conclusion

We look in many places to anchor and secure our identity. We long for something permanent that’s always there to tell us who and what we are. Some of us spend our lives reaching for accolades to define ourselves, some of us invest all we have in our relationships striving to be good by our deeds, some of us spend all our time toiling away at some job, some of us are dead set that our “passions” or our “hobbies” are our identity. These things aren’t inherently bad; it’s good to have things to do and enjoy, it is wonderful to walk through life with other people, serving and sharing with them. But, when they’re forced to bear the burden of the weight of ourselves, our personhood, and our identity, they are found to be phantoms and illusions. They are merely a papier mache covering over fear and anxiety that, at the end of it all, we’re truly replaceable, unnecessary, forgettable.

We tell ourselves lies that we must be x or y or even z to be valued, forgetting all the while that we’re valuable because we are. full stop. These things that we reach for and demand they give us something on which to hang our identity will leave us still afraid and unstable because they can never give us what we so deeply desire: irreplaceability. These things are too fleeting and fickle to give us our uniqueness and irreplaceability—here one day and gone the next. We cannot attain our identity and irreplaceability by ourselves leaning on our deeds.

So, if nothing seems to satisfy, how do we navigate all this insecurity of identity, this threat of the loss of self? We must look beyond ourselves and our deeds. We must be awakened to our deep-seated need and hunger for irreplaceable identity.

The irreplaceable individual is the one in whom another takes interest. Would you believe me if I told you that I take an interest in you? that you are—to me—irreplaceable? But there is also something bigger, securing for us that long desired irreplaceability, anchoring the thing that makes us unique, and to whom our existence matters day in and day out. God. Specifically, God brought close to us in Christ. This is why we come here every Sunday, to hear the age-old story of God calling Abram, to hear our own names in the place of Abrams, to hear our own summons, our own promises, our own being seen, known, and loved. We come here week after week to encounter divine love for us in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. We come here together and individually, to hear once again that God takes an interest in humanity and thus in us because in Christ, God shrugged off royalty to be as us, to identify as us, even unto death.

Beloved, God so loves you therefore you are irreplaceable, you are unique, you are of interest. You are loved and remembered by God; in you God takes hope. [9] In our hunger for irreplaceable identity, we hunger for God; in our hunger for God our identities are held, anchored to dependable substance because this story of God’s love for you never changes, it holds from one moment to the next, from one era to the next, not always in the same form but always with the same substance: divine love for the beloved.

In hearing the summons of God’s voice in the proclamation of divine love in Christ, God taking an interest in you and remembering you, calling you unto God’s self by the Spirit, you are called to walk with others. For this summons of God’s voice of love will always overflow through us to our neighbors, with whom we share blessings and promises of God’s love, interest, and remembrance. It’s here where we’re brought further out of ourselves and our desperate attempts to secure our own identities by our deeds by ourselves. It is here, in the midst of the divine summons and love where I find identity with you, because you are the beloved of God and God is where you are; God is where we are in the hunger.


[1] Dorothee Sölle, Christ the Representative, 26. “In the course of the expanding process of secularization, the metaphysical irreplaceability of the human soul was itself transposed into secular achievements or expressions of life by which the individual made himself irreplaceable. Man discovered himself as essentially one who accomplishes things, and this prospect of self-realization, self-accomplishment, self-expression in work, blotted out the earlier metaphysical horizon. Now for the first time, in the context of the modern discovery of the individual, it was a man’s work-labour performed, his perfected achievement-which merited the dignity and status given to the relation between producer and player in the earlier conception. Man no longer acquired his identity simply from his relationship to God, which had once in itself provided an adequate explanation of the irreplaceability of the individual as a soul. He now achieves his own identity; he makes himself irreplaceable.”

[2] Levenson, “Genesis” The Jewish Study Bible: Featuring the Jewish Publication Society Tanakh Translation. Eds. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler. Oxford: OUP, 2004. 30.    “The universalism that marked Gen. chs 1-11 having now failed, the Lord begins anew, singling out one Mesopotamian—in no way distinguished from his peers as yet—and promising to make of him a great nation, not numbered in the seventy nations of ch. 10.”

[3] Levenson, “Genesis” The Jewish Study Bible, 30. “What the Lord promises Abram (his name is changed to ‘Abraham’ only in ch 17)—land, numerous offspring, and blessing—constitutes to an extent a reversal of some of the curses on Adam and Eve—exile, pain in childbirth, and uncooperative soil…”

[4] Levenson, “Genesis” The Jewish Study Bible, 30. “The twin themes of land and progeny inform the rest of the Torah. In Gen. ch 12, these extraordinary promises come like a bolt from the blue, an act of God’s grace alone; no indication has been given as to why or even whether Abram merits them.”

[5] LW 2 (Luther’s Works Vol 2 “Lectures on Genesis Chapters 6-14” Ed. Jaroslav Pelikan. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia, 1960.) 246. “…Moses reminds his people that they were chosen by the Lord, not because they had deserved this but because the Lord had loved them and was keeping the oath that had been given to their fathers? In this passage we see that the beginnings are in agreement with the end. For what is Abraham except a man who nears God when He calls him, that is, a merely passive person and merely the material on which divine mercy acts?”

[6] LW 2 247. “Thus, as I said above, Abraham is merely the material that the Divine Majesty seizes through the Word and forms into a new human being and into a patriarch, And so this rule is universally true, that of himself man is nothing, is capable of nothing, and has nothing except sin, death, and damnation; but through His mercy Almighty God brings it about that he is something and is freed from sin, death…”

[7] LW 2 258-259. “Here is presented the amazing promise that this people will not only be increased among itself and be blessed materially and spiritually, but that the blessing will also overflow to the neighboring nations and peoples. This happened to the Pharaoh in Egypt.”

[8] LW 2 275. “Behold God’s marvelous counsel! The promise pertained to Abraham only, not to Lot. Nevertheless, God attaches Lot, like a proselyte, to Abraham as his companion and moves his heart so that he wants to go into exile with his uncle rather than remain in his native country among the idolaters. This is because the promise given to Abraham be blessed with his descendants, it him others would become partakers of the blessing, even though the promise did not properly pertain to them.”

[9] Sölle, Representative, 46. “Whenever man’s horizon is bounded by his contribution, substitution also comes into play. A different basis must be found for man’s irreplaceability. I am irreplaceable only for those who love me. Only for them does a surplus remain, over and above whatever I perform at any given time: something not expressed in my action. This margin, this surplus of the person over and above all he performs, alone gives life to human relationships. To love means, in this sense, to count on this surplus, on what has not yet been expressed, not yet appeared. The invisible and unexpressed surplus is a reminder that I have not yet reached my full stature. Identity continues to be preserved in the experience of difference; in the consciousness of non-identity. But this consciousness knows that it cannot expunge itself. I do not become an irreplaceable person by my own effort, but only as I continue to be dependent on others.

“Nothing Seems to Satisfy”: Craving Stability

(for part 1 click here)

Psalm 32:6-9 6 “I will confess my transgressions to God.” Then you forgave me the guilt of my sin. Therefore all the faithful will make their prayers to you in time of trouble; when the great waters overflow, they shall not reach them. You are my hiding-place; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with shouts of deliverance.

Introduction

The past few years and the last few months have felt like walking on water. Now, before you get the idea that I’m either comparing myself to Jesus the Christ, the son of God and humanity, or that I’ve felt so light and effervescent, I need to tell you that is not the case. By “walking on water” I mean: navigating the wind and the waves of life. Thrust upward only to be left falling downward as the surface drops, swept left and then swept all the way right, and smacked forward and backward by liquid turned solid by force and velocity.

There’s no way to extricate myself from this unending sea of waves and wind. It’s water as far as the eye can see. I fear something swimming just close enough but beyond my ability to see through murky water to prickle my skin with its sinister swish-swish-swishes right below my feet. The threat of doom leaves its own trauma. My other fear is becoming so water logged that I forget my real needs, that I confuse swallowing sea water for satisfying hunger, that I just become one with my environment, that I’ll give up or forget to keep fighting. When humans go about just surviving, they end up learning how to just survive and forget that life is so much more than just surviving.

Everything right now feels so unstable and nothing seems to satisfy.

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’“ But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Gen 3:1-4)

Here, early in Genesis, we are offered a story. A story well known to us. Moses (the traditionally assumed author) tells us that after God created Adam, God brought Adam into the garden. Here, Adam was to work and care for creation. God gave Adam two commandments: eat from any tree but do not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The consequence? “‘In that day you eat of it you will surely die.’” (v.17b) From our perspective this command seems astounding, and the consequence atrocious. Why would God implement such a command and consequence? Why would the acquisition of the knowledge of good and evil be punished severely? Why is God keeping this power from us?

One of the issues is our evaluation of good and evil. These are not just moral executive decisions. According to the JPS Study Bible, we have to reframe our understanding of “knowing” away from a post-enlightenment, scientific revolution outlook to one that offers a more wholistic picture of “knowing.” We know intellectually, but we also know experientially; therefore, there is not only knowing about good and evil, but knowing morally good and evil and (even more) knowing through experience things pleasant and painful.[1] And in these experiences, in this knowing morally, and even in knowing about good and evil there is death. It’s not so much a punishment as it is a consequence of finding ourselves suffering in the midst of good and evil, pulled this way and that, torn through with doubt and inner conflict, suffering from (even unto death) the force of evil in the world.

Then, enter the serpent. In chapter 3, Moses tells us the serpent comes along and strikes up a conversation with Eve. The serpent asks a trick question, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?”; there’s no yes or no here, and Eve knows it.[2] So, she answers the serpent, and this response opens up a means by which the serpent can attack further. Eve says, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’“ As she quotes the law differently than it was handed to Adam, the serpent can certainly show her that she can touch it without dying, and here in the chaos of conflict with what one knows and sees and the inner doubt over divine credibility surges.[3] Then the serpent presses further adding in just the right amount of potential divine jealousy: seems God doesn’t want you to have the same power God has…[4] The deal is sealed when she takes and eats of the apple and hands it to Adam, who was with her the entire time. The one who taught her the law failed to teach it to her rightly, and was himself subject to contemplating another word apart from God’s word.[5] Upheaval was already underway.[6]

Here the couple is thrust into tumult; what was, is now no longer. They were comfortable, now they are uncomfortable. Here they are falling from “true wisdom,” to quote Martin Luther, and “…[plunged] into utter blindness.”[7] They are now saddled with the weight of determining moral good and moral evil, held hostage by the onslaught of pleasure or pain, and chased by the threats of weal and woe. All of their relationships are now upended, their relationship with God, with each other, with themselves, and with creation; the ricochet of the sound of fracturing forever heard in the echo of lightening of the storm clouds threatening doom and in the rumble of their hunger pains.

Conclusion

How do we find stability in the midst of chaos and tumult? Do we really forego peace and comfort until our leaders figure it out? Do we run from each wave? Hide from the wind? I know there’s power finding stability in yourself, but it only lasts for so long. One strong gust or undulation and it topples. No material object can ever offer us the stability we so crave, all of it is of the dust and to dust it will return. There is no job, no amount of money, no home, no relationship secure enough to depend on no matter what. This is what we learned through skepticism: nothing is permanent; so, nothing is permanent. We are all one precarious moment from a free fall.

So, if nothing seems to satisfy, how do we navigate all this instability? We must look beyond ourselves and our consumption. We must be awakened to our deep-seated need and hunger for stability.

Dorothee Sölle writes this in her book, On Earth as in Heaven,

There is a spiritual that begins with the words, ‘Every time I feel the Spirit moving in my heart….’ When I hear this song, I ask myself when was the last time I felt the Spirit? And I would like to ask you: When was the last time you felt the Spirit move-on what occasion, where, why, when? The song ‘Every time I feel the Spirit moving in my heart’ awakens my spiritual hunger, the hunger without which we can, of course, vegetate but not live.[8]

Stability will always be found through and in awakened spiritual hunger, spiritual hunger and need for God. Spiritual hunger will bring us back—time and time again—to the age-old story of unconditional love, resurrected life, and present tense liberation.[9] It is here in this particular story where we are met and reminded of a covenant that runs steady, has no boundaries, and can safely carry us to solid ground over and over again.

Right now, I need God. Right now, God is my constant and my stability because God’s story never changes: God in Christ comes low to walk with those who are hungry, those who crave stability and whispers I will never leave you or forsake you, no matter how bad it gets no matter how scared you are, I am with you. It’s here where I’m brought further out of myself and my desperate attempts at false stability to find true stability…with you, because you are the beloved of God and God is where you are; God is where we are in the hunger.


[1] Levenson, “Genesis” The Jewish Study Bible, 16. “Knowledge of good and bad may be a merism, a figure of speech in which polar opposites denote a totality…But knowledge can have an experiential, not only an intellectual, sense in biblical Heb and ‘good and bad’ can mean either ‘weal and woe or ‘moral good and moral evil.’ The forbidden tree offers an experience that is both pleasant and painful; it awakens those who partake of it to the higher knowledge and to the pain that both come with moral choice.”

[2] Levenson, “Genesis”, The Jewish Study Bible, 16. “His question is tricky and does not admit of a yes-or-no answer. The woman, who has never heard the commandment directly (2.16-17), paraphrases it loosely. Why she adds the prohibition on touching the fruit is unclear…”

[3] Levenson, “Genesis” The Jewish Study Bible, 16-17. “Tragically, this praiseworthy act gave the snake his opening. ‘He touched the tree with his hands and his feet, and shook it until its fruits dropped to the ground,’ thus undermining the credibility of God’s entire commandment in the woman’s mind…”

[4] Levenson, “Genesis” The Jewish Study Bible, 17. “The serpent impugns God’s motives, attributing the command to jealousy. Whereas in the first creation account human beings are God-like creatures exercising dominion…here their ambition to be like God or like divine beings is the root of the expulsion from Eden.”

[5] LW 1 147. “For the chief temptation was to listen to another word and to depart from the one which God had previously spoken: that they would die if they ate from it.”

[6] LW 1 105. “This sermon was delivered on the sixth day; and if, as the text indicates, Adam alone heard it, he later on informed Eve of it.”

[7] LW 1 161.

[8] Sölle On Earth 93

[9] Sölle On Earth ix-x.

and The Sky Opens

Sermon on Genesis 9:8-17

Psalm 25:3-4 Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long.

Introduction

Some stories in the First Testament can cause grave internal turmoil. The first five books making up the Torah (the revelation of the law) of the Hebrew Scriptures reveals radical and at times seemingly chaotic stories of God’s relationship with the world, with humanity, and with Israel in specific. It’s no surprise then that “why?” often escapes our lips as we read these stories. Why would God divide humanity by confusing language? Why would God send a flood? Why would God allow Israel to be brought under captivity and thus into exile? Why would God open the ground and swallow not only the guilty Korah but his family as well? If God is a God of love, then Why? Why all this divine disaster and heavenly havoc?

These whys echo a fear living deep in subterranean crevices and crannies of our person and being. As we read these stories they poke and provoke this fear: would I be washed away? dropped into the pit? thrust into exile? destroyed by some theotic whim of a divine bad mood? These questions haunt us as we read through the first testament and contemplate the deeds and activity of God. Under all of it surges what feels like our eternal question on repeat: if God is love how is any of this destruction love?

We get lost in the details of the storied wrath of God and miss the overarching metanarrative of the love-story embedded in and told by the composite biblical story. Truly, because of our human experiences and our self-knowledge and the myths we believe about ourselves and our unloveliness, we identify with the ones swept away and dropped down and not the ones rescued or moved to safety; and these stories terrify us. The seemingly random righteous exceptionalism of Noah becomes the plumbline against which we are shown lacking. So, we get stuck in the flood and forget that the waters recede, we miss the rainbow for the raindrops, and we forget that which God brings to death is raised into new life.

Genesis 9:8-17

“God said to Noah and to his sons with him, ‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth…’”

Genesis 9:8-16

We all are familiar with the story of Noah, the flood, and the ark.[1] A flood of assumed divine origin washes the earth clean of the evil and wickedness that has stained the earth and taken up residence in human hearts. What is less familiar to many of us is that the flood story isn’t solely about God’s anger at evil and wickedness on the earth and in the heart. The flood is ultimately about God cleansing that which God loves. I know it may be hard to believe this especially considering the long tradition in the church of overemphasizing God’s anger over and against God’s love—even going to the extent of saying that God’s anger is God’s love, which is just an atrocity in theology causing spiritual trauma rather than trust.

The story about the flood and Noah and the ark isn’t ultimately about wrath but about love. Looking at the arch of the story line floating through the waters of the text, it’s the promise God makes here with Noah that is solid ground for the reader. The promise is the ultimate point, the flood is only the penultimate point. But we get confused; we get stuck in the waters and caught up with the rising tide of divine wrath and conclude that God is primarily angry and then if we are good God is loving. Rather, it’s that God is loving even when we are weak and frail and covered in wickedness and evil.

For the Israelites, the story of the flood represented not strictly God’s active pathos manifest in anger, but God relenting and promising: never again will I do this thing because humanity is weak. It’s in the flood story where God identifies and accepts the weakness of humanity[2] prone to mishearing, misunderstanding, and misstepping. And it’s in the rescue of Noah and his family, the divinely proclaimed upright, with whom God makes a covenant. This covenant is not strictly with Noah and his sons but with the entire world. From this point on, all of humanity is brought under the arching bow of color in the sky. The “offspring” of Noah is not strictly the Noahic family line sharing the same immediate mom and dad. Considering the story mentions that all humanity—save Noah and his family—was washed away in the flood, this means all humanity that now populates the earth are all Noah’s descendants.[3] By the time this story is formed and passed from story teller to story teller, generations upon generations are included in the covenant.[4] And not only humans, but animals (all of them) from the very, very big to the very, very small, are included in the divine spoken promise of never again.[5]

None of us here or any of our foremothers and forefathers knows a time when the covenant spoken between God and Noah—on behalf of the entire world and every living thing—didn’t exist. For as long as humans have been telling and sharing stories and eras before history could be recorded in writing, God promised never to come after wickedness and evil by washing out humanity unto death. Rather, from this moment on, when God comes after wickedness and evil, when God attends to human kingdoms and structures bent on destruction, and when God seeks us to mend us and heal our hearts, God will do so through God’s self. God will wash the earth and humanity and all creation through God’s love, God’s life, and God’s light. God will do so not by remaining remote but by coming near and intimately identifying with human suffering and weakness and frailty. God will take death into God’s own body and destroy it.

Conclusion

And the rainbow arcs across the sky forever carrying with it the reminder that the earth is not abandoned and won’t be abandoned.[6] The arch of colors scientifically explained, does not lose its mystery and absurdity.[7] While we know how rainbows happen, we don’t know why they need to happen. The world could exist just fine without them, but with our atmosphere and our sun we get to have rainbows. And in that mystery and absurdity we are pulled up out of ourselves as our gaze moves from our navel to that which is above. We are reminded that there is something beyond us, something outside of us, something we didn’t cause and didn’t create. It lies outside of our abilities and talents and paints the sky in beauty whether we’ve been good or bad. And, for those of us who travel this earth tracking with the Hebrew and Christian narratives, it’s a sign of comfort attached to the words of promise from God to Noah and all creation.[8] The rainbow is something tangible, reminding us: life wins, love wins, light wins.

The story of the flood reminds us that Love is triumphant as Life and Light revolt against death and darkness; and so, the story of the flood is foundational story of baptism. Death and darkness precede life and light. It is being submerged into the waters of baptism where we die and receive new life.[9] Baptism is the sign of divine encounter attached to the words of promise delivered to the world through the incarnate Christ. As Christ is raised from death, so too will we be as baptism is “joined with the promise of life.”[10] In the midst of the waters of earth of our baptism, the rainbow arch of the waters of the sky remind us God isn’t absent but present, not silent but beckoning us out and into new hope, new presence, and new life.

As we travel through the season of Lent and self-reckoning in the encounter with God in the event of faith, we are dropped to the bottom of the pit and swept up in the waves of water. The story of the flood reminds us that to this pit and these waters, God will not abandon us. To answer one of the questions of Psalm 88, “Do you work wonders for the dead?” (v 10a), the flood story answers with a resounding yes. And that yes is declared in the sky in manifold color of divine glory: death has not the final answer, life does.[11]


[1] This is a story. A story historicizing a natural disaster that demolished the livelihood of civilization in the “cradle of society” in the fertile crescent (which was prone to floods, and big ones). Was the entire earth covered by one flood? Most likely not. Was this local world swept up in waves of water? Most likely. The story of Noah and the arc isn’t all that unique; we find significant overlap with flood and boat story in the Epic of Gilgamesh. When humans experience a massive natural disaster, we try to make sense of it and at times we ascribe divine activity to it because somehow such a thing brings comfort to us: this wasn’t chaotic but controlled. There’s also a need to explain why some were washed away and others weren’t. When the planes hit the twin towers, I was in midtown. A few months earlier in 2001 I was working downtown; that path train trapped under the collapsed building? That was my normal path train. Because of an event that happened earlier in the year, I was not on that train. From here and coupled with survivor’s guilt and the absurdity of surviving, we craft stories. We can’t handle surviving things that others haven’t so we are prone to ascribe divine activity because it’s the only way to make sense of some seemingly so chaotic. So, we craft story and legend and pass them on as beautiful markers of our humanity. If you examine your own journey, you’ll similar instances of this behavior. For a similar story from the Utes, see the legend: “Rabbit Killed the Sun” which is a legend with significant imagery that seems to be speaking of (both) the solar eclipse that preceded the Clovis comet and the comet itself that hit the earth and decimated an entire people group.

[2] JPS Study Bible “Genesis” annotations by Jon D. Levenson. Eds Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler New York, NY: OUP 1999.

[3] JPS Study Bible Levenson

[4] Martin Luther Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 6-14. Luther’s Works vol 2 Ed Jaroslav Pelikan 144. Promise is not only for those people and those lives of that context and generation but for all generations “until the end of the world.”

[5] Luther Genesis 143-4 “Moreover, because the covenant of which this passage is speaking of involves not only mankind but every living soul, it must be understood, not of the promise of the Seed but of this physical life, which even the dumb animals enjoy in common with us: this God does not intend to destroy in the future by a flood.”

[6] Luther Genesis 146-7 “…this bow stands there by divine pleasure, because of the will and promise of God, to give assurance to both [humanity] and beast that no flood will ever take place at any future time.”

[7] Luther Genesis 146 Natural phenomenon with a divine application “…because of the Word of God, not because of some natural cause, the bow in the clouds has the meaning that no further flood will occur.” Natural phenomenon with a divine application “…because of the Word of God, not because of some natural cause, the bow in the clouds has the meaning that no further flood will occur.”

[8] Luther Genesis 144-5 “There was need for them to have a sign of life, from which they could learn God’s blessing and good will. For this is the particular nature of signs, that they dispense comfort, not terror. To this end also the sign of the bow was established and added to the promise.”

[9] Luther Genesis 153 “…Baptism and death are interchangeable terms in the Scripture. Therefore Paul says in Rom. 6:3: ‘As many of us has have been baptized, have been baptized into the death of Christ.’ Likewise, Christ says in Luke 12:50: ‘I have a Baptism to be baptized with, and how I am constrained until it is accomplished!’ And to His disciples He said (Mark 10:39): ‘You will be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized.’”

[10] Luther Genesis 153

[11] Luther Genesis 154-5 “This must be applied also to other trials. We must learn to disdain dangers and to have hope even when no hope appears to be left, so that when death or any other danger befalls us, we may encourage ourselves and say: ‘Behold, here is your Red Sea, your Flood, your baptism, and your death. Here your life…is barely a handbreadth away from death. But do not be afraid. This danger is like a handful of water, whereas through the Word you have a flood of grace. Therefore death will not destroy you but will be a thrust and aid toward life.’”

Zion Comes; The Christ is Born

Isaiah 53:1-10 (Sermon)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining

It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth

Long lay the world in sin and error pining

‘Til He appears and the Soul felt its worth

A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices

For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

vi Oh Holy Night 

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

viii Oh Holy Night