What can we say March 13?

March 4th, 2022

Genesis 15:1-18. Some preaching moral in this: Abraham is promised he’ll be the ancestor of a multitude. Having no children, he adopts Eliezer—taking the promise into his own hands. Understandable: doing what you can to fulfill God’s way. Is there some Bible principle of God’s will being beyond what we can achieve ourselves?

This isn’t, let’s be sure to say, about having a child as one’s lifelong wish. It’s about God’s promise for how to save humanity. His questions directed to God are lovely—inviting ours!—and they aren’t unbelief. “Faith seeks to understand, and hope yearns to see the way toward fulfillment”—not visible or even possible just now. That’s Walter Brueggemann, who continues: “Trusting is not the cause of fulfillment. Yet it is clear that only those who hope will be given the gift. This is learned not as a theoretical matter for as an experience of God’s grace.”

Fascinating: in God’s threefold promise to Abraham in Genesis 12, the land will need heirs, and the heirs will need land. How problematical this promise of the land has been, given tensions over Israel/Palestine over many centuries. Abraham could never have guessed, as he’d have assumed coming up with some heirs was a nightmare, a dark future impossibility.

God invites Abraham to count the stars. I love this moment, being a lifelong stargazer—and star-lamenter, as ambient light has crowded out the vast majority of stars earlier generations could see. Just imagine how many, quite literally uncountable stars Abraham could have glimpsed looking upward!

And then the bizarre, vivid, unforgettable scene of carved up animal carcasses, Abraham swooshing birds of prey away, the smoking fire and the torch! Commentators might speak of ancient rituals, but for me it’s just reporting on this, not in a go-thou-and-do-likewise mode, but just in awe of whatever it was Abraham did back in the Bronze Age. Some preaching is like this.

Psalm 27. I love the way Ellen Charry (in her terrific Brazos commentary) notes that in Psalm 25 the Psalmist pleads for forgiveness, Psalm 26 proclaims he has relocated himself, and then Psalm 27 takes his life a step further: “These 3 psalms provide snapshots of progress in the spiritual life.” If our people read through the Psalms, they might notice or benefit from such an astute observation.

Our Psalmist is afraid of nothing, now that he is fully enveloped by God. Notice the shifts: the Psalmist talks to fellow worshippers, then to God, then to them. “One can almost see his human audience watching expectantly as he turns his body now toward them, now away toward God, and back to them again.”

Our minds are drawn to the temple in Israel, where buildings weren’t functional, but theological. The very building, the way the windows let light against brass plates on the walls just as worshippers entered in awe, re-created the beauty that is God! St. Augustine suggested that the Lord’s dwelling place ultimate is the believer. I want to be God’s temple. I already am, if Paul was right (1 Corinthians 6:19). 

Hans Urs von Balthasar suggested something similar: “Each of us is built like a tabernacle around a most sacred mystery… But this sanctuary is neglected and forgotten, like an overgrown tomb or an attic choked with rubbish, and it needs an effort to clean it up and make it habitable… But the room does not need to be built. It is already there.”

Preachers would be wise in all their preaching to contemplate beauty. This Psalm explicitly seeks the beauty of the Lord, the beauty that is the Lord. Could Dostoevsky be right—that “the world will be saved by beauty”? What else might? It’s the best counter to fear. Wendy Farley, pondering environmental and racial questions that plague us, shrewdly suggested that “These are not political matters but spiritual ones. We cannot retain our humanity in dark times if we do not discover the inner resources to live with nobility, compassion and justice. If we reignite our ardor for the divine Beloved and fall in love with the beauty of all created beings, we will be inspired to act well.” Check out my great podcast with her on God and beauty!

I’ve fixated on this particular Psalm for years, but am only now reading it slowly enough to pause over the word “inquire.” In the sacred place of worship, we are to “inquire,” not consume, not judge, not be entertained, not to feel better, but to inquire, to ask, to look deeply into things.

Ten years ago, Lauren Winner (in Christian Century, excerpted from her book Still) reported on her obsessive worrying, and suggested giving up anxiety for Lent. Seems ridiculous, or impossible—but then she quotes Martin Luther’s thought on an anxious woman he knew: “Her illness is not for the apothecaries, but it requires the powerful plasters of the Scriptures.” So she recited regularly throughout the day things like “O God of peace, in returning and rest we shall be saved.” I printed this on a card, and on the flip side words from Psalm 27, “Set me on a rock higher than I.” It’s not that simple, of course, but baby steps, these scriptural plasters.

Philippians 3:17-4:1. I love that Paul isn’t angry, but is in tears contemplating the “enemies of the cross.” What qualifies as such an enemy? Not one of the alternate political ideology, or of another religion. It is those for whom “their God is their belly, glory is their shame, mind set on earthly things.” What could be more preachable in our consumer culture? 

Notice how natural having your belly, your appetites, your desire as your god? And how easily this slide toward god-as-belly happens! 

Paul is writing, we may remember, to Christians in Philippi, the “Little Italy” of ancient times, where veterans of Roman wars were relocated in retirement! These guys vested much in their citizenship in Rome, even though they lived in Greece. But for Christians, it’s not a dual citizenship—which most Christians today fantasize they can fulfill, participating fully in American life and in the kingdom of God. Stephen Fowl put it well: “Paul does not call the Philippians to a dual citizenship. Rather, he calls them out of a false politics ruled by a false savior and directed by an earthbound practical reason into a new political body ruled by the Lord Jesus Christ, the true Savior.”

Luke 13:31-35 is so insightful! Jesus is warned that “Herod wants to kill you.” We’d run and hide! Jesus isn’t done, he has healing and teaching—and being crucified—to do. He’s warned here by “some Pharisees.” Startling really. Are these the rare friendly Pharisees? Or are they just taunting him? Gotta love Jesus’ cocky pluck: “Go tell that fox…” Not complimentary! Foxes: wily, and dangerous, yet not brilliant. 

Bruce Chilton's new book on The Herods is long, and helpful. Herod the Great, murderous and paranoid, is long dead. We're dealing now with Herod Antipas. He's not as "great," as after Herod the Great's death, Antipas failed to garner all his territory - so he's a little defensive, still proving himself? Eager for power, he married Herodias, a Maccabean heiress, hoping to impress Rome's new emperor Tiberius. But she was already married to his brother Philip. Maybe worse, he constructed a new capital city, Tiberias, named for the emperor (flattery!), but built on an old Jewish cemetery—doubly unclean! John the Baptist was critical, and Antipas eliminated him—and then went (logically) after Jesus, whose message echoed John's, and who was drawing to himself members of Herod Antipas's court (like the wife of Chuza, Herod's treasurer living in the palace—see Luke 8).

Jesus, more than once, laments over Jerusalem. Here, he’s not there—yet. And still he ponders the divine calling, the holy vocation of that city of cities—and he can only weep in regret, sorrow, grief over its failure, and how that very failure will be his own undoing! Jesus, almost like a modern person, riffs on a feminine image for God. A hen gathering her chicks under her wings. Sobering: a hen might be able to save a chick or two—but not all, if any against a raging fire! Jesus’ project isn’t about the comfort or safety of his people. It’s risky, dangerous, painful, costly.

Does the preacher engage in a lament over her/his own city? How do we capture God’s, Jesus’, our grief over holy destiny squandered? Over divine vocation left unfulfilled?

comments powered by Disqus