Monday, January 25, 2010

No Room for a Vengeful God

I had no interwebs last night, so this has already been preachified. Click here for the "Far Side" cartoon I reference.

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the LORD had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.
And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, "Amen, Amen," lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.
So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, "This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep." For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law.
Then he said to them, "Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength."

Luke 4:14-21
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

This is the Word of the Lord.

Let me ask you a question: in your understanding, your interpretation, your belief system, what kind of God is Yahweh, the Judeo-Christian God?

Is your understanding of God similar to a “Far Side” cartoon several years back, where Gary Larsen depicted the Almighty as a man with flowing white hair and beard (of course), watching on a computer monitor as a man walked under a piano that workers were hoisting to an upper floor, God's finger all the time poised over a big button labeled “SMITE?” Like some on the extreme of Christian popular culture, do you believe that unless you say the right prayers and worship and think and vote the right way, then God will surely smite you?

Do you believe that 9/11, Katrina, and the earthquake in Haiti were all God's payback, and that God has is and will continue to smite all those who are not walking in theological lock-step with our particular understanding of God?

Now I know that I am grievously oversimplifying, and that none of us here this morning would answer “yes” to this caricature of theology. But isn't their room in Christian theology, indeed, is there not an imperative in Christian theology, for a vengeful, angry God who will punish wrongdoing and wreak vengeance on our enemies? Now, I am not going to answer that question this morning. What I am going to do is prayerfully and carefully explore the idea that, based mainly on our Gospel reading this morning, the answer to that question is “no.”

Jesus has returned to his home town of Nazareth. He's beginning to develop a name for himself, and every one of the two hundred or so residents is curious to see what Jesus has to say – after all, everyone knew all about Jesus, and about that cockamamie story his mother had made up to try and explain away this illegitimate child. Honestly, now, an angel? Really, Mary? You can't do any better than that, and yet poor old Joseph, God rest his soul, bought it hook, line, and sinker. Well, I know Jesus quite well enough, thank you.

Of course, I never let my children play with him, one simply doesn't associate with those kinds of people, but I've seen him around, and let me tell you, I've always known he was up to something, those kinds always are. We'll just go see what he has to say for himself!

All eyes are on Jesus as he takes the scroll of Isaiah and unfurls it to the section we know as Chapter 61, and begins to read. It is a familiar passage, and one can imagine almost everyone's lips moving in silent recitation. But something happens that day that is jarring, upsetting, disconcerting. Here, again, is what Jesus reads: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.”

While it is true that the Scriptures didn't have punctuation in those days; in fact, spaces between words was a foreign concept in most if not all written languages of the time, I can guarantee that where our Gospel passage places the period in Jesus' reading of Isaiah, no punctuation was intended or implied, and here's how I can prove it: The word which immediately follows the phrase “ proclaim the year of the Lord's favor" is “and.” “ proclaim the year of the Lord's favor and the day of vengeance of our God...”

If you ever want to drive a trained musician crazy, leave a chord unresolved. I don't know if the church has ever done the threefold “Amen,” but it's a good example of how chords are resolved. (Sing it) Now, if I were to sing only “Amen,” and go sit down, there are some of us in this congregation who would immediately start to twitch because there's this chord hanging out there that is begging to be resolved. Sooner or later, someone would have to sing “AMEN, AA-AAA-AA-AAMENNN” just to calm down!

And what Jesus has done right here appears to be the Scriptural equivalent of the unresolved chord. Every mouth is silently forming the word “and” while, inexplicably, Jesus simply rolls up Isaiah and hands it back! Um, hello? “And?” Um, there's more there, “the-day-of-vengeance-of-our-God” you know? He's putting the scroll back? No, there's more you gotta read! Come on!

Instead Jesus assumes the position of the teacher and simply says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

This scripture: Good news, release, recovery, freedom, favor.

But what about my enemies? Elsewhere in the Gospels, we learn that we are to love them.
What about those who persist in sinning? Elsewhere in the Gospels, we learn that we are to forgive them. What about those who are different, who do not worship or believe or think or act as we do – the Gentiles and Samaritans? Elsewhere in Scripture, we learn that we are to include them. It is, after all, no mistake that the woman caught in the act of adultery is forgiven, no mere chance that one of the earliest converts to what would become known as Christianity is a eunuch, no mere aberration that the star of one of Jesus' best-known parables is a Samaritan.

Yet isn't it fascinating that with all of this, Jesus had not changed a word of the Scripture – hadn't rearranged the sentences, hadn't altered the overall sentence structure beyond one simple punctuation mark? With a simple period, Jesus turned everything those Nazarenes knew about God, and the entire theology of an ancient culture, on its head... but Jesus did not change God.

God has always been in the business of redemption, restoration, and second chances. In our Old Testament reading, we can marvel at a group of people listening to the Bible being read for six straight hours, but we can miss the fact that for the vast majority of those listening to Ezra and Nehemiah and the Levites were hearing the words of God's Law, the foundation of their culture and the focal point of their almost-forgotten faith, for the very first time.
These were exiles restored to their homeland, residents of a city freshly rebuilt from ruins, followers of a God they had never – until now – met. They ate and drank in celebration of their redemption – their second chance.

Jesus did not change God, who, hundreds of years before Christ was born, proclaim that sacrifices were a poor substitute for mercy, who elsewhere proclaimed that justice, mercy, and humility were the sole requirements, who for the entirety of the existence of the Law of Moses had insisted that strangers and aliens be not distrusted or hated or mistreated but welcomed and cared for and respected.

Jesus did not change God. With a simple punctuation mark, Jesus changed the way we look at God, at Scripture, at those who are like us, at those who are different, at those who we love and who love us, and at those we consider our enemies: henceforth we see all of these things through the prism of the Cross.

The Cross is, after all, God's ultimate answer to and for humanity – redemption through the blood of Christ, reconciliation through his suffering, healing by the stripes he bore, power and victory over death through the Resurrection. Jesus did not change God. Jesus changes us.

I said at the beginning that I wasn't going to answer the question about Christianity and the concept of a vengeful God. Instead, I'm going to change the question. With the Cross as our standard, with our moral imperative set to attaining Christ-likeness – the Christ who calls us to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor – how can there be room at all, anywhere in our lives, for belief in a vengeful, angry God who will punish wrongdoing and wreak vengeance on our enemies?

Let us pray.

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