MESSAGE SHARED WITH JASPER UNITED CHURCH
I have concluded - over my years of seeking to be a faithful follower of Jesus that – that the best description of God is to say (as the letter writer of 1st John wrote) that "God is Love".
Agaph. Love without reserve. Love without condition.
Love (as God’s basic nature and hope for human behaviour) is found throughout the Bible. Our Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, was quick to point out that he understood that most important commandments in scripture are to Love God with our whole being and to Love our neighbours as we Love ourselves (Dt 6:5; Lev 19:18).
For me – when I am confused about what to believe – I default to this command to live out love of God, neighbour and self.
Agaph love is my litmus test for how to live out my faith.
I mention this because there are a few biblical narratives that I really struggle with.
The common denominators are times when God doesn’t seem to be practicing what God preaches (God not behaving in a loving way):
· The story of Abraham being told by God to kill (sacrifice to God) his son, Isaac, as a means of proving Abraham’ s faithfulness.
· Even a strict atonement theology of Jesus’ crucifixion is a struggle for me. It is premised that God requires a blood sacrifice in order to be right with God; Jesus was required to die to atone for the sins of humankind.
· And... then there is the story of the grand flood in which God decides that humanity’s wickedness is so widespread that all land life deserves to be wiped out.
Now, I know that in each of these stories, there is some hope and promise in the end – but I struggle getting past the cruelness that precedes the promise.
I think that my quandary points to a wider truth: it is hard to know and experience the reality of any hope or promise while we are lost in the midst of the struggle.
And yet... I know that there are some among us who are able to grasp onto that hope earlier than most. They are often the ones who can lead us out of struggle.
Recently, I was visiting with a woman in her late 60s who discovered that her chronically sore hips were not simply a result of wear and tear (and a sign that hip replacement surgery was on the horizon), but that a very aggressive cancer was growing in such a way that it was causing small fractures in the bones – making it painful for her to walk. Over the next three months, the cancer spread to her lungs and eventually to her brain. In a matter of only a few months she went from getting around her home with the help of a walker to being bed-ridden in three different hospitals and eventually confined to a full service seniors' lodge with no hope of living anywhere else for what was left of her life.
While her whole family (siblings, husband, adult children, grandchildren) struggled with this miserable turn of events, she was a beacon of calm.
I envied her ability to approach this news with far more gratitude for the blessings of her whole life than regret she had for how her life was going to end.
An attitude of gratitude is a powerful (and contagious) thing.
As a pastor…
I watched how her embracing of hope/promise/gratitude helped guide her family through this struggle. When I met with this family to plan her memorial service (two days after her death), there was sadness to be sure, but there was also an eagerness to truly celebrate her life at least as much as they were mourning her death.
Her attitude of gratitude had spread with the same veracity as her cancer.
That's how I want to go.
I do struggle with the examples of outright cruel depictions of God in parts of our scripture. But I also find myself guided out of these struggles by the dominance of welcome and compassion that pervades the totality of the history of the Hebrew people - and the ministry of the Hebrew teacher and healer, we know as Jesus of Nazareth.
I'm not fully at peace with my scriptural struggles, but I am able to grasp there is hope and promise after the struggle.
Thinking specifically about the Noah story, I have to say that I doubt very much that we are reading 'history' here. Like the other stories in the first eleven chapters of Genesis, the account of Noah is (in my mind) more of a mythical legend than an historical account. The purpose of these stories is to pave the way to understand the world we are living in now – not to share history.
· 'Let there be light' is not a story of how the earth was created, but relays a greater belief: that everything we know and experience has its origins in God.
· The accounts of Adam and Eve (and by extension, Cain and Abel) are not stories of the literal origin of our species, but express a belief that the existence of hard experiences under God's watch make sense some how - there is some logic (the ancient hebrews believed) behind: the difficulty of providing for the necessities of life (food, shelter, clothing); the reality of conflict and war – even among kin; and there is some logic behind the fact that childbirth is painful.
· The end purpose of the Noah story is not about the end of human wickedness (check out any news website - it has obviously endured), but to provide an origin story for rainbows. If it was God’s plan to end wickedness, we have to conclude that God failed miserably!
· And the Tower of Babel is a necessary story as a follow-up to the Noah tale, if we are to explain the existence of various languages and cultures that are clearly a world reality.
Grampa, if only Noah’s family survived the flood, how come there are so many languages in the world?
Well, once upon a time there was this city called Babel…
Now, let me be clear, just because I am NOT a biblical literalist about these stories does not mean that I reject the Bible. I may not take these legend parts of the Bible literally, but I take them very seriously.
To paraphrase the late, great Marcus Borg, 'we need to explore the bible as more than literal.'
And to borrow a quote from the late, great (and fictitious) Professor Albus Dumbledore, 'Of course its in your head, but why does that have to mean that it's not real.'
There is a valuable distinction between 'the truth' and 'a truth'.
Jesus knew that very well. He made up stories all the time that held a deeper message or learning for the people who were listening.
And so, I believe that the ancient hebrew storytellers of the first chapters of Genesis were expressing a truth even if they were not relaying true events.
I am heartened by the part of the Noah story, where God, too, struggled with the cruelty of the flood. In the passage we read today, God makes a binding newpromise (a covenant): "the waters will never again become a flood to destroy all flesh." It seems that it was not only the inhabitants of the arch who were trying to reach a time of new hope - to reach a new time: after the struggle of the devastating flood. God needed a new hope as well. When I first realized that, it was a very cool insight for me!
When I read today's passage about the covenant signed in the defused light of a rainbow, I hear a tinge of regret in the divine voice. I picture God reflecting on what had happened and thinking: There had to have been a better way. I won’t do that again.
From that point on in the biblical narrative, Acts of Covenant become the new way.
As we move into the more historically traceable parts of the Bible - beginning in Genesis, chapter 12, we can read about the Covenant between God and Abraham - a covenant that extends to all of Abraham's descents: I will be your God and you will be my people. And here is where Agaph enters the picture. God promises to be faithful to the covenant even when the people aren't.
As Christians, we know that Jesus speaks with his followers of a new (or renewed) Covenant.
Speaking of Jesus… today, we heard the gospel of Mark's version of the beginning of Jesus' ministry. A similar, but longer, version is also told in both Matthew and Luke.
There are three distinct parts of what we heard earlier:
1. Jesus leave Galilee and ends up being baptized by John,
2. Jesus spending 40 days in the Judean wilderness, and
3. Jesus returns to Galilee proclaiming good news.
We aren't given much detail of what drew Jesus to come to John. I know that Luke's gospel says that Jesus and John were distant cousins, but there is no indication that they really knew it each other. Mark and Matthew make no mention of a possible family connection.
To me, it makes the most sense to assume that Jesus may have had a similar attraction to John as the other pilgrims. John preached hope and promise through a recommitment to a relationship with God: "repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near" (Mt 3:2). People came to John to hear this message about forgiveness and to participate in a ritual to symbolize a commitment to a different way of living. "[They] came out to John and were baptized by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins." (Mk 1:4)
Jesus experienced this assurance of pardon is a wonderfully mystically way - he heard the voice of God affirming him: you are my belov`ed son; with you I am well pleased.
And yet, we can say this affirmation must came after some struggle within Jesus’ heart, mind and soul. Jesus must have had some personal need for this baptism of confession and forgiveness that brought him to John.
That can remind us of a braoder truth: admitting we are in need of a new start - a forgiveness - is often the hardest part of such a journey.
After the time with John, Jesus' has new struggles to face - he is inspired to go out into the wilderness for 40 days. It might bring to mind the vision quest tradition of some of the North American First Nations traditions.
It is fair for us to assume that this time was planned by Jesus - to be an opportunity to find a clarity of purpose: a cleansing and renewal of heart, soul and mind.
As I said earlier Mark is brief in his telling of this story other than to say it was a time of danger and spiritual temptation.
Mark also says that Jesus was not alone: God's messengers were with him. Later in this service, we we recite together the United Church Creed. I invite you to bring this story to mind, when we say together "God is with us. We are not alone."
After Jesus comes out of the wilderness, he experiences another struggle: John the Baptist is arrested.
Jesus responds to the incarceration of his mentor, but committing himself to his own version of John’s ministry.
We should notice that the language of ‘good news’ that Jesus uses in Galilee is pretty much exactly the same as John had used in Judea: Repent, the kingdom of God/Heaven has come near!
There is not one of us who lives any reasonable length of years, who avoids living in the midst of some degree of struggle. Sadly, some of us are deeply afflicted with times of struggle.
The promise in our scriptures today is that there is hope for a time after the struggle.
And as we live within the struggle, we can be emboldened by the lasting covenant – we are God’s people.
We are not alone.
God is with us.
Thanks be to God.
Let us pray:
O God, lead us when we are in the wilderness. In the struggle, we long to know you, hear you, rely on you. Lead us when we come out of the wilderness to proclaim your good news. Amen.
“Jesus Tempted in the Desert”