Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Imagining A God Without Violence: Sermon for the First Sunday After the Epiphany

In today’s Scripture readings we hear echoes of two very different ways of describing God.  These differing descriptions serve to illustrate the development of human imagining about God over the course of the biblical traditions.  They are a mirror in which we can see our own struggle to come to see God with new eyes.  Like our biblical ancestors, all of us are still growing in our capacity to see with the eyes of faith.

The lesson from Isaiah represents a break-through moment in the history of biblical religion.  Here, we are given an imagining of God without violence; a God who, rather than being the agent of violence, offers solidarity with the victims of violence.  It comes in the juxtaposition of the traditional logic of divine punishment with a pronouncement of mercy that collapses the old god of violence into an abyss of compassion.

Listen to the difference.  First the old god of violent retribution from Isaiah 42:24-25:

Who gave up Jacob to the spoiler,
    and Israel to the robbers?
Was it not the Lord, against whom we have sinned,
    in whose ways they would not walk,
    and whose law they would not obey?
 So he poured upon him the heat of his anger
    and the fury of war;
it set him on fire all around, but he did not understand;
    it burned him, but he did not take it to heart.

Israel sinned against god, refusing to keep covenant with him, and so Israel is punished with war and exile. Earlier, the prophet tells us that the people of Israel are deaf and blind to God’s word, and remain obstinately so even after their punishment. 

“But now thus says the Lord,” in Isaiah 43:1-4 – and this is a big “but” –

But now thus says the Lord,
    he who created you, O Jacob,
    he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
    I have called you by name, you are mine.
 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
    and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
    and the flame shall not consume you.
 For I am the Lord your God,
    the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
    Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
Because you are precious in my sight,
    and honored, and I love you,
I give people in return for you,
    nations in exchange for your life.

But now God is imagined as the go’el, the advocate and redeemer of his people who have become victims of history.  Now, God is not the source of violence but rather the savior from violence:  who walks with the people in a new Exodus through the water from exile into promise.  This is a God in solidarity with victims, one who protects them from the fires the beset them rather than igniting the flames that consume them. 

Is this one and the same God?  Is it God who is changing, or is it our perception of God that us undergoing a breakthrough, a seismic shift in awareness?  The prophet in this middle section of the Book of Isaiah heightens the tension between these images of God until they reach the breaking point, revealing a God of compassionate presence whose love embraces us in the depths of our brokenness, regardless of whether we deserve it or not.

Yet, there is this curious business of exchange in the text: “I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you . . . I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life.”  Is this simply the exchange of one set of victims for another?  With whom is God trading, anyway?  Here, I think we again see the tension in our language about God brought to the breaking point.  The prophet uses the analogy of a relative ransoming their family member from slavery.  What is at stake is neither some metaphysical transaction within the Godhead, nor a literal trade – “I’ll give you 6 million Egyptians and see you 2 million Ethiopians for the Jewish exiles” – but rather a poetic statement of the vastness of God’s love, the willingness to go to any lengths to makes us whole again. 

One commentator notes that the Hebrew word translated as “people” in “I give people in return for you,” is actually singular: “I give a man in return for you.”[i]  Is it possible that this slight textual clue signals a relationship to the “suffering servant” of Isaiah 42:1-4 and 53:7-9, the one who redeems evil through his nonviolent witness to justice:

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
    my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
    he will bring forth justice to the nations.
 He will not cry or lift up his voice,
    or make it heard in the street;
 a bruised reed he will not break,
    and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
    he will faithfully bring forth justice.
 He will not grow faint or be crushed
    until he has established justice in the earth;
    and the coastlands wait for his teaching . . .

 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
    yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
    and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
    so he did not open his mouth.
By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
    Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
    stricken for the transgression of my people.
They made his grave with the wicked
    and his tomb with the rich,
although he had done no violence,
    and there was no deceit in his mouth.

The writers of the New Testament drew on these passages from Isaiah to make sense of their experience of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, which opened up for them a new imagining of God as boundless love without the prophet’s ambivalence toward divine violence.  

Of course, traces of that ambivalence remain in the New Testament.  We see it John the Baptist’s anticipation of Jesus in Luke 2:11-12: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Interestingly, Luke’s Gospel seeks to put some distance between John the Baptist and Jesus.  The omitted portion of today’s Gospel passage reports the arrest and imprisonment of John.  Jesus is baptized, but by whom we are not told.  Yes, Jesus takes up the prophetic tradition of Israel, like John, but he takes it in a different direction.  When Jesus is baptized, the Holy Spirit is there, but there is no fire.  The Spirit takes the form of dove, a symbol of peaceful generativity.  Jesus comes to spread peace, not fire; except, perhaps, the fire of God’s love.    

We are still learning to imagine God as boundless love, free from our violence; and let’s make it clear, it is our violence that scars history, not God’s.  The other day I saw a meme on Facebook that I posted on our parish page.  It is a cartoon showing a row of characters:  an American right-wing terrorist holding a rifle; a preacher holding a sign that says “God hates fags”; an African general clutching a boy soldier with a gun in his hand; an ISIL terrorist holding a knife to the throat of a blindfolded captive; above each of them was a though bubble with the words, “I am doing God’s will.”  

Fundamentalism in all its forms is always a regression to the old gods of sacrificial violence. Authentic spirituality follows the trajectory of the developing consciousness of a God of boundless love that we see in the biblical traditions. Nurturing that consciousness and allowing it to shape our identity and action is our life's work.

As Tony Bartlett observes in his reflection on our passage from Isaiah:

“In Isaiah's prophecy we reach the thought of eternity only through love and that is what it is, boundless love. The great affirmation of the uniqueness and eternity of Israel's God only comes from a revelation of love which is the end of the cultural gods of violence. Only, but precisely, on this basis is the Judaeo-Christian tradition entitled to claim the exclusive truth of their God. Conversely, therefore, Christians must understand that they can only make this claim by acknowledging the full pathway of revelation . . . from the penultimate God of penal justice to the God of boundless love. It means as Christians we assume ownership of the anthropological progression described in the bible. We are the people who have been brought through this long travail to see ourselves and the world differently, to have new eyes. We are like Neo in the Matrix movie who sees not just the surface appearance of people but the codes that make up their complex violence. The ability to see is the gift of God.” [ii]

May God grant us eyes to see.

[i] Tony Bartlett, http://www.preachingpeace.org/images/2ndIsaiah%2842.18-43.12%29.pdf
[ii] Ibid.