Saturday, February 27, 2016
February 28, Lent 3, Will the Real Jesus Stand Up #2: Not Blaming
The gospel and epistle lessons are not well known, because they’re not well liked, because they’re judgmental. Of course, it’s Lent, and judgment is indicated. But the lesson from Exodus is a high point of the Torah. For the first time in human hearing, God reveals God’s personal name.
It’s a strange name, almost a riddle. It’s four Hebrew consonants, “y-h v-h,” two forms of the verb “to be,” both forms having multiple mutations, so that no one knows which way to pronounce it, a play on words, “I be as I am, I am as I be,” a play on Being, a problem of symbolic logic, an equation, remarkably not unlike E=MC2 [sic], “my energy is my identity in dynamic constancy.”
A name impossible to capture, as free as light, as fast as the speed-of-light-squared, and yet as constant as light, constancy-squared, faithfulness multiplied by faithfulness, the freely living energy behind the universe now bending down to the cry of the suffering slaves in Egypt. Will the real God please stand up–and deliver us! How can this not be one of our favorites lessons in the Bible?
Of course the passage raises problems. Why did God wait so long during their suffering? What about all the other suffering slaves in other empires on the planet? What about the Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites already inhabiting the land where God will resettle the Israelites? Are the other nations all just nothing to God? These problems are among those the New Testament attempts to solve. So for now let’s hold those problems off in order to discern the gospel that is in this story.
This God is a responder. This God hears the cry of the suffering and is moved by it. This God is not the unaffected deity of philosophy, not the unmoved mover of so much Christian theology, not the blissful transcendent Unknowing of New Age religion. This God is emotional, this God is moved, like a mother who is moved by the crying of her child. It’s remarkable that God is not the initiator here. It’s the suffering slaves who are the initiators. It’s their crying that gets it all going, and God responds. That this raises philosophical problems with the concept of a transcendental and universal God is not a concern of the Torah.
This God who is moved becomes a mover of events. This God becomes a character in the story. This God is not the still and blissful ground of being, nor the absolute absence of desire. This God gets angry and even violent. This God takes sides. This God is on the side of the Israelites and not on the side of the Egyptians. This God is on the side of the suffering and the poor, and not on the side of the healthy, wealthy, and wise.
You might have heard of Liberation Theology. It arose in Latin America, when some Roman Catholic theologians said that the Gospel requires not just mercy for the poor but liberation, and justice, and that justice meant judgment on those in power. The Liberation Theologians were condemned by Rome as Communists, but they appealed to the story of the Exodus, wherein God took the side of the poor against the government oppressing them. The liberation of some means the judgment of others, because if God is for, then God is also against, and against not just individual sin.
I may tell you that it’s now part of the official doctrine of the Reformed Church in America that God is "in a special way the God of the poor and the oppressed," and that the church is called to bear witness against any system of political economy that keeps people poor and or even unintentionally oppresses them. This became part of our official doctrine recently when we adopted the Belhar Confession from South Africa, a Confession against the political and economic system of Apartheid.
The Belhar Confession does not say that the church should advocate for any one system of political economy, but that to every system of political economy the church bears witness to the judgments of God, including the church’s own complicity with such systems. We accept the judgment on ourselves. The point is not to blame, but to bear witness to what God says and what God wants.
Now let’s move to our gospel lesson. I believe the story opens with a misunderstanding. Some people are warning Jesus because they assume he wants to lead a revolution of liberation from the Romans, and the last time any Galileans tried that, they were gruesomely punished by Pontius Pilate, and God did not protect them. So God must have been against them—they must have been sinners.
Jesus does not speak to their concern about his supposed revolution. They don’t get him. But they don’t get God either, and that’s what Jesus speaks to. Don’t blame God for what happened to those patriots. This is just what the Romans do, and they’ll do it to you too if you act like that. Don’t blame God for that tower falling down upon those pilgrims. Towers poorly constructed fall down.
God does not stop the world from being the world. The Romans are a problem, but if you think the Romans are the real problem, if you think that God’s whole purpose in the world is your political independence, then you’re going to be disappointed when God does not support your war of independence and you end up losing everything, even the Temple, and even Jerusalem itself. As it turns out they did two generations later.
Yes, there is a judgment here, a judgment from the Lord Jesus. Only it’s not against them whom we regard as enemies, but against us who are God’s people. Well, it’s Lent, and God’s judgment on us is indicated. This is the season of self-examination. Don’t get distracted by blaming others for your troubles, it’s time to look at yourself. The love of God is not the indulgence of God. God is your lover but not your accomplice. So this is necessary information—the judgment in our lessons for today. Lent is the season when we welcome unwelcome information.
This information is what St. Paul in our epistle means by “testing.” The testing that God sends us is not by means of God sending us troubles and suffering. If God did that in the Old Testament, that’s come to an end in Jesus Christ. So if you get sick, that is not God testing you. That is simply your having a physical body and sharing a world with bacteria and viruses, or sharing a country with people who have guns and use them. You can be a very good person and get sick, or have troubles social and emotional, and likewise you can be an unbeliever with a very nice charmed life.
These are not rewards from God or punishments, and you are not told why things happen to you the way they do, even though some Christians are always trying to identify such and such as God’s will. My father never did. Your troubles are not God testing you. The testing that God sends you is quite simply the information in God’s word: This is what God expects, this is what God prefers, this is what God intends for you, and how do you stand up? You are to live in peace. You are to love your neighbor as yourself. How do you respond?
For in the very testing is the invitation. That’s what St. Paul means by “the way out” that God always provides. That’s why God offers you the information. It is an offering. The judgments of God are not punishments but challenges, and they are open-ended. Listen to the gardener in the parable: “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.” And you know what manure is. I will not say it here. The word in Greek means a four-letter word in English, and I don’t mean “poop.” It’s the word as in, “blank happens.”
God will not spare you from the blank that happens, God allows it. But the gardener digs around you and gives you space. For another year. And in the strange and gracious calendar of the Bible, it’s always one more year, God always gives you one more year no matter how many years you have wasted, it’s always Today. God is always gracious. The invitation never fails no matter how often you refuse it.
I don’t have a take-home for you today except to encourage you to your Lenten repentance. And you can repent in full security. Because while God does judge what God never does is blame you. God doesn’t need to. We resort to blame when things go bad, we blame to try to get excused. God never resorts to blame when things go bad, God never needs to be excused, what God does is enter into the badness and accept it on God’s self. Why would you blame if you’re a fountain of constant and overflowing love?
You can repent in full safety and security because God is on your side, God is never against you even in the judgment. This is the God who is totally free but always faithful, the God who can never be captured but is never capricious, the God who can’t be confined by even the most exalted philosophy of religion but who is captured by the crying of the slaves, the Son of Man whom you will find among the prisoners, and the Son of God who takes his place among the poor.
This God is as free as light and as constant as light. This God is fully free of you but always faithful to you, and the combination of such absolute freedom and absolute fidelity is what we mean by Love. Freedom and fidelity together equal love. The reason that you repent in Lent is to open yourself fully to God’s love.
Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.