It is not pain and violence that God desires, says the preacher of Hebrews. It is human life as God created it to be, summoned it to be.
The Ten Commandents are prefaced not by an order but by a breathtaking announcement of freedom.
Do not look for this mountain on a Bible map. It juts out not from the topography of Galilee, but from the topography of God.
Sometimes I’m watching TV news and reach the point where I cannot take in all the violence and destruction. So I turn off the television and try to get involved in something that will take my mind off the news. God, however, does not have that option. God does not have a remote control to change the channels. God cannot move to the suburbs or close a door to hide from the violence. God’s eyes are not averted. God’s heart is not numbed.
I once lived in a village in Germany that lay at the foot of a mountain covered in deep forest. A narrow farm separated the houses from the forest, and a cemetery occupied a piece of land part way up the mountain. Sometimes on my daily walks I stopped at the cemetery. It was the busiest place in town.
How far had Lazarus traveled along the way of clarity, truth, and reality in those four days?
It is tempting to sit in judgment on others. Sometimes we do it in jest, as Mark Twain did when commenting on Adam. “Adam was but human—this explains it all. He did not want the apple for the apple’s sake, he wanted it only because it was forbidden. The mistake was in not forbidding the serpent; then he would have eaten the serpent.” But sometimes the serpent eats us, and then we judge in earnest.
Samuel, the Billy Graham of his day, was adviser to the political leader Saul, the Pete Rose of ancient Israel. Samuel anointed Saul to be the first king of Israel. But soon (to quote James Thurber), “confusion got its foot in the door” and went through the entire “system.” Samuel observed Saul disobeying the explicit word of God, and it became Samuel’s job to inform Saul that God had rejected him as king.
Chang Lee survived two brutal wars in his mother country, Korea. He lived through the dangers posed by Japanese bombs, Chinese howitzers, North Korean minefields and American carbines. But he did not survive an encounter with a mugger in the hallway of his own apartment in the U.S. He was brutally stabbed, and died at the age of 80. Chang Lee’s family were members of the parish I served in Queens.
An economic migrant—a desert nomad—leads his family toward a land of promise, believing he is following the will of his Creator. And so begins the great trek for new life, survival, redemption. He will find danger, so much danger that he plans to pass his wife off as his sister. It is a trek repeated today in the heat of the Sonoran desert, in boats from Africa running ashore in southern Europe, in the hulls of boats from Fujian province to the shores of Long Island.
Isaiah knew his congregation. His word from the Lord spoke into the chaos and confusion of a people who had suffered not only a disruption of life, but also a disrupted understanding of God. Their cherished expectations of what it meant to be the covenant people had crumbled along with the destroyed Jerusalem. God had allowed this destruction of their naïve theology, and now they were exiled from both the land and the notion that God would protect them. It was this befuddled congregation that assembled to hear Isaiah’s sermons.
Life is details—phones that keep ringing, e-mail that has to be returned, computers that crash, copy machines that jam, and children who are sick when we need to be at work. We struggle with the details of bodies that don’t work as they should, with doctors, specialists, medical tests and pills. Our children juggle homework, athletics, orthodontists and piano lessons. Then we all go to church on Sunday, and what do we find but more details?
"A man had two sons . . .” was a common way to begin a parable, especially one comparing good and bad sons. Matthew uses it to contrast one son, who promises to work in the vineyard but never shows up, with another, who at first adamantly refuses to go to the vineyard but later repents and goes (21:28-32). Which one did the will of his father, asks Jesus? Not the one who talked a good game, but the one who actually followed through with obedient actions.
God will forgive my sins,” quipped Heinrich Heine on his deathbed. “It’s his job.” How different are the viewpoints of Isaiah, Paul and Luke! They note an ongoing theological tension between the assurance of God’s kindness and the call to immediate repentance. Yes, God is merciful, not punishing as we deserve, not automatically correlating our misdeeds with disasters. But there is no room for complacency: if we think we’re standing, we should watch that we do not fall.