Beware: God at Work
Most religious folk have some inkling that God is there – doing something. The questions are what and how. For many supernaturalists, God is always busy – turning off the lights when needed, making sure the tides come in and out, and heal their every ailment. For the Deists in our midst, God is largely finished. God is or was the “first cause,” and since things have been set in motion, God is largely absent. OK, maybe God does step in once in a while to tweak things.
For those of us who recognize the input of modern science, the idea of an interventionist God is something of a problem. Indeed, if God steps in to heal my cold, then why couldn’t God step in and prevent the holocaust. The whole issue of evil compromises our efforts to embrace a God at work. My panentheist friends suggest that God is in the system – always, and thus not intervening, simply inviting reality to move in a Godward direction. I’m attracted to this message, but my Barthian self desires at least a bit of divine transcendence. So it is with this sense of mixed feelings that I come to the texts for this week – texts that invite us to consider the work of God in our midst.
The call of Jeremiah is powerful. Before you were born knew you and called you. Jeremiah had no choice it seems. His destiny was written from the start. But, Jeremiah is so sure. I’m a child. I don’t how to speak. I’m not ready. You’ve made a mistake – go elsewhere! But God is relentless. No, you are gifted. So use your gifts. And don’t worry I’m there with you. We may not be able to define how God is present, but the promise is there. Don’t be afraid – I am with you. So speak the words that I provide you. Make them known. And if you read Jeremiah, you know that the words he must proclaim aren’t easy ones and won’t be easily received. There is reason to be afraid. Every preacher knows this feeling. You face an audience, people whom you love (perhaps), and you have received in your reading of scripture and reflections on the world, a word you believe is from God. And yet it’s difficult to get it out. You could get fired. I’ve been forced to resign – so I know the feeling. I may hold back at times – but God says to Jeremiah – don’t hold back. I’ve given you the words. I’ve appointed you over nations and empires – not as a political ruler – but as my representative, to remind the recalcitrant that God can and will dig up, pull down, destroy, and demolish. But God can and will also build and plant. These are difficult words, but I see the message. In postmodern thought, there is the idea of deconstruction. Old thoughts and ways of doing things need to be analyzed and deconstructed. But if all we do is deconstruct, then we have failed in our calling. For deconstruction must lead to reconstruction. Sometimes things need to be take apart, but a room full of auto parts doesn’t make a car! You have to put everything back together – and that is part of Jeremiah’s responsibility.
Whenever we read the Book of Hebrews we must do so with great caution. There is a temptation to read it in a supersessionist manner, assuming that in Jesus the old (Judaism) is now passé and rejected, replaced by a better model. Hebrews can and is read that way, but I have been sensitized to be careful about such things – especially in my encounters with the works of Ron Allen and Clark Williamson. So with a degree of fear and trembling, we come to this passage where the author contrasts the old and new. Once you weren’t allowed to come near God’s holy mountain. Even Moses was afraid. But now you have the opportunity to draw near to Mount Zion – to enter the presence of God and God’s assembly. Jesus is portrayed here as the one who mediates this new covenant that allows for the people to draw near, and actually experience the presence of God.
There is in this passage a strong word of judgment. Don’t resist the Word that comes from God. You can’t escape if you reject the heavenly warning. Remember that God’s voice shakes the earth and God is a consuming fire. There is reason to be afraid, and yet there is hope – that which is not shaken, that which is not burned survives. God’s realm is such a place. It is the place God is building. It is a place we can enter through Christ. So, what is the take away? Is it not a call to live life in such away as to affirm that which is most valuable? Is it not a call to ask the question – where is God at work? What lasts? What fades away? Should we not choose that which lasts – that which has eternal value? Things pass away, love and relationships they endure.
We can live our lives according to the rules and regulations, never stepping beyond the bounds of the law. We live as “strict constructionists.” Sometimes, in doing so, we miss seeing what God is doing in our midst. Indeed, we can suppress the work of God. We can also misunderstand God’s gifts.
In Luke 13, Jesus is preaching in the synagogue. It’s the Sabbath and the people are doing what you should do on the Sabbath – they’re in worship. While he preaches a woman a disability, which Luke attributes to a spirit, is present in the service. It doesn’t say that she approached him or asked for his help. She’s just there. Jesus notices her condition – she’s bent over and can’t stand up straight. She’s been this way for eighteen years – that’s a long time to be experiencing what has to be a horrible and painful existence. Jesus looks at her and places his hands on her and says: “Woman, you are free from your sickness” (vs. 12 CEB). And instantly, she stands up straight and she praises God. To get a sense of what this might look like, think of a Pentecostal healing service. When people are set free of whatever binds them, they always seem to want to jump around and shout. She’s happy. She’s free. What would you do in her situation?
Well, the leader of the synagogue is none too pleased. Such things aren’t to happen in the dignified setting that is worship. Can you envision a guest preacher visiting a church, a church that believes that things should be done decently and in order? Can you envision that preacher coming down out of the pulpit and laying hands on one of the members who happens to be sick or injured? And causes a ruckus by setting the person free from their situation? Is there not a time and a place for such things – outside the bounds of the service? Yes, shouldn’t we be concerned about proper decorum? Back in the early 1900s, when Pentecostalism emerged after the Azusa Street Revival, many good church people were scandalized by the behavior of the people. And yet, people’s lives were changed. They felt the presence and work of God in their midst.
In the reading from Hebrews we hear a word about focusing on what lasts, what is eternal. In this reading from Luke, when the leader of the synagogue objects to this healing on the grounds that there are six days upon which one can do work there is no need to break decorum to take care of this situation. After all, it’s not as if one more day with this disability would make a difference. After eighteen years, what’s few more hours? Jesus doesn’t say it in this moment, but in his response, I do him say – “Today is the day of salvation.” What Jesus does is remind the leader that some work gets done on the Sabbath. If one’s donkey or ox needs watering, you will untie the animal. If you can make allowance for an animal to be sustained, can you not make allowance for this woman to be set free? Yes, why wait one more day, when today is the day of salvation, the day of wholeness? The leader has no response accept feel the shame that he didn’t value that which is eternal – the joy of freedom. He had objected to this act of God that led to the praise of God. As we hear this word, where have we placed ourselves in the position of the synagogue leader and suppressed the work of God’s Spirit?
In these passages we are reminded that God is at work. Sabbath is good. We need to stop and rest. We need to trust our lives to God’s care – but in these passages we’re reminded that God doesn’t abide by our rules and regulations. God won’t be limited by our need for decorum. The prophets have spoken!