Jeremiah 1:4-10, I Cor 13:1-13, Luke 4:21-30
Preached at St. Philip’s Durham, Epiphany 4 2010
When the bible tries to tell us something about Divine-human relationships, it reaches for human social models. God is father, and we are God’s adoptive children. God is mother, who leads us with cords of compassion and bands of love. God is patron of the twelve client tribes. God is king, and the people of God have sworn a covenant to obey Divine commands. Because God is personal, each of these models shows us something about Who God is to us and who we are to God. Because Divine personality is rich and multifaceted–like most human beings, many things to many people–we do well to map multiple models on top of one another. Because God is really too big to squeeze into any merely human social system, each and all of the analogies inevitably carry some distortion. Often biblical portraits fight with one another: how can the incomparable Lord of all, come not to be served but to serve? how can Almighty Power, YHWH God of armies, be beaten and brutalized to death on a cross?
The bible does not stop with mind-boggling paradoxes, however. Sometimes its pictures seem downright unedifying and distasteful. How often do the prophets portray YHWH as an enraged cuckold husband on the verge of destroying His two-timing wife? (Answer: lots.) What about today’s story of the call of Jeremiah: “before I formed you in the womb, I knew you!”–that’s “know’” in the biblical sense! Jeremiah is the bride in an arranged marriage. God has contracted for him, sealed the deal before Jeremiah was even born. Like bedouin wives, Jeremiah is in no position to refuse. No point protesting that he is only a boy, not ready for such intimacies, ‘a young thing that cannot leave his mother’. God appears in order to take possession. God will fill Jeremiah with God’s own Words. Jeremiah will writhe like a woman in childbirth until he spits them out, brings forth the tidings God has chosen him to bear. God doesn’t even bother wooing Jeremiah the way He did Abraham with promises of land or dynasty. God doesn’t dangle a life of luxury in high society before Jeremiah’s eyes. God doesn’t even give him a kid to make merry with his friends. No! Life-together with YHWH will be no way to win friends or influence people. When Jeremiah keeps on giving birth to the Word of the Lord, reproducing prophecies like rabbits, people will regard him as at best a nuisance and at worst a traitor. Jeremiah is sure to make enemies, who will plot to kill him. So far from ‘Cinderella’s happily ever after’, life-together with YHWH will mean hard times ending in exile. What YHWH promises is that they will get through it together, and that God will preserve his life.
In Hebrew bible stories, God and the people of God have a stormy marriage that cycles and re-cycles through the sequence covenant/honeymoon/growing disobedience/ mounting warnings/dire punishment/fresh beginnings. Jeremiah is born into troubled times. His career as prophet of doom falls in the bad-news phase. By contrast, Christmastide Gospels advertize Jesus as the Savior Who inaugurates the good-news era. Holy Spirit pours down on Jesus with assurances of Divine favor. Just last week, we heard Luke’s Jesus publish His triumphant platform: release to captives, sight to the blind, debt moratoria on maxed-out credit cards and mortgages. But today’s reading–like Obama’s first year in office–thuds us back to hard realities. Jesus’ career will also wind and rewind the downward cycle: gracious teaching attested by signs and wonders/amazement followed by scepticism/words of judgment/plots on his life. Luke’s Jesus journeys towards the cross. Followers take up crosses daily. Luke’s Jesus promises: we will stick together in our trials, but the parade route dead-ends on Calvary’s hill!
Scandalous as it sounds, uncomfortable as it feels, the arranged-marriage model has truths to tell. The first is that we belong to God whether we like it or not. We are God’s creatures. God made us because God wanted to and for God’s own reasons. We have nothing to say about it. We were in no position to ask to be born or to demand not to be born, for the very simple reason that we did not exist aeons ago or in the now of eternity when God formed Divine plans.
The second is that life-together with God is something that we can’t avoid. This is not because God is some kind of tyrranical authority figure or coercive bully, but because of what Godhead is and what we are. Godhead exists by the necessity of its nature. Godhead couldn’t not be. Creatures are by nature dependent. Godhead is the source of the being and well-being of everything other than Godself. Nothing other than God could do or be anything if God were not there creating and keeping them in existence, working with worms to wiggle, with cows to chew cud, with hawks to soar, and with acorns to grow up into mighty oaks.
Neither are God’s personal creatures designed to be persons in isolation. Human infants are born full of potential. But human children locked in a closet or raised by the wolves do not become human persons, even if they survive physically. Babies have a chance to become personal selves only if from the beginning they are surrounded by persons who work overtime to draw out their capacity to be persons. So also and all the more so, omnipresent Godhead surrounds and enfolds us, nudging us and enabling us to become selves who can reach out to make personal contact with other selves, selves who can even stretch into conscious and intentional personal relationship with God.
The third is that God claims us as partners in creativity. God is creative by nature. When God spoke light into the darkness, there was no conventional wisdom for God to follow. In the now of eternity, God conceived the fantastic project–really quite a bizarre idea when you stop to think about it; but then Omnipotence should do the hard as well as the easy–of polishing up material creation, earthen vessels until they shine with Divine glory, until they dazzle with truths about Who God is and how God loves. Because God is a doer, God made material stuff dynamic and active. Because God is Life, God stirred and zapped the chemicals, watched them gurgle for centuries until they coalesced into structures that support life. Because God is personal, God rolled up Divine sleeves to make mudpies in Eden, to huff and puff us full of Holy Spirit. God made us for deliberate, conscious collaboration, because God wants creation to mean something, not just through an order imposed upon it from the outside, but to mean something from the inside, through the sense that we and God make of this world together.
The fourth is that God wants us as lovers. The real reason why we exist at all is to love God above all and for God’s own sake, and to enter into God’s passion for the world God has made. God envisions a cosmic household characterized by courtesy, which allows everyone space, time, and resources to be who they are. God calls on us to set the tone by becoming people who are patient and kind, not jealous or boastful, irritable or resentful, not glad when rivals and enemies fail or get what’s coming to them. God knows, we can’t run on empty. Everywhere and always God is present to persuade us to take down our defenses, so that we can experience ourselves as God’s Beloveds and find our safety in the embrace of Resurrection Power.
Fifth and finally, the bible stories tell us (and this is the disanalogy) that God–unlike bedouin husbands–has taken the for-better-for-worse vow. God and the people of God are an odd couple. Because God is so big and we are so small, because God’s ways are so much higher than our ways, it’s hard for us to get our bearings. Because God is rich and resourceful enough to make good on anything, the bible’s God has the habit of waiting to step in and make things right only after it is already too late. God knows, this can be strenuous, even ruinous for us. God demonstrates Divine Love in Jesus, the Word made flesh to live a really human life, to stick with it for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and health, faithful til death. This is the Divine Lover’s most dramatic gesture–God plighting God’s trothe on the marriage bed of the cross–all to convince us that God–though ridiculously ambitious for us–can be trusted not to demand more of us than God demands of Godself!