Sunday, February 28, 2010

Second Sunday of Lent

Genesis 15
After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ 2But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’* 3And Abram said, ‘You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.’ 4But the word of the Lord came to him, ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’ 5He brought him outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ 6And he believed the Lord; and the Lord * reckoned it to him as righteousness.
7 Then he said to him, ‘I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.’

Coming to a theatre near you:

Born of a god but raised as a man, Perseus is helpless to save his family from Hades, vengeful god of the underworld. With nothing left to lose, Perseus volunteers to lead a dangerous mission to defeat Hades before he can seize power from Zeus and unleash hell on earth.

The first question is ‘can you improve on the 1981 version of Clash of the Titans?’ Really, can you outdo Sir Laurence Olivier as Zeus or Ursula Andress as Aphrodite? Sure, I look forward to seeing Ralph Fiennes/Lord Voldemort play Hades, but can all the 3-D in the world replace Burgess Meredith as the poet Ammon. Replace the Penquin? Can’t be done.

I have to say I like the Greeks. And I’m not talking about my friends on the Danforth, though I like them too. I’m talking about the mythmakers, the writers and poets that gave us the Greek pantheon and a way to frustrate children in Grade 9 ever since. I’m not even sure they teach this stuff anymore, but I have to say that meeting Zeus and Company added a lot to the beginning of high school.

Not only do the Greeks know how to construct a good story, but they never settle for subtlety. Icarus, Sisyphus and Prometheus all suffer (falling, pushing, the liver thing) for various wrongs (hubris, trickery, theft) and could never be accused of understatement. There is nothing quite like a giant eagle and the liver thing to scare any Grade 9 student from stealing fire from the gods.

The God of the Hebrews is generally more subtle. Sure there are a few dramatic moments and a few divine outbursts, but by in large, God interacts with humans in a quieter and gentler fashion. Most often these interactions come in the form of a conversation, or a dream, or a stranger. And most often, a complete understanding of the interaction comes only in hindsight. Our passage from Genesis 15 is a case-in-point: Appearing in a vision, God restates the covenant, hears a concern, and then reassures Abraham with a look to the stars. There are no giant eagles and no livers are damaged.

Going further into the Hebrew understanding of how God and humanity interact, the claim is made that anytime someone encounters God and describes the encounter, they become a prophet. A look at the “prophet” page on Wikipedia will yield a list of most of the main characters in the Bible, and not the limited list we generally regard as prophets. This expanded list, and expanded understanding, means that the prophet Abraham (first called Abram) will have a series of conversations with God, some fruitful and some frustrating. It means that the prophets Abraham and Sarah will pursue a long journey from promise to fulfillment, will encounter doubt and adversity, and will end life as founders of a great nation and no less than three of the world’s great religions. Not bad for a couple of herders from Ur.

Throughout the extended story of these two, we begin to see that the path from covenant to ‘great nation’ is a convoluted one. On two occasions, Abraham must lie and suggest that Sarah is his sister rather than his wife. He argues with God to save a city, he makes a false start with his handmaiden, he tries to sacrifice his son Isaac. There is a continuous movement back and forth from travail to renewed promise, and very late in life comes to see God’s promise fulfilled.


One of the great Jewish scholars of the last century was Rabbi Abraham Heschel. Dr. Heschel’s life was remarkable: escaped from Nazi Germany, represented American Jews at the Second Vatican Council, and marched with Dr. King in Selma, Alabama. Later he said, "When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying."

Rabbi Heschel devoted much of academic career to the topic of prophecy, and the extent to which we can encounter God. He insisted that God is continually “turning toward humanity,” seeking a relationship with us and feeling what we feel. He wrote on spirituality and philosophy, and always grounded these in the reality of human suffering. In his book The Prophets he wrote these words:

Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profane riches of the world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man.

It is one such crossing point that we encounter as we journey thought Lent. Like Abraham and Sarah, the journey we follow may be circuitous, it may have highs and lows, but it is the journey that God would have us take. It is a moment when we become prophets, giving voice to the pain and the peril we see, and speaking for God in the midst of it.


Lent, of course, has but one direction. The Gospel reading this morning is a second half of any discussion on prophets. In spite of our commission to speak for God, we mostly remain unprepared to find our inner prophet or hear the prophetic voice of others. Jesus said:

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

There is a progression here, a development within the prophetic tradition that begins with covenant-making and ends in Jerusalem. Abraham and Sarah are prophets, insofar as they report their conversations with God the manifold promises God makes. God is looking for loyalty, and this first family follows.

Later, with the gift of the Law, God asks for obedience, and makes a similar set of promises in return. Soon we fail, and “the voice that God has lent to the silent agony” is heard, in prophets major and minor, and in the ordinary believer who understands that we often live contrary to God’s desire. Then Jesus laments, speaking over the so-called “holy city,” that claims God as her own but brings violence to those who speak for God.

Then Jesus walks. He understands the progression from conversation to understanding to speaking out and to violence, but still he walks. He walks up to Jerusalem and into her gates knowing full well what happens to prophets. He walks though temple and garden and palace and the message is the same: God hears the cries of the voiceless and is willing to surrender everything for their sake. God is still making a path for salvation in spite of human failing, and God still has a “crossing point” where the divine voice will be heard.

As we journey to that place, may God bless us, and speak to us, each day. Amen.


Post a Comment

<< Home