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Sunday, August 11, 2013

Holy Longing

Texts: Isaiah 1.1, 10-20; Ps 50.1-8; 22-23; Hebrews 11.1-3; 8-16; Luke 12.32-40

The God we encounter in today’s lections is, in many ways, a pretty angry God.  In the passage we read from Isaiah, the Lord tells Israel that he is sick and tired of all its hypocrisy.  ‘Sure,’ says God, ‘you turn up to worship regularly, you bring along the sacrifices prescribed in the law of Moses.  But your heart isn’t in it.  You have blood on your hands.  You neglect and mistreat the poor, the widow and the orphan.  Unless you get your act together,’ says God, ‘unless you stop doing evil and start doing good, I will put you to the sword.’  The Psalmist echoes these same sentiments when he has God say (and I paraphrase):  ‘Listen up, all you hypocrites who take my covenant on your lips and turn up to worship with the prescribed offerings.  I don’t care how many offerings you make, or how many promises you make; unless you walk the walk as well as talk the talk, I’m going to tear you apart.  What I want most of all is an attitude of thanksgiving, and a people who will actually do as they have promised.’

Now, there have always been some Christians who are very uncomfortable with all this anger from God.  From the second century there was a crowd known as the Marcionites who wanted to excise the Hebrew Bible from the Christian canon altogether.  In their view, the God of the Hebrew bible was not the God of Jesus Christ.  The God of the Hebrews was an angry demiurge who breathed fire and vengeance, while the God of Jesus was loving and forgiving, always regarding human foibles with a smiling tolerance.  In the 19th and early 20th centuries, with a characteristically northern European distaste for strong emotions of any kind, many learned theologians and ministers argued that it was wrong to associate anger with God—for God is our best name for all that is calm and peaceful in the cosmos, a kind of mystical still-point around which the chaos and anger of the universe turns.  In more recent decades, a whole swag of theologians have argued that the biblical anger of God should be dismissed as nothing more than a projection of our all-too-human anger.  ‘God does not get angry,’ they argue, ‘WE get angry and then anthropomorphise God so that we can enlist God to our cause.’

What are we to make of these claims?  Well, what can I say except that even the most appalling theology has some truth in it!  Marcion wanted to emphasise that God was a God of love, which—surprisingly enough!— I think is right.  God is love, and God does love us.  That is the clear message of both the New Testament and the Old, I would have thought.  But stay with me now.  Isn’t it precisely because God loves us that God gets angry with us sometimes?  Wouldn’t a God who never got angry be evidence that God is actually entirely indifferent to what we do—cold, unaffected and distant like the stars in the sky?  I think so.  Indeed, these days it is widely recognised by both Jews and Christians that the kind of theology that wants to remove every apparently ‘human’ characteristic or emotion from God is dodgy theology, for it fails to take account of the deepest meaning of the biblical covenants: that is, that God has thrown God’s lot in with us, for better or for worse, that God has chosen to become corrigible, indeed vulnerable, to all that human beings decide and do. 

For Christians, of course, this covenant logic reaches its fulfilment in the fleshly career of one Jesus of Nazareth.  What we learn from Jesus is that it is in the very nature of God to become human, and therefore vulnerable to all that being human actually means.  Like getting hurt and disappointed in love, like becoming angry and wishing that one could die.  Every one of those emotions, and a whole lot more, were seen in Jesus of Nazareth who, in Christian theology, is the best picture of God that we have.  And if the best picture of God that we have is a human being, why should it be wrong to think of a God who is vulnerable to all that we do or don’t do in response to divine love?  Love, you see, does not make one strong and indifferent.  It makes one vulnerable to being hurt.

A few years ago I threw a ‘Thank-God-I-survived-my-doctorate’ party.  Some of you were there.  Now you have to understand that this was a very important celebration for my family and I.  It’s not everyday that a kid who grew up in poverty earns a doctorate, you know.  That night therefore represented a wonderful celebration of what God is able to do in us. But I had one disappointment.  A close friend, a friend whom I love a great deal, did not turn up even though she had promised she would.  I looked for her all night, but my looking was in vane, and the excuses she gave after the fact were really, really lame.  I still feel rather hurt and angry about that.  I will get over it, of course, but I am hurt and angry nevertheless.   Love is like that.  If you get close to someone, if you make yourself vulnerable, you can experience great joy.  If that someone betrays you, however, the wound goes very deep.  For when your guard is down, the knife strikes much deeper.
That is how it is with God, too, I think.  God loves us more deeply that anyone.  God has come so close to us, in Christ and in the Spirit, that God has rendered Godself almost powerless in the face of our wavering loyalties.  When we make a promise to God, but then we break it, God is really affected.  The cross of Christ is our best icon or image of this, for there God is not only wounded by our faithlessness, but mortally so.  In Christ God dies the horrible death of unrequited love.

The good news, of course, is that love is not without its own power.  It is, as the very heart of who God is, actually stronger than death.  The same passages that present us with a hurt and angry God also assure us that God will always be waiting to forgive our faithlessness and renew the relationship.  God is not one, we are told, who will hang on to the bitterness of God’s disappointment forever, real and visceral as that disappointment actually is.  God’s holy longing for us indeed makes God vulnerable.  But our sin does not, we are told, kill off God’s longing altogether.  God never will become cold and indifferent.  God will always be waiting for that time when we come to our senses in a far-off country.  God will always be waiting to embrace us in forgiving, reconciling love.  God will always stand before us and beside us, in Christ, to show us what a truly redeemed humanity actually looks like.  In Christ, you see, God has been pleased to place in our hands the very kingdom of God, which is gospel-speak for God’s own self.

The strictly theological point to make from this is, of course, that while God may indeed be different to human beings, and we should therefore be very careful to avoid making God into whatever serves our ideological purposes, a very large part of that classical problematic stems from the fact that, in Christ, God is actually more human than we are.  In Christ, God shows us what a human being infused by divine love actually longs for in the face of the very great inhumanity that shadows our world.

Let me conclude by pointing out that this precisely human longing of God also finds a mirror and embodiment in the longing of God’s baptised people for justice, peace and reconciliation in the world.  The dismay and anger that we, as God’s people, feel in the face of the troubles all about us reflects the dismay and anger of God.  The longing we feel for that ‘better country’ described by the writer to the Hebrews, may be understood as an expression and sacramental embodiment of God’s own longing.  For, in the end, it is not that God is slow in bringing about the revolution we so long for.  It is not that God has made a promise but is slow to keep it.  In the end, our longing is that longing which God has placed in our hearts.  It is a longing that motivates us to get off our backsides and do something for this world which God loves so passionately and for which Christ died. 

The challenge for each of us this morning is therefore this.  As God’s child, God has placed God’s longing in your heart.  Will you allow that longing to take flesh, as Christ has taken flesh?  Will you engage the world anew, with all its soiled relationships, in the faith, hope and love of Jesus?  Will you go from this church and actually keep the promises you made in your baptism, to turn from evil and do good, to stop being part of the problem and start becoming part of the new humanity inaugurated in Christ?  Will you care enough even to become hurt and angry?  It’s up to you.  Remember that God is not the kind of God who will bully you into anything.  God will rail with anger, certainly, remonstrating passionately with all in your life and your world that is less than the humanity revealed in Jesus.  But the choice, and all that follows from that choice, is still with you.  The way of God’s Spirit in the world is that of longing and lamenting, of hoping and imagining.  So, will you answer God’s prayers?  Will you light your lamp and keep it burning, that the world may be transfigured in love?

This homily was first preached at the Uniting Church's Centre for Theology and Ministry in 2010.

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