“Whispering Hope”

Heb 11:1

One day early in my teaching career, I was laboring to help students in a small seminar on hermeneutics (the art of interpretation) to understand the logical and grammatical structure of a passage in Paul. As is often the case in Paul’s letters, the issue involved a simple “therefore,” by which Paul argued for the connection between what Christians believe to be true and how they can and should live their lives – theology and ethics are interchangeable. I was not succeeding. After several attempts to rephrase my point, to find an analogy that communicated, to clarify, even resorting to gestures, the light finally went on for one of the students who exclaimed, “Oh, so you’re saying that the meanings of the words is important, even the little ones!”  Well, yes.  That statement summarized my point nicely.

The meanings of “even the little” words have always fascinated and sometimes frustrated me. As a youngster growing up in a Baptist church, I developed my own primitive theory about many of the words I heard there:  glory, grace, faith, and hope, for example.  Today, I might describe that primitive theory in terms of “formal” uses of language. It seemed to me then that church folks used these words more to fulfill a formal role than to convey concrete, specific, information. “One day, we will see God in all of God’s glory,” the preacher would say.  What is “glory?” I thought.

I still think that many Christians use or hear the important little words of Christian doctrine formally – as the words one is supposed to use in a certain context. Many times, I have preached or taught about the radical nature of God’s love expressed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and tried to make clear that this love demands that believers also live in such radical ways and to such radical extents only to be thanked for my “sweet” message. In this moment, one “little word” promises to convey vital energy to individual believers, to churches, and, indeed, to the world – if we can save it from “formal” obscurity.

Critics and doubters of Christianity often relegate Christian faith to “mere” hope. Granted, the semantic spectrum of the English word “hope” (and of its equivalents in all the languages that I know) includes the idea of an unfounded desire, a wish unlikely to bear fruit. I hope, for example, that medical researchers will find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease tomorrow. Nothing suggests that they will. I still hope for it. At the other extreme of the semantic spectrum of hope, however, lies the expectation born of signs and signals of the arrival of a new reality. Speaking of birth, a young woman in the eighth month of a normal pregnancy does not have “mere” hope that she will soon give birth. While hope, then, can denote wishful thinking, it can also refer to a well-founded expectation.

The author of Hebrews used hope’ in the latter sense when he described it as constitutive of Christian faith. “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb 11:1, KJV).  Hope, he suggested, represents the present reality that points beyond itself to something yet to come.  Faith is the ὑπόστασις (hupostasis: confidence, assurance; that which gives substance to or guarantees a thing) of what one hopes for; it is the ἔλεγχος (elegchos: that by which a thing is proved or tested) of the reality one does not yet see.

Does a Christian’s faith express an empty wish or an expectation aroused by signs and signals that something real but still unseen approaches? Does Christian faith await what the eyes of hope foresee? What do we see that gives us reason to look out for (to ex-specto, Latin) much more? Do we see glimmers of pink-orange light on the horizon presaging a rising sun and a bright new day?

At least our corner of the universe manifests an urge, a drive toward life.  Human beings evidence, further, the drive toward personhood, sentience, morality, and relationship. Human beings value truth, beauty, and goodness. Human beings exercise altruism, feel anger at injustice, and work for the good of others. Human beings sympathize. Even sorrow demonstrates an awareness that something ought to be otherwise.  Easter Sunday, Christians all over the world will celebrate the signal sent to us across time through the testimony of the earliest evangelists, that Good News that God did not abandon Jesus of Nazareth to the grave.

Hope is a way of seeing signs of the unseen.

“Whispering Hope” (Anonymous/Unknown)

Soft as the voice of an angel,
Breathing a lesson unheard,
Hope with a gentle persuasion
Whispers her comforting word:
Wait till the darkness is over,
Wait till the tempest is done,
Hope for the sunshine tomorrow,
After the shower is gone.

Dry Bones

Ezek 37:1-14

Many know the Old Testament lectionary reading for this coming Sunday, the fifth Sunday in Lent, through the familiar spiritual. Slaves in the American Sought clearly heard in Ezekiel and his visions of a wheel and a valley of dry bones a promise of God’s power to bring life out of death, freedom out of slavery. The passage finds its place in the common lectionary, no doubt, because this power has not diminished in the centuries since it was first penned.

Ezekiel originally addressed the people of Judah exiled in Babylon. Several texts in the Hebrew Bible from about the same time offer evidence that a prevalent attitude, if not the dominant attitude among these exiles expressed a sense of despair, defeat, and abandonment. The entire book of Lamentations, a number of the so-called “communal lament” psalms (cf. Ps 74), and , even passages in Isaiah (40:27; 49:14, for example), Jeremiah (31:29, for example), and Ezekiel (18:2;  33:17) reflect this mood.  Either, the people seem to have felt, we and our ancestors have so incensed God that God has abandoned us outright – we broke the covenant and, therefore, God is no longer bound in relationship with us – or God does not have the power to battle the gods of Babylon.

Approximately the first half of the book of Ezekiel concentrates on making the case that the Judeans had sinned grievously, defiling Jerusalem and the temple. Like all the prophetic books in the Bible, however, the book of Ezekiel resists categorization as solely and purely “judgment” preaching. Rather, Old Testament prophecy typically things of Israel’s God as one who undergoes the pain of God’s people along with them (cf. Jer 8:21-9:3) and stands on the other side of judgment eager to renew relationship.  Both Jeremiah and Isaiah depict salvation beyond and through judgment in terms of the process of refining metal (Jer 9:7; Isa 48:10).  According to Jeremiah, God’s solution to Israel’s breech of covenant is to make another (Jer 31:31-34).

Ezekiel’s vision depicts a resurrection.  Transported by the Spirit of God, Ezekiel finds himself in a “valley of dried bones.” One thinks of the abandoned bones of a defeated army scattered across a battlefield and left as carrion. “Can these bones live?” God asks the prophet, who replies, ‘If anyone knows the answer to that question, God, it is you. I have no idea.’ God commissions Ezekiel to prophesy to these dead, dry bones. (Preachers, I advise against any mischievous comparison of this audience to your own Sunday morning audiences.)  His message announces that they will be pieced together again, supplied with sinew, muscle tissue, and skin, and inspired to live again.

Ezekiel prophesies and the reassembly occurs, but there is no life in the reconstituted bodies. Again God instructs Ezekiel to prophesy, now to the four winds (Hebrew ruach, “wind, spirit, breath”) to to give breath (again Hebrew ruach) to the reconstituted corpses. Ezekiel prophesies and the spirit/wind/breath resuscitates the corpses.

Sometimes the Old Testament reports a remarkable vision such as this without further explanation, a circumstance that opens the door to speculative interpretations and applications. Now, however, God explains what the visions means: the dead, dry bones are the house of Israel, whose members have said that God has abandoned them to despair. To be sure, the image of a valley full of dried bones offers little hope on its face. The God of the Bible, however, does not yield to obstacles, even as obstacle as large as death.

Why does God intervene in this fashion and at this moment in Israel’s history? At this point, for over 600 years they have disobeyed, rejecting the prophets sent to admonish them, worshipping  gods who were “no gods” (Jer 5:7). The exiles’ fear that God had finally and irreversibly abandoned them seems reasonable. Nonetheless, God had created and called, promised and protected. For the sake of God’s own integrity, God’s righteousness as Paul would phrase it later (Rom 1:17), God will be faithful to God’s purposes and God’s people. No less than three times in fourteen verses, God explains an action with the purpose clause characteristic of all Ezekiel’s preaching, “so that you may know that I am God” (vv 6, 13, 14).

The biblical and historical records testify that Ezekiel’s prophecy to the dry bones/remnant of Israel proved true. Despite the fact that, to an objective external observer, the prospects for the continued existence of Israel as a coherent people would have looked extremely dim when Ezekiel preached this word of hope, some returned to Judah/Yehud. They rebuilt the Temple. Indeed, even despite later existential crises (the Romans, the Nazis), God’s people Israel still survives.

The failures of God’s people do not determine the future of God’s people.

Does Ezekiel’s prophecy to the dry bones have anything to say to us?  It does, but it may not be what we first expect. In Lent, on the way to Easter, a cursory reading of this text might lead one to think immediately and only of the resurrection of the dead to eternal life in the kingdom of God – to think of Easter. To do so, however, would be premature.

God’s “interpretation” of the vision makes clear that God thinks of the preservation and restoration of the remnant of Israel – a post-exilic phenomenon. God’s interpretation focuses on a people not on individual persons. It suggests that it is more proper to hear Ezekiel’s prophecy, first, as God’s promise not to abandon God’s people (including the church) even when it seems dry and breathless.

The lectionary rightly associates this text with John 11, the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, and Paul’s celebration of life in Christ in Romans 8 (vv 6-11) because they constitute a kind of trajectory. The power that restores and preserves remnant Israel, the power  that frees slaves, and the power that raises Lazarus does not manifest itself once only in human affairs. It is the power of God’s unwavering love and determination to give life.

May each “minor resurrection” in our lives increase our confidence in the God of the living. As God’s people may we face difficult times in the certainty that God walks through them with us and waits on the other side of trial to give us a fresh breath of life.

An Appeal to Young Christians and a Prayer

Sometimes multiple needs coincide to offer solutions to one another. I suggest that the contemporary church faces just such a confluence of opportunities masquerading as problems.  The church needs help; resources are available. Continue reading An Appeal to Young Christians and a Prayer

Spring Break

I will be taking a break from blogging for a couple of weeks to tend to some pressing professional and personal concerns.  Look for something new the week of March 20.

Until then, keep following Jesus.

Mere Christianity

Lately, I have read about and heard directly from pastors who have been accused of being political from the pulpit although they thought that they were simply preaching the Gospel. We live in a time when people on both sides of the political spectrum stand ready to take offense. Continue reading Mere Christianity

America First or Not my Problem

Mark 9:37

For a couple of weeks now, I have been preoccupied with the perception that the public discourse influences even believers toward stridency, rigidity, and lack of compassion. Oddly, at the same time, I have been hearing again and again in my mind’s ear the lyrics of a children’s hymn I learned to sing in Vacation Bible School:  “Jesus loves the little Continue reading America First or Not my Problem

Get Thee Behind me… (Mark 8:33)

“Hadst Thou taken the world and Caesar’s purple, Thou wouldst have founded the universal state and have given universal peace. For who can rule men if not he who holds their conscience and their bread in his hands? We have taken the sword of Caesar, and in taking it, of course, have rejected Thee and followed him.”  The Grand Inquisitor, Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky

President Trump has dangled the forbidden fruit before the church with his promise to “destroy” the Johnson Amendment that prohibits non-profit organizations, including the church, from taking overtly partisan political action Trump has complained that the effect of the amendment on religious institutions is that “their voice has been taken away.” To Continue reading Get Thee Behind me… (Mark 8:33)

Confusion: Rights or Love

For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. (1 Cor 14:33 RSV)

Last week’s blog included the sentence:  “Let the cacophony begin.” It has.

I have not intended to focus this blog on politics, but, like Moses’ experience with the burning bush, the current din of confusion in the political realm beckons me to turn aside to listen.  When I do, I hear that a significant component of the confusion involves the mistaken identification of national interests in self-protection with Christian motivations. Continue reading Confusion: Rights or Love

Go to Shiloh (Jer 7:12)

“Do not trust deceptive words, saying ‘The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord are these [stones]’.”  Jer 7:4, my translation

Sometime in the outgoing seventh century BCE, God sent Jeremiah to the temple in Jerusalem to warn the Judeans that, unless they changed their behavior, God would unleash the Babylonians to conquer. The venue for Jeremiah’s message proved to be as significant as the words themselves. Early in the sermon Jeremiah apparently quoted a Continue reading Go to Shiloh (Jer 7:12)

Tireless Exertions

A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. Eccl 1:4 RSV

Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.  Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

I was born in February of 1957, when the union still had only forty-eight states, three years after the US Supreme Court handed down the historic Brown v. Board of Education (347 U.S. 483), and just a few months before the first nine black students enrolled in Little Rock Arkansas schools implementing the ruling.  Local sit-in campaigns began at a Woolworth Continue reading Tireless Exertions