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July 3, 2016, 7:06 AM

Reconciling God

Genesis 32:22-31
22 Jacob got up during the night, took his two wives, his two women servants, and his eleven sons, and crossed the Jabbok River’s shallow water. 23 He took them and everything that belonged to him, and he helped them cross the river. 24 But Jacob stayed apart by himself, and a man wrestled with him until dawn broke. 25 When the man saw that he couldn’t defeat Jacob, he grabbed Jacob’s thigh and tore a muscle in Jacob’s thigh as he wrestled with him. 26 The man said, “Let me go because the dawn is breaking.”
But Jacob said, “I won’t let you go until you bless me.”
27 He said to Jacob, “What’s your name?” and he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then he said, “Your name won’t be Jacob any longer, but Israel,[a] because you struggled with God and with men and won.”
29 Jacob also asked and said, “Tell me your name.”
But he said, “Why do you ask for my name?” and he blessed Jacob there. 30 Jacob named the place Peniel, “because I’ve seen God face-to-face, and my life has been saved.” 31 The sun rose as Jacob passed Penuel, limping because of his thigh.
Matthew 5:17-20                         
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Reconciling God
It is July 4th weekend, the weekend that we celebrate our national independence. On July 4th in 1776 the first continental congress approved the Declaration of Independence and our nation’s birth was underway. Thomas Jefferson—the famous author of the Declaration and our third president—is less well known for his work developing his own bible. He entitled it “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.” He actually edited two bibles, but the first one has been lost in the annals of history. To create this second “bible,” Jefferson cut and pasted—literally—from original copies of the bible to create a document that was bereft of the supernatural—no miracles, no resurrection, no Acts or letters or other New Testament documents, and absolutely no Old Testament. From the early days of the church, the God depicted in what we call the Old Testament has often risen up as a problem for the followers of Jesus Christ.
As people joined the Way of Jesus, a way of love and humility and justice, they began to wrestle with the God who committed and sanctioned atrocities in the Hebrew Scriptures. How could one worship the God made flesh in Jesus Christ who forgave his crucifiers and offered mercy, to the God who killed all the firstborn of Egypt, drowned the Egyptian army in the Reed Sea, and ordered the destruction of the Canaanite people, including women and children? How can the followers of Jesus reconcile the God of wrath and violence found in the “Old Testament” with the God of grace and salvation found in the “New Testament?”
Before we tackle that question, we must first realize that we cannot boil down all of the Hebrew Scriptures to a God of wrath and violence, nor all of the New Testament to a God of grace and salvation. All the scriptures are rich and complex, and the scripture’s depiction of God is rich and complex. These summations are not fair representations of the complexities of these scriptures. The Old Testament is part of the New Testament.  The Hebrew Scriptures were beloved of Jesus, his disciples, Paul and the early church. Jesus followed the Law (for the most part). The gospel of Matthew begins with Jesus’ genealogy, which connects Jesus with the rich past found in the Old Testament. Jesus quotes Old Testament Law as a summation of discipleship—to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your soul, and with all your strength…and to love your neighbor as yourself”—Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19. Our reading today shows us Jesus himself proclaiming that he didn’t come to tear down or loosen the Law, but to be the fulfillment of the Law. God comes among us as Jesus, carrying with him all the rich and complicated history of the people of Israel—the good, the bad, and even the violently ugly.
That being said, there are certain stories in the Hebrew Scriptures that leave us deeply troubled, stories that almost seem to celebrate horrible violence: the flood narrative of Noah, the atrocities of the Exodus, the Canaanite genocide, God’s declaration of death penalties for what seem minor infractions, and even some beloved Sunday School stories such as David and Goliath. Even as we admit there are many stories in the Old Testament that lift up a God of love and mercy, how do we reconcile these stories of violence?
This is not a new problem. Even the early church followers of Jesus were seeking ways to reconcile the way of Jesus with the God of these stories. Over the generations, different ‘solutions’ were offered to reach this reconciliation. The first ‘solution’ is the one Thomas Jefferson chose, to deny any connection between the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, with the God of Jesus. In the early church, one well known proponent of this ‘solution’ was Marcion, and like Jefferson, he did some ‘cutting and pasting’ in order to remove the problem. What God’s people learned from those like Marcion and Jefferson is that avoidance and denial is not a solution. All that happens is a god is created in the author’s own image.
Another ‘solution’ offered through the years is to acknowledge the humanity of scripture and the evolution of thought. This school of thought sees the people of God evolving throughout the Hebrew Scriptures in their understanding of God and their experience of God. Human authors of our sacred texts espoused a vision of God that was popular in their culture and context—attributing to God thoughts and concepts that were human, such as God condoning genocide and slaughter. In this ‘solution,’ the people of God are challenged to read such scriptures as a warning of what happens when religion is coopted for political gains.
A third ‘solution’ sees these texts of liberation and land settling and war as mythic histories, ways of explaining in legendary terms how the people of God journeyed to be where they are today. The fantastic stories of the Old Testament are seen at times as these mythic histories, and at other times as metaphors for spiritual journeys and battles. This school of thought highlights the oral history of God’s people, that these stories were told around bonfires in the evening, at table on the Sabbath, to help people remember God’s presence with them at all times and in all places.
The final ‘solution’ is not really a solution at all, but a school of thought that simply accepts all scripture a literally true and not to be questioned.  This idea postulates that God does condone violence at times and we must accept it as God’s will.
So where do we stand? I believe it is helpful to see these four viewpoints as standing along a spectrum, with one extreme end consisting of the denial of the Old Testament as seen in Jefferson and Marcion (see diagram below). At the other extreme stands the literalist that upholds all Old Testament stories as literally true. Along the line between the two we find those who lean toward the idea of mythic histories (toward the Jefferson-Marcion side) and the concept of the humanity and evolution of scripture (closer to the literalists). As people journeying the path of faith, we may find ourselves moving back and forth along this line as we encounter these different difficult passages. We may even encounter new points and ‘solutions’ along the way.
       Jefferson                      Mythic                                                Human-                        Literalist
       Not true                       Histories                                           Evolution                       True
And as we journey, there are some points to keep before us as we wrestle. First, we are called to wrestle. Our reading from Genesis 32 proclaims that the children of Israel are those who wrestle with God, and we are children of Israel. This is our heritage as well.  Our God is one who will enter into humanity to meet us, who comes to us even in the darkness, and will empty God’s self of ultimate power to meet us in our humanity so that we many wrestle with faith. Second, God is so very, very much MORE than we can imagine or understand. Our God is too lively, too engaged, too full of dramatic power for easy systematic formulations. As CS Lewis attests in his fantasy novel, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, God is good, but not safe, not tame. We must resist every urge to put God in a box. Third, while we wrestle with God’s involvement in some of these horrific happenings, we acknowledge that these stories do attest that there is no human activity in which God is not present. Nothing is beyond the reach of the Divine. And finally, we are followers of Jesus, who is the ultimate fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. It is through the lens of the life, teachings, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus that we view all scripture; not to diminish the importance of these teachings and stories from the Old Testament for the people to whom they were written, but in order to see the Law and Prophets, the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures through the One who comes as fulfillment and as God made flesh.
As I warned when announcing this sermon series, these difficult topics do not come with simple, clean and clear answers. In keeping to the tradition of Jesus, the rabbinical practice, many questions are ‘answered’ with deeper and more profound questions. But in the midst of our wrestling to reconcile God, we are called to be a people who do justice, who love mercy, and who walk humbly with our God. Wednesday evening at 7:00 pm you are invited to join me in the Embury Room to wrestle further with this topic, to bring your notes and your thoughts, as we openly discuss, questions, and wrestle on our journey of faith together. Thanks be to the God of Israel, the God who strives and wrestles.  Amen.
Personal Reflections for the Week:
  1. What are our favorite biblical passages and where are they found?
  1. What is your experience of the Old Testament? Is it in any way different from your experience of the New Testament?
  1. What is your understanding of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments? Are they equally important and authoritative?
  1. How do you respond to the characterization of the God of the Old Testament as a God of Wrath and the God of the New Testament as a God of Grace?
  1. Does it matter anymore that Jesus was a Jew? Why or why not?

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