Chilmark Community Church
April 24, 2016
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
There are lots of ways to name and classify the many books of the Bible. One that I use increasingly is the fact that the scriptures are a witness to a people’s relationship with God. From beginning to end – Genesis to Revelation in our Bible – we encounter many witnesses to the relationship between God and God’s people. From the moment of creation God wants to be in relationship with humankind. The formula for that desire pops up again and again throughout the long drama of our sacred texts. The conversation with Abraham is the first place in which the Holy One’s desire for the future is made known: I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be a God to you and to your offspring after you. (Genesis 17:7,8) Abraham and God walk together.
Generations later, In keeping with the covenant God made with Abraham to be God to Abraham’s progeny, God tells Moses that, indeed, the Divine ears have heard the suffering of Israel in Egypt. God remembers the covenant. Moses hears God reiterate: “I will redeem (my people) with an outstretched arm and with mighty judgments. I will take you as my people, and I will be your God.” (Exodus 6:7) Under God’s power, Moses begins the work of leading Israel out of slavery in Egypt.
A little more that halfway through the book of Exodus, God commands Moses: “have the people build me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them.”
After a lengthy set of elaborate instructions about how to construct the tabernacle, the tent of meeting that would travel with Israel during its 40 year sojourn in the wilderness, God again renews the promise: “I will meet with you at the tent of meeting, to speak to you there….I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar….I will dwell among the Israelites, and I will be their God.” (Exodus 29:45)
Fast forward to the prophet Jeremiah as God prepares to bring Israel home from all the lands where they have been in exile: “I will bring them back to this place, and I will settle them in safety. They shall be my people and I will be their God….I will make an everlasting covenant with them, never to draw back from doing good to them…” (Jeremiah 32:36-41)
Ezekiel tells the story of the valley of the dry bones, where God promises to give new life to Israel and once again promises: “ I will make a covenant of peace with them….it will be an everlasting covenant….I will set my sanctuary among them forevermore. My dwelling place shall be with them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Ezekiel 37:16-27)
The powerful witness through out the Hebrew scriptures is that God wishes to dwell among and in the midst of God’s people.
So – – if we were to use the metaphor of the “bookend”, God’s often repeated desire to our ancestors in the Hebrew texts would constitute one bookend.
Then we read the same promise again in Revelation at the end of our Bible. Revelation repeats the theme: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them and they will be his people…..I will be their God and they will be my children.” (Rev.21:3,7b)
Between these two bookends, the event of Jesus happens – – another promise – but this time a visible person becomes the divine side of the covenant – of God’s desire to “dwell in their midst.”
One of the things I noticed about the times in the scriptures where this desire of God to be with us, to be our God, for us to be God’s people, is that they often appear in time of great stress, turmoil, transition and transformation.
A midrash: According to Genesis Rabbah 38.13 R. Hiyya, a first generation Jewish sage, tells the following story:
Terah, Abraham’s father, was an idol manufacturer who once went away and left Abraham in charge of the store. A man walked in and wished to buy an idol. Abraham asked him how old he was and the man responded “fifty years old.” Abraham then said, “You are fifty years old and would worship a day old statue!” At this point the man left ashamed.
Later, a woman walked in to the store and wanted to make an offering to the idols. So Abraham took a stick, smashed the idols and placed the stick in the hand of the largest idol. When Terah returned he asked Abraham what happened to all the idols. Abraham told him that a woman came in to make an offering to the idols. Then the idols argued about which one should eat the offering first. Then the largest idol took the stick and smashed the other idols.
Terah responded by saying that they are only statues and have no knowledge. Whereupon Abraham responded by saying to his father “you deny their knowledge, yet you worship them!”
Abraham receives the experience the Holy One reaching out to him and his progeny at the beginning of a transformative movement away from polytheism toward monotheism. Abraham, indeed, represents the shift to the belief in one God. A massive movement in the development of religious process – a time of great transformation in human consciousness.
The Israelites are still in slavery when God reiterates the promise to Moses as Moses struggles with his own doubts about being able to do what God has given to him to do. Moses carries the promise to Israel even though they do not want to listen or believe him – – “I will take you as my people, and I will be your God.” A great transition is set in motion
But the promise of God is not easy to receive or accept. Israel constantly needs reminding. In the wilderness, fresh from slavery, they are challenged in their awareness and understanding of what a covenant relationship with God means. In Holy wisdom, God commands that they build a sanctuary – a physical, sacred space – where God will dwell in their midst to guide them through the transformation from slavery to freedom.
Jeremiah and Ezekiel both speak to Israel in the sorrowful and disorienting time exile. In the familiar story of the valley of the dry bones Ezekiel addressed Israel as a dried out and desiccated people –like skeletons – lifeless. In the pain of exile, God reaches out in the worst of circumstances to remind Israel “I am your God – – you are my people.” Stressed, almost to the point of death, Israel is sustained by God’s desire to be among them – to be their God – – and they are transformed once again into a living people.
We encounter the other bookend in Revelation. When our 1st century ancestors were beginning to form into what would become the Christian community, when the stress of Roman persecution was at its most vicious and terrifying, when violent destruction rained down on Israel every day, the word of Revelation brought God’s covenant with God’s people into the foreground again: “See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them; they will be his people, and God himself will be with them….”
The times of stress and turmoil and chaos in the sacred texts mirror our own contemporary struggles and fears and concerns. There are ever growing populations in exile –unable to live safely and at peace in their own homelands. In parts of the world, Christian communities with ancient histories are being persecuted in efforts at ethnic cleansing. Terrorist threats have become a part of our daily vocabulary. We carry unspoken fears and anxieties about strangers. We wonder how to protect our children from living with a dark cloud of threat invading their dreams.
Last week, Krista Tippet interviewed Craig Minowa, a musician, environmentalist, philosopher and theologian. He commented on how human beings are genetically programmed to be attracted to negativity. In our early evolution it was absolutely necessary to be aware of the negative dangers around us in order to survive – we had to be aware in order to protect ourselves. He speculated that we are in that mode now – – a time of ongoing and chronic vigilance – – anticipating what crises may come – – but also living in a great unknown: how to prepare and protect ourselves and our families and communities against the threat of fear?
But as I read the texts –and particularly observe the circumstances where the promise is renewed in the context of the 3000 year long drama, it seems to be the habit of God to renew the promise in the midst of the chaos – – I will dwell among them – I will be in their midst – I will be their God and they will be my people. God draws close in times of fear and struggle and anxiety. God is revealed in exile. This is the ancient and living witness. In the midst of the worst, God is struggling to help us become aware that God is in our midst.
For the Christian community, this is abundantly apparent in the person of Jesus – coming into fleshly human experience – to reassure us that God is indeed present in our midst and working in all things for good. Our job is to keep up our side of the promise – God is our God – will we be God’s people? – – will we stay awake and alert to the vital living presence of God in our midst?
Mixed in with a lot of symbolic language that is very hard to understand, the Book of Revelation carries a message of great hope for a new age. The voice of God says “See, I am making all things new….I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end….I will be their God and they will be my children.”
Craig Minowa’s parting words in the interview were simple and profound: “To be a seeker, you have to be open to something scary that you don’t know.” The future is always unknown – and often scary. A New Age doesn’t happen without a lot of disruption and chaos and confusion – even turmoil and violence. On the receiving end of the promise, it is our job to trust that God is always keeping the promise to be with us. What we need to do is to promise to be God’s people in return. As our hymn affirms, we live and move and have our being in God. The scriptural promise is that God has movement and life and being in and among us. The covenant goes both ways. What a promise!