Sunday, February 26, 2012

Rethink: God the Father

Spoilers! If you haven't read the last book or seen the last movie in the Harry Potter series, skip this paragraph. And a couple others. One of the biggest plot twists in the whole saga of the boy wizard was the revelation that his seemingly villainous potions teacher, Professor Snape, is actually a good guy working undercover at the command of his school's headmaster Dumbledore. And, master storyteller that she is, author J. K. Rowling foreshadowed this in the very first book. Even Hermione, the cleverest of the three main protagonists, thought Snape was trying to harm Harry at his first Quiddich game. Later it is revealed that the spell Snape was casting as Harry's flying broom was trying to shake him off was actually one of protection. And, though Snape doesn't like Harry for personal reasons, Harry learns in the last book that most of Snape's actions were in fact noble and helped him, the only boy who could kill the near immortal dark wizard Voldemort. In the last scene of the "The Deadly Hallows" we discover that Harry has named one of his sons after the brave professor he so misunderstood.

Jesus began his earthly mission by calling on people to repent. The Greek word used literally means "change your mind, or rethink." One of the major effects of Jesus' words and actions was to get people to rethink a lot of what they thought they knew. That's what we are examining in this sermon series. Today we reconsidering God, who's often seen as unpopular as Snape was.

In the Old Testament, God can come across as tougher and less forgiving of evildoers than Dirty Harry. He is called the Almighty and the Lord of hosts. There's a reason why the Hebrews saw God primarily that way. They were a small nation in the ancient Near East. To their southwest lay Egypt, a superpower for millennia. To their east a series of powerful empires rose only to fall to their successors. Israel was located at the crossroads between Africa, Arabia, and Asia Minor. As their more powerful neighbors extended their power and even clashed, Israel always seem to be caught in the crossfire. There was no United Nations to intervene on their behalf. So the primary quality they found attractive about Yahweh was his power to protect and defend them. He is called the Lord of hosts nearly 300 times in the Bible. Hosts in this context means "armies." They valued God for his ability to fight for them against opponents much more powerful than they.

If you understand the history of the Israelites, you can understand why they emphasized certain attributes of God. When the Hebrews were just a tribe, the head of the tribe was judge, jury and executioner. His decisions were, one hoped, motivated by making sure that his family survived. As the Israelites grew into 12 tribes, they remained united mostly because they were slaves in Egypt. They were liberated and unified by God acting through Moses. At Sinai, God made a covenant with the people of Israel. They became his people, and he their sovereign. The Torah or law which was given to them contains the stipulations of the agreement God made with them. This gave them some standards of behavior to follow when they first occupied the land as a loose confederation of clans. Still the tribes clashed, uniting only to fight off common enemies. They paid lip service to God and his law, but they were not far from their chaotic origin as nomads.

Eventually they realized their need to be more unified, preferably under a king. David was their first truly great king and he was succeeded by his son Solomon. Solomon built a splendid temple on Zion, the hill on which sat his capitol, Jerusalem. The temple became a focal point of national worship. The major holidays were celebrated there and sacrifices were made by the priests for the sins of the people. The temple was the place where God met humanity, where heaven touched earth. Unfortunately this fact gave some of them a sense of being special and not in the way that God had mean. They were chosen not because they deserved it but for a purpose: to bless the world. But many of them simply focused on how fortunate they were that God had chosen to live among them.

After Solomon, the nation split into 2, Israel in the north and Judah in the south, where they stayed loyal to the Davidic dynasty. Both kingdoms had a succession of rulers, some great, some weak, some good and some bad. But they forgot God's law. The Lord called prophets to remind the kings and his people of their allegiance to God and his justice and mercy. Finally, after the nation of Judah fell to the Babylonians and went into exile, they realized that all they had left was the law. Their rabbis codified it and did commentaries on it and commentaries on the commentaries (which became the Talmud). That devotion to the law kept the Jews from being assimilated and lost to history as happened to their brothers, the 10 tribes that made up the northern kingdom of Israel. When Cyrus the Persian conquered Babylon and let the Jews return to their homeland, what had endured and unified and preserved them as a people was the Torah, the law. Again, it was protection from strife and chaos.

By the time of Jesus, the Jews were an occupied people. The temple had been rebuilt and priestly Judaism existed along side rabbinic Judaism. In reaction to their situation, a school of rabbinic thought, the Pharisees, became very zealous at observing and getting other Jews to observe the law, as well as all of the additional rules derived from it. This is a typical religious reaction to chaos; make rules for every area of life, label everything either black or white, eliminate all the grey. The priestly party, the Sadducees, adapted to the political realities in order to keep the temple going and preserve what power their caste was granted by the Romans. Essentially, you had a privileged liberal party and a less well off conservative party. Each emphasized their own view of God. Meanwhile the average Jew longed for God to send a holy warrior king like David to free them from Gentile domination.

How did Jesus spur them to rethink their pictures of God? For one thing, by emphasizing the essential elements of the law, justice and mercy, that had gotten buried in the emphasis on observing the letter of the law. The Pharisees had such a strict interpretation of the law that they couldn't allow exceptions, such as healing folks on the Sabbath. Jesus healed whenever he found the need. The prohibition against working on the Sabbath does not excuse us from doing good works on that day. As he said, the Sabbath was made for humans, not vice versa. It was a perversion of the law to use it to justify doing nothing for those who need help.

When asked to summarize the Torah to an impatient Gentile, Jesus' contemporary, the rabbi Hillel said, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man. This is the whole law. The rest is mere commentary." That's the way most religious leaders preceding Christ state the Golden Rule: negatively. Jesus turned it around. "Do to others as you would have them do to you." In other words, it's not enough to merely avoid doing bad things to others; that could justify a kind of benign neglect. One should go beyond that and do good things to others, things you would want done to you in the same situation. And in Matthew Jesus adds the phrase: "for this is the law and the prophets." That's also what Jesus says about the 2 Great Commandments, to love God with all one is and to love one's neighbor as oneself. Jesus cuts through all the additions and expansions of the law and emphasizes its essence: love for all.

Like the clues to Snape being a good guy are there in the early Potter books, the fact that God loves people is there in the Old Testament, over and over. The 2 Great Commandments come from Leviticus and Deuteronomy. His love for all people is the moral of the Book of Jonah; his forgiving and redeeming love is the point of the Book of Hosea. God is a God of love. So how come people think that God, especially as depicted in the Old Testament, is primarily an angry God?

Humanity was in its infancy, you might say. Humans didn't understand what is healthy for them and what is unhealthy. They don't think about others, especially about those outside their own family or people or nation, nor about the consequences of their actions. We are told in Genesis 6, barely into the Bible, that God is so appalled by humanity's violence that he regrets making humans. He decides to start over. He decides to start small, with one man, Abram, who trusts God. Through Abram and his descendents God will work intensively to teach them what he is like and how they should therefore act. His idea is to bless the whole world through the children of the one he now calls Abraham.

But Israel was also in its infancy. The stories of its early years, chronicled in the Book of Judges, sound like a cross between the Wild West and "Tales of the Crypt." God is dealing with barely civilized people and he comes off a bit harsh to our ears. He is trying to navigate his people through a tricky phase of their life while they are surrounded by enemies. Meanwhile, they are constantly asking why they can't do whatever they like. So God comes off as grumpy and strict and a big killjoy. It rarely occurs to them that God is doing what he's always done: protecting them from extinction and trying to bring order out of chaos.

Little has changed. We still act towards God like children who hear our parents say "No" so often that we think they must hate us and not want us to have fun. Why can't I play with all the bottles of colorful and aromatic fluids under the sink? Why can't I play in the street or run to pet strange dogs? Why can't I post pictures of myself in a bikini on Facebook? All my friends are doing it! Why can't I hit my brother back? He started it! Why won't you ever let me do what I want to do? I hate you! And then we metaphorically slam the door shut on God.

God comes off as a hardnose precisely because he is doing the hard job of being a parent of unruly kids, looking out for us while trying to instill a love of peace in us. The most just person in the world is a parent trying to keep her kids from killing each other. But at least one kid will always feel that he is being unfairly restrained from giving his brother his just desserts for what he did to him. Our inability to see beyond our own desires and hurts and fears makes us distrust God's fairness and especially his mercy to those we wish to retaliate against. When, on the other hand, we identify with someone's motivations, we see God's actions to correct them as harsh. We see only the specific act of God or the word of God in one particular context and do not interpret it as the expression of love that it is.

Jesus, while not minimizing God's justice, re-emphasized his forgiveness and love. He did it in parables in which he emphasized the contrast between God's large nature and the narrowness of human nature. God is like the generous owner of a vineyard, a diligent shepherd in search of a single sheep, the forgiving father of a wildly wasteful son, the host of a wedding banquet open to the poor and needy. This is a God who is like us in some ways but far above us in justice and mercy. This is a God who looks at the heart and not at one's position or wealth or outward appearance. He values the pittance of a poor widow over the loud and showy contribution of a philanthropist, because of the personal sacrifice involved.

At the end of the tale, we learn that Snape knew Harry's mother from childhood and that everything he did was done out of unrequited love for her. He was strict and exacting with Harry Potter for his own good. And it turned out that love would call for sacrifice, a theme we find throughout J. K. Rowlings' saga, a theme that reflects her Christianity. In the end, we are surprised to discover Snape is a hero.

Jesus makes us rethink how we view his Father. He shows how love is interwoven throughout the story of God and his often unruly people. He shows that God loves not just the people he has chosen to work through but all people. Jesus shows the extent to which God is willing to go to save his creation. And it will involve sacrifice.

This Wednesday we will explore how Jesus makes us rethink the very way in which God exists and how he relates to us. In the meantime ask yourself how you think of God. As tribal deity? As judge, jury and executioner? As an unyielding bulwark against chaos? As a grandpa who can never say 'no' and can't impose discipline? Or something more biblically balanced: your just, loving, and forgiving Father?

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