Isaiah 1:1, 10-20/Psalm 50:1-8, 23-24/Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16/Luke 12:32-40
One of the things I enjoy most about Scripture is when it says one thing in one place and the opposite somewhere else–which may be a slightly perverse pleasure. Take for example, Genesis Chapter 1. God creates the world in six days and rests on the seventh in a familiar sequence: light, waters, dry land, vegetation, animals and, finally, the crowning touch, human beings.
Then Chapter 2: a different and contradictory story. Creation happens in one day and it’s a completely different sequence. The earth and water, then a man (Adam), then plants, then animals, then, the crowning touch, the woman (Eve). These two stories cannot both be “true”, in the factual sense. Where is the Word of God in these contradictory accounts?
Or, take the reading from Isaiah we heard earlier. The sacrifices of the altar and the keeping of feast days are commanded in the Torah—“This is a statute forever in all your settlements throughout your generations.” [Lev. 23] But now we hear the otherwise: God does not like burnt offerings, he does not like the blood of animals, he hates incense, he can’t endure solemn assemblies and the appointed festivals. The reason: the land is filled with iniquity and oppression. In that context, worship is an affront to God.
The genius of the Hebrew Scriptures—part of the genius of the Hebrew Scriptures—is the preservation of disparate voices, even contradictory voices. Like in Genesis and Isaiah. The Bible contains many contradictory texts and texts that are dissonant in some other way. Texts that are impossible to reconcile with a 21st century worldview—at least if read literally. Texts that are morally repugnant: “Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock.” [Ps. 137] Texts that just don’t say what we think the Word of God ought to be saying.
Where is the Word of God in disparate voices, in contradictory voices, in otherwise dissonant voices? Well, right here, of course. The Word of God, the Living Word of God, the Spirit of Christ hovers over the contradictions and dissonances of the text—much as the Spirit hovers over the face of the waters in creation.
The Living Word of God can speak to us from “comfortable” texts, of course. But the Word can speak to us just as well, perhaps even more eloquently, from a difficult text. The Living Word hovering over the contradictory stories of creation in Genesis, for example, might open for us poetic and metaphorical ways of engaging the text. Since the contradictions make a literalistic reading untenable, the Word, the Spirit can open our hearts and minds to a fuller, richer, more nuanced engagement with the text.
And in reading Isaiah, rather than being nervous or confused about the contradiction with the Torah we might discover that for us today this is not an “either/or” proposition. We don’t have to choose whether to worship God or seek justice in human society—we can do both. We can have our “solemn assemblies” (even our incense!)–and our lives can embody the prophetic witness of Christ, his concern for the well-being of all people. We can find our own synthesis. Shall we be priest or prophet? We can be both, as God gives us grace.
The Living Word of God, the Spirit of Christ meets us in this difficult text, as in any other. The Living Word plants in our hearts both the desire to worship “in spirit and in truth” and to do justice and care for the orphan and widow. It is the Living Word that helps us find our own particular synthesis.
.“Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword…” (Heb. 4:12). The ancient texts are static. But the Living Word of God is active. The ancient texts continue to speak to us in new ways precisely because the Living Word of God keeps company with us. With the Living Word of God at our side our engagement with the ancient texts is fluid, dynamic, creative, generative, open-ended. We never get it nailed down, once and for all.
One of the fruits of this fluid, creative, generative, open-ended process is diversity: we’re not all going to read the Bible the same way at the same time. The fruit of this open-ended, generative process is a kind of religious bio-diversity. A religious ecosystem characterized by great bio-diversity.
What is healthy in nature is healthy for the people of God. A wide range of understandings and interpretations is a sign of good health in the religious eco-system. (By the way, the disparate voices and contradictions of the Hebrew Scriptures probably point to a religious eco-system with bio-diversity in ancient Israel.) Bio-diversity in our religious ecosystem can help us curb the excesses of unchallenged points of view.
Religious bio-diversity may help us to embrace a certain religious modesty, realizing that the full truth is beyond anything a text could convey, beyond anything a human mind can comprehend.
Problem texts, texts with contradictions or harsh dissonance can be frustrating, embarrassing, confusing. But the absence of clarity and certainty in the texts can also be God’s way of drawing us away from easy pieties and premature certainties—away from these untruths and to himself, the Living Word. Problem texts can actually be effective pointers—pointers to the Living Word himself. The Living Word through whom all things came to be; the Living Word in whom we live and move and have our being. The ever-present Living Word of God.
The Gospel today speaks of the coming of the Son of Man at an unexpected hour. But he is here already; we don’t have to wait any longer. He is already here and stands ready to serve us at his table. At the table of the Living Word; at the table of the Body and Blood.
I’ll close with words from one of our hymns [#633; Hymnal 1982]
Word of God, come down on earth, living rain from heaven descending;
Touch our hearts and bring to birth faith and hope and love unending;
Word almighty, we revere you; Word made flesh, we long to hear you.
Word that speaks your Father’s love, one with him beyond all telling,
Word that sends us from above God the Spirit with us dwelling,
Word of truth, to all truth lead us, Word of life, with one Bread feed us.
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