Weekly Reflection, April 20, 2017

The text of a sermon preached by John Graham at the Easter Vigil, Saturday, April 15 at Christ Church, Georgetown.

The Bible bears witness to the mighty works of the One whom Christian tradition calls “God the Father”.

These works both exhilarate and horrify us.  Some of them embody justice in all its purity and majesty.  Others, or the same ones, are undiscriminating and even capricious in the harm they inflict.   God the Father is capable of cruelty, and the most egregious disregard for collateral damage.  The mighty works of the Father include both planting and uprooting, building up and breaking down, gathering and scattering, none of them necessarily conforming to human notions of what’s fitting or fair.

Tonight’s readings serve to confirm this view.  God tells Abraham to kill his son Isaac, and we watch and listen in disbelief as Abraham takes Isaac to the mountain where the barbaric act is to take place.  God frees the Israelites from bondage, but at a terrible cost; the bodies of the Egyptian charioteers are spread out on the shores of the Red Sea.  These military men may have shared in Pharaoh’s splendor, but in the end they were little more than slaves, like the Hebrews themselves.

The great prophets of the Bible declare these mighty works and, inspired by God, interpret them as the Father’s judgments on his people’s iniquity.  Yet even the fiercest of the prophets – Jeremiah with his jeremiads; Amos, conveying God’s ringing condemnation of empty religious observances:  “I hate, I despise your (religious) festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…Take away from me the noise of your songs…” – even these prophets draw back in dismay at the deeds God the Father tells them that he is going to perform.  When God gives Amos a vision of impending plagues, locusts and fire from heaven, Amos cries out, in words as poignant as any we hear in Scripture, “O Lord God, cease, I beg you!  How can Jacob (the people of Israel personified in the figure of the patriarch) stand?  He is so small!”

Jesus stands in the line of these great prophets.  Matthew’s gospel tells us, in its recounting of Jesus’ triumphal entrance into Jerusalem, that the crowds called him “the prophet…from Nazareth”.  In other places Jesus, speaking in the third person, appears to identify himself as Son of Man, and he does not deny, when interrogated by Pilate, that he is the Son of God – “you have said so” is his reply to the governor’s query.

Increasingly, though, I am persuaded that Jesus identified himself most deeply and consistently with the Biblical figure called Wisdom.  Wisdom, according to the Book of Proverbs, is the consort of God the Father in the work of creation.  Always portrayed as a woman, she “rejoice(s) before (God) in the whole inhabited world”.  She speaks, eloquently, in a familiar passage from Ecclesiastes:

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up…”

Wisdom’s principal task, I think, is to find a place and a time, a season, for all of the mighty works of the Father and all of their consequences.  Through her, in her, both the Father’s justice and the Father’s injustice, His tenderness and His cruelty, the planting and the plucking up, the breaking down and the building up, the killing and the healing, are given order and – though it may be mysterious, even unknowable, to us – a “purpose under heaven”.

Is this not the ministry of Jesus?  He makes a place for all of the Father’s works in his own body.  Their majesty and authority shine forth in the resplendent countenance of the Mount of Transfiguration and in the inherent power of his speech; their cruelty and injustice in the pierced hands and feet of the cross of Calvary.   Christ is Wisdom incarnate.  The full spectrum of the Father’s governance of his creation, the very definition of a mixed blessing, is inscribed in his flesh and blood.

Jesus rises from the dead with his wounds and his splendor alike intact.  And as his risen body is, so are we in this world.  We shine, and we bleed.  Through the rhythms and disciplines of faith – prayer, penitence, service, witness, study – and what Aeschylus called “the awful grace of God”, wisdom distills in the heart.  Every purpose under heaven comes to be acknowledged, even accepted.

Like Jesus, we live in the Father’s world.  The Father’s works still cause us both exhilaration and horror.  Through the Son’s death and resurrection, they are made bearable, and hope possible.  Our wretched bodies take on, invisibly and often imperceptibly, the glory of that body both risen and wounded that is Christ at work in the world.

John Graham