Epiphany 5A (February 5, 2017)

How do you begin to talk about God? It’s an increasingly non-religious age, and religion in media tends to be sensational and hateful. How do you begin to talk about God? Now, hopefully, we know a good place to start is Jesus. Right? This is like when you call tech support and they have to ask you “Is the computer on?” “Have you started with Jesus?” So, let’s see what he says: “I have not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfill them.” Oh my God!

The Law and the Prophets. He’s endorsing the Old Testament. My apologies to George Heider and OT scholars everywhere: most of us when we hear “Old Testament” think blood of the lamb, vengeance is mine, an eye for an eye, fire and brimstone, angel of death, bloody conquest, bloody defeat, and an angry, angry God. That is not the whole story in the Old Testament, but culturally we make it stand for things we don’t like. So if we are trying to figure out how to begin to talk about God and we turn to Jesus, and Jesus gives five-out-of-five stars to the Old Testament we hate, maybe we decide to look elsewhere to find God.

We look elsewhere to find God, and usually, in Western cultures, we settle on some variation on Being. The God largely agreed upon in the West exists, is eternal, doesn’t occupy any space but rather is everywhere all the time, is simple and indivisible, knows all, is all powerful, cannot be changed, is essentially good, and cannot be comprehended.

This is the god we often want because he looks like what we want to be. We are tempted to desire this over who we are. In the second century, a Christian named Marcion declared that love and grace as Jesus preached them flat contradicted the Law and Righteousness of the Old Testament. The “God” of the Old Testament couldn’t be Jesus’ father. It must be an impostor, or a fake God set up to draw us from the real, NT God. In a sort of second century conspiracy theory, Marcion accused the Jews of this deception and also of planting lies in the New Testament any place God didn’t fit Marcion’s ideas. He also thought sex, marriage, and childbirth were shameful. Basically, he rejected our human bodies and wanted to be an angel.

In medieval Europe, monks sitting around contemplating the God of the West decided to write instruction manuals for the love lives of non-monks because, you know, who is better suited to talk about that than someone cut off from the rest of the world in an artificial celibate religious community? So, they would write: “God is eternal, indivisible, omnipotent, omniscient, immutable, good. Pure being. We should all strive to be like that. Men have a lot to let go of to be like God. But you know they have a lot less to let go of than women. Women are more bodily, with their moods and hormones and lustful thoughts and reproductive systems. I mean, we’re going on what we’ve been told here, mind you. None of us have actually met a woman.”

And we do this today, too. The world shames the body, that thing you cannot get rid of because it is you. And too often religion plays along: it holds up this God who exists without a body and says, you should want to be in heaven where you don’t need your pathetic body, and your having a body or the wrong kind of body makes you less, faulty, inferior. It even happens to white middle class men: with our hair. I’m losing my hair. And every time I get it cut I say, I don’t want a combover and I don’t want to look like I have a combover. And the stylist offers me a product that she says will make my hair look thicker. And you know what I do? I buy it. Because I feel insecure and shameful about it. And you know what it does to my hair? Nothing. Shame is powerful.

The agreed-upon God of the West sounds great, but in practice is the justification for shaming who we are. There is a God who stands up to this phony and calls him out. Who stands up for those the world shames, who loves us unconditionally. This God does not fit the mold of the agreed-upon God of the West. It is the God of the Bible, the God of the Old Testament.

See, God reveals God. The God of the West is made up. We take our misplaced shame at our bodies and we project it onto this thing that is everything we aren’t, and then we try to be it. The God of the Bible, on the other hand, reveals Godself to us. That revelation often does not match what we think we know about God. That’s what lies behind today’s Second Reading. Last week, Paul attacked conventional wisdom. This week he says, “Now we do speak wisdom among the mature, but it is the wisdom of God hidden in a mystery.” That word, mystery, has a technical usage in those days, and pops up again later in the same letter, in the passage we usually read graveside: “Lo, I will tell you a mystery: we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed….The dead will be raised imperishable.” The mystery of God, taught among the “mature,” is that God likes people, bodies and all, so much that at the end of time God plans to give us new, imperishable bodies. We don’t earn this. We don’t win this. God does it because God loves us. God loves us for who we are. And we are messy. We are complicated. We are complicated bodies with complicated problems and God loves us.

This is why in our Church we take some of the positions we do on social issues: we are dealing with complicated bodies that God loves. Take our position on Abortion. Might as well just go for a biggie. Abortion is complicated. You’d never know it listening to people yell about it on the news or online. It’s always simple, “Yes!” or “Now” What planet do these people live on? It is never simple. You’re dealing with a woman’s body—her being—and what her circumstances are, and you’re dealing with the bodies around her and the body growing inside of her. I’ve known too many people of faith who have faced questions about terminated pregnancies and whose decisions have run the gamut for me to say anything other than “What a God awful mess life is!” So the Lutheran position on Abortion is complicated. Our ELCA social statement on it says it needs to be regulated and shouldn’t be treated casually but also cannot be banned in any loving way. And we settle there because it is honest about how messy it is being bodies God loves.

The Old Testament is messy. I’ll give an idea of this. Jesus says, “I have come not to abolish the law but to fulfill it.” That word, “Fulfill,” or perhaps better, “confirm,” hearkens back to one of my favorite scenes in the Old Testament. King David is old. He is reduced to shivering under his blankets. David…is a philanderer, okay? Let’s be honest. So his men decide to cheer him up by giving him an attractive young woman. Topless dancer comes in. David, bah, doesn’t care. They figure: this is bad, if David doesn’t care a stripper is here. (This is already a weird story. Where the heck is pastor going with this? I’m just following God! I swear!) His son, Adonijah, decides “I’m not waiting any longer; I’m going to be king, now.” He has a coronation party, leaves out David’s top men including the prophet Nathan. Nathan sees he is in trouble, and goes to Bathsheba, who is merely one of David’s wives and not the mother of Adonijah. He tells her what’s up, and they hatch a plan. Nathan says, “You go in to David, tell him Adonijah has called himself king, and ‘remind’ David he promised to make your son, Solomon, the King. Then, as soon as you’re done, I will burst in as though in a hurry, and ‘remind’ him of the same thing. That will confirm your reminder.”

I love this scene for many reasons, one of which is that up to this point we’ve never heard that David promised to make Solomon king. Nathan and Bathsheba could be making this up! (I’ve read this scene countless times; I kinda think they do make it up!) But we have heard that God loves David, despite all the horrible things he has done, and that God loves Solomon. People, folks with bodies, are Solomon in this story. Yes, I know there are questions about what happens to Adonijah, what about Solomon’s later problems. They’re valid questions, but beside the point at hand. God loves people and puts up with ridiculous stuff from us because of it.

How do we begin to talk about God? We begin with a God who loves people. God loves people, bodies and all. God loves this, even if it is overweight and losing hair. The God of the Old Testament is a people person. The Old Testament is complicated because the God of the Old Testament loves these complicated people enough to be faithful to them despite all sorts of horrible things they do, but we don’t have Jesus or the resurrection without the God of the Old Testament, because Jesus is the God of the Old Testament. God likes people enough that God becomes one in Jesus, and does all the people stuff, even dying. That’s something we do. And even rising. With our new bodies God has given us.