An Ash Wednesday reflection
We tend to think of the Bible as a holy book filled with stories of holy people. It is not. This book is pretty disturbing.
Familiarity has taken away the horror of humanity’s rebellion from God in the Garden, of Cain’s murder of Abel, of Lamech’s exultation in his revenge murder and his boastful promise of seventy-seven fold vengeance should anyone harm him. Familiarity has taken away the shock of humanity consorting with angelic beings that results in giant offspring. Familiarity has taken away the terror of God’s judgment at the time of Noah “that every inclination of the thoughts of [the human] heart was only evil all the time.” And with all this, we are only in chapter five of Genesis. We haven’t yet gotten to Noah’s drunken state, Ham’s disgrace of his Father, the outright rebellion of humanity at Babel when they spurned God’s blessing and rejected God’s command to fill the earth, trying instead to build a tower from which to storm the gates of heaven.
That takes us to chapter 11.
In chapter 12, Abraham sets off in faithful trust in God’s promise and promptly brings disease upon Egypt by lying about his wife, Sarah. Lot goes to live in Sodom, and the story of Sodom’s grotesque behavior in the attempted gang rape of the two visitors – and Lot’s willingness to give up his daughter – is familiar to us. At least in that latter story we still experience some horror.
The Biblical story is a story of war and pestilence, rape and violence, idolatry and decadence, and the persistent refusal to live the justice and mercy God commands.
Sometimes, I think I liked it better as a children’s book.
What is startling in the book is not the witness to human greed and violence. What is startling in the book is God’s faithfulness.
You could make a pretty good argument that God’s first mistake was to make humans and his second was to rescue Noah when all human existence was endangered. We have not excelled at love of God and love of neighbor. We have not excelled at our primary task of caring for the earth.
It is not surprising that when God shows up in the person of Jesus we kill him. Humanity has been on a history-long effort to be rid of God. We are a little like two-year-olds who do not want to be told no, who do not want any constraints on our behavior.
And, of course, the consequence of humanity’s journey away from God is death’s dominion. War, hunger, poverty, rob us of life. Addiction, violence, fear, sorrow – all the things we describe as deadly sins – are just that: deadly. They steal away the goodness of life.
But God remains faithful. God protects Adam and Eve, clothing them when they leave the Garden. God visits Cain to dissuade him from his murderous revenge. God doesn’t allow humanity to complete its tower at Babel. God doesn’t not allow the flood to wipe away human life. God renews his word of blessing after the flood, even though humanity has not changed. The surprise in the Biblical story is not human corruption, but God’s favor.
God remains faithful to the world he has made. He remains faithful to us whom he has formed in his image. He seeks our life not our death. He seeks our healing not our judgment. He seeks our wholeness not our condemnation.
The eternal heart of the universe is turned towards us not away from us. We are not abandoned to our own devices on this wondrous bit of planetary rock. God is present. God is working. The heartbeat of life still pulses through all things. The breath of God still flows over us. The voices of the prophets still speak. And God still calls to us:
12Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
13rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love.