Proper 24 (29), Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
22 October 2023
Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13)
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
The beginning of Second Isaiah, from where our first reading is taken, is witness to the emergence of Biblical monotheism. In verse five God says, “I am the LORD, and there is no other; besides me there is no god.”
A little earlier in Isaiah 40, Isaiah proclaimed,
18To whom then will you liken God,
or what likeness compare with him?
Isaiah answers the question with sarcasm,
19An idol? —A workman casts it,
and a goldsmith overlays it with gold,
and casts for it silver chains.
20As a gift one chooses mulberry wood
—wood that will not rot—
then seeks out a skilled artisan
to set up an image that will not topple.
Then Isaiah speaks of the power and majesty of God,
21Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
22It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to live in;
23who brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.
These are words spoken to a people in exile, whose oppressors had carried them away from the land God had given them. And in the midst of exile they learn that there is only one God.
This is remarkable. For they could have interpreted their defeat in other ways. They could have said that Marduk, the god of the Babylonians was stronger than the God of Israel, and they thus could have decided to worship Marduk, because, after all, you want your god to be able to deliver the goods that matter to you. Of course, that kind of faith is not really faith at all because it is a transactional faith, meaning that we give God our worship and God gives us what we want.
Instead, the Israelites saw their defeat as the result of their sin. This capacity for self-criticism stands out for it abandons the us-versus-them paradigm. The Israelites also realized that Marduk was no deity at all and was simply a function of Babylonian power and group building.1 What I mean by this is that Marduk was something like the mascot at a sports game, a point of identification that allowed people to rally for common cause. The inevitable result of such rallying is the conviction that we are better than they, which is how wars are fought.
Perhaps you were surprised when I spoke of the emergence of Biblical monotheism, wondering whether Biblical faith had not always been belief in one God, and whether it wasn’t true that all of the Bible was witness to faith in one God.
The short answer is yes as it is how the scriptures come to us. However, in the scriptures we can see the development of the faith of God’s people. Such development shouldn’t surprise us, for our understanding and faith also develop, and the faith of a forty year old is not the same as the faith of an eight year old. The longer we live with God in the community of God’s people amidst the challenges we encounter, the more our faith and our understanding of God may change and grow.
In his first letter to the church at Corinth the apostle Paul speaks of his addressees as infants in Christ. Later in the same letter he writes, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”2
But to development in the Bible itself: In the Book of Genesis God is spoken of as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This likely did not mean that God was understood as the God of all, though, of course, God always was. But the people did not see this yet.
We also see in the presence of local deities the assumption that deities served a territory, and so if the exiles were no longer in the land, one question would have been whether JHWH had power outside of Israel. This is not a question from where we stand today, but it was a question then.
And the prophets would not have had to call the people away from worshipping idols, had they not done so. So when God, through the prophet Isaiah, proclaims, “I am the LORD, and there is no other; besides me there is no god,” then this presupposes that at least some people believed that there is more than one god because one does not have to state the obvious.
And that there is only one God changes things fundamentally because a person or a people faced with a God who alone is God and with the incomparable strength of the creator of the universe learns to pay attention to God and learns to no longer pay attention to what others may be saying. In the words of the theologian James Alison, God is the wholly Other. I am also thinking of Martin Buber’s insight that it is through the encounter with the thou that a person becomes an I.3
Karl Barth was a Christian Reformed theologian of the 20th century. Barth’s commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Romans marks a juncture in the theological thought of his day. In one of the prefaces to Romans (there is more than one), Barth writes that if he had to choose between the historical critical method of biblical interpretation, and that of divine inspiration, he would choose the latter. However, is glad not to have to choose. The historical critical method is a helpful tool in biblical interpretation yet it also can level a biblical text so that often all that is left is a horizontal reading of a text without any understanding that God has been and continues to speak in and through the biblical text. In 1914 Barth’s teachers had signed a manifesto supporting Germany’s position in WW I, not a surprise, for their position was one of aligning biblical values with the values of what they considered reason, which – not surprisingly – mirrored the prevailing culture. It was the result of a horizontal interpretation of the Bible. The direct result was the blessing of arms and armies and the declaration that God is with us. God became the tool to bless the things we sought to do anyway.
And so after the disaster of WW I in which the churches had nothing meaningful to proclaim, Barth declares God to be the wholly other. Barth does not deny God’s humanity in Jesus but he denies that God is an extension of our plans and aspirations. For Barth God is the wholly other.
Barth’s declaration received as much attention as it did not only because it was disruptive but because it was prophetic. It was a judgment of his time.
When Amos speaks judgement against Israel’s neighbours, Amos follows this up with the judgement of Israel. Where each of the nations get a couple of verses of criticism, Israel gets ten, and from chapter three onward, the blast is entirely directed at the “we”.4 And so in Israel’s relationship with God the people discover self-criticism, because if God is the God of all, if God is the wholly Other, then God cannot be instrumentalized to destroy my enemy. Instead, we learn to pay attention to the wholly Other who is the I am who teaches us who we are and who we are to become.
This means that the God of Israel is not the kind of God that functions like a mascot that strengthens the us against the them. It is not a God we can use to beat up on the others, for if there is only one God, then God is the God of all.
Our encounter of God is then not one of God padding us on our shoulder, or blessing our wars, or cursing our enemies, rather our experience is the burning bush, our experience of God is the I Am. That is the discovery of what we call Second Isaiah from where our first reading is taken.
The theologian James Alison writes, Moses is not ordered to go and say to the people of Israel “He” has sent me but “I am” has sent me. And this for a very good reason, only able to be understood over time: “He” would merely be a function of my strong-willed “I”,” an extension of my I. However, in the Biblical revelation, Moses and all of God’s messengers are but a malleable function of an unutterably strong, and almost unmentionable “I am”.5 In other words, it is all about God. And in this sense, encountering God is a mystical experience.
‘Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ (Exodus 3:5)
If God is indeed the I am, and Jesus in the Gospel of John reinforces this, when he says I am (the bread of life, the light of the world, the gate, the Good Shepherd, the resurrection and the life, the way, the truth, and the life, and the vine) then our focus is not on on the others, not on the them, except to love as God loves, but our focus is on God.
May it be so among us.
1 James Alison, Contemplation and Monotheism: On the Indispensability of Irrelevance, Talk for the Julian Fest, of the Order of Julian of Norwich, held at Schoenstatt Retreat Center, Waukesha, Wisconsin, on 10 May 2003. This sermon is much indebted to Alison’s lecture linked above.
2 1 Corinthians 13:12