Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Archive for June, 2012

Suing God

Job 38:1 Then the Holy One of Old answered Job out of the whirlwind: 

2 “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? 

3 Gird up your loins like a man,

I will question you, and you shall respond to me.

 

Let us pray: Blessed are You, Yah our God, Heart of the Universe, who attends to us and hears the voice of our hearts; mother-love us and make audible the soft, still voice. Amen.

 

If I knew where to find God, I’d sue. That’s what Job said and that’s what Job did; he sued God. Job loses everything he has. His cattle and camels aren’t just money in the bank, they are the food in his belly, milk for his children, clothes on his back, the tractors with which he plowed his fields, fertilizer and fuel and transportation, Social Security and Medicare rolled up together. He has even made it his business to treat his slaves as justly as he knows how and he grieves their loss. And then there is the loss of all of his children at one time, a grief that overshadows everything else including the disgusting, oozing sores all over his body. All of Job’s children are dead and gone – murdered – and nothing will ever bring them back. Even if he has children later – and he will – they can never be replaced. And so he sues God. I understand. I am haunted by Job’s children, by the shades of his murdered children; they attend my teaching and preaching on and from the book of Job. They are three daughters and seven sons whose names and ages are neglected in the text. I will never forget them nor allow them to be forgotten.

 

The basis of Job’s lawsuit is that God has done him wrong by allowing his children to be butchered, his body to be afflicted and his wealth to be erased. After all, Job knows that he is blameless in God’s sight. And he knows that the prevailing theology of his day is that if bad things happen to you you are not a good person, you deserve whatever you get. But Job knows that he does not deserve any of this. (However, neither Job nor the biblical author take up the issue of whether wrong was done to Job’s murdered children.) 

 

Where was God and what was God doing while Job’s life was being destroyed? God was there. And God did nothing. God permitted it, sanctioned it, suggested it. And if Job knew what we know from the narrator who speaks to the reader – that his life was crap because God was playing craps with his life – he might have wanted to do more than sue God. But Job doesn’t know that God set him up, used him and his children and all of their lives to prove a point. But Job does know that God is, that God is there and that God is just even when he doesn’t understand how a just God could let all of this happen. He knows that God is real and that if he can just find God and serve the Most High a subpoena and give God a piece of his mind, everything will be all right. 

 

I’ve been saying that Job sues God because the Hebrew text is full of legal terminology and presents Job’s claim as a personal injury lawsuit. Words like “contend” and “reason” in English bibles are all translations of the word that means lawsuit, riyv, in Hebrew. Job spends the majority of the book looking for God so that he can have his day in court. And Job believes that he will get a fair trial and a fair hearing from God because he believes in a just God. Now, in order to sue God Job had a number of obstacles to overcome which he explains his friends. First, God is no ordinary defendant, (9:32-34):

For God is not a mortal, as I am, that I might answer God,

that we should come to trial together.

There is no umpire between us,

who might lay a hand on us both.

If God would take God’s rod away from me,

and not let dread of God terrify me,

then I would speak without fear of God,

for I know I am not what I am thought to be.

 

Second, he had to figure out how to serve God a subpoena. Job discussed his search for God with his friends in 23:3-5:

Who will grant that I might know

where I might find God,

that I might come to God’s abode?

I would set my case in order before God,

and fill my mouth with arguments.

I might know what God would answer me,

and understand what God would say to me.

 

Job also spends quite a bit of time with this idea in chapter 9, verses 1, 14-16, 19-20:

If one wished to sue God,

one could not answer God once in a thousand…

If it is a contest of strength, God is the strong one!

How then can I answer God,

choosing my words with God? 

Though I am innocent, I cannot answer God;

I must appeal for mercy to my accuser… 

If I summoned God and God answered me,

I do not believe that God would listen to my voice.

If it is a matter of justice, who can summon God? 

Though I am innocent, my own mouth would condemn me;

though I am blameless, God would prove me perverse.

 

Job had to find someone among his kinfolk and skin-folk, an advocate, a go‘el, (traditionally translated redeemer) to represent him. That was the system set up from the time of Moses – if you got into any type of legal or even financial trouble, one of your relatives was supposed to bail you out, literally. But who could serve as Job’s redeeming relative? The relatives who abandoned him when he fell ill and lost all his money wouldn’t help him sue God. He says (in 19:13), “My relatives and my close friends have failed me.” Of Job’s attempt to find legal representation to take on God, one of his friends (Eliphaz) says in 5:1, “Call now; is there anyone who will answer you? To which of the holy ones will you turn?” But Job is convinced that this thing can be done, he also knows he may not survive it and wishes to leave an account for all who follow, 19:23-24:

“O that my words were written down!

O that they were inscribed in a book! 

O that with an iron pen and with lead

they were engraved on a rock forever! 

 

He got his wish. Perhaps most importantly, Job knows that there is someone who will take his case and he will surely get his day in court. He says:

For I know that my Advocate lives,

who will at the last stand upon the earth; 

and after my skin has been so destroyed,

then in my flesh shall I see God, 

whom I shall see on my side,

and my eyes shall behold, and not another.

My heart faints within me!

 

Job’s Advocate, his Redeeming-Relative is One who can summon God and require faithfulness of God. Job doesn’t know it yet, but his Advocate and Redeeming-Relative is God. Meanwhile, Job’s faux-friend Elihu acknowledges that there may indeed be such a mediator in 33:24-25:

Then, if there should be for one of them an angel,

a mediator, one of a thousand,

one who declares a person upright, 

who is gracious to that person, and says,

‘Deliver him from going down into the Pit;

I have found a ransom. 

Let his flesh become fresh with youth;

let him return to the days of his youthful vigor.’ 

Then he prays to God, and is accepted by God,

he comes into God’s presence with joy,

and God repays him for his righteousness.

 

With every fiber of his being Job ached and thought, if I could just see God… And then, God appeared to Job in a whirlwind. Job seeks to draw a real, living God into court, and gets more than he bargains for. God shows up. God shows up and God blows up the courthouse. God shows up in chapter 38 and tells Job to tie up the man-flesh dangling between his legs and demands that Job answer, “Who is this that darkens counsel by speech without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you will answer me!” 

 

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Don’t you know that I am the mother of ice and snow, birthing them out of my own womb? Don’t you know that I am the father of the rain? (God uses both genders in Job.) Have you given marching orders to the sun every morning from the time before time? Did you plant the stars in the heavens joining them into constellations? Who do you think you are? Don’t you know who I am? And Job put his hand over his mouth.

 

The book of Job doesn’t whitewash pain and suffering. Its scandalous theology is that God is gambling with your life and the lives of those you hold dear, including your precious children. And at the same time, the book of Job affirms a God who is there, a God who responds, albeit a God who does not do what we want or think, but an all-powerful, sovereign God. When Job meets God face-to-force, Job says, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you. I reject all of this and am comforted in dust and ashes.” 

 

The book of Job is an ancient theodicy; it is a theology of pain and suffering. And the book of Job is scripture to bear holy witness to the truth of the victimized and devastated who know that life is not fair, you don’t always get what you deserve, the innocent do suffer and God is inscrutable. Yet God is real and God is there and God will listen when you give God a piece of your mind about what God is doing to you, with you and the ones you love. 

 

That’s what the disciples do in the Gospel. They are on the Sea of Galilee which can be a good place to have a party. That’s what I did on my first trip to Israel. I danced across the sea on a party boat. It was late summer. On my second trip, it was July and I was buttoned up against the cold and braced for the wind. And even with our modern, motorized boat we were buffeted on that tiny lake like we were in the ocean. And if Jesus had been onboard, I would have woken him up too. Loudly. That's what the disciples do, giving Jesus a piece of their minds: Get up Jesus! What do you think you’re doing? I can’t believe you’re lying there asleep while we are dying. Get up and do something!

 

Job teaches that even if you’re crazy enough to try to sue God, God will come to meet you where you are, God will speak a word – that if it doesn’t change your circumstances, will change you. God spoke to Job from chapter 38 to chapter 41. God spoke to Job for one hundred and twenty nine verses. And in that time, God didn’t change a single thing in Job’s life. God changed Job.

 

I say with Job, I have suffered unbelievable loss, but it’s all right. I’ve faced the limits of my own mortality, and it’s all right. I’ve called God on the carpet and been blown out of the water, and it’s still all right. How can it be all right? Because whenever I need to – and I need to frequently, I give God a piece of my mind. I have filed more than one lawsuit myself. Shall not, the Judge of all the earth do what is right? I know that I have a living Advocate to plead my case. Somewhere there is for me, a redeeming relative, some kin to help me save my skin. I know I will get justice. I know I can’t win against God, but when I have my say then I know there’s still justice and righteousness in the universe.

 

Job sued God. Shouted at God. And it was all right. It was more than all right. It was healing and transformational. And Job died old, contented and full of days. 

In the Name of God: 

Sovereign, Savior and Shelter. Amen.


Saying “Vagina” In the Pulpit

Looking forward to next week's Gospel and reflecting on the censuring of a Michigan State Representative, I discuss the woman with a vaginal hemorrhage in light of contemporary politcal and public discourse in my latest Huffington Post bog entry.


It Takes A Village: In the Shadow of David

Let us pray: Holy One of Old, open our eyes that we may see. Amen.

The author of the book of Samuel wants you to know that good things come in small, or better, seemingly insignificant packages. David’s own father – Happy Father’s Day! –  overlooked him because he was the baby. Samuel wasn’t much better, focusing his attention on the tall, dark and handsome brother. But God says, “I do not see the way that humans do: you all look at a person’s face and body; I look at a person’s heart.” 

Samuel and God were having this conversation because God had decided to replace Saul as king. Saul, the second king in Israel after Avimelek in the book of Judges, has turned out to be something of a disappointment. And God breaks up with him. Saul is devastated and never recovers, and I really feel for him. Samuel seems to take it equally hard. But the bible and God move on to David – ah new love!

God has had God’s eye on David’s family and decided on David as the next King of Israel. What was it God saw in the young David? I’d like to think it was promise and possibility. I’d hate to think that God saw all of the things that David would do and chose him anyway, not caring. I’d rather think that God saw that David had it in him to be a great man, to inspire people, to lead people, to love passionately, to pray faithfully, yes, to sin, but then to repent sincerely. So God sent Samuel to Jesse, to anoint one of his sons – as yet unidentified. God tells Samuel to invite Jesse and leaves the rest of the details up to him. And that’s where things get interesting.

  I’m calling this sermon “It Takes A Village: In the Shadow of David” because while David is the obvious focus of this story, he’s not the only one in it. David is anointed as king to lead God’s people, but not for his own benefit – although he did benefit. David was called to service, a type of service that exists in only a small part of our world. People all over the world recently reflected on the tradition of monarch as servant with Queen Elizabeth II as she celebrated her Diamond Jubilee. David’s service was to and for people the bible rarely mentions, the little people, the insignificant people, people passed over based on birth order or what they look like. Just like David; the irony abounds. So, I invite you to look at and look for all of the people who made David’s reign possible including his royal family because, quite frankly, David isn’t someone who I’d like to model my life and faith on. So I’m going to do a feminist reading of the story this morning. You don’t mind me using the f-word in the pulpit do you? As a feminist, I’m keenly aware of who is in the story and who is missing from this story. 

Today we’re going to talk to each other a bit. Who do you think is missing from this story? Think of the sacrifice like a big family celebration. Who is around your table at Thanksgiving?

I’ll give you a moment to answer while I remind you what is going on. Samuel comes to Bethlehem and the elders of the city meet him at the gate, shaking with fear and want to know, “Do you come in peace?” That’s because one verse before our lesson in the previous chapter Samuel kills the Amalekite king, Agag, chopping him into pieces: 

1 Samuel 15:32 Then Samuel said, “Bring Agag king of the Amalekites here to me.” And Agag came to him haltingly. Agag said, “Surely this is the bitterness of death.” 33 But Samuel said, “As your sword has made women childless, so your mother shall be childless among women.” And Samuel chopped Agag in pieces before the Holy One in Gilgal. 34 Then Samuel went to Ramah… [Our lesson picks up here]

So the elders of Bethlehem were understandably concerned when Samuel showed up. The text doesn’t leave any space between the two stories so for all we know Samuel may have come straight from the execution, having his conversation with God on the road. So Samuel invites the elders to the sacrifice, perhaps to prove the only thing getting killed is the cow. 

Back to your quiz: God has sent Samuel to Jesse to anoint the king that God has chosen. Samuel invites all of Jesse’s sons – but we know one, David, is missing – and Samuel invites the elders. Now, who do you think is missing from this story? [David’s mother and sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc.]

David was only available for God because his parents produced and raised him. We know a bit about his father, Jesse the grandson of Ruth and Boaz. But what about his mother whose name is not preserved? How do I know that David’s mother is alive and that he has sisters?

Later on in 1 Sam 22:3-4, David asks the king of Moab – his great-grandmother Ruth was Moabite – David asks the king: “Please let my father and mother come to you, until I know what God will do for me.” He left them with the king of Moab, and they stayed with him all the time that David was in the stronghold.

  So David’s mother was alive. And either Samuel excluded her from the sacrifice only inviting Jesse and the boys or the author of the text ignores her only focusing on Jesse and the boys. Where else would she have been but at her home when the national prophet showed up? Even if she was at market wouldn’t she have gone straight home after that scene at the city gates with the elders? Even if they weren’t invited to the sacrifice, don’t you think everyone in town was as close to the sacrifice as possible? And since sacrifices were done outside there was nothing to keep anyone away – and ancient Israel didn’t practice gender segregation at sacrifices. I think she was there, along with her daughters. Did she at some point offer hospitality to Samuel, a meal and a place to stay and water for his feet? I think so.

David comes from a large family and the names of all of David’s brothers and sisters are given in 1 Chronicles chapter 2. David’s brothers: Eliab firstborn, Abinadab the second, Shimea the third, Nethanel the fourth, Raddai the fifth, Ozem the sixth, David the seventh (1 Chron 2:13-15) and David’s sisters: Zeruiah and Abigail (1 Chron 2:16) They will become the royal family, the village that makes it possible for David to be who he will be and perhaps could be.

Why does it matter who counts and who gets erased? It matters as we try to understand what lessons this story has for us. Many folk read the scriptures through the lenses of the major characters. But we can’t all be David. Who are you in this story? Are you even in this story? Are you David’s parents or sisters? Think about the fact that we know their names unlike the sisters of Jesus from last week. Are you one of David’s brothers, one of his nephews – I’ll tell you about them in a bit – or even one of the many, many, women in his life? (Solomon got that thing honestly, from his father.)

The lessons for us today in this passage of scripture are not literal – we will not be anointed king of Israel or America. Yet this is a scriptural story passed down to us. It may be that God has seen something in us like David, that we are full of promise and possibility. And there is the promise and potential of all the other folk in our village, some of which gets overshadowed by the radiant gifts of a select few. But none of us will be who we are and who we will be, who we can be, on our own. We come from families that shape us for good and for ill, and from communities, neighborhoods, schools and our larger culture. And many if not most of us participate in more than one culture. And we are also responsible for our own choices, including the choice to nurture the dreams and aspirations of other folk in our villages. How will we live up to and into our own possibilities and promise and at the same time, how will we help those around us live up to and into theirs?

David’s family supports him; his successes are largely family affairs. David is supported by three men who have his back at every turn, his nephews, the sons of his sister Zeruiah: Abishai, Joab, and Asahel. Contrary to much of biblical tradition, their father is erased from the text; his name is not preserved and they are known by their mother’s name. David’s nephews are the commanders of his military forces and his personal guard. They hunted down and killed everyone who rebelled against David personally – including David’s son Absalom. David didn’t put himself on that throne and he didn’t keep himself on that throne. And when one of Saul’s men killed one of David’s nephews in battle they hunted him down and killed him after the battle was over.

David’s other sister, Abigail, gave birth to his nephew Amasa, unfortunately he sided with Absalom and was killed by Joab, one of those first three nephews. (1 Chron 2:16-17) Amasa’s father, David’s brother-in-law was Jether the Ishmaelite, so David is related to the children of Ishmael and Israel in addition to being the great-grandson of a Moabite woman. David’s village transcended socially acceptable boundaries. The Gospel of Matthew will take it farther and say that Boaz, David’s great-grandfather is descended from Rahab, the Canaanite prostitute. 

David’s complicated family history is a reminder that royal families are not different from our families in most ways. We’ve all got stories and skeletons. The feminist practice of naming those rendered invisible and silent paints the Israelite royal family in a whole new light. David’s family would be right at home in a reality show, but they are nearly lost to the long shadow cast by David in the glare of the light shone on David by the writers of the scriptures, nearly eclipsing everyone else. 

And of course, there are all of David’s women: Merab whose engagement to David was broken by her father Saul, Michal whose marriage to David was ended by her father Saul who gave to another man; she was taken back and imprisoned by David, Abigail with whom he apparently never had children. And then there are all of the women with whom he did have children: Ahinoam whom he married on the way home with Abigail after their wedding – ick!, Maacah, Haggith, Abital, Eglah, and Bathsheba. 

When I teach the biblical account of David’s rape of Bathsheba I start with the fact that David has at least six wives with whom he is living, sleeping and making babies. They are in addition to his banished wife, Michal. David has also two collections of women described as “other primary and secondary wives taken in Jerusalem” and he inherited “Saul’s former wives.” David has sexual access to as many as a dozen women if not more when he walks out onto that roof sees Bathsheba and gives the order to have her abducted and brought to him so that he can do as he pleases.

There were consequences to all of David’s womanizing which he admits in his lesser-known psalm of repentance, Ps 38:

1 Holy One of Old, do not rebuke me in your anger, or discipline me in your wrath. 

2 For your arrows have sunk into me, and your hand has come down on me.

3 There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation;

there is no health in my bones because of my sin. 

4 For my iniquities have gone over my head; they weigh like a burden too heavy for me.

5 My wounds grow foul and fester because of my foolishness; 

6 I am utterly bowed down and prostrate; all day long I go around mourning. 

7 For my loins are filled with burning, and there is no soundness in my flesh.

David has apparently contracted a sexually communicated disease. And, lastly, there was Abishag with whom he was impotent before he died – yes that is in the bible. Did God really know that David would do all of these things and choose him anyway?

Saint Augustine famously described God as omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. However in the bible, God seems to never be more than two o’s at a time. When God looks on David’s heart, what does God see? Perhaps God did see all of David’s brokenness and knew that it was still possible for David to be the man that God called him to be. And I think that’s good news for the rest of us. Amen.


If We Can’t See God Then Give Us a King: Incarnational Monarchy

A Bejeweled Crown

It’s not you it’s me. That’s the stereotypical and clichéd way to break up with someone. But what happens in the book of Samuel (and it’s a single book in Hebrew) is even tackier: The one partner (Israel) won’t talk to the other partner (God) and tells a third party (Samuel) that it’s time to redefine their relationship. Awkward!

But they’re also dissing Samuel – we wouldn’t need a king if you had done a better job raising your boys… Verse 5: You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways… Ouch! Samuel’s sons were greedy and corrupt. Listen to the beginning of chapter 18 excluded from our lectionary:

1Samuel 8:1 When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel. 2 The name of his firstborn son was Yo’el, and the name of his second, Aviyah; they were judges in Be’er-sheba. 3 Yet his sons did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice. 

The people had already been through this with Eli, Samuel’s mentor and predecessor. He was a good judge, but his sons were thieves – they stole the peoples’ offerings, God’s offerings, right out of the collection plates and they forced the women who ministered at the sanctuary to sleep with them, clergy misconduct in every way. Hannah gave her firstborn son Samuel to God and God gave him to Eli to be his replacement, but there were no fine young men or women waiting in the wings this time around. Just the thought of going through that again must have been traumatic.

But what I can’t figure for the life of me is why the Israelites thought a monarch would be any better. What guarantee would they have that the king’s sons wouldn’t be despots or tyrants? None! That's exactly what happened and the monarchy of Israel was broken into two shrinking pieces from which it never recovered, just as the gospel says, a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. The request was illogical and irrational. It wasn’t about Samuel; he was just the excuse. It was peer pressure on an epic, national and international scale. We want a king like everybody else. We want to be like the modern Iron Age nations, on the cutting edge.

Now this is a tricky text for Americans because we’re rather smug in our rejection of monarchy, particularly here in Philadelphia, the cradle of American liberty. But the aftermath of this text, which we often forget, is that God sanctifies monarchy –the Israelite monarchy and perhaps those that extend from it – making our own patriotic rebellion scripturally questionable. This text is also difficult to translate into our contemporary reality. If we agree that neither God nor Samuel thought that the monarchy was a good idea but held their collective noses and let their spoiled brats have what they thought they wanted to teach them a lesson, then what was the preferred alternative? Theocracy? Theocracy doesn’t have a positive track record in our world outside of the scriptures. It doesn’t work terribly well in the scriptures. We know that theocracies are dangerous.

Moses was arguably the first theocratic ruler in Israel’s history. And yet, in spite of the very real, visible presence of God in the pillars of cloud, smoke and fire, miraculous provision of manna and quail, earthshaking miracles, sand, serpents, plagues and other punishments, there were constant complaints, rebellions and more than one attempted coup. At more than one point God had enough, decided to kill everybody and start all over again with new people – as though they would be more faithful the next time around than the old people – and Moses had to talk God out of killing rages repeatedly, interceding with incense, placing his own body between the wrath of God and the dying.

Then came the judges. They were a mixed bunch at best. The judges were warlords and whoremongers, prophets and priests; one sacrificed his own daughter, slaughtering her like an animal in the name of God, a human sacrifice. And they had a bad habit of appointing their own questionable offspring after them. They may not have called themselves kings, queens or monarchs, but they sure acted like them – right down to the thrones of Moses, Deborah, Eli and Samuel.

So God tells Samuel, “it’s not you; it’s me,” that the people are really rejecting God in v 7:  “Obey the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from reigning over them.

But on the other hand, it is about you too in v 8: Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, abandoning me and serving other gods, so too they are doing to you.

As a priest, I appreciate that God got that Samuel was taking this personally and ministered to him: they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me… It’s not you; it’s me. God gives Samuel what he needs, divine comfort. And God gives the people what they say they need, a king. But that wouldn’t be enough. Because kings are not gods. They do terrible things, as bad as any of the transgressions of the sons of Eli and Samuel. 

The monarchy was already a failed experiment in Israel when they made their request. In the book of Judges one of Gideon’s seventy children, Avimelek, the one he seems to have rejected and not provided with an inheritance, kills all of his siblings (but one who escaped) and reigns in Israel for three years. He, not Saul, is the first king in Israel. He was eventually mortally wounded by woman while besieging her town and killed himself so no one would say a woman killed him in Judges 9. 

So the Israelites knew that monarchy was an imperfect solution. They also had the example of all the queens, kings, pharaohs, princes, and other sovereigns around them. The Middle Bronze and Iron Ages weren’t exactly known for their advances in human and civil rights. So why were they so desperate for a monarch in spite of all of the evidence around them? Because of what a monarch represented in their world, what I’ll call representational incarnation, the woman or man on the throne was the beloved of God, sometimes child, sometimes spouse, and God was with her or him in a particular, intimate way and that person was the visible presence of God in their midst. 

They just wanted to be able to see and touch God. At any cost. Monarchy comes with a price. It is an expensive proposition; it will cost them more than they know. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Lord Acton was speaking of the church when he penned those famous words. They certainly apply to the monarchy of which Israel dreamed. So Samuel warned them, “this is what a king will do, he will take….” in vv 11-17:

he will take your sons… he will take your daughters… he will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards… he will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards…  he will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys… he will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall all be his slaves.

And the people said, “We don’t care!” Verse 19: 

No! We are determined to have a monarch over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our monarch may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.

Perhaps they thought God would still be on their side and fight their battles through this king they demanded – which is how it eventually worked out, for a while. Perhaps they felt entitled to divine protection. Perhaps they weren’t faithless. But perhaps – and this is what I really think – perhaps they were just being human, craving institutional structures and hierarchy as bulwarks against the chaos of their world and a monarch, a king, as a tangible symbol of God’s presence with them. That’s why I call it representational incarnation.

As is so often the case, the symbol is more important than the reality. We want to see someone fighting on our side. We don’t want to have to imagine an invisible God or trust that God is really here with us or have faith in that which we cannot see with our own eyes or hear with our own ears or touch with our own hands – one could touch a king in certain circumstances, circumspectly. We want a king, even if he is a puppet. 

I don’t blame them. I understand them. They were not the generation who had seen the power of God in the deliverance of the Exodus, plagues of Egypt and miracles in the wilderness. Those were their ancestral stories. They are sort of like us, hearing the stories of scripture, whether the stories of Miriam and Moses or Mary and Jesus. Those are our ancestral stories, and they require faith because we were not there. And sometimes faith is hard. Samuel wasn’t enough. He was the heir of Moses and Deborah – only the three of them were both prophet and judge – but he wasn’t a miracle-worker or lawgiver like Moses and he wasn’t a warrior-poet like Deborah. He and his ministry weren’t enough.

We are not so different from them. We also need tangible symbols. Israelite worship like Episcopal worship was sensual. There were sights, sounds, smells, touches and tastes. A monarch was a religious symbol of divine power throughout the ancient world, not terribly different from a Christ Pantocrator icon come to life. And some still venerate the prophet, priest and pastor as God’s representative.

The need to have the power and presence of God in the midst of the community in a tangible, visible way endured and endures. And so God became incarnate in the womb of Miriam of Nazareth. An answer to that ancient prayer. But without the traditional trappings of monarchy. In fact so ordinary that his own family thought he was crazy from time to time, or least needed protection from himself, so that he wouldn’t wear himself out.

Jesus’ family, his mother, his sisters – we don’t know how many there were, just that there were more than one, his four brothers – Joseph Jr., James, Jude and Simon, his absent father Joseph Sr. and all whom he welcomes into his family, we who will do the will of God, find a monarch who refused to behave like a king and an incarnational presence who embraced and transcended death. A continuing, abiding, accompanying, guiding presence, reigning in our hearts with our consent. 

When we cry out, “Give us a king” because we cannot see where God is in our lives and in our world, may God disregard our demand and respond to the cry of our hearts with what we need, the living God and Risen Christ in our midst, reigning over the commonwealth of God in this world and in the next. Amen.