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The Heavens, the Earth, the Sea, and the Dry Land

from the “Seasons of the Christian Life” collection

The Twenty Third Sunday after Pentecost

Haggai 1:15b-2:9
Psalm 145
2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
Luke 20:27-38

November 7, 2004
Marsh Chapel
Boston University

Most of you know the famous recitative from Handel’s Messiah that precedes the Refiner’s Fire aria. The standard English text is, “Thus saith the Lord, the Lord of Hosts: Yet once, a little while, and I will shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land, and I will shake, and I will shake all nations; I’ll shake the heavens, the earth, the sea, the dry land, all nations, I’ll shake; and the desire of all nations shall come. The Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His temple; ev’n the messenger of the Covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, He shall come, saith the Lord of Hosts.” This is our reading from Haggai in a slightly different translation. Haggai was a prophet when Cyrus of Persia returned the Jewish leadership to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon, and he was anxious to promote the rebuilding of the Temple that had been destroyed a half-century earlier. Haggai did not say, with Handel, that the Lord whom ye seek will come to the Temple; he said rather that the gold of all nations shall come to adorn the Temple. Haggai was confident that the rebuilding of the Temple would in fact rebuild the nation of Israel.

My concern here is not with Haggai’s building program but with God’s power to shake. Of course, to say that God shakes the heavens, the earth, the seas, the dry lands, and all nations, is symbolic speech. God is the creator of the entire cosmos, including things that shake and are shaken. It cannot be true in a literal sense that God acts as a shaking agent within nature or nations. Symbolically, however, God’s shaking of the most stable and steady parts of our world describes God’s temporal creative Spirit. From our temporal historical standpoint, we can see God’s Spirit as the creative force that builds things up and shakes them down. When we look toward the building up of things, we see God creating harmonies out of natural and social processes. Those processes on their own might never connect, they might inhibit one another, or even destroy one another. Divine creativity builds things up as it brings the processes into harmony. So in the ancient cosmology of the Bible, God creates the world by distinguishing within the original chaos between the heavens above and the earth beneath, between the surrounding seas and the dry land. Much of the story of the Hebrew Bible has to do with God creating a reasonably harmonious nation out of the rag-tag tribes of Israel. Psalm 139 says God knits things together in the mother’s womb to create a person. So also in our own lives, we look to the divine Spirit to be creative in organizing the multitude of factors of our existence to gain an education, to raise a family, to work out a career. We look to the Spirit to bring justice to the relations among people and peace to the nations, all matters of organizing disharmonies into harmonies.

In Christian theology, the conditions for harmony as such are called the Logos, the Divine Word that is the universal precondition of all actual structures. John’s Gospel says the Logos became incarnate in Jesus, so that Jesus harmonizes his path in the ideal way for human beings and also effects the harmonization of alienated people with God and each other. The harmonizing mode of the Divine Spirit leads to the achievement of the harmonies of existence.

The flip side is that the Spirit also has a dis-harmonizing mode, a destructive mode. Because we live in time, no harmony lasts forever. Every structure wears out. As scientists know, the energy required to maintain a specific kind of order when the conditions for sustaining that order no longer obtain is enormous—entropy means that all the achieved harmonies of the world will pass away as the energy is used up. If our careers do not adapt to new conditions, finding new energy, they fall apart. If our families don’t continually reform, their static relations become prisons. Every human body wears out with age. Nations that cohere well at one time self-destruct as time passes if they do not reform to find new energy. A social structure that seems an advance in justice when it is established can become a scaffold of oppression. The very conditions that make for peace one year make for war the next.

Haggai made his point in reference to the most stable things in his universe: the heavens, the earth, the seas, and the dry land. God shall shake even them. The Divine Spirit in its destructive mode is as profound and thorough as the Divine Spirit in its harmonizing mode. Although it seems uncomfortable for Christians, who sometimes like to think of God as a well-intentioned manager of our universe who preserves all good things, we would do well to borrow the symbol of God the Destroyer from Hinduism, for that is what Haggai is getting at.

To be sure, we would like to think that destruction is for the sake of new and better harmonies. You need to break eggs to make a cake, the cliché goes, with the supposition that a cake is better than unbroken eggs. Let us pray that the destruction, pain, decay and collapses in our world go to serve some better, improved situation in the future.

But we should not kid ourselves that the Gospel promises a better tomorrow out of the destructions of today. It promises only that each of us, our communities, and our nation, will be held accountable in ultimate perspective for who we are before God. It promises God’s mercy and forgiveness. It promises a resurrected life with God. But it does not promise worldly success or a rosy future that somehow justifies the Spirit in the destructive mode with the Spirit in the harmonizing mode. Things just might get worse. For long periods of history, decline has been the main story rather than enhanced civilization. Hope lies in the bosom of God, not necessarily in success for tomorrow, although we do need to give our all, heart, mind, soul, and strength, to promoting justice and satisfaction in our time and to improving the future.

Another level of meaning of the Divine Spirit as the Shaker of the most apparently permanent things of the cosmos is that we must look to that Spirit in order to grieve loss. We need to rest awhile to witness and lament the destruction of things that have been good and important. Sometimes Christians want quickly to get past loss to new and better things. Many Christians like to jump from the crucifixion on Good Friday directly to the Resurrection on Easter Sunday. As my colleague in the School of Theology, Professor Shelly Rambo, says, this is to forget the Hell of Holy Saturday when the death of the Logos can still be smelled, when God is gone on a distant Sabbath, and when nothing new has come to be. The Holy Spirit unifies its destructive and harmonizing modes in the remembrance, grief, and lament of the time between death and resurrection.

For many people in this nation the election this week was an extraordinary destruction of a treasured national identity that often has had the strength to risk its own prosperity and power in order to lead other nations to self-determination and prosperity of their own. The recent imperial adventures to force other nations to our will might have been an aberration of the electoral college four years ago. Now that program has been chosen by a majority, however slim. We have chosen to commit to “holding the course” rather than to learn new information and respond accordingly. We have chosen to get our way by our own military power rather than to trust allies who would help develop a reasoned common way. We have chosen religious values of simplistic certainty over faith in the grace to handle ambiguity and uncertainty. We have chosen a moral culture that reduces the color of life to black and white and seeks to impose the particulars of that vision on other cultures. These choices destroy forever America’s innocent confidence in its own virtue, even while they attempt to justify themselves by that false righteousness. We are now as dangerous to the rest of the world and to our own people as any nation on Earth, and by deliberate majority choice.

We Christians, of course, operate in the world as humble peacemakers, attempting to heal and bring about reconciliation. At least some Christians take this as their calling. This fellowship of reconciliation has a natural course when our people are agreed in distant essentials and differ over proximate strategies. But reconciliation is filled with wrenching ironies when the common essentials are lost and Christians are forced into opposition to their fellows, not mere difference. I fear we have lost the common essentials and, in order to bear true Christian witness, need to go into opposition to the majority culture, which includes many who also name themselves “Christians.”

God has shaken the heavens and the earth, the seas and the dry lands, and all nations. We need to seek out the Holy Spirit to understand and grieve the good that has been lost, and also to understand and commit ourselves to any new good that witnesses to what we can best understand as Christian righteousness, piety, faith, hope, and love. Although we are comfortable with the Holy Spirit in the harmonizing mode, we must grit our teeth to seek out the Holy Spirit in the destructive mode. Now is the time to do that, to sit with grief and uncertainty and find God in precisely that. Of course, many people look at the election as a victory rather than a source of grief. For them the Holy Spirit in the harmonizing mode is quite enough. But for those who grieve, the Holy Spirit who comes destroying and confusing is the source of strength while we wait for orientation to what’s next. The Holy Spirit in both modes is present at the Eucharistic table where we eat the symbols of torture and death while joined in a body that metabolizes death to new life. The Way of that body is to bear, believe, hope, and endure all things. I invite you to join this body at the table that has borne far greater losses and confusions than we endure at this time.


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