A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
on 7 August 2022 [Proper 14]:
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40
Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.
Arguing with God: What’s that like for you? What do you do? Or is such a thing not in your emotional or spiritual repertoire? Perhaps the telling question about arguing with God is to ask: Is it a fair fight? Here’s a story as illustration.
There is an old story about a man walking along a sidewalk in the lower eastside of New York City, when he stopped dead in his tracks at the sound of some frightful shouting. Moving toward the disturbing fracas, he spied a large, hefty man in a meat-stained, white apron, standing in the middle of the road, looking up, and punching his fists into the air. It soon became evident to the startled pedestrian that this poor soul was screaming at God, at the top of his lungs, to the extent that his face was beet red and the blood vessels in his neck bulged.
That the rotund man was standing in the middle of the street, in a meat-stained apron, facing a delicatessen, led the pedestrian to guess that this must be the deli owner, and that clearly something was terribly wrong. But this train of thought was interrupted when the pedestrian noticed the sky quickly turning mean. Great, dark clouds began to form in the immediate area, steadily dimming a shrinking sun. Ominous thunder began to rumble, sounding only mere blocks away, all the while the man’s complaint against God continued unabated. Then, it happened. Without warning, a huge bolt of lightning exploded right where the man was planted. Dust and debris filled the air and swallowed the sight of the entire scene.
Slowly, the lightning’s detritus settled back to earth, and there stood the deli man, still in his original footsteps but ghost-like from the dust that powdered his frame. Equally slowly, the blood returned to the pale face of the complainer, until he regained his composure and took a deep, reviving breath. Once restored, the aproned man once again raised his face and fist to the sky and yelled one more time. “And another thing,” he screamed undeterred, “You can’t take criticism either!”
Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord …
In the Revised Standard translation of this morning’s Old Testament lesson, this passage’s key word “argue” is rendered as “reason”, as in “Come let us reason it out…” Thunder and lightning notwithstanding, both terms (“argue” and “reason”) tellingly relate to a courtroom setting, in which the case before a judge is “argued”, each side “reasoning” their position to receive legal relief. Additionally, in Hebrew, the debate term is halak, which means to “walk with”. Through the prophet Isaiah, God invites wayward Israel to “Come walk with me and let’s reason out what is between us.” Quite remarkable! There is even a translation that uses the notion to “prove” your case; but this sense of “proof” has to do with what one does to check the potency of yeast. “Proving” the yeast ensures that the dough will rise, as if the Maker of heaven and earth is saying: “Come, let’s test which of our yeasts works in the dough.”
So, now that I have prepared you for success on “Jeopardy” (do remember to tithe your winnings to St. Philip’s!), what does it mean to argue with God? As I have already mentioned, the unmistakable answer is that it is “remarkable!” to argue with God; and doing so well requires two things: faith and hope. Let me explain.
To do so, I need to return to the opening line in this morning’s epistle, the rather famous line from the Letter to the Hebrews: Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. [Hebrews 11:1]
Faith and hope are related, but they are not the same. As we have discussed many times before, faith is a basic element for life. Faith means “trust” and always implies the question: Who or in what do you trust? Without faith, without trust, life is a pretty lonely and miserable affair. Hope comes into play and refers to seeking a future good that our trust, our faith has already taken a step toward. In the biblical context and with specific reference to God and the God-life, trusting God to be at the center of our lives breeds hope not only in God’s goodness but also in the reliability of God’s promises.
In the language of the Creeds, we proclaim our “belief” in God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. “Belief” means “to give our hearts to”. Belief is faith that we willingly live, not just wave at; and we do this in hope of what is yet unseen, unrealized, not yet but promised.
Here’s point about faith and hope and arguing with God. They all stem from a story: One that we trust with our lives; one that in hopeful anticipation will be realized completely in the future. Our fundamental faith is to trust that God is God, to orient our lives in a relationship and a reality where we give our hearts to God being the Creator of all that is. Trusting in this relationship and living by this faith is, as we all know, not easy. We wobble. We hedge our bets. We even at times run away, breaking our trust in God by attempting to replace God with a self-designated shortcut, of which ultimately, we painfully discover there are none.
But despite our unstable trust, our wobbling faith, God remains faithful to us, which points to the reality that God is not only reliable but also essentially loving. The love of God, while it passes all our understanding, is the foundation of our faith, our trust; and the love of God is also the foundation of our hope: a hope that our lives and the life of the world will be like God’s lifegiving love.
Of course, for Christians this surpassing love of God is most powerfully revealed in Jesus. Jesus is the story in which our faith and hope take root and blossom. Jesus’ death and resurrection is the story whereby God demonstrates that life on God’s terms is stronger than death, stronger than our fearful wobbling. In taking on our human form and vulnerabilities, God exhibits his trustworthiness and the hope of new and lasting life that the Holy One’s steadfast love creates.
Now getting back to arguing with God, I will close this with a different reference from Isaiah, one that sets the stage for our arguing with the Holy One. Isaiah (43:25-26) conveys these words of God to those of us who have the faith to argue with the Maker of heaven and earth. In another, more blunt translation, God says to us: “…yes, I am the one who takes care of your sins – that’s what I do. You need to know that I don’t keep a list of your sins. So, make your case against me. Let’s have this out. Make your arguments. Prove you’re in the right.” [Message]
Knowing how to fight in the context of love’s commitment is a great sign of faith and hope: faith that what holds us together is strong enough to weather the storm; hope in that there comes a time when we realize what the Wisdom and Life of God always know: that there are more important things in life than being right.
Thanks be to God. Amen.