Beyond the Rainbow
Last week the story of Noah and The Flood served as a springboard for exploring the question of whether or not we can trust a God who allows great evil in the world. We found that the covenant God makes with Noah and the human race, symbolized by the rainbow, serves as both an affirmation and challenge in this regard.
The rainbow reminds us of God’s promise never again to destroy humanity. In light of the global ecological crisis we face, as well as the continuing threat of global warfare and violence, the rainbow reminds us that the Holy Spirit is working to make “a way out of no way” to save us. If an apocalypse is in our future, it will be created by us, not God.
By extension, the rainbow also speaks to us on a personal level. It reminds us that God has chosen to love us, and work in and through us, despite our limitations and tendency to sin. When we disappoint others and ourselves through our actions, we can know that the first direction we can turn and expect help is toward God. God’s not sitting in some heavenly abode waiting to hit the Cosmic Smite Button when we need help. Rather, God is there inviting us to surrender ourselves to God’s love and grace to help us fix what we’ve broken or reveal another route to healing if the damage is too great to fix.
Where the rainbow challenges us is with this same love and grace. What God does for us, God does for the world. Sometimes others hurt us in ways we would just as soon use as justification for condemning them to everlasting punishment – or at least making them hurt as badly as we did. Yet someone who experiences the depth of God’s love and grace and repents of their sin will be treated like the Prodigal Son, not the Spawn of Satan. They will be invited back into full relationship, not shunned from God’s Realm. The rainbow invites us to “bow to the bow” – that is, to honor and respect God’s decision to privilege relationship over perfection, starting with ourselves and extending to those who make us feel uncomfortable.
This week we consider God’s making “a way out of no way” from an entirely different angle, asking not if we can trust God to make a way for us, but if God can trust us to respond in such a way that God can actually help us. God’s help always requires something from us to make it a reality. Otherwise we’d have no free will. But given our limitations and imperfections, it’s far from a sure bet that God’s help will be as effective as God intends it to be.
No Better Than Noah
Case in point: Abraham and Sarah (or Abram and Sarai as they are originally called) in our story. Where the story of Noah tells us that God seeks to preserve the world, the story of Abraham and Sarah reveals that God actively tries to bless the world as well. And just as more than a few of you were surprised last week by Noah’s imperfections, you may be as much or more taken aback by those of Abraham and Sarah. The level to which God trusts them to do their part to make God’s blessing possible is, frankly, staggering.
The blessing God worked through Abraham and Sarah was intended to provide benefit well beyond this couple’s lifetime. In fact, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all claim that their faith tradition owes its origins to God’s work through Abraham and Sarah.
Through this couple, the people of Israel would arise and live in a land of Promise. Their family line would include Jesus and, through Jesus, their family line would spiritually grow to include both Jews and Gentiles like us. The part of their family line that can be traced through Abraham and Sarah’s maidservant, Hagar, would include the prophet Muhammad.
The three great monotheistic religions of the world would all spring from God’s covenant blessing of Abraham and Sarah. Pretty impressive, huh? Pretty improbable is more like it! In order to pull off a blessing of this magnitude, God would have to “make a way out of no way.” This is a story of how God “made a way out of no way” long ago, but since we are connected to the story as Christians, this is just as much a story that reveals how God works to bless us in the current day.
The story starts with Sarai and Abram being called to uproot themselves from a prosperous life in the city of Ur in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) to make a dangerous journey to settle in the land of Palestine, hundreds of miles away. Amazingly, they honor God’s request. But then they apparently get cold feet. They get as far as Haran (in modern-day Syria) and settle there instead. So God has to ask them to pull up stakes again and go to Canaan where God originally sent them. But by the time they arrive in Canaan, the land is in the throes of famine. Instead of settling there as God had asked, they keep moving.
The next thing we know, Abraham and Sarah have made their way as far as Egypt and are in the process of settling there. Only Abraham is concerned that his elderly wife is so attractive that the Egyptian men will murder him in order to take her for their wife. Thus, the couple decides to pretend that Sarah is Abraham’s sister, which results in Pharaoh taking Sarah into his household to become one of his wives. Losing Sarah as a wife is bad enough, but consider what it does to God’s promise! The whole promise hinges on this couple having a child together through whom the nation of Israel would be gathered. This won’t happen so long as Sarah is part of Pharaoh’s household. According to the story, God has to send a series of calamities and a scary dream or two to wake Pharaoh up to his innocent mistake and return Sarah to Abraham – which he does, along with giving them an order to take the first bus out of Egypt!
Incidentally, according to the Bible, Abraham and Sarah make the same mistake twice! They get nervous about other men wanting to kill Abraham in order to claim Sarah as their own, so they claim Sarah is his sister and she’s taken into another ruler’s household … until God pulls them out of a tight spot again and they are sent on their way.
Once finally settled where they’re supposed to be, Abraham and Sarah put the whole promise in jeopardy again when they decide that Sarah is too old to have a child and thus decide to have a child through Sarah’s maidservant, Hagar. Now, to their credit, Sarah was nearly 90 years old and had been barren throughout their marriage. Thus you might expect them to have their doubts about God’s ability to pull off God’s promise. Yet time and again the scriptures remind us that God knows more than we do. If God promised that a child would be born to Sarah, they’d better keep trying until one is. Sarah laughs out loud at the prospect, but the couple gets back to work, so-to-speak, and sure enough, a child is born to Sarah. God tells the couple to name him Isaac, which means “he laughs.”
Really, I think Isaac’s name should have been Yosaac instead, which means “Yahweh laughs” – for surely God had the last laugh! Then again, after all God had to do just to get Abraham and Sarah to Canaan and ensure that a child would be born through Abraham and Sarah (not Sarah and Pharaoh, or Sarah and Abimelek, or Abraham and Hagar …), perhaps God was in tears by then.
When we consider the story of Abraham and Sarah from the standpoint of our central question about whether or not God can trust us to do our part to “make a way out of no way,” it seems obvious that God can’t.
But God does.
No god but God
God does work the promise through Abraham and Sarah. It took a lot longer than necessary, but it was accomplished. Which means that God must be trusting something other than our perfection (or lack thereof) when working through the likes of us.
What was it that God trusted?
A clue comes from Jewish and Muslim traditions. Both faiths tell stories about Abraham that are not found in our Bible. They tell of how Abraham’s father, Terah, was a manufacturer of idols in the polytheistic culture of Ur. According to an ancient Jewish writing (the Genesis Rabbah, from the 3rd C CE) Terah once left his idol shop in Abraham’ hands while he ran an errand. A man walked in and wished to buy an idol. Abraham asked him how old he was and the man responded “fifty years old.” Abraham then said, “You are fifty years old and would worship a day-old statue!” At this point the man left, ashamed.
Later, a woman walked in to the store and wanted to make an offering to the idols. So Abraham took a stick, smashed the idols and placed the stick in the hand of the largest idol. When Terah returned, he asked Abraham what happened to all the idols. Abraham told him that a woman came in to make an offering to the idols. Then the idols argued about which one should eat the offering first. Then the largest idol took the stick and smashed the other idols.
Terah responded by saying that they are only statues and have no knowledge. Whereupon Abraham responded by saying that you deny their knowledge, yet you worship them!
This humorous story reminds us of something we take for granted about Abraham that shouldn’t be readily overlooked: he was a monotheist in a polytheistic world. Abraham had eyes for one God and one only: the One who called him and his wife to leave Ur in order to give them a distinct identity, not only as a couple, but as a people, and not only as a people, but as a people through whom the world would be blessed.
You have to read between the lines of the story a bit to come to the conclusion I am about to suggest, but I believe that Abraham and Sarah were head-over-heels in love with God. And though they were about as imperfect at following God’s commands as you and I are, God entrusted them with an enormous set of blessings because God trusted their love. That is, God trusted their response to God’s love for them.
There’s a reason why God privileges relationship over perfection. If you love God, then no matter how many times you get cold feet and stop following, or fall down and skin your knee, you’ll keep trying to clear things up and become a truer and more trustworthy follower of God. This allows God to work miracle after miracle through you. Without this kind of love, you don’t have the staying power for God to do much. You’ll give up too soon.
Consider how this works on a more mundane sphere, with human relationships. I’m reminded of the story of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, for instance. Yeats once attended a party, and after spotting a group of his friends, headed straight over to them to impress them with some grand idea he had. But upon reaching his friends, he discovered that someone he’d never seen before was there with them, standing beside a vase of apple blossoms. Her name was Maud Gonne.
Yeats was smitten. So smitten, in fact, that he completely forgot what he was going to tell the group and devoted his whole attention to Maud. Over the course of Yeats’ life, he would propose to Maud three times. She turned him down each time. Nevertheless, Yeats’ all-consuming love for Maud Gonne ended up sparking a fire within him that produced some of the greatest poetry of the 19th and 20th centuries.
One of Yeats’ poems, “The Song of the Wandering Aengus,” describes well the effect Maud Gonne had on him. (Incidentally, the poem was later turned into a well-known song by Judy Collins called “Golden Apples of the Sun.”)
The Song of Wandering Aengus, by William Butler Yeats
I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.
Once Yeat’s spotted Maud Gonne, all the other women in his life ceased to exist – at least insofar as his heart was concerned – and he could not forget her, hard as he might have tried at times. She was the muse that catalyzed Yeats’ gift of poetry.
Relationship Minus Perfection Equals Blessing
This is the same kind of effect God has on us when the Holy Spirit works its magic. The Spirit knows us better than we know ourselves. Therefore the Spirit calls us by our true name. Our true identity. And whatever imperfections we may have, which the Spirit also sees more clearly than we do, an experience of the Holy Spirit is an experience of purest love that seems to see through the bad and ugly of our lives and stares straight at the good. In the Spirit’s embrace we find ourselves loved beyond all reason or logic. Loved beyond all deserving and merit. Loved beyond our wildest imagination. It almost goes without saying that in the face of this kind of love and grace all other gods cease to exist. Our hearts catch fire. And from that time forward we are infected by a holy restlessness – a restlessness that finds rest only in God’s embrace.
This is the God that Abraham and Sarah came to know. They smashed their idols and followed. My guess is that they set out from Ur without really knowing what hardships might meet them on the road; without knowing what dangers they might face. They set out in response to God’s call without God needing to convince them that everything would turn out all right, or that the world would never hurt them, or even that they would arrive in the promised land safely. If you would have asked them why they were undergoing such a dangerous, uncertain journey, they probably would have uttered a line right out of a song made famous by Gladys Night and the Pips (Midnight Train to Georgia) “I’d rather live in his world than live without him in mine.”
With respect to our central question about whether or not God can trust us in order to bless us, one might be tempted to say that, with the kind of love burning in our hearts like Abraham and Sarah had, the only thing God needs to trust is our response to finding ourselves loved. With our hearts on fire, we set out on whatever journey God invites us into, affirming that wherever God is is where we want to be. We would rather live in God’s world than live without God in ours.
If you want God to bless you, all you need to do is let God love you. If you allow the kind of love God has for you deep within, there’s no longer any need for perfection, just as there is no longer any need for the other gods you chase from day to day. For you there is, as the Muslims say, “No god but God.” Just as God will not give up on you, neither will you give up on God, despite your momentary lapses of judgment, failures of nerve, and wrong turns. Like Sarah and Abraham, your commitment and surrender allow God to “make a way out of no way” for you – to bestow upon you blessings you scarcely believed possible. And through these, blessings to bless the world.