Here is a brief sermon that I gave at Emmanuel’s chapel this morning. As part of the theological integration capstone course you are required to be in charge of a week’sworth of thirty minute chapels with several other students. Our theme this week is Cultivating New Life. The week breaks down like this:
First chapel: preparing the soil
Second chapel: receiving the seed
Third chapel: nurturing growth
Fourth chapel: bearing fruit
This short sermon was for the second chapel.
Texts: Isaiah 55:1-13, Luke 8:4-8, 11-15
Isaiah tell us that the Lord says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.”
This seems to be a pretty basic theological affirmation: The Creator does not think as the creature. The one who, as Origen says, contains but is not contained—who holds all of reality but is not held by it—cannot be domesticated and spoken of as if he were one of us. This is pretty basic, right? This is theology 101. Even by using the word “God” aren’t we talking about something beyond us, something off of our maps—indeed off of the very map of creation itself?
What truth could be more foundational to the Christian faith than the idea that there is a real God who is not just a projection of ourselves, but who is really there, and who really speaks?
This is so foundational that it seems strange to need to be reminded of it. Of course God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and our ways are not his ways.
And yet, it does not take long to begin thinking of people who mistake their own thoughts with the thoughts of God. Examples abound of people who are so busy proclaiming what God thinks to the world that they are not open to hearing something different. They are not open to be surprised by God’s gracious Word that comes to us from outside of ourselves. Instead, they know in advance what God thinks and supports. Perhaps during this election season our mind goes first to politicians and candidates of every stripe who claim God’s stamp falls on their party. Or economists and social commentators who claim systems based upon God’s truth. But perhaps we could even add to them theologians, pastors, and well-intentioned seminary students or professors who speak of God so much that they forget how to listen. Who spend so much time describing God or God’s works that God’s own Word becomes drowned out and replaced by human words.
Karl Barth challenges this in us when he said, “One cannot speak about God by speaking about man in a loud voice.”
Scripture continually reminds us of this when it confronts us with the unsettling notion that even when we know something right about God, we still get it wrong. Who can forget that right after Peter gives the Good confession “You are the Christ,” he gives the bad confession, rebuking Jesus for embracing suffering? And Jesus response is to scold Peter with a reminder reminiscent of the language of Isaiah, “You are not thinking as God does, but at human beings do.”
So what does this reminder mean for us?
Rowan Williams says, “Somewhere in all of this business of theological education we have to come to terms with that sense of an otherness, an elsewhere – not another place, another realm, another world but that which is not simply on the map of our concerns, our security, our ideas. [The task of theology, then is to be obedient to this otherness.] An obedient theology is one which seeks to be formed by what is there and a holy life is one which lets itself be impacted, be impressed by the will of God.”
At seminary, we often read passages such as the sower and feel as though we are challenged to be the sower, recklessly planting seeds in all of the people we encounter. And, on one level, this is correct (and Aaron will talk about this on Friday). But, before we can be the sower, we have to first be the soil who receives the seed.
Maybe you are here today and you are tired of being the sower; you keep reaching into you bag to find more seed and it’s empty. Your church, your family, your self all look to you to hear the Word of the Lord and you have nothing to offer. And so you practice spiritual disciplines, you read theological books, you seek the guidance of spiritual leaders, all in an attempt to generate more seed. These aren’t bad practices, but they will no more generate a seed than will water, nutrients, or sunshine. For us, the seed can only be received, it cannot be created or willed into being.
This is good news. You know why? It doesn’t depend on you. The Word of God is not our word. And God promises that, just like rain, his Word has come and will come again.
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
In Luke, Jesus tells us that the seed that goes forth from the sower and indiscriminately falls upon the soil is the Word of God. This Word is not reducible to a set of theological axioms that we receive and are entrusted with safeguarding. Nor is it a personal attitude or openness that we are encouraged to foster. It is, instead, Christ himself. Christ, who is recklessly sent into the entire world to save it. Our job, as the soil to whom he is sent, is simply to receive him well to not close ourselves off, but to be broken and receptive to an interruption.
How do we do this? We, who through our familiarity with God can cease to be surprised, can risk confusing our petty preferences and agendas for God’s. How do we guard against the mistakes of domesticating God and thereby silencing his Word to us? One way is by coming to the table. Here, we gather to receive a true Word from the Lord—a Word utterly alien to human speech, a Word that cannot be contained or silenced, but only received and offered—the Creator’s Yes to his creation.
And so, we come now to a time a communion. In a minute we will pray together and be reminded of God’s gracious Word in Christ. We will offer up to God simple bread and simple juice. But these prayers and this offering are not what makes God present. It is only God’s free action. As Christians, we believe that when we ask for God to speak his Word in us, among us, and in this bread and cup, God really does speak. Let us prepare our minds and hearts in silence to listen and receive this Word.