How many of you have always lived in the same state? What about the same county? How about same town? Same house? What about people who moved from just one or two states over? From further away? Anyone move from a different country? How many people have "foreign" ancestors?
"We tell ourselves stories in order to live" (Didion) and many of those stories are tales of origin. We are interested in our past--which means not just what we experienced, but what those before us experienced. We weave these tales of personal and corporate past together with stories of possibility and future. Is it any wonder we are obsessed with knowing where people are from or where they are going? The tales of past are the roots of our identification--who we are--while the stories of possibility are how we want to identify ourselves and others--the wings that carry us forward.
Let's start with corporate origins, specifically our tales of Judeo-Christian origins. If we better understand our past, I think we can better understand our present, and where we want to go in the future.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and He separated the light from the darkness. God called the light "day," and the darkness he called "night." And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day. (Genesis 1:1-5)Can I be honest with you? Listen, I have a hard time conceiving of "in the beginning." I can handle thinking about God being involved in starting existence. But, what happened before then? What about the Big Bang? Who God created? Who created what created God? What was before the Big Bang?
I recently watched Return to the Planet of the Apes. I don't completely understand how this conversation fit in the movie, but I think it will fit well here. A man shows a painting of a landscape. He says that the painter noticed something missing in his painting, viz., the artist painting the picture. So the artist painted another picture of the landscape that included the artist painting the landscape. But the artist again noticed something missing: it was still the artist painting the artist painting the landscape. So he painted a third picture and a fourth picture and so on going to infinity.
When I think about the beginning in Genesis, I think about infinite regress, about God having to constantly paint pictures in which God is painting the picture. And if God is always re-painting, has God ever been not painting? How could God relax on the seventh day? Is God still painting?
Somebody once asked St. Augustine, "what was God doing before this 'beginning'?" Augustine figured God was preparing hells for people who ask such questions. I don't buy Augustine's answer. I figure God must have been doing things before the beginning--and I think we're specifically talking about the beginning of the human story.
Before the beginning, God must have been doing other things, creating things other than the heavens and earth--you know, preparing things for future creations. Before God could speak something into creation, God had to create the ability to speak and the concept of speech. Before God could create effective speech, God had to create the ability to receive and give communication. Before communication, something needed to be communicated, which God had to create. In creating language, God had to create words and meaning. God had to give language the ability to create things. God had to keep stepping back and paint the Godself into the picture.
In effect, before God could say, "let there be light," God had to say, "let the word or words I am about to speak in some language mean "let there be." But before that sentence, God had to step back and would need to define every word used in that definition. And before that ... well, you get the point: infinite regression. Language doesn't so much have a beginning, which is completely illogical, because everything has to start. Yet, beginninglessness is also the only logical conclusion as searching for a beginning would cause us to regress to infinity. Language doesn't exactly start; it was not created and has no beginning--whatever that implies. And this beginninglessness, this infinite regression makes it hard for us to understand our past and our origins, because we can't find a concrete beginning.
But even without a proper starting point, the story "begins" in Genesis and continues today. Take language for example, as the story goes, Yahweh once saw a bunch of people all speaking one language. They were building a tower in order to make a name for themselves. They wanted to be unified and they could work together easily, since they spoke the same language. And the tower would be only the beginning.
I can't help but wonder if Yahweh was a little sarcastic when expressing worry about those people. Could they really do anything just because they could speak the same language? I've never known language to be perfect. I speak the same language as a lot of people I misunderstand. Any of you in any sort of relationship know exactly what I'm talking about, how one word or sentence can mean something completely different to the person who hears you. We all speak the "same" language, we still haven't built a tower to heaven, because we have too many communication problems. Still I certainly understand other English speakers better than I understand people who speak, say, French, Portuguese, or Mandarin.
But still, I hear a hint of sarcasm when Yahweh doesn't just descend to the people and their tower, but condescends to them, saying, "come, let us go down, and confuse their language, so they will not understand one another's speech." I can't help but chuckle, because language doesn't need any help to be confusing. Their language might not have been officially "confused," but communication was already confusing.
After the condescension, Yahweh makes language something new: "Let people use different words to mean the same thing and similar words to mean different things," which is basically how language works anyways, but Yahweh magnified the confusion by creating "new" languages.
If you've been listening, you'll notice I just said Yahweh created languages, even though, earlier, I said language could not be created. I could distinguish between a language and language in general, which would be a fine distinction. But here's what really matters: God took what the people were speaking--(uncreated) language--and made it new.
And ultimately, God gave the people what they wanted. They got a name for themselves: Babel, a word that sounds sort of like the Hebrew word for "confusion"; but it also looks like the words "father" and "god" stuck together. Although we know the tower as a time of confusion, the name seems to remember the people in their relationship to their Father-God. Not a bad way to be remembered, eh?
Sounds like maybe they got a little more than just a name, too, which doesn't surprise me. This whole different languages thing? Not such a bad thing. The language you speak shapes your whole life. You've probably heard Greek has three different words we translate as "love." For the Greeks, there was no such thing as love; there was agape, philia, and eros. We often miss the distinction and are afraid to tell people we love them--especially guys. But we also have something on the Greeks, because we realize the great similarities between agape, philia, and eros, because we take all those ideas and just call them love. Without translation, perhaps we would always miss what the Greeks knew. How bland would our interpretation of the Bible be if we couldn't think about how different love can be and how similar love can be in spite of the differences?
Truly, Yahweh blessed humanity at Babel. No longer were they working on silly towers to reach heaven. Instead, they gained a little bit of heaven on earth as they learned more about life by learning from each other, beginning with language diversity, which symbolized greater, personal diversity. Their tower never reached heaven, but heaven came down to their tower when Yahweh condescended. And God graced humanity with a little bit of the kingdom: a rebirth of language, a new display of differences, and a new pursuit of community amidst differences.
Amidst the newness, I bet it was easy to scorn the blessing of Babel. I can imagine it would be easy for these post-Babel persons to think about how nice it was in the good ol' days when everyone spoke the same language, even though we know they weren't always understood. New things come with pros and cons. It is hard not to look back and think how nice it used to be when we face the new adversities that necessarily accompany grace.
As another story goes, Yahweh tells Lot and his family to flee a horrible before it is destroyed. Just so happens that horrible place was their home, Sodom. Horrible or not, it was their home. How can you just up and flee your home? They didn't have time to pack, get a U-haul and say goodbye to people. They didn't move, they fled. Sure, most of the people in town just did some pretty horrible things, but I'm sure there were other things to make the leaving a little bitter. You know, the dog loved the backyard; there was a pretty good library; your job paid pretty well and had nice benefits. How can you run away without some sense of loss, some feeling of regret--without hesitating or looking back?
But Lot and his family were asked to run sans looking back. To leave their home and all their possessions. To start afresh, somewhere new, with no real direction, just a command to flee and start over, somehow. A fresh start. A rebirth. A time--nay, an opportunity to recreate themselves.
Lot's wife looked back and then became a pillar of salt.
Lot settled his remaining, non-mineral family in a nearby, small town.
I can't completely relate to Lot's wife's story, but I don't blame her in the least. I've never been in her shoes, thank God. But, I've had a very literal call to leave home and start new somewhere else. I've had that one a few times, actually, and expect to hear it again in a few years. I didn't flee like Lot, but leaving home is hard.
My mother lived in New England most of her life, except for a few important years in the Philippines, and my father has never lived outside of Friendship, ME. Most of my childhood friends had similar stories. We all lived in small towns and even when people left, they didn't go far, and they generally came back. Oh, sure, a troublemaker or crazy might go far away. But a bright, church-going, young man like myself? They didn't go far. When I picked up my call to move from the coast of Maine to the coast of Florida, I don't think everyone understood. A lot of them still don't understand. After my next move from South Florida to the piedmont of North Carolina, I think I've made one too many moves for people to even keep up with where I've gone. In a sense, part of my story is the story of Lot and his family. Because of my experience, I can understand some reluctance when asked to leave.
I'm sure some of you can relate to Lot's family similarly. But you can relate to Lot's family even if you're like my dad and have never moved outside of town. God doesn't ask all of us to leave home in the same way, but eventually we are asked to leave. Eventually, we become different than we used to be. My dad turned from a life of anger and alcohol--a life he learned in part from his father and the town that reared him--turned from that life to the Christ he saw and loved in my mother.
Lot's story is his story, too. It is your story--our story. We are all asked to leave home somehow. To be recreated. Reborn. Confused. Made new.
"No turning back. No turning back."
In the end, I think Lot's wife made a better decision than Lot. Lot apparently didn't look back. Instead he asked if a small town could be spared so Lot wouldn't have to go too far. He was old, after all. His request was granted and he settled in the small town of Zoar. He said he wanted to go there, because it was close, but I figure he wanted to go to a small place for other reasons, too. Probably because he figured it wouldn't have the problems big cities like Sodom and Gomorah would have. Small towns don't have any problems, right?
In a small town, Lot would have a great opportunity to be the same person he was, just in a different place. A new setting doesn't mean a new person. Lot's new groove could soon turn into the same ol' groove. Lot would take new wine and put it into an old wineskin. He would attempt rebirth by climbing back into his mother's womb. Ew.
Given the choice between Lot and Lot's unfortunately anonymous wife, I'll choose the pillar of salt. Granted, if we only had that story, I wouldn't pick the seasoning, but we have more stories. We have stories of rebirth and stories that ask us to be the salt of the earth. Let's learn from Lot's wife not to look back, but, friends, to believe the Good News: in Jesus Christ we are forgiven. She looked back and her old self died. Her newness became salt. And when our old selves die we are resurrected. We continue as the salt of the earth--born again to preserve this life in the face of death and adversity, to preserve this life for all, to become God's tools for assuaging the groaning of this earth and for making all things new--to witness and be involved in the transformation from this life to the next.
In Revelation, we read: "Behold, I am making all things new" (21:5) That proclamation is a persistent prophecy. It is true even after everything has been made new. God isn't going to make everything new and then stop. So, after you've been born again, you are still a part of all things and, hence, you will be made new again.
Now we can start weaving the tales of our past with stories of our future possibilities--where oldness meets newness and where our roots cause our growth.
After we receive this newness, after being "recreated," after being born again--after whatever you want to call it, it will happen again. We can't rightly flee damnation by living in Zoar. Our newness does not mesh with our oldness. We can't put the new wine into the old wineskin. We can't get find a way back in the womb. (Ew.)
God always works creatively. Our God is a creator God. Not everything has a first creation, like language--and maybe nothing does--but God just keeps on making it new. We, like language, have no beginning and are continually recreated. At least, I have no beginning point. I was born, for sure, but I began before I was born. Before birth, I developed in the womb. Before development I was conceived. Before conception in the body, I was conceived of in my mother's mind, who told me she always wanted two kids (me being her second). And before she could even conceive of me, all kinds of environmental, psychological, and relational influences interacted with the beautiful woman who is now my mother. The same happened with the rugged man who is my father. And they had to be born and conceived, too. I am not just a product of my time or my parents' time; I am also a product of my parents' parents and their time, and so on and so forth (or, so back) toward infinite regression.
We could trace this line back to discussions of the origins of humanity, and then discussions about the origins of the earth. Eventually we would be at the beginning of today's sermon, talking about creation and language, where we would find out that language was never created. And I would correlate language with each of us. Although each of us were born, there is no starting point for us other than God--our Alpha and Omega (Rev. 21:6). And since God is eternal, our finite nature extends back towards infinity. God is our beginning: Yahweh who has always been working to create us. And God is our ending, too, which means we will never end, but rather be made new again-and-again-and-again.
With the same beginning and the same ending, we learn a great truth from our tales of origin, a truth I love to express in the words of a fabulous group of four young men: "I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together." Similar to the mysterious unity of the trinity, we are all one (cf. John 17:21)--whether we like it or not. And friends, believe you me, we do not like to recognize our unity, because it means we are Nazis and Jews, the doers and receivers of genocide, the rich and poor, the prostitute, the drug dealer, the queer, the straight, the raped child who hasn't eaten for weeks, and the pedophile grown fat from meat and wine. We are the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. And we are also the people who refuse food, drink, friendship, clothes, comfort, and support to those who need it. And with this knowledge, we discover that as long as one human suffers, we all suffer. We share pain, whether we completely feel and realize it or not.
Fortunately, we have Yahweh who works with us to eliminate this suffering by making new things around us and in us. Sometimes God works little things in us and sometimes we are made completely and utterly new. Sometimes we camp out in little towns after we are made new. Maybe we camp there because we can't handle the newness and we pretend to start afresh. Maybe we camp there because we want the comfort and protection of the womb. (Ew.) Maybe we camp there not because we aren't looking back, but because we never actually looked fully forward, like Lot. We take our newness, but hide it.
And sometimes we look back. Maybe we look back longingly, wanting what we had left like the Hebrews who, amidst their freedom, wanted to become slaves again in Egypt. This sort of looking back is understandable, but not beneficial.
And when we're near our best, maybe we look back because what we were somehow influences what we are and what we will become. At some point, we must look back to accept our past, learn from it, and share the story. We have holy roots in the past and we cannot sacrifice them, however painful they might be.
As the story goes, God asked Abram and Sara to leave their home in Ur and go somewhere else--away from their family and from everything they knew (nobody said anything about looking back in this story). Then God made some promises to Abram and changed his and his wife's names. Specifically, Yahweh promised Abraham and Sarah a son, even though one or both of them were infertile. After their first son, they were told their promised son was not their beloved Ishmael. And even though they were as old as dirt, Sarah gave birth to Isaac. I cannot imagine how painful that blessing must have been.
God had a habit of creating painful newness with those two. One example specifically is quite the troublesome Bible passage: "Oh, God said to Abraham, "kill me a son. / Abe says, 'man, you must be puttin' me on," / God say, 'no.' Abe say, 'what?'" [-- The word of folk rock. Thanks be to Dylan. --] With ol' Abe, I say "what?" too. I don't know what this story meant for Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac. I imagine it harmed Isaac's relationship with his parents, Sarah probably made Abraham sleep on the couch for a long time, and Abraham, well, he'll always look like a knight of faith to me, even amidst his insanity.
Regardless of what the story meant for them, it means something else for us, based on its inclusion in the narrative of Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac. The story asks us to leave other gods and follow Yahweh. Although Yahweh commanded child sacrifice in this story, God also prevented it. This story is key for us to realize God is wholly different than any other god. In this story, we are asked to leave other gods and understandings of God in order to follow Yahweh. I imagine following, interacting with, and worshipping a new god is quite the instance of rebirth.
We all become new in different ways, but I think we could all use the sort of rebirth Abraham had (God forbid it ever happens in the way ol' Abe experienced it). We all worship false gods and do service to our own, unquestioned ideas of what is right, moral, and good. Abraham not only left the gods of his people in Ur, but also, in Genesis 22, Abraham stops serving some of his own understandings of God, for good or ill.
Let's learn from Abraham to put everything on the line, to leave our idols and never turn back to them, to put everything on the altar: mother, father, brother, sister, child, cousin, job, spouse, safety, romance, friendship, church, ministry, home, comfort--everything. If any go to follow Jesus, but they don't hate their father and mother, and they don't hate their spouse and children, and they don't hate their brothers and sisters, and they don't hate providing for their children, and they don't hate taking the kids to soccer practice, and they don't hate Sunday-morning services and Wednesday-night suppers, and, yea, they don't hate their own lives, then they cannot be a disciple of Christ, they cannot be a Christian, they cannot be a child of God. And they will never become new.
Sometimes we only need a willingness. Other times the knife will come down.
I recommend really thinking about this sort of sacrificial newness. Seriously. We all might benefit from sitting down to talk with just God, or perhaps God and a small, intimate community. Maybe in your Sunday school class. Maybe with your family. Maybe with your family and another family. Maybe over coffee with a close friend or two. I bet we could all use some deep, creative reflection that immediately actualizes itself in action. And as we reflect and act, God will make us new, so new that we will barely recognize our past self when we look back, die to self, and turn into a pillar of salt for the earth. Just think, in a few weeks, we'll have to start re-introducing ourselves to people in church, because we'll be unrecognizable and really, really salty.
Ah, but newness is painful, because it includes death. So friends, believe the bad news: in Jesus Christ, life won't be easy. But compared to staying the same, the new yoke of Christ is easy. The burden of death and rebirth is lighter than the burden of life in spite of death. It is better for the grave, water, and the spirit to be the womb for your new birth, because the other option is, well ... ew.
I'm positive it was hard for Abraham to bind Isaac, put him on the altar, and raise the knife in the air. But Abraham and Sarah could only have avoided that experience had he stayed in Ur and ignored the call of Yahweh. And life in Ur would have been worse than life with Yahweh, even though it included a pregnancy when pregnancy shouldn't happen and the binding of your son for sacrifice.
I'm positive it was hard for people to communicate after their tongues were confused. They couldn't work together, because they misunderstood each other more than they had before. But they eventually developed philosophy and poetry in these languages. They eventually translated. Life with a tower that reached to heaven would have yielded quite the angst when the people never found Yahweh in the clouds, and the name they made for themselves would not have been a favorable one. Life with Yahweh meant the beauty of translation, the awareness of miscommunication, and heaven coming to earth--Yahweh walking among us.
I don't understand the groaning and pains of creation: earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, melting polar ice caps, fires, gale-force winds, global warming, greenhouse gases, wars, and rumors of war. I've been told these things are signs of the time, birth pains, even. You see, creation, too, is going to be born again. Language will be born again. Humanity will be born again. You will be born again. I will be born again.
Life without Yahweh would be no life at all. Since Yahweh is eternal and has no beginning or end, there really is no option for creation to have life with or without Yahweh. If the universe was never actually "created," then Yahweh intervened and made it new, made it what it is today. If language was never actually "created," then Yahweh stepped in and just made it new, making many languages. No one ever asked for the newness, Yahweh just did it.
And you never asked to come into this life. And although you were born, you don't exactly have a starting point, because your beginning is Yahweh, who has no beginning. We are not eternal like Yahweh, but because God lives, we live. Newness isn't really an option. The question is whether or not we'll stop in as many small towns as we can, delaying our journey to the kingdom; or whether we'll look back, die, and turn into a pillar of salt to make the journey better for others before continuing on our way. Fortunately, there will be plenty of opportunities for those and many other options.
Today, death and oldness are behind us. Easter, my friends, is behind us. We were crucified and resurrected with Christ. Let us now look forward to Pentecost, ready for tongues of fire to descend upon us. Ready to be filled with the Spirit and made new.