June 21, 2020 Genesis 21:8-21, Romans 6:1-11, Matthew10:24-39
Chaos, comfort and conciliation.
Chaos is how many headlines, titles of books, and commentators are describing our world today.
This is what chaos looks like today: Scholars are saying that the Coronavirus pandemic could inflict emotional trauma on an unprecedented scale. The financial crisis will reverse years if not decades of economic progress. Somewhere between 100 and 400 million people will be pushed back into extreme poverty. And even in the midst of protests against police brutally we have seen videos of more violence.
Chaos makes us restless, on the edge, stressed out, anxious and emotional. It feels as if the powers of chaos are about to destroy us! That is the bad news.
The good news is that chaos has always been part of human life. Whether chaos is described as a formless void and darkness (as in Genesis 1), murder (Genesis 2), jealousy and rejection (Genesis 21), a dying child, broken relationships between parents and children, conflict in one’s own household, war, famine, natural disasters or persecution, chaos has always been a clear and present reality: powerful, random, terrifying and unpredictable.
Some ancient societies dealt with chaos by sacrificing animals or sometimes children to appease their deities.
Others used myths and legends to deal with chaos. A hero or deity battled with a chaos monster, serpent or dragon.
What ancient communities had in common was their experience that spiritual powers, monsters, or fate could play havoc in their lives and cause chaos! And these forces of chaos were unpredictable, they could at any time appear and cause disruption and mayhem. The result was that ancient people lived in constant fear.
OT scholar, Walther Brueggemann points out that for ancient Israel chaos was also a reality; chaos is present in the great inscrutable cosmic threats that Israel could see but not explain. This in itself is not much different from other old societies.
For Israel, the threat of chaos also comes in different shapes and forms. Chaos comes in socio-political pressures that rob the weak of a chance for life. It comes in the form of family barrenness, communal disregard and personal death. She also knows chaos as an attack or threat by enemies. Still nothing new here.
Here is what is new: Israel refuses the claims of chaos. She refuses to cringe in helplessness before the powers that negated life. In its daring testimony, Israel claims to know the name of God who is powerful enough to decisively drive back chaos.
And it is this faith in God that enables Israel to resist the powers of chaos – whether they come in the form of famine or Pharaoh, hostile neighboring nations or greed from within. It is their faith in God that enables them to find strength to confront the chaos that comes in the form of the powerful who want to exploit the weak and the poor. It is their faith in God to find courage to resist the forces of chaos from within that want to destroy harmony and brotherhood. It is their faith in God that gives them strength to resist the forces of chaos from the outside who want to rob them from the land that God gave them.
Their faith in God comforts them when it seemed as if the forces of chaos were victorious when their temple was destroyed and the nation was taken into Exile!
And Israel does one more unique thing to confront chaos: they actively take care of the alien, the widows, and the orphans, the marginalized and the weak in their society.
In a stunning departure from other ancient people, Israel confronts chaos by actively working to make life easier, better and gentler for the weak in their society! While other ancient societies try to appease their deities with child sacrifices and religious rituals, the Jewish prophets emphasize deeds of social justice and compassion to children, orphans, the weak and poor, those who are particularly vulnerable in the face of chaos!
The NT built on this foundation. Chaos comes in the form of King Herod and his brutal policy of infanticide, it comes in the form of temptation and in Disciples who abandon their friend. The forces of chaos come in the form of religious zealots, and expedient leaders who want to appease their constituents by getting rid of a trouble maker. Chaos comes in the form of sinfulness of ignoring God and exploiting neighbor, blaming people for their sickness. And ultimately chaos comes in the form of a brutal death of an innocent man!
But OT and NT faith has something more in common: The faithful refuse the claims of chaos. The faithful refuse to cringe in helplessness before the powers that negate life. The faithful proclaim the name of God who is powerful enough to decisively drive back chaos – even the chaos of death! The faithful respond to the reality of chaos not by sacrificing the weak to appease the gods, but by loving neighbors and enemies, by praying even for those who want to do harm, by their willingness to turn the other cheek and by breaking down barriers between traditional enemies! The faithful confront chaos by being peacemakers, by feeding the hungry and by showing mercy.
The faithful do these for they are witnesses of their God who pushes back the universal chaos. This divine act of course is the resurrection of Christ! The resurrection of Christ shows the power of God as a power so immense that it even conquers the most disastrous force of chaos, death!
Once again, let me emphasize: Biblical faith is not intimidated by chaos. It confronts chaos in two major ways: One is to claim the name of a God who is powerful enough to decisively drive back chaos. And the second is to engage with compassion and love to make life easier for those whose lives are a constant struggle, the most vulnerable in the world!
The story of Ishmael and Hagar is a wonderful example to show the God of Israel’s compassion. You will recall that Sarah, after failing to bear a child, encouraged her husband to have a child with her slave, Hagar. Abraham’s son, Ishmael was born.
Sometime later, Abraham and Sarah had a child of their own, Isaac. One day when Ishmael and Isaac played together, chaos entered in the form of jealousy and heartless rejection. Sarah convinced Abraham to get rid of Hagar and Ishmael. But as we see from the reading, God intervenes amidst the chaos by blessing Ishmael with a promise that he too would become the father of a great nation. Ishmael of course became the ancestor of the Arab nations, and the spiritual ancestor of Islam.
The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans presents us with another example. Here we find a number of contrasts: Sin and grace, live and death, burial and baptism, enslavement and freedom. In the words of our sermon topic, we could say the contrasts really boil down to two opposing powers: chaos and divine order. And the outcome is without question: Grace conquers the chaos of sin, live is stronger than the chaos of death and baptism speaks of dying but it is ultimately about new life.
Where does this leave us as faithful people in our chaotic world? How do we faithfully and authentically live in a world where chaos constantly nips at our heels? Or as someone recently said: How do we dance on a moving carpet?
Before I share some guidelines on how to act in a faithful manner today, let me give a brief summary of the world as I see it: Most commentators agree that the world-order is changing rapidly. Old established institutions like government, news organizations, businesses and even the church are not trusted anymore.
Established alliances are not valued and people in power, whether they are politicians or presidents of colleges, CEO’s of businesses or spiritual leaders are not held in esteem anymore. Nothing is sacred any longer.
Chaos in its various shapes and forms are gaining momentum. Social media is popular but is also disruptive and brings out the worst in people. Divisions run deep!
All of this leads to an increasing level of anxiety and uncertainty!
So how do we dance on this moving carpet? How do we as people of faith respond to the chaos?
First of all, as we learn from ancient Israel: We do not have to cringe before the powers of chaos. We after all have faith in God who is powerful enough to decisively drive back chaos. God has shown us that God is able and willing to bring divine order in a chaotic world. God has done so in the past and will do so again!
So instead of being prisoners of anxiety and uncertainty about the chaos in the world, we have an opportunity to affirm that God is indeed stronger than chaos? We have opportunities to witness that we will not allow the many forces of chaos to imprison us or ruin our lives, or steal from us the joy, purpose and faith in God?
Every day provides us with opportunities to demonstrate that we trust God – that our comfort is in God who not only created the world but is also bringing divine order to a chaotic world. God does so in many and various ways – but for us God does so especially by conquering death.
We will therefore not cringe before chaos, we will not lose our faith, our hope, and love!
And then secondly as we learned from the history of our ancient sisters and brothers, is that the least efficient and effective way to respond to a chaotic world, is to focus solely on yourself. Sarah was jealous and protective of her son. She wanted to get rid of her son’s enemy. We know that fearful people are hesitant to share because they see in the other an enemy. However, we know from history, that the least effective way to deal with chaos is to close ranks, label the other as enemies or threats, push them away or blame them. This approach in fact increases chaos and it strengthen the hand of chaotic powers.
The most effective and efficient way to deal with chaos in the world, according to the Biblical tradition, is to do whatever we can do to make life better and easier for those who are weak and poor. It is to have compassion for those who are rejected. The OT person of faith had to take care of the alien, the widow, the orphans and the poor. That was how the ancient Israel society opposed chaotic powers. This is still what God wants us to do.
We see the same approach in Jesus: he gave up everything- even his life for others. He, as the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians “he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death.” This was the way God conquer the powers of chaos.
So, as people of faith, we don’t cringe in the face of chaos-we trust God! We use our energy and focus to help the most vulnerable by treating them with love and compassion. We hold onto the fact that Christ conquered the strongest form of chaos death!
When historians look back and discuss how we dealt with the chaos of our time, how will they describe it? Amen.