Sunday, January 15, 2017

Our Dreams and Our Nightmares: 2nd Sunday OT

I’ve been thinking about Carl Sagan. Some of you will remember him, sort of the celebrity scientist of his day, writer and great popularizer of science in the wider culture. A bit before my time but I met him in books. Sagan was famously agnostic, but in a much more thoughtful and wise way than the blowhards who seem to get all the attention today. He thought a lot about the sort of things we call spiritual.

Maybe one of the reasons he came to mind is last week’s feast of Epiphany.  Those wise and learned men did not have the light of God’s revelation to Israel, but they did have the light of the star sent to them. It’s my hope that like those ancient astronomers, this more recent magus, so captivated and obsessed with the light of the stars, found the same unexpected and eternally surprising salvation at journey’s end.

Sagan would be so annoyed by my suggestion:
that he was far more right than he knew.

Sagan’s most popular book is his only work of fiction, and he poured his spirit into the novel Contact (you might also have seen the Jodie Foster movie). And that’s the other reason he’s come to mind right now. Not believing in God, the most transcendental and transformative thing he could imagine happening to humanity was contact with an alien civilization… the discovery that we aren’t alone. In the novel, we get to hear an alien’s take on humanity:
“You're an interesting species, an interesting mix. You're capable of such beautiful dreams and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you're not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we've found that makes the emptiness bearable is each other.”

That’s so very good, so very true. It might be my favorite description of humanity: we are “capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares.” And when he says “the only thing…that makes the emptiness bearable is each other,” that sounds a lot to me like “In the end three things remain,… and the greatest of these is love.” Contact contained a hope that we humans might come together in the right circumstances — like maybe if we met some aliens — but Sagan was wise enough and honest enough that even in his fictional story that can’t really happen. All the disfunction is still on display, and though it’s a story with many beautiful dreams, it knows better than to claim the nightmares are gone forever. And finding each other in the emptiness is still hard. The main character still misses her Dad. People still sometimes act selfishly and stupidly. People are still suspicious of each other. We remain capable of the most beautiful dreams and the most horrible nightmares, and for that reason we remain in conflict within and amongst ourselves.

There’s a way in which every story worth telling is about just that: from Shakespeare to Sagan, from Homer to George R.R. Martin, all the stories we tell are trying to understand this strange mix that we are — such beautiful dreams, such horrible nightmares. We were made for truth, goodness, and beauty… so why does our story have so much lying, wickedness, and ugliness?

This is where Christians start using the word ‘sin.’ The idea of sin starts with the simple recognition that there’s something wrong. There’s a gap between what is and what ought to be, and everyone knows it. And we realize pretty quickly that we are involved in this wrongness. We find things coming from somewhere inside us that are just ugly. We think, "ugh, where did that come from?" and we know the answer is that it came from us. We do something hateful or selfish or inconsiderate, and we come face to face with the truth: there’s something wrong with me.

What is wrong with me, and why, and can I fix it, and how?

Those questions are tackled on every page of Scripture. Starting with Adam and Eve, what’s wrong with us is that we reach out for what is outside God’s will for us. God says, “here’s the way of happiness and righteousness,” and we say, “I’m going to do this other thing instead.” The same lie Satan told Eve is the same lie he tells us every day: “God’s commandment is not for your happiness, you have to break this commandment to be happy and to have the life you want.”

I watch what happens when my five- and three-year-old nieces both want to play with the same toy, and I can’t deny there’s something wrong with us. They are so beautiful and good… so where do does this ugliness come from? I see the same war raging in my own soul, and I know it’s not just a problem with other people.

What’s wrong with us, and why, and can we fix it, and how? If the first few chapters of Genesis tells us what’s wrong with us and why, then the rest of the Old Testament answers the question, “can we fix it?”… with a clear and resounding “NO.”

We have nothing to offer that will take sin away.

No one put it more powerfully than the Prophet Micah, “Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He was thinking of all the sacrifices, all those animals, all that oil, all our attempts to atone that never really take sin away.  When he asked that awful question, “shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression?”, Micah might have been thinking about his ancestor Abraham, climbing the mountain with his son Isaac to do exactly that. “Where is the lamb for the sacrifice,” Isaac asked his Dad, and Abraham answered with deep anguish but with even deeper hope: “God will provide the lamb.” The hope of salvation was there just beginning to sprout: God will provide the lamb. Isaac was spared that day, but salvation from sin was still just a dream.

Fast-forward many generations later, in Egypt: Abraham and Isaac’s descendants again saw their firstborn saved by the blood of a lamb in the Exodus. The night of Passover set them free from slavery, and every house marked with the blood of the Passover lamb was saved.

Fast-forward again, many more generations: that Passover was kept and reenacted every year. All that sacrifice, all those lambs, they remind us that there is an atonement to be made. Don’t they also remind us that we can’t make it? No one thinks that what’s wrong with us is fixed by sacrificing some poor lamb. Those lambs helped them worship and remember, but they couldn’t take sin away.

By the time the Old Testament comes to a close, some things have been made very clear. We are good, but broken, and we can’t fix ourselves. The last book of the Old Testament is the Prophet Malachi, and almost the last verse of the Old Testament is Malachi 3:7… “‘Return to me and I will return to you,’ says the Lord, and you ask, ‘How shall we return?’” How shall we return?… that’s the question that hangs as the Old Testament closes.

How shall we return?

The Old Testament closes on a people who have learned that salvation must come from above. Their story proves that an atonement is needed from humanity that can never be made by humanity… and what possible solution could there be to that dilemma? But the Lord had promised salvation, and just as Abraham trusted God would provide a lamb when all seemed lost, his descendants trusted God’s promised salvation when they couldn’t see how it could come to pass. The Old Testament has no conclusion, no finale. It just stops. It fades into pregnant silence with that great question hanging, and the silence is long. Generations live and die in that silence before the New Testament begins.

And then one day a man appeared in the desert. He was something the world hadn’t seen for a very long time; he was like a visitor from the distant past, something so old it was new again: a Prophet. John the Baptist stood on the bank of the Jordan and pointed to the far shore.

And the silence was broken.

“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”

Matthias Grünewald, John the Baptist

1 comment:

  1. I think we may be watching Contact again soon...beautiful reflection, Steven!