This morning I want to explore the message of three stories that hint at a religiosity for our time.
The first is the story of Abraham arguing with God over the destruction of Sodom (Genesis 18:25 ff). God wants to kill the innocent along with the guilty. Abraham insists that the Judge of all the Universe must himself do justly. In other words that Justice trumps God. Abraham wins.
The second is the wrestling of Jacob with the angel at Jabbok’s Ford (Genesis 32:22-30). As daylight comes the angel, who may well be God, begs Jacob to release him. Jacob agrees to do so only when given a blessing. The blessing is a new name, a new self-understanding: Yisra-El, one who wrestles with God and wins.
The third is the rabbinic story of Akhni’s Oven where God intervenes in a rabbinic debate over the kosher status of an oven and the rabbis, with one exception, tell God to back off citing Torah, lo bahamayyim he, the Wisdom we humans need is no longer in heaven, but in our hearts that we might live it (Deuteronomy 30: 12–14). God’s response to this rebuke is positive, “At last My children have defeated Me,” (Talmud, Bava Metziah 59b).
The message in all three stories is the same. God isn’t to be worshipped and obeyed, godliness is to be internalized and lived.
Most people didn’t get this and continued to worship God. In the Christian story God gets even more daring in “his” attempts to set us free. God incarnates as Jesus and then dies. It’s as if God is saying, “Look people, what more do I have to do to get you grow up? You’re like kids who refuse to leave home. I didn’t raise you to be dependent. What do I have to do? Die? Fine! I’ll die, and maybe then you’ll get the message.”
Of we didn’t get the message, and Christians await their God’s return.
The Prophet Micah summed up the entirety of God’s message this way: Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God,” (Micah 6:8). Our rabbis read into the meaning of “your God” rather than “our God” or simply “God” the teaching that even though we will continue to invent gods for ourselves, we should hold them lightly, and not take them too seriously. We should be humble in matters of theology and religion. Just the opposite is the case.
When Ecclesiastes tells us how best to live, he never mentions worship, and focuses on eating and drinking moderately, keeping our clothes clean and our hair groomed, finding meaningful work, and cultivating two or three good friends. So daring was this teaching, that later editors sought to undo it by adding a false summation about fearing God and keeping his commandments, something Ecclesiastes himself never said.
When Rabbi Hillel sought to sum up the entire Torah he made no reference to God at all, saying, “That which is hateful to you do not do to another.”
The Jewish writer Franz Kafka wrote in his book of parables, “The Messiah will come only when he is no longer necessary; he will come only on the day after his arrival; he will come, not on the last day, but on the very last.” The messiah will come only when we no longer need him; only when we have made the world right by ourselves. Then he comes to celebrate our achievement, not to do for us what is our task alone to do.
The reason the Jewish messiah has not yet come, and the reason why Jesus has not yet returned is that you and I have yet to do what is asked of us: beat our swords into ploughshares, our swords into pruning hooks; cease to learn war; and create a world where each of us sits unafraid beneath our own vine and fig tree (Micah 4:3-4).