The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Our Ancient God
You heard those readings, right? Did you notice how weird today's texts are? That is what struck me as I read over this week’s texts: Every one is strange.
That's right: the first Bible story we heard today is about a divinely-appointed charismatic oracle, one who channels the words of this God, a God the people had experienced only in smoke and fire. God chooses an oracle because the people decided they could no longer bear to have God speak to them directly; they are afraid that God might consume them. And they can trust that the words of the oracle are the words of God because if the prophet misspeaks the prophet will die.
And the second lesson, the one from 1 Corinthians, is all about idol meat. You know, should we eat idol meat or not eat idol meat.
And the Gospel reminds us that the very first act of Jesus' public ministry was an exorcism. It is significant that Jesus goes after those demons right away. He is establishing his identity. He is an exorcist. He is casting out demons – like in an '80's horror movie.
And you thought this Bible stuff was normal.
As I considered the best ways to gloss over Jesus' prolific exorcism ministry and still preach a nice message on the Gospel, as I considered Paul's very practical discussion on idol meat – that's i-d-o-l, not i-d-l-e – and how often idol meat comes up in Episcopal Churches today – which is never, and as I considered the high-stakes business of working for God in the days of Moses – it seems much better to be a priest today than a prophet 3000 plus years ago, I was reminded that our ancient texts are wildly out of their context in the 21st century.
I mean, I could work with these passages and make them relevant for our lives. That is certainly possible. There are ways to translate the core message of the texts and apply them to contemporary circumstances, all while downplaying the more archaic details. In fact, that is often a preacher's task. But today is unique. So rarely do we read three texts on the same Sunday that feel so foreign, so removed, so strange.
We get so used to what we do and what we read that I think we forget how strange all of this really is. I mean, when I look around at churches and church trends, nothing looks all that strange. Christians have spent centuries trying our best to normalize the church, to integrate the church into people's lives. Since the fourth century, the Church has been normal, an essential aspect of mainstream culture; Church is just what people do. It is respectable; it is tame; sometimes, not here of course, it is even considered boring. Less about oracles, and idol meat, and exorcisms; more about networking, and family, and tradition.
Moses' people were afraid that God's presence might consume them. Three-thousand years later, our biggest fear is that people might think we're irrelevant. We long to be relevant. And as Church attendance has declined in the US, and in the Episcopal Church, the desire to be seen as relevant only increases. We look at mega-churches and they seem so relevant – they talk about practical stuff – and crowds flock to the suburban warehouses and we are envious. We study trends and church growth methods. We package Christianity for mass consumption – with a happy Jesus and All-American moral values. And we're really nice. With our domesticated God and our domesticated religion. The Bible becomes a collection of self-help sayings, with Christian bookstores in strip-malls selling bookmarks of the nice verses.
But mixed up with the nuggets of practical wisdom and pretty poetry is the story of a mysterious, primal God. Our books are ancient; the stories are ancient; they are filled with this weird, old stuff – like ecstatic prophets, a fiery God, and a wild Christ who casts out demons.
We are civilized 21st century people. But our ancient religious rites talk about drowning people in water and eating flesh and blood. We are in a covenant relationship with an unpredictable, uncontrollable primal God – who speaks worlds into being.
What does it mean to worship an ancient God in the 21st century? We live with Wikipedia and Google – a world of knowledge at our fingertips; everything has been explained and deconstructed. There are no oracles. There are no idols. There are no demons. They have all been replaced with reasons, contemporary versions that are more relevant in this information age.
The speed of progress is staggering. The world is changing everyday. And here you are. Praying to the God of primitive desert people. Eating the flesh and blood of a man who walked the earth 2000 years ago. Invoking a Spirit that moved over the face of the primordial waters. Reading the writings of ancient people.
And you thought you were normal.
The God who ordered the chaos at the beginning of time, tore a rib from Adam's side, and turned water into blood in Egypt, split the sea to save a people, and spoke to Moses from an unquenchable fire, is the same God who did the unthinkable and became human, went around casting out demons, was accused of being a glutton, and died on a cross like a common criminal, went to Hell, rose from the dead, and a couple of months later lit 120 people on fire and sent them into the streets acting like drunks. It is this God, this same wild, ancient Deity who we will invoke over bread and wine, to whom we will appeal for a healing touch. We ask this God to show up here.
It is easy to forget that the God we worship is not domesticated. The religion to which we belong is not something packaged and sold in warehouses. It is all much more powerful, more mysterious than we often acknowledge.
The world is racing away from the past at unprecedented speeds. But amid the changes and chances of this life, this ancient God, older than time, is still there, still walking with mortals – not always the domesticated God we want, but always the God we need. A primal God in a technological world – filling all things – impossible to solve, but impossible to deny. The same God who spoke through the prophets of old in the desert, who cast out demons in first century Capernaum, is still on the loose. Pursuing us with a reckless abandon. And getting inside – filling us with the power that created the cosmos. And we wake one day and realize that we, sophisticated, relevant, 21st century people are in fact possessed – possessed by a mysterious Deity who is out-of-control, older than time, and anything but normal.