Laying Down our Bows
Hespeler, 21 February 2021 © Scott McAndless – First Sunday in Lent
Genesis 8:20-22, 9:8-17, Psalm 25:1-10, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1:9-15 (Click to read)
Can God make a mistake? Can God be sorry for that mistake? Many people would suggest that it is blasphemous to even ask a question like that. Surely God is God and God cannot ever be wrong! But then how do you explain the whole story of the flood in the Book of Genesis?
The story begins like this: “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.’”
In any simple and straightforward reading of that text you cannot see anything but an admission of a mistake. God regrets creating humankind. God seems to regret it in particular because of the inherent violence of the human race. Ever since Cain and Abel, it seems that the people cannot stop attacking and killing each other. And so, God comes up with a plan. God decides that the only way to counter murder and violence is with, well, murder and violence. God decides to wipe out the whole lot of them.
And then, in our reading this morning, we meet the same God on the other side of the whole flood narrative. And here, the sense of regret seems even deeper as the Lord speaks to God’s own heart and says, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.” Now listen closely to that. Not only is God regretting the act of destruction that God has committed, God also seems to be admitting that it didn’t even accomplish anything. The human heart is just as evil as it ever was. The flood accomplished nothing.
Did God make a mistake?
That is the plain meaning of the text – God made a mistake and regretted it and so vowed to behave differently from now on. And, of course, ever since that story was first told, people have struggled with it and tried to explain away God’s apparent mistake. People have rightly pointed out that our minds can hardly comprehend the mind and the motivations of God. Who are we, after all, to accuse God of making a mistake when we barely even understand why we behave like we do sometimes?
So yes, we should approach God with all humility and not pretend to understand all that is in God’s mind. But, at the same time, there is no question that God shows some real remorse over what has happened and is so convinced of the need to take a new course of action that God sets a permanent reminder in the form of a rainbow in the heavens so that neither God nor anyone else can ever forget.
What if the Story Is About Us?
So, what do we do with this story? I have a thought. What if this story is not really about whether or not God can make mistakes? What if it is actually about something else – what if is it actually about us. Yes, we may never understand the thoughts of God’s heart, but we know the thoughts of our own. And I can’t help but notice that there is something familiar about how God behaves in this story – something very human. And I think it may be intentional.
God sees a problem and that problem is mounting violence. And God concludes that only one thing can fix such a problem. The only way to counter violence is with more violence. That is what we usually think too, isn’t it? The only way to stop a bad person with a gun is a good person with a gun. Ever heard that one? The only remedy to violent crime, some would say, is the death penalty. And, of course, the only way to solve a problem in a violent Hollywood movie is for Keanu Reeves or Tom Cruise to run in with guns blazing. Fixing violence with more violence seems to be our go-to strategy no matter what happens.
Well, that is the approach that God takes as well in the flood story. God chooses to simply wipe out all the violent offenders at once. But, as we see in our reading this morning, when it is all over with and everything is finally dried up, God realizes that his approach did not work. All kinds of people have died, but the basic problem still remains as God recognizes that “the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth.”
But what do we do in that kind of situation? When we recognize that the solution we have tried to follow to solve our problems hasn’t worked, what do we do? Often all we do is double down. We conclude that the problem is not that we tried to counter violence with more violence, but that maybe we just weren’t violent enough. We humans, generally speaking, are just not very good at recognizing that our strategies for dealing with problems are bad.
God Shows Us A Better Way
But God, in this story, shows us a different way. And he shows it to us with a very concrete symbol. God says this to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.”
The reference here is pretty obviously to the appearance of a rainbow that can often appear in the sky in the aftermath of a large storm. But do take note that the word that is used actually refers to a literal bow, that is to say the kind of bow that is used to fire arrows. The image here is of a warrior, God, who decides to lay down a weapon of war and not use it anymore. The rainbow is a visual symbol that that is what God has decided to do. Every time it appears it is meant to remind both God and humanity of this rejected method of dealing with problems.
And I honestly do not know what that is meant to tell us about whether or not God can make mistakes, but I suspect that it is meant to teach us something about how we ought to respond to the mistakes that we make.
As I said, we have a tendency, when the strategies we have used to solve problems do not work, to double down and just try to do them harder. This is a particular human folly, but we all do it. And I’m wondering if maybe this whole story of God and the flood is there to teach us to give up on that very folly. Every time we see the rainbow, we should remember that God gave up on a failed strategy and, if God can do that, we should think, maybe we can do it too.
Various Ways of Dealing with Problems
We all have ways of dealing with our problems. There are some people, of course, who always do try to solve their problems with violence. But that is not everybody.
Let me give you an example from my own experience. When I find myself in a situation where there is some conflict, my immediate instinct is not, like that of some people, to want to fight. I personally have a deep dislike for conflict, and so what I tend to do is I try to avoid it at all costs. If I’m in a disagreement with someone, I often want to do just about anything to resolve it quickly and that includes giving up and saying that I’m wrong, even if I actually believe I’m right. Other times, I will just do whatever I can to just simply escape the situation.
This is just how I have always tended to deal with conflict. Now, does this strategy always work? Not really. Yes, it might sometimes make things feel more peaceful in the short term, but it is not really a very good strategy for dealing with conflict over the long term and can often make it worse over time. But this is the way that I, because of my background, because of the psychological tendencies that I have, would naturally deal with any conflict or problem.
I believe that, if I want to take the example given in the story of the flood seriously, what I ought to do is that I ought to put down my bow. I need to learn to stop relying on this natural method I have for dealing with conflict because it doesn’t really work. Indeed, I have already done a lot of this work in my life and developed other ways of responding.
But I recognize that we are not all alike. There are indeed some people who try to solve all of their problems with violence and brute strength. There are some, like me, who have developed passive aggressive strategies for avoiding conflict. There are others, and I have known a few, who’s automatic response whenever they face a difficult situation, is for them to take all of the burdens of everybody else in the situation on to their own backs, often neglecting their own needs in the process. There are others who just give up or run away. We are all different.
But the problem is that once we develop these kinds of responses to stress and trouble, we tend to lock ourselves in. And a lot of the time, these strategies just do not work and that is where we run into a lot of trouble.
The amazing thing about God in the story of the flood is that, when God discovers that the strategy doesn’t work, God lays down the bow. God vows not to use that strategy anymore. And what I’m wondering today is whether that might not be there, not to teach us something about God and God’s failures, but rather to teach us to be willing to do the same kind of thing when our strategies fail.
We Lay Down Our Bows
And so, we are going to end today’s sermon with a bit of a spiritual exercise. I know that many of you have made or drawn a rainbow for this morning’s service. I want you to take that rainbow now or, if you don’t have one (which is fine), I want you to imagine that you’re holding a bow in your hand. This bow represents your weapon. It represents how you respond in the face of a stressful, conflicted or dangerous situation.
So, close your eyes, and just imagine yourself in that kind of situation. Say that you’re in the middle of a room and people are yelling at each other because everyone’s upset and maybe they’re especially upset at you. Just imagine yourself in that situation for a moment. Are you there? Now, ask yourself, what is your instinctual response to that situation.
I’m not asking what you may have learned to do. I’m just asking what is your gut level response. Are you tempted to strike back? Do you want to play the victim? Do you want to withdraw? Do you want to fix everybody else? Do you want to play the peacemaker at the expense of yourself?
That instinctual response is your bow, your weapon. That is how you have learned to respond in that kind of situation. Has it always worked for you? Maybe sometimes, but I’ll bet that often enough it causes some serious problems.
So here’s your what I want you to do. I want you to lay down your bow. I want you to consciously decide to set aside that instinctual response to stress and ask God to empower you to make different and better responses. If you’ve been literally holding a bow, lay it down. If you’ve just been imagining one, make that motion. That’s what God did at the end of the flood, and I suspect that God did it to teach you and me that there is another way.
And, of course, the wonderful thing about the rainbow in the flood story is that it’s a continual reminder. Every time the dark clouds gather, and the winds blow and all does not seem right in the world, the rainbow appears in the clouds as a reminder that there might just be a better way to deal with our problems.
And so, if you have laid down your bow, I invite you to place that bow in a place where you are going to see it this week and throughout this season of Lent. Let it be that reminder to you of your decision to trust in God that there are better ways of dealing with your problems and with the stresses of life than the dysfunctional ones that we have developed out of our personal fears. Let it be a continual reminder of God’s promise to do the same and help to renew you during this season of Lent.
A Final Prayer
Heavenly Father, we are just a bunch of people who sometimes get things wrong. And when people are upset or they’re stressed or the world seems upside down, we don’t always respond in the best ways. Some of the weapons that we carry around with us are dysfunctional and can even make things much worse. But here we follow the example left by us in the scriptures, and we lay down our bows. We dedicate ourselves to find other ways, better ways, to deal with the difficult moments of life because we are committed to be loving and giving people. Amen.
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Hespeler, 14 February 2021 © Scott McAndless – Transfiguration
2 Kings 2:1-12, Psalm 50:1-6, 2 Corinthians 4:3-6, Mark 9:2-9
I love all of the stories of the Prophet Elijah and of his disciple Elisha. But, by far, the best part of the story of these two extraordinary individuals has got to be the part that we read this morning, the story about how Elijah was taken up into heaven in a whirlwind and there was a chariot of fire. I almost can’t read this story without hearing the Vangelis song ringing through my head. “It’s chariots of fire, it’s chariots of fire, it’s chariots of fire, r r r r r.” (That is how the lyrics go, right?)
But it’s not just about all of the special effects, there is also the question of how the story is told. It’s got this strange form to it. It goes like this. The two men are in one place, and Elijah says to Elisha, “Hey I’m going down to this other place.” And then Elisha responds, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” And that, right there, is a pretty clear indication of somebody who has huge separation issues. He is clearly anxious and worried about being separated from Elijah and has some good reason, as we shall see.
But then the story continues from there. The two men move on and arrive at a new place, where they are met by the members of something called, “the company of the prophets,” which is presumably something like a guild of prophets that has been led, up until this point, by the great Elijah. The members of this company come up to Elisha and let him know that Elijah is leaving him and all of them. (Which may, of course, help to explain Elisha’s separation anxiety.) And then Elisha says, “Yes, I know; be silent.”
And then, and this is the really interesting part to me, the whole thing repeats all over again. Elijah says he’s leaving, Elisha responds with his separation anxiety, they go and the members of the company of the prophets come out with the same words and Elisha repeats his “Yes, I know; be silent.”
I think that I have said this before in a sermon – we need to pay attention to the Bible when it repeats itself. This kind of repetition is never there just by accident. There is always some reason behind it – something that the author is trying to draw our attention to – and this story has repetition in spades. Three times in three locations, word for word, the exchange between Elijah and Elisha is repeated that ends with “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” And the exchange between Elisha and the company of the prophets that ends with “Yes, I know; be silent,” is repeated twice.
What the Repetitions Mean
So the question is what is the author trying to tell us with this strange repetition? It is, to a certain extent, just good story telling. To this very day, writers and storytellers talk about what is called the “rule of threes.” It is a writing principle that suggests that a trio of events or characters is more humorous, satisfying and effective than other numbers. In so many stories you have this same pattern. It’s why Goldilocks encounters three bears, why Scrooge is visited by three ghosts and why there are three daughters in Fiddler on the Roof.
So storytelling patterns that are as old as storytelling itself are a part of what is going on here, but there is also more to it than that. Obviously the author is building up towards something. And that something he is building towards is the ultimate removal of Elijah himself. His being “taken up,” this thing that causes Elisha so much apprehension, is the great climax of this story. But what, exactly, is there to be afraid of in that?
Fear of the Whirlwind
Well, first of all, we are told, Elijah is to be taken up in a whirlwind. Now whirlwinds are fairly common in many parts of the world, particularly in places with very dry climates. A whirlwind is like a tornado, but dry and filled with dust that sweeps across the desert. They can be very big and very frightening, and they have traditionally been seen as a sign of the presence of a god. And indeed, still today we speak of them in semidivine terms by calling them “dust devils.”
God actually appears a number of times in the Bible in the form of a whirlwind. But when God does so, it is always something that is disturbing and upsetting. The strong wind blowing chaotically in every direction is obviously a sign that God is stirring things up in a way that is going to be rather unpleasant.
God Shakes up Elisha’s World
So there, already, is something for Elisha to be apprehensive of, but there is more to it than that. For the thing that God is going to do to shake up Elisha’s world is that he is going to take away Elijah from him. Elijah has been Elisha’s master, his mentor and his guide. He has been the person who has given meaning, purpose and direction to every person in this company of the prophets. If Elijah is going away, that means that all of that is going to change. Elisha’s whole world is about to fall apart, and it is that that he fears most of all. The whirlwind is about the shake up Elisha’s whole life.
That is why Elisha clings so closely to Elijah and that is why he doesn’t want to hear what the others say about him leaving. And let’s just look at that repeated encounter with the company of the prophets. Why does Elisha react to them the way that he does? He clearly already knows what they are trying to say to him. Telling them to be silent is not going to keep him from knowing the truth about what is going to happen. He is just basically saying that he doesn’t want to talk about it.
And I totally understand that, don’t you? Who among us hasn’t been in that place where you know that something is coming, you completely understand that whatever it is is going to change everything in ways that you do not like, but you really do not want to have to think about what it all means? Much less do you want to talk about it with anybody. And so, when anybody brings it up, you say with Elisha, “Yes, I know; be silent.” Or if you really want to not talk about it, you stick your fingers in your ears and say, “la, la, la, I can’t hear you!”
What We Don’t Want to Think About
I think there is a lot of that going on in these times and perhaps not surprisingly. As our society is put through the whirlwind of a pandemic and social unrest and political upheaval, I think that a lot of us realize on some level that the things that are happening right now will lead to change and loss that is very disconcerting. What will the economy, the environment, the church, the job market and many other things look like once this whirlwind is over? And will there be a place in it all for us or for the people that we care about? These are some very disturbing questions that I think we all know, at some level, might have some very uncomfortable answers. But we’re not really talking about them. They are too uncomfortable and if somebody brings them up, we’re just as likely to say, “Yes, I know; be silent.”
So, I think that we are right there with Elisha in his reluctance to talk about it. And that is why I believe that this story has some very important things to teach us at this particular moment. Yes, Elijah is leaving and, no, Elisha doesn’t want to talk about it. But the big scary transition comes upon him whether he wants it or not. And we finally find Elijah and Elisha on the far side of the Jordan River.
When We Can No Longer Ignore it
The moment has come, and Elisha is given one last chance to actually deal with this difficult transition. Of course, this time it is Elijah who brings it up in a way that forces Elisha to talk about it. “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you,” the old prophet says. And it is then that Elisha is finally able to put into words his deep fear. “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit,” he says.
And this is not, like some people might assume, a case of Elisha trying to jockey for his leadership position in the company of the prophets. This is not about him trying to advance his own career. This is rather an expression of his deep fear at this moment that the entire movement is going to go up in the whirlwind. He knows there’s no one like Elijah to lead it, not even himself. But here he’s grasping for the hope that, if maybe he were to get a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, they might just find some way forward.
And that is exactly what is needed at moments like this. We need people who step forward in all humility, knowing very well that they have shortcomings, and yet who are willing to do what they can to find a way forward with the help of God’s Spirit. That is what Elisha does. And Elijah acknowledges just how difficult it is for someone to be in that position, but he affirms that it is possible. But there is one requirement. “You have asked a hard thing;” he says, “yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.”
Dealing with What We’re Afraid to Face
So, what does that mean? That means that, in order for what Elisha knows needs to happen, he needs to do the one thing that he’s been avoiding all this time. He needs to stand there and actually watch this thing that he has been dreading happen. In other words, he needs to deal with what he has been refusing to deal with.
And I think that that is about where we are at in this moment. Because I have absolutely no doubt that God has some tremendous plans for the future of his church in this place. I have no doubts that God wants to bring about a great deal of good within this troubled society and within this country no matter what differences we may have. God will equip us, through his Spirit, to prepare for all of those things.
But there is one thing that we need to do. We need to stop saying, “Yes, I know; be silent.” We need to look at what we are losing and talk about what it means to us. Maybe we especially need to stop wasting all of our energy on trying to take things back to the way they used to be when the way they used to be just doesn’t work anymore.
Doing Lent Differently
Next week we are going to begin the season of Lent. And I know that Lent can be a bit of a downer season in the life of the church. It is traditionally a season when we focus on what we’ve done wrong, when we repent and when we may even go without some things that we really like. But I’m going to suggest this year that we approach the season from a bit of a different angle. It is my intention in our worship services together to take us through some exercises that help us to look at the things that we normally don’t want to look at – to talk about things we don’t want to talk about. Because of that, there might be a few times during this season when you want to say to me, “Yes, I know; be silent.”
But I honestly feel as if it is a tremendous gift to be able to engage in such exercises at a time like this. The world is changing. The church has changed and is changing. When this present whirlwind comes to an end, things will not just go back to the way they used to be. But if we see what we are losing in this whirlwind, if we really take stock of it and aren’t afraid to talk about the impacts, I do believe that we have God’s promise of a double portion of spirit to face the challenges that are before us and to face them with strength and confidence and faith that will prevail and guide us into a future that is very exciting and important and meaningful. That is what Elisha discovered and that is what we can discover too.