The God of All, of the Mournful & the Joyful,
of Jew and Gentile
David Balch—Feast of Saint Luke, 2010
I am very happy to have been given the opportunity to preach on this feast day of St. Luke! Some 20 years ago, Edwin Judge, a great Australian classicist also interested in New Testament, told me that to finish my research on Luke-Acts, I needed to learn Italian. Luke and Edwin Judge are the reasons that I set off for Rome, which I have visited now many times. I keep trying to persuade people that Italian pasta and Tuscan Borolo wine are not the only reasons I like to go to Italy. I have a deep interest in exactly what our lectionary texts today mean.
There are many different ways of interpreting the Hebrew Bible. Alan Segal and I entered and graduated from the doctoral program at Yale University in the same class. Since then, he has taught at Barnard College, Columbia University. Previously, Alan had been a rabbinic student at Hebrew Union College in New York City. He was clear that the focus at HUC was Mishnah and Talmud, in Hebrew, the halachot, in English, the laws. In their leisure time they read Jewish stories, in Hebrew, the agadah, the legends and myths, for example as they were published in 7 volumes by Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews (1900-1939). HUC is a Reformed Jewish school, and within Torah, they prefer the book and the story of the liberating Exodus. In the same city and across the street from Union Theological Seminary, where I and Steed Davidson both studied, is Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative Jewish school, and there they prefer the book of Leviticus to the book of Exodus, so in Reformed and Conservative Jewish schools, there are two different ways of reading the tradition.
Luke claims a third way, as we just read,
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things (Lk 24.44-48).
Unlike the gospel of Mark, which focuses on Christology, Luke reads Jewish scripture as prophesying TWO events, both the suffering of the Messiah (vs. 46), AND the proclamation of forgiveness to ALL NATIONS (vs. 47). I do not want to get lost in critical theory, but the creators of our lectionary have associated Luke’s interpretation with Isaiah 35 and 43, the former a later, Hellenistic commentary on deutero-Isaiah (chap. 40-55), taking up the promise of a return of the exiles from the diaspora (35.8), so that our chapter has become a late, concluding summary of the eighth-century Isaiah’s message of hope (Clements 8, 271, 275-76 ).
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall hear; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of stammerers shall be clear, because water has broken forth in the wilderness and a gully in a thirsty land (Isa 35.5-6 New English Translation of the Septuagint).
The blind, deaf, and stammerers are Jewish exiles who have lost hope, for whom God promises to perform a new exodus, but our later author expands the promise to include God’s healing in the new world order. The promise is introduced in 35.3, “Be strong, you weak hands and feeble knees!” Deutero-Isaiah had also encouraged Israel: “do not fear!” (40.9; 41.10, 14; 43.1) The message of hope, of salvation, takes issue with an attitude of weariness and despair.
Hebrew Bible scholars (Westermann 11-12 ) have shown parallels to priestly oracles of salvation in the temple; for example, when an individual worshipper such as Hannah goes up to worship, she cries, and her mourning is so overwhelming that Eli the priest thinks she is drunk (1 Sam 1.8, 10). But she replies,
“No, sir; I am a woman for whom this is a hard day; I have not drunk wine and strong drink, and I am pouring out my soul before the Lord; do not regard your slave as a pestilent daughter, because I have been greatly extending my mumblings until now” (1 Sam 1.15-16).
And the priest responds, “Go in peace; may the God of Israel grant you your every request which you have requested of him” (1.17). And the response is a psalm of praise to God, often in the past tense, “The Lord has redeemed Israel” (Isa 44.23). God is confessed as great and majestic, as one powerful enough to bring about the new, miraculous deliverance.
In Deutero-Isaiah, on which chap. 35 is a proto-apocalyptic commentary, since God has kept God’s word of doom in the past, we can now trust that this God will keep God’s word of promise. The covenant announced doom for Israel’s sin, and indeed, the kingdom of Israel was destroyed by Babylon. Now, this international God promises restoration, and God will perform the prophetic word spoken. The mere fact that Marduk had acquired an empire for Babylon did not prove him Lord of history. Rather Yahweh demonstrates Lordship of history through the continuity of word and act (40.8; 56.6-11), one who is able to bridge the gulfs that history tears open, both the destruction and the recreation of Israel (Westerholm 8, 17). And this recreation of Israel is one which all flesh, all nations will see (Isa 49.26, the conclusion and climax of a psalm of lamentation, 49.14-26; Westerholm 19).
Before I transition to Luke, I want to emphasize the observation that God’s promise of hope is preceded by lament, as in the case of Hannah. Deutero-Isaiah, the Psalms, and the book of Lamentations do not conceal that salvation is preceded by lamentation. Israel’s experience and our lives include both. I emphasize this point by quoting from a contemporary psalmist, Ann Weems, Psalms of Lament, with a Foreword by Walter Brueggemann . A good friend, Don Steele, gave me this book when I was experiencing grief. After a divorce, my former wife moved with two of our teen-age children to Berkeley, and for the next decade, I did not know two of our children well. For that decade, I grieved. Ann Weem’s son Todd was killed just before his 21st birthday, and she writes, “I still weep.” One aspect of her response was to write psalms, and “only when I finished them last summer was I able to put the manuscript in the drawer without slamming it shut.” (xvi) I am going to try to read one of them.
Lament Psalm Thirty-one: How long will you watch, O God, as your people live huddled in death? The whole world is dressed in tears, and I have joined the procession of the bereaved, who walk daily in the death places. We drown in the sea. We bleed on the battlefield. We lie stricken on sickbeds. We are judged in the courtrooms. We are victims of crime. We are homeless and hungry, is this not enough?
We are tormented by mental illness. We are abandoned by loved ones. We wait in unemployment lines. We grow up on the streets. We live with disabilities. We are injured in accidents. We are plagued by family problems. We fight drug and alcohol abuse. Have you not heard enough, O God? We sit in police stations. We watch our loved ones endure pain. We are falsely accused. We enounter prejudice and hate. We are humiliated and abused. We contend with unbearable stress and anxiety. We weep by the grave.
We are your people, O creator God! We are the work of your hands. Is there no more grace for your troubled ones? Will we continue our unholy procession around the pit of living death?
There is no sun, no moon, no star. We cannot see our way. Have pity on your world, O God, have pity on your weeping world!
We remember all the times you lavished your grace on our heads and into our hearts. You gave us the gift of light, and we walked with our heads up in the procession of life. Restore us, O God, to your sanctuary. Look upon us and let your heart be moved to break the bonds of the bereaved. In this hope is our joy. In that day we will run to join the procession of life and we will sing hymns of praise forever and ever, and ever, and ever.
In our lectionary text for today, Luke takes up the deutero-Isaianic praise of God after lamentation, the praise that all nations will see the glory of God. It may be surprising at first, but I choose to interpret Luke by another quotation, the second one in the same sermon, this time from Abraham Heschel, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary that I mentioned above, the greatest Jewish theologian of the twentieth century, a friend of Reinhold Niebuhr. The Reformed theologian Niebuhr asked this Hasidic Jew to deliver his funeral oration. A group of Roman Catholic theologians invited Heschel to address them on the topic of “The God of Israel and Christian Renewal.”  I do not claim that my brief citations, even though they run the risk of being too long for a sermon, do justice to the essay. I suggest that you read it for yourselves from his collected essays, which his daughter Susannah gave the wonderful title, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity.
The God of Israel is a name, not a notion, and the difference between the two is perhaps the difference between Jerusalem and Athens…The name “God of Israel” applies to the one and only God of all men. (268)…To the prophets, God was overwhelmingly real and shatteringly present. They never spoke of Him from a distance. (269)…The supreme issue is not the question whether in the infinite darkness there is a ground of being which is the object of man’s ultimate concern but whether the reality of God confronts us with a pathos—God’s ultimate concern with good and evil; whether God is mysteriously present in the events of history; whether being is transcended by creation; whether creation is transcended by care; whether my life is dependent on God’s care; whether in the course of my life I come upon a trace of His guidance. (270)…The Covenant is a holy dimension of existence. Faith is the consciousness of living in that dimension, rather than an assent to propositions…Faith is both certainty and trial: certainty in spite of perplexities, a trial demanding sacrifice, strain, wrestling. For certainty without trial becomes complacency, lethargy, while trial without certainty is chaos…Faith also involves fear: fear lest He discard us, lest he forsake us…(270)…Furthermore, the saying “God of Israel” has no possessive or exclusive connotation: God belonging to Israel alone. Its true meaning is that the God of all men has entered a Covenant with one people for the sake of all people.”…The Exodus occurs now. We are still on the way, and cannot accept any event as a final event. We are God’s stake in human history, regardless of merit and often against our will. (271)…I believe that one of the achievements of this age will be the realization that in our age religious pluralism is the will of God, that the relationship between Judaism and Christianity will be one of mutual reverence, that without denying profound divergencies, Jew and Christian will seek to help each other in understanding each one’s respective commitment and in deepening appreciation of what God means…The vital challenge for the Church is to decide whether Christianity came to overcome, to abolish, or to continue the Jewish way by bringing the God of Abraham and His will to the Gentiles (272).
Heschel proceeds to unpack what this means, and he was certainly not Lutheran. He concludes his address to Catholic theologians by quoting Isa 2.3-4 and 56.7, “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (285).
I do not myself see much difference between Heschel’s proclamation and Luke’s. To be almost trite, Heschel did not have a Lukan Christology. But without trying to impose anything on Abraham Heschel, I do not myself see much difference. Life involves lament, “strain, wrestling.” In my Christian terminology, this is a theology of the cross. I want to be absolutely clear: I am not trying to project that onto Heschel, but rather saying that as a Gentile Christian believer, one who has learned from both Isaiah and Luke, in some crucial affirmations, I do not myself see that much difference. Actually, Heschel knew more about death and new life from his family’s experiences in Germany than I ever care to know; how he still speaks about faith, I do not know.
As we have learned from the Psalms and from deutero-Isaiah, and as Gentile Christians, as we have learned also from Luke’s theology of the Messiah who suffered for us, when our experience calls for lamentation, like Hannah, let us take our cries before God. And when the priest or the prophet or the gospel writer proclaims hope and joy, let us not be overcome by fear, but have faith in the God who will perform God’s promise.
1. Ronald E. Clements, Isaiah 1-39 (New Century Bible Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980).
2. Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969).
3. Ann Weems, Psalms of Lament (Foreword by Walter Brueggemann; Louisville: Westminster, 1995).
4. Abraham Heschel, “The God of Israel and Christian Renewal,” pp. 268-85 in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, Essays, Abraham Joshua Heschel, edited Susannah Heschel (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1996).