On Thursday, July 7, terrorists detonated bombs at three locations in London: King’s Cross station , Edgware Road, and Liverpool Street. Thursday’s bomb blasts in London would have horrified me under any circumstances, but I found them especially shocking because I have been through King’s Cross many times on my way from Edinburgh to London and the bus that blew up was near the British Library where I have done research.. So, on Thursday I had a “there but for the grace of God” moment.
July 7, 2005, March 11, 2004 (the Madrid bombings) and September 11, 2001 are dates that separate one age from another. The civilized world has entered a new age, an age of anxiety and uncertainty, and I don’t hesitate to say that those who fly planes into office buildings and blow up commuters on the way to work have no part of the civilized world. We have no way of knowing when (not if, but when) there will be another attack. When the Soviet Union fell near the end of the 20th century, one historian wrote a book entitled The End of History. His point was that the Western world had triumphed. Our values -- free markets, free speech, the rule of law, religious toleration, and so on-- seemed to prevail everywhere. It wasn’t quite the new heaven and new earth promised in the Book of Revelation but it might be as close as a secular world could achieve. And then on a beautiful September morning, we turned on the television and saw airliners crash into the World Trade Center. History had not ended; it had only turned the corner and been mugged.
We are not the first people nor will we be the last to discover that the world we built had come crashing down. Why? we ask. We are good. We work hard. We go to church. We even help the poor both at home and abroad. We want to help the rest of the world to become as prosperous as we are. We don’t deserve to have terrorists destroy our skyscrapers and plant bombs on trains and buses. Don’t they appreciate all the things we’ve tried to do for them?
Israel had a similar experience in the 6th century BC. Judah, the southern kingdom, was very small; it wasn’t much more than the city of Jerusalem and its suburbs. Israel, the much larger northern kingdom, had been destroyed by the Assyrians in the 8th century BC. This made the people of Judah a bit smug. They assumed that God had punished their northern cousins for worshiping false gods and failing to heed God’s law. We obey the law, they thought. We have the Temple and the priesthood. But the prophet Jeremiah mocked this attitude. Jeremiah stood in the forecourt of the Temple and said, “Do not trust in these deceptive words, ‘We have the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord’ … for I will do to this place what I did to the Northern Kingdom and cast you out of my sight.” (Jer. 7.4ff paraphrased)
And Jeremiah was right. The Babylonians invaded Judah in 587 BC, destroyed the temple, and took the people of Judah into exile. It shattered their most fundamental convictions. They were God’s chosen. God had made “an everlasting covenant” with them. Where was the God who had led them out of captivity in Egypt, through the wilderness, and established them in a land flowing with milk and honey? Were the gods of Babylon greater than the God of Israel?
Our situation is not the same as that of Israel in the 6th century. We have not been carried into exile nor have our holy places been destroyed. We do not lament (as Israel lamented in Psalm 137) that “by the waters of Babylon our captors required of us songs… How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”
However, I do believe that we have crossed some kind of line, that the world this week is very different from the world last week, and is vastly different from the pre-9/11 world. We have crossed a line and there is no going back to the way things were.
So in a sense, we, too, are exiles. The safe, predictable world we knew no longer exists. Life seems more dangerous and fragile. After last week’s terrorist attacks there seems to be less light and more darkness in the world.
Today’s reading from Isaiah appears to be overwhelmingly joyous and upbeat: “…every one who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price….you shall go out in joy, and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” But in the midst of this glorious hymn of God’s abundant grace, Isaiah suddenly breaks off and says, “Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
“Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous his thoughts… For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways…”
When life is good, when we are successful and healthy and the stock market is going up and we have just hit a hole in one on the golf course and the Atlanta Braves are in the playoffs, we are not much bothered by the notion that God’s “thoughts are not [our] thoughts and God’s ways are not [our] ways.”
But when things are not going well, when we’ve been laid off and the credit card payment is overdue and the doctor wants to do more tests, then these words are not so reassuring. What if God’s idea of success is not my idea of success? What if God’s thoughts about my life are 180 degrees different from my thoughts about my life? What if God’s path takes us through wilderness and exile and we have no idea when we will enter the Promised Land?
Jesus’ parable of the sower does not offer us any easy answers, either. “A sower went forth to sow,” Jesus said. “And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where it quickly withered. Other seed fell among thorns that choked it. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty."
The seed, Jesus tells us, represents the “word of the kingdom.” Presumably, the “word of the kingdom” means God’s message, the good news or gospel. Why doesn’t God only plant the seed of the gospel in good soil? Why are there rocks and birds and thorns in the first place?
Both the readings from Isaiah and Matthew invite more questions than they answer. Isaiah assures us that God’s word will “accomplish” its purpose, and “prosper.” But Jesus seems to suggest that about 75% of the time God’s word does not prosper but rather shrivels in the sun or is choked by weeds or is carried off by the “evil one.”
We long for a world in which God’s word does accomplish its purpose, a world in which there are no rocks or thorns but only fertile soil in which the gospel flourishes. But God did not create that kind of world. Instead God created a world in which good and evil are next door neighbors, a world in which swords can be beaten into plowshares but plowshares can also be beaten into swords.
God created a world in which mighty Babylon could overwhelm tiny Judah, and in which the even mightier Persians overwhelmed Babylon in turn.
How are we to live in a world of both beauty and terror, a world in which the commute to work can become even more terrifying than Israel’s journey through the wilderness?
Both Isaiah and Matthew give us some guidance.
While God’s covenant with Israel was eternal, it was not unconditional. As soon Isaiah told Israel that God desired to make an “everlasting covenant” with them, he immediately reminded them that the wicked and unrighteous must “forsake” their ways and “return” to the Lord. Every human heart is an alloy of good and evil; the human task is to purge the evil and refine the good.
The parable of the sower in Matthew speaks of four kinds of soil, but the truth is that all four are in every human heart. Sometimes the thorns that choke the word come up out of the depths of our being; sometimes the word withers in the heat of our indifference; sometimes trivial cares and concerns whisk away the word like crows pecking at the young corn.
Both Isaiah and Matthew give us a solution to our dilemma that is at once profoundly simple and terribly difficult. Jesus introduces his parable with a one word command: "Listen!" In Isaiah, God commands Israel to “Incline your ear and come to me; listen that your soul might live.”
Listen for that still, small voice. Listen to those who have no voice. Listen to the silence because the silence may be God’s way of saying things for which we have no words.
The world is God’s creation, not ours. The divine wisdom fashioned a world in which both good and evil can flourish for a time, but our faith and hope is that the day will come when evil will wither and be choked by thorns and good alone will flourish. Listen, for even now we can hear hills begin to sing alleluias and the trees’ vast hands clap together.