This second week of Lent is a good time to reflect on the greatness of God, and the absolute wonder of God's wanting to be with us, to comfort and encourage each one of us. We sometimes lose track of that assurance and even shut down the lines of communication. In our Gospel reading today, Jesus reminds us that the people of God often stoned their prophets. Yet the prophets persisted in listening to the voice of God, and responding. In history Christians, too, tortured and burned saints and visionaries. Today, people who hear or see visions are called delusional or mistaken. Why? I suspect the reason behind this is fear. We humans are uncomfortable with things out of the ordinary.
But God continues to reach out to us. God uses a variety of media to wake up and communicate with his people. Have you felt the presence of God lately? Have you talked with God recently? Today's readings are a wake-up call. It could be good for all of us if we resist our very human fear instincts and tune our inner ears and eyes to the possibility of the divine signaling us.
I grew up on a dairy farm. Farm life certainly keeps you grounded in the natural world. Visions and miraculous events are just not in the day-to-day experience of farmers. But they can be part of God's reaching out to us. And this can create conflict. Let me tell you a story.
We were dairy farmers in Massachusetts. Just 72 cows, but kosher. A young rabbi worked in the milk room where we bottled Weiss Farm kosher milk, and one of his jobs was to make sure all was kosher. My family also kept a kosher house. There are lots of rules about being Orthodox Jews. We carefully separated dishes and utensils used for milk from the dishes used for meat, and my mother kept the Passover dishes separated from all the others. I learned the rules of being Jewish at a very young age.
So at five years old, I knew about rules, and I feared God. I knew about Moses' burning bush encounter with God. But that was then, this is now. We follow the rules, God doesn’t speak to us here and now. So, you can imagine how weird it felt that fall afternoon to see a fat rat come out from one of our barn's sewer pipes. Then I saw two small mice come out of the pipe and devour the rat. The little mice ate up the big rat quick as a flash. Wow! As any five-year old would, I immediately ran to tell my father about this incredible event.
Incredible is the right word. My father did not believe me. We had quite a discussion. "Haven't I taught you not to lie?" He was angry. This wasn’t ordinary. Crouched down in front of me in the milk room, our eyes level, my father tried his best to convince me to tell the truth. I continued to insist on the truth I had seen, as improbable as it was. This session went on painfully until some of our hired men reminded Dad I was just a little kid. And it was left at that. But that vision stuck with me. Years later I came to have some reflections about its meaning.
Today’s reading from Genesis tells of one of Abraham's visions. Abraham had just come from rescuing his kidnapped kinfolk. He hears the voice of God while sitting in his tent. The voice tells him, Do not be afraid, Abraham, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great. Abraham believes God, but he respectfully reminds God he has no child, no heir. Any reward would be meaningless. God announces Abraham will have an heir, a child of his own body.
God's gifts are very big. God brings Abraham outside the tent and says, Count the stars if you can, So many will your descendants be. God's gifts can be huge. Not one heir, but a number too great to count.
The vision continues. God now tells Abraham he will give the entire land to him as a possession. From the Euphrates to the Nile, from Baghdad to Cairo. Every land Abraham would ever live in will be his possession. Abraham has faith, but he has another question: "How can I be sure I will occupy this land?"
God seems to be okay with questions asked in faith. Abraham didn't doubt God, but, like Mary, wondered how this could happen. God answers with a powerful sign. Abraham is told to bring several animals and birds, then cut the animals in half. We read, 12As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abraham, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. Then, in the vision, Abraham sees a smoking brazier, a portable oven pouring out clouds of smoke, and a blazing torch. These pass between the divided animal parts. Abraham understood this sign sealed a promise between him and God.
As terrified as Abraham was, he heard God. He listened as God promised, by a sign, the future of his descendants, the 400 years of slavery in Egypt, followed by God bringing them out of slavery with great possessions and wealth. And he reflected on the meanings of this very much not ordinary communication. As Jesus promised before Pentecost, God is a mystery you can never fully understand. God is bigger and more than we can conceive of, and yet he loves and cares for us. And reaches out to us. In time to come, Jesus promised, the Holy Spirit will teach us all things and explain all that went before and what is to come. Jesus made it plain - there is more to come.
God reveals this information to us in multi-media presentations. But many of us short hit our faith. Many good church-going Christians are uncomfortable with the idea of the continuing revelation of God. Or, more to the point, we are afraid to believe it. Church is good. We follow rules of how to behave. We do good works. It’s safe. Presbyterians even have a rulebook called, The Book of Order. But God talking to me? Scary. So we are tempted to block our ears and repeat ‘“la la la.” Nothing happening here.’ But, the truth is, from a human perspective, God is disorderly. God colors outside the lines. God expands boundaries; God even expands the universe itself.
I think we don't just fear God respectfully, we are scared to death of God. God is big, very big. And a big God is scary. Visions are scary. So we deny the glimpses we get. The first thing the angels say when they appear to us is, "Don't be afraid ... Fear not!" They understand our fear. But God has more for you and for all of humankind. God has humanity's best interests at heart. Your best interest. So, listen up! Hear God.
God is very, very big. And God is persistent. His Mercy endureth forever means exactly that. God doesn't give up on us. The gifts may look disorderly, but God has a plan higher and greater than we can see. And God wants us to know about it as best we can. How do we learn? Some are speakers in tongues, some interpret, some are workers of great works, some are administrators and some are teachers, some are powerful prayers, some are pastors and some prophesy. Some little kids have visions.
God intends that, whatever our gifts, we hear with our spiritual ears open. With discernment. To listen to the inspiration that appears in a few moments of prayer, to the message that strikes you during a conversation with a friend, to the unexpected and disorderly insight that intrudes on your most routine everyday task. Listen up! Be ready to hear and reflect with careful - and prayerful discernment. God is messaging us. The most important of the Laws, Jesus said was, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and all your mind. We sometimes overlook that this famous passage begins with the warning, "Hear, O Israel"... Open your spiritual ears and eyes.
I am not a prophet, and my father didn't stone me. But I had a vision that afternoon. And my father did not believe it or want to hear it. "You're lying..." Or, "It's all in your head, you must have thought you saw it, there's really nothing there." A five-year-old on the farm having a vision? I think my dad was fearful of something so far out of “real life.” Or maybe he was fearful of a message that he might be overtaken by his sons. Maybe the rat in my vision was a symbol of an institution become slow and stagnant. The two mice who ate up the rat are nimble, unafraid individuals who transform the old. No wonder my father didn't want to hear it. Or maybe he simply was angry that I was disrupting his orderly afternoon.
Coming back to Abraham’s vision: like the Bible itself, a vision is both a sign and a metaphor. It points to what will happen soon, and hints at the larger picture to follow. Abraham's saw the sacrificed animals cut in halves, the smoking portable oven and flaming torch: The sacrificed animals stand in for our animal human natures, which we symbolically sacrifice at baptism. The split animals are also Abraham's descendants who will be divided by tribe and suffer trials and enslavements. God will travel with them through their long hard journey, signified by the portable smoking oven and the portable flame which passes between. The smoke signifies the mystery of God, always with us, but invisible, hidden from us by a cloud. The blazing torch signifies the refining, cauterizing and healing we experience on our journey. It also points to the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire as the visible sign of God's presence as God led Moses and the rest of Abraham's descendants from slavery to possess the place God promised.
This is also a metaphor. What Israel went through is the experience each of us as individual believers go through on our personal life journey. From being trapped in our animal nature to becoming children of God. This is what Lent is for. To heighten our awareness we are on a very important journey, and we have a big and powerful friend accompanying us. The cloud and fire persist to this day. God is both light and mystery.
Visions are real. God is real. And God wants to talk things over with you, to help you. God is big. God is bigger than any sickness, bigger than any problem. bigger than our fears. And he speaks softly to us, to you, in a still, small voice. Make good use of your Lenten reflections and quiet prayers.
Hear God, hear O Chittenango.