Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 10/12/2014

“The Lord is my shepherd…” That of course is the beginning of Psalm 23, the best known of all the psalms, one of the best known verses in the whole Bible and it also gives us one of the most beloved images that we have of God. I’ve mentioned before that it’s a little surprising that we’re so fond of this image insofar as most of us really don’t know much about shepherds and shepherding but I think our fondness has to do with the fact that many of us have memories of something like I showed the kids, something depicting Jesus as the shepherd, holding the lambs and you don’t have to know anything about shepherding to find comfort in that image.

The Lord as shepherd is one of the best known images we have of God, but it’s far from the only one. The Bible offers up quite a variety of images because of course God can only be imagined and the different images reflect the different ways that God has been experienced. So for most of us, while there may be images of God that we’re especially fond of, there are probably others that also find their way into how we think about God. As much as I love the shepherd imagery, as I confessed last week, I still get trapped by more wrathful images of God, but then I think, maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be. No one image should completely dominate.

Whatever image we carry though, it does impact our relationship with God and one thing to be conscious of is when we let our image become too tame, for example limiting God to the shepherd imagery. We can be prone to that, in part because we sometimes prefer a God who doesn’t bother us too much, one whom we can control and meet on our own terms. That kind of image may provide comfort but it also keeps God at arm’s length and like I said, sometimes that’s what we prefer.

The people of the Old Testament though, tended to be a little more adventurous, a little riskier in how they imagined God, not so concerned with taming God but instead allowing for a more elusive God, a God not easily explained by or contained in any one image and when you think about it, that’s a much more honest approach. With that in mind, along with God as the shepherd, today’s lessons give us a number of other images and we do well to consider them, particularly those that we might find a bit disturbing.

Today’s first lesson from Isaiah is a song of praise to God for deliverance from oppression, that’s the heading in my Bible anyway, and included are five different images. In the first one you get God as something of a wrecking ball. “For you have made the city a heap, the fortified city a ruin, the palace of the aliens is no more, it will never be rebuilt.” That doesn’t give us a tame god. In fact it’s is a prayer that we might find a little embarrassing. We can imagine it on the lips of the perpetrators of 9/11 as they surveyed the rubble of the twin towers, praising their God for the destruction of that symbol of our capitalist economy, but certainly we wouldn’t pray that way, but there it is. It’s praise offered by those who don’t have much, those who are happy to see the rich and powerful put in their place and it’s the Lord who is the agent of destruction, that’s the embarrassing part. The wrecking ball might be an image we’d rather skip over but we can’t because it’s there, but let’s move on anyway.

The second image in this text is of God as a safe place. “For you have been a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy, a shelter from rain, a shade from heat, a place where the song of the ruthless is not sung.” That’s more like it. That’s closer to the green pastures and still waters of the 23rd Psalm and it becomes even more to our liking as the text then moves to an image of God as the host of a great dinner party serving up a feast of rich food and well aged wine, a feast for all people. Keep in mind again that these are words spoken by people who are not usually invited to parties like this but they are able to imagine God not just as a provider of basic essentials but a God of extravagance who throws elaborate parties and spares no expense in doing so.

This poetry then moves to a rather unpleasant but evocative image, first of all an image of nations and all people draped in a funeral shroud. It’s an image of a corpse, an image of death. It’s a bit disturbing, but on the other hand, doesn’t it seem that way sometimes? So much of what we hear is bad news, bad news that makes it sound like things are spinning out of control, bad news that sucks the life out of us and drains us of hope. It’s not hard to imagine the world draped in a funeral shroud. But the picture doesn’t end there because with it we get an image of God as something, maybe a sea monster of some kind, rising up to destroy the shroud and swallow this image of death. “He will destroy the shroud, he will swallow up death forever.” It’s kind of a frightening image, but in this case, it’s what is needed.

As with the previous images though, we don’t linger with it for very long because another one follows immediately, this time the Lord as a gentle and loving mother, wiping away tears and bringing comfort and again we think, that’s more like it. You see what I mean though about the different images? In these few verses there are five different images, each of them effective, but none of them totally adequate. Each is made more effective by the others so that collectively they address a range of needs and hopes and collectively they keep God on the loose; no one image and no combination of images pins God down; there’s always another image. What connects the images though, as different as they are, is that they all provide another chance; they provide new life and renewed hope.

If only we could stop there; if only we could ignore the gospel. The image that keeps coming back in the first reading, the psalm and the gospel is the banquet and the image of God as the host. Isaiah has the feast of rich food and well aged wines, the psalm has a table prepared in the presence of my enemies and then in the gospel we have the parable of a great wedding banquet. The parable is the story of a king who invited guests to a wedding banquet for his son only to have those invited ignore the invitation and even go so far as to kill some of those who delivered it. Angry, the king first sent his soldiers out to get revenge and then he ordered his servants to go out into the streets and invite everyone they encountered, good and bad, so that the wedding hall would be filled.

It would be bad enough if that’s where it ended because the host of that banquet is not slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love but quick to anger and abounding in vengeance. With him there’s no provision of another chance. In Luke’s telling of it, that is where it ends but Matthew adds the post script where one of the off the streets guests wasn’t wearing a proper wedding garment so the host orders him thrown into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. It doesn’t make sense! He just called him in off the street after all!

I started by saying we should pay attention to the images that disturb us. This one is disturbing; it’s hard to reconcile with the gracious God revealed by Jesus. I can’t fully explain it in a way that really satisfies me, but here’s something to think about. Off the street or not, the guest had been invited to a wedding banquet which is a time of celebration, a time of joy and generosity and hope for the future. Invited to this time of joy and hope, the guest should enter fully into it, embrace the possibilities and begin to see life differently. I may be reaching, but perhaps the lack of a garment symbolizes the fact that this guest wasn’t doing that but instead was still living a life of resignation and despair as if he were still out on the street.

I throw that out there because it’s an image that might convict a lot of us. We talk about Jesus as the embodiment and symbol of new life and hope and forgiveness and second chances and new possibilities but then we continue to act and live as if the only reality we know is that of the doom and gloom and despair of the daily news. We’ve been shown a different reality and we’ve been invited into it, but in effect, we ignore the invitation.

It still doesn’t tie up the very loose end of the image of a God ready to throw people into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth but maybe even that is an effort to get our attention and dramatize the difference represented by the wedding banquet.

As I said, it’s not an interpretation that settles all the issues for me, but what I do know is that a feast has been prepared, and the invitations have been sent.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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