What humans say about the divine

Photo by Mario Purisic

Welcome to my weekly ‘Layman’s Lectionary’ series where I stumble my way through the liturgical year and share my layman’s opinions, doubts, fears, and hopes about modern culture and daily life as it corresponds to scripture.

Presentation of the Lord
Click here for Lectionary readings.

NOTE: See, this is why this is called the LAYMAN’S Lectionary Series. I totally used the wrong readings for this week’s entry (below). I blame the Vanderbilt Divinity Library website because I clicked the right link, but it sent me to the wrong readings. I should’ve used this one (which they’ve just updated)…

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
Click here for Lectionary readings.

Enjoy the post anyhow (based on the wrong readings here).

I used to look at biblical texts as coming from a certain direction. I saw them coming from God to us. The question I’d ask myself while reading them was What is God saying here? How does God want us to live?

But then, I grew confused. Because when reading this stuff each week, I realized how many different versions of God were referenced in the text. And how many different — conflicting — ways God was acting in the world.

Then it hit me... These texts can’t necessarily be seen as God speaking to us. These are human accounts and testimonies of the divine. They show us what humans were saying about God at the time they were written.

Maybe the question is, “What is God making known about Godself through us at the time this passage was written?”

Things came to life when I flipped the direction. These are human accounts. That doesn’t discredit them for me — if anything, it makes them more holy.

Moving into this week’s readings — particularly from the Hebrew Bible in Malachi and the Psalms — there’s a lot of talk about a triumphant God. About God refining us like gold and silver. God is mentioned as a sun and a shield.

When I think about the humans who wrote this, I realize they lived under drastic conditions. The writers of these poems didn’t live in urban sprawls with WiFi, GrubHub, and indoor plumbing. They were undergoing one military invasion after the other.

And so, when I see the writer speak of refinement, this makes sense. Because we refine gold and silver through harsh heat and cold. Just the kind of conditions they were living through — quite literally — at the time.

Sometimes I think some of us need more refinement in our modern Western world. Yes, we have our issues. No, we’re not all living in extreme wealth eating cake off a frozen platter (would that be luxurious? — I dunno). Some of us can fully relate to the refinement process mentioned in this text.

But in general, we’re soft these days (especially if you’re of a certain demographic such as myself). Even a generation or two back, our ancestors were solid. Yes, they had their flaws just like anyone, but they were steeled. They were more refined through the hardships they faced as a culture. (Again, huge, sweeping, general terms here.)

Sometimes I think that we need this. But I’m also terrified of any kind of discomfort. I can’t stand to not have WiFi and when my shower isn’t hot enough, I get cranky. It’s ridiculous.

As I read these texts the other night, I could see the desperation and hope of the writers. This is not to be shunned or discounted. This is real. THIS is where the human mind goes when it’s facing obliteration.

As the Psalm says, “For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness.” Leaning on God as a supportive supernatural force makes sense in this context.

Being a thinking human is hard. Because we, unlike other species, can consider the following — what if we’re insignificant? What if none of this matters? Am I just a bacterial infestation that’s slowly rotting away on the inside, only to perish at some undisclosed time?

Do you know what kind of life this existential black hole leads to? (Oh, yes, you do, because you’re human.)

This idea of a God who might love us — a God who steels us and provides us sun and a shield, wow… Suddenly, our eyes light up. Things change as our eschatology changes from horror to hope.

Is. There. More?
Or should I just lay down and curl up now?

Questioning whether these texts — or even the Bible — is ‘true’ or not is a modern luxury. Yes, it’s one that I’m glad we have, but it’s a luxury nonetheless. When you’re comfortable, it doesn’t make sense to even consider the divine. You’ve got it covered.

Now, again, there’s nothing particularly wrong with this, it’s just that you’re living in a different paradigm than those who wrote these texts.

This is why Jesus went to the margins — to the sick, the ostracized, the oppressed, and the broken (and even the wealthy tax collectors who no one likes). Because it’s they who are sincere about their consideration of the divine. When people in power write about the divine, it almost always comes out toxic because it’s almost always focused on manipulating people in order to maintain power and secure their level in the hierarchy.

I digress…

In the accounts of Hebrews, we see the story of God told in a fascinating way (for its time). God… As a human. Not for the angels, but for the people. A god who swoops down into flesh and dying to the one who holds death over our heads.

This was Jesus’ eschatological middle finger to the powers that be. A compelling twist to the human narrative of how the divine shows up in our experience.

And yes, he was circumcised. So there was that.

(I didn’t get into the gospel reading this week much — besides the middle finger and circumcision thing — because this Hebrew Bible stuff is just that good… Please forgive me.)