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Archive for February, 2012

Grasshopper Theology

Grasshopper Theology

Isaiah 40:21-31

Daniel J. Ott

Good morning little grasshoppers!  Are you ready to do some theology?  Imagine:  There you are one fine day in a field of tall grass, doing whatever it is that grasshoppers do – going about your grasshopper business.  Suddenly, the thought occurs to you, “I wonder what’s beyond.”  So, you decide to take a look.  You rouse your strength and take a leap up beyond the grass-line.  You strain your gaze upward and to your amazement you see the most brilliant, beautiful blue – as far as the eye can see is magnificent bluishness.  When you land back safely in the field you think to yourself, “What a wonder!  Surely this must be the divine.”  Smitten, you decide to make another go of it.  With all your might you leap up and look out toward the horizon.  There you see great rock formations thrust up into the sky.  Their purple hue mesmerizes and you only come to your senses after you’ve been returned to the field for some time.  Another time you leap up and in the distance you see a field of color – yellow and purple stretching out across the earth.  You’re ecstatic as you return.  “Surely God is sublime.  What a God of beauty and grandeur.”  Drunk, you leap again with reckless abandon.  But this time the wind catches you, upends you, spins you.  The colors whirl and flash.  The shapes become horrible.  The fantastic becomes frightening.  You’re disoriented and thankful when you land with a jolt back in the safety of the field.  You decide that looking for God might be riskier than you first thought and so you cease your leaping into the beyond for the day.

The next day is wet.  The earth rumbles in the distance.  With the new day, your courage is renewed and, though hesitantly, you leap up.  Immediately, you wish you hadn’t.  God is dark and imposing.  There’s a crack.  Light rips down from above.  God booms!  When you return to earth, you are perplexed.  Does God have a dark side?  Is God angry today?  You decide not to jump again, lest God notice and take a crack at you.

The field dries quickly the next day.  You spend the day trying to put the pieces together – the blue, the field of color, the booming God.  Soon you decide you need another look.  Now you leap and find yourself in the presence of blinding light.  The light is hot.  It is not possible to be in God’s presence today.  The light is inaccessible and the heat is consuming.  You land and wonder:  Which is the true God?  Why is God so absolutely complex?  Who is this God?

And so it goes thereafter.  You can’t not leap, for your curiosity is piqued.  It’s more than curiosity really.  It becomes a drive.  You must know this God.  You long to be in God’s presence.  But every encounter is inexplicable.  Every attempt to understand falls short.

Isaiah says, “God sits above the circle of the earth and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers.  To whom then will you liken God?  To what likeness will you compare God?”

A sixth century mystic puts it this way, “The fact is that the more we take flight upward, the more our words are confined to the ideas we are capable of forming; so that as we plunge into the darkness which is beyond intellect, we shall find ourselves not simply running short of words but actually speechless and unknowing.”  The understanding “now rises from what is below up to the transcendent, and the more it climbs, the more language falters, and when it has passed up and beyond the ascent, it will turn silent completely, since it will finally be at one with [the one] who is indescribable.”[1]

Grasshopper theology teaches us that God is great – great beyond measure.  God is so great that God is indescribable – our experiences of God ineffable.

This is Isaiah’s message today.  God is great.  God is great in mystery.  AND God is great in power.  Isaiah reminds us of God’s great power by reminding us of the creation.  God sits above the circle of the earth and stretches out the heavens.  “Lift up your eyes on high and see,” Isaiah says, “Who created [the stars]? It is God who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because God is great in strength and mighty in power.”  Surely, any good grasshopper will understand God’s strength and power when she looks on the wonders of creation.

But Isaiah doesn’t leave it there.  God’s might is not only witnessed in creation.  We see God’s might in destruction too.  “God brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.  Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble.”  God is the indescribable one, mighty to create AND destroy.

Sometimes we Christians want to smooth this idea over a bit.  Hinduism takes it very seriously, though.  The Trimurti, or Hindu Trinity consists of three gods that represent the functions of the ultimate.  Brahma is the creator God. Vishnu is the sustainer.  And Shiva is the destroyer or transformer.  Shiva is a strong warrior who vanquishes the forces of evil.  Shiva is a fierce roaring storm that consumes worlds.

And as if that weren’t enough.  Shiva has a female consort, Kali.  Kali is the goddess of time, death and annihilation.  Kali is as black as the darkest night.  Her eyes are red with the intoxication of rage.  Her tongue juts out over her fangs.  Around her neck is a garland of human heads.  In her four hands are a sword, a trident, a severed human head and, of course, a bowl to catch the blood that drips from the head.  She marks vividly the fact that ends and death are part of the divine, just as creation and preservation.

Isaiah wants us to know this.  God is great in power.  God creates.  God sustains.  And God destroys.  God is great in mystery – indescribably, unknowable.  And God is great in might.  He creates the stars and destroys the nations.

But why does Isaiah want us to know this?  Why does he so carefully craft such a beautiful ode to God’s greatness?  He does it because he wants us to know exactly who this God is who cares for us.  He wants us to know how great this God is who regards us.  Do not think, O Israel, that your way is hidden from God.  Do not think that God has disregarded you.  For God gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless.  The great God comes low.  The God of power regards the powerless.  Even though God is great beyond description – even though God is mighty beyond understanding, God cares.  This is what Isaiah wants us to hear and know this morning.  And this is what I want you to hear and know this morning as well.

And in order for you to hear this message well, I’d like to do something a little different this morning.  I’d like to end the sermon by leading you in a time of meditation.  The form of meditation that we will use is called Lectio Divina.  Lectio Divina means sacred reading and it’s been practiced by Christians for more than a thousand years.  The practice is simple.  We will take the last few lines of the passage and read them several times.  Each time I read them, you will ask yourself a different question.  The first question is “What does the passage say.”  The second is “What is God saying to me through the passage?”  The third is “What do I want to say to God about the passage?”  And the fourth is “What difference does the passage make in my life?”

So the first question:  “What does the passage say?”  In just a second, I will read the passage again and then give you some time to let the words soak in.  A couple of things to remember:  First, remember the first part of this sermon.  The God that were are hearing about is the great God that Isaiah extolls in the verses that precede these.  Second, think about the situation that Israel is in as Isaiah proclaims this message.  The people have been driven out of their homes.  Their homes are destroyed.  Their place of worship has been destroyed.  They’ve been taken captive to a foreign land to do forced labor for their conquerors.  They are wondering what this experience tells them about their God.  They are wondering if they can maintain their faith.  They are wondering if they have the strength to go on.

Close your eyes and hear these words:  “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  The Holy One is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  God does not faint or grow weary; God’s understanding is unsearchable.  God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.  Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Holy One shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not be faint.”

 

Now I invite you to hear these words again.  What is God saying to you in these words?  Imagine yourself seated before God.  Imagine that God speaks directly with you: “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  The Holy One is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  God does not faint or grow weary; God’s understanding is unsearchable.  God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.  Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Holy One shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not be faint.”

 

 

Now I invite you to consider what you would like to say to God in response.  What burdens do you need to share with God?  What confessions do you need to make?  What words of love do you want to tell God in response to these words: “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  The Holy One is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  God does not faint or grow weary; God’s understanding is unsearchable.  God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.  Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Holy One shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not be faint.”

Finally, I invite you to consider what difference these words can make in your life.  What work of transformation can God do in you through these words?  What action will you need to take?  What attitude in you needs to change?  What new thing does God want to do in you through these words: “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  The Holy One is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  God does not faint or grow weary; God’s understanding is unsearchable.  God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.  Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Holy One shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not be faint.”

 

 

 

 

 


[1] Pseudo-Dyionysius, from Mystical Theology, as found in Louis Dupré and James A. Wiseman, Light from Light: An Anthology of Christian Mysticism, (New York:  Paulist Press, 2001), pp. 89-90.

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