The Cosmic and Local God (Oct 16)
Readings Jeremiah 31:27-36 and Luke 18:1-8
There can often feel like a tension or even, one might argue, a contradiction between God’s particular, local relationship as the God of Israel and God’s position as the cosmic God of all creation. This - like many aspects of God’s character - is exemplified in the Incarnation, where Jesus is at once the Messiah of Israel and the light and life of the world, the eternal logos. This tension is observed in both Jewish and Christian writings, what does it mean to stress the local character of God, who is intimately involved in one people’s history, who elects and covenants with one people, and yet, is not solely the God of that people, but the One God of the universe, on whom the foundations of the world are set and in whom all history finds its end.
It could be easy to think, given this particularity and at times partiality, that the promise and presence of God is reserved and restricted to one particular set of people (be they Jewish or Christian). That the story of the rest of the world’s people is somehow untied from the sovereign grace of God. A certain arrogance naturally follows such a position, as well, we might say, a certain diminishing of God, and the power of the Spirit of God to move over the waters of creation however They please.
On the other hand, to completely detach God from the particularity of the people of Israel, from the particular Jewish body of Jesus, carries its own risks. Such a detachment lies at the heart of Christian antisemitism and supersessionism, which sees the Jewishness of Christ and the Israel of God as replaceable and dismissible… and when that story is replaceable and dismissible, so are the people. Further, to detach God from this particularity, risks reducing God to a set of ideas, abstractions, and virtues, rather than a personal God, who took on flesh, who journeys with people, who experienced the pain of the world, who took sides with the poor and downtrodden. The laws of torah and the commands of Christ do not drop from heaven like a shopping list of thou shalts and shalt nots - they emerge out of a relationship of fidelity, freedom, and friendship that is tied to the particular history of God and God’s people, and of Christ as his embodied ministry with and to those he came to serve and save.
And it is with all of this in mind that we come to today’s readings. In the first, Jeremiah once more reminds the people of the promise of God amidst the desolation of exile. That despite their defeat and dislocation, they will return to their homelands. This passage extends the scope of the promise - not only will they return, but a new covenant is laid before them, one with exceeds the former, for this will be written on their hearts, and the initiation of this covenant will bring about an unparalleled intimacy and presence of God in the lives of the people – within such intimacy they will no longer have to remind one another to know the Lord, for such knowledge will be perfect, perpetual, and personal to each.
Now, amidst all these promises of God’s fidelity to Israel, it might be easy for those hearing these words to start to assume that the wider order of the world means little to God, that Israel’s fate is someone disconnected from that of the cosmos. And yet, Jeremiah brings the word of God:
If this fixed order were ever to cease from my presence, says the Lord,
then also the offspring of Israel would cease to be a nation before me forever.
The position of Israel as the people before God is dependent on God’s upholding of the whole created order. Should any distance emerge between the whole of the cosmos and the loving presence of God then that would mean the dissolution of all things (including the covenantal relationship between God and Israel). All things are related to God, and all those relations (including the relation of Israel to God or the church to Christ) are interdependent within that ecosystem.
In this way we might speak of how the particular relationship of God to Israel and Christ to his Church symbolises and points to the broader relationship of God to the whole world. Take for example a jumper knitted by a grandparent for their grandchild. The jumper symbolises the love of the grandparent for the grandchild - the jumper is not the entirety of their love (it is not as if they give over the jumper and cease to express any affection, care, or interest for the grandchild), but the jumper isn’t irrelevant either - the jumper is important, cherished, and real! At the same time, we don’t look at the jumper knitted for one grandchild and think, ah, because this is the only jumper we see or are talking about at the moment that the grandparent doesn’t love their other grandkids, doesn’t care for or think about them. At its best we look to this jumper and see the love of the grandparent for their whole family symbolised through this particular act/gift to the one grandchild in this moment - knowing that there must have been and will be still many more moments, gifts, and gestures for the other grandkids. The nature of the particular teaches us to understand the whole – the gift reveals the grandparent as generous, caring, and involved. Likewise, the detailed story of God and Israel teaches us to understand the character and inclination of God to all people, to all creation.
I think of Hagar, the Egyptian slave given to Sarah, who in turn gives her to Abraham in order that they might speed up the promise of God by having Hagar bear Abraham’s child. Later, Sarah’s jealousy of Hagar and Ishmael result in them being expelled into the wilderness. Hagar, on the edge of death, worried for the life of her son, weeps for what has befallen them. And yet, God hears the weeping and intervenes (the language in this passage matches the language of God hearing Israel’s suffering in their own slavery in Egypt). God promises Hagar that God will make of Ishmael a great nation - God then provides water for Hagar and Ishmael as God provided water from stone for the Israelites in their own wilderness sojourn. We then read, God was with the boy [Ishmael] as he grew up. We also get an account of his descendants and Ishmael’s return and eventual burial in the land of his ancestors (his own deliverance to a new land).
The story of God and Hagar/Ishmael parallels the story of God and Israel. God shows up for Hagar and Ishmael, as God does for Israel, for this is the character of God, this is who God is (I Am What I Am About to Do). As Jesus reminds us, God does not keep putting off those who tap at the door, but God brings justice for those who cry out.
In this is the good news, God's cosmic relation and love means that, like a wild olive shoot, we are grafted onto God's covenant with Israel. We have been moved from the universal to the particular. Through the Spirit of Pentecost we receive a spirit of adoption, welcomed into the very household of God. And yet the good news is bigger still, more mysterious, surprising, and worthy of our hope. For the story of the banished Egyptians, Hagar and Ishmael, reminds us that God's loving presence and powerful justice is prodigal, existing without boundaries, unrestricted by our expectations.
The particular and the universal, the local and the cosmic might be distinct, and should not be conflated, but each is upheld and made meaningful by the reality of the One God who loves justice. Who hears those crying out in bondage and moves toward us, for us, so that we might receive a spirit of adoption and find a home in the household of God.
Image: Wassily Kandinski, Circles in a Circle (1923)
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