We’re in the middle of Advent when we point to the coming of the Christ child and we talk about God’s love for the world. Advent, though, is also a season when we point to the coming again of God, the coming of God that will lead to the full blossoming of God’s Garden of Love. The lectionary appoints readings for this season from the prophets of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament as well as readings from the gospels that put more than a little edge on the announcement of God’s coming to us. There is talk of transformation and calls of repentance that can even raise a sense of alarm within us. What an interesting moment to be asked, “How do we reconcile the image of a vengeful God with an image of a loving God?” It is a huge question and one that folks have been contending with for a long time (maybe forever). The question behind it is “Who is God?” How we answer this question, in whichever form we ask it, makes a difference to our lives. I want to tell you up front that I think the answer each of us finds to it will change with time, maybe even in the matter of days, and that the answer will differ in degrees for each of us. And in the interest of transparency, the person who asked the question offered a longer intro to it than I’ve offered. I focus on the question because of the limitations of this forum and as a way to focus on what I see as the heart of the question. Sometimes I get that right and sometimes I don’t.
I’ve struggled with understanding who God is for a long time. I remember as a young child asking my grandmother a question kind of like the one before us now and getting an answer that just didn’t satisfy me. It was probably something like, “You don’t need to know that” or “Why are you bothering me with a question that doesn’t make sense”. I think it made sense then and I think it still does. I read the stories of scripture and we receive multiple images or descriptions of God’s identity and sometimes they are irreconcilable. How can the God of the Hebrew people demand Joshua and the Hebrews carry out genocide, called the “ban” in scripture, against the men, women, and children of Canaan? Does God send the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar to destroy Judah and Jerusalem as punishment for the people’s lack of faithfulness? Contrast these two examples (from among many) with the healing stories of Jesus in the gospels or Psalm 23 which illustrate a loving, caring image of God. How do you hold these multiple images of God together in a way that makes sense?
Here’s where I begin – I cannot know God fully as I cannot ever know another fully, I try to read scripture with cultural and period awareness, and I look for the threads in scripture and the traditions of faith that point towards shalom, God’s wholeness that I believe God intends for creation. All of this leads me to embrace an image of God that is loving, caring, and that works for the healing of creation including our lives.
I start with an inability to know God fully not to excuse God, nor do I think it is a appropriate to do so, but to point out my own limitations. That I cannot know God is a statement about me, not a statement about God. Regarding stories of divinely authorized violence in scripture, I think the stories, for example, from Joshua’s conquest of Canaan have to be read with a sense of cultural norms from the period they describe and beyond. The “ban” was widely practiced in the Iron Age period and was a way to secure conquest. If you add the divine imperative to the mix, then you add another layer of legitimization. It moves responsibility from the human realm to the divine realm and that just makes it easier to justify. I hear, although I can’t quote at the moment but maybe you can, examples from our own time similar justifications of national and international action and policies. Finally, I see a common thread throughout scripture and the Christian faith that connects to shalom. Shalom is often translated peace but it really points to something bigger – it points to wholeness and healing. I see that thread across many of the stories of the Old Testament and in the life and ministry of Jesus. These steps lead me to a place where I say that I understand God to be the Holy One who loves us by acting to bring about the healing of the world and our lives and one who I cannot use to justify my own brokenness or wrong actions committed by me, or by others on my behalf.