Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Light Shining in Darkness

Isaiah 9:2-7; Matthew 4:12-17
by Daniel Harrell

So far in our survey of light this fall we’ve looked at creation’s first burst, Noah’s rainbow, the Lord’s pillar of fiery cloud that led Israel out of Egypt, the tree-of-life lamp stand that lit up the Tabernacle, as well as last Sunday’s walk in the dark as we considered the righteous suffering of Job.

Due to the severity of Job’s suffering, especially unsettling since it was all God’s doing, I noted how not single child born in the annals of Judaism or Christianity has ever been named after him. It’s just not worth the risk. However, Mustafa Omar who hails from Afghanistan, and who along with his wife Jen joined our church this morning, informed me afterwards how among Arabic speakers, Job is in fact a very common name. Taking for granted that most Arabic speakers weren’t Bible-believers (at least not in the Jewish or Christian sense), I decided to see how the Quran depicted Job, since many of the Bible’s characters appear in Islam too. You might be glad to hear that the Quran provides a much shorter version of Job: a mere six verses compared to the Old Testament’s 42 chapters. And moreover, when Job complained about his suffering to Allah (having blamed it all on Satan), Job immediately received a miraculous fresh wellspring of water from which to wash and drink, and was then verily praised for coming to Allah the ever-merciful with all his troubles. So sure, Job should be a popular name among Arabic-speakers.

Arriving several centuries after the close of the Christian Bible, Muslims view the Quran as a welcome improvement. Christians don’t regard the Quran as  the word of God, though many of us would probably welcome a few improvements. Take the Christmas Story. (Only 72 shopping days left). Greeting cards and carols polish it up as round yon virgin and imperturbable child peacefully sleeping while snow falls, cattle low and bells jingle. But if you actually read the story, what you get is a very sordid tale of an engaged young woman apparently cheating on her fiancĂ©e. She says that God did it, adding blasphemy to the infidelity. The ancient laws allowed for the betrayed Joseph to stone Mary, but preferring to keep the scandal out of the papers, he decided to break it off quietly so to save everybody any further embarrassment. 

The whole thing was a miserable mess. And as Joseph would eventually discover, as with Job, it was all God’s doing. We’re taught that the virgin birth was necessary for the Son of God to possess no original sin. So why make everything look so sinful? Why all the secrecy? Why not a blaze of public, visible Holy Spirit glory and then a pregnant Mary? That way her neighbors could have thrown her a baby shower with swaddling clothes from Baby Gap. Somebody could have made sure there was room at the Bethlehem Hilton so that Jesus wouldn’t have had to be born in a barn. Better yet, why not just skip the whole birth process entirely? Spare Joseph the painful humiliation. Spare Mary the painful labor. Spare Jesus the hazardous temptations of adolescence. It’s not like he did anything for his first thirty years anyway. Just show up on Good Friday and be done by Sunday.

However the church has always insisted that the death and resurrection of Jesus was contingent on his obedient life. Jesus takes away our sins to be sure. But he also gives us his well-earned righteousness, a righteousness won despite the best that Satan could throw at him. Like Job, Jesus took all the devil dished out, yielded to the sacrificial will of his Father, but then topped it all off by shouldering the miserable mess of human sin—something only Jesus could do because he had no sin of his own, having lived a perfectly obedient life.

Christian’s insist on Jesus’ obedient life, though we’ve had to rely on some troubling equations to pull it off. We believe that Jesus was totally human, but also totally God. It’s hard to say with a straight face. As the Nicene Creed famously affirms: “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven:by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man for our sake…”

The Nicene Creed wasn’t crafted at some church committee meeting over coffee and donuts. It emerged after centuries of infighting, some of it bloody, over how to do the math of the incarnation. How can any real person really be God? You’re either human or divine, the creature or the Creator, but not both. This is definitely a place where the Bible could have used some improving, if only to minimize the dissonance. On the one hand, Jesus walked on water, rose from the dead and read people’s minds. But on the other hand, Jesus had no idea when he’d come back on earth, couldn’t tell who touched him after some healing power went out of his body, was surprised by the faith of a Roman Centurion and got talked into changing his mind by a Gentile woman, of all people, who needed a demon cast out of her daughter. What kind of a God acts so unpredictably?

The Nicene Creed does provide an unintentional hint, apropos to our theme for this fall. “Light from light.” Unbeknown to our forefathers of faith, light behaves as unpredictably as God himself, and with the same sort of dual nature as Jesus. Take an example from your bathroom mirror. Did you know that every morning when you get up and look in the mirror, you only see 95% of your reflection. Praise the Lord. Where is the other 5% of the light? It goes through the mirror. How is this possible? Because light behaves both as a true wave—bouncing back from solid surfaces that reflect it—and as a true particle—bouncing off but also breaching those same reflective surfaces. How do we know which will bounce and which will breach? We don’t. Fire a photon at a mirror and there’s literally no way to predict whether it will bounce back or pass through. Photons are by their very nature predictably unpredictable.

The discovery of light’s quirky behavior—or maybe I should say quarky behavior—made a miserable mess of classical physics. Remember the picture of Sir Isaac Newton under a tree getting bonked on the head by an apple? Newtonian mechanics and its predictable dependence on gravity ruled the scientific realm for the next 300 years. A devout believer, Newton viewed the predictability of nature as a testimony to the reliability of God. But then along came Albert Einstein, and with him the quantum mechanics—Messrs. Bohr, Schrodinger, Heisenberg and others—whose discoveries of life at the subatomic level of particles and quarks meant that in some cases that same apple would not bonk but hover in an unstable state only to fall at some unpredictable moment calculated only in terms of probability. There may be a high probability that the apple will fall within a very short time, but there is also a small probability that the apple will suspend above the ground for hours, just as a photon of light flies through a mirror.

Not only that, but according to quantum mechanics, any one photon or quark can exist in multiple places simultaneously. It’d be like having your umbrella in your car, in your house and at work all at the same time, available whenever you need it. This unnerving reality drove Einstein, no real believer himself, to contend that God could never behave is such dicey fashion.

But inasmuch as “God is light,” this is precisely how he operates. He’s everywhere at once and wherever you need him. Mystery is woven into the system. In fact, the more precise the scientific instruments and the more accurate the scientific measurements, the more we're certain of light’s indeterminate and double nature. In accordance with the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (the closest thing to a law in quantum theory), any attempt to pinpoint a quark’s behavior is doomed. 

The Nobel Prize for Physics this week went to two scientists who confirmed light’s murky behavior. Normally, to detect light is to destroy it, since photons are absorbed into our retinas or into the chips in our cameras. But these physicists figured out how to isolate light without destroying it so as to more precisely observe its erratic behavior. Paradoxically, tapping into the unpredictable nature of quarks can actually lead to perfectly predictable applications—from the orbit of planets to the tick-tock of clocks. Among the practical applications of this year’s Nobel research is a practically perfect clock, one that would be off by only five seconds over the whole course of cosmic time—that’s five seconds for every 13.7 billion years. In Galatians we read how “God sent his Son, born of a woman, … to redeem … at just the right time.” Jesus Christ, as the author of nature, the light of the world and God in the flesh, unconventionally operates, but he does so right on schedule.

OK, so I’m getting a little carried away here. According to Matthew’s gospel, Jesus was born of a woman only that the “Scripture might be fulfilled.” The same with our passage this morning. Jesus “made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled.” Matthew is very deliberate about fulfilling Scripture. Our passage marks the fifth of ten times he mentions it. Chances are that Jesus was deliberate too. We read that he moved to Galilee of the Gentiles after hearing of John the Baptist’s arrest so that the prophecy might be fulfilled. John had made straight the way for Jesus’ coming and made clear that suffering would be part of the gospel. “Galilee of the Gentiles” indicated the gospel’s eventual scope. 

Jesus moving to Galilee and the Christmas Story both rely on the same section of Isaiah, chapters 7-9. In Isaiah 7, the prophet says, “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” However, given Isaiah’s context, it’s highly unlikely that the prophet was talking about the virgin Mary giving birth since the birth Isaiah predicted occurred in his own lifetime. Israel’s King Ahaz was in dire straits and needed divine help to fight his Assyrian enemies. Eager to help, God pressed Ahaz to ask for a sign. But Ahaz, feigning modesty, demurs. He wanted to do things his own way. So God gave him a sign of his own. “A young woman (a more accurate translation than the King James virgin) will have a baby and name it Emmanuel (which means God with us).” Big deal. Women have babies everyday. Which may have been the point: God being with Ahaz meant God letting nature takes its course. Assyria was strong enough to take down Israel any day of the week. So God lets them do it.

However Isaiah 7 in only the beginning of a whole string of events about a child and the name Emmanuel. In chapter 8, Emmanuel applies to the entire people of God coming under Assyrian attack. God not only lets Assyria run them over, but by being with his people, he gets run over too. But then in Isaiah 9, Emmanuel resurfaces, this time as a child born of redemption: “a son is given on whose name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his dominion and peace there will be no end.” With the arrival of Jesus, “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light; on those in the land of the shadow of death, light has dawned.” The ordinary child born in Isaiah 7 as a sign of failure unexpectedly gives way to the extraordinary child prophesied in chapter 9 as a sign of salvation. Matthew had Isaiah’s whole unpredictable pattern in mind when he spoke of Christ fulfilling it. Defeat turns out to be the pathway to victory. Failure the welcome mat for grace. Suffering, surprisingly, leads to gratitude and new life. And somehow, Jesus said while on earth, the Kingdom of Heaven is here.

 How is this possible? How can heaven be in two places, already here but not yet come? How can Jesus be both fully man and fully God? How can light behave as both particle and wave? How can a particle of matter exist everywhere at the same time, but then in only one place once you look at it? According to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, “to observe is to disturb.” This is disturbing. Physically speaking, you need light to see but to shine light disturbs what you look at because the photons of light bump into the particles of matter and moves them. You can never see where something actually is. You can only see where you’ve moved it. What you see isn’t ever what you were looking for. Mystery is woven into the system. Applied to psychology, to observe is to disturb your perspective. Like it or not, whenever we look at something we can only see it from a relative viewpoint. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle applied to psychology means we must adjust our perspective to truly understand. You have to look at things differently to find what you’re looking for. Applied to theology then, to observe is to be disturbed by God. It is to have your eyes opened, your heart transformed, you spirit moved, your mind changed. It is, in a word, to repent.

 Normally, the focal component of repentance is sorrow or contrition due to sin. But the emphasis in Scripture is more on the change of mind and behavior due to a new reality. If the kingdom is here, you have to think about the world and your place in it differently. You have to adjust your perspective to reflect the reality of Jesus for whom lost is found and least is great. Repent and you understand Jesus as fully human and fully God, and are grateful that he is with you in suffering and for you in resurrection. Repent and see defeat as the pathway to victory. Repent and see failure as the welcome mat for grace. Repent and see suffering lead you to gratitude and new life. Repent, and by the light of Christ, you’ll see the kingdom of heaven everywhere.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Lights Out

Job 3:1-26
by Daniel Harrell

Our theme is Biblical light, but we’ve spent a good deal of time in the dark in recent weeks. We’ve stumbled through darkness as mystery (the cloudy abode of the Lord), darkness as evil and sin    place Jesus says that we love more than the light), and this week into darkness as suffering, expressed no more representatively and bitterly than in the gut-wrenching cries of the blameless man Job. Back at creation God said “let there be light” and called it good. Here Job says “let there be dark” and calls it necessary. “Why is light given to one in misery, and life to the bitter in soul, who long for death, but it does not come…? Let the stars of its dawn be dark; let it hope for light, but have none; may it not see the eyelids of the morning—because it did not shut the doors of my mother’s womb, and hide trouble from my eyes.” Add the gloom of pending winter outside, and this might have been the morning to skip church.

Job has had a bad day. An upright man without guile, he tragically lost his house, his kids, his business, his money and his skin. But this is the real shocker: it was all God’s fault. The Lord gets embroiled in a presidential debate with Satan, though I’ll let your own political proclivities sort out which was the Democrat and which the Republican. At issue was the record of the incumbent, in this case the Lord, who in his defense invites the devil to consider his Job record. “Consider my servant Job. There is no one like him on earth. He is blameless and honest and reverent and moral.” Satan concedes that Job’s a fine man, but counters that nobody’s that good for no reason. Satan hisses, “You pamper him like a pet! You make sure nothing bad ever happens to him or his family or his possessions! You bless everything he does! But what do you think would happen if you reached down and took away all that is his? He’d curse you right to your face.”

This is no small line in the cosmic sand. As with Noah and Moses and Abraham in their day, Job is exhibit A when it comes to righteousness on earth. Should Job turn out to be a poser, God’s entire relationship project with people would be exposed as fraudulent. Do we worship God because he is Lord? Or merely for the benefits he promises? Where do true loyalties lie? We confess to love the Lord with all of our heart, soul and strength, but there’s only one way to know. As with the ludicrous command that Noah build a boat on dry ground, or the insanity of Moses rescuing a whole nation from slavery with a stick, and that atrocious request that Abraham sacrifice his only son Isaac, the Lord allows for Job to be run through the ringer. To be sifted like wheat. To be put to the test. God kills off Job’s cattle and camels, his house and his servants, his sons and his daughters. Job’s loss is total and cataclysmic. And he passes the test. Despite the enormity of his suffering, he worships the very God who has brought him to ruin. “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.”

Satan is not impressed. He cynically rebuts that the real test of faith is endangerment to one’s life. A man will always give up everything to save his own skin. Our genes are wired for self-survival. To see Job’s true character, wreck his body. Make him sick. “Skin for skin,” Satan says. You know it’s bad enough that the Lord and the devil are still on speaking terms, badder still that God lets Satan have at it. The devil does his dirty work, inflicting Job with malignant sores on from the sole of his feet to the crown of his head. “And Job took a broken piece of pottery with which to scrape himself as he sat among ashes.” Job’s wife had enough. She watches her pious husband and loathes him for accepting his doom. “Why do you try to hold on to your integrity?” she screams. “Curse God and die!” But Job replies as he scrapes at the pus, “shall we accept only good from the Lord and not anything bad?”

We have reached a high point in human ridiculousness here. An absurdity of faith. Jewish tradition regards Job as an incomparable saint, but not one single Jewish child has ever been named after him. Jacob and Noah and Daniel remain popular baby boy names from the Bible, Jacob being the top boy name overall this year. But Job? According to the Social Security Administration, no child in America has ever had that name. Why risk it? Job seems to agree: “Let the day be erased in which I was born,” he cries, “that night that said ‘a boy-child is conceived.’ Let that day be darkness, that night—let thick darkness seize it! Let it be blotted off the calendar, never again to be counted among the days of the year.”

Job, with Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, is assigned to those books of the Bible labeled “wisdom,” leading many to conclude that Job’s story of Job is more morality tale than real life event. If only that were the case. In our own congregation we’ve prayed for the Thomas family, Jennifer and Bob, who on their way to the funeral following the tragic death of Jennifer’s cousin, got word of the declining health of Bob’s mother. He went to be by her side as she died, only to then have Jennifer’s beloved grandmother die too. At the same time, Bob’s job was in upheaval as his department got eliminated, and then their daughter fractured her elbow playing in the yard. All this occurred as Jennifer planned an annual benefit to raise money for MS Research, a disease that she suffers herself. The dark woes of Job may be consigned to wisdom literature, but they are hardly fictional.

We all suffer our own misery and affliction. Its persistence remains the foremost argument against the existence of God. If the Lord is light, how can life get so dark? We need an explanation. Job initially takes his licks lying down, but even he starts to wonder, especially once his familiar friends from the philosophy club come over to commiserate. We’re mostly remember the obtuse advice they offer later on, but their initial impulse was powerfully compassionate. They see Job but hardly recognize him, his disease and distress were so severe. But rather than draw back as we often do in the presence of extreme misery, these friends draw near and join Job in his ashes. They weep with him seven days, without a word, “for they saw that his suffering was very great.” While in college a classmate of mine died too soon, and his father recalled how at the hospital so many well-meaning church folk came by to comfort by telling him try to find something good in his son’s death. This father later wrote how he wished these friends would have simply sat and cried with him.

Job finally breaks the silence himself, with the bitter words we ponder this morning. His grief outweighed his hope. “My sighing comes like my bread, and my groanings are poured out like water. Truly the thing that I fear comes upon me, and what I dread befalls me. I am not at ease, nor am I quiet; I have no rest; but trouble comes.” Job’s lament opens the verbal door to his friends, whose loquaciousness runs on for the next thirty-five chapters. “Why do bad things happen to good people?” is a hard question. One friend insists that it’s an impossible premise; Job must have committed some crime. Another argues that Job’s misery cannot last if he is truly blameless, while a third suggests Job repent anyway, just in case. A fourth friend comes late to the debate and tells Job to treat his troubles as a guard against future sin—all of which amounts to well-meaning church folks trying to make sense of Job’s suffering. But to Job, his tragedy is all God’s fault. Only the Lord can give him the answer he needs, even if it’s not the answer he wants. 

Note that Job loses hope. But he never loses faith. To blame God is to believe in God. “I know that my redeemer lives,” he insists, with words sung every Christmas season in Handel’s Messiah and recited in every funeral liturgy. “I know that my redeemer lives and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and though my skin has been destroyed, in my flesh I shall see God standing on my side,” and I will get my answer.

Both happen. Job sees God and he gets his answer. The Lord appears as we have grown accustomed—in a thick cloud of darkness. God appears and treats Job’s demanding entreaty, not with condescension, but with an invitation to step up. “Who darkens my counsel by words without knowledge?” thunders the Lord. “Stand strong like a man, I have some questions for you.” It’s all very dramatic. God proceeds to riddle Job with an inquisitorial barrage, four chapters long, intended to answer one simple question: “Who are you, Job? Were you there when I laid the foundation of the earth? Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place? Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep? Have the gates of death been revealed to you, or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?”
God answers “who are you” by asking “who am I?” The way we see God always shapes the way we see ourselves. Here God describes himself by resorting to creation. “Do you know the ordinances of the heavens? Can you establish their rule on the earth? Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that a flood of waters may cover you? Can you send forth lightning? Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, or given understanding to the mind?” 

Job is duly overwhelmed, though these days the argument is not so sufficient. Astronomers look at the heavens and see a chaotic cosmos, a universe expanding with increasing speed, its planets and stars facing certain annihilation as immense black holes suck away energy and dying nebulae with their roiling cauldrons of gas tear space apart, decimating the night sky. As for life on this planet, its course has been a ravenous evolutionary epic, demanding billions of years of apparent waste and futility, species extermination and organism road kill. The massive dying off has not only been rampant, but mandatory. The emergence of life depends on the death of prior life, millions of generations of mutational and reproductive failure, making for a world where the struggle for survival means cruelty and suffering are standard fare. There has been so much dysfunction, so much excess and error, so much ruin and ravage that to attribute it to any superior, intelligent and benevolent Being is practically an insult. 

Of course God knows all about insults. He endured them in person as he cruelly suffered and died on a cross. And yet this darkest moment of divine life is revealed as the supreme expression of divine love. An ancient instrument of ruin and waste ends up as the emblem of extravagant sacrifice, the ultimate reminder of a creator who so loved his creatures that he would suffer everything he made for us: billions of years and billions of galaxies and billions of organisms and his only begotten son that whoever would believe would find real life. Real life that gets lived not in the vacuum of bliss and apparent prosperity, but in the clarity of knowing what truly matters and with empathy and sacrificial love. On the one hand this sounds horribly sadistic—what kind of God operates this way? Only a God willing to suffer himself with us and for us, so that on the other hand, our own unearned suffering might prove redemptive and give us wisdom.

 “My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you,” Job acknowledges at the end. “Therefore I despise myself for what I have said and repent in dust and ashes.” And God blesses Job doubly more than he had been before. “I know that you can do all things,” Job confessed. “No purpose of yours can be thwarted.”

Many of us had the honor of joining Jennifer Thomas and family a her MS Benefit where she recited a lyrical and totally logical rant against the ravages of MS and all the ways it has ruined her life, ways that would make it hard to be anything but bitter. But then looking out on a banquet hall packed full of loving family and friends, she surprised us all by thanking God for her MS; thankful for all that it has given her and for all it teaches her. For light that always pierces through darkness. This is the high point of human ridiculousness here. The absurdity of faith. “I know that my redeemer lives,” Job says, “and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and though my skin has been destroyed, in my flesh I shall see God standing on my side.”

What kind of God operates this way? Only a God who suffers for the sake of our redemption, who sets a table with the emblems of his redemption that we might know he stands on our side. Rather than give us an answer, God gives himself in a silent act of love. Rather than explain with words, he weeps with us, dies for us, and then raises us up to the height of human ridiculousness--a resurrected life in him.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Light Fixture

Exodus 25:31-40
by Daniel Harrell

We’re looking at light in the Bible this fall, though we ended last Sunday on an ironically dark note. While light shines throughout Scripture as a prominent ID for the Lord—bright, immaterial, illuminating, unchangeable, incorruptible, pure, life-giving and everywhere—Scripture also describes God as purposely shrouded in darkness. The Lord led the Israelites up out of Egypt as both pillar of fire and of cloud, with both radiance and obscurity. To Moses, the Lord burned brightly in a bush, but then thundered darkly on a mountain. In the New Testament, Jesus comes as light to the world, but the supreme expression of his love comes with darkness and death on a cross.
Here in Exodus 25, the setting is the Tabernacle, that mobile tent home for the Lord modeled after creation itself. It housed the famed Ark of the Covenant, that 2x2x4 foot box covered with gold, carried by poles with the Ten Commandments stored inside. Atop the box sat the mercy seat, the emblematic throne of the Lord fashioned after his heavenly throne. The Ark signaled God’s assured, palpable presence among his people. However the signal of God’s presence was not a glowing Tabernacle, but an overcast one. We read that the “cloud covered the Tabernacle and the glory of the Lord filled it.”

Because the Tabernacle was modeled after creation, its architecture depicting the heavens and the earth, I loosely compared the Tabernacle last Sunday to a mobile planetarium, specifically the University of Minnesota’s mobile planetarium called the Exploradome that will be parked in our gym as part of our Guelich Lecture Weekend, October 19-21. We will host Dr. Jennifer Wiseman, Senior Project Scientist for NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, who will share and show some of her findings along with their implications for our faith. It will a wonderful opportunity to introduce friends to our church.

To be a good planetarium requires darkness. You can only see the glory of starlight at night. In the mobile Tabernacle, God’s glory centered on the mercy seat within the Holy of Holies, a smoky inner sanctum where the Lord sat enthroned. Darkness served to evoke divine mystery. However the Bible also uses darkness as metaphor for human sin and human trouble. “Light has come into the world,” Jesus said, “but people loved darkness more because their deeds were evil.” Yet whether as mystery or malice, the glory of God shines through the dark. As King David sang in Psalm 139, “even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” And then amidst his personal troubles in 2 Samuel 22, beset by enemies on every side, King David still hopefully sang, “O Lord, you deliver people who are humble and oppressed, but your eyes are upon the haughty to bring them down. Indeed you are my lamp, O Lord; O God, you lighten my darkness.”

In the Tabernacle, the golden lampstand represented God’s light shining in darkness. Nevertheless, I trust that Exodus 25 has never ranked high on your devotional reading list. Its tedious descriptions offer little by way of personal enlightenment or life application. “The base and the shaft of the lampstand shall be made of hammered work; its cups, its calyxes, and its petals shall be of one piece with it; and there shall be six branches going out of its sides, three branches of the lampstand out of one side of it and three branches of the lampstand out of the other side of it.” How can people say the Bible is boring? Why all the pedantic attention to detail? The New Testament book of Hebrews explains it this way: the Tabernacle was “a copy and shadow of the heavenly tent. Moses was warned as he built it, ‘See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.’” That warning comes from our passage this morning. If you’re going to build a copy of heaven on earth, you have to get it right. A planetarium’s no good if its stars are out of alignment.

Instead than starlight, however, the Tabernacle lampstand, pounded out of 75 pounds of pure gold, was built to look like a tree, specifically an almond tree. It was decked with seven olive oil lamps, seven being reminiscent of creation, which made it a flaming tree, reminding Moses, perhaps, of that burning bush. But why an almond tree? In the Near East, the almond tree is the first tree to bloom, a sign of new life. More importantly, an almond tree branch served as Moses’ staff with which he split the Red Sea. Moses’ brother Aaron, the first Levitical priest, also carried an almond staff. It was stored inside the Ark of the Covenant alongside the Ten Commandments.
The tree-shaped lampstand emitted light in the Tabernacle so that the Levitical priests could see the way to the Lord in the dark. It was like a door into heaven, into another world. “Indeed you are my lamp, O Lord; O God, you lighten my darkness.” At night, the tree light would have made the Tabernacle the brightest house in the Israelite encampment. No individual family would have chosen to use the large amount of oil necessary to keep seven lamps constantly lit. Exodus and Leviticus both required for the lampstand to leave its lights on all the time. Leaving the lights on meant then much the same thing that it means now: somebody’s home. In the case of the Tabernacle, that somebody was God.

The connection between trees and light is more than merely symbolic. It’s embedded in nature itself. You learned this is basic biology. Light hits trees and causes photosynthesis, a process whereby light captured from the sun converts into life—life for plants and life for people. We breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. Trees take in carbon dioxide and put out oxygen. It’s a beautifully efficient circle of life. If all the stuff we use could be paired in such perfect harmony we would live in a zero-waste world. I learned this watching PBS the other night.
I learned that more energy from the Sun hits the Earth in one hour than all the energy consumed on our planet in an entire year. This fact inspires dreams of solar power as a clean energy source for the world. Solar panels convert sunlight into energy, but these panels are fragile and quite expensive because the silicon they're made of has to be very pure. PBS reported about one company trying to make solar cells more cheaply and durably. They’re modeled after nature itself. The silicon for these new solar cells is shaped like the veins of a tree leaf, embedded in a conductive plastic film. The leaf shape allows electrons to flow through the veins, even if the silicon has impurities. These silicon leaves are cheap to grow and flexible enough to be rolled out like a blanket. What’s especially significant is the how these silicon leaves deal with another big concern in solar power: what to do when the sun don’t shine. Trees have this figured out. The best way to store energy is in chemical bonds, as with photosynthesis, which is what this new silicon does, converting sunlight into storable energy. Hydrogen can be isolated and then easily packaged into batteries. If this idea scales up, the hydrogen produced would provide zero-waste fuel to power our homes and factories and cars.

The connection between trees and light is the connection between trees and life, or more to the point in the Tabernacle, the tree of life. In Genesis, God made people and gave them the sun and trees for energy to live daily life, and then on day six, the Lord gave them a tree as their source of eternal life, but we sinners all know firsthand how badly that worked out. It worked out badly for Adam and Eve. It worked out badly for Israel and the rest of humanity. But God’s glory still shines in the dark, and thus on the on the sixth day in the Gospels (the day before the Sabbath), God, having become human himself in Christ. He hung on a tree to redeem human sin, and then by the bright light of resurrection converted the cross into a new tree of life. Turn to the end of the Bible, where Revelation previews eternity itself, and you find that “tree of life producing its fruit every month; and leaves for the healing of all people.” It’s a zero-waste world where the light’s always on. There is “no need of lamp or sun,” we read, “for the Lord God will be our light… forever.”

The Tabernacle’s golden lampstand depicts the tree of life. No word on whether the Genesis tree of life was an almond tree, any more than the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Genesis was a red delicious, but the tree of life was the tree of eternal life, and thus the golden lampstand’s seven lamps stayed constantly lit. God’s light always shines. Out of reverence for eternal light, Jewish tradition mandates that people not mess with light on the Sabbath (Sabbath being the seventh day and a foretaste of heaven.) God let there be light on the first day One, but rested from making light on the seventh, meaning you’re not to make light on the Sabbath. As the Lord declares in Leviticus, “You shall keep my Sabbaths and reverence my sanctuary: I am the LORD.”

You’ll recall that I spent a month living with some friends back in Boston according to the book of Leviticus (which you can still read about in my book on sale for cheap at the reception desk—just a few copies left). One of these friends, named Sokol, had a Jewish colleague at work who, hearing of Sokol’s Levitical adventure, invited Sokol to take part in his family’s orthodox Sabbath one weekend. Sokol described the Sabbath meal they shared once a week as akin to the Thanksgiving feast he ate once a year. All the cooking, however, had happened on Thursday, because his hosts still had to go to work on Friday, leaving no time to prepare the feast before the sun set on Friday (Jewish Sabbath runs from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown).

Since Sabbath rules prohibited messing with light on the Sabbath, they had to turn on all the lights that needed to be on for the twenty-four hours beforehand (living room, bathroom, ceremonial lamps) and turn off the lights that needed to be off (bedroom). Sokol proudly added, “I was glad to see that my reading of orthodox Jewish books came in handy when I reminded them how the refrigerator light needed to be turned off too.” Otherwise, whenever they opened and closed the refrigerator (which was allowed), the light would come on and go off (which was prohibited). The Jewish family, bending into the refrigerator to unscrew the bulb, irksomely looked at each other as if to say, “who invited this guy?” Reverence can be irksome and inconvenient.

A past Guelich Lecturer here at Colonial, Barbara Brown Taylor, describes reverence as “that virtue that keeps us from trying to act like God.” “By definition,” she writes, “reverence is the recognition of something greater than the self—something that is beyond human creation or control, something that transcends full human understanding.” God certainly meets that criteria. So does light. So do trees. Taylor tells of a Native American elder she knows who begins teaching people reverence by taking them to a tree. He asks them, “Do you know that you didn’t make this tree?” If they say yes, then he knows they are on their way to reverence.

And yet the way to reverence is not a straight line. Last Sunday we saw how God took Israel the long way around on their way out of Egypt. “Reverence requires a certain pace,” Taylor writes, “a willingness to take detours, even side trips, which are not part of the original plan.” She goes on to mention Moses, whose life changed forever that day a bush burned bright. The bush wasn’t right in front of Moses, however. It must have been over to the side somewhere, because when Moses saw it, he said, “I must turn aside and look at this great light and see why this burning bush is not burned up.” The bright burning bush turned out to be a talking bush too, and it called out to Moses and told him to take off his shoes out of reverence. He was standing on holy ground.

Barbara Brown Taylor admitted she’s never seen a burning bush, but she did see a garden turn golden once. “I must have been sixteen, earning summer money by keeping a neighbor’s cats while she was away. The first time I let myself into the house, the fleas leapt onto my legs like airborne piranha. Brushing them off as I opened the cat food and cleaned litter pans, I finally fled through the back door with the bag of trash my employer had left for me to carry out to the garbage cans by the garage. I could hear the fleas inside flinging themselves against the plastic, so that it sounded as if light rain were falling inside the bag. I could not wait to be shed of it, which was why I was in a hurry.

On my way to the garbage cans, I passed a small garden off to the left that was not visible from the house. Glancing at it, I got a whole dose of loveliness at once—the high arch of the trees above, the mossy flagstones beneath, the cement birdbath, the cushiony bushes, the white wrought-iron chair—all lit by stacked planes of sunlight that turned the whole scene golden. It was like a door into heaven, into another world. I had to go through it. I knew that if I did, then I would be golden too.

But first I had to ditch the trash bag. The fleas popped against the plastic as I hurried to the big aluminum garbage cans. Stuffing the bag into one of them, I turned back toward the garden, fervent to explore what I had only glimpsed in passing. But when I got there, the light had changed. All that was left was a little overgrown sitting spot that no one had sat in for years. The smell of cat litter drifted from the direction of the garbage cans. The garden was no longer on fire. I had noticed the light, but I did not turn aside. I had a bag of trash to attend to instead.”

“The light has come into the world,” Jesus said, “But people loved their darkness more than the light, because their deeds were evil. All who do evil avoid the light and do not come near for fear that their deeds may be exposed. But those who want what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their life is now lived in God.” By the light of Christ, as with the lamp stand that foreshadowed it, heaven comes to earth. Eternity enters the present. As the apostle Paul declared, new creation is now. The light of Christ blazes the way to a beautiful new reality of goodness and brightness and justice and rightness—a veritable zero-waste world. The door to heaven is open. Let us set down our trash and go through it.