“. . . the multitudinous assembling of his Word”
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Royal Lane Baptist Church
25 January 2004
One of the most insightful Christian writers of the late twentieth century and today is John Updike. In novels and short stories since the late 1950's, Updike has explored Protestant life in America in all its complexities. His 1996 novel In the Beauty of the Lilies is the story of four generations of the Wilmot family as they deal with faith and life. The novel opens in New Jersey in 1910 in the home of Clarence Wilmot, Presbyterian minister. These are Updike’s words:
. . . the Reverend Clarence Arthur Wilmot, down in the rectory of the Fourth Presbyterian Church at the corner of Straight Street and Broadway, felt the last particles of his faith leave him. The sensation was distinct – a visceral surrender, a set of dark sparkling bubbles escaping upward.
Rev. Wilmot had been reading the works of the agnostic Robert Ingersoll. Wilmot was an educated, progressive man who read all the skeptical works of 19th century scholarship as Updike describes
the minister had been reading in order to refute it for a perturbed parishoner; from this perceived similarity his thoughts had slipped with quicksilver momentum into the recognition, which he had long withstood, that Ingersoll was quite right: the God of the Pentateuch was an absurd bully, barbarically thundering through a cosmos entirely misconceived. There is no such God, nor should there be. . . . and so it seemed that the invisible vestiges of the faith and the vocation he had struggled for decades to maintain against the grain of the Godless times and his own persistent rationalist suspicions now of their pulverized weightlessness lifted and wafted upstairs too.
It was a ghastly moment, a silent sounding of bottomlessness.
A few weeks later Rev. Wilmot is preaching on hell. A dying member of the congregation had requested a sermon on hell, not having heard that many in recent years. While preaching, Wilmot loses his voice – literally. He is not able to speak the words that he no longer believes. He cannot make it through the rituals of the liturgy. No longer can Clarence be a vessel for the word of God, he has become “a silent sounding of bottomlessness.”
Updike then reveals to us the consequences of Clarence’s loss of faith. He quits the ministry but doesn’t realize that he is unsuited for any other kind of work. He ends up as an encyclopedia salesman, and isn’t any good at that. His family’s financial status declines dramatically. Eventually Clarence falls ill and dies a broken man.
Updike’s story then moves to the next generation with Clarence’s son Teddy as the central figure. Each of the three succeeding generations must deal with the consequences of Clarence’s lost faith. Teddy lacks drive and the ability to make much of his life. Essie, the granddaughter, becomes a movie star, but her life is filled with ephemera as she seeks transcendence and immortality in sex and stardom. The great-grandson, Clark, is a damaged human being, who has wasted his life in sex, drugs, and failed careers. He finally takes up with a mountain cult which is stockpiling weapons as they await the Reckoning. The novel ends in a scene straight from the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco. The cult has set fire to its compound while it is being assaulted by federal law enforcement. The leader of the cult is killing all the members. Clark makes it possible for the women and children to escape, before losing his own life. The final lines of the novel are:
scared they're going to be shot, then stepping into the open, squinting, blinking as if just waking up, carrying or holding on to the hands of their children, too many to count. The children.
Mark Buchanan, writing in Christianity Today, says of the ending:
The children. It takes four generations for Clarence's lapse of faith to come fully to roost. Ironically, Clarence had adopted just one creed: "Don't harm anyone." Updike suggests that Clarence's apostasy——losing his religion——was his worst violation of that creed. For what will become of his children?
Updike’s novel is a powerful story about how the loss of faith, the loss of God’s word, tragically affects a man and his descendants. The characters of the three descendants are not developed within the faith, within the community of the church. They have not practiced what it means to be a Christian. Their journeys lack the discipline that comes with Christian spiritual development. In their lives there is a bottomless silence. And that bottomless silence results from the absence of the joyful surprise of the good news of God’s word. Updike’s In the Beauty of the Lilies is a negative example of what our text from Luke is a positive example – how the word from God can surprise and amaze us and fill our lives with meaning and hope.
Let’s look at the text from Luke. The first thing that we notice is Luke’s transition, setting up a new section of the book. Earlier chapters have dealt with the nativity, baptism, and temptations. Now Jesus has returned to Galilee to preach. We learn a handful of things in these opening verses. First, he is filled with the power of the Spirit. This is a recurring theme for Luke both in the Gospel and in the Book of Acts. Second, Jesus’ fame is spreading quickly. Third, that Jesus is teaching in synagogues; he is identifying with his religious heritage and sees his movement as movement within Judaism. Finally, he is being positively received.
Now Luke has Jesus coming to Nazareth. You might think that this is the start of Jesus’ public ministry, since Luke has given us no other stories before. But Luke has done something different than either Mark or Matthew, he has taken this story from Nazareth and moved it to the beginning of his Gospel not because it is early in the ministry of Jesus but because it gives a key insight into Jesus’ ministry. We know it is not an early episode because the summary tells us that Jesus has already preached through Galilee and is already famous when he returns home. Indeed, Luke tells us this story of Jesus’ ministry first because of the emphasis that Luke wants to make.
Jesus enters the synagogue and reads from Isaiah 61 & 58. It is a Suffering Servant Song, a prophecy of the coming Messiah. It is a message of liberation and radical social change. These themes of liberation and social change are key to the Gospel of Luke. It is in Luke’s gospel that we get many of the stories of the women around Jesus. Already in this gospel there have been the stories of Elisabeth, Mary, and Anna. Luke has common shepherds coming to the birthplace of Jesus. And he’s already written about themes of liberation in the Magnificat, that beautiful song of Mary. Also, there has been the radical preaching of John the Baptist, who embodies the message of the Old Testament prophets.
After reading this text from Isaiah, Jesus sits and says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” You will notice that in the Gospel of Luke that these are the first words of the adult Jesus that are not quotations of scripture. This is important in interpreting the whole book of Luke. The first words of Jesus are words that identify him with the prophetic tradition of redemption, liberation, and radical change.
How does the congregation respond to Jesus? “All spoke well of him and were amazed.” It is only later in the story, and actually in next Sunday’s gospel text, that the crowd turns on Jesus and seeks to throw him off the cliff. They are not offended that he claims that the messianic age has begun. They only get offended later when he tells them that they will receive no special privileges in his kingdom and that that kingdom will be inclusive of non-Jews.
But what interests me today is not the message of inclusion, liberation, or social change. Yes, those themes are central to this text, to the Gospel of Luke, to our understanding of Christ, and to our way of life at Royal Lane. What I want to focus on is that this congregation in the synagogue of Nazareth was amazed by a word from God.
Tom Long writes,
A local product, Joseph’s son Jesus, was home for the weekend and was allowed to read the lesson from the prophets and to preach the sermon. The congregation knew him well, remembered him as a little boy, was no doubt proud of the reports that had filtered down from Capernaum and other towns about his success as a preacher, teacher, and wonder worker. So they settled in to hear what this articulate young man would say. What were they expecting? A sermon? Yes. A word from the Lord?
Tom Long’s implication is that that was not what they were expecting. A word from the Lord is disruptive, demands response, it changes things, it is news, and it cuts us sharper than a two-edged sword.
Jesus was telling them news that rocked their world. Tom Long writes,
This was not just a sabbath sermon. This was a word from the Lord. News. God come close, become present. Now. In your life. The world was now changed, the word was present in all its demanding fulness, and you could fight it or follow it, but you couldn’t ignore it.
Today, that’s what stands out in this story for me. The amazing, surprise of hearing the word of God. It is an epiphany, which is why this text comes during our season of Epiphany. This story from Luke reminds us that the word of God can invade our lives when least expected and startle us. At first it startles these folks with joyful amazement and later it startles them with anger and resentment. The word of God can do that to us. It can elevate and cut deep and often both at the same time. But it is true that it often surprises.
You see, despite the fact that we are people of faith, we get used to the fact that we aren’t surprised by the content of our religion or our faith. We come every Sunday and Wednesday and hear the words that we are used to hearing. We go about our daily lives and are dulled by the routine busy-ness of them. Even though we believe that God speaks to us through the Spirit and its manifestations in scripture, the church, nature, etc., we just aren’t usually prepared for it or looking for it. And so when we do get a word from God, it often catches us by surprise.
I think that Updike’s novel is illustrative. The characters have become used to their lives the way they are. They are not looking for a word from God. They seem to miss God’s speaking to them. These characters reveal how the absence of God’s word, that bottomless silence, can tragically affect us. I think Updike is trying to warn us contemporary Americans that we are possibly headed down a tragic path because we have lost something essential.
This past weekend the youth and some adults participated in our annual Mid-Winter Retreat. The theme was Reconcile. We talked about being reconciled to God, to other people, and to creation as a whole. Our worship strongly emphasized finding God in other people and in the created world. We were conveying to the youth that in their daily lives they need to be attuned to the presence and the voice of God in the world around them. And then what actions they need to take in response to that presence and voice of God.
That’s one significant reason that any of us Christians gather together. We are learning from each other what is necessary for this adventurous journey that is the Christian life. It is a life that requires discipline and practice, and we’ve got to learn these things, they don’t come naturally for us. And we learn them together and from others who have already walked this road ahead of us. One thing that we must practice and get better at is hearing the word of God. How is God present to us each day? Is it in the trees outside? The laughter of a child? The faithful example of Shirley Bohannan delivering meals on wheels? The hymns you sing to yourself while driving in your car? The words you read for your daily devotional? Yes, it all these and many more. God’s word comes to us in abundant ways.
Today, every day, the scripture is fulfilled in our hearing. Today, every day, God’s word is spoken and interrupts our lives. We must learn to listen for it and be ready for it. And be ready to respond to it by changing our lives to lives of obedience to God. We run the risk of being like the characters Updike describes, those lacking the word of God. These are, ultimately, characters who lack a full sense of joy and beauty and adventure.
I want to end with one other piece of literature that illustrates being attuned to God’s word. It comes from one of my very favorite poets Wendell Berry. Berry is a Kentucky farmer who is an essayist and poet. Berry has spent his life disciplined by the land and attuned to how it speaks and in it he repeatedly encounters God. Wendell Berry is a model for each of us in how to learn to live searching for the presence of God in our everyday lives. The poem I want to quote from is entitled Meditation in the Spring Rain. It is too long to read it all right now. So, let me summarize it and then read the final lines.
Berry has been walking through the fields during a rain, listening to the water. While doing so, he remembers the story of crazy old Mrs. Gaines, a story from his grandmother’s childhood. Mrs. Gaines wondered the town singing about “One Lord, one Faith, and one Cornbread.” The town would sometimes lock her up when they got too worried about her safety, but they usually let her go free. Let’s us pick up Wendell Berry’s own words:
When her poor wandering head broke the confines
of all any of them knew, they put her in a cage.
But I am glad to know it was a commodious cage,
not cramped up. And I am glad to know
that other times the town left her free
to be as she was in it, and to go her way.
May it abide a poet with as much grace!
For I too am perhaps a little mad,
standing here wet in the drizzle, listening
to the clashing syllables of the water. Surely
there is a great Word being put together here.
I begin to hear it gather in the opening
of the flowers and the leafing-out of the trees,
in the growth of bird nests in the crotches
of the branches, in the settling of the dead
leaves into the ground, in the whittling
of beetle and grub, in my thoughts
moving the hill’s flesh. . . .
I think the maker is here, creating his hill
as it will be, out of what it was.
The thickets, I say, send up their praise
at dawn! One Lord, one Faith, and one Cornbread
forever! But hush. Wait. Be still
as the dead and the unborn in whose silence
that old one walked, muttering and singing,
followed by the children.
For a time there
I turned away from the words I knew, and was lost.
For a time I was lost and free, speechless
in the multitudinous assembling of his Word.
Let us pray:
God of grace and beauty. Let us be aware of how the absence of your word can lead to the bottomless silence of shallow lives. May we be people with eyes open and ears tuned to the assembling of your word. Amen.