Monday, February 22, 2016

The Life of "Thelo"

You will find this hard to believe, but after last week’s service, someone approached me in the Parish Hall and told me she appreciated my sermon because I made references to the original Greek language in the text.  Yes, she was a visitor, but that little bit of encouragement means I have more Greek for you this week.  Don’t worry, it won’t be too painful. 

In the five verses from Luke’s gospel we read this morning the Greek word thelo is used three times.  Thelo means ‘longing’ or ‘desire’.  Herod longs to kill Jesus, although the text translates it “wants to kill.”  Jesus longs to gather the people as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.  But Jesus says this is not Jerusalem’s thelo.  The text says they were “not willing”, but a more accurate translation would be they did not long for this.

We get why Herod longs to kill Jesus.  He is a brutish thug who will do whatever it takes to preserve his place and power.  Notice Jesus does not refer to Herod as a bear or a lion (both strong, ferocious, respectable animals), but as a fox – a weasely, little vermin that is more a nuisance than a threat.  Still, he understands just how dangerous Herod can be, after all, Herod had John the Baptist beheaded.  It is no coincidence Jesus refers to himself as a hen and the people as a brood, because these are the exact creatures foxes are most likely to target.

We get why Jesus longs to gather the people.  Deep in our hearts we trust God wants to hold us, care for us, protect us, nurture us, guard us, and guide us.  And, at some level, we get why the people did not long for Jesus because we too often turn away from God and follow the devices and desires of our own heart.

Here is what I wonder: if the people of Jerusalem did not want to be gathered up by Jesus, what exactly did they long for?  What did they desire more than being embraced by God’s own Son? 

We know what Simeon longed for.  When Mary and Joseph presented their newborn son in the Temple, the elderly Simeon took the infant Jesus in his arms and said,

Lord, you now have set your servant free,

for these eyes of mine have seen the Savior

whom you have prepared for all the world to see.

Over the course of his entire service in the Temple, Simeon longed to see Jesus, but others associated with the Temple – not so much.  They longed for liberation from Roman oppression via the restoration of the royal line of David’s kingship.  They romanticized a time some thousand years earlier when Israel was at its peak and they longed from those good old days.  They also longed for the rule of law – the Torah, to be specific.  They longed for a society regulated by the minutia of hundreds upon hundreds of “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots.” 

They did not long for Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God, which was born not out of the Torah, but out of the prophetic movement.  Jesus longed not for rules but rather for justice and healing.  He longed for forgiveness and compassion.  He longed to break down barriers in order to build up our common humanity.  He longed for every person to be a part of his family of faith – no matter how good or bad they may be, no matter how rich or poor, no matter if they were highly placed or humble fisher folk.  But Jesus knew his longing was not their longing.

What do you long for?  What is your deepest yearning, your most heart-felt desire?  Unlike last week’s question “Who are you”, I suspect most of us have an answer or two at the ready for this one.  We long for a restored relationship or a better job or a deeper faith.  We long for forgiveness or healing or deliverance.  What do you long for?

Let me make two observations about the thelo in our lives.  First, you can only long for something you do not have.  You may spend all winter longing for a warm vacation, but once you are sitting on a tropical beach your longing comes to an end.  That’s when you say “I have been waiting for this for a long time.”  A husband longs for his wife to be home from deployment only while she is away.  If you received what you long for, the spiritual challenge is to be grateful for it and to be a good and wise steward of it.

The second observation is the quality of our longings can vary greatly.  The priest and poet John O’Donohue wrote, “One of the deepest longings of the human soul is to be seen.”  By this I think he is saying we all long to matter to someone; we all long to lead a life that is meaningful, and we all long to be appreciated for what we do.  Taken in this way, being “seen” is deeply significant.  But in our society today, there is a different kind of longing to be “seen” best summed up by the phrase “going viral”.  People long for notoriety; a shallow and superficial experience.  Yes, they are being “seen”, but it is not significant and it doesn’t really matter.  The quality of what you long for can very greatly. 

What do you long for?  What is your thelo?

I have always liked CS Lewis’ book The Great Divorce because it is imaginative, evocative, and challenging.  In it, a group of people is taken by bus to heaven.  When they arrive, each person is given an escort to help them make sense of where they are and what they are to do.  One person’s escort murdered her husband years earlier and she refuses to go anywhere with him.  It was Lewis’ way of highlighting the importance of forgiveness and how truly difficult and demanding it can be.

A mother gets off the bus and is informed by her escort they are going to see God.  But the mother, who lost a child years earlier, insists on seeing her child first.  The mother’s deepest longing is to be reunited with her child.  It is an understandable desire.  But the escort persists the woman first must see God.  The two carry on quite a conversation about this.  The escort is not saying God demands we put God before everything else.  Rather, God is to be our deepest longing.  All else flows from this.  Lewis writes:

“No natural feelings are high or low, holy or unholy, in themselves.  They are all holy when God’s hand is on the rein.  They all go bad when they set up on their own and make themselves into false gods.”

What do you long for?  Perhaps a more appropriate way to ask the question is “How are your deepest longings grounded in God?”  The problem for the people of Jerusalem was their longings – whatever they were – had been divorced from God.  They were grounded only in their own hopes and aspirations with no reference at all to the Holy One.  Lewis wrote this:

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.”  All that are in Hell, choose it.  Without that self-choice there could be no Hell.  No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it.  Those who seek find.  Those who knock it is opened.

When we want a biblical example of longing we need look no further than today’s reading about Abraham.  He is old and he is troubled.  He has no heir to follow him, to carry on his name, and more importantly to carry on his beliefs.  No person at the time was like Abraham.  Everyone else believed in the existence of multiple gods making manifold demands for blessings such as fertility and rain for the harvest.  Abraham was the first to hold a belief in one God; a God who directed him to do away with superstitious practices and inhumane ways.  But he and his elderly wife were childless.  They had no realistic hope of this changing.  Can you imagine the depth and varicosity of his longing?

God promises Abraham will have a son and Abraham believes.  It seems like a simple transaction, but what really is going on here?  God embraces Abraham’s longing and asks him to trust God to bring it about.  In this case, faith looks like resting in God.  It looks like letting go of anxiety and tension in order to embrace assurance and hope.  More than once Abraham will stray from this to take matters into his own hand, supposing God’s plan is to give him a son through his wife’s servant Hagar.  As you know, God comes through and Isaac is born.  But at some point, in an episode so difficult to understand it is never once commented on anywhere else in the bible, God requires Abraham to sacrifice his son to demonstrate his longing first and foremost for God.

At my worst, I think that I am supposed to have all the answers not only to your questions, but also to the questions raised by our biblical texts.  I long to have the answers.  I must confess I have never fully understood why God choose Abraham or how his acceptance of God’s promise – an acceptance which he wavered on from time to time – constitutes the ultimate example of faith found in the original covenant.  There is something there, but I think it is elusive.  We, like Abraham, have our own thelo and there is something in him for us to learn.  Perhaps it is as simple and straightforward as God’s love for us is steadfast and faithful even in the face of our doubts and missteps.  I long to know this love in my own life and I long to know what it is to live as one of a brood gathered under the wing of God’s never failing, never faltering love.