(On the day when little Hugo was baptised into the church of the new covenant)
Genesis 15:1-21 & Ephesians 1:1-14 Cutting a deal along with a dose of anakephalaiossathai
[Mart the Rev revelling in a bunch of ideas explored by Rob Bell in What is the Bible?: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything]
I like the word zoom. It has been my favourite word this week. Actually I have been making a wee list of beautiful words… wombat, shoal, fresh, yonderly (not all there), fettle… Apparently elbow is understood to be one of the most beautiful of words. On the television programme QI there was a claim made that it is impossible to lick the tip of your own elbow, but that if you could, you would have eternal life. For us here, it might be safer that ‘whosoever believeth in Jesus’ has already received eternal life, therefore you don’t need to remove your jacket or cardy and try to lick your elbow – not just anyway. But apparently it came to be that some people could lick their elbows which doesn’t prove anything, because who actually knows what eternal life actually looks like?! Anyway… the beautiful word for this week, zoom.
[Drone footage zoom out – Electron microscope zoom in]
Zoom. To read and understand the Bible you have to zoom. Zoom out for the big picture, the threads, the unfolding of God’s interaction with us over the course of time; zoom in, deep into stories, deeper into particular words and even deeper to the world that is often hidden deep behind the words. Let’s do some zooming…
Zoom in: Here. Today. Very particular. Now. A gathered people. Friends and strangers gathered for an act of worshipping God. Zoom out: God. We can’t zoom out far enough. The drone has run out of fuel! The picture is too big. The universe cannot contain it. It is too much. We have to ‘handle’ God in small portions. Even that is more than most can cope with!
Zoom back in. Us. A bunch of individuals. All bringing whatever it is that has been going on for us or will be going on after our gathering this morning. We have to zoom out a bit in order to even gather all of our stuff together – the myriad of brain waves, the things that make us shake our heads, nod our heads, or nod off. In order to tap into our sub-conscious – do we have to zoom out or zoom in to make sense of what is largely a mystery to us? We are complicated and we bring all that into the now. Try preparing a sermon for whatever it is that is going on in the room every time we gather!
We zoom back in – right in close. Today. Here. Hugo Aicken Webber. This kid, this day, here, all very particular. His baptism, his family. Whoa! Hold up! Baptism. Zoom up again. Other baptisms. Our baptisms – he is surrounded by the baptised, this boy. But so too we are surrounded by those who gathered at our baptisms. We’re all surrounded by those who have gathered around all the baptisms ever – near and far. Zoom in, the first baptisms – the first baptised ones in the early church when the faith in the Risen Jesus began touching hearts. Come closer. His baptism – Jesus in the Jordan. That Jordan River – those waters with a long story of boundary and freedom. Jesus. The Promised One. Zoom back up…a lineage, Mary and Joseph. Zoom up a bit more. Zoom back fourteen generations to the exile in Babylon. Zoom back another fourteen all the way back to King David. Stay with it… look back further, another fourteen generations… there’s great grandmother Ruth, a Moabite… and there in the background at the head of the tree is Jacob, and before him Isaac, and ahhh… Father Abraham. What did God do with Abraham? God made a covenant, a promise to be faithful to a people come hell or high water… water…river…baptism, promise…us…here…Hugo… Hmmm… We can’t even say the word baptism without a whole picture forming… it is loaded…it’s all connected.
Back to Abraham and the covenant. Zoom in close. That first interaction when Abraham wasn’t the full quid – a wandering Aramean named Abram. God came close. Spoke in his ear. Time to head out into a new place and learn to walk with me, God said. Then the promise. “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then God said to him, “So shall your descendants be.”
Then God said to him, “I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” Abram brought God all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other…
Hold up! What’s with the cut in half animals? God didn’t say to chop them up! Zoom out. God didn’t need to say it. Abram knew the score. This was how promises were made. This is what a covenant is about. It is cutting a deal. Back in the day when there were no lawyers, courts, police (or mafia) – the way to seal a promise was to cut an animal in half, lay the sides together with a gap in between, and both parties then walk down that gap and say “If I do not keep my side of the bargain may what happened to this beast also happen to me.” They could have just shaken hands – that would have been far easier on the beasts! Maybe we have evolved!
Anyway, Abram cuts the beasts, lays them out, keeps the birds and the flies off, and in the night a heavy darkness comes upon the scene and God turns up when ‘a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passes between these pieces.’ And so it came to be that God made the promise. And, zoom up, God has been making and keeping promises ever since. Promise after promise… baptism…God’s promise of love, our promises to love…our living into those promises. Zoom in. Zoom in very very close. How has living your promises been working out? Quickly zoom out, that was a bit hard to handle! Zoom right back to Abraham and God, the beasts split in two, the smoking pot and flaming torch. Did you notice that only one party made his way between the beasts? Back in the day, the practice of forming a covenant required two parties equally involved. Both walking the gap. Both saying “if I do not keep my side of the bargain may what happened to this beast also happen to me.” But Abraham did not walk the gap and neither did he make a promise. This was new. God promised anyway. God promised for both parties. God has kept promising before anyone deserved it, could bargain with it, could think themselves worthy of it, could skite about how good they were… was old enough to even articulate it – that’s us, and that’s you Hugo! And here we are again, back in this room. There’s quite a back story of grace going on when we splash a bit of water isn’t there!
Actually, there’s a back story and a front story. A past-present story and a future-present story all going on at once.
To get this we are going to do some more zooming – as with the word covenant we will fasten down on just one word. One word in Ephesians chapter one that needs several English words and a bit of patience to make sense of. One word that is quite special as it is only ever used in the Bible once (was it because no one could spell it or say it?) I can hardly say it and I have been practicing! Here it is: anakephalaiossathai… ana-kepha-laioss-athai.
Ephesians 1:8 “With all wisdom and insight 9 [God] has made known to us the mystery of [God’s] will, according to [God’s] good pleasure that [God] set forth in Christ, 10 as a plan for how we get the phrase the fullness of time, to anakephalaiossathai, things in heaven and things on earth.”
Here’s how the writer Rob Bell explains it: “Ana means ‘again’, Kephale means ‘head’, so to anakephalaiossathai is to bring things together under one head (The word was also used in the ancient world in mathematics, describing what happens when you sum up several numbers). Sometimes this word is translated recapitulate. Another word for recapitulate is retell. There’s a story that’s been told a certain way, from a certain perspective, through a certain lens—but then you retell it, you recapitulate it, you tell it a different way.” God has a way of framing what will yet be and we live into that future, today.
It’s like family stories that at the time happened one way but over the course of time they become part of the family folklore and take on new meaning. We find ourselves able to laugh at the bits that weren’t all that funny at the time, and we relive the moments that have taken on special meaning because of the events that have followed. Like this: my Great-Aunt Alice was well in her 80’s, still living in the home she and her late husband had bought in their retirement in Balclutha. The house was on the side of a slope and had a garage underneath accessed by a steep drive. The garage door was one of those wooden ones that slid sideways around a top rail. Great-aunty Alice had had polio. She had had the car modified. She was a shocking driver but had a long history of giving unsuspecting hitchhikers rides. In the family circle the consensus was never drive with Aunty Alice. The driveway and garage was deemed too unsafe for her to use, so she parked up the top before the slope down to the garage. Except that coming home one night, she didn’t park, she inadvertently pushed the accelerator instead of the brake. The car lurched forward. Her foot went down even harder on the accelerator she thought was a brake.
The wood merchant had dumped a load of firewood down the slope of the driveway for someone to stack in the garage. Over the firewood she drove. The garage door was closed. Into the doorway she drove. The doorway lifted horizontally. Into the garage she drove. Against the workbench at the back she stopped. The garage door swung back down. Silence. The night passed. Most of the next day passed. Aunty Alice slept, woke, and slept some more. An alert went out. Alice and car missing. Police notified. A search began. No sign of her at home. No sign of her around the town. Eventually, one of the family looking in the house for some signs of what she might have been going to get up to heard a muffled cry from below. Aunty Alice rescued.
It could have been serious. It was serious. But everyone laughed about it afterwards, including Alice. It is the story that held centre-stage at her funeral – of course!
“According to Paul, God is retelling…everything. The world is fractured, broken; parts are lying scattered all over the place, and it brings God pleasure to bring it all back together in unity. In Christ. All of it? All of history? All of everything every human has ever done?” [Rob Bell again]
According to Paul, this is what God is up to in the world. And this retelling, reframing, reworking is what God is doing now. In and through people like us.
Your story and my story, the part’s we would prefer to never think about again, the embarrassing parts, and the painful parts—can all of it be retold in such a way that the worst parts can become the most powerful parts. All things gathered up into God.
Zoom out: how God was in the beginning, promising, unlimited unconditional promises of love, which we participate in now, right here, today; but also, we participate in now, what God is doing with all things that will yet be – God pulling them all in to one great story of love.
So a font and a table, water, bread and wine, are signs of God being in and with and over and under and ahead and behind and around and through all things. And God is having fun with this! This is what brings God pleasure. This is God’s love not letting us go. Maybe we are to enjoy our place in the midst of God cutting a deal and anakephalaiossathai-ing, right here and right now.
Zoom out and zoom in. Zoom out – see the thread in what has been and what will yet be. Zoom in, right in – water, a child, a people, a new day, an ongoing call to live the past present and to live the future present.