By Jeanyne B Slettom
Before Kabbalah, the mystical tradition recently made trendy by celebrities, there was an even more ancient form of Jewish mysticism, called Merkabah, or throne mysticism. Kabbalah emerged historically in the medieval period; Merkabah mysticism dates from passages like this one in Isaiah and also Ezekiel 1. They are elaborate visions of God, with imagery consistent with the historical contexts out of which they arose; that is, God is envisaged as a king sitting on a throne or in a chariot, surrounded by attendants (which for God, of course, are angels). The goal of the mystic is to have this kind of vision of God.
The imagery is rich, but it doesn’t speak to a contemporary audience as it would an ancient one. What does work, and is especially apparent in the Isaiah text, is the message embedded in the imagery, which includes two important aspects: transcendence and agency.
Many forms of mysticism aim for an experience of no-self, overcoming ego in an experience of blissful oneness with God. What this text describes is an experience of self-transcendence, but, importantly, not a loss of agency. If we were to put it in more contemporary, if paradoxical terms, we experience the Otherness of God, but intimately, so that we know ourselves to be in a realm of understanding that exceeds our normal space-time awareness but without losing self-awareness. Crucially, we retain identity and agency, because in this experience, God calls us. We know ourselves to be imperfect beings, with all kinds of very human shortcomings, but we are nevertheless called by God. We may doubt our ability to fulfill what God calls us to do, but God does not. And then, again, crucially, we are sent back into the world, to engagement.
In the case of Isaiah, the call is to prophecy. If we translate the call into contemporary usage, as we translated the imagery, then it is easy to fill in the content of what God calls us to do today; namely, to work for social and economic justice, speak truth to power, to engage in the great Jewish self-understanding of its call to tikkun olam, or healing, repairing, restoring the world (extended these days to the planet).
A sermon based on this text could explore the imagery from an ancient perspective, then move to the question of where we encounter God in our own lives. From a process perspective, that encounter occurs every moment. God is present in the moment-to-moment constitution of ourselves in time (from one choice to the next), and in that moment, God calls us—not to withdrawal from the world, but to engagement. Mysticism here is reframed, as Dorothee Soelle did in her last great work, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance, with the longing for an experience of God conjoined with the call to justice. But we do not need what is classically understood as a “mystical experience” to achieve this. All we need is to cultivate awareness of God’s presence now, in this moment, and God’s call to us now, in this moment To that we add trust—that although we may doubt our ability to contribute to the well-being of others and creation itself, God does not. God calls us forward and invites us to respond: “here am I.”
The pairing of this psalm with the throne imagery of Isaiah is obvious: God’s power is extolled, and God as ruler of creation is enthroned forever. But it is also notable—in pairing this with a “call” text—that it is the voice, or calling, of God that is powerful. Just as God is present and calling to us in every moment of our lives, God is present and calling the waters, the cedars, the wilderness, and the oaks; in short, all of creation. A suggested takeaway is that if God is present in all of these things, then surely God is also present in us. It is in the very nature of God to be present in the world; it is in the very nature of the world for God to be present in it.
There are many exegeses of this text available to the preacher, including excellent work on the meaning of “flesh” (sarx). What follows is clearly not an exegesis, but a reflection that tries to grapple with question of preaching from this text from a process perspective.
In process theology, every moment of our lives is constituted by our past experiences and what John Cobb names a “call forward” from God (for Whitehead, an initial aim or divine lure). This call, or aim, is an idea of what is now possible as we move into the future. The power of the past is very strong, and we largely conform to it; that is, we incorporate the past into the present. The possibility for something new and different comes to us from God. This is the source of the creative transformation that process people talk about so much. In this context, conformation to the past constitutes a kind of slavery, and openness to God’s call or aim becomes a form of “adoption.” By adopting God’s aim, as Jesus demonstrated, we find ourselves progressively more God-infused, or, as Paul writes, “new beings in Christ.”
To put this into a sermon, the preacher could talk about habits or memories that evoke regret or guilt. We tend to carry these with us from one moment to the next, making it hard to even imagine that things could be different. We can be as addicted to the past, and to a negative self-image, as to some substance. But God is always calling us forward into well-being, accepting us where we are and offering one suggestion after another that will transform us into something better. God always starts with what is possible—where our choices have landed us—and moment by moment leads us to what we can be. This process of creative transformation is the basis for trust that we can, indeed, be made new. It suggests that a way forward is to cultivate awareness of God’s presence, to trust that God’s power is the power of transformation, and to turn, in a spirit of adoption, to that power.
My colleague once began her sermon on this text by holding up a large sign, such as one sees at televised sporting events, with “John 3:16” scrawled on it. What the ubiquity of these signs is generally intended to convey is that only those who believe in the Son will be saved. For a less exclusivist exegesis, check out the June 2008 “Ask Dr. Cobb” feature on the Process & Faith website. In that article, he deals specifically with John 14:8, which is also a notable text for its apparent exclusivism (“no one comes to the Father . . .”). Many of his points in that piece are applicable here.
My approach, as with the previous text, will not be an exegesis, but a reflection, and it goes hand in glove with the ideas expressed above regarding Romans 8. Once again we have a distinction between flesh and spirit, but instead of worrying about a Manichaean dualism that denigrates the body, as some have done, it is more useful to consider the “flesh” as the power of the past and the “spirit” as God’s aim. Conforming ourselves to the past does not necessarily mean the replication of bad habits of thinking and behaving, but it doesn’t open us to growth, either. Life without growth is stagnant; repetition of the past keeps us re-experiencing the past, or re-enacting it in the present.
Consistently rejecting God’s aim doesn’t shut God out completely, but it does, in Whitehead’s term, lead to a “diminishing” of the aim. If openness to God enables us to incarnate more of God into our being, then ignoring or rejecting God’s aim leads to a state that might be called excarnation.
Viewed this way “what is born of the flesh (past) is flesh (replicates the past). What is born of the Spirit (the incarnation of God in us by means of God’s aim) is spirit (a progressively God-infused life).
A possible sermon would first bring the distinction between flesh and spirit front and center (most people will be thinking it, anyway), but then reframe the two aspects in terms of old habits and patterns and openness to God’s ever-present spirit, with the creative transformation of the past it offers. Each listener knows in his or her heart what aspects of their lives they want to be transformed. This text offers hope that a “rebirth” into this new life is possible. Circling back to the Isaiah text even provides a way forward: openness to God leads to both self-transcendence—the recognition of something greater than one’s self—and agency—the recognition that we are responsible people. When that greater something is God, then the call to responsibility is to incarnate the Spirit whenever, wherever, and however we can. Because we believe, we act, and because we act, we contribute to the saving of the world.