I thank Dean Hill for the privilege of sharing as a preacher in our Lenten observance. It’s good to be back in this pulpit. Dean Hill wants us to think through Lent with the eyes of John Calvin whose theology is not always in accord with the Wesleyan tradition of Marsh Chapel. Our texts for today illustrate some of the principal issues of Calvin’s theology. God is imagined many ways in the Bible, and Calvin picks up on most of them, from the most anthropomorphic to the most sublime.
Our Exodus text is from the saga of the Israelites’ flight from Egypt to take possession of Canaan, which they viewed centuries later when composing these texts as God’s Promised Land for them. The relation between God and the Israelites was not a happy one, as they told it. God did not consult them concerning their departure from Egypt, and you remember the desperate flight in front of the Egyptian army that God miraculously destroyed at the Sea of Reeds (or Red Sea). This hair-raising escape was enough to make them nervous, especially since they had stolen all the goods they could from the Egyptians, at God’s command (they reported), and now had great herds of animals that needed to be fed and watered. Shortly before the incident in our text, the Israelite company had run out of food and the people angrily asked Moses why he had led them away from the fleshpots of Egypt, that is, the diet of meat and a plenitude of bread, to die of hunger in the wilderness. That’s when God send the manna from heaven, a nourishing special condensation of dew. But traveling on they ran out of water and complained to Moses again. God was royally provoked but stood on the rock which Moses struck with his staff and water poured out, saving the people. This satisfied their literal thirst and that of their flocks. But God was indeed provoked by their lack of faith in his providence and their complaint that they should never have left Egypt in the first place. We know from our responsive reading, the 95th Psalm, that God therefore determined that they would wander in the wilderness for 40 years until all the adults who had complained about thirst would have died. That included Aaron and Moses. Only afterward were the Israelites allowed into Canaan.
The image of God here is plainly primitive. We tend to read the later image of God as love back through these parts of the Hebrew Bible. The practice of giving a “spiritual reconstruction” of the Bible based on the theological principle that God is Love was common in Christianity from the earliest times up to the Reformation. Those stories of God’s pettiness and genocidal ways were construed to be allegorical expressions of something else, something consistent with an orthodox Christian theology of God’s perfect justice, mercy, and benevolence. But this is in fact to be inattentive to what the Bible says. The Reformers, Calvin as well as Luther, said our theology should be based on a careful reading of the Bible, not the other way around where the reading of the Bible is based on a preconceived theology. Read straight, God in Exodus is arbitrary in choosing the Israelites over the Egyptians and Canaanites and is jealous about the Israelites’ loyalty, which was shaky. God is depicted as one deity among others who wanted to prove his superiority to the Egyptians Gods, and later to the Canaanite ones. To prove this God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so as not to let the Israelites go until afterGod had killed all the first-born of the Egyptians. This was genocide of untold numbers of innocents. But it is hardly worse than God killing off nearly all the animals and people on Earth at the time of Noah. Read straight, the God of these stories is a primitive tribal deity whose crimes against the humanity of everyone except the Israelite tribal ingroup are atrocities. He was even tough on the ingroup, as I say, requiring the deaths of all those who complained before letting them enter the Promised Land. Later Jewish and Christian interpreters had to find ways of taking these stories to be not true literally but symbolic of something closer to the God of justice, mercy, and love. There is a story I’ve heard of from the Jewish Talmud, for instance, about the angels and deities in Heaven having a party after the drowning of the Egyptian army and rescue of the Israelites at the Sea of Reeds. But they noticed God standing off the side weeping. “Why are you not rejoicing at the salvation of your people Israel,” they asked him. “I’m weeping for my people Egypt,” God replied.
For all his Biblicism, Calvin did not escape imposing his own consistent Christian theology on the Bible. For instance, he was a super-monotheist whereas much of the Hebrew Bible is polytheistic. Calvin has a lesson for us here, however. Realistically, the world is not balanced and just. Some people are rich and others poor. Some nations are favored, at least for a while, and others are swept aside. Some people move easily into a life of general benevolence with only minor setbacks while others damn themselves again and again despite a heart-felt will not to do so. Calvin’s God is arbitrary, creating a world where some are saved and others are damned. The imbalance in the world must be the result of divine creation, said Calvin, because God is sovereign and somehow everything that happens, even the bad stuff, is the result of the divine will. Perhaps we do not like this and want to attribute a generous loving spirit to God. But then, given the realities of unequal life, God would have to be blind or inept, or not personal at all, or at least not sovereign. Calvin says, do not close your eyes to the shocking inequalities and injustices of the world and assume that God is really behind the scenes trying, without much success, to make it right. Life sometimes runs out of water. When God supplies the water, as at Rephidim, it often comes at a great price: death before the Promised Land. Sometimes God’s water is a deadly flood, as the Egyptians discovered. God is Wild, knew Calvin.
Now Calvin and I are not supposed to be talking this way. We are supposed to deflect attention away from the primitive God to the spiritualization of the metaphor of thirst. We are spiritually thirsty, and God can satisfy this spiritual thirst. This is the background orientation for the text from John’s Gospel. Jesus turns his own human thirst at the well into a spiritual interpretation of the thirst of the others for the water of life. The story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman is chock-full of boundary-crossing elements—talking with a Samaritan, talking with a woman, describing her dubious sex life without moral judgment, and offering her the water of life when he had originally only asked her for a drink from the well for himself. I presume you have heard a multitude of sermons based on this text about how we have a spiritual thirst that is far more important than physical thirst. Jump from John 4 to John 6 and you find Jesus claiming to be the bread of Heaven, quenching a spiritual hunger that he contrasted with the mere physical hunger satisfied with manna from Heaven. You all know how to think about the spiritual life in terms of the metaphors of thirst and hunger and you have my permission to rehearse in your mind’s ear what you would say if you get bored with the rest of what I am about to say.
Calvin’s greatest genius was to see that religion is about God more than about us. For Luther, and for most other Christian theologians, religion is mainly about our salvation, including God’s role in it through Jesus. Calvin paid lip service to the salvation problem and wrote many pages about how Jesus is our savior. But the main intentionality of his vision was focused on God. He had the largest conception of God in Western history. For him, God is unmeasurable, glorious beyond imagination, so radiant in beauty that of course God is sovereign. Nothing can compare with God.
So what Calvin would lift up today from the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is Jesus’ shocking dismissal of the tribal and religious differences between the Jews and Samaritans. Forget about whether one should worship in Jerusalem or on the Samaritan mountain. “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.” Jesus does not dismiss cultic differences, and says that the Jews know whom they worshipp whereas the Samaritans do not. But he relativized cultic differences. Real worship is a spiritual matter that should not be limited to cult. Calvin would read John 4 as testifying to the transcendent sovereignty of God. Just glimpse God and you are blown away. Worship in spirit and truth is something that can only be approximated from a cultic base.
Of course, this is unmanageable theophany. It seems we need to domesticate conceptions of God for them to be to useful. Calvin then turned to the Bible for finite things to say about this infinite and sovereign God. He tried to make out a consistent biblical set of affirmations about God and about commandments for human life. Like his symbolically interpreting predecessors he was reading in more than he was reading out. But he assembled a rather detailed special interpretation of what the Bible is supposed to mean that has organized his Reformed tradition ever since. Because we cannot live up to God’s beauty in creation, human beings are utterly depraved, Calvin said; this is not a politically correct position today. Most of us take offense at that part of Calvinism.
Even worse, by subordinating the project of human salvation to the transcendently beautiful glory of God, awkward consequences such as predestination of some to salvation and others to damnation have followed since the Geneva days. In the Synod of Dort at the beginning of the 17th century the Calvinist divines had to decide whether God offers salvation to anyone with free will who takes it up, or whether God determines in advance whether you are saved regardless of what you think you choose. The former group, led by Arminius, was followed by the Methodists who continue to believe in free will. The latter group won out at the council and so Reformed people, that is, Presbyterians, are supposed to believe in total predestination. This put subsequent Calvinists in a panic to discover whether they were predestined for salvation or damnation. For Calvin, all these sometimes awkward consequences were not half as important as acknowledging the sovereign majesty and beauty of God.
This transcendent beautiful sovereignty of the infinite Creator cannot be described in words. Some theologians had said that God is the fullness of reality that is whittled down in finite form to create the world. Calvin said yes, but more, God’s creation cannot be understood as the domestication of divinity. It is the wholly new creation of the world that embodies the divine beauty. Every thing in creation is good, if you could but see it with God’s eye. The swell of the oceans, the transience of the sunrise, the special thisness of each bird chirping in the bush, the vastness of the cosmos, the remote radiant heat of the Big Bang, the supernovas destroying worlds, the flooding of the coastal peoples, the parching of the deserts, the wars for dominance, the numbing poverty of our economic system, the blighted lives of the oppressed, the sick with poor care, the dying on our doorsteps, our own deaths coming anytime—all, all, bespeak the strange beauty of God. What a horrible thing to say, we think! Moral protests abound against Calvin’s vision and Calvinists themselves have been at the forefront of movements to relieve suffering and transform the world to a more nearly just comportment. But in a profound sense, perhaps only glimpsed from the corner of the eye, the Calvinist vision says sit down and shut up. It’s not about you, it’s about God. May I whisper softly, Calvin had it right in the long run?
No one can bear this stark vision of divine glory for long, so think back to the human side, as Calvin suggested at the beginning of his Institutes. For what do we truly hunger and thirst? Forget the metaphor that we are spiritually empty vessels longing to be filled with divine substance. Our ordinary condition is to be spiritually filled with mediocre satisfactions. The ordinary metaphors of thirst for God’s living water can too easily be turned to consumerism: we are needy—so we think of God as the resource to fulfill our needs.
Calvin blows this off. Forget human needs! Look to God’s glory: this will create a need for satisfaction you had never imagined. Look to God’s beauty: you will be drawn with an infinite passion that will strangely show you beauty in life’s smallest details and worst horrors. Look to God’s sovereignty and you will develop a thirst beyond your parchest history, a thirst deeper than any moral plumb line, a thirst that leaps over any water brook for which you had panted, a thirst that forgets your own proximately valid priorities, a thirst that brings us up short to gape without guile at God’s glory in the “thises” of creation. Calvin dares us to look at God through the corner of the eye, through thick filters prepared for eclipses, and to be blown away.
Although Calvin in fact gave all sorts of suggestions about Lent and the moral life, suggestions that have their place, his fundamental message was, forget about it! Ultimately, we are not important enough to worry about. So you need more discipline, ok, get a program. So you need to practice forgiveness, ok, get on with it. So you need to confess, oh, duh, yes, yes, we know you are sorry and will do better next time. Or not. For the glorious God in whom we live, it does not make much difference. Forget yourself. Forget whether you are saved or damned. Forget for the moment the need to fix the world. Instead look to God whose beauty will create in you a thirst of inhuman proportion. God beauties forth in all creation. Beauty elicits the thirst and the more you crave the closer you come to God. Calvin knew God does not satisfy thirst: God increases the craving. The whole creation is God’s living water. The more we smell that water, the thirstier we become for God. Forget satisfying the thirst. Intensify it. God’s immense, transcendent, and immanent beauty calls forth the deepest thirst that unites us to God. So, flee from spiritual satisfaction. It’s not about you. Increase your thirst. It’s about God. Calvin understood something, didn’t he?
The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville