Knowing In Part, Wholly Known (Jeremiah 1:4-10; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30)
Do you remember your first day on your first “real” job? Did you have any anxiety about what was going to be expected of you? I did. Although I had grown up in a minister’s home and cannot remember a time when “church things” were not part of my own background, I had chosen what I thought was a different path. I had prepared long and hard for an academic career in biblical studies. I had just finished my doctoral dissertation and was awaiting a possible oral exam back in the UK. I had, further, just finished teaching for one year in a seminary that had been a difficult, but eye-opening experience with folks who called themselves evangelicals. While there I’d learned some important code words to use, and in what was, then, the American Baptist Churches of South Dakota, those were important tools to have. In any case, it proved pretty tough to get an academic job in biblical studies, especially without a degree in hand, so I headed off to look for a church. I remember a conversation I had with God (really more of a monologue) in which I said that, if God would put me in teaching someday, I’d be willing to take a church now, although I said I didn’t know the first thing about it. I added, “If I ever get finished with seminary teaching, I also promise to go back into a church.” The last part of the promise is about the last sixteen years here, but you know about that. To the first part, there was really only one response, and that was from the First Baptist Church of the Northern Hills, made up of two congregations recently merged on paper. The two were two not always compatible groups from Lead and Deadwood, South Dakota, in the northern Black Hills. We landed there, Thanksgiving week of 1975, and, my third day, I had my first funeral with burial on “Boot Hill” in a foot of newly fallen snow. I was interested that, from that first day, I was the designated “expert” in funerals, weddings, the Bible, theology, preaching, church life, budgeting, counselling, visitation, community action, and all the rest of it. I felt a good deal like Jeremiah who, when God professed to have known him before he was born, and went on to appoint him a prophet to the nations, said: “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” That word translated “boy” there often has less to do with age than with experience. He meant, “I don’t have the knowledge, the skill, the maturity, the wisdom, to speak – and to speak on behalf of God to boot.” Now, I’m almost at the very end, and I still have that “Jeremiah feeling” quite often. “How can I speak a word of wisdom on this text, or this or that issue, or to that grief, when I don’t feel very wise or able?”
As life has moved on, I have often counselled seminarians and church people alike that Jeremiah’s attitude isn’t a bad example for us. A healthy realization that we “do not know” can lead us to a care in speaking and acting that is important as we deal with all kinds of people from all kinds of places and all with kinds of needs. God does not speak only, or primarily even, through ministers, but through each one of you, and mistaking my word for more than partial is a mistake – especially for me to make. It is not easy “to know” what to say or do, and, while the difficulty of it all does not get us (and I mean us) off the hook of speaking and doing, it ought to make us thoughtful and sensitive and humble. And that’s a good thing. When we think we’ve got it all figured out and know just what God is doing or wanting, we need to read through Jeremiah’s life and find how he struggled with “knowing” and “speaking” all his life. We need to hear the word of another of God’s choice servants who wrote in Isaiah 45:14: “Truly, you a God who hides yourself, O God of Israel, the Saviour.” The deeds and thoughts of God are not ours, or not often anyway. That same choice servant also put these words in God’s mouth (Isaiah 55:8-9):
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways…for as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.
When we get tempted to listen to the many churchy-sounding voices that encourage us to claim to know exactly how it has to be, and that our eternal destiny depends on uttering just the right words, remember and learn from these words from the books of Jeremiah and Isaiah.
Indeed, we can see what happened when one congregation assumed that they did know and understand more than they did in our Gospel Lesson this morning. Jesus was preaching “at home” in Nazareth. At first, the congregation seemed proud that one of their own had gotten to be able to preach. That all drained quickly away, when Jesus began to meddle with what they absolutely thought had to be right. Jesus began to teach that, when God could have worked through any number of people within Israel to meet crises in the days of the prophets Elijah and Elisha, that God, in that “hidden” way, chose to work with outsiders with different ideas instead, they couldn’t or wouldn’t believe it and got very angry. Jesus’ teaching pushed their supposed sureness of knowledge, and they pushed back, they pushed him out of the synagogue, out of town, and tried to push him off a cliff. That’s what happens when we do not realize that God acts in ways we sometimes do not understand, that quite contradict our Israelite (or Baptist, or Presbyterian, or Lutheran, or Catholic, etc.) doctrinal sacred cows. And we do things that are regrettable and counterproductive whether we say them aloud, tweet them or put them on some other social medium.
We need to be reminded that “knowing” is something that grows and changes over time. We need to be careful when we are (or act) so sure we’ve got it, that we forget that sometimes things change, and so do God’s ways of moving and speaking to bring about the gracious, loving, reign of wholeness and mercy that is the divine vision of the world. Sometimes we have to recognize that “hidden God.” Sometimes God’s ways are so far above our ways that they are simply “hidden” to us and we must admit that, in the words of one of those old hymns that we rarely sing:
We have not known Thee as we ought
Nor learned Thy wisdom, grace and pow’r:
The things of earth have filled our thought,
And trifles of the passing hour:
Lord give us light Thy truth to see,
And make us wise in knowing Thee
(Thomas Benson Pollack, 1836-96)
To move on, most people know very well that catalogue of the wonderful qualities of love set out in the early part of 1 Corinthians 13, and they are simply wonderful. We need to remind ourselves that in Paul’s day “love” was not basically something one felt, but an action one took, but even so understood, the words are wonderful and challenging. Today, I want to concentrate on what comes in verse 9 of that text. We sometimes simply scramble over these few words in our hurry to get to “now abide, faith, hope, and love, these three, and the greatest of these is love.” The words are “now we know only in part.” And realizing that we know that way can be both a gift and a blessing. It can help us to be more thoughtful and helpful as Christian pilgrims and disciples. Another line that goes hand in hand with “we know only in part,” is “we prophesy only in part.” The other half of what we are prepared to think and to claim we know, is that which we say, or proclaim as true. We must know, that, as firmly as we may think we know, believe, and tell the truth, it is only partial and provisional. When we carve our thoughts and our words in stone, as if they were not “only in part,” but were totally and eternally the case, then we, most often, are more in error than in truth. This is also the case when we enshrine the words of some earlier saints and seekers-after-truth, who also only knew and spoke “in part,” as more than what “seemed so” in their day. We learn as much about God and others from what they and we do not say as from what they and we do say, and from silence as from quick, fervent, and insensitive speech that mistakes our knowledge that is “in part,” for knowledge that is “full.” St. John of the Cross wrote that God’s first language is silence.” Years later a writer added, “and everything else is a poor translation.”
So, then, if this be true, what should we do to be faithful Christian disciples? If we admit that Jeremiah was right about himself and us, that we’re only children and don’t really know what to say, like what should our lives look? if we even admit that all our strivings after knowledge are at, at best partial, and all our pronouncements, are, at best incomplete and impermanent, by what shall we guide our lives?
Here, let me point us back up the page in 1 Corinthians 13 to some of the material that Paul wrote about this very special kind of love that God showed us in Christ. Remember John 3:16: “This is how God loved the world, by giving the only Son, that whoever has active trust in him should not perish, but be plugged into the very life that underpins the universe.” If we would follow Jesus, it means following the way of self-giving love. Again, love is an action on behalf of people, not a feeling.
It means showing patience and kindness with people both when they succeed and when they fail, when they do what we think is smart or good or wise, and when they don’t. It means rejoicing in what is trustworthy and true in people and causes. Negatively, following Jesus’ way of love means not envying others, or being boastful and rude about others’ pilgrimages or ways of living (even compared to our own). it means not insisting on our own way at each turn, not being irritable or resentful when other people seem to be having success, and, on the other hand, not rejoicing when the wheels come off people’s lives. Following Jesus’ way leads us into a pilgrimage of active bearing, believing, hoping, and enduring everything for the sake of others. When things get to be unclear as to what’s happening to us, and whether what we have chosen is right or not, this much we may hold to, that to live according to love is right, especially when we learn that God is love (1 John 4:8).
Toward the end of this wonderful chapter, Paul wrote: “Love never ends.” It not only goes on forever, but it is the completion of everything partial. He assures us that, as we go along tracing our lives over Jesus’ pattern of love, even if we know only in part and can speak only in part, we come to know that, appreciating that we are known by the God whose nature is love itself enables us to relax about life, realizing that it isn’t really about our doctrine or rules, for they are all “in part.” What is permanent is God’s love for us, and God’s knowledge of us according to that love. As we keep on the road of living according to the love, grace, gentleness, and goodness of Christ, knowing God, others, and ourselves as we have been known by God in love is the goal that finally replaces all others, so that “the earth becomes full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9).
In the words of a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier, published in 1854, and later made into a hymn:
Immortal love, forever full,
Forever flowing free,
Forever shared, forever whole,
A never ebbing sea!
The letter fails, the systems fall,
And every symbol wanes;
The Spirit over brooding all,
Eternal love remains.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.