On an Ancient and Evolving Theology
February 28, 2021
Psalm 22: 1-5
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest. Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.
Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.
God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”
Today’s sermon is titled On an Ancient and Evolving Theology. Our Lenten journey this year is taking us way back in time, some 5000 years, where we can see the long arc of the relationship between humankind and the illimitable force we call God. We study this ancient relationship through stories; some people study the same relationship through art. That is where we begin today, along the coast of South Africa, inside the Blombos cave, where the oldest surviving cave paintings of the San culture are found. The pictures of animals, people and beings that are a little of both are painted in red across expanses of light-colored sandstone. The paint our ancestors used was finely ground red rock mixed with animal fat. This substance has been carbon dated to 73, 000 years ago.*
It is impossible to say exactly when our ancestors began to consider existential questions like where did we come from and why are we here and what happens after we die. Changes in cave paintings across time offer us insight into the changes in the minds and hearts of the painters. One long-standing theory proposes that as humans began to control animals and propagate plants, their artwork began to represent a hierarchy of beings and figures that represent a God-like figure over all others. Cave paintings literally evolved over time from assembled figures of animals and humans in groups to figures in a horizontal sequence and then to figures in a vertical sequence. The vertical sequence reflects a clear imagination in ancient people about what might have been above and beyond themselves. Recent research reveals that this imagining of a higher force is found in cave paintings tens of thousands of years before humans began to plant and breed animals.**
I overheard my youngest son this week ask his father, “Are we really evolving?” My husband answered, “Yes, in invisible ways, we are.” I agree. We are changing. We see it in the 70,000 years of art history and we see it in the 5000 of stories in our Judeo-Christian tradition. We are forever changing in how we see our place in the world, our relationships to one another, and in our relationship to that which we call God.
In our scriptures today we drop into the story of Abram when he is 99 years of age. Abram’s backstory is fantastic. Abram is ten generations removed from Noah. Stargazers predicted Abram’s birth and alerted the King, Nimrod, that he would be a threat to his reign, so Abram and his mother lived for ten years in hiding in a cave. At the age of three, Abram began to criticize the worship of the sun and the worship of idols. Abram began to speak of a King of “the sun and the moon, and the whole world, who, though Himself unseen, sees everything and knows everything, and is the real King of the World.” *** Abram was precocious in his understanding of God. He became a legendary figure and eventually even King Nimrod feared him. But what Abram desired most of all eluded him. He did not sire an heir with his wife Sarai.
At the age of 99, that changed. In fact, a lot of things change when Abram is 99. God appears to Abram for the first time and God identifies as “El Shaddai” translated as “God of the Mountains” for the very first time. Then God changes Abram’s name from “exalted father” to “father of multitudes” or Abraham. Sarai’s name is changed to Sarah and a sacred promise, or covenant, is made. Abraham and Sarah are not asked about this, they are informed that the birth of their long-awaited child will be the beginning of a lineage of people that will belong to God, a people chosen by God.
Abraham is overwhelmed by this promise but not so much so that he forgets about his 13-year-old son, Ishmael, that Abraham sired with Hagar, his wife’s servant. God promises that Ishmael will prosper, too. From Ishmael came the prophet Muhammad and the 12 tribes of Islam. From the son of Abraham and Sarah, named Issac, came the lineage of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Last week we studied the first covenant, or first promise, God made with humankind when he promised Noah and all other lifeforms that never again would waters destroy life on earth. This week the second covenant, between Abraham, Sarah, and God, differs from the first in one critical way. According to the scriptures, this time, God asks for a sign from the people. All males will be circumcised, beginning with Abraham. In some cultures on the African continent, this practice was already adopted as part of a coming-of-age ritual. Our modern minds can form a host of reactions to this practice, but it will serve us to remember that it is, essentially, an outward sign of belonging and a pledge of loyalty to something greater than oneself…the tribe, the community, the tradition, and the source of all things, God, divine.
We are ten days in on our 40 day progression towards Easter. We are taking the long-cut through the tens of thousands of years of human spiritual evolution of heart and mind. We, ourselves, are products of this spiritual evolution. Millions of years worth of collective experiences have led us to today. All the countless changes along the way allow the ability to perceive ourselves and perceive others in concert with that which we call God.
As we move along the continuum of our long history, an ancient theology emerges. It is first recorded in cave paintings that first show the idea that there is something greater at play in the world. Copious volumes of stories from ancient cultures bring to life the most powerful forces in human existence and offer us more to consider. In our own Judeo-Christian tradition, we have these stories that trace how humanity changes in how they perceive their relationship with a higher power. With Noah and then Abraham, that higher power moves toward humankind and offers promises, covenants. Next we will revisit the gift of the law as the next step that prepares humankind for the prophets that will urge the people to internalize and realize that which is God within their hearts. All this prepares the way for our teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, to break into the world. We all know, timing is everything.
In closing, I lift up the changes, subtle and seismic, that have led to the evolution of our spiritual and emotional capabilities. We embody the results of millions of years of realizations and revelations. What we do now will impact what those who come after us are able to accomplish and understand. In my opinion, we need the teachings of Christ to inform us; we need one another, too. With one another we can build relationships that include the presence of God and in God’s presence we become so much more. So be it. Amen.
Infinite Spirit we call God, I thank you for our pasts and all the experiences that have made us who we are, in this moment. May our lives be a testament to all we have learned along our life journey and may we be ever mindful to respect the chosen paths of our brothers and sisters, so that we not stand in judgement, but rather uphold each other in kindness and encouragement. Help us, Lord, to be kind and encouraging with ourselves, as well, and remember that all change begins with us. May we radiate your love in all we think, say and do. May we all be ministers to those who are in need, giving of ourselves however we can. Help us to make time to write that note, to make that phone call, to send that message, to reach out in service and in love. In Jesus’s name we pray, Amen. Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
I leave you with this ancient blessing, from the book of Numbers:
“May the Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord let his face shine upon you and be gracious unto you.
The Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace.”