In the Face of Nothing

Preaching, Theology

Somewhere deep in the heart of human darkness is a fear of annihilation. The fear of nothingness, the fear that what we treasure most could pass immaterial as a vapor from our lives, is the base ingredient for many other fears. A fear of abandonment is a fear that our most intimate relationships will come to nothing. A fear of death is a fear that we ourselves will come to nothing. The shame and despair which arise from the sense of having been invisible to the outside world for so long can be rooted in a fear that we ourselves are nothing. In abandonment, in death, in invisibility, we skirt the breech of annihilation, the potential which each existing being has to cease existing. From the heart of human darkness, we typically respond to this fear in one of two ways: through exercising a domineering amount control over ourselves and others, or through escaping into nihilistic chaos.

The teachers who confront Jesus in the Gospel would like very much to annihilate him: they want to have him killed. Who can say why. Perhaps his chaos comes too close to their control; there is no good reason, there never is. What we can say is that they are asking him the kinds of questions whose answers could get him killed. In Mark’s Gospel, when someone speaks of divorce and marriage, it gets them killed. Specifically, when John the Baptist spoke about the injustice of King Herod’s divorce, it got John imprisoned and eventually killed. These teachers are trying to trick Jesus into the same, fatal corner, not so much with a general moral inquiry, but with a political one, a hot topic of the day which had one particular political face all over it: Herod’s. Which isn’t to say that the general topic of divorce wasn’t also about annihilation. Divorce meant the end of a woman, her security tied entirely to the man who had purchased her in marriage. For Jesus to suggest in private that a woman might be the one issuing a certificate of divorce is a queer assertion that a woman might actually have as much agency and responsibility as a man, and be more than a piece of property which could be tainted by another man’s competing touch. Jesus refutes annihilation. He speaks of women as if they cannot be abandoned, as if it were impossible to just throw one of them away, no matter what the law says. Jesus refutes annihilation. He stands nose to nose with the death-wish of the teachers in serene equanimity, uncompromised in addressing them; the standard fears seem to be absent.

Meanwhile we sit here on the other side of two thousand years of love and annihilation. We sit here as people who can speak freely of divorce without the threat of execution hovering above our heads, yet most of us likely can’t hear the word mentioned in our Gospel without feeling a pinch of anguish. Many of us have personal experience with divorce. We may not recognize the polygamous women-as-property model of biblical marriage which Jesus speaks from, but many of us have spent time in and around relationships which have brought us close to the brink of annihilation and abandonment. Some of us saw parents suffer through it. Some of us found divorce long ago as an entrance into a renewed, more authentic life. Some of us have friends who have yet to find a way to leave an abusive relationship. It is as if love itself is perpetually tied the possibility of it’s own demise. One lover shudders at the thought of losing her beloved. Another may shudder at the thought of how much of himself he has lost in trying to keep love alive after it has gone. We do not need a debate between 1st century religious lawyers to remind us of the potential which family relations have for bringing us to nothing. We do need Jesus, and the power of God, to stand in the face of nothingness, unafraid.

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They wanted to kill him, they hated him so much, and so they thinly veil their death wish with one trick question after another. We sit here as citizens of a nation in which a death wish needn’t be thinly veiled at all, but can be freely executed by anyone with access to a gun. It is not as if the threat of annihilation were greater now than then, we’ve simply armed it with the kind of ammunition which would normally belong to the state alone. If organized religious folk had not have had to wait on state sponsored execution by the empire they might have crucified Jesus even earlier in his career. The possibility of annihilation still exists, the possibility that if we allow ourselves to love, we will very likely lose our loved ones in the end. For many of us the possibility of that loss sends us spiraling into a frenzy of control, a call for stricter laws, ever greater precautions for our children before they leave the house, a set of rules which -if only we could follow them- would restore us to the love we once knew with a spouse or parent. For many, the nothingness drones on until an escape can be found, in drugs, alcohol, carbs, sex, or television; and, for a morbidly growing club of our culture, in the massacre of people whom they do not know. Where is Jesus in the face of nihilism? Where is Jesus in the face of this annihilating void?

Somewhere on the perimeter of the crowd the disciples have tried to manage a group of children and their parents. The children are too unruly, they could get themselves hurt, they could hurt someone else, they could ruin everything. Jesus sees the struggle from afar to keep the chaotic little devils from him, and sternly orders the disciples to cut it out and let them come. He welcomes them with open arms. Somewhere from among the bodies targeted last Thursday, 30 year old army veteran Chris Mintz stood and started lunging towards the shooter with open arms, crying out over and over again about the fact that his son was turning six that day. Somewhere in our country, another troubled white male teen will pass another day deeper in his isolation for the lack of any such open arms as these. Jesus stands with open arms before the woman seeking divorce and says: you can not be thrown away. Jesus stands before the shambles of our life and says: you will not be abandoned. Jesus stands before his accusers with a serenity which says: you can not annihilate me with your hatred. When Jesus does finally express the fear of abandonment by God on the cross, he joins the ranks and company of all who had ever felt that annihilating fear before him and all who have felt it since, and he forgives the ones who have brought him there. Jesus rises above his killers and does not abandon them to unforgiveness. Jesus faces the killers of our world now and says: neither shall you be abandoned, nor be thrown away, and with the killed he says, “I am with you always, you will not be alone.” Jesus is the part of us standing nose-to-nose with the annihilation of abandonment and death and isolation just like God hovered over the chaos of the deep at creation, and Jesus calls our nothingness a something: that which is beloved. This community is a place where we share in that call as it has risen from the depths of each of us. This is a family that joins God in his dangerous proximity to the empty nothingness which so often seems to win the day in our world. This is a church that calls into the deep and expects life to rise again. Our belonging here is a testament against the final say of darkness. We have the power here to join God in this call to the nothingness as beloved, to join God in casting out all fear, until the power which the fear of annihilation holds above our lives is lost for good.

2 thoughts on “In the Face of Nothing

  1. ” Jesus faces the killers of our world now and says: neither shall you be abandoned, nor be thrown away, and with the killed he says, “I am with you always, you will not be alone.” Beautiful. Thank you for proclaiming this truth.

  2. James, I find “In The Face of Nothing” remarkable. Although prose, it is inherently also a poem–without meter or rhyme, without a poem’s layout, yet plainly a poem in tone, feeling, meaning, and repetition. If it were done in oil or acrylic–even watercolor–I would vote for it to be framed or prepared for mounting without frame. It’s a lovely piece, a focused mosaic encouraging a brave exuberance of trust in life beyond rational justification. Thanks for posting.

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