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Alchemy

February 9, 2015

“Alchemy” Isaiah 62:1-5, John 2:1-11 © 2.8.15 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Alchemy was the quest of some in the Middle Ages to turn lead or other so-called “base” metals into gold. A number of the alchemists were frauds, con men who used tricks to make gold appear in a bowl after what they called an “experimental demonstration.” These same charlatans also claimed to hold the secret to immortality, how to turn a lowly human being into something glorious and eternal.

Not all the alchemists were fakes, though, since Isaac Newton among others was included in their number. Experiments of these more serious scientists led to the discovery of elements like mercury and laid the foundations for modern chemistry. The amazing thing is that, according to the late Carl Sagan, the dream of the alchemists can now be fulfilled through nuclear fission. The subtraction of a certain number of neutrons and one proton from mercury, for example, yields gold (Cosmos: 182).

We may have little interest in turning our wrought iron furniture into golden thrones or stainless steel utensils into sterling silver place settings. But I suspect we do long for the base and low in our nation and world to be transformed into something worthy and commendable. Do you lament, as I do, the exaltation as entertainment of so much that is vulgar, overdone, and violent? Do you wonder how so many became so inarticulate that they can’t have a conversation without the regular and thoughtless use of the most gutter-level profanity and don’t have a clue how to solve conflict without resorting to assault with fists and guns? Do you join me in wondering how our society came to be defined by greed, discourtesy, uncivil behavior, prejudice, self-absorption, and so many other base and vile instincts, even among those who are our leaders in government, church, education, and the arts? How did we get to be, to use the title of an Owen Wilson film from back when, an “idiocracy”?

Closer to home, have your burdens become as heavy as lead and your life as dull as dust? Do you ask yourself where the excitement has gone, the wonder you once felt at a sunset or the beauty of the birds on your feeder, the enlightenment you gained from learning something new, the enjoyment from dining on different cuisine, the delight you felt simply from being with your friends or your spouse or children? Or have you or I even given in to the same base instincts that have overcome our society, the tendency toward prejudice and intolerance and hatred, claiming our privilege, keeping power at any cost, seeing anyone and anything different as a threat, a challenge to all we hold dear?

The people who heard the speeches and poems from the prophet or prophets known as “Third Isaiah” at a basic level were just like us. They felt the same range of emotions, had the same hopes for security and comfort. But their circumstances were such that their valleys were lower and the heights rose higher, rather like you and I experience when we’re sick. Everything was seen through the lens of the destruction of Jerusalem a generation earlier. It’s sometime in the late 500s BC, soon after those who wanted to had returned from exile in Babylon, freed by the Persian emperor Cyrus. Their expectations had been dashed at the first sight of a ruined Jerusalem and a charred wreck of a temple. As one commentator notes: “…the reality people returned to was far from glorious. The land seemed to them like a desert. It was true that the land was not empty: people had remained in Judah during the years of exile, and others had moved into the area, making a life for themselves in Jerusalem and in the surrounding countryside. But none were able to undo the damage done by Nebuchadnezzar and his army some sixty and fifty years before. And when the exiles returned, it was all they could do to secure homesteads for themselves and try to grow crops to feed their families. Times were difficult, and people were hungry…. When prophets finally convinced them to rebuild the temple, it was clear that its glory could not match the glory of former days. Where were the glittering jewels? Where was the abundant feast? The land still felt like a desert. The city seemed forsaken, bereft of God’s sustaining presence. What could be the reason? Was Jerusalem still shadowed by God’s just punishment” (see note 1)?

So closely did the returned exiles identify with Jerusalem that they personified the city as a would-be bride forsaken by her fiancé. Her sorrow at being bereft of the security, joy, and progeny that marriage would bring became theirs. So when Third Isaiah says Jerusalem is named “Azubah,” that is, “Deserted” and “Shemamah,” which means “Desolate,” they started to think of themselves that way, too.

Bruce Springsteen did something like that in his song “My City of Ruins.” He describes a town where a church door is thrown open, but the congregation’s gone; young men stand on a corner “like scattered leaves”; windows are boarded up and the streets are empty. And that reminds him of his own emptiness after his love left. “My soul is lost, my friend,” he sings. “Tell me how do I begin again?” (from The Rising, © 2002).

But when Jerusalem was given a new name by Yahweh, her people too would “rise up,” as Springsteen put it. God would marry Jerusalem, so she would have the honored name “Beulah” which translates as “Married.” And God would rejoice in his bride. His favorite affectionate term would be “Hephzibah,” “My delight is in her.” The engagement might be long or the wedding could be right around the corner—who could say?—but the prophet and his people would see it and celebrate.

So with Jerusalem’s new name would come a change in their fortunes as well. Through the alchemy of grace, their sad and sorrowful landscape would be transformed into glory and joy and beauty. They would live in “Beulah land.” They themselves would be new people.

A contemporary Celtic hymn by D.J. Butler has God say: “I will change your name/You shall no longer be called/Wounded, outcast, lonely or afraid/I will change your name/Your new name shall be/Confidence, joyfulness, overcoming one/ Faithfulness, friend of God/One who seeks My face” (“I Will Change Your Name,” © 1987 Mercy/Vineyard Publishing; see note 2).

Such changing of the name of a person or a city means that both character and destiny have been radically altered. Abram and Sarai were renamed Abraham and Sarah to signify their new fruitfulness and status. Jacob, the grabber, was given the name Israel, “man of God” after wrestling with Yahweh himself all night. When the same patriarch had a dream of a stairway to heaven at a place called Luz, he named it Bethel, “house of God” to commemorate the experience. Jerusalem itself was once an unexceptional place with the plain name “Salim,” which we find in a list from 2400 BC. But at some point it began to be called “Jerusalem,” which means “the place where peace is seen.”

You and I all have those places that we regard as forsaken and desolate, offering nothing but heartache and bad memories. Perhaps they’re physical locations, a city or town to which we vow never to return because of what happened there. Maybe we see our nation or the world as a place where God is now absent, left to its own devices of violence, greed, and hatred, those leaden instincts that defy being turned into gold. Could be our place is in the heart, where something has died because of a great loss or disappointment. Where there was once zeal and excitement, now there is more often than not simply numbness and ache, to use Walter Brueggemann’s phrase. Or the old needs and wants we thought we had long ago put away keep asserting themselves, making us wonder if the transformation God promises has actually taken place within us.

The prophet invites us to claim the promise of God in all those places of hurt and desolation and see them as God does. They are full of the potential of grace and learning, of the energy of the Spirit for renewal and hope, of the joy of a couple just united in marriage. They can be Hephzibah and Beulah, the place of delight and hope and fruitfulness.

How does that happen? The very first lines of the text give us a clue. The preacher says: “I. Will. Not. Keep. Silent.” I won’t shut up. I won’t sit down. I’m going to ask my impertinent, annoying questions of God until a new day comes.

So don’t any of us ever let God off the hook. We have a covenant with our Creator that works both ways. God is also accountable to us, and we may question and demand and seek fulfillment of the agreement made between us. Keep praying, in whatever form prayer takes for us. As the praise and worship song by Matt Redman says, echoing another text from Third Isaiah: “We’re knocking, knocking on the door of heaven/We’re crying, crying for this generation/We’re praying for Your Name to be known in all of the earth/We’re watching, watching on the walls to see You/We’re looking, looking for a time of breakthrough/We’re praying for Your Word to bear fruit in all of the earth” (Matt Redman and Steve Cantellow, “Knocking on the Door of Heaven”; see note 3).

So we pray with boldness and determination. But we also work to bring transformation. As someone has said: “Christians are called to be…stubborn in their refusal to allow isolation and hopelessness to have the last word in people’s lives. The solution to darkness and despondency is connection and companionship, a willingness to love and to serve each other” (see note 4). Beulah land, despite the old gospel hymns, is not for the prophet and his people an individual paradise in some other dimension of existence. It may be far off, but it will be in this world. That is ultimately the vision of the whole Bible, which ends with Revelation, in which the new Jerusalem comes down from heaven like a bride adorned for her husband, an explicit reference to the vision of Third Isaiah. The home of God will be among mortals, and the transformation of creation, the divine alchemy, will be complete.

So, because God has not given up on this world, neither do we. Whether for the changing of individual lives or for the renewal of a nation, we keep working however we can, whenever we can, with whomever we can. We keep the vision before us of the transformation of all that is base and unworthy in human life into what God originally intended for us, the glory of true humanity that walks with God.

The Alchemist par excellence, made known in Jesus, transforms the base metal of our everyday lives into the shining gold of spiritual wonder, the plain water of our routine into an exquisite vintage that delights the palate and warms us to our very souls. The change is ongoing, and happens in ways big and small. Someone once timid finds a voice to speak out about injustice. A woman who most of her adult life lacked confidence becomes a leader in the community, a man who had been selfish and mean acts finally with compassion and sensitivity. After the interruption of surgery or loss, life begins to take on meaning again, perhaps with a return to the tasks we once saw as routine, but now are wonders that bring us joy. And then we graduate to going where we like and not being confined to a bed or our homes, enjoying the company of friends over dinner or coffee, adopting and striving toward goals that yesterday seemed pipe dreams. As noted author Anne Lamott puts it: “…out of the wreckage something surprising will arise….”

She goes on: “Our lives and humanity are untidy: disorganized and careworn. Life on earth is often a raunchy and violent experience. It can be agony just to get through the day. And yet, I do believe there is ultimately meaning in the chaos, and also in the doldrums…. My understanding of incarnation is that we are not served by getting away from the grubbiness of suffering. Sometimes we feel that we are barely pulling ourselves forward through a tight tunnel on badly scraped-up elbows. But we do come out the other side, exhausted and changed. Most of us have figured out that we have to do what’s in front of us and keep doing it… Every time we choose the good action or response, the decent, the valuable, it builds, incrementally, to renewal, resurrection, the place of newness, freedom, justice…

“We live stitch by stitch, when we’re lucky. If you fixate on the big picture, the whole shebang, the overview, you miss the stitching. And maybe the stitching is crude, or it is unraveling, but if it were precise, we’d pretend that life was just fine and running like a Swiss watch. This is not helpful if on the inside our understanding is that life is more often a cuckoo clock with rusty gears” (note 5).

Lamott is reminding us that even in the rustiness and grinding of gears there is grace. Even in the places of desolation there is the possibility of renewal. Even where all is ugliness, the hand of the Lord gives a crown of beauty. And where we feel all joy is gone, God rejoices in those he has redeemed, whom one day he will transform as this corruptible puts on incorruption, and this mortal, immortality (1 Corinthians 15:53, KJV).

Alchemy.

Notes

1. A. Porter-Young, www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=495

2. http://www.higherpraise.com/lyrics/love/love853171.htm

3. http://www.higherpraise.com/lyrics1/KnockingOnTheDoorOfHeaven.htm

4. Callie Plunket-Brewton, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1570

5. Stitches, quoted in “Brain Pickings Weekly” 2.1.15 http://us2.campaign-archive2.com/?u=13eb080d8a315477042e0d5b1&id=f2a44c2b67&e=044c64f487

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