Writing today about our God, who is so vast and so overwhelming that we can only describe and attempt to understand him through the use of metaphor. There really is no other way. We talk about God in metaphor, but even that does not satisfy, so we have multiple metaphors we use, which at least can get us close to understand the power, majesty and grace of the God of the universe.
One of our favorite metaphors, it seems, is the military metaphor. We American Christians do seem to love to refer to ourselves as “soldiers of the Lord”, we love to describe our bibles as “swords” we are carrying into our great battle. We love the picture of Christ in Revelation with the sword coming from his mouth – “In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.” Revelation 1:16 ESV. We love to envision this Christ who returns, chopping down all those sinners with that sword (all those other sinners, that is). As the writer of Hebrews told us “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Hebrews 4:12 ESV. As a sinner who’s been chopped down by the word of God, slain in heart by the one the one who judges the living and the dead, so that I could come to faith and be baptized into the resurrection kind of life, this metaphor does have its place.
BUT, maybe this is not the best metaphor for us to use as we go into the world. Maybe as “soldiers for Christ” we are carrying an us vs them attitude into the world. In our current culture war climate, maybe this is just not the best way for us (or them) to see ourselves. Many outside the church don’t understand this metaphor and even feel threatened by it. As “soldiers for Christ”, we seem as though it’s us against the world. And they are the world. It’s just too easy for this metaphor to be misunderstood and misused by those outside both by those outside and those inside the church. Why not focus on being the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, the city on a hill, the temple of the Lord, the vineyard and branches of God.
Or how about the metaphor Jesus uses in closing his Sermon on the Mount? “”Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”” Matthew 7:24-27 ESV. This metaphor which Jesus gives at the end of his masterpiece sermon is especially helpful and hopeful for us if we are interested in reimagining the church in a new and more attractive way. It’s the metaphor of a shelter from the storm.
Jesus did not invent this metaphor. Instead, he is taking this metaphor straight from Isaiah, where Jesus took so much of his self awareness and self understanding from. Three different times Isaiah uses this “shelter from the storm metaphor as he looks forward to Messiah.
“In that day the branch of the Lord shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and honor of the survivors of Israel. And he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem, when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning. Then the Lord will create over the whole site of Mount Zion and over her assemblies a cloud by day, and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night; for over all the glory there will be a canopy. There will be a booth for shade by day from the heat, and for a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain.” Isaiah 4:2-6 ESV. Isaiah sees Zion in the age of Messiah, at the coming of Christ, as a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain. A safe place for those weathering the storm to come looking for shelter…
“O Lord, you are my God; I will exalt you; I will praise your name, for you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure. For you have made the city a heap, the fortified city a ruin; the foreigners’ palace is a city no more; it will never be rebuilt. Therefore strong peoples will glorify you; cities of ruthless nations will fear you. For you have been a stronghold to the poor, a stronghold to the needy in his distress, a shelter from the storm and a shade from the heat; for the breath of the ruthless is like a storm against a wall, like heat in a dry place. You subdue the noise of the foreigners; as heat by the shade of a cloud, so the song of the ruthless is put down.” Isaiah 25:1-5 ESV. God’s care for the poor and needy will be a shelter from the storm and a shade from the heat. Yahweh has always been especially interested in the care of those for whom the world does not care, in giving shelter to those who can provide none of their own.
“Behold, a king will reign in righteousness, and princes will rule in justice. Each will be like a hiding place from the wind, a shelter from the storm, like streams of water in a dry place, like the shade of a great rock in a weary land.” Isaiah 32:1-2 ESV. The king will reign in righteousness and rule in justice. And one day every knee will bow and every tongue will confess and bless our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.
Eight centuries before Jesus, Isaiah used the language of a shelter from the storm. Jesus would understand the kingdom of a God as Isaiah understood the coming of Messiah – a shelter from the storm. The storm is all around us. It seems we can run, but we can’t hide. We live in the world of the 24 hour news cycle, a world where everyone has chosen sides and every bad thing that happens is their fault. It doesn’t matter who they are, all that matters is that it’s not our fault.
In this polarized world in which we live, entrenched in our “us vs them” standoffs, the church as a shelter from the storm is far more appealing than storm-troopers for Jesus, or soldiers for Christ. The world is entrenched in battle formations. When we invite people to church, is it just another invitation to battle? Is the invitation “We are in a huge battle, come fight on our side!” How attractive is that? Do people really want more conflict in their lives? Or – have they already have enough of that?
Isaiah’s – and Jesus’- invitation is much better. I’m reminded of the old 80s hair band song “We all need a little shelter”. Our world is beaten down, pounded by the winds and the rains and the rising storms of life. My pastor says that we are all either coming out of a storm, in a storm right now, or about to head into a storm. So, are we offering them more storminess? Or are we inviting them out of the raging storm and into a nice warm shelter?
What, exactly, should we be offering as the church? Shelter from the storm? Or more of the same old us vs them conflict that the rest of the world lives under. Are we living by the spirit of the world, or the spirit of Christ? “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.” 1 Corinthians 2:12 ESV
We all need a little shelter. Yes, we do.