Hindsight, Love's Timelessness, and the Will of God
I once had a lovely and very wise professor (the incomparable Ray Anderson) say in class, “You can only know God’s will in hindsight.” He was speaking, of course, of that desire to figure it out right now, to deduce by prayer and spiritual guesswork what God wants you to do in a certain situation, so that you don’t make the “wrong” choice and screw up whatever it was God had planned for you. But when he said it, “You can only know God’s will in hindsight”, I realized with a start that was quite true in my life.
How those Spanish language classes in high school and college that went nowhere were suddenly useful for the three months I spent in the Canary Islands, how a painful falling out with a friend revealed dark and shameful things in myself and ultimately made me a better friend to another down the road. How that experience I had in long-distance email conversation with someone my senior year of college led me to the little bitty paragraph in the seminary catalog that felt like it was written for me and into the concentration that I hadn’t known existed, and a sense that I had found what I was meant to do. How being thrown together with a random roommate opened me up to an enduring group of friends.
That kind of thing.
That when you look back, you can see how things were connected, how one thing led to another, how God was involved, what God was intending. You can only know God’s will in hindsight.
At the time I imagined that you could also look back and decide you had missed God’s will, seeing how your bad choices had led to other choices and so on. And in hindsight you could now see that God had clearly been leading you in a particular direction and you had disobeyed, gone a different way, missed the will of God.
How often could Israel have looked back and seen they should’ve gone a different way? That God was leading them and they were not following? How often could they have had that recognition of God’s will in hindsight – oh! God wanted us to stay free and not to be slaves again! Oh! God wanted us to stay in relationship and not worship idols and ignore God after all! Oh! God was up to something and we missed it…
And this is part of the prophets’ grief.
At this point in the prophets I am tired. I am weary of Israel’s turning away and of the cries to return. I am worn out from the loss and punishment and I am skeptical of the hope that is promised. At this point in the prophets I am not sure why God is still hanging on, why God hasn’t given up. The people clearly have, many times.
But God doesn’t, and I don’t get that.
If there was ever a question about God’s fidelity, let it now be put to rest – God simply wont let them go. But in Malachi, the people question even that. It opens with the words of God, “I have loved you.” and the immediate response, “How have you loved us?”
Malachi means My messenger… We know almost nothing about who this prophet was, and whether Malachi was even a name, or a stage name, short for “Messenger of God…” “Malach-Yahweh”, We suspect he probably prophesied sometime in the early 5th century BC, but beyond that, kind of a mystery. The book itself is constructed in a very argumentative fashion, asking lots of questions back to God after the statements God makes through the prophet.
I have loved you. How have you loved us? Where is the respect due to me, O priests who despise my name? How have we despised your name? By offering polluted food at my alter. How have we polluted it, in what way? What!? What is it?!? What did we DO!?!
You get the picture.
So if there every was a point where it seems like you’ve perhaps not only missed the will of God but blatantly disregarded it, and even maybe chosen so far away from the will of God as to leave it completely, it seems likely that they’ve reached that point.
Since the very beginning, God has wanted to be in relationship with these beings, these persons made in the image of God, to share God’s self with them and have them be open and share themselves with God. To collaborate, together to care for the earth and each other; and for all of it to function in the intricate, delicate but strong balance and harmony of life interdependent and free.
But all along, this plan of God keeps getting foiled, in one way or another the people keep turning on God and each other, keep cutting themselves off from the greater whole, keep meeting their own needs at the expense of their neighbors, and in hindsight they could know quite clearly that this was not God’s will, not God’s will at all.
But here’s the thing, even so, that doesn’t actually stop God. Their choice against God’s will doesn’t actually stop God’s will, though it delays it from time to time. God wills that we live in God’s love and share in God’s creativity and enjoy the world God has made and one another within it; God wills that we be fully who God made us, whole and free and connected. God’s will never changes. And as far as we may wander away from God’s desires for us, God never gives up.
So since September we’ve watched God’s strategy unfold – first by breathing it all into life, and choosing one to bless the many, and when that fails, a family to care for the world, and when that is short-lived, then God delivers them from slavery and gives them a whole new way to live, making them into a nation that will bless the world, and when they start to forget and demand a king, God gives them one and works through the king, and when the king builds God a house God moves in, and when the king is evil and the people are basically enslaved again, God sends prophets, truth-tellers and corporate grievers, holders of hope and keepers of memory, and when the people continue to ignore the prophets and continue to forget who God is, and get invaded and attacked and the temple is torn down, God sends more prophets and promises, and when the whole nation is broken in two then dwindled to one and then that one is wiped out and the people are scattered and no hope remains for them and everything is over, God continues to draw them back to God, again and again and again and through any means.
God’s will, God’s plan, unfolds along with, and sometimes in spite of, our plans. “You can only see God’s will in hindsight” doesn’t mean you might see that you hit it or missed it. It means you could simultaneously look back and recognize where you went wrong and where you should’ve gone a different way, but at the same time see where God worked in and through what did happen, so that you wouldn’t be who or where you are now if it hadn’t gone exactly that way.
Is there room for regret? Sure. Tons. But there is no room to ever say you’ve left the will of God, because no matter where you go, what direction, God will be there, working in and through, and seeking forever and always to bring you to Godself, to God’s love. And God doesn’t give up.
I was once at a wedding where it was the groom’s second marriage and the bride was quite young and they were standing there kind of against the odds or expectations. And as the boat we sat on pulled away from the pier and the motor chugged to life beneath our feet, the pastor began talking to them about love. And while most other people couldn’t make out clearly what he said to the two of them over the sound of the engine, catching only the word “love” here and there, I was close enough to hear it.
He said that something timeless and redemptive happens in love – that in this moment, in the timeless power of God’s love, all other loves are redeemed. All other experiences of love become part of this very love before you – it is now as thought you were always meant to be, as though you have never not loved this other you now pledge your life to, and even in loving others you were loving this very one as well, already, preemptively.
And in love it is now as though I have never not known you – because now you are a part of me, timeless and true, and I can’t imagine I was a baby, a child, a teenager, somewhere other than, and apart from, you. It simply cannot be, for I am only me as I am now, with you. Through my relationship with you I find my self, and all that went before is part of how we see, and love, one another.
And if love works this way, then even the “mistakes” of our pasts become the material that makes us who we are, and there is no us without these experiences we bear inside ourselves, and the will of God weaves in and through and underneath it all, bringing us always to love.
And so, When God comes into this world, a brand new squalling infant in a smelly stable, a flesh and blood person like you and me, it is as though God has always been here in this way, with us, among us, as though it was never any different.
And from the very beginning then every uttered prophesy, every sung psalm of joy or cry of longing, every birth and battle and barren womb was waiting for, anticipating, foreshadowing the day when God would arrive.
And the angels in heaven knew it would be because it had been decided this way all along, even though the very moment before they couldn’t have conceived of it.
And for God it was as though this had been the point all along, this had been the intention, the will of God, and God would never NOT have come to share this life in the flesh with those God made in God’s own image.
Return to me, God says. But how shall we return? We ask.
You can’t, my love, my heart, joy of my being. You’ve made that abundantly clear. You are incapable of returning. Through kings and prophets, children and warriors, devastating loss and breathless success, by temple and triumph, wreckage and ruin, famine, flood, faith, wandering and wondering you’ve shown me – you cannot return.
You try, from time to time you do try, you long to, you have even taken a few steps forward but always you fall back, always you turn away. How shall you return? Oh, my love, you cannot.
But I can come to you.
So God does.
And when the world had all but forgotten, and the pleading of the prophets had given way to a long stretch of silence and it seemed things would remain this way always, love breaks in.
And now for all the prophets’ struggle and honesty and hope and grief they dispense on the people in their time, they also, unknowingly anticipate the arrival of God on the scene, Jesus, God-with-us. And when people look back they see it all over the prophets, who were saying what was to come. This timeless love of God breaks in and infuses all loves, redeeming the story –every part – as the will of God unfolds towards love and redemption, healing and wholeness for all creation. And the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.
And so tonight you and I, sitting here together in our pews of hindsight, on the threshold of Pentecost (we'll celebrate that next week!), and seeing the story from the end of the Easter season, we know too that love has broken in.
We look back as resurrection people, people who know that God brings life from death and hope from despair, people who can hold for all of those gone by, and for the weary world around us, the promises of the future, we are the prophetic people.
We’re the people who can grieve how far we have fallen away from the people God wants us to be- where the hungry and poor and outcast are seated at the table and all have a place in the love of God. And by grieving the brokenness in which we find ourselves, we hold open the space for the alternative: the kingdom of God’s love, here and now, one day, and forever.
How shall we return to you? we ask.
I will come to you, God answers.
And then God does.
The will of God is unflappable and unfolding; we can recognize it in hindsight and share in it now, and anticipate it to come. The grace of God’s judgment keeps cleansing, refining, burning away all that bogs down and clogs up and holds back love.
And the story, every story, your story, is all part of love’s story, every part of it, and every moment in love’s path is claimed, and will one day be redeemed in love.
This is the will of God.