Da lifne me atta omdim – Know before whom you stand

Preacher: Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Rav Eliezer was a greatly respected rabbi who died towards the end of the first century of the Common Era. There were those who sought to be his students and who hung upon his every word. At last, when his life’s journey was drawing to its close, his students were anxious not to miss any last insights from the rabbi’s wisdom; and so, even as he lay on his death bed, they continued to pester him with requests. The Babylonian Talmud [folio 28B], records the last request that Rav Eliezer would answer:

Teach us the ways of life so that we may be worthy of the life to come.

The students asked. Rav Eliezer was dying and may just have wanted to have been left in peace, for his response started prosaically, lacking the inspiration that his students were doubtless seeking. Ben Birbaum has written that his answer started:

Care for the honour of your colleagues; teach your children to shun rote memorisation, and seat them on the knees of those who have studied with the sages …

There is a sense that such ordinary last words from such a wise and religious person may have disappointed his listeners. But then, with death looming and doubtless short of breath, Rav Eliezer had continued:

… and when you pray…  [da lifne me atta omdim]

Which in translation was:

… know before whom you stand.

In tonight’s Old Testament reading, we have that beautiful divine conversation between God and Isaiah:

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!”  [6:8]

There are two other similar conversations recorded in the Bible – Abraham [in Gen 22:11] and Moses [in Exodus 3:4] both respond ‘Here I am’ to God’s asking.

These responses by Abraham, Moses and Isaiah were all made answering God’s existential question – a question that God had first asked of Adam in the Garden of Eden: “Where are you?” [Gen 3:9]; a question which Adam could not, for shame, bring himself to answer.

While God’s question to Adam was prelude to a rupturing of the bond between God and humanity, the questions and their answers with Abraham, Moses and Isaiah were a mutual reaching out between God and humanity; an aspiration for reconciliation that would ultimately point to what Jesus, in Revelation 3:20, would say by way of a ‘here I am’-type message:

Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.

This time it was stated that if humanity would but ask of God “Where are you?” he would most certainly answer “Here I am” and a sacramental reconciliation would result.

Our two Bible readings tonight share some things in common. In each of them the key person has entered into the sanctuary of the Temple as they would do each day, but this time they came out changed people. But while they had each changed, the world around them had not. Beyond the walls of the Temple, in Isaiah’s time, the might of the late King Uzziah still held sway in the people’s consciousness; while in Zechariah’s time, it would be the might of King Herod that held a more compromised sway given the Roman occupation but which still represented the aspiration of the Jewish people for a return to earthly freedom.

In our Gospel reading tonight, we have the encounter within the Temple sanctuary between Zechariah, husband of Elizabeth, and the Angel Gabriel foretelling the forthcoming birth of their son, John. Zechariah is incredulous at Gabriel’s advice that his wife of advancing years will yet give birth. The price Zechariah pays is that he is struck mute until the day that the birth will take place. Those awaiting Zechariah’s coming out of the sanctuary in the Temple could not understand what Zechariah was trying to communicate. They could not comprehend.

Their failure to comprehend echoes the words God told Isaiah to say to the people in that Temple encounter centuries earlier:

Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand

God then provided what seemed like a contradictory explanation; he told Isaiah that he was to:

Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes

It leaves us asking the question: Why would God send a messenger to convey a message that the listeners are not going to be able to make sense of? Was God setting Isaiah up with a trick question designed to entrap his people rather than save them?

The answer came in the next lines:

… so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds.

The challenge God gave to listeners of his message was they should ‘not look with their eyes (or) listen with their ears (or) comprehend with their minds’. God specifically said to Isaiah to disarm all these abilities in his listeners – ‘make the mind dull, stop their ears, shut their eyes’ God said. What God was wanting was for his people not to comprehend with mere human abilities but to know before whom they stood – the very God of very God who was and is so much more than mere human eyes can see, ears hear or minds comprehend.

God’s message was that there could be no real salvation through earthly realms. Uzziah died at the height of his power; his 42 year reign had extended the power of Judah and brought peace and prosperity to her people. In the wake of his death the people might have said ‘the King is dead, long live the king’ in confidence that the good times would continue. But a century and a half after Uzziah’s death, the exile to Babylon would begin. All that had been attained in Uzziah’s time would be as nought. Uzziah was also known by the names Azariah and Ozias. Seeing the second name and reading about what happened to his kingdom, I was reminded of a verse from Shelley’s poem Ozymandias:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

It was a prophecy such as this that God told Isaiah to tell a people who would not believe such things could ever happen.

The Indian theologian, Valson Thampu, who wrote “Be Thou my Vision: Spiritual Resources for the Healing Ministry”, a book we studied here at the Cathedral just over three years ago, commented on the incapacity of the world to save itself:

The glaring irony in the domain of culture is that no culture in history has ever produced the means of its own renewal or salvation. Or else, more than twenty major cultures would not have risen and fallen one after the other. The resources for the renewal of culture have to be derived from a source higher than that culture. [p166]

This is a disconcerting reality; at each stage of history, its contemporaries have believed in the capacity of their own cultures to continue through time – and yet the record to date is of an historic litany of cultures that ultimately failed to survive. The weight of historical evidence therefore is against any of the world’s cultures existing today surviving either; and yet, despite the predictions of history, contemporary populations will not accept the demise of their cultures as being inevitable. And the reason that they will repeat the mistaken apprehension of former cultures will be their belief that somehow their own culture is different from all that have gone before. They will be deaf to the voice of history and messages to the contrary will be mute to their ears; therefore they will refuse the message that only divine salvation delivers.

So too, in both our Gospel reading and that from Isaiah, we see a deafness to God and a muteness on behalf of those who have received the vision to be able to speak into that deafness.

In our reading from Isaiah tonight, we can imagine that Isaiah, now finding himself in a sacred place with God, heard a call to follow that must have been difficult. Isaiah might have been hoping to be sent as a messenger of good news; hence his eagerness – ‘Hear I am, Lord, send me’. Instead God told him that there would be severe tribulation long before there would be any salvation. Perhaps by now regretting his eagerness to serve, Isaiah then tentatively asked how long would it be before the people would ‘turn and be healed’. Forebodingly God answers:

Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; until the Lord sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.

Bleak words indeed; yet each of our readings has a key phrase of hope. From Isaiah:

The holy seed is its stump

And from Luke:

Until the day these things (that is the good news) occur(s)

Society may be reduced through tribulation, but the holy seed of God will grow from its stump; and, despite the enforced muteness forced on Zechariah, the good news would come when his son, John, would proclaim to the people:

I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. [Luke 3:16]

The one about whom John spoke was none other than the:

… shoot (that) shall come out from the stump of Jesse, (the) branch (that) shall grow out of his roots. [Isaiah 11:1]

We can take great comfort that God chose to ask Abraham, Moses and Isaiah where they were in terms of God’s purposes and each answered ‘Here I am’. However, how do we answer the same question? Many synagogues around the world today have Rav Eliezer’s answer written above the lintel of the entrance – da lifne me atta omdim – know before whom you stand; with the purpose that those who enter the synagogue to worship will be in a proper relationship with God. In our hearts, as we came into this Cathedral this evening, did this same thought exist in our own consciousness about our relationship with God?

To be ‘here’ in the presence of God is no mere ticking of an attendance register – ‘yup, I’m here God, and by the way, I haven’t forgotten my list of requests I want you to take care of.’

To be ‘here’ in the presence of God demands that we understand the import of knowing before whom we stand, before whom we say we are here.

In his book “Being Disciples: Essentials of Christian Life”, Rowan Williams helps us reflect on what knowing before whom we stand means by exploring Jesus’ call for us all to be disciples as per Matthew 28:19 – “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations”. Williams writes:

The disciple is not there to jot down ideas and then go away and think about them. The disciple is where he or she is in order to be changed; so that the way in which he or she sees and experiences the whole world changes. [p3]

And because of this, the ‘here I am’ is not merely a static location of place, it becomes a dynamic statement of an intention of followship; again quoting Williams:

Awareness, expectancy, discipleship as a state of being – all of this is bound up with the idea of the disciple as someone who follows … it assumes that we are willing to travel to where the Master is, to follow where the Master goes. And, of course, in the Gospels, where the Master goes is frequently not where we would have thought of going, or would have wanted to go. [p9]

Coming into God’s sanctuary, standing before God we say that we come to worship. The word ‘worship’ comes from an Old English word ‘worðscip’ which meant ‘to be worthy or acceptable’. At the start of my sermon tonight I quoted those words from Psalm 19:4 – ‘May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord.’ In this season of Advent, as we celebrate the ‘Here I am’-ness of Emmanuel – God with us – as we figuratively stand at the entrance to the Manger do we ‘da lifne me atta omed’? Do we know before whom we stand? And do we take that awesome awareness of being in the presence of God, in the consciousness of His ever-present Holy Spirit, to inspire us to be disciples who follow not just here but when we leave this place?