There is much I want to say today to you before I embark on my sabbatical leave. The lesson from 2 Kings seems on first blush to be perfect. Elijah handing things over to Elisha as he’s whisked away in a chariot to heaven. But once you start laying it out, that would mean I’m getting whisked away by God—who, as singer-songwriter Marc Cohn suggests, would be using a silver Thunderbird instead of a fiery chariot, but I digress—and I’d be leaving Christine behind to pick up the ministry here. Except that knowing her as I do, I would be the one like Elisha asking for a double portion of Christine’s spirit. More so, as someone who has retired from full-time ministry, I suspect Christine will be honored to do this for a season, but then wanting to return to the things she loves that sustain her life. And there’s the simple fact that Elijah is gone forever while I’ll be returning to you in three months time. So that’s not it.
A sermon based on Galatians 5.
Of course, as I head out thinking about the concept of zimzum it is only appropriate that I look there. A reminder to you, zimzum is a concept from Jewish mysticism that states emphatically that there was only God at the very beginning. That nothing else existed, including empty space. It was God alone. So, if God was to create ex nihilo—out of nothing—then God needed to withdraw within God’s self in order to make the space for the nothingness. God needed to limit God’s expansiveness to form a type of womb within God’s very being to make space for the entirety of the cosmos to be created.
And I believe that as those who bear God’s image, we need to withdraw and make space in our own lives too. Space for God, for others, for the created world, and ourselves. But we live in a very anti-zimzum world. We’ve never met a space we didn’t want to fill up. We over-consume and over-schedule and over-work, and our health, relationships, and interior lives suffer because of it.
So I think the good news for us today can be found in Paul’s letter to the Galatians as we think about the kind of lives we yearn for. I want to turn to the Message Bible—a modern paraphrase by Eugene Peterson—to help these instructions become more alive. The lesson begins with these words, “Christ has set us free to live a free life.” A free life. A life unencumbered by so much stuff. By so many things to get done. By all that weighs us down.
But it’s not just freedom. St. Paul continues, “It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows. For everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself. That’s an act of true freedom.” Love for others, generosity, caring, that is what leads us to true freedom in this life as God designed it.
And that love for others comes by limiting ourselves. By embracing zimzum and not selfish desires seeking more. Paul writes, “My counsel is this: Live freely, animated and motivated by God’s Spirit. Then you won’t feed the compulsions of selfishness. For there is a root of sinful self-interest in us that is at odds with a free spirit, just as the free spirit is incompatible with selfishness. These two ways of life are contrary to each other, so that you cannot live at times one way and at times another way according to how you feel on any given day.”
Because that is the challenge, right? We long to live in the way of freedom that is found in loving our neighbors as God has called us to do, and yet there’s the root of self-interest, in getting what we can. We shop by looking for great deals without thinking about the inhumane treatment of workers on the other side of the globe who made that stuff. We desire that way of Jesus, but live in a society where self-interest is the foundational gospel truth.
And that’s when Paul zeroes in on where that sort of self-absorbed life leads us. “It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on.” When we put ourselves first, when we fill up our lives and our souls unnecessarily, when we do not make space, we end up losing ourselves. We become shadows of who God calls us to be.
But there’s hope. Paul doesn’t just describe the selfish way of life. He offers a picture of what happens when we embrace zimzum, withdrawing to make space for God and others. “But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely. … Since this is the kind of life we have chosen, the life of the Spirit, let us make sure that we do not just hold it as an idea in our heads or a sentiment in our hearts, but work out its implications in every detail of our lives. That means we will not compare ourselves with each other as if one of us were better and another worse. We have far more interesting things to do with our lives. Each of us is an original.”
Friends, each of us is uniquely created by the God who made space within God’s self so that we could be. God created room for you and me. And no one has ever lived on this planet who is just like us. Who sees the world the way we do. Who loves the things we cherish as we do. Who has the same gifts and talents we have, given to us so that we might help bring God’s kingdom of love to others.
And we can only get to that place by opening ourselves up. By making space. By embracing zimzum.
As I take time away from ministry this summer, I invite you to take time away as well. As my first boss wisely told me, always take at least two weeks of vacation time when you go away. The amount of work on your return will be about the same if you take one week or two, but the amount of refreshment for your soul will be exponentially greater if you’re gone that extra week. Make time for that renewal.
Make space for others. The beauty of the Christian understanding of God is that God is in community. God is three in one, surrounded and embraced in love. And we are called to be in self-giving relationships with others. God invites us to know each other deeply, to care for one another, and to find ways to bring joy and hope to 0ther people’s lives. We so desperately need that in our world that is fragmented and broken. We can be agents of love.
Finally, I want to invite you make space for God. The God who withdrew in order to form space for the entirety of the universe seeks to be in relationship with us. God made that space because God loves us. And the way that we can learn about the unique gifts given to us is to hear what God calls out in each of us. God’s self-giving love shown through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus was to bring us to that free life Paul describes. A life of hope. A life of resilience and joy. A life that cherishes an openness for God’s Spirit to guide us to a better way.
So be well, my dear friends. Embrace that way of life. Make space and time for those aspects of your life that are most important, the ones likely needing your attention. Pray for me as I pray for you. And know that you are loved deeply by the living God, who showed us the embodiment of that love in the way of Jesus.