In 1982, as a gift to myself after graduating from college – I had squeezed four years into five and felt I deserved something, I took a group bicycle tour around the Puget Sound. We started in Seattle, went up into British Columbia, came down into the Olympia National Forest and back to Seattle. It was one of the most incredible trips I’ve ever taken.
In preparation for the trip, I went to REI Co-op to get equipment. When I told the sales associate what I had planned, he said the first thing I would need is a good rain jacket. He was not the first person to remind me of Seattle’s claim as the rainiest place in America. And, while the cities claim has been debunked many times, for someone coming from the Los Angeles area (where it rains a couple of times a year), Seattle’s rain was more than my thin windbreaker could handle.
Before I had finished agreeing, he was walking me toward a rack of lightweight, waterproof jackets made out of a new material called Gore-Tex. They were expensive, and would have been even if I wasn’t just out of college and had worked in fast food to pay tuition and rent. He must have seen the sticker shock on my face, because he admitted they were pricey but assured me that it would be worth it. I had graduation gift money, so I decided to believe him and splurge. The jacket was worth every penny.
Gore-Tex is a fabric with remarkable qualities. It sheds water and keeps wearers of Gore-Tex clothing from getting soaked by rain, but it also permits water vapor and heat to be expelled through it and thus keeps wearers from getting soaked by sweat. It rained at some point most days of my two-week bike trip, but, as I recall, there was only one day that my clothing was damp and that was because that particular leg of the journey was rather strenuous.
The textile’s ability to keep liquid water out but let water vapor through has to do with its porous nature and the size of those pores. A technician at Gore’s lab explains it this way: “If a water vapor molecule is the size of a soccer ball, the pores are the size of a soccer stadium, and a raindrop is the size of the Earth.”
Modern as it sounds, Gore-Tex was introduced to the wider public 45 years ago and can’t really be called “new.” But it continues to be improved and garments made from it today do a better-than-ever job of protecting wearers from bad weather. And part of the reason for that is because Gore has a $5 million biophysics testing chamber at its Elkton, Maryland, research-and-development facility. The chamber can replicate 85 percent of the Earth’s weather – including a full solar cycle from sunrise to sunset – and can create humidity ranging from 5 percent to 98 percent. It can produce heavy rains and full blizzard conditions.
Inside the lab, both a mannequin named Walter and human subjects test technologically advanced prototypes of outdoor apparel. Walter can run in place and has sensors on his body to measure sweat rate, skin temperature and range of motion. He even has hoses coming out of his eye sockets. But human testers are needed as well. They wear heart-rate monitors and swallow pill-size thermometers to measure their core temperature, while running on inclined treadmills. Although Walter gives more reliable data than human subjects, the human testers are still needed to provide what mannequins cannot – feedback on how the apparel feels. If a garment functions well but feels like sandpaper, people aren’t going to wear it.
Clothing that protects us from storms and other less-than-ideal conditions is a reasonable metaphor for how to live in the presence of God, who is both essential and dangerous.
We probably don’t often think of God as dangerous. We’ve talked so much about the love of God for us that we forget that the Bible also talks about the justice and judgment of God, and not just in the Old Testament. It’s the New Testament book of Hebrews, for example, that tells us: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10:31). And it was Jesus Himself who told His disciples, “Don’t be bluffed into silence or insincerity by the threats of religious bullies. True, they can kill you, but then what can they do? There’s nothing they can do to your soul, your core being. Save your fear for God, who holds your entire life – body and soul – in his hands” (Luke 12:4-5, The Message).
Our text from Isaiah 61 includes the words of a prophet who exulted in God because the Lord had “clothed [him] with the garments of salvation [and] covered [him] with the robe of righteousness.” That sure sounds like protective clothing – Gore-Tex from God, if you will. And as we read the rest of the lectionary selection, which continues into the next chapter of Isaiah, we gather that the prophet meant his metaphor to be a collective one. God has provided the garments of salvation and robes of righteousness for the whole people of Judah. They had been gathered, following the end of the Babylonian exile, back into their homeland, where now, said God, “for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.”
But why did the people need to be protectively clothed? Because they understood the collapse of their nation and the long exile that followed as judgment from God for their sins. In fact, in the early chapters of Isaiah, the prophet spoke of that coming disaster and captivity and said people would “enter the caverns of the rocks and the clefts in the crags, from the terror of the Lord, and from the glory of his majesty, when he rises to terrify the earth” (Isaiah 2:21).
But by the time of today’s passage from Isaiah, that catastrophe was in the past, and if the people were to recover in any meaningful way, they needed to believe that when God looked at them now, He saw not their sins, but their righteousness. And, according to the prophet, to make sure that happened, God Himself, the divine clothier, gave them robes of righteousness. This was not to make the people fashion statements, but to make them able to survive the brutal “weather” conditions of God’s presence.
The idea of our needing protection from God, and God providing it, appears elsewhere in Scripture, too. After the incident where the people of Israel worshiped the golden calf and God punished them, Moses interceded for them with God. In that conversation, Moses said to God, “Show me your glory. …” God agreed to make his goodness pass before Moses, but He told Moses that He would not allow Moses to see His face, “for no one shall see me and live.” So God put Moses in a cleft of a rock and covered Moses with His hand (Exodus 33:18-23).
The notion that God is dangerous can also be seen in C.S. Lewis’ book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, where the children Susan and Lucy ask about Aslan the lion [who represents Jesus]: “Is he safe?” Beaver replies, “Who said anything about safe? ’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
Further on in the book, Lewis writes, “People who have not been in Narnia sometimes think that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time. If the children had ever thought so, they were cured of it now. For when they tried to look at Aslan’s face they just caught a glimpse of the golden mane and the great, royal, solemn, overwhelming eyes; and then they found they couldn’t look at him and went all trembly. …”
Consider also the experience of Viktor Frankl, a survivor of the Nazi death camps. If ever there was a dangerous environment, that was it. But Frankl writes about the things that the Nazis, with all their evil power, could not take away. He recalls men living in the camps with him, who, despite starving themselves, nonetheless walked through the huts comforting others, and giving away their last piece of bread. He saw that as evidence of one human freedom that no earthly power can take away: the freedom “to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” So even the worst that can happen in this world cannot take everything from us.
But God can take even that final freedom – and that makes Him dangerous. Perhaps that is why Frankl writes that for those like him who had not yet been killed when the Allies liberated the concentration camp inmates, there was “the wonderful feeling that, after all he has suffered, there is nothing he need fear any more – except his God” (emphasis added).
It’s not that God has an anger problem. Rather, as commentator Steven J. Cole, puts it, “His wrath is his settled opposition to all sin. His holiness requires that he must judge all sin.”
But that statement does not go far enough, for it overlooks the Gore-Tex of righteousness that our God offers us. The Bible indicates that God doesn’t force us to wear the garments of salvation and the robe of righteousness. But they are offered. God leaves it up to us whether to wear them – a freedom of choice, usually shorthanded as “freewill.” As Peter, in his second epistle, said, “The Lord is … patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). In other words, regardless of what we have done wrong, the only way we can cut ourselves off from God’s invitation is to not respond to it, to refuse the divine protective clothing.
Freewill means that since we have a real choice in the matter of our destiny, not to choose is to choose. This is a fact we would probably eliminate from our religion if we could. We don’t like being pushed into a corner where we have to say yes or no. Faith would be so much easier if it just spoke words of comfort or encouragement. Instead, it confronts us with having to choose – either to accept Christ or not.
You see, because the gospel has to do with real life, it asks us to eventually commit ourselves. God simply will not be satisfied with less. There is no middle ground. And so the choice is ours.