Bring the Storm
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational UCC
1 April 2012
If you go northwest of Woodward, Oklahoma to Fort Supply you'll see an historical marker for the Cooper Site. Turn north at the next road and then drive a couple of miles. You'll be on a gravel road, driving through towering modern wind turbines. These wind farms, which now dot the prairies, possess a grandeur, as if they were the monumental remnants of an ancient civilization.
If one isn't too distracted by the blades turning slowly overhead, you'll see an inconspicuous piece of public land identified by the brown signs that dot public lands in Western Oklahoma. With the name Cooper listed on the sign, you'll know that you're getting closer.
There is a little turn out where you can park your car and then walk through an unlocked gate in the fence. The trail is little more than a cattle trail, but if you proceed along it over the rise, what will come into view is a small gully, framed on three sides by short hills. Your attention will be drawn to the bottom of the gully where there are the remains of an archaeological dig.
There are no ruins or artifacts there, but this inconspicuous site was the location of a very significant find.
To see that find, you'll have to go to Norman, Oklahoma, to the campus of the University of Oklahoma and into the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History. There you will see a bison skull that was discovered at the Cooper site. On the forehead of that bison skull is painted a bold, red lightning bolt. The skull is 10,000 years old and is the oldest painted artwork ever discovered in North America.
The gully of the Cooper Site was used by the Folsom people to trap bison. Numerous bison kills occurred there over many years. Here is what scholars surmise about the lightning bolt on the skull:
Someone, possibly a shaman or holy person, drew the lightning bolt—a symbol of power—onto the skull, and aimed it in the direction of the gully from which the bison would be driven. Most probably the painted skull was a talisman to lure bison and bring bounty to the people.
The indigenous people who hunted bison at the Cooper Site painted their talisman in order to bring bounty to them. They painted a lightning bolt, a symbol of power.
The Great Vision of the Lakota prophet Black Elk began with two men coming from the clouds carrying long spears from which lightning flashed. When, in the vision, Black Elk meets the Grandfathers who are the Powers of the World, they tell him that he will receive power from the thunder beings and that they shall take him to the center of the world where he will see, and the sun will shine, and he will understand. On this journey Black Elk proclaims:
I was the chief of all the heavens riding there, and when I looked behind me, all the twelve black horses reared and plunged and thundered and their manes and tails were whirling hail and their nostrils snorted lightning. And when I looked below again, I saw the slant hail falling and the long, sharp rain, and where we passed, the trees bowed low and all the hills were dim.
In the vision, Black Elk defeats drought and brings rain upon the earth. His red lightning stick becomes a tree of life in the center of the nation's hoop, bringing peace and abundance to the people. The people chant and shout with joy.
If you have lived upon the Great Plains, then you know that the great power is the storm. In thunder, lightning, wind, hail, blizzard, and tornado, this great power moves across our landscape, determining our well-being. The storm brings destruction and death, but it is also the power of renewal and new life, as we could not live and prosper here without the moisture of the storm. It is a transcendent, mysterious power that operates beyond our control.
And so it should not surprise us Nebraskans that the prophet Zechariah shared our awe and reverence for the storm. "The Lord will appear over them, and his arrow go forth like lightning: the Lord God will sound the trumpet and march forth in the whirlwinds of the south." Zechariah imagines God as a victorious warrior riding upon the clouds bringing justice that will lead to peace and renewal. The language isn't that different from the Great Vision of Black Elk.
Let me set the context briefly. The children of Israel have already endured their exile in Babylon. When the Persians defeated the Babylonians, the great Persian emperor Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to their homeland and to rebuild it. The great vision of Jeremiah, which we read last week, of a new covenant and a restored land, was coming true.
Zechariah proclaimed his visions and oracles during the time of restoration. Though the people were happy to be free and home again, life back in Judea and Jerusalem was not easy. The cities had to be rebuilt. The cultural, economic, and religious life of the people had to be re-created. Even the temple had to be rebuilt and the rituals restored. It was long, hard work, this renewal of the land. And throughout they encountered opposition. From the people who had moved there after the Jews were exiled. From the neighbors. From those threatened politically by the return of this people. The promise of God was not immediate, and it was much more difficult than the people expected.
In this context Zechariah proclaims that the covenant promises of God are still working themselves out. God will end the conflict and bring peace to the people. But there will first be a storm.
The people have prayed for rain, and the rain will come. It will renew the land and bring abundance. But these promises will be fulfilled only after God is victorious over the powers of destruction and despair.
The storm is a symbol of both God's power to bring justice and peace and God's faithfulness to the covenant promises of restoration and abundance.
Alongside this image of the storm, we also have the king, entering Jerusalem triumphantly, riding on a donkey. So, there is a fascinating combination of divine power and a human agent through which that divine power will operate. There is the sublime, mythical image of power in thunder, lightning, and rain. And then the very physical manifestation of justice and peace through human agency.
Writing about this image of the messianic king riding on the donkey, Walter Brueggemann says that it asserts "the materiality of [God's] intention. Yaheweh [the God of Israel] intends something for the earth." What God intends is the transformation and rehabilitation of the public community. The practice of human power is for communal restoration. The people are charged with bringing about justice and righteousness.
The two parties to this covenant – God and the people – will work together. The power and glory of God will be victorious in bringing about justice, peace, and bounty. But not working by themselves. God's power and glory are made available to us, empowering us for the work of restoring the community and the land.
And this is not easy work. It is actually really difficult work. In order to get to the bounty, we must first go through the storm. We must even be willing to bring the storm if there is to be renewal and justice. Like our ancestors on the plains, we must call forth this divine power.
When the Gospel writers tell the story of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, they use Zechariah's oracle in order to tell their story. Jesus is the messianic king, riding triumphantly into Jerusalem. But we would be amiss to not read the rest of Zechariah's oracle into the Gospel narrative. By entering into Jerusalem that week and confronting the Roman power system, Jesus is bringing the storm.
Jesus, you see, is filled with divine power and glory. Remember way back there at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, the heavens were ripped open and the spirit of God was set loose on the earth, doing something radically new. And God's Spirit came to rest upon Jesus, and he began to proclaim that the time is now, that the reign of God is at hand.
And then, throughout his ministry, he displayed great wonder in acts of healing. He empowered people, inviting them to restore the community and the land, to make real God's new creation of justice and peace. But before his work is complete, he will also defeat the powers of destruction and despair. To do that, he must go through the storm.
So, for us, that is one of the lessons of Holy Week. If we are to follow Jesus, then we too must be willing to bring the storm. We must be willing to confront the powers of destruction and despair in our time, so that God's reign of justice and peace might be more complete. Then, like those in Zechariah's time, we can enjoy the bounty. Then we can shine and flourish like jewels upon a crown. Then we can celebrate with beer and wine!
And hopefully Lent has made us ready. Hopefully we have tended the soil. We've done all the work that God has called us to. Weeding out our sin. Ridding ourselves of anxiety and fear. Cultivating our strengths. Developing new skills. Educating ourselves. Becoming courageous. Planting the seeds of new life. If we have done these things, it is like painting the red lightning bolt, calling for God's power and the bounty that awaits.
Now we rest in hope, and pray for rain.