love conquers, fear abandons

Is it better to be loved or to be feared?  That’s a question addressed by Niccolo Machiavelli in his 16th century book, The Prince.  He deals with other issues, but that’s the one which is considered to be the most intriguing, the one which is the most discussed.  According to Machiavelli, if a political leader is able to be both loved and feared, that is best, but the two don’t easily go together, if at all.

1 1 jnThe problem with being loved is that people will eventually take advantage of you.  Perhaps Machiavelli is sadly accurate in his assessment of human nature when he says if a leader shows too much compassion, the people will want more and more.  They will begin to throw off restraint.  Thus, the need for a firm hand.  Being feared is safer.  If people know they better toe the line or else face, let’s say, unpleasant consequences, it’s an effective way to maintain order and to eliminate dissent.  It’s the rather cynical, “you’ve got to break some eggs to make an omelet” approach to life.

On the other hand, it’s important to not take it too far.  Excessive fear can turn into hatred, which can lead to open rebellion.  For one in authority, that spells danger.  Actually, that spells danger for those not in government.  It’s not good for those in business, in the school system, in the church!

Unfortunately, I think we know what rebellion in the church can look like!

Is it better to be loved or to be feared?  Some might say the opposite of love is hate.  We’re told love and hate cannot co-exist.  However, I might respond with the reality of a love-hate relationship.  Love and hate, as emotions, are powerful and passionate.  However, there is a thin line between them.

The epistle reading in 1 John suggests the opposite of love is fear.  “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love” (4:18).

2 1 jn[photo by Luis Machado on Unsplash]

Let me expand on my original question, “Is it better to be loved or to be feared?”  I would say those who want to be feared are filled with fear themselves.  They sense an insecurity within, an inner dread, perhaps a feeling of worthlessness, and they feel the solution is to command respect, twisted though it may be, which is produced—which is created—by the fear from others.  Is it out of line to suggest that all the weapons we invent, especially the really powerful ones, demonstrate not how strong we are, but how scared we are?

Let me quickly add I’m not saying everyone who is filled with fear demands to be feared.  That is not at all the case.  In one way or another, we all deal with fear.  At the same time, those who desire to be feared are at heart seeking love; they seek affirmation.  We have been created for love by the one who is love.  As we read in verse 16, “God is love.”

If God is love, then why are we so fearful?  Here’s an interesting example.  Whenever angels appear in the scriptures, they are not the cute, warm, and fuzzy creatures we like to imagine.  They are fierce, and yet they often say something along the lines of, “Fear not.”  In fact, that’s one of Jesus’ favorite lines.

“Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment” (v. 17).  Love has been perfected.  The Greek word (τελειοω, teleioō) has the meaning of “has been completed,” “has been accomplished.”

Fear has to do with punishment.  We might want to avoid punishment, or at least lessen it, if we throw ourselves on the mercy of the court.

3 1 jn

With that in mind, I have a little story from when I was a small boy, maybe four or five years old.  If I did something I knew I shouldn’t have done, on occasion I would rat myself out to my mother.  I would confess my crime.  I figured if I came forward before my misdeed had been discovered, I would gain leniency.  And it always worked!

There were times, though, when my transgression went undetected.  I got away with it, or so I thought.

One day when we were living in California, the door to our garage was locked.  I didn’t have the key, so I came up with the idea of getting a stick and pushing it into the lock.  I imagined the wood molding itself to the inside of the doorknob, thus becoming its own key.  When I turned the stick, it broke loose, leaving the lock filled with wood.

I don’t remember if it was my mom or dad who later wanted to get into the garage.  Lo and behold, something was blocking the key!  Upon interrogation, I decided to pin it on my sister.  Despite her protestations of innocence, she received an undeserved spanking.

I don’t recall if it was months or years later, I finally admitted she had not committed the crime.  By then, the statute of limitations had expired.  I was spared punishment.  (For many years after that, my mom would remind me of my false testimony.  Of course, my sister had known the truth all along.)

Fear has to do with punishment.  Dare we say we have a guilty conscience?  But if love is perfected, we have boldness on the day of judgment.

4 1 jn Rudolf Bultmann, one of the noted German theologians of the twentieth century, said of the human race, “the eschatological hour is first of all an hour of dismay.”[1]  The word “eschatological” refers to the end times, the end of the world as we know it.  When the bell tolls, so to speak, it is an hour of dismay.  It is a time of alarm.  The reason for that is because we know we haven’t been perfected; our love isn’t complete.  We have fallen short.  Love is perfected because of Christ.

Chapter 4 ends by telling us we can’t claim to love God if we don’t love our brothers and sisters—indeed, if we actually hate them.  By framing my sister, I was not showing hatred, but I certainly was not showing love either!

Fear is suspicious.  Fear keeps us from opening our hearts to each other.  Fear keeps us stuck in the way things are.  It robs us of creativity, to imagine other possibilities.

We can sense that in the ways John uses the word “world.”  In Greek, it is the word κοσμος (kosmos), where we get our word “cosmos.”  One way he uses “world” is by speaking of God’s good creation, our material planet and everything that praises the Lord.

However, “world” can have a sinister meaning.  It’s the world as under the sway of “the evil one” (5:19).  Michael Rhodes says, “John tells us all is not well in God’s good world…  The kosmos has become a battlefield, and all humanity is caught up in the conflict.”[2]  It’s the place where fear reigns over love.

I’m reminded of Al Pacino from the movie Scarface, when his character, Tony Montana is asked by his partner what he expects: “The world, chico, and everything in it.”  In designing a cheesy statue that fits a wannabe dictator’s dreams, he takes inspiration from a blimp he happens to see that says, “The world is yours.”[3]

5 1 jn

Do I need to say, he wasn’t a guy noted for spreading the love around?

Fortunately for us, God isn’t content with leaving the world as it is.  Rhodes tells us, “For John, the world is finally and fully the world that God so loved that he sent his only Son as a ‘Savior of the kosmos’ (4:14).  In Jesus, the Creator has returned to reclaim what is his—a rescue operation that has required him to ‘destroy the works of the devil.’”  He envisions an action movie!

“To be a disciple, then, is to find oneself transferred from the kosmos under the control of the devil and into the realm of the God who is Light.”[4]

If one is under control of the devil, it is difficult, to put it lightly, to be a disciple of the Lord.  Now it has become “a glorious possibility for us as those born again by the Spirit of God.”

He tells us something I think we’re all going to love.  As the church, “because every child of God began life in enmity to God under the influence of the demonic, such a community is also always intrinsically missional.  The doors of the church are always open to any and all of the devil’s children who are willing to come in and be reborn.”[5]

Again I ask, “Is it better to be loved or to be feared?”

The word “world” (kosmos) has another meaning, which is “system.”  As before, it can have a positive connotation, but John is here using it in a negative sense.  It is the system as trapping us, working against the Spirit of God.  It is the system as robbing us of our freedom, quenching the liberating Spirit.

Bultmann says this: “Again and again the world seems to conquer, and again and again the disciple wavers and seeks refuge in his native haunts, in the world, leaving Jesus alone…  In fact he is not abandoning [Jesus] to the world, but by imagining him to be so abandoned and by despairing of him he is rather abandoning himself.”[6]

Let’s ask ourselves: how often do we abandon ourselves?  How often are we conquered by the world?

6 1 jnStill, all is not lost, “for whatever is born of God conquers the world.  And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith” (v. 4).  On a side note, you already know the Greek word that “conquer” and “victory” come from: νικη (nikē), which we pronounce like the shoe, Nike.

The conquering—the overcoming—goes on, because “in [Jesus] the Father is at work, the Father with whom he is one, and therefore…in his apparent defeat he is in fact the conqueror.”[7]  One of my favorite scriptures in the entire Bible comes in the gospel of John, when Jesus is about to leave the upper room and go into the dark, to face betrayal and arrest.  He tells the disciples, “In the world you face persecution.  But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (16:33).  His defeat sure doesn’t look like victory.

7 1 jn

[photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash]

So we have the joyful question, “Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (v. 5).  Believing that Jesus is the Son of God means many things.  Jesus as Son of God brings freedom, not compulsion.  Jesus as Son of God means clarity, not confusion.  Jesus as Son of God is indeed courage facing persecution.  Jesus as Son of God is light in the dark.

 

[1] Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971), 592.

[2] Michael J. Rhodes, “(Becoming) Lovers in a Dangerous Time: Discipleship as Gift and Task in 1 John,” Word & World 41:1 (Winter 2021), 24.

[3] www.youtube.com/watch?v=WAlTJ8gPJ3M

[4] Rhodes, 25.

[5] Rhodes, 33.

[6] Bultmann, 592.

[7] Bultmann, 592.


mourning to morning

“Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”  “You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy” (vv. 5, 11).

These beautiful, elegant verses from Psalm 30 often adorn little knick-knacks and more serious pieces of art.  They are truly inspiring lines of poetry.

1 ps

"Angel of Grief" sculpted by William Wetmore Story (left), a happy woman (right)

“What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit?” (v. 9).  How about that one?  Is it poetry?  Sure it is, but how likely are we to see it on a coffee mug—or as a decoration on someone’s tee shirt?  Probably not so much!

What about the book of Lamentations?

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (vv. 22-23).  This is truly majestic stuff!  I imagine there are some people who don’t realize it comes from this book.  Of course, it’s the inspiration for one of the most beloved hymns of the church, “Great is Thy Faithfulness.”

There’s a worship chorus many of us have learned, those who are familiar with some of the music of the Maranatha Singers: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; / his mercies never come to an end. / They are new every morning, new every morning; / great is thy faithfulness, O Lord, / great is thy faithfulness.”

“How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!  How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations!” (v. 1).

That’s how Lamentations begins.  I wonder, what are the chances of those lines embellishing a plaque mounted on a wall in your house?  Compared with “great is thy faithfulness,” what are the odds of that appearing on the welcome mat at your front door?  Probably not so much!

As you can see, celebration and lament often go together.  We’re good with the celebration, but how about the lament?  About 40 percent of the psalms are psalms of lament.  Lament is shot through the books of Job and of course, Lamentations.  Psalm 22 appears on the lips of Jesus on the cross.  (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”)  Lament appears throughout the scriptures.

Given the weight the Bible puts on lament, it would seem our worship would include at least a tiny bit more of it.  Our hymns scarcely mention it.  Churches that do lament better are the traditionally black churches.  No doubt, they’ve experienced much more of it.

2 psHere’s a question I’ve asked myself: how can we include lament—how can we include it in song—without getting morbid?  Is there such a thing as a liturgical Debbie Downer?

Psalm 30 portrays the other side of the danger, of the misfortune.  It is used as one of the psalms in the Easter season.  It speaks of life from death.  Aside from the little goody we’ve already seen, “What profit is there in my death,” we have verse 3: “O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.”

Sheol is the land of the grave.  It is the underworld.  It is the land of the dead; it’s like Hades in Greek thought.  Not much happens in Sheol.  It’s a gloomy, gray place.  All the restaurants are closed.  All the musical instruments have been confiscated.  There’s nothing to read, nothing to watch, no fun whatsoever.  And as we see in verse 9, addressed to the Lord, “Will the dust praise you?  Will it tell of your faithfulness?”  The worship of God is absent.

Sheol is the land of the grave.  As such, it can include death in many forms: whatever is destructive, whatever is harmful, whatever is shameful.  As for the psalmist, what is presented is recovery from a serious illness.  Indeed, it’s an illness that first appeared to be terminal.

It has been a long night.

I’m sure we can relate to this in a literal way.  There are those nights that seem to never end.  Maybe we’ve even looked to the east, wondering when the sky would begin to show signs of light.  Perhaps we’ve been sick in body.  Perhaps we’ve been sick in heart.

Finally, here comes the dawn.  Maybe we’re still sick, but a sense of relief takes hold.  We’ve made it through the night!  Hallelujah.

“Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”  “You have turned my mourning into dancing.”

3 ps

It’s been a hard road, as verses 6 and 7 tell us.  “As for me,” according to our poet, “I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’  By your favor, O Lord, you had established me as a strong mountain; you hid your face; I was dismayed.”

I like the way the New Jerusalem Bible puts it.  “Carefree, I used to think, ‘Nothing can ever shake me!’  Your favour, Yahweh, set me on impregnable heights, but you turned away your face and I was terrified.”  In Biblical thought, when God’s face is turned away, favor, special privilege, is suspended—if not canceled altogether.  Who can say what that would mean for any single person?  For that matter, who can say what that would mean for any single group?

The other night, while we were talking about the virus, Banu wondered about the next thing we’re supposed to be afraid of!

We must admit that for many, favor and special privilege are too often absent.

In 1996, Pastor Soong-Chan Rah and his wife Sue started a church in inner-city Cambridge, Massachusetts.  It is the Central Square neighborhood, positioned between Harvard and MIT.  The students called it “Central Scare.”  That is, “the scary urban neighborhood into which you dare not venture.”[1]

After the church had been going for a little while, Rah was planning a sermon series, but he wondered, “What should I use?”  He considered the gospel of Mark, Paul’s letter to the Romans, or even Revelation, with God’s vision of the heavenly city.  Eventually, he decided to go with the book of Lamentations.  It’s safe to say the church growth gurus rarely suggest that one!

He felt the need to meet the people where they were.  Instead of glossing over their suffering, he wanted to address it.  He wanted to give them the language for it.  He didn’t want the “rah-rah,” exuberance to be the only word that was heard.

The status quo—the way things are now—isn’t necessarily a cause for celebration.  In many ways, the status quo is a cause for mourning, a cause for grief.

In his book, Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times, Rah comments, “Christian communities arising from celebration do not want their lives changed, because their lives are in a good place.  Tax rates should remain low.  Home prices and stocks should continue to rise unabated, while interest rates should remain low to borrow more money to feed a lifestyle to which they have become accustomed.”[2]

4 ps

The book of Lamentations pictures a city and temple that have been destroyed and a people who have been forcibly relocated by a mighty empire.  Jerusalem, who “was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal” (v. 1).  She’s had to exchange her fine garments for a burlap sack.

“Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations and finds no resting place” (v. 3).  They have no place to call their own.

There is something we already incorporate into our worship that has a resemblance to lament.  It’s when we join in our prayer of confession.  When we confess our sin, we admit the wrong in our action and in our inaction.  We do this at the corporate and at the personal levels, that is, as a body and as individuals.  One would presume—one would hope—that at least a smidgen of lamentation goes with it!

As for lament itself, it also is expressed for all of us and for each of us.  Are we to take responsibility, to follow up on lament?  Is it enough to simply “feel bad” when it’s within our power to act?  I would suggest that St. James’ maxim of “faith without works is dead” would apply (2:14-26).

How about when we have little or no control over the situation?

Rev. Rah describes the book of Lamentations in several ways, including that of a funeral dirge.  Already in chapter 1 we see references to widowhood (v. 1), young girls grieving (v. 4), priests and elders perishing (v. 19), and a note that “in the house it is like death” (v. 20).

“Lamentations 1 depicts the reality of death and suffering that leads to the appropriate response of lament.  The city of Jerusalem has died, and Lamentations 1 initiates a funeral dirge in response.”[3]  Jerusalem is a dead body.  It must be acknowledged and mourned.  It must be honored.  “The funeral dirge is a reality check for those who witness suffering and allows mourning that is essential for dealing with death.”[4]

When we mourn, we remember.  Christopher Wright says, “Part of the horror of human suffering is to be unheard, forgotten, and nameless.  Lamentations is a summons to remember.”[5]  It “forces us to listen to every mood that the deepest suffering causes, whether we approve or not.  We are called not to judge, but to witness.  Not to speak, but to listen.”[6]

When Job’s friends heard of his misfortune, they traveled great distances to be with him.  They were true friends, being with him in his pain.  They were witnesses.  Of course, when he began venting his “every mood that the deepest suffering causes,” they began to judge!

Earlier, I expressed the concern about being morbid, being a Debbie Downer.  With that in mind, can we see the power of lament?  Can we see how it helps us to be real?  Can we see how it enables us to honor and care for each other?  Can we see how, through a meandering, circuitous route, lament leads to joy?

Clearly, not everyone has experienced the same degree of sorrow; not everyone has had the same amount of misfortune.  However, I think there’s something we all have in common—something we’ve all gone through.  And that is, the pain of growing up.  The feelings of rejection, of awkwardness, of embarrassment—that’s all part of the package.

For those who are still kids, I can tell you, “Hang on; you will get through it.  It might not seem like it, but you will make it.”  Of course, even as adults we still deal with that stuff, but one hopes we become better able to handle it and learn the lessons it provides.

5 ps

[photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash]

The remembrance and witness that come with mourning and lament do indeed impart power.  They lead us in the path of Jesus, a man acquainted with sorrows.  He walks with us through those never-ending nights.  And finally, here comes the dawn.  Our mourning gives way to morning.

 

[1] Soong-Chan Rah, Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), Kindle edition, Introduction, section 1, paragraph 1.

[2] Rah, Introduction.1.13.

[3] Rah, Epilogue.2.1.

[4] Rah, 2.1.6.

[5] Christopher J. H. Wright, “Lamentations: A Book for Today,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 39:2 (Apr 2015), 59.

[6] Wright, 60.


embezzling the Spirit

The scripture reading in Acts 4 and 5 presents what many people have often described as an early look at Christian communism.  Before anyone gets too excited, understand I’m not talking about the tyrannical political system we became familiar with in the 20th century.  I know that “communism” is a word that raises a red flag.  (Yes, a “red” flag!)

1 acWe see language like “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions” and “everything they owned was held in common” (v. 32).  Chapter 2 has similar descriptions of the community.  “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (vv. 44-45).

That actually sounds communist.  That is, it sounds commune-ist, as in living in a commune.

We’re not talking about any element of force here.  There isn’t any government mandate; there isn’t anything done at the point of a sword.  Rather, “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul.”  This is a community bound by love.  It looks like it’s taking care of everyone.  “There was not a needy person among them” (v. 34).

I would like to make a couple of side comments on all of this.  I do have respect for folks who choose to live communally.  (Understand, that excludes cults and brainwashing and places where people are held against their will!)  Many communes demonstrate a life with a healthy perspective on putting people before property.

Having said that, I’m not sure the early church in Jerusalem really was a commune.

Questions of commune set aside, building community is not easy.  Sometimes people speak of it in romanticized terms, but community involves characters of all sorts: crabby and gabby, serious and delirious, careless and cautious.  It seems inevitable there will be those who give and give and give and apparently don’t get much in return.  And then there are those who live by the motto, “It is more blessed to receive than to give.”

As they say, it takes all kinds.

At the center of it all are the apostles.  They’ve been acting as a sort of clearinghouse for the dispersal of funds.  They didn’t get that job because of any economic training they received.  They didn’t take any extension courses.  Instead, “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all” (v. 33).

2 acThat word “power” in Greek is δυναμις (dunamis).  It’s where we get our word “dynamite.”  Does anyone remember the 70s TV show Good Times?  It included the Evans family elder son, J. J., who often proclaimed he was “Kid Dyn-O-Mite!”  I don’t suppose any of the apostles would claim that title for themselves!

They use that great power in giving testimony, in giving witness, to the resurrection of the Lord.  (“Resurrection” makes this a fitting theme for the Easter season.)  Something about resurrection is that it’s not a one-time thing.  Resurrection is ongoing.  These early disciples, the Jerusalem church, demonstrate resurrection power.  The Holy Spirit is moving among them.  As we see, “great grace” was upon the community.

As we might know about community, there are those who simply get it.  They know what goes into building it, and they’re willing to step up and take part.

Everyone is important in the eyes of the Lord, but there are those whose presence, and whose absence, is especially felt.

One such person in that early church is a Cypriot named Joseph.  We’re told he is a Levite, a member of the priestly tribe of Levi who traditionally would help with ceremonial duties.  He has made a really good impression, because he has been given the nickname, “Barnabas,” “son of encouragement.”  He’s the guy who will help you when you’re feeling down.  He’s the one who will reassure you.  “You can do it!”  He is the encourager.  (That sounds like the name of a superhero—the Encourager.  He’s the one who’s in your corner.)

3 ac

[photo by Hian Oliveira on Unsplash]

Barnabas plays no small role in the book of Acts.  If this were a movie, we could say his agent did a good job in getting him the part.

After his conversion on the road to Damascus, Saul (later known as Paul) goes to Jerusalem, but the disciples there don’t trust him (9:26-28).  They know about his past, how he persecuted the church.  But Barnabas steps forward and vouches for him.  “This guy is okay.  He’s the real deal.”

In chapter 11, news has come regarding the church in Antioch: the number of believers is said to be growing quickly.  They want someone to check it out.  Here’s how the scripture reads: “News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.  When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion; for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.  And a great many people were brought to the Lord” (vv. 22-24).  He also accompanies Paul on his first missionary trip.

I really like that.  Barnabas is known to be a good man, filled with the Spirit and faith.  He is a good man.  I don’t know what more can be said.  It’s hard to beat being called a good man.  True to his reputation, he sells a piece of land and brings the money to the apostles.  He wants to contribute to the cause and help those in need.  Thus endeth chapter four, and we move to chapter five.

4 acBut then…  You know Bonnie and Clyde?  Well, they ain’t got nuttin’ on Ananias and Sapphira!  Unfortunately, this part of the story does not end well.

We start off on a good note.  Just like Barnabas, they sell a piece of property and bring the profits to the apostles.  They’ve done their fair share in helping the community.  However, there is a problem.  The two decide to hold back some of the money, even though they said there would be more.  One of the meanings for the word translated “kept back” (νοσφιζω, nosphizō) is “embezzle.”

Peter knows something is up—maybe it was divine inspiration, or maybe he simply did the math.  He confronts Ananias, letting him know he could have given whatever amount he and his wife chose.  It was up to them.  He asks a rather blunt question: “why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land?” (v. 3).  He lets him have it.  “You haven’t lied to me.  You haven’t lied to us mere mortals.  No, my dear fellow, you’ve lied to God!”

What follows next has been the subject of controversy down through the centuries.  Ananias keels over and falls down dead.  Did Peter intend this?  Did he in some way cause it to happen?  If so, does the punishment really fit the crime?  It does seem to be a bit of an overreaction.  Peter’s ethics are called into question.

There have been numerous explanations about this.  Don’t worry, I won’t attempt to go into all of them.  Some say the pair have broken an oath to God and to their fellow believers, in that they agreed to pool their resources—without embezzlement!  Such oaths often included self-curses if they were broken.  “May God strike me down if…”

Others say Peter plays the role of prophet.  His words pierce Ananias into his very soul.  Others say when Ananias’ craftiness is exposed, he simply has heart failure!  So, there’s no great mystery.

Whatever the case, Peter seems to be a bit fuzzy on notifying the next of kin!  He arranges a hasty burial for Ananias without his wife’s knowledge.  (By the way, the name Sapphira is where we get our word “sapphire.”)  She shows up three hours later, and Peter gives her a chance to tell the truth.  A similar exchange happens, and she’s buried next to her husband.  On the bright side, at least Ananias and Sapphira are together forever!

Our passage ends, “And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things” (v. 11).  I would think so.

5 ac

My earlier comment on Bonnie and Clyde notwithstanding, we should be cautious on how we judge Ananias and Sapphira.  As the noted 20th century British theologian F. F. Bruce said, “be careful: the temptation to seek a higher reputation than is our due for generosity or some other virtue is not so uncommon that we can afford to adopt a self-righteous attitude towards poor Ananias [and Sapphira].  Let us rather take warning from [their] example.”[1]  Their story is a cautionary tale.

What can we learn from this?  Is it as simple as Barnabas choosing love and Ananias and Sapphira choosing fear?  Did they go with safety and security over the apparent uncertainty that comes with genuine openheartedness?  Did they put their trust in material possessions to provide security?

Can we imagine another culture teaching that—one with which we might be quite familiar?

I’ve heard it said one good way to defeat the power of money and possessions over us is to give them away.

Luke is the author of Acts.  In his gospel, he tells the story of the rich young ruler who asks Jesus about eternal life.  He says he has kept all the commandments.  Jesus responds, “There is still one thing lacking.  Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (18:22).  I don’t think Jesus was laying down a law for everyone and for all time.  He told him what he needed to hear.  Jesus recognized the grip the young man’s wealth had on him.

That can apply in a different way, and it regards our possessions after we have shuffled off this mortal coil.  Including the church in your will is a meaningful and needed way to benefit those who remain and those who come after.  It is yet another way of worshipping the Lord.  It is yet another way of giving to the community, indeed, the community united by the Holy Spirit.

6 ac

[photo by Alex Martinez on Unsplash]

Aside from matters of material possessions, we can see how Ananias and Sapphira chose to hold back.  Don’t we also do that, to one extent or another, in one way or another?  Are we not too often guilty of embezzling the Spirit?  And yet, thanks be to God, even when we hold back from the Lord, if we remain open to the Spirit, God is gracious.  There is always opportunity for service—and for the love that conquers fear.

 

[1] F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of the Acts (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 113-114.


bonding in water

Have I ever mentioned that I like Star Trek?  I begin with Star Trek because at times I’ve told people it has served to illustrate a theological point!  Let me explain what I mean by describing a certain episode.[1]

One of the characters in Star Trek: The Next Generation is Lieutenant Worf; he is a Klingon.  Klingons are a race, who in the original series in the ‘60s, were bitter enemies of humans.  However, by the time we get to this series, which aired in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the cold war was winding down.  And with art imitating reality, the Federation and the Klingon Empire had signed a peace treaty.

Anyway, Worf leads an away team to explore a planet.  One of the team members, an archaeologist, accidentally triggers a bomb from a war that ended centuries ago.  (It’s kind of like the way we use land mines.)  Sadly, the woman is killed, leaving a young son who already had lost his father.  The boy, Jeremy, is orphaned.

1 mkAs the mission leader, Worf feels responsible for the death of his mother.  Worf himself was orphaned at a young age.  He invites the boy to join him in a Klingon ceremony called the R’uustai, or in English, “the bonding.”  (It consists of lighting special candles and uttering certain Klingon words.)  In this way, their families will be joined, and each will become stronger.

Watching that show, I saw an example of ritual for the Klingons.  Ritual enables them to handle these difficult moments, these great transitions.  By inviting the young boy to join him in the R’uustai (as well as explaining its meaning), Worf helps Jeremy deal with his loss.  Jeremy is given a framework, a frame of reference.  It helps him begin the process of healing.

Ritual is important, not just for Klingons in a fictional universe, but also for humans in ours.  Weddings, funerals, graduations—these and many other occasions all involve ritual.  They involve us in words and deeds that carry meaning.  In these life transitions, we don’t have to start from scratch.  We have something to work with.

Today we celebrate a ritual, the sacrament of baptism.  It also involves a bonding, as well as a welcoming into a family.

Here’s something our Book of Order says about baptism (W-3.0402):

“The Reformed tradition understands Baptism to be a sign of God’s covenant…  Like circumcision, a sign of God’s gracious covenant with Israel, Baptism is a sign of God’s gracious covenant with the Church…  [Needless to say, circumcision only applies to males; baptism includes females!]  Baptism also represents God’s call to justice and righteousness, rolling down like a mighty stream, and the river of the water of life that flows from God’s throne.”

2 mk

The water in this font has a powerful lineage!

Speaking of power, our New Testament scripture is part of the reading for the Baptism of the Lord, which we celebrate in January (Mk 1:9-11).

John the Baptist has told the people who have come to him, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (vv. 7-8).

“In those days,” as we’re told, Jesus comes along and presents himself to John.  Mark’s version is brief; we don’t see John’s hesitation to baptize Jesus that we see in Matthew’s telling.  We do, however, see the heavens ripped open and the Spirit descending like a dove and landing on Jesus.  There is a celestial voice claiming him as “my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased” (v.11).

This is the anointing of Jesus; the Spirit is poured upon him.

At my own baptism, nothing quite so spectacular happened, that is, visibly or audibly.  (At least, no one told me they heard voices coming from above!)  I can say I felt as if a weight had been lifted.  For a good bit of time, my mother told me I should be baptized.  At first, I resisted.  But when I made that public statement of joining with the people of God, by bonding in that ritual of water, everything changed.  I was a new person; I had embarked on a new life.

Here’s some more from our Book of Order: “Baptism is the bond of unity in Jesus Christ…  Both believers and their children are included in God’s covenant love.  The baptism of believers witnesses to the truth that God’s gift of grace calls for our grateful response.  The baptism of our young children witnesses to the truth that God claims people in love even before they are able to respond in faith.  These two forms of witness are one and the same Sacrament.”

3 mk[Someone displaying the shirt he wore at his baptism.]

I was baptized as a believer, at age 21.  Our young candidate is being baptized as an infant.  We both receive the bond of unity, the bonding in water and Spirit, in Jesus Christ.  We both are welcomed into the family of God, as children of the covenant.

In a few moments when the water is sprinkled (or maybe poured!) on her, she won’t simply be a wet child—she will be the newest citizen in the kingdom of God.

 

[1] www.startrek.com/database_article/bonding-the


in the system, but not of the system

We tend to be more comfortable with priests than with prophets.

Some might quickly say that their church (or other religious tradition) has no priests.  Being a Presbyterian, I would be one of those folks to make that claim.  I’m not necessarily speaking of a man (or woman) who has been ordained to that office.  I’m thinking of a priestly function or priestly posture.  Likewise, I’m not necessarily thinking of a person identified as a prophet.  Again, it’s more of a prophetic function or posture.

Given the way I’m using the words right now, I can even imagine priests and prophets existing outside of any faith or spiritual context.

This is admittedly a crude oversimplification, but I’m thinking of a priest as one who serves the system—who keeps the system running.  I’m thinking of a prophet as one who questions or critiques the system.  The prophet doesn’t necessarily want to overthrow the system.  That approach might better fit the profile of revolutionary.  If you’re wondering what I mean by all of this, as I often say, hold that thought.  Stay tuned.

Before I go any further, I need to address an unfortunate way John’s use of the word “Jew” has too often been misunderstood.  The Greek word is ΄Ιουδαιος (’Ioudaios), which does mean “Jews,” but when it appears in the gospel of John, it’s mainly used for the enemies of Jesus.  The word can also mean “Judeans,” a word which has not led to the persecution of Jews through the centuries, especially by Christians.  It has led to a history of anti-Semitism.

A Judean was from Judea, just as a Samaritan was from Samaria.  If we feel like we can’t use the word “Judean,” we must recognize that “Jew” (as portraying an enemy of Jesus) only speaks of a tiny minority of Jews and/or Jewish leaders.  After all, it should be remembered that Jesus himself was a Jew.  Amazing!  Not only that, he was a faithful, observant Jew.

1 jn

The second half of John 2 describes what’s been called the cleansing of the temple.  Notice how it starts: “The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem” (v. 13).  Passover is one of the high holy days.  Jesus, as a faithful Jew, goes to celebrate.

Everything’s going fine; he’s with the crowds of worshippers who have come from parts near and far.  When Jesus enters the temple, his mood suddenly changes.  He sees the moneychangers at work.  They’re taking the peoples’ ordinary currency, with its images of Roman emperors and Greek gods (which would be idolatrous for purchasing animals for sacrifice) and exchanging it for Judean shekels.  And also, is it possible they’re ripping people off?  Of course, we also have to deal with the animals, producing their smells and solids.

Jesus goes ballistic.  He does his best impression of a bull in a china shop.  He takes off, flipping over tables, scattering coins, shouting at the merchants, and brandishing a whip.  Does he actually flog those fellows?  St. Augustine thought so.  He said Jesus “made a scourge of small cords, and with it lashed the unruly, who were making merchandise of God’s temple.”[1]  When the smoke clears, the place looks like the scene of an action movie.

On the matter of Jesus wielding that whip, some have said it justifies the use of violence, even to the point of punishing heretics and waging war.  “If Jesus was violent,” it’s been reasoned, “what’s to stop us?”

Others have a more nuanced perspective.  After all, it wouldn’t have been a surprise to Jesus that animals were being sold for sacrifice.  There was no need for Jesus to throw a “temple tantrum.”  James McGrath has noted, “The sale of animals was essential for the temple’s main function as a place for the offering of animal sacrifices…  Both the selling of animals for sacrifices and the payment of the temple tax were activities required by Jewish law and central to the temple’s functions.”[2]

Maybe Jesus doesn’t fly off the handle.  This all might have been premeditated.  Maybe it was to make a point.  That would seem to be more in fitting with Jesus’ character.  And about Jesus being violent, there’s a long tradition holding that he was being nonviolent.  No one could have weapons of any kind in the temple area.  The Romans had their own security measures.

As you walk in, they scan you with the metal detector and ask, “Do you have any items to declare?”

That whip Jesus had could only be made with material on hand—stuff like strips of animal bedding.  (A lethal weapon, it was not.)  Not only did Jesus refrain from beating the people, as Andy Alexis-Baker says, we don’t see “Jesus beating the animals; but instead he saves their lives from sacrificial slaughter in a monetary and religious system.  The fact that he deliberately refrains from overturning caged pigeons shows his carefulness with the animals.”[3]

He has no doubt watched too many of those Sarah McLachlan commercials with the sad doggies.

2 jn

Is Jesus protesting worship which consists of the sacrifice of animals?  In chapter 4, we see him speaking with the Samaritan woman at the well.

He says to her, “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.  But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.  God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (vv. 22-24).

To worship God means to worship in spirit and truth.  There isn’t much there about killing animals.  Maybe Jesus is trying to open our minds to a higher understanding, a more open awareness.  God doesn’t require us to slay our fellow creatures.

We hear Jesus saying, “Take these things out of here!  Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (v. 16).  Our Old Testament reading has the final words in the book of Zechariah.  It’s part of a longer section on the day of the Lord.  The Lord will return to bless Israel and to defeat their enemies.  On that day, ordinary objects in the temple will be considered sacred.  What’s more, “there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day” (14:21).

Perhaps we see a promise of the day when exchanging of goods will no longer be necessary?  The slaughter of animals will be a thing of the past?

Whatever the case, we’re dealing with something grander in scope.  Whatever the case, we’re dealing with a challenge to the system.  In return, Jesus is demanded to explain himself.  “What sign can you show us for doing this?” (v. 18).  The word “sign” (σημειον, semeion), apart from the ordinary understanding, can also be a miracle or wonder by which God authenticates someone.  It shows that God is behind this.

They want to know why he’s there, messing up the program.

The first half of chapter 2 is about the wedding in Cana, where Jesus turns the water into wine.  We’re told this is “the first of his signs” (v. 11).  His second sign doesn’t come until chapter 4, when he heals the son of a nobleman (vv. 46-54).  So in case you were wondering, Jesus doesn’t give these guys a sign.

Instead, as he so often does, he reframes the question.  “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (v. 19).  Aha!  One of his interrogators slips away to grab a security guard.  He points Jesus out, saying, “You better search this guy again.  He’s threatening to blow up the temple!”  Of course, they misunderstand him.  He’s referring to the temple that is his body.  This is John’s way of pointing to the resurrection.

3 jn["Rage, the Flower Thrower" by Banksy]

I hope we realize that we all are temples.  As temples of the Holy Spirit, we in a sense, house God.  That’s what temples have always been for—to in some way, house a deity.  In our case, true deity, true divinity, dwells within us.

The chapter ends by saying, “Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone” (vv. 24-25).  Jesus doesn’t put his faith in others, but he isn’t ridiculing his fellow humans.  It’s simply a recognition that, for all their efforts, they aren’t God.  People fail.  People fail us, and we fail them.  It’s just reality.  Jesus puts his faith in God.

On a side note, we so often disappoint each other because we want what only God can provide.  We subconsciously want each other to be God.  Our love falls short.

On the matter of love, I need to ask, “How does the cleansing of the temple demonstrate love?”  It might not seem like it all the time, but Jesus always acts with love.  He chooses to follow the path of love, not that of sin.

Jesus knows the opposition he would face in challenging the system.  He goes in with eyes open.  It’s not that he hates the system.  He wants it to operate in a loving and compassionate way.  He longs to show those in the system that it can be better—that they can be better.  Jesus wants them to risk being more.  He dares them to be more.  He dares them to be more human, which really is a high bar.

Here’s where we return to my opening statements about priests and prophets, or more precisely, their postures or functions.  The priestly function or spirit desires normalcy, a sane and orderly running of the system.  That in itself is a very good thing.  Systems are good.

Nothing could work—nothing could live—without say, the water system.  Take away H2O with its liquid, gas, and solid states, and see what happens.  We have the body’s digestive system, which is obviously necessary.  We have the political system, which is simply the way we structure our society.  It dates back to when protohumans lived in groups.

Too often, though, systems we create deviate from the beneficial, just, and even holy treatment we owe each other.  They become harmful and not helpful.

That’s when the prophetic spirit is required.  It challenges; it seeks to go deeper.  As I said earlier, the prophetic spirit doesn’t necessarily want to overthrow the system.  However, it does point to qualities that have long outlived their usefulness—that is, if they were ever useful for anything but cruelty and tyranny and ungodliness.

The true prophet is in the system, but not of the system.  What I mean by that is similar to what Richard Rohr says about being “on the edge of the inside.”  Prophets “cannot be fully insiders, but they cannot throw rocks from outside either…  Only with great respect for and understanding of the rules can a prophet know how to properly break those very same rules—for the sake of a greater purpose and value.”

Think of it.  Are you more likely to listen to someone who respects you and speaks your language (so to speak!), or to someone who disrespects you and thinks you’re an idiot?

Being in the system means having learned how it operates.  Being of the system means not being able to imagine anything outside of it.  It means not being able to visualize something new, something different.  Think of the times when Jesus apparently broke the Sabbath.  He healed people on the Sabbath.  He was working!  Yet, he was showing the deeper, more faithful meaning of Sabbath.

4 jn

May I suggest that many people who are accused of hating America really do not?  There are some, of course, who do hate America; I’m not talking about that.  I’m speaking of those who simply want America to be a kinder and more decent place, a more virtuous place.  There is indeed a prophetic spirit which calls us to be our best selves, to heed our better angels.

If we can see how the cleansing of the temple demonstrates love, we also should ask, “What does love require of us?”  It’s the question Jesus is fond of asking!  It’s the question Jesus is fond of asking me, and truth be told, it sometimes makes me uncomfortable.  Love exacts a high price.  Perhaps, in their heart of hearts, some of those in the temple that day behaved in such a defensive manner because they understood that.

What is it about our temples that need cleansing?

Are we carrying on with business as usual?  Are we welcoming the unexpected and unwanted visitor—maybe one who’s cracking the whip and upsetting our plans?  All of that is part of the work of God.  All of that is part of the sacrifice, not of animals slain, but of love spent.

May we welcome, may we receive, the Lord who resurrects the ruined temples of our lives.

 

[1] www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf107.iii.xi.html

[2] www.bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/main-articles/jesus-and-the-moneychangers

[3] Andy Alexis-Baker, “Violence, Nonviolence and the Temple Incident in John 2:13-15, Biblical Interpretation, 20:1, 2 (2012), 91.


to hell and back

The first church we served was in Nebraska.  We were in the Presbytery of Central Nebraska.  At one of the presbytery meetings, there was a lay pastor ready to be certified.  He was answering questions about his beliefs and his sense of calling, his faith journey.

One of the ministers asked him about his views on Jesus Christ’s descent into hell.  The fellow didn’t know what to say.  My guess would be that was the first time anyone had ever asked him about it.  I can understand that; no one has ever asked me about it!  As you might know, there’s a line in the Apostles’ Creed saying about Jesus, “he descended to the dead.”  That’s from the modern, ecumenical version.  The original, traditional reading says of Jesus, “he descended into hell.”

1 pe

I honestly don’t remember the pastor’s name, but he took the opportunity to speak of Jesus’ descending into hell as an image of his own life.  He spent about two minutes telling us of his trials and tribulations.  (If two minutes doesn’t seem like much, get a stopwatch and time it.)  I really didn’t know him very well, but from what I did know, I knew he wasn’t lying about his experiences.  Meanwhile the poor fellow, the prospective lay pastor, was still up there, waiting for him to finish!  (By the way, he was certified.)

It was one of the more interesting presbytery meetings I’ve been to.

The epistle reading in 1 Peter 3 has some verses that are often associated with the so-called “harrowing of hell,” that is, the plundering of hell.  The harrowing of hell is said to be what transpired on Holy Saturday, between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  Jesus visited hell and liberated the saints of old, and others.  There is no direct Biblical testimony to this, but it is based on a number of scriptures and the centuries-old witness of church tradition.  But let’s hold off on that visit for a few moments.

The lectionary reading actually begins with verse 18, even though the paragraph starts with verse 13.  Looking at it, I suppose I can see why that part was left out.  “Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?  But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed…  For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil” (vv. 13-14, 17).  “If suffering should be God’s will.”  Yikes!

Tucked away in the midst of that is this little gem: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (vv. 15-16).  Don’t get in people’s faces.  Don’t make them feel stupid.  Don’t be a jerk.  (That last sentence is from an alternate translation.)

Peter’s audience has had plenty of opportunities and/or demands to explain themselves.  They have had to deal with persecution.

Then there’s a transition to Christ, who “also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God” (v. 18).  He has set the example for them, and us, of underserved punishment and unjust treatment.

Then Peter’s thought takes a slight turn.  “He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah” (vv. 18-20).

Who are these “spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey”?  There’s a curious story in Genesis 6.  There is mention of “the sons of God [who] saw that [the women] were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose.  Then the Lord said, ‘My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.’  The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them.  These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown” (vv. 2-4).

2 pe

[One image of Nephilim]

No one really knows who these sons of God and Nephilim were.  Theories abound about fallen angels, giants, unrighteous men.  Whatever the case, they were consigned into the prison Jesus visited.  In response, Jesus found them worthy of hearing his message of good news.

But then there was Noah, of whom he and his family “were saved through water.”  Peter says, “this prefigured [baptism, which] now saves you” (vv. 20-21).  The water of the flood, through which Noah and his family passed, prefigures, or foreshadows baptism.

So there’s water, but what about fire?  We’re back to the harrowing of hell, the plundering of hell!

The New Testament has three different words translated as “hell.”  So pick your favorite.  The first one, “Hades” (άδης), like “Sheol” in the Old Testament, is the land of the dead, the grave.

The second word, “Gehenna” (γέεννα), is the one associated with fire.  It goes back to the valley of Hinnom, where some Israelites burned human sacrifices to pagan gods.

The third word, “Tartarus” (ταρταρόω), is used only once—in 2 Peter 2:4.  In Greek mythology, Tartarus was said to be as far below Hades as the earth is below heaven.  Friends, that is a long way!

The word “hell” in the Apostles’ Creed (κάτω katō) means “down” or “below” and can be translated as he descended to “lower ones” or “those below.”  So it’s not a place; it’s people.

Some speak of a struggle with Satan.  Many have been really creative in describing how Jesus kicks open the gates of hell and demands the release of the captives.  One of my teachers had a dim view of this whole scenario.  He didn’t put much stock in portraying Jesus in a boxing match with the devil!

3 pe

Banu said that, after my surgery seeing me unconscious in the intensive care unit, with all kinds of lines hooked into me and a ventilator tube going down my throat, she could better appreciate Jesus’ descent into hell.  He came down to where she was.

(Actually, on occasion, that might be a good story for hospital chaplains to use when consoling those in the waiting room.)

C. S. Lewis said of the harrowing of hell, “It was not once long ago that He did it. Time does not work that way once ye have left the Earth. All moments that have been or shall be were, or are, present in the moment of His descending.  There is no spirit in prison to Whom He did not preach.”

We’re told, “Whatever hells we may find ourselves in, whether in this life or another, Jesus is there waiting for us—and He has the power to pull us out.  Hell’s days are numbered.  Indeed, the only thing that keeps us there is our refusal to accept God’s love—and we may genuinely hope this love will [at last] prove irresistible.”[1]

How much during this particular Lent is this a meaningful word?

On Ash Wednesday, I spoke of the ashes put on our foreheads as a reminder of our mortality.  We are on this planet for a finite amount of time.  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  I suggested perhaps this time we might not need to be reminded “we are dust.”  We’ve witnessed plenty of dust this past year.

It’s possible we might be in our own Hades, indeed our own Hell, and yet, hope is here.  The word of good news, of gospel, is being delivered.

As we end the chapter, the good news of resurrection breaks forth from down below into glorious majesty.  Christ “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him” (v. 22).  We speak of the triumphal procession of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.  How can we not also speak of the triumphal procession of Christ freeing the captives and defeating the grave—literally plundering death of its ultimate power?  Who else has gone to hell and back?

Angels, authorities, and powers have been made subject to him.  This isn’t some abstract nicety.  I’m not sure how often we encounter actual angels, but authorities and powers are forces we run into every day.  We can think of visible authority, like government.  There is easily recognized power, like the power of knowledge.  (Teachers, would you agree with that?)

There are realities more elusive and unknown.  Many of them we choose.  With others, we allow ourselves to be chosen.  We obey the authorities of money, of fashion, of “what will the neighbors say?”  We choose the power of life and death in the multitude of ways they are expressed.

We build up, and we tear down.  We affirm, and we negate.  We help, and we hinder.  All of that stuff has been made subject, all has been made subordinate, to Christ.

So, what about this Lent?  Are we to give something up?  Should we give up that which keeps us from answering others with gentleness and reverence?  Should we give up that which keeps us from having a clear conscience?  Should we give up that which imprisons us?

Thanks be to God, we have one who goes before us, one who leads in procession for us, one who has gone to hell and back for us, Jesus Christ.

 

[1] godoftheodd.wordpress.com/2017/04/07/the-harrowing-of-hell-what-really-happens-between-good-friday-and-easter-sunday


hypocrites

“Are you kidding?  Why should I go to church?  They’re a bunch of hypocrites!”  Have you ever heard anything like this?  Have you ever said anything like this?

The gospel reading for Ash Wednesday features Jesus criticizing hypocrites.  “So there; I’m right!”

I have a little story regarding my first experience of Ash Wednesday.  I was a freshman at a Roman Catholic university in Texas.  Mind you, I wasn’t interested in the Catholics or church in general.  One day, I was eating lunch with a friend in the cafeteria.  I mentioned how there were some students walking around with a black mark on their foreheads.  I thought it was funny.

My friend said simply, “Well, it’s Ash Wednesday.”  I had absolutely no idea what that meant.  He had a quizzical look on his face.  I had a blank expression on mine—but at least I wasn’t a hypocrite!

1 ashI’m about to do something which is not exactly authoritative, and that is, to define a Biblical word in English.  Here’s what the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary says about “hypocrite”: number 1, “a person who puts on a false appearance of virtue or religion,” and number 2, “a person who acts in contradiction to his or her stated beliefs or feelings.”[1]

When Jesus disapproves of the hypocrites, is he thinking of our current-day idea of the word?  If Jesus is saying that we need to practice what we preach, then, as challenging as that may be at times, it still seems like something we can get a handle on.  And if we can’t, there’s usually somebody else who’s willing to point out where our words and deeds don’t match up!

I started thinking about the word “hypocrite” when I noticed the translation in the Anchor Bible.  In all three places where most English versions read “the hypocrites,” it reads “the overscrupulous.”[2]  That puts a different spin on the passage.  It sounds like what Jesus has in mind aren’t those who are frauds, but rather, those who want to “demonstrate their spiritual superiority.”[3]

Our word “hypocrite” comes from the Greek ύποκριτης (hupokritēs).  It originally meant “interpreter” or “one who explains.”  Later, it took on the meaning of “actor,” like one who performs in a play.

It’s this definition of “actor” that was the commonly understood meaning of the word for centuries.  So there wasn’t really a derogatory sense associated with being a hypocrite.  It wasn’t an insult.

It appears that it’s only well after the New Testament era that “hypocrite” takes on that negative meaning.  That is, of people pretending to be something other than what they are, of not practicing what they preach.[4]  So Jesus is saying, “whenever you give alms”… “whenever you pray”… “whenever you fast”… don’t be actors.  Don’t play a role.

After each time Jesus warns against behaving like the hypocrites, he adds this: “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward” (vv. 2, 5, 16).  They’ve received their reward.  What reward is that?

What reward do actors receive—or at least, hope to receive?  Actually, Jesus tells us: “so that they may be praised by others” (v. 2).  Actors, and performers in general, want to be applauded; they don’t want to be booed.  Anyone who’s been on stage, be it for a school play or doing the halftime show at the Super Bowl, can tell you that.

If that’s all you want your life to add up to—the acclaim given to actors, to hypocrites—that’s fine.  But Jesus suggests something much better.  “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal” (vv. 19-20).

A life that only has the symbolic fifteen minutes of fame, in the end, isn’t much of a life.  Jesus concludes, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (v. 21).  So where is our treasure?  Where is our heart?  And what does that mean for us tonight?

2 ash

That ashy cross on the forehead reminds us of our mortality.  We are on this planet for a finite amount of time.  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  We often act like it isn’t true; perhaps we usually act like it isn’t true.  We are “hypocritical” in the purest sense of the word.

Still, on this Ash Wednesday, perhaps we don’t need to be reminded “we are dust.”  We’ve witnessed plenty of dust this past year.  We don’t need to act.  Maybe in some bizarre, unwanted way, this is a gift; it is a grace.  How could that possibly be the case?

We are especially reminded that our prayer, just as with giving of alms (giving in support of others) and fasting, isn’t for show.  We are told, “go into your room and shut the door.”  That is where we get our inner strength, “in secret” (v. 6).  And thus empowered, we can display it openly.

And contrary to my earlier foolishness, that ashy cross isn’t an occasion for humor, but an occasion for joy.

 

[1] www.m-w.com/dictionary/hypocrite

[2] W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann, Matthew (Garden City, NY:  Doubleday, 1971), 73, 74, 78.

[3] Albright and Mann, cxxiii.

[4] Albright and Mann, cxvii.


idolatry and tyranny

Have you not known?

In the Presbyterian Church, our constitution has two parts.  Part one is the Book of Confessions, and part two is the Book of Order—the guidelines for how we live together as the church.  It strives to bring “order” to our lives.  Of course, both are subservient to the holy scriptures.

Our Book of Order has a statement which calls us to recognize “the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny” (F-2.05).  The book of Isaiah might go along with that.  The prophet speaks of idols created by workers, goldsmiths, and artisans (40:19-20).  It is the work of hands, no doubt pleasing to the eye, no doubt packed with the latest features.

Speaking of the latest features, I heard that the next generation of smartphones will allow you to smell the person you’re talking to.  So take a bath!  (And yes, I am suggesting that cell phones can become idols.)

Have you not heard?

1 is

With whom, with what, can we compare God?  We constantly fail to get the message.  Hear the words of the prophet:

“Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these?  He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing” (v. 26).

We’re constantly discovering new galaxies; we’re constantly theorizing about other dimensions.  We’re constantly discovering planets around faraway stars.  Some of those planets are gas giants; some of them are earthlike, even in the “Goldilocks” category—not too hot, not too cold.

I’ve always been a fan of exploring space.  (I like Neil deGrasse Tyson as much as the next person!)  We can see the revelation of God stretching back over 13 billion years.  The advancement of human knowledge is definitely worthy of celebration.  Even so, it’s also true that a healthy perspective means knowledge and humility go hand-in-hand.

So, what does this have to do with us right here and now?  How does the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny appear in us?  Hold that thought!

With chapter 40, we begin a new era in the book of Isaiah.  We move to the return of the Israelites from exile in Babylon.

I’ve heard it said that the exile cured the Israelites of idolatry.  I think that’s a hasty conclusion.  As you see in our text, they still need to be reminded that the old Babylonian gods are powerless and represent something that really doesn’t exist.  Verse 18 asks, “To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?”  But certainly, those gods aren’t the only form of idolatry!

On that matter, George Knight said, “[We have] first to make [our] gods, or create [our] concepts, before [we] can bow down to them and worship them.”[1]

We devise all manner of concepts.  Even our concept of God can become an idol.  There are other things we conceptualize, which also can become idolatrous.  Our beliefs regarding life together are certainly in that category.  For example, so many of the posts on Facebook and other social media make claims that are taken out of context, are half-true, or are simply false.  Of course, we see this all over the place.

Sometimes we need to step back, take a deep breath, and ask if it’s really necessary that we put this out into the universe.  Still, sometimes getting tied to our idols is just too much fun!

If you think I’m kidding about idols being fun, think again.  In her book, From Stone to Living Word, Debbie Blue says, “Idols aid us, console us, and give us direction…”[2]  And yet, “The Bible is relentlessly anti-idolatrous.  And I don’t think it’s all out of some sort of prudish, narrow-minded…pagan-hating disapproval of certain rituals.  I think it’s an astounding revelation that however much idolatry seems to secure life, it actually diminishes it.  It doesn’t make life, it takes it.  It may provide stability and orientation, but it is giving our lives to what is not alive.  Idolatry is death.”

I like the way verses 19 and 20 answer the question about to what we can compare God.  There’s a mocking reply about a gold-covered figure with silver chains or someone getting sturdy wood and having an image carved that won’t tip over.  By the way, the Hebrew word for the fellow who chooses that wood means “to be impoverished.”[3]

Knight says, “With biting sarcasm [the prophet] suggests that if a man is too poor to rise to a gold-plated image, then he can be happy making do with a piece of wood, provided only that it does not fall over.”[4]  Hey, it’s okay if you can’t afford the top of the line.  You don’t need the latest features.  You don’t need the cell phone that lets you smell people!

If you hadn’t noticed, verses 18 and 25 ask similar questions.  “To whom then will you liken God?”  And also, “To whom then will you compare me?”  They both are answered by verses 21 and 28.  “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?”

2 is

There seems to be a bit of theological amnesia going on.

How often does that describe us?  When things are running smoothly, when the car is running well, when we have plenty of Granny Smith apples (okay, that’s me), we can say, “God is good, God is good all the time.”  However, when things fail to run smoothly, when the car breaks down, when we only have onions (again, that’s me), we can find ourselves saying, “Where are you, God?  What is happening?”

We might be like the psalmist who proclaimed, “As for me, I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’  By your favor, O Lord, you had established me as a strong mountain; [but then] you hid your face; I was dismayed” (Ps 30:6-7).  We don’t know what happened for the psalmist to say God’s face was hidden, but I think we get the point.  We can forget the blessings of the past when the present seems grim, and when the future seems dark.  I don’t believe any of us are immune to that.

Indeed, there is a space for mourning.  There is a space for sadness.  The Bible is filled with notes of lamentation.  It is honest.

We hear verse 27: “Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God’?”  Is this a voice of faith or faithlessness?  Here’s a question: would it make sense for a truly faithless person to bother calling out to God in the first place?

Now, I’m sure you’re all wondering, “He’s covered idolatry.  What about tyranny?  How is that a human tendency?”  Good questions.

The prophet says God “brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing” (v. 23).  Another translation speaks of “princes” as “dictators.”[5]  We might not be dictators of a nation, but we can be dictators in other ways.  Has anyone ever had a boss who behaved like a dictator?  If you haven’t, consider that a blessing from God.

We can have our own inner tyrant.

3 is

Political affiliation can become idolatrous and tyrannous.  Wouldn’t it wonderful if we avoided the insults and the giving of childish nicknames?  We might expect behavior like that in middle school.  It’s quite another thing when full grown adults engage in that infantile behavior.

And it’s not just politics.  We really do it with religion.  Sometimes it gets really nasty, such as labeling others as “dog people” or “cat people.”

Labeling can actually be a form of judging.  We assign worth­­ to people.  We can sum up their whole lives.  As Jesus says, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.  For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Mt 7:1-2).  We get what we give.

Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  There’s something else about a tyrant.  A tyrant doesn’t want to be told.  Tyrants don’t want to hear.  Tyrants assume they already know.  Have you not known?  Have you not heard?

My inner tyrant would have me close my ears and tell me I know all I need to know.  My puny god idol raises its head.  Sometimes, though, that tyrant works in the opposite way.  Our inner tyrant can bully us and tell us there’s no point in hearing.  We don’t know anything; we are not capable of knowing anything.

But that’s where the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth, steps in.  The one who does not faint or grow weary; the one whose understanding is unsearchable arrives on the scene.  Trying the carry the world on your shoulders will wear you out.  (Do you believe me?)  However, the Lord empowers; the Lord strengthens.  “Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted” (v. 30).

Your days of forced labor are over, O you exiles returning home.  Be rid of the idolatry and tyranny that have been your taskmasters.  You need not enslave each other.  The good news is that Jesus casts out demons, be they literal demons or the demons of besetting sin­­—the demons of continual letdown.

4 is

Idolatry and tyranny can’t stand it when we wait for the Lord.  They demand to be heard.  When we ignore their voices—and they will be there to rant and rave—we open ourselves to the leading of the Spirit.  The promise of waiting for the Lord is that we will fly like an eagle.  We will run like a gazelle.  We will take the long walk and remain strong.

 

[1] George A. F. Knight, Deutero-Isaiah (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1965), 38.

[2] Debbie Blue, From Stone to Living Word (Grand Rapids:  Brazos Press, 2008), 21.

[3] סׇכַן, sakan

[4] Knight, 39.

[5] Knight, 39.


Jonah, where is the love?

I said a couple of weeks ago that sometimes events happen during the week that must be addressed on Sunday.  Sometimes it works in reverse.  On Wednesday, Inauguration Day took place in an atmosphere of a, let’s say, rather argumentative transfer of power.  And look at who’s featured in today’s Old Testament reading.  It’s none other than that argumentative prophet, Jonah.  I don’t think he set out to be a curmudgeon, but that’s how he wound up.

1 jonI will connect the dots between Inauguration Day and Jonah in a few moments.

Those who know nothing else about him remember that he’s the guy who got swallowed by a fish.  (Or was it a whale?  Whales aren’t fish!)

Of the few memories I have from my brief attendance at Sunday school when I was a kid, one is of the story of Jonah.  (I didn’t start going to church in earnest until I was in my twenties.)

Our teacher, a nice old lady named Mrs. Williams, was fond of using those images that cling to a felt backboard.  Seeing the figures of the prophet and the whale floating on that two-dimensional sea of felt inspired all kinds of questions within me.  How could Jonah possibly survive inside that creature?  He was there for three days and three nights!  How could he breathe?  Why didn’t the animal’s digestive juices go to work on him?

It really doesn’t work to just talk about chapter 3 without telling the rest of the story.  And what a story it is!

The book of Jonah has plenty of satire.  There are numerous places where the humor breaks through.  If you want a story filled with zany and sarcastic images, this is the one for you.  The first word of the book in Hebrew (וַיְהׅי, vayehi) means “and it happened.”  Once upon a time.

The Lord wants Jonah to go to Nineveh and warn the people to turn from their wicked ways.  Something to understand about Nineveh is that it is a bitter enemy of Israel.  It might be the least likely place Jonah would want to visit.  He buys his ticket, but it’s for a ship sailing in the opposite direction.  It’s headed for Tarshish.  It’s thought to have been a city in modern-day Spain, at the other end of the Mediterranean.

So basically, God tells him to go to one place, and he heads off for the other side of the world.

I don’t suppose anyone can relate to Jonah, that is, sensing God would have us do something—and our really not wanting to.  It’s “really not wanting to” to the point of running away as far as possible.

Very briefly, a storm breaks out, and the sailors are doing their best to handle it.  While the tempest is raging, Jonah is down below snoozing; he’s taking a nap.  They wake him up, and he winds up telling the crew to throw him into the sea, and the storm will cease.  Jonah is ready to die.  Anything is better than setting foot in that horrible city.  Even spending time in a fishy gullet beats it!

Jesus speaks of the sign of Jonah (Mt 12:38-41).  He sees himself in Jonah’s three-day tour of the deep.  The ancient Hebrews spoke of Leviathan, the great sea monster dwelling in the watery depths.  Jonah prays, “out of the belly of Sheol I cried” (2:2).  This is a picture of death.  When that critter upchucks the prophet—that must have been a serious case of indigestion—Jonah, figuratively, goes from death to life.  And just as Jonah emerges from the grave, so does Jesus.

I’ll jump ahead to chapter 4, which is after we find out his message has done its job.

This is not what Jonah wanted.  He was hoping they’d shake his hand, say “nice sermon,” and then go right back to their deliciously evil stuff.  Unlike Abraham, who didn’t want Sodom destroyed, Jonah’s already got a spot in mind with a good view of the city.  He’ll set up his lawn chair, kick back, and get ready to watch the fire fall!  Okay Lord, smite them, O mighty smiter!

Unfortunately for Jonah, God has the best interests of the city in mind, and Nineveh is spared.  This is where we’re treated to some of that argumentative character I mentioned at the beginning.  In verse 1, the Hebrew word for “displeased” appears twice, and the word for “angry” (חׇרׇה, charah) literally means “hot,” “to burn.”  One might say Jonah is blazing with fury.

Here’s where I connect some of the dots between Inauguration Day and Jonah.  He would rather die than have things work out for the Ninevites.  Does that sound familiar?  When we watch the news networks, when we peruse social media, it seems like it would kill some people to say something good about “the others.”  I would rather die than give them a thumbs-up!

2 jon

As for Nineveh, things work out so well that when the king hears Jonah’s message, he not only repents but he also issues a decree.  “No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything.  They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water.  Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God.  All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands” (3:7-8).

Even the animals have to repent!

Maybe it’s clear by now that Jonah is a bundle of contradictions.  He senses his God-given duty, but he fights like the devil against it.  He sets off on the longest journey he possibly can and finds himself back at square one.  The thing that he believed would destroy him becomes the vehicle of his deliverance.  The message of the grace and forgiveness of the Lord becomes in him an occasion for anger and bigotry.

Jonah almost literally has to be dragged kicking and screaming to do his job.  He’s successful in his God-given task, and you better believe, he’s mad as a wet hen about it!  And yet Jesus sees in Jonah a lesson for others.  That’s the power of grace in action.

Maybe we can see in Jonah the contradictions in all of us.  Indeed, even as the book is drawing to a close, Jonah still has his priorities messed up.  He’s upset because the plant that gave him shade from the hot sun has dried up, but he couldn’t care less what happens to the people in the city.

There is another connection between Inauguration Day and Jonah, and it’s a contrast, thanks to Amanda Gorman.  At 22, she is the youngest poet in US history to appear at an inaugural event.  Her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” begins with these words: “When day comes, we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade? / The loss we carry. A sea we must wade. / We braved the belly of the beast.” [1]  Maybe Jonah can relate to that.

3 jon

["There is always light, if only we're brave enough to see it. If only we're brave enough to be it."]

She also references words from the prophet Micah.  Speaking of the vision of the Lord’s embrace of all peoples, we hear, “they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken” (Mi 4:4).  Vines and fig trees are signs of prosperity.

What a contrast.  Micah speaks of hope and courage, and Jonah sits under a bush, stewing with anger!

Still, we hear the words of Jesus.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:43-44).  Inauguration Day was four days ago.  How are we doing with loving our enemies?  Must we regard each other as enemies?

(By the way, the last verse in that passage, verse 48, has created plenty of confusion.  “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  The word “perfect” doesn’t mean “flawless.”  Rather, it means “complete.”  Jesus is saying we are to be completed, we are to be perfected.  In the same way, the US Constitution’s “a more perfect union” doesn’t mean a flawless union.  If that’s the case, Lord help us!)

Now, back to love!  Danielle Kingstrom speaks about love, saying, “Love is…not an easy phenomenon to engage.  It comes out of nowhere and rams into you like a semi-truck on the freeway.  It smashes all your senses and discombobulates your reason.  Of course, people are afraid of it!  It’s an explosion of accident and attention all at once.  What the heck do we do with energy like that when it surges?”[2]

Here’s a lesson for Jonah, and here’s a lesson for us.  She adds, “Love doesn’t have to decide what to ‘do’ about certain groups of people until love is face to face with the person.”  We can be face to face with people in a way that exudes disgust and disdain and dread.  So Jonah, where is the love?  (The Black-Eyed Peas asked that same question.)

“Love is like a mirror…  It shows you where you need to grow…  The thistles and thorns will stick us—it’s challenging to see a reflection of ourselves that we hadn’t expected.  But love is unexpected like that.”  It’s so easy to simply dismiss someone as lacking comprehension or lacking character.

And here’s a crazy thought: even if we hang on to those attitudes, even if we still look on them as enemies—even if we’re still not yet ready to make that step toward freedom—we come right back around to Jesus.  Love ‘em anyway!  Let’s take the actions, and refrain from the actions, that make life harder for them.  We don’t have to wait until bad stuff happens to us.  We can help each other walk a silver, if not a golden, path on this planet.

It’s like the question God poses to Jonah at the very end of the book.  “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (4:11).  I like the way the natural order is included in God’s concern.

Jonah doesn’t answer the question.  At least, we’re not told the answer.  What is our answer?

As we enter a new political landscape (and they do come and go), let’s learn a lesson from Jonah—and from Jesus.  When we love our enemies, we must first deal with the enemy within.  (I need to learn this as much as anyone else.)  To the extent we have division and fear inside ourselves, we project division and fear outside into the world.

4 jon

We need to realize that we are worth loving.  We need to realize that we are loved.  We are loved by our Lord, but to really experience it at the flesh and blood level, we need love face to face.  There are those who never see that.

Let’s love our neighbor and love our enemy.  Who knows?  We might find they’re one and the same!

 

[1] www.cosmopolitan.com/politics/a35268337/amanda-gorman-the-hill-we-climb-poem-biden-inauguration/

[2] www.patheos.com/blogs/daniellekingstrom/2021/01/no-love-let-us-remember-that-we-know-love/


light, an epiphany

As we learn more about the frightening arsenal that was present at the Capitol building, in and around it, we realize what a “bullet” we dodged.  As horrendous as the loss of life was—and even one is a deplorable tragedy—it could have been much worse.  Many of the rioters were carrying firearms.  Someone even had several Molotov cocktails on hand!

The fact that the attack occurred on the day of the Epiphany of the Lord has not been lost on many.  Epiphany, meaning “manifestation” or “revelation,” is usually illustrated by the visit of the Magi to the Christ child.  It speaks of the light of Christ shown to the Gentiles, to all the nations.

1 blog

I have developed a new appreciation for Epiphany and the season of Epiphany.  I’m not speaking of magic, but the reality and power of that light, with the prayers of the people, had to have some salutary effect.

Is there a lesson to be learned?  Without a doubt, justice must be done, but if we stop there, we cheat ourselves.  Laying aside the violence at the Capitol (and the threats that continue), our country still suffers deep divisions.  Like it or not, we have to live with each other.

Does compassion have anything to say to us?  “Hold on now,” some might say, “how dare you suggest that?  These are enemies, despicable enemies.  And we know we’re right!”

Now look into a mirror.  What do you see?

Compassion is not weakness.  It is not surrender.  It does not ignore crimes.  It takes a great deal of strength.

(On a side note, here’s a question.  Does compassion correlate to anything physical?  Can it be measured?  There is an episode of Cosmos: Possible Worlds, “The Cosmic Connectome,” hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson that might touch on that.  At the 3:30 mark in the trailer there’s a hint of what the episode says about such things.)

One of my favorite poems on light was written by Brian Turner in his book, Here, Bullet.  He is a US veteran who served in Bosnia and Iraq.  Turner speaks of Ibn al-Haytham.  (His name was Latinized as Alhazen.)  One thousand years ago in present-day Iraq, he developed what would be called the scientific method.  His specialty?  The study of light.  The poem is titled “Alhazen of Basra.”

2 blog“If I could travel a thousand years back
to August 1004, to a small tent
where Alhazen has fallen asleep among books
about sunsets, shadows, and light itself,
I wouldnt ask whether light travels in a straight line,
or what governs the laws of refraction, or how
he discovered the bridgework of analytical geometry;
I would ask about the light within us,
what shines in the minds great repository
of dream, and whether hes studied the deep shadows
daylight brings, how light defines us.

We have much to learn from Epiphany light.