Previous month:
September 2021

November 2021

confident despair

Right after mini-sabbatical, I am not going to begin with the calming waters of the Gulf and the sunshine, but rather, with a visit to King Jehoshaphat of Judah.  How about that?  Does that have you jumping with joy?  In 2 Chronicles 18, he was Jumping Jehoshaphat, as in jumping into Ahab’s ill-fated war.  In chapter 20, war is being forced upon him and his kingdom.  Moabites, Ammonites, and “some of the Meunites” are on the way.

Understanding that a multitude is approaching, one with bad intent, Jehoshaphat is rightly concerned.  No, he is rightly terrified.  He summons leaders from throughout the land and he lays it all out before them.

They look around.  They are few, but their enemies are many.  They don’t have the strength to stand against them.  What are they to do?

The king sees but one option.  Military might won’t save them.  The power of horse and sword will not avail.  Jehoshaphat calls the people to prayer.  As we’re told, “he set himself to seek the Lord, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah” (v. 3).

1 chWhat would happen if our political and military leaders resorted to spiritual methods of resolving differences?  What would nonbelievers say?  I suppose most would be grateful that a nonviolent way was followed.  Some might go along with “spiritual but not religious.”  What would certain fundamentalists say?  There might be those who would protest if their particular faith of whatever stripe weren’t named and promoted.

Still, many would say, “You’re dreaming.  How do you know the powers-that-be would agree if a spiritual or some other kind of conflict resolution were pursued?  And besides, we wouldn’t have a chance to try out our nifty new weapons.”

Fortunately, Jehoshaphat realizes something when he asks, “O Lord, God of our ancestors, are you not God in heaven?  Do you not rule over all the kingdoms of the nations?  In your hand are power and might, so that no one is able to withstand you” (v. 6).  We can’t even infect you with the latest virus!

He acknowledges how God has protected them in the past.  A sanctuary was built to honor the Lord.

He continues his prayer, “If disaster comes upon us, the sword, judgment, or pestilence, or famine, we will stand before this house, and before you, for your name is in this house, and cry to you in our distress, and you will hear and save” (v. 9).

In time, their admiration of the temple turned into idolatry.  It was believed that no harm could come to them, because it was the place where sacrifice was made to the Lord.  It was the dwelling place of their God.  The prophet Jeremiah tried to warn them when the Babylonians became a threat, but to say his message fell on deaf ears would be putting it mildly.

Still, that’s over two centuries in the future.

He ends his prayer by admitting their futility, “we are powerless against this great multitude that is coming against us.  We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you” (v. 12).

2 ch

We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.

In his book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Eric Metaxas tells us, “In May 1932, a few months before Hitler came to power,” Bonhoeffer preached a sermon using that verse as his scripture reading.[1]  “This text was on his mind a long time before and a long time since.”

Bonhoeffer came from a family that was well-to-do, one that was cultured.  His family held to the best of German tradition.  However, the emergence of the Nazis was seen by them as a disaster and as a disgrace for the nation.  They viewed the whole thing with disgust.

As time went by, and as the atrocities of Hitler became more blatant, Bonhoeffer began to wonder, if no other course were possible to remove this madman (all other avenues having failed), would violence be acceptable?  With much struggle and with much soul searching, he believed he received his answer from the Lord.  When confronting this level of evil, violent resistance was acceptable.  It might even be necessary.

We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.

So back to Jehoshaphat.  What happens next?  How is his prayer answered?  A fellow named Jahaziel steps forward with a word from God.  He relays this message: the Lord says not to be afraid of this great horde.  “The battle is not yours but God’s” (v. 15).  With that, they are all led in blessing and celebration.

The next morning, King Jehoshaphat appoints singers to march before the army and sing praises.  We have a military formation with worship leaders serving as the vanguard, leading the troops.  Singers and musicians going into battle isn’t strange, in and of itself.  Throughout the centuries, music has been used to stir up a fighting spirit.  In this case, it is the worship of the Lord, not an anthem to king and country.  (Or queen and country.)

Apparently, the strategy works.  They have employed some divinely inspired tactics!  We know that because their enemies all turn on each other.  This is the very definition of “friendly fire.”  And they give a brilliant performance of firing friendly, because not a single one of them survives!

When the people come to survey the situation, they see all the dead soldiers, but they also see plunder aplenty.  Livestock abounds, with items of all sorts, clothing of all array, and they come upon some really pricey stuff.  It is truly an embarrassment of riches.  Think of it as the world’s largest estate sale.  They’re hauling it off for the next three days.

After all that, they got together, and they “had church.”  They got to blessing the Lord so much that they changed the name of the place.  They called it the Valley of Beracah, that is, the Valley of Blessing!  They were talking about that worship service for a long time.

3 ch

It appears word got out about the fate of those Moabites, Ammonites, and Meunites, because we’re told, “The fear of God came on all the kingdoms of the countries when they heard that the Lord had fought against the enemies of Israel.  And the realm of Jehoshaphat was quiet, for his God gave him rest all around” (vv. 29-30).

It seems that everyone got the memo: lay off Judah for a while, that is, unless you want to find yourself going after your neighbors—and your neighbors coming for you!

The Scottish minister Alexander MacLaren was born in 1826.  (Remember that date.  You’ll understand why shortly.)  He commented on Jehoshaphat’s prayer, saying it demonstrated “the confidence of despair” of he and his people.[2]  The confidence of despair—what a delightfully counter-intuitive insight!

They all know they are up against it, but “the very depth of despair sets them to climb to the height of trust.”  We know not what to do, but our eyes are upon you.  “Blessed is the desperation which catches at God’s hand; firm is the trust which leaps from despair!”

That blessed desperation formed much of church history in this part of the country.  In the early and mid-1800s, central and western New York experienced numerous revivals of faith.  The evangelist Charles Finney is credited with giving the region the name, “The Burned Over District.”  That is, burned over with the fire of the Spirit.

In 1826, Finney came to Auburn, New York.  This place was in the midst of a powerful revival.  He visited First Presbyterian Church, whose pastor was Rev. Dirck Lansing.  Finney tells this story:[3]

“Rev. Mr. Lansing had a large congregation, and a very intelligent one.  The revival soon took effect among the people and became powerful.  It was at that time that Dr. Steel of Auburn, who still resides there, was so greatly blessed in his soul as to become quite another man.  Dr. Steel was an elder in the Presbyterian church when I arrived there.  He was a very timid and doubting kind of Christian and had but little Christian efficiency because he had but very little faith.”  No doubt many of us can often identify with that, to one extent or another.

Finney continues, “He soon, however, became deeply convicted of sin, and descended into the depths of humiliation and distress, almost to despair.  He continued in this state for weeks, until one night in a prayer meeting he was quite overcome with feelings, and sunk down helpless on the floor.  Then God opened his eyes to the reality of his salvation in Christ…”

A few weeks later, Brother Steel came to Finney and spoke with enthusiastic emphasis, “‘Brother Finney, they have buried the Savior, but Christ is risen.’  He received such a wonderful baptism of the Holy Ghost, that he has been the rejoicing and the wonder of God’s people who have known him ever since.”

4 ch

There’s some of that confidence of despair!

We might be reminded of what John the Baptist said to the crowds who sought him out.  They asked, “What then should we do?”

There was a movie in 1982, The Year of Living Dangerously, with Mel Gibson, Sigourney Weaver, and Linda Hunt.  Hunt won the Academy Award for her portrayal of Billy Kwan.  She was the first person to win an Oscar for playing a character of the opposite sex.

“The year of living dangerously” refers to the Indonesia of 1965.  President Sukarno is threatened by General Suharto during an attempted coup.  Mass killings are launched.  During the mayhem, Billy asks the question, “What then must we do?  We must give with love to whoever God has placed in our path.”

Adding a bit of levity, a saying might come to mind, a saying which goes back centuries, “Bloom where you are planted.”  It has been made popular today by the noted philosopher Mary Engelbreit.

Here’s one more note from our friend Rev. MacLaren, who speaks in poetic fashion.  “When the valley is filled with mist and swathed in evening gloom, it is the time to lift our gaze to the peaks that glow in perpetual sunshine.  Wise and happy shall we be if the sense of helplessness begets in us the energy of a desperate faith.”

Have any of us ever experienced that strange reality of confident despair?  I’m not talking about despair the way we usually think of it.  I’m not suggesting a situation when life seems to have lost all meaning.  I’m not referring to when we feel all hope is gone.  Our hope is found in the unshaking power and love of Jesus Christ.

I’m speaking of the confident despair Brother Steel passed through to find salvation and life in the Lord.  He displayed his own desperate faith.  I’m speaking of the confident despair of Billy Kwan during the mayhem and murder of his beloved Indonesia.

5 ch

[Linda Hunt as Billy Kwan in "The Year of Living Dangerously" (1982)]

MacLaren adds, “We are most likely to conquer if we lift up the voice of thanks for victory in advance, and go into the battle expecting to triumph, because we trust in God.”

When Jahaziel brought the word of God to Jehoshaphat, he had a decision.  He could have simply plunged his army into a useless battle and suffered a devastating defeat.  He could have surrendered.  Or he could do as he did—trust that the Lord was with them.  Trust that this was his answer to prayer.  Trust and see what the Lord will do.

The same is true with us.  Do we plunge headlong, come hell or high water?  Do we simply surrender?  Or do we give thanks, relying on the grace of God to see us through?  Are we willing to look despair in the face and say, “You will not defeat me”?

We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.

 

[1] Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 538.

[2] biblehub.com/commentaries/2_chronicles/20-12.htm

[3] www.gospeltruth.net/memoirsrestored/memrest15.htm


you are very much deceived

Throughout most of human history, the ties that bind in matrimony have been due to arranged marriages.  Many cultures today still embrace the practice.  Banu and I knew students at our seminary who had, or would have in the future, an arranged marriage.  Usually, it is the parents who do the arranging.  Cultural expectations frequently, if not always, play a large role in the matter.

I won’t go through all the pros and cons involved.  On the positive side, arranged marriages eliminate the stress of finding a life partner.  There’s no agonizing over, “Is this really the one?”  When it works well, it encourages harmony within the families and within the society.

Of course, there is the negative side.  Again, I won’t go into all the ins and outs, but one big thing is omitted.  There is something to be said for dating!  There is something to be said for getting to know the person and just having fun—maybe finding out how compatible you are.  And that’s not to mention those who never even planned on getting married!

1 dt

Still, I don’t need to tell you that marriages solely based on romantic feelings are not without problems.

Our Old Testament reading in Deuteronomy describes one version of an arranged marriage.  If a man dies, and he and his wife are childless, a brother who lives there is to take the widow as his wife.  The reason given is “so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel” (25:6).  It is important that the deceased man will still have an heir to keep his name alive.  Thus, the firstborn of this marriage will be reckoned as his offspring.

What happens if the fellow refuses to marry the widow of his dearly departed brother?  As we saw, that sets in motion a process which at the distance of cultures and centuries might seem, let’s say, eccentric.  The woman goes to the elders, who summon the brother and explain the situation.  If he still refuses, the woman, in public display, removes his sandal, spits in his face, and proclaims, “Here’s what happens to the guy who stabs his dead brother in the back.”  (Or words to that effect.)

To be known as one whose sandal was removed is a sign of shame.  The sandal on the right foot signifies ownership, and in this case, the claim of a bride.

I’ve gone through this little presentation because it provides the background for the Sadducees’ coming to Jesus in Mark 12.  So here we go.

“Some Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus and asked him a ridiculous question” (v. 18).  Well, the text doesn’t say “ridiculous.”  I’m using a bit of artistic license.  They pose the scenario envisioned in the law of Moses, as we just saw.  We should take note, there’s no word of the woman going along with the plan, other than the cultural standards, which I suspect were concocted by men.

Now we’re entering ridiculous ground, as they dream up this totally believable story.  We have seven brothers, and we begin with the first brother dying.  However, the second brother also dies, leaving no children.  We move on to the third.  The same thing happens—or rather, does not happen.  Then to the fourth, then to the fifth, then to the sixth, then to the seventh.  Surely lucky number seven has success.  No, he meets his Maker, minus offspring.

2 dt

[These are not likely to be the brothers the Sadducees mentioned.]

After she’s run through all seven brothers (or maybe I should say, having been forced to run through all of them), the Sadducees end the story by simply saying of her, the one who’s been widowed seven times, “Last of all the woman herself died.”  You know, couldn’t they tell the story by allowing the poor woman a few years of peace and quiet?

Remember, these fellows don’t believe there is resurrection, so this question clearly makes perfect sense: “In the resurrection whose wife will she be?  For the seven had married her.”  I’m sure they told this tale with completely straight faces.

Who are these Sadducees, anyway?  We don’t know a whole lot about them.  They apparently are of an aristocratic nature; they are among the elites.  They aren’t exactly friends of the Roman government, but they also don’t want to upset the apple cart.

We’re told they don’t believe in the resurrection.  They rely strictly on the five books of Moses.  (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.)  There’s no word of resurrection in those books, or so the Sadducees believe.

One time while the apostle Paul is being interrogated, he realizes both Sadducees and Pharisees are in the group.  It was known that “Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three” (Ac 23:8).  Paul said he was being tried “concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead” (v. 6).  He is playing them against each other.  Predictably, the Pharisees come to his defense, saying, “We find nothing wrong with this man.  What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” (v. 9).

Remember, the basis of the scripture text is the story told by the Sadducees.  Perhaps I misspoke in labeling it “ridiculous.”  Perhaps it actually happened.

Every year People magazine names its sexiest man alive.  (I suppose “alive” is better than the alternative.)  Last year, it was Michael B. Jordan.  Who is next?  Here’s a question which makes perfect sense: “After James Moore is named People’s sexiest man alive, how will he use his newfound fame?”  It is a perfectly plausible possibility, or maybe I should say, probability.

3 dt

Long story short, Jesus knows they aren’t really searching for truth.  He points out several things they are unaware of and/or ignore.  He responds, “Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God?” (v. 24).  He finishes on this note: “you are quite wrong.”  The Greek word (πλαναω, planaō) can be read, “you are very much deceived.”  And it works both ways.  You have strayed from the path, and you would cause others to stray.

I’m reminded of Dante, who at the beginning of his classic book Inferno, lamented, “Midway through the journey of our life, I found myself in a dark wood, for I had strayed from the straight pathway to this tangled ground.”

How often are we duplicitous, even in a ridiculous fashion?  In what ways do we engage in willful ignorance?  We stray, and we cause others to stray.  Whether it is the Sadducees and their stupid question and absurd story or my firm expectation to be anointed as the sexiest man alive—we can be willfully ignorant.

Fortunately, there is a cure for our ridiculous duplicity!  Jesus would remind us that ours is a God, not of the dead, but of the living.  Willful ignorance and distribution of the absurd do not enhance life, but as with Dante, we find ourselves lost in a dark wood.

And best of all, we can use our imagination for creative purposes.

If the Sadducees haven’t come to Jesus looking for the truth (as I humbly asserted), then why bother him with their song and dance?  Could it be their story is deliberately stupid because they want to show how belief in the resurrection is stupid?  Of course, as Jesus points out, they have it all wrong.  When people are resurrected from the dead, nobody is getting married, be it arranged or not.  There’s a new creation; old things have passed away.

When Moses encountered the Lord at the burning bush he was told, “I am the God” of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  He wasn’t told, “I was the God” of those fellows.  Ours is not a God of the dead.  We need not consult mediums or necromancers.  Ours is a God of the living.  Ours is a God of the vital: filled with spirit, filled with life.  We are granted the indestructible life of Christ.

These Sadducees, being among the elite, the upper crust, have positions of respect.  They are influential.  People are expected to defer to them.  Doesn’t it seem likely that more than a little arrogance accompanies their grilling of Jesus?  (And it would seem “grilling” is an appropriate word.)  I would think they look down on this wandering rabbi who spends way too much time with the common folk.

How often do we express our own inner Sadducee?  Does arrogant disregard ever creep into our thoughts, even in a slight way?

Maybe I should start with myself.  Indeed, what haughtiness, what cynicism, what disdain do I express?

The Sadducees, due to their place in society, had certain privileges.  As a white, male, heterosexual, college-educated, lover of the NFL and NHL, what privileges do I have?  Do I deny they exist?  How desperately do I hold on to them?

The Sadducees manipulated the words of Deuteronomy to their own advantage.  How often do I do likewise?  How often do I treat the scriptures as an empty shell?  How often do I reckon them as simply a mental exercise—not fully permitting them to permeate me mind, body, and soul?

4 dt

[photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash]

Here’s a good one.  With the Sadducees having much to lose, due to their positions of power (relatively speaking—the Romans were still on top), they needed order.  What do I think of as order?  Who or what do I think of as possibly disrupting that order?

Jesus reminds me (and all of us) that we can know and love the scriptures.  We can know and love the power of God.  Do we ask for that?  Do we pray for that?  Will we pray for that?

Let us join with the Holy Spirit in resisting the powers that would hinder us.  We need not be very much deceived.