Babylon

we are not dead

Ezekiel is one of those prophets with whom most people never become familiar.  He seems too remote, too odd.  What can we say about a book that starts with a vision in which the prophet sees images of creatures flashing like lightning, with wheels all around?  Some people swear he saw a spaceship.

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And he often behaves in ways that are just flat-out weird.  He builds a model of Jerusalem and then smashes it to bits.  He shaves his head and beard and then publicly burns the hairs.  Ezekiel doesn’t lend himself very well to Sunday school.

Still, he does have an admiring audience.  People come to listen to him.  However, as the Lord says, “To them you are like a singer of love songs, one who has a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument; they hear what you say, but they will not do it” (33:32).

There isn’t much about this book that is familiar, with the exception of today’s scripture reading.  We’ve been helped by the old spiritual which tells us, “Ezekiel cried, ‘Dem dry bones!’”  Do you know this one?  “The toe bone connected to the foot bone / The foot bone connected to the heel bone / The heel bone connected to the ankle bone…”  I think I can stop there; you probably don’t want to hear me connect all the bones.

At the start of chapter 37, Ezekiel has a vision in which he finds himself in a valley filled with bones, and indeed, they are not connected.  They’re strewn all over the place.  He examines them and finds that they’re completely dry.  These folks died a long time ago.  The Lord asks Ezekiel, “can these bones live?”  What kind of answer can he give?  It doesn’t look like anything alive could emerge from that dismal scene.  Still, he knows not to limit the power of his God.  All he can say is, “You know, Lord.”

To really understand Ezekiel, we need to take a step back and look at his world.  He lived through one of the true turning points of Biblical and world history.  The Babylonian Empire has become a superpower, and by the year 597 (B.C.), after sweeping through most of the Middle East, the Babylonians are ready to conquer Judah.  People who might be considered a threat are deported.  Ezekiel is part of the first group of exiles.  Thus, Ezekiel comes to live in Babylon.

For about eight years, Jerusalem has been occupied by the Babylonians, but they’ve refrained from destroying the city.  But then the Judahites try teaming up with the Egyptians to fight back.  That doesn’t work, and the Babylonians lose their patience.

As a result, the unthinkable happens.  The temple is destroyed.  It’s difficult for us today to understand the crushing blow that was.  They couldn’t imagine the temple being destroyed.  There’s no way God would allow it.  They had a trust in the building—a superstitious trust, as it turned out.  They trusted in a building, but they didn’t trust God.  They constantly broke the covenant with the Lord.  They served other gods.  They oppressed the poor.  They were corrupt.

And so we arrive in the valley of dry bones.

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There’s a Hebrew word that appears over and over throughout today’s reading: רוּחַ (ruah).  It’s translated by three words that best capture its meaning: breath, wind, or spirit.

We see in Ezekiel’s vision the creative use of the word.  First he’s commanded to prophesy to the bones, as our little song puts it, he’s to say to “dem dry bones…hear the word of the Lord.”  Suddenly the bones reassemble, with sinews, flesh, and skin reappearing.  Still, the bodies are dead.  Then the Lord tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath, to call out to the wind, to speak to the spirit.  It’s only then that ruah enters the bodies, and they come to life.

The exiles, defeated and taken captive far from their homeland, truly were dispirited.  They felt they were as dead as those dry bones.  With the news of the temple’s destruction, Ezekiel’s job has changed.  He’s been calling for repentance; now he must offer hope.

When the people felt that all was lost, that their enemies had vanquished them, the prophet came to them and told them of the promise of the ruah of the Lord, of the Spirit of God, which would revive them, which would bring them back to life.

So what does this vision of hope given to a group of exiles 25 centuries ago in Babylon say to us here today?

We might feel like our nation, our world, has become a collection of dry bones.  We might feel that way about ourselves.

Do we need to be brought back to life, like Lazarus?

We’re like the exiles, in a way.  We have been forced; we have been taken to a place we never would have chosen.  We have been exiled to a strange new world.

We’ve all had our own experiences with the virus.  Some have had truly dreadful experiences.  Others—not so much.  I have this feeling that there’s something out there, and it has ill intent.  I know I’m not the only one who feels that way.  Wouldn’t be nice if we could actually see the virus?  That would make things much easier!

Still, we’re here.  The crowds asked John the Baptist after his message of repentance, “What then should we do?” (Lk 3:10).  What should we do?  Let me ask the question from a different angle.  What opportunities await us?

Remember what I said regarding the news that the temple had been destroyed.  The prophet had been calling for repentance.  Now it was a time for hope.

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[photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash]

Well, the temple has been destroyed.  We’re in the valley of dry bones.  Ezekiel’s vision is about a promise of return from exile.  It will be a second exodus.  What can these bones do, given a new life?  The breath, the wind, the spirit of God is still blowing.  We have the opportunity—we have the option—of allowing that wind to carry us to a new way of being.  Or maybe it’s a question of regaining what we’ve possibly allowed to lapse.

What are we doing to stay healthy?  What are we doing to stay healthy mentally?  What are we doing to help others stay healthy?  What are we doing to spread the love?  Friends, we are not dead.  As the Song of Solomon puts it, “love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave” (8:6).  Or as Eugene Peterson’s The Message reads, “Love is invincible facing danger and death.  Passion laughs at the terrors of hell.”

Here’s another question.  How will we emerge from this?  Will fear win the day?  So much of what we see in the media, in my opinion, borders on sensationalism.  Sometimes it seems like the goal is to inspire fear, to inspire panic, rather than level-headed caution.  I feel like some people would almost welcome mobs who are setting fires and smashing windows.

So that’s one option.  Here’s another.  Will we learn from this?  Will we work together?  Will we learn to care for each other?  I don’t expect heaven on earth, but maybe some heavenly spirit can take hold.  There is an opening for a deeper and more vibrant faith.

“And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people.  I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live” (vv. 13-14).


zero the hero

When I young, I was very interested in comic books, especially Marvel Comics.  I tended to like their superheroes better than those of the other main publisher, DC Comics.  Marvel placed (and still places) its characters in the real world.  It’s New York City, not Gotham City or Metropolis. 1 jr

Among my favorite comic books were Dr. Strange (the Sorcerer Supreme!) and the Incredible Hulk.  I admired him for his eloquence, his articulate way with words.  His favorite line was “Hulk smash!”

2 jrProbably my favorite character wasn’t a superhero at all.  He was kind of an anti-hero.  He lived in Cleveland, having become trapped on our Earth.  He was simply a duck, Howard the Duck, and he would continually be amazed at how we “hairless apes,” as he put it, ran things on this planet.  You see, on his Earth, ducks are the dominant species.

I really don’t know how deliberate this was, but is it possible that Marvel was making a statement about superheroes?  Is it necessary to be muscle-bound, or otherwise skill-laden?  Is it possible to be merely a duck?  Hold that thought!

3 jrIn the book of Jeremiah, we see something that we rarely do with the other Hebrew prophets.  We get a quite vivid view of the emotions of the man.  We see much of his psychological makeup.  That’s largely due to what’s called the confessions of Jeremiah.  There are five of them, located between chapters 11 and 20.[1]  These are the poems of the prophet in which he expresses his feelings of pain, of anger, and even his sense of betrayal by God.  These laments are borne of the abuses he’s been forced to endure.

We see yet another example of that unfair treatment in chapter 38.  If there is anyone in need of some heroic intervention, it’s definitely the prophet Jeremiah.

At this point in the book, the Babylonians are outside the walls of Jerusalem.  Jeremiah, who’s been warning about this for years, is seeing his words coming true.  Things are getting very grim.  Having taken position outside the city, the Babylonians have set up a blockade.  They’re cutting off supply lines, stopping shipments of food.  The situation will get so dire that some will resort to cannibalism.  They will eat their own young (19:9, Lm 2:20, 4:10).

Zedekiah, the final king of Judah, has sought Jeremiah for words of wisdom, but he doesn’t like what he hears.  Zedekiah’s biggest problem is that he’s afraid.  He does nothing to prevent his officials from arresting Jeremiah, who claim the prophet “ought to be put to death, because he is discouraging the soldiers who are left in this city.”  They say he isn’t “seeking the welfare of this people, but their harm” (v. 4).

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Just how does Zedekiah respond?  How does this sound?  “Here he is; he is in your hands; for the king is powerless against you” (v. 5).  He thinks he’s saving his own skin, but he’s doing the exact opposite.  Jeremiah has tried to tell him, and everyone else, that this war is a lost cause.  Zedekiah can still come to terms with the Babylonians.

But fear can easily overwhelm reason.  The most dangerous people in the world are the fearful.  When people are afraid—when we are afraid—we become capable of stuff we otherwise would never do.  People who are afraid are easier to manipulate, because they aren’t thinking clearly.  They aren’t asking the right questions.  As we sometimes say, they check their brains at the door—or before entering the arena.

As for Jeremiah, he gets lowered into a cistern.  It would be bad enough if the bottom were dry, but listen to the way the Bible describes it: “Now there was no water in the cistern, but only mire, and Jeremiah sank in the mire” (v. 6).

Jeremiah is being buried alive.  He can’t find any solid foothold, which need it be said, has levels of meaning.

Fortunately for the prophet, there is someone willing to intervene on his behalf.  This one goes to Zedekiah and says, “My lord king, these men have acted wickedly in all they did to the prophet Jeremiah by throwing him into the cistern to die there of hunger, for there is no bread left in the city” (v. 9).  Some manuscripts even have him saying “you have acted wickedly”!

Who is this bold advocate?  Who dares to step forward this way?  Perhaps someone from the king’s family?  Not exactly.  He’s a fellow known to us as Ebed-melech.  But that really isn’t his name.  “Ebed-melech” (עֶבֶד־מֶלֶךְ) simply means “servant of the king.”  And what’s more, he’s a foreigner, an Ethiopian.  He’s a nobody, a zero—although truth be told, I might be overstating this “zero” bit.  He would have needed some influence to get an audience with Zedekiah.

What reaction does he provoke from the king?  Punishment?  Rebuke?  No, Zedekiah tells Ebed-melech to find some help…and get Jeremiah out of that well!  Sometimes we need to be asked—we need to be reminded—to do the right thing, to be the person we claim to be, to be the person we want to be.

Christine Pohl has written: “a friend of mine asked if there was anyone who consistently spoke truth into my life.”  She reminds us how important it is that “[e]ach of us [have] someone, or a small community, who will name what is going on and speak a word of truth to us when it is needed.”[2]

But more than being the one who reminds Zedekiah of his moral, and indeed his legal, duty, Ebed-melech is something else.  As I’ve indicated, he is the voice of Jeremiah when Jeremiah has no voice.  It’s hard to plead your case when you’re at the bottom of a muck-filled cistern.

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If for no other reason (and surely there is more than one), but if for no other reason than his showing compassion for Jeremiah, Ebed-melech’s actions should be considered heroic.  In my humble opinion, this zero is a hero.  And I’m far from alone in making that judgment.  Jewish legend even goes so far as to say that he’s among those who ascended to heaven.  That seems to be a pretty firm vote of confidence!

Actually, calling Ebed-melech a hero isn’t a tough call, given the message to him in chapter 39.  The prophet is told to go to Ebed-melech and reassure him of something.  The city is still going to be invaded and conquered.  Destruction is on the way.  But it won’t touch him.  And the people he’s angered by helping Jeremiah won’t touch him, either.

So what will happen?  “I will surely save you, and you shall not fall by the sword; but you shall have your life as a prize of war, because you have trusted in me, says the Lord” (v. 18).  Ebed-melech will survive the fighting with his own plunder, that plunder being his life.

He might not be a superhero, but he does a pretty good job as a duck!

Here’s a question.  “Who is the biggest zero of all time?”  (That is, if a zero can be called “big”!)  Who is it?  I would suggest Jesus.  Let me elaborate.  We have a peasant among a people under military occupation.  There are legitimate questions regarding his parentage.  He is an obscure man from an obscure town.  In fact, it was asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Jn 1:46).

The powers-that-be grow weary of his wandering around, spreading his dangerous teachings.  He is executed, though not in a way befitting a political prisoner, but as a common thug on a cross, along with two other thugs.  His followers disperse (with the exception of some of the women!)  The dream, just like Jesus, is dead—dead as a doornail.  A couple of his disciples, reflecting on this utter failure, said “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Lk 24:21).  We had hoped.

Of course, we know that’s not the end of the story.

Bringing this business of zero into our time, we should note that Jesus was a Middle Eastern Palestinian.  I wonder, between the two of us, who would be more likely to be “randomly” stopped and checked at the airport?

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That is the beauty of Jesus as zero.  He takes the lowest possible position.  (Mind you, I’m not suggesting that being a Middle Eastern Palestinian qualifies as being zero.)  Jesus takes utter defeat and transforms it, and perhaps you’ll agree that there’s no greater defeat than being dead!

I imagine some of us have felt like zero.  Some of us, if not all of us, have had the sense that we’re nothing, at least once in our lives.  I would daresay it’s happened many more times than that.   (I would call it part of the human condition.)

Maybe we’ve even felt like Jeremiah in that deep, dark hole.  Earlier I mentioned the anguish revealed by the prophet: he’s been the object of mockery, hatred, unjust imprisonment, torture, just to name some of his mistreatment.  Still, this is the perfect summation of his agony.  He’s been tossed into what must look like a bottomless pit.  There seems to be no way out.

As noted before, it would be bad enough if solid ground were at the bottom.  However, here he is (here we are) sinking in sludge, maybe even to the point of it closing overhead.  The walls are moving in.  One need not be claustrophobic for a sense of panic to take hold.  The light is beginning to fade.

Some might say this is well-deserved.  After all, why does he find himself in this predicament to begin with?  It was no accident.  Many say by spreading his message, he really didn’t want the best for his people.

How often have we seen this take place?  Have we been with Jeremiah in that deep, dark hole and been told, “That’s where you belong.”

Shelley Rambo, who’s written quite a bit on trauma, says “for many people who experience trauma, Christianity has offered judgment, not good news…  The sense that a person is at fault for what has happened to them is often threaded into Christian responses, sometimes unconsciously.”[3]

Have we ever been on the other side of that deep, dark hole and acted like a zero (though not in a good sense!)?  Have we ever shown impatience with someone in the midst of pain and suffering and said, “Okay, this has gone on long enough.  It’s time to move on!  That is, unless you enjoy this.”

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{Shelley Rambo}

Still, despite whatever suffering we endure—or whatever suffering we inflict—when hope has almost died, a servant of the king is there.  An ebed-melech shows up.  When we do speak the words of truth and get thrown into the mud, our ebed-melech stands next to us and defends us.

May the Lord raise in each of our lives an ebed-melech, a servant of the King Jesus, the One who became obedient to death and who brings us through the battle, giving us the power to rise from the dead.

 

[1] 11:18-12:6, 15:10-21, 17:14-18, 18:18-23, 20:7-18

[2] Christine Pohl, “Sin insulation,” Christian Century 118:24 (29 Aug-5 Sep 2001): 12.

[3] www.christiancentury.org/article/critical-essay/how-christian-theology-and-practice-are-being-shaped-trauma-studies


scary monsters

Over a timespan of about fifteen years, I had a recurring dream.  I might even call it a nightmare.  It involved McDonald’s, where I worked when I wasn’t away at college.  In the dream, I would be at various locations.  I might be at home, or maybe I’d be driving my car.  And in the back of my mind was this nagging fear that I should be at work; I should be at McDonald’s.

In the dream, it was always the case that it had been days, even weeks, since I’d showed up for work.  I would have the feeling that I needed to go to the store and check the schedule.  Was I in fact supposed to be there?  But I don’t remember ever making that trip.  Instead, I would wake up and realize, with a great sense of relief, that I was now at seminary, or later on, that I was now pastor of a church.

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I haven’t had that nightmare for a long time now.  Banu once told me that I was subconsciously expressing my fear of working at McDonald’s for the rest of my life.  I believe there’s something to that!  At a deeper level, though, I think McDonald’s represented my sense of not moving forward.  It was a symbol of my feeling being trapped.

I say that because, after graduating from college, I worked there for over two years before going to seminary.  No doubt reflecting my Pentecostal influences, I was dead set on waiting for God to speak to me, to tell me what to do.  Lord, please give me a sign!  Give me a dream; give me a vision of what I need to do!

Please note, I’m not blaming the Pentecostals for my wrong-headed understanding.  That’s on me!

And of course, all the while, the Lord had implanted within me the calling that I needed to follow.  But I was resistant!

Maybe I would have been satisfied with what we see in the reading in Daniel.  We’re told that Daniel has a dream.

Starting with chapter 7, the last part of the book of Daniel is what’s known as apocalyptic literature.  (The word “apocalyptic” literally means a “revelation” or an “uncovering.”)  The book of Revelation is in that category.  (Surprise!)  Apocalyptic books are like movies with all kinds of weird special effects: dream worlds, cosmic calamities, and yes, scary monsters.

It’s been said, “One could say, calmly and rationally, that the world is a bleak and dangerous place, or one could make the point more fully and dramatically through apocalyptic fantasy.  The latter…will more quickly trouble and terrify us (as they did for Daniel), which is the point.”[1]

Think about it.  Even though the parables of Jesus and apocalyptic images aren’t exactly the same thing, they do serve similar purposes.

For example, Jesus could talk about grace and give us a definition.  He could call it “a free gift” or “an undeserved reward.”  He could do that, or he could tell a story about it—say, a story about a son who asks for his inheritance, shames the family, goes abroad and squanders the money, and after all that foolishness, after all those mistakes, is welcomed home with a lavish banquet.

I ask you, which of those makes a bigger impression?  Which one helps you to better understand grace?

And going back to those delightfully scary images, what would become of horror movies?  A documentary-style warning about the hazards of traveling alone on dark roads in the forest just doesn’t get the juices flowing.

So, even though apocalyptic language can be troubling and terrifying, that’s not the end of the story.  These images of mighty angels and stormy seas really do tell the story of God’s people being delivered from the foul beasts that would keep them down.  And those “foul beasts” are typically of the two-legged variety, the ones who walk around upright.

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The reading in Daniel has been chopped up.  Verses 4 to 14 have been deleted.  The Old Testament is often dissected to suit the purposes of the church.  It being a text for All Saints’ Day, the lectionary zeroes in on verse 18.  “[T]he holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever—forever and ever.”  Those holy ones are the saints!

Still, we need to pay attention to the dream—or should we say nightmare?  Daniel seems to think so.  Look at the way the chapter ends in verse 28: “I was so frightened that I turned pale, and I kept everything to myself” (Good News Bible).  He was so scared that he looked like he’d seen a ghost (and he probably soiled himself).  And he wasn’t going to tell anyone about it.

He sees four great beasts rising from the sea.  In ancient Hebrew thinking, the sea was a symbol of chaos.  Who knows what’s down there?  This is a symbol that is primordial.  It goes back to the chaos at creation.  This is “darkness [covering] the face of the deep” (Gn 1:2).  So, toss in the tempest, and you really do have some chaos!

There’s some question as to which kingdoms the four beasts symbolize.  People pick among the Babylonians, the Medes, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans.  The point is, all these empires in one way or another persecuted the Jews, the people of God.  Or in apocalyptic terms, they’re scary monsters that tried to gobble up the holy ones.

John Collins says that “the vision functioned to give hope to the persecuted Jews.  This rather trite statement, however, does scant justice to the power of the vision, which attempts to shape a whole new view of history.”[2]  Daniel’s vision shapes a whole new view of history.

It can be difficult for us to realize how powerful this is.  Imagine the audacity of this powerless group of people.  They’re just one nation among many that have been swept up by the empire.  How dare they show this holy defiance?  How dare they tell their own stories?  They’re supposed to agree with the official version of history, one that lets them know they’re less worthy, one that puts them in their place.

As the church, we have inherited that legacy.  Still, we have to watch ourselves.  We have to be careful about how closely we identify with the qualities of, not Greek or Roman, but American empire.  Believe it or not, we aren’t immune to acting like the rest of the human race.  We too can imitate a beast ready to devour.

We have here the story of that great cloud of witnesses (Heb 12:1).  It’s the story of the faithful from every walk of life.

It’s the story told in the hymn, “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.”  Referring to the saints, the second stanza ends like this: “And one was a soldier, and one was a priest, / And one was slain by a fierce wild beast: / And there’s not any reason, no, not the least, / Why I shouldn’t be one too.”

Yes, that’s right folks.  There’s not any reason why I shouldn’t be slain by a fierce wild beast!

3 dnThis is the story of saints past and present—and we can say, of saints yet to come.  It’s the story of the faithful from every background.  It’s the story of those who have faced all manner of scary monsters.  (Even one symbolized by a fast food restaurant!)

Here are some questions for us.  What are our scary monsters?  Are there any great beasts that fill our dreams with terror?

In a sermon Banu preached one time, she dealt with Goliath the giant.  A quote from her sermon was, “When you focus on your giants, you stumble.  When you focus on God, your giants tumble.”  How does that translate into scary monsters?  How do scary monsters come at us?

Here’s another way of framing it.  Are we trapped by the past?  Do we carry around undeserved guilt?

Chris Gehrz speaks of All Saints’ Day as a call and opportunity “to be a steward of the past.”[3]  We’re called to be stewards of the creation, not only in space, but also in time.  All Saints’ Day “underscores the importance of preserving [the] past against the erosion that comes with the passage of time.”  We are called to remember—and to remember well.

This may come as a shock, but there are those who like to zap us by unfairly reminding us of our past.  They would have us remember, but not remember well.  Still, I fear that at some level, that tendency resides within all of us.  But to the extent we give way to that tendency, we only speak from our own fear, our own insecurity.  We are not speaking—and being—from a place of love and hope.

In Christ, those voices of accusation are silenced.  In the face of the glory of Christ, they have nothing to say.

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[pixabay.com]

In Christ, the great beasts, the scary monsters, are rendered toothless.  We’re given a whole new view of history.  We are ushered into the communion of saints, the holy ones of the Most High, who we join in receiving the kingdom and possessing the kingdom forever and ever.

 

[1] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=714

[2] John J. Collins, Daniel (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 324.

[3] www.patheos.com/blogs/anxiousbench/2016/11/all-saints-day-and-the-stewardship-of-the-past


time to grow up?

“Into my heart, into my heart, / Come into my heart, Lord Jesus; / Come in today, come in to stay, / Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.”  This chorus is popular with the young ones.  (Or so I’ve been told!)  It expresses the fond and dear desire for Jesus to take up residence within us.

The gospel of John and the book of Revelation each call Jesus the Word (Jn 1:14, Rv 19:13).  Jesus is the Word of God.  Not pushing the metaphor too far, but we can see Jesus as the word who enters into us and dwells in our heart, as the request in the chorus goes.

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[photo by Daan Stevens on Unsplash]

Someone who knows about the word being consumed is the prophet Jeremiah.  I’ll get back to that in a moment.  First, I have a story to tell.

Jeremiah was born and received his call to be a prophet during the time that Josiah was king.  Josiah was a good king; it was important for him to be faithful to Yahweh, the Lord.

It just so happens that some of his officials were doing spring cleaning in the temple.  They were digging through some knick-knacks and thingamajigs.  We’ve all done that.  One of them stumbled upon a scroll that caught his eye.  Upon examining it, he announced, “I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord” (2 Kg 22:8).  They brought it to Josiah, and it was read to him.  (On a side note, it’s believed that the book made up much of what we call Deuteronomy, but that’s a story for another time!)

The king was alarmed, because they hadn’t been doing what was written in it.  So they sought the counsel of Huldah the prophetess.  She said, “You’re right, boys, we’ve really screwed up.  We’ve got to our act together, or we’re in for some bad times.”  After hearing that, Josiah instituted a program of ridding the land of all the pagan altars and pagan priests.  That was the world Jeremiah grew up in.  Now back to eating the word.

When he was called as a young man, Jeremiah reports, “the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.  See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant’” (1:9-10).  We’ll hear more about that later.

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Jeremiah’s life was ery hard—in fact, it was horrible.  We see in the book several times when he bitterly complained to the Lord about his fate.  One time he even accused the Lord of tricking him, of deceiving him, and he said, “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart” (15:16).  The word of the Lord entered his heart, only to prove to be the source of great misfortune.

Jeremiah had such a crummy life because he was the bearer of bad news.  The Babylonians are on the way, and there’s nothing we can do about it.  We might as well get used to it.  What we can do is to return to the Lord.  (King Josiah’s efforts proved to be unsuccessful.)

Long story short, the prophet was considered an enemy of the state, and he was treated accordingly.  He was ruining the morale of the troops.  He was ridiculed, beaten, tortured, imprisoned.

But finally, Jeremiah has some good news.  After all the mayhem, the land will be restored.  It will be livable for both humans and animals.  And in a fulfillment of Jeremiah’s call, the Lord “will watch over them to build and to plant” (v. 28).  Nonetheless, in the process of rebuilding and replanting, there are some things that have to go.

This is going back a few years, back to the 1970s.  There was a TV show my parents liked to watch, The Flip Wilson Show.  He portrayed a character that turned out to be the one most people liked, Geraldine.  Probably her best-known line was, “The devil made me do it!”

2 jrWhat a great line.  You can absolve yourself—you can forgive yourself—of any deed if you can pin the blame on anything or anyone else, including the devil!

In Jeremiah’s time, there’s a saying the people use that falls into the category of “things that have to go.”  “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (v. 29).  I can’t say I’ve ever eaten sour grapes, but I have bitten into lemons on many occasions.  (When I was a kid and we were at a restaurant, I liked to take the lemon slice in a glass of water and eat it.)

What kind of face do you make when you eat something sour?  One way of describing it is having your teeth set on edge.

The point of the saying is, “We aren’t to blame for our actions.  We had no choice; we’re paying for the sins of our parents and those who came before them.”  If they can’t say, “The devil made me do it,” they still have a good excuse.  They can still shift the blame from themselves.

However, in some sense, they are not altogether wrong.  If we think of a family system, there are things we inherit—certain behaviors, ways of looking at the world.  That can be for better or worse.  Maybe we come from a background in which we were encouraged, we were nurtured, we were allowed to dream.  Problems were dealt with in more or less constructive ways.  It doesn’t mean everything was perfect by any measure.  We are imperfect, incomplete humans, but on the whole, there were primarily positive things to pass on.

Sometimes things don’t go so well.  If our background is one in which violence, abuse (of whatever kind), and pessimism pervaded, we can learn that’s just how life goes.  Though, the negative stuff doesn’t have to be that severe.  There can be unresolved grief, ways in which reality isn’t dealt with, harmful secrets.  So in that sense, our background really can affect our behavior.

But the prophet says, “That’s not good enough!”  “But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge” (v. 30).  You can’t use that excuse forever.  You are responsible for your own actions.  You have to pay the piper!  That can sound pretty harsh, but the good news is they aren’t left to work it out for themselves.  The good news begins in verse 31.

A whole new world opens up.  A grace not yet known is promised.  “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”  “The days are surely coming.”  There is wide disagreement as to what that precisely means.  One thing seems clear, though: a new covenant will emerge from destruction and exile.  By the way, this is the only place in the entire Old Testament where the term “new covenant” appears.

As Christians, we obviously see Jesus as the fulfillment, the embodiment, of the new covenant, the new testament.  Still, we shouldn’t jump ahead.  We need to see what that meant to Jeremiah and the people of his time.  The message continues, “It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord” (v. 32).

Something we often do is to regard the Ten Commandments, for example, as a list of rules to obey.  There’s much more going on.  It’s not simply a bunch of “dos” and “don’ts.”  It is a vision of the blessed life, a life lived in the harmony of shalom.  Faithfulness to the Lord looks like this.  That’s the message of the prophets.  It comes from the heart.  But we need help in that!  We need help in persevering.

3 jrSo here we go: “this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (v. 33).

I will write it on their hearts.  The late Bruce Prewer referred to that as “divine graffiti.”[1]  What will this divine graffiti accomplish?  “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (v. 34).  With God’s word written on their hearts, they will not need to teach other to know the Lord.

It will be from the least to the greatest.  Everyone’s invited!  Here’s how Eugene Peterson put it in his paraphrase, The Message: “They will no longer go around setting up schools to teach each other about God.  They’ll know me firsthand, the dull and the bright, the smart and the slow.”

This is the heart of Jeremiah’s vision.  When God’s word is written on the heart, everyone will understand.

Now, depending on their disposition, there’s a class of people who might not welcome such an arrangement.  They might think it’s a raw deal.  David Rhymer calls this a “dangerous exercise of prophetic imagination.”[2]  Why should it be called dangerous?

Have you ever had a teacher who did not want their position questioned or presented with another viewpoint?  Maybe it was someone whose ego was too bound up in his or her work?  Maybe we could say they were too big for their britches!

4 jrI once had a history professor who invited students to ask him about the subject matter, claiming, “I know all.”  Admittedly, he was saying it with a bit of humor, but it was clear he felt he would not have any trouble answering any question.  One student was wondering about something, and it was obvious our teacher didn’t know the answer.  He fumbled a bit and responded, “Well, it would have been such-and-such.”  He was basically guessing.  (Having said all that, I really came to like the guy!)

Getting back to the text, the religious leaders might simply reject out of hand Jeremiah’s word, his assertion of what one day shall be.  It’s their job to read and interpret God’s word, and it’s the people’s job to “simply listen and do as they were told without question.”[3]

Their job is to sit down and shut up.

When God’s word is written on our hearts, everyone is treated with care and respect.  Everyone is treated as the sisters and brothers we truly are.  Everyone is valued.  As the prophet Joel reports of the Lord, “Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.  Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit” (2:28-29).

When the Spirit fills our hearts, our petty divisions are erased.  No longer will be build walls.  Going along with verses 35 to 37, with all of those cosmic promises, it will last until the end of time!

So, to recap: following the disaster, the people are promised a new day, but they can’t blame their forebears for their hard times.  It’s true; those who’ve gone before might have set the stage in ways that are difficult, even catastrophic.  Still, it has to be said, there comes a point when it’s time to grow up.  When that happens, the promise is there will be the grace to see it through.  Actually, there is the grace like never before, as said earlier, one not yet known.

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When the Lord writes on our hearts, we are forgiven, now and forever.

“Into my heart, into my heart, / Come into my heart, Lord Jesus; / Come in today, come in to stay, / Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.”  It might sound trite and cute, but there is immense depth.  The next step is ours.

 

[1] www.bruceprewer.com/DocC/C58sun29.htm

[2] David Rhymer, “Jeremiah 31:31-34,” Interpretation 59:3 (July 2005), 295.

[3] Rhymer, 295.


in the dark and light of that day

One of Banu’s observations (and complaints) about movies that take place in the future, especially those of an alleged post-apocalyptic nature, is that they tend to be too dark.  They’re too dark—not only in theme, but sometimes literally too dark.  There’s not enough light to see what’s going on!

Hollywood would have fun with Zephaniah.  Talk about dark!  There’s enough gloom and graphic violence to make Alien and Predator look like Beauty and the Beast!  Of course, the Hollywood definition of “apocalypse” seems to always focus on terror and torment, as opposed to the actual biblical sense, which is “revealing” or “uncovering.”

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With the prophet Zephaniah, we have a man who, in many ways, might seem to fit the misunderstanding of apocalypse as death and destruction.  There is good reason for that to be the case: his almost single-minded focus on the day of Yahweh, the day of the Lord.  He doesn’t invent the idea—it goes back centuries, maybe as far back as the so-called holy wars of Joshua.

The day of the Lord came to be seen as the moment when God would intervene on behalf of Israel, defeating all their enemies.  As the centuries went on, and bigger boys like the Assyrians and Babylonians started throwing their weight around, this was a day more and more people yearned for.

A century before Zephaniah, in a case of “be careful what you wish for,” the prophet Amos warns those “who desire the day of the Lord!  Why do you want the day of the Lord?  It is darkness, not light” (5:18).  Don’t be so smug, Amos says.  Don’t assume that day will only be bad news for your enemies.  As corrupt as you are, do you think you’ll escape unscathed?

Eventually, the day of the Lord became infused with messianic expectation.  That’s one big reason why so many became disillusioned with Jesus.  They thought he would lead them in getting rid of the biggest boys yet, the Romans.

Zephaniah says some things that, to our ears, probably sound quite strange.  For example, in verse 8, the prophet criticizes government officials “and all who dress themselves in foreign attire,” “clothed with foreign apparel.”  [I guess he wouldn’t be impressed by Versace.]

Zephaniah doesn’t intend that to be a fashion statement.  He isn’t imitating the “Best and Worst Dressed” at the Oscars!  Elizabeth Achtemeier points out that “as a vassal [a puppet state] of Assyria, the leaders of Judah have accommodated their ways to those of a foreign culture…  Assyria’s ways have become Judah’s ways, and Assyria’s customs hers.”[1]

Verse 9 has something that sounds equally bizarre.  There is a promise to “punish all who leap over the threshold.”  Again, Zephaniah isn’t interested in auditions for “Dancing with the Stars.”  It’s about superstition concerning evil spirits who dwell in doorways and must be avoided.

3 zp (I wonder if that particular idea didn’t survive down through the ages with the practice of carrying a bride over the threshold!)

Anyway, with these comments, the prophet isn’t criticizing foreign ways simply because they are foreign.  The problem is that—as it seems every generation must learn—serving God isn’t just about following certain procedures in worship.

Zephaniah reminds the people that their God is an ethical God.  That is, serving their God requires that they chose between right and wrong, that how they treat each other makes all the difference.  That’s why he gets on their case about all the “violence and fraud” (v. 9).

One of these days, says the prophet, it’s all going to catch up with you.  It’s later than you think!  Verse 14 says: “The great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast.”  In verses 15 to 18, he reels off a laundry list of gruesome things on the way.  Verse 17 is especially lovely.  For those who “have sinned against the Lord, their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like refuse” (NKJV).  That last word[2] is literally translated as “dung.”

Nobody can accuse him of trying to sugar coat his message!

Still, as with other prophets, Zephaniah isn’t all doom and gloom.  The bad news is followed by good news.  The discipline of the Lord means a lead to restoration.  We hear in chapter 2: “Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, who do his commands; seek righteousness, seek humility; perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the Lord’s wrath” (v. 3).

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There’s a common misperception about what’s called the wrath of God.  It’s not some “arbitrary outburst, like the unpredictable anger of a parent who lashes out at his children.”  Far from it, says Dan Clendenin.  “Divine judgment is equitable and even merciful in that, like a loving parent, it demonstrates that God has not given up on me, that [God] is not done with me.”[3]

With the day of the Lord, Zephaniah and the other prophets are doing something revolutionary.  Klaus Koch says, “For the first time [ever], human beings dared to make hope the foundation of their…theology.  The prophets therefore brought a futuristic turn into the thinking of following centuries.”[4]  People started to believe that God’s actions are by necessity pointing toward the future.

“My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.”

And that fits perfectly into the Easter season.  We have gone from Good Friday, the crucifixion (when all hope is lost) to the resurrection (when hope against hope is reborn).  We have gone from dark to light.  It comes in the most unusual of ways.

In Terry Hershey’s book, Sanctuary: Creating a Space for Grace in Your Life, he tells a story of going to Atlanta for a meeting of Spiritual Directors International.

Having some spare time, he goes to get a haircut.  He engages in small talk with Sharon, the hairdresser.  It progresses a little further, and he talks about his father, who survived cancer.  She tells him that, like his father, she also is a cancer survivor.

4 zpHershey says he told her “I’m sorry.”  He asked, “‘When did you learn about the cancer, and what kind of treatment did you go through?’  ‘I had the whole nine yards.’  She laughs.  ‘Surgery.  And then more surgery and then chemo.’  We are quiet, except for the sound of scissors.  ‘It’s the best thing that ever happened to me,’ she adds…[5]

“‘It has made me softer,’ she tells me.  ‘And now, I love different.’”[6]

He concludes, “After the conference someone asked me, ‘What did you do there?’  Well, I got a haircut.  And I felt my heart soften just a little.”[7]

I imagine some of you have had similar experiences.  I mentioned during the discussion of the book that, with my own experience of cancer, I (humorously) divided my life into BC and AD: “before cancer” and “after diagnosis.”  And I think I can agree with Sharon to some extent.  It’s probably not the best thing that’s ever happened to me, but it is right up there.  It opened to me a new world of understanding about people with physical, mental, and emotional ailments.

It is indeed a question of going from the dark into the light.  Perhaps it’s having hope shape the future.

We’re so used to the idea of hope—be it hope fulfilled or hope denied—that we don’t understand what a leap in the evolution of human thought it is.  With the day of the Lord, and the messianic dream it inspired, people began to believe that the world itself could be transformed into something new.  And not only the world, but people themselves could be transformed.

5 zp

Is it possible we’ve forgotten how to have that hope—or possibly to recognize it when it knocks on our door?  How much are we like those poor souls Zephaniah speaks of?  You know, the confident and self-satisfied ones, “those who say in their hearts, ‘The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm’” (v. 12).

In The Message, Eugene Peterson put his own spin on verse 12.  On the day of the Lord, there’s a promise to “punish those who are sitting it out, fat and lazy, amusing themselves and taking it easy, Who think, ‘God doesn’t do anything, good or bad.  He isn’t involved, so neither are we.’”

Is there anything that we, in fact, might be too confident about?  What might the day of the Lord be calling us to?

Perhaps we all have our “day of wrath”… our “day of clouds and thick darkness”… our “day of trumpet blast and battle cry” (vv. 15-16).  Still, the day of the Lord calls us to not abandon hope.  Hope is calling our name and leading us on.  Though we travel through darkness and gloom, the glory of the sun will yet break forth.  Zephaniah ends his book on, well, a lighter note!

“On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak.  The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (3:16-17).

The darkness of that day gives way to light.

6 zp

[1] Elizabeth Achtemeier, Nahum-Malachi (Atlanta:  John Knox Press, 1986), 68.

[2] גּּלֶל (gelel)

[3] www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20081110JJ.shtml

[4] Klaus Koch, The Prophets: The Assyrian Period (Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1982), 163.

[5] Terry Hershey, Sanctuary: Creating a Space for Grace in Your Life (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2015), Kindle edition, Chapter 2, section 3, paragraph 7.

[6] Hershey, 2.3.10

[7] Hershey, 2.3.18


the only way out is through

When I was a kid, I was usually the first one to finish the meal.  My mom said I would inhale my food.  That was especially true with food I really loved.  If there were spaghetti or fried chicken or a baked potato on my plate, it would disappear pretty quickly.

That wasn’t quite so true if something I hated were on the dish before me, such as okra, sauerkraut, onions: they tended to make me gag.  I would consume them at a glacial pace.  Still, all in all, if anyone were wolfing down their food, it would be me.

1 zpAs I got older, I began to slow down.  I learned it’s okay to enjoy one’s food!  It’s not a race; there’s no finish line.  I also learned it’s okay to not stuff as much food as possible down my gullet.  On visits to restaurants with buffets, I’ve often been next to people putting small mountains on their plates.  Maybe they believe it’s their final meal.

There is something to be said for patience.  That seems to have become a foreign concept for us Americans.  We want something, but we don’t want to wait for it.  We want it now!  Impatience has become a virtue.  And as I said about the food earlier, too often we’re in a hurry.

I would humbly suggest that we often treat the season of Advent the same way.

Christopher Edmonston talks about that in his article, “Advent and the Grace of Delayed Gratification.”[1]  “Like a microwave pizza that is flimsy to the touch and plastic to the taste,” he says, “the instant gratification we desire isn’t very palatable…  Spiritual renewal and deepening discipleship cannot be ordered overnight.  It is fantasy to think otherwise.  There really is no app for encountering God.”

How, you might ask, do we approach Advent in that way?

He continues, “But we do have Advent, a time of deep, countercultural practice that offers a corrective to the maddening pace all around us.  Advent makes us wait.  Structured as a walk—a long, slow walk—the positive deviance of Advent mirrors the pregnancy of Mary.  Just as no mother moves from conception to birth in two days, no ministry can be conceived, nurtured and birthed into the world without time to grow and mature.”

I like that: “positive deviance.”  Jesus was positively deviant in many ways.

2 zp

Advent reminds us to stop; breathe; take a look around.  You notice so much more by walking down the street than by driving down it.  Wonderful discoveries are made!

One more note from our friend Christopher: “For very good reasons, there is no expressway to Bethlehem.  We walk alongside the expectant couple, carrying our own hopes with us.  Moving a little more slowly, we behold the majesty of God’s unfolding kingdom instead of missing it while we zoom by.”  Kind of like walking down the street?

“The baby will come, but on his time, not on ours.  Advent’s journey of delayed gratification becomes a chance to slow down and behold the ordinary, which is what we need more than anything else.”

There are indeed good reasons why Advent is celebrated.  There is a deep spirituality involved in it.  And it is profoundly countercultural.  (And I did think of using the word “countercultural” before I came across the article!)  We are deafened by the cacophony surrounding it, starting well before Advent itself, even before Thanksgiving.  Still, Advent defiantly speaks with a peaceful, silent voice.

The third Sunday of Advent has traditionally been called Gaudete Sunday.  That’s the Latin word for “rejoice.”  The epistle reading in Philippians 4 begins, “Rejoice in the Lord always” (v. 4).  Advent is meant to be a season of penitence and reflection.  Midway through the season, it’s felt we need a moment to catch our breath, so to speak.  We need to lighten up—that’s why we have the rose-colored candle.

The Old Testament reading comes from the book of the prophet Zephaniah.  It’s easy to see why this reading has been appointed for this particular day.  “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel!  Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” (v. 14).

There’s plenty of celebration in this final part of the book.  Here are some snippets: “The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies” (v. 15).

3 zp“The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (v. 17).

“I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth” (v. 19).

“At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord” (v. 20).  Amen!

Hearing that, one might think Zephaniah is all sunshine and gladness.  That would be quite wrong!  The large majority of the book could rightly be called doom and gloom.  Speaking for God, the first thing the prophet says is “I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth” (1:2).  Now there’s something pleasant to ponder.

One thing Zephaniah speaks of is the day of Yahweh, the day of the Lord.  The day of the Lord has various nuances, but basically it is the time of the Lord’s visitation, the day of judgment, when things will be set right.  The people are longing for it; they are eager for their reward.

However, the wicked have a surprise.  Here’s a sample of his take, using a bit of poetic license: “The great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast…  Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the Lord’s wrath…a terrible end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth” (1:14, 18).  Maybe it’s a case of “be careful what you wish for.”

To make a long story short, Zephaniah denounces Judah for its corruption and wickedness, and he denounces the surrounding countries for their corruption and wickedness.  This is during the time when the Babylonian Empire is getting ready to flex its muscles.

So what does this have to do with the earlier comments on Advent?  As I suggested, there can be a tendency to rush through the season; we would like to travel an “expressway to Bethlehem,” as our writer put it.  In saying the lectionary reading picks out the one note of joy in the book, I’m not saying it would be appropriate to focus on all that doom and destruction.  That’s not what Advent is about!

But there can be a similarity to the way we usually approach Advent as I said before, as a time of penitence and reflection.

I believe it was last year when I remember Banu and I being at a couple of stores and at a restaurant.  I heard the song, “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday” played four times, and each time, it was done by a different artist!  And as I recall, it was still November!  It doesn’t exactly make for an atmosphere encouraging sober contemplation.

Maybe by talking about this, I might be labeled a “Debbie Downer” (or at least, a male version, whatever that would be).

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Have you heard the saying, “The only way out is through”?  That can have some unpleasant connotations.  I don’t think I like that saying!

One thing this applies to is joy and sorrow.  And maybe more specifically, it applies to grief.  Please remember; I’m not saying that’s the meaning of Advent!  The point is, like Advent, grief is something we often like to rush through—or jump over altogether.

When it comes to grief, unfortunately it’s true: the only way out is through.  But as we all know, grief is painful; it hurts.  Sometimes it hurts like hell.  There’s always the temptation to avoid it—the temptation to rush through it or jump over it altogether.  It can feel like, “Okay, I’m done with that!”

What happens, though, if we take that approach?  What happens if we short circuit grief?  What happens if we indeed try to rush through it, fill our lives with busyness and try to ignore it?  What happens if we indeed try to jump over it, just avoid any reminders of what and who we’ve lost?

It doesn’t go away, and it can resurface with a vengeance.  It can be a nagging, heavy burden we carry—perhaps without fully understanding why.  That’s often true at this time of year.  In that sense, maybe I should revisit my comment about saying Advent is not about doom and gloom.  For many people, it sure feels that way, especially when we’re told, “It’s the happiest time of the year!”

I’m aware that going through the process of grief doesn’t mean the pain goes away.  However, it does mean we no longer have to be controlled by it.  It makes a world of difference if we’re allowed and able to share it with others.  I’ve heard it said, “grief never ends because love never ends.”[2]  There can be a sense of mutual solidarity, compassion, and courage.

The only way out is through.

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Advent asks for mindfulness.  Awaiting the coming of the Lord means waking up.  In Luke 3, the people ask John the Baptist, “What then should we do?” (v. 10).  I’ll confess; too often I need to be prodded (maybe with a cattle prod) to wake up.  Slumber can be too attractive!

When we miss Advent, we miss in a special way, as the prophet reminds us, the Lord in our midst.  We miss the one who gives us the victory.  We miss being renewed in the Lord’s love.  We miss hearing the Lord exulting over us with loud and love-filled singing.

[The painting, Zephaniah, is by James C. Lewis.]

 

[1] www.faithandleadership.com/christopher-edmonston-advent-and-grace-delayed-gratification

[2] medium.com/wordsthatmatter/why-grieve-is-the-word-of-the-year-1662e2fa4941


the state of the union, imho

I checked, and the title of my sermon this time last year was “Independence Day Theological Reflections of One American.”  Quite a mouthful.  This year, “The State of the Union” is a bit shorter.  And if delivering a “state of the union” address means I’m getting too big for my britches, I do add “in my humble opinion.”

1 independence

Right away, I freely admit hearing the prophet Jeremiah chew people out at the temple and hearing Jesus telling us to love our enemies is not your typical Independence Day sermon.  However, I do have an explanation.  But we’ll get back to it in a few moments!

I can’t resist tossing something in about paying your taxes.  Did you know it’s a spiritual discipline?  Well, sort of.  In Romans 13, St. Paul says, “Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due” (v. 7).  And that, coming from a guy who knew all about being persecuted by the government!

So there is that political dimension, which makes sense.  Words like “Lord” (κυριος, kurios) and “Savior” (σωτηρ, sōtēr), in the first century, are not just theological, but they’re also political.  The terms “Lord” and “Savior” are titles attributed to the emperor of Rome.  Nero and Domitian, a couple of emperors with really big egos and serious self-esteem issues (which are qualities bullies possess), are especially insistent about it.  They crave adoration with a vengeance.

2 independence

When the early Christians call Jesus “Lord and Savior,” they are well aware of what they’re doing.  For them, it isn’t an empty phrase.  It’s not something to put on Facebook and hope that you’ll get plenty of “likes.”  They are saying “no” to the arrogance of empire.  They risk losing their jobs, their freedom, or something even worse.

Neither the northern kingdom of Israel nor the southern kingdom of Judah had empires.  Still, like most countries, they had their own brands of patriotism.  Banu has told me on several occasions when she was growing up she was taught, “There’s nothing more glorious than being a Turk!”

Jeremiah faces a situation in which the temple is being used as a tool of the state.  It has been co-opted by patriotism gone wild.  The temple has been turned into an idol.  The threat of the Babylonians, who have been gobbling up countries right and left, has the people of Judah fearing for their lives.  And that’s understandable.  But in times of fear, even paranoia, the temptation to grab easy answers can be almost irresistible.

That is what’s going on here.  There is a belief that God will not allow Jerusalem and the temple to be destroyed.  In the midst of uncertainly, while the winds are howling, there’s a safe haven in the storm—and it’s the symbol of national pride and where the priests do business.

Unfortunately, as the prophet points out, if your conduct is criminal, if you disregard the distressed, if you neglect the needy, the temple won’t protect you.  But talk like that flies in the face of the official line.  Jeremiah is tired of the propaganda, the empty slogans, and he makes fun of them.  “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord” (v. 4).

3 independenceAnd he’s saying all of this at the temple of the Lord!  The prophet calls out the political and religious powers-that-be, and he does it in plain sight.  (Or as my mom told me when I was a kid, “Before God and everybody!”)  He issues his protest, “Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail” (v. 8).

As you might expect, Jeremiah is labeled a traitor, and all kinds of bad stuff happens to him—but we can leave that for another day.

Distinguishing between patriotism and idolatry can be a tricky thing.  Love of country is part of the love of God’s good creation, though caution is warranted, lest it divide us.  Loving the gift of God is right and praiseworthy.  Still, too often we love the gift more than the Giver.

We might put some questions to the fellows we just looked at.  Do we go along with Paul and pay taxes, even if they’re used for an evil purpose?  The Romans ruled with an iron fist.  Of course, Jesus also paid taxes, and he wound up getting the death penalty.

What about Jeremiah?  Is he a whistleblower, or is he endangering the country?  Is he a precursor to Edward Snowden—though not many people would call Snowden a prophet!

I think there are more questions than answers when we look at this stuff, but questions are a good thing.

I just said distinguishing between patriotism and idolatry can be tricky.  For those of us who would maintain that Christ and Caesar are not the same thing, we do have to tread carefully.  An Independence Day sermon can be tricky!  Choosing to do one can be tricky.  Talk about treading carefully.

Something that came to mind this past week was an experience in 1991, just as the first Gulf War was beginning.  My pastor made it quite clear he was in favor of the war.  I was not, but that’s really not my point here.  The Sunday after the war started, I knew it would be the theme for worship.  And I knew I would be miserable, so I attended church elsewhere.  At the big Methodist church in town, the war was mentioned in prayer, but that was it.

I went back to my church during the week, and the red, white, and blue bunting that adorned the stage was still there.  I thought it looked more like an election campaign headquarters than a church.  Recognizing the difference between Christ and Caesar can indeed be difficult.

4 independence

The apostle Paul says paying taxes is an act of faithfulness.  At the same time, the prophet Jeremiah speaks truth to power.  Now, here comes Jesus, with his call to love our enemies.

Melissa Bane Sevier has interesting thoughts on the matter.[1]  She notices how Jesus expands on loving our enemies, especially in verses 46 and 47.  “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?  Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?  Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”

5 independenceShe says, “I can say I love someone while not really liking that person, right?  Avoiding them helps with the illusion that I don’t hate them, and if I don’t hate them, I must love them.”  That must be it!  Problem solved.

Still, she continues, “Avoidance doesn’t seem to be an option with Jesus.  I am required to greet all people, whether I love/like them or not.  And if I only love/like the people who love/like me, I’m not being the person I need to be.  That’s more difficult than I thought.”

I don’t know about anyone else, but I believe she is speaking to me.  I believe Jesus is speaking to me.  And it is something I recognize.

I’m no fan of the big cable news networks.  They’re more interested in entertainment than journalism, in my humble opinion.  That’s a reflection of our society and its dualistic, simplistic view of reality.  It’s us and them, winners and losers, black and white.  To be honest, it’s too often a reflection of the church.

Greeting those with whom I disagree is more than not getting into an argument.  It actually involves engaging with them, even if it seems so tiresome!

6 independenceSevier notes, “Praying for them is so much more difficult than not-hating them.  Not-hate is passive; prayer is far more active.”  And it’s not simply praying for their hearts to change.  I’ve been guilty of that one!  When we pray for our enemies, it’s most of all, our heart that changes.  Maybe you’ve heard the saying, “Your enemy is your best teacher”?

She concludes, “Praying won’t make me less convinced of the rightness of justice, but it will help me see the person on the other side as a real person, not as someone I want to defeat…

“For the next week, I’m going to choose one public figure a day—one who I think is really wrong-headed…and pray for that person.  I expect I will be changed.  Not in my convictions, but in my humanity.”

Imagine the state of the union if that were our measure of faithfulness.

Imagine the state of the union among us if that were our measure of faithfulness.

7 independence

[1] melissabanesevier.wordpress.com/2017/02/13/praying-for-enemies


wish you would hear

Has anyone here ever been exiled?  I wouldn’t suppose that any of us have been banished, or taken by force, to a foreign land.  I suppose it might be possible that someone has been taken from their home.  Perhaps I should rephrase it to say, “Has anyone here ever felt like they had been exiled?”

FightMaybe someone has had to go to a Thanksgiving dinner with that certain family member present who likes to air his or her annoying opinions.  It could be political or religious ideas.  Maybe it’s the one who makes inappropriate remarks.  Is there someone who chastises you on your life decisions?  “You know, if I were you…”  “I don’t want to be critical, but…”

For four or five hours, you might feel like you’re living in exile!

Banu and I had a sort of exile last year.  Please understand, my mom had nothing to do with that!  I’m just talking about my wife and me!

We felt compelled to make the trip to Tennessee, largely to help with my mother’s health needs and some house repair.  In effect, we took a hiatus from the Presbyterian Church; we were sent from our “homeland.”  In our “exile,” we tried other options: among them, pursuing chaplaincy at an urban community center, substitute teaching, even ordination in the Episcopal Church.  In one way or another, the doors remained closed.

We realized that, for right then, we needed to settle down, at least as far as our direction in life was going.  Jeremiah says something like that in his letter to the exiles in Babylon (chapter 29).  They need to make a home for themselves there.  And in reality, our calling to ministry had not changed.  It was simply the venue, the location, the nature of it.

In time, Banu and I were called out of exile.  It came in the form of a certain congregation looking for interim pastors!

The text from Jeremiah deals with people who actually are in exile.  That relates to some stuff I’ve said since we came here.

On several occasions, I’ve spoken about people in transition, congregations in transition, especially as it relates to the interim process.  I did that last week, using a term referring to the middle part of transition, the neutral zone.  Being in the midst of that in-between state, we’re like a life form in a cocoon at a certain point of its development.  We are transitional goo!

The exiles taken from Judah, the Babylonian captivity, are an excellent example of people in transition.  They certainly didn’t choose this transition; this is transition, big time!  Or maybe there’s another way to look at it.

There is something that deals with change and transition.  It’s from William Bridges, the one who uses the term “neutral zone” (though not in the Star Trek sense).  His theory is that “change is an event.  Our experience of the change is transition.”[1]

The exiles definitely don’t choose this change.  They’re presented with some radically new events, whether they like it or not!  (Of course, I know none of us have ever had that experience.)

So they have this change.  The fact that it’s seriously dramatic, heartbreaking, and historic clearly make it more intense.  The question is how will they experience this change.  Their transition, if you go along with Bridges, can happen in many different ways.  They’ve been plopped down in the thick of it.  Now what?  That’s where the prophet Jeremiah steps in.

You might recall that Jeremiah has long been warning his fellow Judahites about the imminent threat of exile.  Well that day has come and gone, although we who are on the other side of history know that even more folks will be taking that road to Babylon.

Jeremiah 32 deals with the time the prophet bought some land while the country was being invaded—not the best time to purchase real estate!  Still, God promised him, “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land” (v. 15).  There will be people who return from exile.

And on this occasion, he’s writing a letter to the exiles.  Here is where he suggests the transition that can be their experience of change.

One writer sums it up like this:[2]

“The opening words of a pastoral letter sent to the exiles in Babylon: Get used to it; build a life in exile.  Adjust: build, plant, marry.  Create a communal infrastructure in exile.  Your task: seek the shalom (welfare) of the city…  The mission is not to overthrow a hostile regime, but to hold the regime to its own best promises.  The empire can practice shalom.  The exiled church [so to speak] can influence the empire.  Close your ears to liars who say we’re going back to normalcy.  Dismiss such illusions of escape.  Instead, make do, witness in your situation.”

We can see some themes here.  First, there’s Jeremiah in a pastoral role.  It might be hard to imagine that party-pooping prophet as a pastor, but he really does love the people.

Then there’s the instruction that they should stay put and build a life for themselves.  Don’t start guerrilla warfare!  Love your neighbor.  Invite them over for dinner.

And thirdly, they are reminded that they won’t simply be living there, but they also have a mission.  Their job is to witness—to testify!—that their God is still with them, even in the far away land of Babylon.

It’s possible to see Jeremiah’s letter in terms of developmental tasks for congregations in an interim period.  Typically, five tasks are mentioned.

They are (and they go by various names): Listening to History and Celebrating Heritage, Discovering a New Identity, Leadership Changes and Empowering New Leaders, Rethinking Denominational Linkages, and Commitment to New Leadership and to a New Future.  I want to especially focus on that second one, Discovering a New Identity.

Discovering a new identity can be really tricky.  There can be a fine line between holding on to what is still relevant and life-giving from the past and saying goodbye to what no longer is.  We learn from the exiles that in saying goodbye, there is loss to be grieved.

Our loss doesn’t begin to compare with that of the exiles, but there has been loss nonetheless.  There is a call for mourning.  Without acknowledging grief, without facilitating the process of mourning, we can hold on to what has already faded away.  Making room for grief is essential for spiritual, mental, and even physical health.

Sometimes it helps to just have a good cry!

Seek the peace

Jeremiah says God wants them to discover a new identity, to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (v. 7).  This is how they need to witness.  Exercise some holy defiance (not ill-tempered defiance, mind you!).  Show those around you that you lovingly claim the future into which God is leading you.

Still, some will say this is not necessary.  Don’t believe it!  Don’t listen to that hogwash!  Don’t say goodbye to the past, go back in time and reclaim it.  Sometimes they might claim God told them to say this.

God says of them, “Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord” (vv. 8-9).

Jeremiah must be going crazy about this.  He must want to tell them not, “I wish you were here,” but “I wish you would hear.”

This business of rebuking false prophets is a bit extreme for our situation, but it can be difficult to take the step of discovering a new identity.  As I hope I made clear, there doesn’t have to be (and probably shouldn’t be) a sharp break with the past.  But the willingness to let go opens us to that new identity, God’s new name for us.  And that helps in our witness.  It helps to form and clarify our mission.

image from 1.bp.blogspot.com

I like something Walter Brueggemann says about the exiles’ staying put, seeking the well-being of the place where they’ve been sent, and doing the difficult work on a new identity.  It all places on “this vulnerable, small community a large missional responsibility.  In this way, the community is invited into the larger public process of the empire.  [This] prevents the exilic community from withdrawing into its own safe…existence, and gives it work to do and responsibility for the larger community.”[3]

That’s a fancy way of saying that daring to ask ourselves, “Who do we want to be?”  “How do we adapt to our changing world?”  “Where is the Spirit leading us?”  All of that makes us vulnerable.  As with the exiles in Babylon, our mission reminds us to not withdraw into our own narrow concerns.  Don’t hunker down into a fortress or scarcity mentality.

Something that came out in a session on the interim process was about that very thing.  This congregation is, Banu and I believe, ahead of the curve in avoiding that fortress / build a wall / dig-out-a-moat-and-fill-it-with-alligators mentality.  One comment was “a current of receiving and giving” is evident here.

Keep that current flowing, and your mission will flow out of it.

Ending with verse 11 of our chapter, we see the promise to the exiles and to us.  “Surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”  That’s a rock solid guide during all of the interims and exiles of our lives.

 

[1] Peter Steinke, A Door Set Open (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2010), Kindle edition, chapter 7, section 5, paragraph 1.

[2] Handbook for the Revised Common Lectionary, Peter C. Bower, ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 257.

[3] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 257-258.


have I got an investment for you!

I’m sure we’ve all had someone come to us and say (or maybe we’ve said to someone else), “I’ve got good news and bad news.  Which do you want to hear first?”  Is it the good news or the bad news?

Here’s my guess.  Those who want the good news first might want to soften the blow for the bad news.  The idea is that the good news will put them in a good enough mood to deal with the bad news.

On the other hand, those who want the bad news first might see the value of delayed gratification.  Getting the bad news out of the way, steeling oneself to weather the storm, seems to be a good way of getting ready for relief.

Cat

Of course, it also depends on what the other person considers to be good news and bad news!

And then there can be the situation of deciding between the lesser of two evils, or the good problem of deciding between two happy alternatives.

Today’s Old Testament reading comes from the book of Jeremiah.  For those of you unfamiliar with it, that book has very few happy alternatives.  It has a lot of bad news!  The life of the prophet Jeremiah is filled with bad news.  Today’s passage has plenty of bad news.  But don’t worry, good news is on the way.  We’ll look at that in a few moments.

Here’s a quick look at Jeremiah and his world.

He lives in the late 7th century and early 6th century B.C.  (That’s the 600s to the 500s.)  The Babylonians are replacing the Assyrians as the superpower in the Middle East.  The northern kingdom of Israel has already been conquered by Assyria, but the southern kingdom of Judah, where Jeremiah lives, is still ripe for the picking.

Thanks to the call of God, which he tries to refuse, Jeremiah sees the writing on the wall.  The Babylonians are on the way.  So there’s some bad news.  He speaks against the corruption that has infected religious and political leadership alike. He does the prophetic job of afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.

And boy, does he pay for that.  He is mocked, made a laughing stock, physically abused, and even tossed in jail.  On more than one occasion, Jeremiah blames God for tricking him and betraying him.  It’s not for nothing that he’s been called “the weeping prophet.”

Jeremiah’s relationship with King Zedekiah can best be described as “complicated.”  (That sounds like a lot of romantic relationships!)  Unlike a previous king, Jehoiakim, who clearly hated the ground Jeremiah walked on, Zedekiah is torn.  He wants to listen to him, but he’s too afraid of what his enemies might do.  So he keeps going to Jeremiah, hoping he’ll change his tune.  “Come on, throw me a bone!  Tell me everything’s going to be fine!”  And Jeremiah would love to do that, but he can’t resist the call of God.

As a result, the prophet keeps on with the bad news: arming against the Babylonians is a no-win scenario.

I don’t know if she mentioned this to you, but Banu and I love vampires.  We love those bloodsuckers!  In fact, it was a TV show about vampires that helped bring us together in the first place.  It was the show Forever Knight, which was about a vampire police officer in Toronto.  We even like the Twilight movies, but my big complaint is that sunlight is supposed to burn vampires, not cause them to sparkle dreamily and take your breath away!

There’s a current TV show called The Strain, which is about people in New York City fighting an army of vampire-like creatures.  (It is not at all romantic!)  In the last episode, there was a quote that I think could easily be directed at Jeremiah.  The quote comes from a member of the city council to a reporter who is questioning police tactics.  People in jails are being gathered up and conscripted.  They’re being sent into the tunnels under the city to fight the vampires—and without a great deal of success, I might add.

Here’s what the council member says to the reporter: “Faith in the war effort is paramount.  And what you’re doing here undercuts all that.  Your work does nothing but serve your ego and cause me and my people more harm.”  After that, all of the equipment gets confiscated.

Obviously, the enemies Jeremiah warns about are not a horde of vampires!  But he is considered a traitor, and he is arrested for treason.  He’s said to be damaging the morale of the nation.  There seems to be a silent minority who agree with Jeremiah, but they’re too intimidated to speak out.  We’re only told about one person who publicly stands with Jeremiah, his secretary and friend, Baruch.  Zedekiah the king would like to release the prophet, but as I said earlier, he’s too scared.

In today’s scripture reading, he’s puzzled and terrified when he says to Jeremiah, “Why do you prophesy and say: Thus says the Lord: I am going to give this city into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall take it; King Zedekiah of Judah shall not escape out of the hands of the Chaldeans, but shall surely be given into the hands of the king of Babylon?” (vv. 3-4).

It’s while he’s in prison that God makes him a sales pitch.  “Have I got an investment for you!”

Glengarry glen ross

I’m sure those of you who’ve been involved in real estate have always conducted yourselves above board.  You wouldn’t stoop to shady practices that some realtors use as their business model.  There’s none of the conveniently forgetting some repairs that need to be made.

Jeremiah is told that his cousin, Hanamel, is on his way to visit him in jail, and he has a proposition.  “Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours” (v. 7).  That “right of redemption” refers to Leviticus 25.  It’s a way to keep ownership of property within the family.

Put yourself in Jeremiah’s place.  He’s in jail for pronouncing national destruction, and then he gets this message.  Binyamin Lau says it must seem like “a surreal hallucination.”[1]  Am I hearing voices, and what are those voices telling me to do?

When your country is being invaded, when it’s a time of war, when people are being sent into exile, real estate prices tend to take a nosedive.  God had already warned him that his cousin was going to offer him land—land that Jeremiah had to know would be insanely overpriced.  Hanamel was about to make a killing off this sale!  And yet, he was compelled to make the purchase.

(By the way, Hanamel will have quite a story to tell at the next family reunion.)

God isn’t bound by what we consider to be immutable laws of economics.  Laws of supply and demand aren’t a high priority for God.

So while he’s going through the business of payment and signing deeds, Jeremiah must feel like he’s being a fool.  So there’s some more bad news.  But in verse 15, we get some good news.  “For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”  There will be people who return from exile.

Even so, that’s not good enough for Jeremiah.  “Lord, I know you can do anything, but how in the world is this going to happen?”  The rest of chapter 32 is taken up with explanations.

Have we ever been in that situation?  Have we ever been given what feels like an albatross around the neck, and thought, what the heck am I going to do with this?  Why did I volunteer for this?  Or why did I let myself get drafted into this?  In life, so many decisions are beyond our control.  I think all of us understand that.  Jeremiah certainly does.

As congregations, we understand that.  You folks understand that.  You have some real estate questions of your own.  Some of you might feel like you have an albatross around your neck!

But like I just said, whatever “piece of land,” whatever call from God we’ve had to answer, can give us that feeling of the bottom dropping out.  We can feel like we’re left out on a limb.  There’s something in the pit of our stomach that’s doing somersaults.  And friends, that is bad news!

In case you haven’t guessed by now, I’m one of those people who wants the bad news first.  Just hit me with it!  I want the bad news first, because then I know the good news is right around the corner!

You might not realize it, but you’re sitting on a gold mine.  And I’m not just talking about bricks and mortar.  I’m not just talking about a piece of land.  That’s a discovery Jeremiah made.  When he bought that field from his cousin, it came with a promise from his God.  Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.  There are many layers of truth in that promise.  Still, unless Jeremiah takes that step of faith, he won’t be part of that good news.

On another occasion, when Jeremiah writes a letter to the exiles in Babylon, he reminds them of God’s word, in that “surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (29:11).  That’s a pledge we also can, and should, claim.

Australian pastor Bruce Prewer puts a question to us.  “Isn’t this a very good time to buy a block of Jeremiah’s land?”[2]

Jeremiah icon

From the darkness of prison, God shows Jeremiah the light of the good news.  It’s right around the corner.  Prewer adds, “Jeremiah would not live to see the new day, but it was promised by a God whose word was never broken.”  Some people say that Jeremiah is the most Christ-like of the prophets.  Like Jesus, he doesn’t welcome all the suffering that’s dished out to him, but he holds true.

Friends, Jeremiah might not have seen that new day, but it is dawning upon us.  The field of the prophet is again up for sale.  God is again making the promise to us.  “Have I got an investment for you!”

Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.

 

[1] Binyamin Lau, Jeremiah: The Fate of a Prophet, trans. Sara Daniel (Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2013), Kindle edition, Part 3, section 3, sub-section 11, paragraph 5.

[2] www.bruceprewer.com/DocC/C55sun26.htm


under a spell


In Revelation chapters 15 through 18, we’re presented with John’s vision of the seven angels with the seven last plagues, the seven bowls of God’s wrath, and the fall of Babylon. If you think we’ve been on a wild ride so far in Revelation, hold on to your seats, because things are about to get really crazy.

For John and the early church, “Babylon” was a code word for “Rome.” The persecution by Roman authorities was his generation’s experience of the evil of Babylon, which had been burned into the biblical tradition. As we’ve seen, John is steeped in the prophetic writings, and he makes ample use of them in portraying the diabolical nature of the state’s behavior toward the church.

But of course, this isn’t just about the Roman Empire. In Breaking the Code, Bruce Metzger notes, “Babylon is allegorical of the idolatry that any nation commits when it elevates material abundance, military prowess, technological sophistication, imperial grandeur, racial pride, and any other glorification of the creature over the Creator. In these chapters we have an up-to-date portrait of what may occur when we idolize the gross national product, worship growth, and become so obsessed with quantity that we ignore quality.” (88)

The problem with building a society that way: important warning signs are missed. Even though it is apparently quite powerful, the seeds of its destruction are being sown. As a result, notice in chapter 18 that “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” (v. 2). For those not paying attention, its fortunes are suddenly reversed. Disaster comes “in one hour” (v. 10).

After commenting on how “the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore,” John provides an import-export list, demonstrating the economic might. The list ends in verse 13 with the items, “slaves—and human lives.” The immediate context would include those forced to satisfy various lusts—those compelled to work in the sex trade, and those compelled to fight as gladiators in the arena.

We can’t so easily dispense with that last item, “human lives.” We have to ask ourselves in what ways do we still trade in human life? How do we still commodify each other? Following along with verse 23, in which “all nations were deceived by your sorcery,” are we also spellbound?