idol

summer's almost gone

I realize that people tend to think of the Labor Day weekend as the end of summer, and from a tourist perspective, maybe that’s so.  Not to be picky, but it is at the autumnal equinox.

To the extent that people have feelings associated with the end of summer, they often tend to be of a wistful, melancholy variety—a longing for those warm breezes and carefree nights.  As a kid, I had those feelings, along with a certain dread at having to go back to school.  But I also looked forward to fall, because that’s football season!  Even now, the first days of cool weather remind me of the fun I had playing that game.  Every year, at some point in time, I catch a scent or a feeling that fall really has arrived.  (It hasn’t happened yet.)

I’m reminded of a song by the sixties group the Doors.  They had a song called “Summer’s Almost Gone.”[1]  (And to avoid disparaging the late Jim Morrison, I won’t sing this!)

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“Summer’s almost gone, / Summer’s almost gone, / Almost gone, yeah, it’s almost gone / Where will we be when the summer’s gone?”  There really is a tone of gloominess to it.  The song ends this way: “Summer’s almost gone, / Summer’s almost gone / We had some good times but they’re gone / The winter’s coming on, summer’s almost gone.”  (Actually, winter is my favorite season!)

Jeremiah 8 has an expression in which the people, realizing that summer is over, consider it an evil omen.  “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved” (8:20).  Some say this refers to the drought mentioned in chapter 14.  Others see it as a saying that Jeremiah uses to sum up the mood of the people.  Maybe both are true.  One thing is sure: the impending invasion of the Babylonians has people wondering what to do.

We see the prophet’s torment because of all the disaster happening to the people.  Jeremiah utters his laments, his jeremiads.

“My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick” (8:18).  “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!” (9:1).  That fits right in with Jeremiah’s nickname, “the weeping prophet.”

He truly loves his compatriots, even though they haven’t shown much love to him.  In return for his desperate hopes and prayers that they’ll listen to the truth, Jeremiah’s been given ample helpings of all kinds of abuse: mockery, beating, and imprisonment.  His words have been twisted to make him sound like the enemy of the people.

2There are those who would say that the prophet is a fool to get so worked up over the fate of this bunch.  After the way they treated him, they deserve all the pain coming their way!  Why should he care what happens to people who’ve made his life hell?  Besides, it’s not like his tears are going to do any good anyway.

"Jeremiah" by Marc Chagall (1887-1985)

There are at least two responses to all this.  First, Jeremiah isn’t naïve.  He clearly knows the nature of the people he grieves, both the few who’ve been kind to him and the many who haven’t.  Continuing in chapter 9, we hear his cry: “O that I had in the desert a traveler’s lodging place, that I might leave my people and go away from them!  For they are all adulterers, a band of traitors” (v. 2).

Jeremiah would like to have a place way out in the wilderness.  It would be nice to separate himself from all the villainous stuff going on.  He would like to get away from it all.  Get some peace and quiet.  Jeremiah needs to get a Land Rover or maybe an ATV.

Still, having said that, the prophet’s care—his sorrow—does accomplish something.  There is a certain wisdom gained.  We do learn from grief things we can’t learn in any other way.  I imagine that’s a class no one’s in a hurry to sign up for!  But if Jeremiah were to harden his heart—if he were to say goodbye to compassion—he would become less human.  That goes along with the call which came to him as a youngster: “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord” (1:8).

What about us?  From whom do we need deliverance?  From whom do we need rescue?  Could it be ourselves?

Jeremiah wails, “For the brokenness of the daughter of my people I am broken, I mourn, and horror has seized me” (8:21).  For their brokenness I am broken.

We are all familiar with twelve-step groups.  There are Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon, Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, and others.  I have attended one AA meeting.  Our church in Jamestown hosted a group.  I asked permission to be there for the beginning of the meeting.  I made sure to leave before they started sharing personal stuff.

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I will confess I have a bit of a problem with the idea saying, “Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic.”  I understand there are medical, psychological, even spiritual components involved.  It’s not something to take lightly.  But it seems to me if we always refer to ourselves as an alcoholic, we make it part of our identity.  There is a sense in which we can own a disease or an addiction.

I remember when I was in seminary taking a program called Clinical Pastoral Education.  It’s required for ordination as a Presbyterian minister.  For most people, it involves an internship as chaplain, usually in a hospital.  At our first meeting, we began with introductions.  One of our members was a lady who literally said, “I am cancer.”  (Not, “I have—or have had—cancer.”  Or, “I am a survivor of cancer.”)

Now that is a case of making a disease your identity.  She eventually gave us her actual name!

Without a doubt, we are all broken in various ways.  We sin, and we need a savior.  Nonetheless, if we take brokenness as our identity, the defining characteristic of who we are, does that mean we will remain broken?  Here’s an unsettling question: do we come to embrace our brokenness?  Do we begin to love it?

Jeremiah seems to recognize this.  He looks at those around him and concludes, “They all deceive their neighbors, and no one speaks the truth; they have taught their tongues to speak lies; they commit iniquity and are too weary to repent” (9:5).  In the Revised English Bible, that last line reads, “deep in sin, they weary themselves going astray.”

They’ve basically said, “It’s hopeless; we’re too far gone.”  And that bit about teaching their tongues to speak lies can lead to a point where the moral compass is completely broken.  We lose the ability to discern right from wrong.  Thus we have verse 6: “Oppression upon oppression, deceit upon deceit!  They refuse to know me, says the Lord.”

The New Jerusalem Bible puts a disturbing twist on it.  “You live in a world of bad faith!  Out of bad faith, they refuse to know me, Yahweh declares.”

A world of bad faith.

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Bryce Dallas Howard in a quirky take on social credit in the episode "Nosedive" on the series Black Mirror.

I would like to suggest one possible example of that is social credit.  For those who don’t know, social credit is a measurement of how good a citizen one is.  It originated in China with businesses and individuals scored on categories like charitable actions, care for the environment, proper online behavior, and many others.  There are some commendable aspects of social credit.  The problem comes with who determines what are positive and what are negative qualities—big tech, the government, our next door neighbor?

We see this system evolving in what have been democratic nations.

Libertarian writer Kristin Tate has commented on this.[2]  “The potential scope of the…social credit system under construction is enormous.  The same companies that can track your activities and give you corporate rewards for compliant behavior could utilize their powers to block transactions, add surcharges or restrict your use of products.  At what point does free speech—be it against biological males playing in girls’ sports, questioning vaccine side effects, or advocating for gun rights—make someone a target in this new system?”…

“Peer pressure, trendy movements, and the ability to comply with the new system with the click of a mouse combine all of the worst elements of dopamine-chasing Americans.  As it grows in breadth and power, what may be most surprising about our new social credit system won’t be collective fear of it, but rather how quickly most people will fall in line.”

It’s a short step, if we haven’t already reached it, for the power of public shaming to take hold.  We could be encouraged (or commanded) to report on each other, in the best tradition of totalitarian societies.  It is surveillance gone wild.  On the plus side, we can finally be excused for using our binoculars to spy on others.  After all, it’s our civic duty.

The prophet warns, “Beware of your neighbors, and put no trust in any of your kin, for all your kin are supplanters, and every neighbor goes around like a slanderer” (9:4).

We are wounded, and we wound each other.  How does one counteract slander, false reporting?  How often is a retraction issued which barely gets the coverage of the original sham story?

Our idols would kill us.  We discover these new shiny things, and they blind us in the glare.  The next thing you know, we have stumbled and fallen into a ditch—or off a bridge!

Still, there is healing.

On that matter, Jeremiah asks with dismay and disbelief, “Is there no balm in Gilead?  Is there no physician there?  Why then has the health of the daughter of my people not been restored?” (8:22).  Gilead was noted for its balm, produced by certain trees.  It was prized for its curative properties.  In the story of Joseph, his brothers sold him into slavery to a caravan traveling from Gilead.  Their destination was Egypt.  (I think we know the rest of the story.)  Among their cargo was the medicinal balm.

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There is the beloved hymn which affirms, “There is a balm in Gilead / to make the wounded whole / There is a balm in Gilead / to heal the sin-sick soul.”  That healing is found in our Lord Jesus Christ, the great physician.

The harvest is past, the summer is ended, but salvation is at hand.

 

[1] www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Fe0UcS2uFw

[2] thehill.com/opinion/finance/565860-coming-soon-americas-own-social-credit-system/


what are you doing here?

Have you ever been so confused that you didn’t know up from down, black from white, in from out?  Have you ever forgotten someone’s name?  I’m sure we’ve all done that.  However, I’m not talking about someone we’ve only met once or twice.  I’m talking about someone we really know—a person whose name we ought to remember.  I’ll admit, that’s been me on more than one occasion!

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Now that is being confused.  We could think of other examples of confusion, unless we’re too confused to do so.

In 1 Kings 19, we catch someone in his own state of confusion, the prophet Elijah.  We’ll get to that later on.

Here’s a bit of the back-story.  Ahab is king, and Jezebel is his foreign wife.  Her father is a priest of the goddess Astarte.  Astarte, also known as Asherah, is the consort, the companion, of Baal.  At this time, the land is experiencing a terrible drought.  Elijah, the prophet of the Lord, says the rain will come only when he gives the word.  The priests of Baal can call on their god all they want.  Only the prophet of Yahweh can announce the end of this vicious drought.

In chapter 18, we have a quite bloody scene.  Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to see which god can burn up the sacrificial offering which has been laid out.  When fire from heaven descends and consumes the offering, Elijah is proven right.  In a moment that can only be called zealous, he has the other prophets put to death.

But before all the butchery, there is a note of humor!  While the prophets of Baal are crying out to their god, Elijah decides to be a comedian.  He says, “Cry aloud!  Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened” (v. 27).  Some translations, instead of “he has wandered away,”[1] have “he is relieving himself,” or he “is out sitting on the toilet”! (New Living Translation, Living Bible)

2 kg[not the same Baal, but maybe the point is made]

So basically, that is what’s been going on as we get to chapter 19.

The king lets the queen know what Elijah has done.  To say that Jezebel is displeased with Elijah would be an understatement.  She sends a messenger to tell the prophet, “You’re a dead man.”

So, on the heels of his greatest victory, Elijah takes to his heels!  He has defeated the prophets of Baal; the rains have returned at his word, but he is scared for his life.  He takes off, and not only does he take off; he leaves the country.  Elijah flees all the way to Beer-sheba, about one hundred miles away, in the southern kingdom of Judah.

Something to understand about Elijah is he is considered perhaps the foremost of the prophets.  For example, in the book of Malachi, his return is expected.  “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.  He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse” (4:5-6).  Receive his family counseling or else!

On the nights when the Passover seder is observed, a chair is always left empty for Elijah.

In the New Testament, Jesus says Elijah has come in the person of John the Baptist.  This is right after he has taken Peter, James, and John up the mountain where the Transfiguration occurs, and Moses and Elijah have had a little conversation with Jesus (Mt 17).

So Elijah winds up with some hefty credentials!

Very briefly, he leaves his servant in Beer-sheba, and strikes off alone into the wilderness where he finds “a solitary broom tree,” also known as a juniper tree (v. 4).  He lies down, ready to die.  An angel visits, giving him food and water, and lets him know he must continue his journey.  Elijah travels “forty days and forty nights,” symbolic in the Bible of a very long time (v. 8).

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He takes refuge in a cave at Mount Horeb, where Moses received the Ten Commandments.

“Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’” (v. 9).  Here’s his response.  It’s rather lengthy, and we’ll hear it again.  “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts, for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword.  I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away” (v. 10).

What are you doing here?

On the face of it, the answer seems obvious.  He just woke up; he had been asleep.  Of course, that’s not really the question.  Aside from the “here,” there’s the desire to know, “why are you here”?  Putting a finer point on it, we might see it as, “Why did you run from Jezebel?”  Why were you afraid?  Why did you fear?

Is it possible that the full weight of hearing a death sentence pronounced shook his resolve?  Does it make it more real?

The Lord tells Elijah to take his place on the mountain, as Moses did centuries earlier, because there’s about to be a divine visitation.  Where is the Lord?  A storm arrives, leaving destruction in its wake.  But no, the Lord isn’t there.  Then there’s an earthquake, shaking up the place, sending boulders loose.  After that, a raging fire breaks out, filling the sky with smoke.  Still, neither one is a sign of God’s presence.

After all the drama—after the blowing, shaking, and burning—there is an eerie stillness.  Remember if there’s anyone who can appreciate spectacle, it’s Elijah.  We are introduced to him just as he’s going to confront the king regarding the drought.  And of course, there’s the high drama when he faces the prophets of Baal.

As verse 12 puts it, there was “after the fire a sound of sheer silence.”  The King James Version has the familiar “after the fire a still small voice.”

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[photo by Kelly3339 on Pixabay]

“When Elijah heard it…”  He heard in the quiet of the hush.  He listened to the absence of sound.  Elijah…  Elijah…  Elijah!

“What are you doing here?”

I said earlier Elijah has his own state of confusion.  This, I would submit, is evidence of such.  I also would submit there’s a bit of speculation on my part!

What is Elijah’s response?  “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts, for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword.  I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away” (v. 14).  Wait, haven’t we heard that before?

Elijah repeats his previous answer verbatim.  (Here’s more speculation.)  It seems to be rehearsed.  Does he have nothing else to say?  Is he making excuses?  Could he be trying to prove his worth?  Is he trying to convince himself of something?  Is he trying to convince the Lord?

Thinking of Elijah’s repeated answer as a narrative as to where he is, I wonder if there’s a narrative I hold onto?  Do I have a story I repeat to deflect those kinds of questions and concerns?  Why am I here?  Why do I run, not necessarily from Jezebel, but from whatever?  Why do I fear?  Are there excuses I make?

However, more importantly, whose am I?  To whom do I belong?

In the collected Letters and Papers from Prison, there is a poem by Dietrich Bonhoeffer which he wrote about nine months before being executed by the Nazis.  He was killed mere weeks before his prison camp was liberated by the Allies.  Here are the final lines of the poem, titled “Who am I?”[2]

“Who am I?  This or the Other? / Am I one person today and tomorrow another? / Am I both at once?  A hypocrite before others, / And before myself a contemptible, woebegone weakling? / Or is something within me like a beaten army / Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

“Who am I?  They mock me, these lonely questions of mine, / Whoever I am, Thou Knowest, O God, I am thine.”

5 kgCan anyone relate to the thought, “Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?”  I think Elijah demonstrates that vividly.  In ways, I feel like I also display that quality.

And then, those final words.  “Who am I?  They mock me, these lonely questions of mine, / Whoever I am, Thou Knowest, O God, I am thine.”

The Lord answers Elijah.  The Lord gives him a mission.  He is to be a kingmaker: Hazael in Aram and Jehu in Israel.  As his protégé, he is to anoint Elisha.

To Elijah, the Lord affirms, you are my prophet.  You are my servant.  However, you aren’t the only faithful one.  Verse 18 says, “Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”  That’s both a comfort and a correction.

The Lord uses the language of “kiss,” with all the intimacy and consequences it carries.  Every mouth that has not kissed Baal.  The faithful ones have not given themselves to this foreign god, this false god.  They have not pledged their allegiance.  They have not promised their hearts.

We should take note: in Hebrew thought, “heart” is not the seat of emotion.  It is not where we feel love, the way we reckon it.  It is the source of attention, choice, concern, imagination, understanding.  It is where we love God and love our neighbor.  Pledging ourselves to a false god, to an idol, interferes with all of that.  Indeed, it sends it in the wrong direction.

We have here a tale of rediscovery.  Despite his protests to the contrary, Elijah’s actions reveal he has forgotten he is a prophet of God.  He flees in disorder from victory already achieved.  Elijah is reminded who he is.  True to his nature as one with a flair for the dramatic, when he ascends from the earth, he does so in a chariot of fire.

So often, we forget who we are.  As the children of God, as the saved of our Lord Jesus Christ, as those sustained by the Holy Spirit—when we remember that and act on it—confusion is set aside.  Harmony and order are set in place.

Though we might flee in disorder from victory already achieved, Jesus makes us more than conquerors.

What are you doing here?

Whatever I am doing, whoever I am, Thou Knowest, O God, I am thine.

 

[1] the word for “wander” is שִֺיג, sig

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison: The Enlarged Edition (New York: Touchstone, 1997), 348.


idolatry and tyranny

Have you not known?

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

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

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

Have you not heard?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We can have our own inner tyrant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

[3] סׇכַן, sakan

[4] Knight, 39.

[5] Knight, 39.


freed minds

One of my favorite science fiction movies came out in 1999: The Matrix.  For those who don’t know, The Matrix stars Keanu Reeves.  His character’s name is Thomas Anderson, who by day has a job as a computer programmer.  At night, he is a computer hacker who calls himself Neo.  The movie also stars Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus, a legendary hacker who the government has branded a terrorist.

Morpheus contacts Neo, and a meeting is set up.[1]  During a captivating conversation, Morpheus tells him, “What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it.  You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world.  You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.”  The entire world, everything, is an elaborate computer program, the matrix.

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(On a side note, there are some physicists who speculate that our whole universe might be something like a computer program, possibly being run by others.)

Neo undergoes a procedure, and he wakes up to the real world, a desolate wasteland.  To make a long story short, Morpheus teaches Neo how to fight within the program.  He does this because he believes that Neo can liberate everyone from the matrix; he believes he is a kind of messiah.

As they’re sparring, Morpheus shouts at Neo, “What are you waiting for?  You’re faster than this.  Don’t think you are, know you are.  Come on.  Stop trying to hit me and hit me.”  They go back to fighting, and Neo stops his fist just before he hits Morpheus in the face.  “I know what you’re trying to do,” says Neo.  Morpheus responds, “I’m trying to free your mind, Neo.  But I can only show you the door.  You’re the one that has to walk through it.”

Free your mind.  Free your spirit.  I believe that’s a message the apostle Paul is giving the Galatians.  Or maybe the better way of putting it is, “God has freed your mind.  Accept that freedom.  Don’t go back to being a slave.”

Our scripture reading is part of a longer passage that goes back to chapter 3.  There, Paul speaks of the law of Moses as a kind of mentor, a supervisor.  But he also talks about Abraham, who lived hundreds of years before the law was handed down by Moses.  His faith, the faith of Abraham, was based on God’s promise that he would father a nation.  His faith wasn’t based on the law.

2 ga The law and the promise do not contradict each other, but with faith, in particular the faith of Christ, the law is transcended.  Old categories become meaningless.  As the apostle says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (3:28-29).

So with chapter 4, he carries that thought of the law being a supervisor or a disciplinarian by saying that with faith, we grow up.  We become adults.  Paul compares inheritors, while they’re still children, as basically equal to slaves.  They are still under tight restrictions.

There’s something dramatic that happens, something befitting the Christmas season.  Paul says that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law” (v. 4).  One might say that’s a verse pregnant with meaning!

Like any other squalling baby, Jesus emerges from the womb of a woman.  And he is born into a family that faithfully observes the Jewish law.

This happens in “the fullness of time.”  That’s when the time, the hour, had finally arrived; it was just the right time.  What does that mean?  In part, we can think of the Jewish faith and culture, with the steadily growing hope and expectation that the Messiah is about to arrive.  That helps explain the bitter disappointment when their would-be Messiah is killed, and the nation is still being ruled by foreigners.

Still, there is something known as the Pax Romana, the Roman peace, with its many beneficial qualities.

For example, it enabled the Roman Empire to build a network of roads.  The Roman peace made travel on those highways much safer.  It’s easier to run an empire if you can put down those pesky local rebellions, as well as offering security against criminal elements.  Another benefit was the flourishing of architecture and the arts.

3 gaThe ease of travel made possible the spread of the Greek language, which served as a common tongue throughout the Mediterranean.  The translation of the scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) into Greek helped spread the faith of the Jews, the faith in which Jesus was raised, into many different countries.

The work of human beings, the arc of history, usually serves a greater purpose than what we might imagine.  Behind it and through it emerges the fullness of time.

In this fullness of time, the Son has arrived to redeem us, to buy us back, to set us free.  We are now adopted as children of God.  There is no greater freedom.  As with Abraham and Sarah—as with the Galatian church—we have been set free because of the promise of God, not because we’ve been able to obey the law.

But there’s a problem with all of this.  Paul sees it in the Galatians, and honestly, it’s also a problem with us.  There’s something in us that wants to reject freedom.  There’s something in us that doesn’t want our minds to be free—that doesn’t want our spirits to be free.

Let me give you another example from The Matrix.  One of the characters is named Cypher.  He’s tired of life in the real world, with the running and hiding from the machines that maintain the matrix.  He’s tired of its blandness; he longs for the life he used to have—like what we too often have—even though it’s an illusion.

There’s a scene in which he’s sitting in a restaurant with one of the agents: computer programs in human form who are guardians within the matrix.  Cypher is eating a juicy steak.  He admits that the steak isn’t real, but he likes it.  He wants to have his memory wiped and be put back into the matrix.  Cypher wants to reject his freedom and go back to when he was enslaved—provided he doesn’t know he’s a slave.

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How appropriate for a guy whose name means “zero”!

So remember, the problem with the Galatians is that there are those among them who still insist they must observe the law, to unwittingly return to slavery.  It applies to both Jewish and Gentile Christians.  They want to go back to what they’ve known.  There is a comfort in hanging on to what gives you the feeling of control.  I certainly understand it!  Freedom can be a scary thing.

The apostle Paul sees even more at stake.  By rejecting their freedom in Christ, they actually are choosing idolatry.  He tells them, “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods” (v. 8).  He’s having trouble understanding what they’re up to.

He continues, “Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits?” (v. 9).  The word for “elemental spirits” is στοιχεια (stoicheia), which has several definitions.  In this case, he’s probably speaking of the rules imposed by those old gods.  Paul is truly exasperated.  He says, “I am afraid that my work for you may have been wasted” (v. 11).  He wonders if he’s just been frittering away his time.

Last month, while speaking of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, I noted he congratulates them on how they encourage one other.  How about the Galatians?  They must have an especially praiseworthy attribute.  If they do, the apostle doesn’t mention it.  He has already said, “You foolish Galatians!” (3:1).  Some translations are even harsher.  “You stupid Galatians!  You must have been bewitched.” (Revised English Bible).  Has somebody put you under a spell?  Are you taking crazy pills?

And remember what they want to be enslaved to: “the weak and beggarly elemental spirits,” “those powerless and bankrupt elements.” (New Jerusalem Bible)  They’re playing the role of Cypher from The Matrix!

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I wonder, how often do we reject our scary freedom?  How often do we choose those powerless and bankrupt elements?  What are these pitiful, worthless things which we place on the altars of our hearts?  How can those who “have come to know God, or rather to be known by God,” choose slavery to what is nothing?

We so often imitate the Israelites who, having fled the chains of Egypt, berate Moses and long to return (Nu 14:4).

Richard Rohr comments on this business of serving what is nothing.[2]  “Less than a block from where I used to live in downtown Albuquerque, there is a sidewalk where the homeless often sit against the wall to catch the winter sun.  Once I saw fresh graffiti chalked clearly on the pavement in front of the homeless.  It said, ‘I watch how foolishly man guards his nothing—thereby keeping us out.  Truly God is hated here.’”

So again I wonder, what are the nothings to which we so desperately cling?  How do we forget our status as adopted children of God and turn back to slavery?

Soon after being chosen as pope, Francis addressed the Vatican Curia, their governing body.  He listed fifteen diseases that he had noticed among them.[3]  (In doing so, Francis showed himself to be a frank pope.)

One disease is “Spiritual Alzheimer’s”: “a progressive decline of spiritual faculties…, living in a state of absolute dependence on one’s own often imaginary views.  We see this in those who have lost their recollection of their encounter with the Lord…in those who build walls around themselves and who increasingly transform into slaves to the idols they have sculpted with their own hands.”  Francis sees in the Vatican leadership this same forgetfulness of God and turning to slavery that we just looked at.

If we reject the loving freedom of God and turn back to idols, we will inevitably do harm to each other.

Those in Christ have been set free.  To explore that freedom, there are always new doors to open.  But like freedom, opening those doors can be scary.  We might want to stay where we are, circle the wagons, and hold on to what we already know, or perhaps, what we think we know.  We might want to stay behind the walls we’ve built, and not walk through the door into new territory.

We are on the verge of a new year—2021.

Recently during our prayer time, I shared some reflections of gratitude sent by readers of the New York Times.  They were asked to submit a statement of six words, expressing what they were thankful for from this past year.  Over ten thousand replies were received.  Many caught my eye, but here are three I mentioned: “There’s really more kindness than hate.”  “Thankful for sweet potato pie, y’all.”  “I am thankful to be thankful.”

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{a scene from Antwone Fisher of gratitude and welcome (the video's aspect ratio might be off)}

A freed mind, a liberated mind, is a grateful mind—it is a grateful spirit.  Having said that, I must also confess there is absolutely no doubt that this past year has brought way more than its share of heartbreak and sorrow.  People all over the globe can attest to that.  We here can attest to that.  Still, as the prophet says, “The people [we who have been] walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned” (Is 9:2).

That is the subtle strength, the peaceful power, of Christmas.  This season is teaching us lessons.  Christ lives within us.  In what fullness of time do we now find ourselves?  May it be a time in which we welcome each other—and the Christ within us—as we together walk into that new freedom.

 

[1] www.imdb.com/title/tt0133093/trivia?tab=qt&ref_=tt_trv_qu

[2] https://myemail.constantcontact.com/Richard-Rohr-s-Daily-Meditations--How-Foolishly-We-Guard-Our--Nothing-----Ecumenism----July-8--2013.html?soid=1103098668616&aid=zXdIB1uvLD4

[3] www.washingtonpost.com/news/world/wp/2014/12/22/the-15-ailments-of-the-vatican-curia-according-to-pope-francis/


because I can

“What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”  We’ve all heard that.  Translation: whatever trouble, whatever debauchery, you get into on a trip to Las Vegas, don’t worry; it stays there.  You won’t have to face the consequences when you leave town.  The hijinks that occurred will never be mentioned!  Never mind that Las Vegas is a city where actual families live.  (Though I would question the wisdom of building a metro area in the desert.)  It still has the nickname “Sin City.”

1 1 coI start with Las Vegas because it isn’t the only place in world history noted for its decadence.  Paul’s letters to the Corinthians are directed to a church in a city that could give Vegas some pointers.  Corinth is a major crossroads in the Roman Empire.  It’s a prominent hub of commerce; people from many nations, speaking many languages, and many social backgrounds flow through it.  Corinth provides a market for a variety of goods and services—that is, goods and services of all kinds, appealing to appetites of varying levels of decorum.

In fact, there was a verb that came into popular use: “to Corinthianize,” referring to engaging in promiscuity and immorality.

That is the city providing the background for Paul’s letters to the Corinthian church.  As I noted last month, this church has given him plenty of grief.  He’s had to get after them for being too lax, and then for being too strict.  They’ve split themselves up into competing factions; they’ve treated the poor with disrespect; they’ve chased after the latest fads; they’ve done these and many other things.  And as I said, to their credit, one thing they have not been is boring!  And that’s one thing you can say about the town they live in.  It is not boring—far from it.

That’s enough debauchery for right now, but rest assured, we will come back to it!

Here’s a very quick outline of 1 Corinthians.  The opening verses have the salutation, and then the first four chapters deal with divisions in the church.  Chapters 5 and 6 address a man and his stepmother (fill in the blank), church members dragging each other into court, and Corinthianizing.  In the middle part of the letter, chapters 7 to 10, Paul answers questions they have posed to him.  Chapters 11 to 14 are about order in worship.  Chapter 15 is about the resurrection, and chapter 16 is the conclusion.

I want to look at a passage in chapter 9 and a snippet from chapter 10.  This is in the section where Paul is fielding questions.  A common refrain among many of the Corinthians is, “Who do you think you are?”  Many folks have expressed uncertainty and/or hurled accusations regarding his role as apostle.  They are holding his feet to the fire.

Here’s where Paul wants to make a point.  He hasn’t exercised his full rights as an apostle.  He hasn’t asked for all he could.  Maybe given the, at times, problematic relationship, Paul wants to be as above reproach as possible.  He doesn’t want to give anyone an excuse to challenge his motives.  Still, in some peoples’ eyes, that will take some doing.

Imagine applying for a job.  One thing sure to be asked is, “Do you have any references?”  I think Paul has this one covered.  In verse 1 he asks, “Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?”  Not everyone can make that claim.  It looks like Paul might be qualified for the position, at least as far as Jesus is concerned—assuming he gave Paul a good reference!

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It’s important that Paul has his credentials in order.  His identity as an apostle is at stake.  And he needs credibility, especially since much of the discord hinges on people’s rights.

As noted before, Corinth is a cosmopolitan city, and the church reflects it.  Its members are primarily Gentiles, with the (as expected) background of pagan religions.  These would be Greek gods and whatever gods were imported by folks from near and far.

There was the question of eating food which had been sacrificed to pagan gods—to idols, as Paul would say.  Some of the food would be burned, but the leftover amount would go to local shopkeepers for sale.  Should Christian converts eat the food if they knew where it came from?  Paul says, “We know those gods don’t really exist.  But if someone who is still tempted to believe they’re real sees me eating the food, they might think, ‘Well, Paul’s joining in, so it must be okay!’”

The apostle is clear: I will not exercise my right to eat, if it means I will cause someone else to stumble.  It’s almost like serving wine in front of a recovering alcoholic.  (That would actually be a cruel thing to do!)

It’s a lesson he teaches them.  Basically, put yourself in the other person’s place.  “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them” (v. 19).  He gives examples.  “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews” (v. 20).  Likewise, “to those under the law…, to those outside the law…, to the weak…”  “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some” (v. 22).

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Understand, this isn’t saying anything goes.  It’s a commitment to forego his right to do something if it means someone else will be hurt.  That’s a crucial point to make.

Here’s where we come back to the notorious reputation of Corinth.  They have a saying which Paul repeats in chapter 10: “All things are lawful.”  And they do mean “all things.”  In this case, anything does go!

Paul finishes the thought.  “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are beneficial. “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up.  Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other” (vv. 23-24).  Paul includes the quote earlier in the letter, and here’s how he finishes there: “…but I will not be dominated by anything” (6:12).

Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should do it.  Actually, when you say, “because I can,” you might get more than you bargained for.  Our dear apostle warns you might become dominated by your choice; you might become its slave.  You might get addicted.

Still, even short of that, as Eugene Peterson reflected, “We want to live well, but our foremost efforts should be to help others live well” (10:24).

There was a question I used to hear when we were electing new officials.  It went along these lines: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”  The implied suggestion would be “no.”  That sounds like a reasonable question.  However, I remember someone speaking of a truly Christian version.  “Are your neighbors better off than they were four years ago?”  I would love to hear that question asked.

This pandemically plagued planet has posed new problems.  For example, do we have the right to forego wearing masks in public?

There was a recent article in The Atlantic by Julia Marcus bearing the colorful title, “The Dudes Who Won’t Wear Masks.”[1]  The example given was former baseball player Aubrey Huff, who wrote on Twitter that he wouldn’t wear a mask inside any business, noting, “It’s unconstitutional to enforce.”  He also posted a video getting plenty of attention.

“In his video,” Marcus writes, “he appears to be wearing a seatbelt.  Yet unlike a seatbelt, which directly benefits the user, masks primarily protect everyone else, particularly people who are older or have underlying health conditions that make them vulnerable to the coronavirus.  Huff seems to understand this; he just thinks those people should ‘stay the [blank] home.’”  It looks like if he had his way, those who are more vulnerable, including children, should have their freedom curtailed, their rights restricted.

He ends the video by proclaiming, “I would rather die from coronavirus than to live the rest of my life in fear and wearing a [blank] mask.”  I guess my response would be, “He has the right to do that.”

(On a side note, I wouldn’t say I’m living in fear by wearing a mask.  I won’t deny it is tedious, and I’m still not really used to seeing people in public wearing them.  But no, I don’t think my motivation in wearing a mask is driven by fear!)

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“I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings” (9:23).  That’s what Paul the apostle says.  We squabble over our rights and close our eyes to the shining glory Jesus the Christ offers.  We fight over crumbs while a splendid banquet is set for us.

Our friend Mr. Huff would rather die from the virus than wear a mask.  Our friend the apostle Paul “would rather die than” insist on his rights.  Why?  So that “no one will deprive me of my ground for boasting!” (v. 15).  He isn’t boasting about himself; he has “no ground for boasting” (vv. 15-16).  He is boasting about our Lord, who has redeemed him, just as our Lord has redeemed us.

Because of that, we are held to a higher standard than those who don’t know the Lord—the standard of love.  And that is a rigorous standard.  It requires repentance, continual repentance, a continual changing of our minds.  It calls for our lives to be a witness to Christ, who puts others first.  At the end of the day, we find wearing a mask really isn’t such a sacrifice!

Why Lord, do you pour out blessings and meet us in these very difficult times?

“Because I can.”

 

[1] medium.com/the-atlantic/the-dudes-who-wont-wear-masks-be8df1a9ec41


blow away the vapor

Last Tuesday Banu and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary.  On a similar occasion when we were in Jamestown over a decade ago, I commented in front of some parishioners, referring to her, “I don’t know what I did to deserve you.”  As soon as the words left my mouth, I realized they could be taken in more than one way!  Trust me—it was not a lament; it was not a statement of regret!

1 jr{Dr. Horace Russell sees a shoe lace that needs attention}

But yes, I don’t know what I did to deserve her.  I’m not always sure what I continue to do to deserve her.  You notice I said, “not always sure.”  There are times when I’m pretty confident (probably arrogant) in that regard!  Having said that, let’s turn our attention to a story in which there is no doubt whatsoever.

That story appears in Jeremiah 2.  It is a story of betrayal.  It is a story of a lover spurned.  It is a story of an unfaithful spouse.

The chapter begins, “The word of the Lord came to me [that is, Jeremiah], saying: Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem, Thus says the Lord: I remember   the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown” (vv. 1-2).  The Lord is grieved at the straying of a beloved bride—one who followed, even in the wilderness.  This is the bride who on the wedding day, heard the words, “for richer, for poorer,” and held onto that bit about “for poorer”: but only for a little while!

This is indeed a story about abandonment.  It’s a story about abandoning one’s source of joy, be it a devoted loving partner, a devoted loving spouse.  More fundamentally, it’s a story about abandoning the source of joy that is one’s God.  That’s the unfortunate word the prophet brings.

(As a side note, this is probably one of the earliest messages of Jeremiah.  But its being in chapter 2 doesn’t mean a whole lot.  The book isn’t exactly in chronological order.  It’s almost like someone arranged it by taking the pages, tossing them up in the air, and then waiting for them to fall.)

Jeremiah addresses the whole country.  “Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel” (v. 4).  This is the basic complaint: “What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?” (v. 5).  That is the essence of the matter.  We become what we worship!

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The Lord asks, “Why did you go far from me?”  Why did you reject me?  The word for “reject” (רׇחַקוּ, raaq) can mean “become distant,” “remote,” “walk away”—pretend like you have cooties!

Remember, this is also a description of a loved one: becoming distant, becoming remote, becoming absent.

What happened when they became distant, when they walked away?  As we saw, they “went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves.”  That word “worthless” (הֶבֶל, hebel) is an interesting one.  For example, it appears numerous times in the book of Ecclesiastes.  (Here’s how it starts.)  “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities!  All is vanity” (1:2).  The word has many nuances: vanity, futility, nothingness.  The primary meaning is “vapor” or “breath.”  “They went after vapor and became vapor themselves.”

Here’s how the New English Bible puts verse 5.  “What fault did your forefathers find in me, that they wandered far from me, pursuing empty phantoms and themselves becoming empty.”  I like that: pursuing empty phantoms.

(Last month, while talking about the “elemental spirits,” I noted that St. Paul calls them “only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Col 2:17).  Don’t be awestruck by them; don’t fear them.  They’re only a shadow.  You know—don’t be scared of your shadow!)

In the same way, don’t go after those empty phantoms.  Don’t be awestruck by them; don’t fear them.  What are you—scared of ghosts?

The people have abandoned their one true love for something which doesn’t satisfy.  They’ve been seduced by someone who will not and cannot satisfy.  If this sounds insane to you, you’re probably right.  But then, there is much insanity within us, within all of us.

3 jr Bungishabaku Katho, a professor from the Democratic Republic of Congo, goes into how this could come about.  Referring to Jeremiah’s audience, he says, “Judah had grown accustomed to God: they were so at ease that God was taken for granted and ignored.  Yahweh was no longer the center of Judah’s life, and he was not called upon during the time of danger.  Instead, people chose to go after idols, which are ironically implied to be more helpful than Yahweh.”[1]

In her book From Stone to Living Word, Debbie Blue says, “Life, for most of us, is not full of clear paths and voices from heaven.  Idols help to make up for that deficiency.  Life is outrageous.  Idols help us know how to proceed.  So we form and fashion ideas, beliefs, rules to live by, ways of life, cultural codes.  Idols are understandings we cling to that end up taking the place of God.”[2]

Our idols aren’t so very different from those of Jeremiah’s era.  We have our own loves and devotions, things seemingly much more realistic and useful than God, things that just make more sense.  Of course, there are things to do to make sure stuff gets done!  But how often do we wander from the source of our life and light and love?  How often do we trust in vapor?

The prophet speaks of the people being “brought…into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things.”  However, the land has been “defiled” and made “an abomination” (v. 7).  There are symbolic and spiritual ramifications—how idolatry has led the people astray.  It also has quite visible consequences—the destruction of the environment, the invasion of habitats, the eradication of species of animals and plants.  It includes how we have fared in being the stewards of God’s good creation.

(The devastation of the Amazon rain forest is a case in point of land being defiled and made an abomination.  Thinking of defiling, we have hundreds of thousands of tons of radioactive waste in storage or buried underground: one more unwelcome gift our descendants will inherit from us!)

Jeremiah points in particular to those who should know better.  The priests, those who handle the law (the teachers), the rulers, and the prophets have all failed in their call to be faithful.

Our leaders often fail in their call to faithfulness.  We who are leaders, in whatever context, often fail in our call to faithfulness.  That being said, how much blame do we bear in perhaps allowing ourselves to be led astray?  How often do we follow with blind faith?  How often do we fail to actually investigate what our leaders tell us?  I understand very well there are things beyond our knowledge.  Ask me to describe abatement cost, generic securities, and tax-free spinoff, and I promise you will get a far from coherent answer.

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Verse 11 speaks of something that might hamper anyone.  “Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods?  But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit.”  There’s the insanity again about exchanging the one true love, the one holy love, for a deception, for a counterfeit.

It can happen before we know it.  Am I so sure I have never changed my God for other gods?  We can be baptized into waters that become stagnant.  Our society has much to offer; it makes many promises.  Does a fish swimming in water know that it is wet?

Joan Chittister reflects, “No one lives in a tax-free world.  Life costs.  The values and kitsch and superficiality of it takes its toll on all of us.  No one walks through life unscathed.  It calls to us for our hearts and our minds and our very souls.  It calls to us to take life consciously, to put each trip, each turn of the motor, each trek to work in God’s hands.  Then, whatever happens there, we must remember to start over and start over and start over until, someday, we control life more than it controls us.”[3]

We become what we worship.

How do we see God?  Remember Debbie Blue’s comment: “Idols are understandings we cling to that end up taking the place of God.”  I’ve often said our concepts of God can become idols.

Do we see God as punitive?  Do we see God as petty?  Do we see God as a bully?  If so, then our God is an idol.  That is not the God of Jesus Christ.  If our God is a vengeful tyrant, then borrowing Jeremiah’s language about love and marriage, such a God is an abusive spouse.

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Our passage ends on an especially poignant note.  “Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water” (vv. 12-13).

The heartbroken Lord reveals two crimes of which the people are guilty.  First, as we’ve seen, they have said no to the covenant, the bond of love.  Living water is fresh, running water.  It is not stagnant.  It doesn’t become the breeding ground of mosquitoes!  Algae doesn’t grow in it!  It doesn’t stink!  That cool, clear water doesn’t appeal to them.

Next, they have dug cisterns; they have dug wells.  Obviously, there’s nothing wrong in and of itself with digging cisterns.  We are dependent on falling rain to feed the streams and rivers.  We are dependent on ground water.  We can’t live without water!

However, that’s not the picture here.  The Lord is a never-failing fountain of running water.  God is an everlasting source of that precious liquid.  In this image, there’s no need to rely on the rain or the ground.  There’s no need to rely on the work of our own hands, but that’s what Jeremiah’s audience has chosen.

What’s worse, the cisterns are cracked.  They have become broken; the water is seeping out of them.

We might ask, “What’s the big deal about this living water, this running water, anyway?”  Jesus speaks of this in John’s gospel.  He says, “‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.  As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”’  Now he said this about the Spirit” (Jn 7:37-39).

The living water is the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit can’t be held—not in a cistern, and certainly not in a cracked cistern!  It’s like trying the gather the wind with your hands.

Earlier I posed the question to myself about how often I exchange my God for those worthless gods, those idols.  How often do I trust in vapor, and then become vapor myself?  Well, I suppose the prophet would pose this question to me also.  How often do I try to grab, to hold onto the Spirit?  How often do I become content with past revelations, past experiences, of the Spirit—to the point I reject the living water and settle for stagnant water?  My guess is I might not be the only one who needs to hear that question.

Summer is nearing its end; fall is approaching.  I half-jokingly suggested to Banu we should take as a theme another scripture from Jeremiah: “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved” (8:20).  She didn’t agree.  Still, that might not be altogether out of place.  We may feel lost, but the promise of God remains.

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Forget about building those cisterns!  Allow the Spirit to blow away the vapor.  Let’s allow ourselves to regain and reaffirm our first and true love.

 

[1] Bungishabaku Katho, “Idolatry and the Peril of the Nation: Reading Jeremiah 2 in an African Context” Anglican Theological Review, 99:4 (Fall 2017), 722.

[2] Debbie Blue, From Stone to Living Word (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008), 17.

[3] Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York:  Crossroad, 1992), 172.

[The painting is Jeremiah the Prophet by Marc Chagall.]


elements of the world

Have you heard the saying, “You can’t see the forest for the trees”?  When I was young, I had no idea what that meant.  Why can’t you see the forest?  Isn’t it made up of trees?  If you can’t see the trees, then how can you see the forest?  Of course, the point is that, by focusing just on the individual details, it’s impossible to see the grand structure.

1 co Joan Chittister tells the story, “In the Middle Ages, the tale goes, a traveler asked three hard-at-work stone masons what they were doing.  The first said, ‘I am sanding down this block of marble.’  The second said, ‘I am preparing a foundation.’  The third said, ‘I am building a Cathedral.’”[1]

Surely all of them were focused on the precise aspects of what they were doing.  They hadn’t lost sight of what they were doing.  Still, as we move along, we notice an expansion of vision, a deeper understanding.  By not simply focusing on the individual details, a growing awareness of the grand structure becomes possible.

When Banu gives me the list of ingredients in a dish she’s preparing, I take notice of certain details, certain elements.  One of the big ones is “onions.”  I do not like onions.  I really do not like onions.  When she’s cooking them, I complain that she’s employing chemical warfare.

2 coShe often gives me the explanation that I won’t be able to taste them.  My reply is usually along the lines of, “So why use onions if I won’t be able to taste them?”  Because, she says, they combine with the other ingredients to bring out the flavor.  In a way, the onions serve as a sort of catalyst.  By mixing with the other elements, they bring about a change that otherwise wouldn’t happen.  So they serve a valuable purpose!  By focusing on that single detail, I miss out on the grand structure.

But I still don’t like them.

In his letter to the church in Colossae, St. Paul issues a similar warning.  (Though it has nothing to do with onions!)  His warning regards not embracing a full life in Christ.  He wants to warn them against certain errors.  A big part of his message involves a term that appears twice in chapter 2.

In verses 8 and 20, we have the Greek word στοιχεια (stoicheia).  Stoicheia is not an easy word to translate.  In today’s passage, it is rendered as “elemental spirits.”  In the New King James Version, it is “principles of the world.”  It’s not easy to translate, because it can mean different things.  Here’s a quick thumbnail sketch:

In 2 Peter 3:10, we hear of the day of the Lord arriving, the heavens passing away, and the elements (the stoicheia) being dissolved with fire.  This goes back to the ancient concept of the elements as earth, wind, fire, and water.

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In Hebrews 5:12, the author talks about becoming dull in understanding.  The hearers are told, “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements (the stoicheia) of the oracles of God.  You need milk, not solid food.”  In effect, they need to go back to the beginning, to relearn the ABCs.

In Galatians 4, the church is reminded that they have been freed of the requirements of the Jewish law.  They’re no longer minors; they are no longer “enslaved to the elemental spirits (the stoicheia) of the world” (v. 3).  And so, we come back to Colossians.

I should quickly add, just to muddy the waters a bit, that the definitions I mentioned are not shared by everyone.  There has been plenty of debate down through the ages.  Included in the debate is that, in some places, actual demons or spirits are intended.  And then others jump in, saying stoicheia didn’t mean that until a couple of centuries later.

We might say that stoicheia are the most primary component of whatever we’re talking about: the basic element, the basic principle.

Just as with missing the forest for the trees and losing sight of the whole structure for the stone before one’s face, the apostle Paul cautions the Colossians to not lose themselves in unhelpful details.  These are details that threaten to bog them down, to take their eyes off the prize.

“See to it,” he says, “that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ” (v. 8).  Another translation reads, “Make sure that no one captivates you with the empty lure of a ‘philosophy’ of the kind that human beings hand on” (New Jerusalem Bible).

One place we can find plenty of empty lures, empty philosophies, is on Facebook.  A whole lot of emptiness gets posted there, emptiness which is designed to captivate.  This emptiness is not designed to inform in a sincere way but to lure and stir up strife.  For example, a video was recently sent to me purporting to be a current member of Congress expressing the benefits of spreading Islam throughout the US.  However, a simple look at the timestamp showed it dated back to 1989.  The member of Congress in question would have been thirteen years old at the time.  It’s safe to say the woman in the video was older than thirteen!

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In chapter 1, Paul celebrates how God “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son” (v. 13).  To return to that darkness, to embrace the empty lure, the empty deceit, is to revert, to go back to slavery.  That slavery is more than what’s called “fake news.”  It is the whole range of bogus requirements promoted as the way of salvation.

However, there’s no need to be afraid.

For countless millennia, humans have observed the stars and noted their movements.  We have gazed and admired their awesome beauty.  And that word “awesome” should be taken literally.  We have been in awe—we have revered—those diamonds in the sky.  We have often thought of them as gods, or at least spirits, and made them objects of veneration, objects of worship.  We have worshipped the creation rather than the Creator.

In time, we devised practices and customs to direct us in faith and in life together.  Sometimes those traditions have come to be seen as divine in and of themselves.  Defying these elemental spirits, these principles of the world, could have dire consequences!

Robert Paul Roth comments , “Paul teaches the Colossians and us that we need have no fear.”  Speaking of those who insist on adding to Christ those elemental spirits, “We need no code of regulations, no bodily or spiritual exercises that we can add up on an account sheet to balance our debts with credits.”[2]

Sadly, we still have our own stoicheia, our own “elemental spirits of the universe.”  We worship our culture, our cars, our cats!  We worship our concepts themselves.  Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with having certain beliefs.  They identify us; they help give meaning to life.  Still, it’s possible to worship even our concept of God.  You know, the two are not the same!  We can put our economic or political system in the place of God.

Indeed, as Walter Wink notes, “No age has ever been more in the thralldom of the stoicheia; no age has been less aware of its bondage.”[3]

The good news, as verse 15 tells us, is that Christ has “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.”  He has stripped them of their power and put them on parade.

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I’m reminded of the so-called perp walk, in which the arrested suspect is marched in public before cameras and shouted questions.  And then we might have the medieval-like spectacle of people gathering around and yelling, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” at the unfortunate person.  (Well, at least, I’ve seen it done in movies!)

The apostle tells the church “do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths” (v. 16).  Those are some of the bogus religious requirements I mentioned earlier.  He adds, “These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (v. 17).  They are only a shadow.  Another way of putting it might be, “Don’t be scared of your shadow!”

6 coI like what Paul says in the last part of the chapter.  “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe [there’s the stoicheia again], why do you live as if you still belonged to the world?” (v. 20).  I really like his question about their submitting to certain regulations.  “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”? (v. 21).  I can’t help but think Paul’s injecting a lot of humor.  He’s having a good time!

Apparently, the late Eugene Peterson thought so, too.  Here’s how he sums up that last bit in The Message:

“So, then, if with Christ you’ve put all that pretentious and infantile religion behind you, why do you let yourselves be bullied by it?  ‘Don’t touch this!  Don’t taste that!  Don’t go near this!’  Do you think things that are here today and gone tomorrow are worth that kind of attention?  Such things sound impressive if said in a deep enough voice.  They even give the illusion of being pious and humble and ascetic.  But they’re just another way of showing off, making yourselves look important.”

Clearly, we can mess up, be led astray, by worshipping these unworthy things.  But that leads to the origin of the word “worship” itself.  It comes from the Old English word woerthscipe, which means “worthy-ship.”  As we just saw, there are those who pronounce us “unworthy” if we fail their expectations of worship.

There are plenty of those “elements of the world” floating around which would claim our allegiance.  Yet Paul says the elemental spirits have been overthrown by Christ.  We are reminded that we “are now under the rule of Christ who has disarmed the powers that formerly ruled over us.  Therefore we are now free to walk with the wisdom of Christ and not by vain and deceitful human traditions.”[4]

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What elements of the world do we face?  What thrones or dominions or rulers or powers rise against us?  Do we still live as though we belonged to the world?  Paul says we “were buried with [Christ] in baptism, [and we] were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (v. 12).  We don’t enter the waters of baptism alone.  We aren’t raised from the waters of baptism alone.  Christ is with us, in and through the church, which is his body.

Alone, we’re helpless.  The elements of the world are too strong, too secretive, too seductive.  They play on our fears, our pains, our hatreds.

8 coHowever, together with Christ in the one holy catholic and apostolic church, we are more than conquerors.  We are more than conquerors, because in Christ, the war has already been won.  We’re just on mopping up duty.  The sun is setting on those elements, those principles of the world.  We need not be scared of their shadow.

 

[1] Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 111.

[2] Robert Paul Roth, “Christ and the Powers of Darkness: Lessons from Colossians,” Word and World 6:3 (1986), 343.

[3] Walter Wink, “The Elements of the Universe in Biblical and Scientific Perspective,” Zygon 13:3 (September 1978), 240.

[4] Roth, 343.


royal revelation

What do you think of when hear “Revelation”?  And yes, it’s “Revelation,” not “Revelations.”  It’s very easy to know the difference.  Just look at the name in the Bible!

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As might be expected, many people’s reflections deal with confusion, crazy creatures, future disasters, scenarios of the rapture—a theology, by the way, which is built on a single verse (though not in Revelation) and given an extremely questionable interpretation.  But I say, “as might be expected,” because much of the teaching on the book of Revelation presents horror-movie-like themes, including 666, the number of the beast.  Folks have all kinds of fun with that one!

And then, there are the timelines of the future.  People have taken plenty of tidbits from the book and devised their own interpretation of “what soon must take place,” as it says in verse 1.  I have heard many sermons in which sober reflection has been tossed to the wind.

So having said all that, we need an approach with humility.  “If you’re unwilling to live with any uncertainty, you’re more likely to read into Revelation things that are not there.  Beware of interpreters who appear to have all the answers to even the small questions.  ‘Experts’ who claim absolute knowledge about every detail of Revelation should immediately raise suspicion.”[1]

“Revelation” means “apocalypse.”  And apocalypse: oh, that’s another fun word!  What does our popular culture make of “apocalypse”?  What do we see in movies and on television?  The aftermath of nuclear war?  A global pandemic?  Zombies walking the earth?

2 rvApocalypse refers to a revealing, an uncovering, a showing of what was hidden: indeed, a revelation.  Pablo Richard adds that apocalypse “is not neutral: what the wicked and the oppressors cannot understand is revealed to the upright, to the childlike, to the oppressed.”[2]  It’s a gift to those who love God.

As the book begins in verse 1: “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John.”  The revelation, the message, is intended for the servants of the Lord.  It is sent, via angel, to God’s servant, John.

In fact, in Matthew 11 for example, Jesus uses the word “apocalypse.”  “Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants’” (v. 25).  The word has been “revealed” (απεκαλυψας, apekalupsas) not to those who think they know, but to the humble—to those who are as humble as infants.

And these humble ones are blessed.  There are seven beatitudes (“blessed”) in Revelation.  (In the book of Revelation, seven is a number that appears over and over and over.)  Verse 3 says, “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near.”

“Blessed is the one who reads aloud.”  This was read to the community as part of worship.  That underlines something about the entire book.  Revelation, as much as anything else, is a book of worship.  Add to that, “blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it.”  Blessed are those who hear.  Blessed are those who, in church, stay awake and set their cell phones on vibrate—or turn them off altogether!

If it wasn’t clear already, “We were not the intended audience of Revelation,” as Eric Barreto says.[3]  It wouldn’t make sense to have a book directed to people in the distant future.  Verse 4 says John sent his message “to the seven churches that are in Asia.”

I think most of us understand that the scriptures were written for the people alive at the time.  Still, they have enduring meaning as the inspired word of God passing down through the ages.  Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying.

The problem with Revelation is the symbolism which would have been familiar to most of John’s audience, now speaks a language we struggle to understand.

Perhaps we weren’t the intended audience of Revelation.  Nonetheless, “This is the word of God for us today.  They are words for us, however, by the means of some of the earliest believers in Christ Jesus…  Thus, these opening verses invite us to read the rest of this text in light of the everyday experiences, struggles, and successes that marked these early Christian communities.”[4]

There’s a whole lot more in this introduction to the book, but I don’t want to spend too much time on it.  I want to consider what today is: Christ the King Sunday (also called the Reign of Christ.)  What is this day all about?  What does it mean to say Christ is king?

The book of Revelation is addressed to Christians near the end of the first century.  Two or three decades before them, the emperor was Nero, a man who insanely persecuted the church, as well as a bunch of other people.  Now, Emperor Domitian picks up where Nero left off.  He takes things even further in how he wants to be addressed.  He demands to be called “our lord and god.”  (Here’s a guy with a real messiah complex!)

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As you can imagine, Christians are put into an extremely awkward, even deadly, position.  Do you simply go along, do the expected duty of a patriotic citizen, even if your heart isn’t in it?  You could avoid the unwelcome attention of the state.  Of course, there is that little problem of allegiance to Jesus Christ.  How do you reconcile those competing loyalties?

John’s words are meant as both encouragement and expectation.  “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come” (v. 4).  Okay, maybe there’s no problem there—not exactly, anyway.

Then we have this: “and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” (v. 5).  There’s plenty of stuff there to give someone pause.

How much of this is set in stone, so to speak?  Isn’t there a little wiggle room?  Jesus is called “the faithful witness,” so this really is a message from God.  He’s also called “the firstborn of the dead.”  No one, not even Domitian himself, can legitimately claim to have been resurrected.  Here’s the kicker: “the ruler of the kings of the earth.”

It’s a common thing to hear it said, “Our church doesn’t get involved in politics.  We avoid political issues.”  I can go along that, if what we’re talking about is promoting one candidate over another.  But for the Christians in John’s time, “lord” and “god” and “savior” are not only spiritual terms, they’re also political terms.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is inherently political.  The good news of salvation is intrinsically political.

That’s not a bad thing.  “Politics” is a neutral term.  In fact, it used to be taught in every school!  What is “politics”?  What is “political”?  The way we structure our society—the way we shape our values in our social contract—that is political.  “Politics” becomes a dirty word when we act in bad faith, when we employ manipulation and deception in furthering our own narrow ends.

4 rvMany applaud the idea of a “private faith.”  But don’t you dare live that out in the world!

The choice between Christ and Caesar obviously didn’t begin with the church in the time of Domitian.  In John 18, there is Pontius Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus.  There’s a debate over whether or not Jesus is a king.  He says, “My kingdom is not from this world.  If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.  But as it is, my kingdom is not from here” (v. 36).

Pilate realizes Jesus isn’t scheming to have him overthrown.  Jesus continues, “I came into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  Pilate replies, “What is truth?” and then he walks out the door (vv. 37-38).  He’s really not interested in getting involved in this religious squabbling among the Jews.

Keep your faith to yourself; don’t bother me with it.

Of course, there is a problem with that if we follow the example of John the Revelator, who was exiled to “the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (v. 9).  He hasn’t kept his faith to himself.  The powers-that-be wanted him to go away.  He made his choice between Christ and Caesar.  For those who confuse the two, consider yourself as having received fair warning!

Bruce Metzger, in his book Breaking the Code, has his own cautionary note.  “Revelation…has a warning for believers down through the years.”  It speaks “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.”[5]

So again, what does it mean to say and to claim Christ as King?

Do we affirm the inherently political nature of the gospel, the good news, in a way that is holy and ennobling?  Do we take a cynical, unholy approach in a way in which we worship our own tribe?  Of course we will have disagreements, but are we mindful of the one we would serve as King?  Do we celebrate the peace of Christ, or do we celebrate the peace of empire—be it Roman or as empire exists today?  (A lot of questions, to be sure!)

Claiming Christ as King means loyalty to one who redefines the meaning of family: “pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!  For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’” (Mt 12:49-50).

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When we are welcomed into the family of God—the one who is the Alpha and Omega—we receive a royal revelation that we belong to Christ the King.  That is an apocalypse to be celebrated.

 

[1] zondervanacademic.com/blog/how-read-revelation

[2] Pablo Richard, Apocalypse: A People’s Commentary on the Book of Revelation, English tr. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1995), 37.

[3] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1623

[4] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1623

[5] Bruce Metzger, Breaking the Code (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), 88.


tepid water, please

Tepid water, please.  That’s a request uttered on The Big Bang Theory.  For those who don’t know, the show is about four nerdy scientists who are socially challenged.  Eventually, one by one, they start dating women who teach them how to behave like semi-normal men.  Sheldon Cooper, who is played by Jim Parsons, is the most intelligent among them but the least functional in dealing with other human beings.  A couple of his friends put his profile on a dating site, and they pressure him into meeting his match at a coffee bar.

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It turns out to be Amy Farrah Fowler, played by Mayim Bialik, who as a teenager starred in the 90s show Blossom.  She’s as socially dysfunctional as Sheldon, and she confesses her aversion to romantic involvement.  That actually piques his interest, so he offers to buy her a beverage, to which she replies, (guess what?) “tepid water, please.”

(By the way, later on, they do get romantically involved!)

Tepid.  That probably serves as an apt description of the church of Laodicea, the recipient of the seventh letter to the churches in the book of Revelation.  Verse 16 of chapter 3 is the one often considered to be the most colorful description of that church—or should I say the least colorful?  “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”  That’s the message of Jesus Christ through his servant John.

But you might ask, “What are these seven letters to the churches in Revelation you speak of?”  That’s a good question.  It’s one I will try to answer.  In chapters 2 and 3, the letters are messages to churches in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and lastly, Laodicea.  All of these churches are in Asia Minor, which is modern day Turkey.  John, the author of Revelation, delivers words appropriate for every church’s situation.  They are the addressees of the book of Revelation.

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Each of the letters follows the same format; there are three parts.  First, it’s “These are the words of” followed by a description of the risen Christ.  Then it’s, “I know” followed by something about the church.  And finally, “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”

One more thing about the seven churches.  Only Sardis and Philadelphia receive no word of criticism.  All the rest are told there’s something against them.  With her request for tepid water, could it be Laodicea is the “Amy Farrah Fowler” of the seven churches?  (More about the water in a few moments.)

The first thing the Laodiceans are told is they’re hearing the “words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation” (v. 14).  “Amen” isn’t a sign you just finished the prayer!  It’s used to describe something as “true,” to say “so be it.”  This one is called “the origin [or the beginning] of God’s creation.”  Christ is the one through whom all things were made.

G. K. Beale says something about Christ being called “the faithful and true witness.” “With the image…in mind, the Laodicean Christians are indicted for being generally ineffective in their faith. Their innocuous witness is the specific focus.”[1]

3 rv“Their innocuous witness.”  Their witness, their testimony to the faith, the way they live their lives—it’s harmless; it’s inoffensive; it’s insipid; it’s lame.  Having said that, what would it mean for them to be harmful?  What would it mean for them to be offensive?  Are they supposed to get in people’s faces?  Are they supposed to make jerks of themselves?  If they threw a party, would anybody show up?

There’s something in the Wisdom of Solomon, one of the books in the Apocrypha, that I like.  It’s what the unrighteous say about a faithful man.  “He professes to have knowledge of God, and calls himself a child of the Lord.  He became to us a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us, because his manner of life is unlike that of others, and his ways are strange” (2:13-15).

A faithful life, almost by definition, will be seen as offensive by those who are dead set against it.  It’s an unpleasant reminder that one does not have to choose a wayward path, a constant refusal, a constant saying “no” to the Holy Spirit.  There is a better way to be.  (“Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”)

What about this business of being hot or cold?  “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot.  I wish that you were either cold or hot” (v. 15).  And as we saw earlier, their being lukewarm makes the Lord want to upchuck.  That might raise a question.  Could we see being hot as being aflame with the Spirit, being on fire for God?  If that’s so (and I’ve heard preachers put it in those terms), would being cold in the faith an acceptable option?  Why would the Lord want that?

Bruce Metzger in his book, Breaking the Code, suggests looking at it differently.[2]  He reminds us of the situation the Christians were in. 4 rv

Among them “were those who thought there might be a middle ground between worshiping God [that is, being hot] and worshiping the emperor [being cold] that in some way they could remain in the…church while at the same time obeying the emperor’s command to worship him.  On the contrary, in their loyalty to Christ they must be ‘hot’; those who were content to be ‘lukewarm’ might just as well go to the extreme of being completely ‘cold.’”

The book of Revelation was written at the end of the first century.  The emperor of Rome at the time was a fellow named Domitian.  He was a real piece of work.  He became so proud and dictatorial he demanded to be called “our lord and god.”  Of course, faithful Christians couldn’t agree to that.  That title was reserved for another.  They were considered to be unpatriotic, since that was part of the civic duty of a Roman citizen.  They were also considered to be subversives, enemies of the state, enemies of the people.  They became targets for persecution.

So viewed this way, it’s impossible to worship Christ and worship Caesar.  If you compromise on that, at the end of the day, you’re worshiping Caesar anyway.  Might as well be cold and give it your all!

Now, about the promise to return to tepid water.

The region around Laodicea was noted for its hot, cold, and lukewarm water.  Our friend G. K. says, “The hot waters of Hierapolis had a medicinal effect and the cold waters of Colossae were pure, drinkable, and had a life-giving effect.  However, there is evidence that Laodicea had access only to warm water, which was not very palatable and caused nausea.”[3]  The city of Laodicea was quite wealthy, and so was their water.  Their water was quite rich—rich in salt, that is.

Just like their water, the behavior of the Laodiceans makes the Lord sick to his stomach; he’s ready to vomit.

These folks are pretty clueless, because they claim, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.”  The Lord replies, “You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (v. 17).  It’s like the Emperor’s new clothes.  They’re strutting around, wanting people to “ooh” and “ahh” over their fine fashions—while the whole time, they’re as naked as a jaybird.

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But all is not lost.  With verse 18, we begin to see the way home.  The Laodiceans are counseled in how they can be truly rich and how they can be truly clothed.  And then there’s this.  Get some “salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see.”

Here’s one more quote from Beale: “The picture of ‘eye salve’ for regaining sight emphasizes the Laodiceans’ lack of spiritual discernment, especially their ignorance of the lethal danger that their association with idolatry posed for their faith.”[4]

Spiritual discernment.  What an opening into the interior life of faith.  The application of salve for vision happens when the Spirit anoints our inner eyes.  The Laodicean church needs cataract surgery.  Their vision has become cloudy.  They have been blinded by their pursuit of idols.  They are in danger and don’t know it.  Idols have focused them on the wrong things.

We aren’t immune from that.  We have idols which beckon to us.  Anything setting itself up on the throne of our heart is an idol.  It happens more easily than we think.

Here’s just one example; there are many.  We can see ourselves or others as a personification of a negative.  We can define ourselves, say, by a disease or a condition.  “I am cancer.”  “I am poverty.”  We can define ourselves or others with labels.  When we label someone, we have to be careful not to think we know them.  If we trust a label and think that sums somebody up, we are trusting an idol.

My wife has been reminding me of something I once knew, and truth be told, still do.  Whatever we choose to live into is made manifest in our lives.  Here’s one very trivial example, just to make the point.

Several months ago, I was watching television.  It was a lovely, peaceful night.  For some reason, I began thinking about bats.  I was thinking about how we hadn’t seen one for a long time, and there certainly are bats in that building.  I started wondering if there was in fact a bat somewhere, ready to fly into the room.  It was almost like I was conjuring it.  And guess what?  It wasn’t but a few minutes before one of those critters appeared out of nowhere and started circling the room.

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I’m not saying my thoughts manifested a bat.  I’m not saying I created one, but there is a sense in what occupies our minds, what we put out into the world, does in fact come back to us.

I suppose this has been a roundabout way of describing how the lack of spiritual discernment leaves us open to deception by idols.

If verse 18 shows us the way home, the rest of the letter to the Laodiceans is a loving, powerful invitation.  Telling us he reproves those he loves, he immediately says, “Listen!  I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (v. 20).  Let’s sit around the table and enjoy each other’s company.

We’ll be singing the hymn, “Somebody’s Knocking at Your Door.”  Once again, we will be drinking from the deep well of the African-American spiritual tradition—and that water is definitely not tepid!  “Somebody’s knocking at your door; / Somebody’s knocking at your door; / O sinner, why don’t you answer?  Somebody’s knocking at your door. / Knocks like Jesus, Somebody’s knocking at your door; / O sinner, why don’t you answer?  Somebody’s knocking at your door.”

If we open the door, we will be conquerors, fit to sit on the throne Jesus prepares.  “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (v. 22).

7 rv

We request, “Tepid water, please.”  Jesus says, “Forget that.  I welcome you to the banquet.  Sit down and feast with me.”

 

[1] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 303.

[2] Bruce Metzger, Breaking the Code (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), 44-45.

[3] Beale, 303.

[4] Beale, 306.


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.

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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.

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