movies

one language

I want to begin with comments about the 1970s.  For many people, they were well along in years when that decade arrived.  For a vast part of our population, they hadn’t been born yet.  Their parents hadn’t even been born.  For those in my generation, right after the baby boomers, many if not most of those years were spent in elementary school.

This is an oversimplification, but the 70s were largely a decade in reaction to the perceived anarchy and rejection of authority of the 1960s.  The 70s gave us punk rock, with its reaction to the reaction.  It also gave us disco, with its ignoring of politics, and an urge to mindlessly lose oneself in foolishness.  (I guess you can gather my opinion of disco!)

1 gnBut for my purposes here, I want to mention another phenomenon of the decade: disaster movies.  There was a flurry of them, many with ensembles of A-list actors.  There was Earthquake.  We had The Poseidon Adventure.  And then, there was The Towering Inferno, with another impressive list of top-notch actors, such as Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway…  and a host of others.

Those Hollywood luminaries aside, the real stars of those movies were the disasters mentioned in the titles.  The Towering Inferno provided a cautionary tale about the dangers of those buildings reaching up to the sky­­­­—skyscrapers.  Of course, skyscrapers had been around for almost a century, but this was the 70s.  A decidedly negative impression was portrayed.  After watching that movie, people might understandably be hesitant to live or work in such edifices.

There’s another structure which is featured in Genesis 11: the tower of Babel.  And like those disaster movies, it has usually been cast in a negative light.  Actually, it’s usually been cast as a truly wicked affront to God.  The builders have been seen as thumbing their noses to the Lord.

Again, it’s perfectly understandable to have that viewpoint.  There are several interpretations to this text: the good, the bad, and the ugly!

The decision of the people to construct a city and tower, “with its top in the heavens,” in order to “make a name” for themselves could easily be seen as an act of arrogance (v. 4).  Actually, that’s a very good way to see it.  Whatever the motivation, preventing themselves from being “scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth,” given the circumstances, could be seen as logical.

And what are those circumstances?  The stage is set: “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words” (v. 1).  There has been no end to speculation as to what that means.  This comes on the heels of chapter 10, in which the descendants of Noah form nations spread throughout the world.  More than once we are told of their families, languages, lands, and nations.

This enterprise appears to be a rejection of that diversity, indeed a God-ordained diversity.

The story’s location is pivotal.  They settle in the land of Shinar, later known as Babylonia.  It is a vast plain, unlike the mountains, islands, and forests from which they came.  It’s the perfect terrain for bringing everyone together.  Of course, if you’re out in the middle of nowhere, a construction project becomes necessary!

2 gn

["Tower of Babel" by Josh Dorman, 2016]

The tower is likely a ziggurat, a structure resembling a pyramid, though with sides that are terraced, giant steps leading to the top.  They were built throughout ancient Mesopotamia (which is modern day Iraq and western Iran).

Considering the multiplicity of ethnic groups on hand, making a name for oneself could be seen as a way of establishing a one-world government.  A major part of that is how we speak.  When languages disappear, they take with them all the intricate subtleties unique to their thought processes, based on the experiences of the people who use them.  They are irreplaceable.

The saying is true: “it gets lost in translation.”  It is vital to realize the theme underlying the entire story—words and tongues, messages and languages.

The way the Lord figures out what’s going on is something we see in much of the Old Testament.  There’s a term called anthropomorphism.  It means describing as having human attributes. We see it in verse 5: “The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built.”  It’s almost like God had to use a ladder, or maybe take an escalator, to check out what those humans were up to.

This is an unpleasant discovery.  Something about this doesn’t sit well.  What could it be?

The story basically hinges on verse 6.  “And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.’”  Why is intervention needed?  Why is the decision made to confuse their language, so they won’t understand each other?

Maybe the assumption that what humans “propose to do” will work out for the best needs to be questioned.

I am reminded of George Orwell’s 1984, in which conformity in service to the state is required.  The government, overseen by a shadowy figure known as Big Brother, has four primary ministries.  There is the Ministry of Peace, in charge of waging war.  There is the Ministry of Plenty, running the economy and keeping the population poor and dependent.  There is the Ministry of Love, in charge of arrest, torture, and execution to make sure folks stay in line.

Finally, as especially relevant to our story, there is the Ministry of Truth, which has as its purpose the spreading of propaganda and lies.  One of its primary purposes is to take language and continuously remove any nuance of independent expression.  We might add, cracking down on misinformation, however that’s defined.  Three slogans encapsulate the effort: war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.

(Safe and effective.  I am the science.)

3 gn

I wonder if the drive for what we think of as “progress” is not also a factor.  We think of economic success by figuring out at what rate the economy is growing.  Growing more quickly is better than growing more slowly.  It’s always about growing.  Can’t enough be enough—at least, for a little while?  The earth and our fellow creatures would thank us.  How much do we care about them?

Rabbi Shai Held, a widely respected figure in Jewish thought, has spoken of the Tower of Babel as a “tower of uniformity,” saying its meaning concerns “the importance of individuals and the horrors of totalitarianism.”[1]  He expands on this idea, saying, “An inevitable consequence of uniformity is anonymity.  If everyone says the same words and thinks the same thoughts, then a society emerges in which there is no room for individual tastes, thoughts, and aspirations or for individual projects and creativity.  All difference is (coercively) erased.”[2]

When we take all of that into consideration, the words “this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them,” have an ominous sound.

Rabbi Held comments on something remarkable.  No names are mentioned in the story “because there are no individuals.  This is especially ironic (and tragic) in light of the people’s express wish to ‘make a name’ for themselves…  When people are anonymous, they are reduced to insignificance.  If no one is anyone in particular, then who cares what happens to them?”

Something else to understand is that by coming together in one place, the people have rejected the call of God to go forth throughout the world.  After the flood, “God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth’” (Gn 9:1).  It’s difficult to impose unity if your population is spread all over the place.

When the Lord imposes the punishment / blessing, all the work comes to a screeching halt.  Building plans aren’t very useful if no one can read them!

I wonder, can we see this scattering of peoples and confusing of languages as acts of love?  Here’s one more thought from Rabbi Held: “To try and eradicate human uniqueness is to declare war on God’s image and thus to declare war on God.”  One of the age-old temptations of the human race is trying to put ourselves in the place of God—to idolize ourselves.  That could manifest itself by idolizing a single person, or a single group: to idolize or obey a kind of “Big Brother.”

When we do that, we do violence to the beautiful and wondrous creation that each of us is.  There is a Jewish saying, “To save one person is to save an entire world.”  I’ve often thought about that.  We live in our own world.  It’s not that we ignore the rest of the world, but we are a world unto ourselves.  Every single human has experiences of their own.  We each have our own experiences of the divine.  We are loved by Jesus in our own exclusive way.

The day of Pentecost in Acts 2 is seen as a reversal of Babel.  There is a reunification of language, although it’s not done by human effort—it is not an achievement.  It is a gift granted by the Spirit of God.  “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” (v. 4).  The people are still speaking different languages, but they comprehend each other!

The language beyond all languages is the heavenly language.

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[photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash]

We can see the Babel project as an endeavor to overstep our place, to overstep our boundaries.  However, Brent Strawn who teaches at Duke Divinity School, has another perspective.  Rather than a case of hubris, outrageous arrogance, it can be seen as a case of sloth, under-reaching what God has set out for us.

He says, “Maybe at those times when we aren’t one, it is because we’ve fallen short of making every effort to be what we are in Christ.  Maybe when we aren’t one, instead of giving up on the unity that God desires and provides—maybe instead of refusing to believe in that unity when we don’t experience it—maybe we ought, instead, to grieve over it.”[3]

It is right and proper and essential to grieve.  It is necessary to lament.

“Grieve that we don’t have it, grieve that we aren’t yet one.  Worry about it, wonder about it, and redouble—make that re-triple—our efforts, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

In the book of Acts, St. Peter quotes the prophet Joel, “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh” (v. 17).  People will prophesy, see visions, dream dreams.  Signs will appear in the heaven and on earth: “blood, and fire, and smoky mist.  The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day” (vv. 19-20).

It sounds like a 70s disaster movie!

But wait for the finale.  “Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (v. 21).  Calling on the name of the Lord.

We are freed from the compulsion to make a name for ourselves.  We are liberated, knowing that our Lord has cherished and named us like none other in the cosmos.  It is a name of endearment, known only to the Holy One.

Let all of you understand, you are the child of God.  There can be no better name than that.  That is the one language we speak.

 

[1] Rabbi Shai Held, “Tower of Uniformity: What Really Went Wrong at Babel,” Christian Century 134:23 (8 Nov 2017), 12.

[2] Held, 13.

[3] Brent Strawn, “Unity, Diversity, and the Holy Spirit,” Journal for Preachers 40:4 (2017), 13.


Thomas, the skeptic

I often wonder how much of human history—especially the darker moments of history—can be attributed to misunderstanding.  A misheard word, a mistaken look, can lead to all manner of distress in our lives.  How many wars have been fought over a misinterpretation of something quite innocuous?  (Which also brings up the point of taking a deep breath and making sure we know what we’re doing, especially when contemplating violence.)

We humans are making it even easier to not trust our eyes and ears.  The falsification of images is becoming ever more elaborate and effective.  The falsification of reality is becoming ever more elaborate and effective.  One of the first major motion pictures to employ those techniques was Forrest Gump.  Imagine, Forrest Gump meeting JFK and LBJ (and a few other folks)!  We could the lament the technological trickery utilized for these counterfeit countenances, these fake faces, but the genie is out of the bottle.  Think of it, though: police can use sophisticated aging tools to track missing persons long lost.

Here’s a little game.  Can we distinguish between the faces of real people and those generated by computer?  Which are real and which are fake? (answers given below)

1 jn

Going back to my original thought, given how much more complex our ability for mimicry has become, how much more havoc can we create?  We are well aware of the mischievous purposes for which the internet can be used.  So often, we believe we are too intelligent and savvy to be taken in by bogus claims—disinformation and misinformation.  I won’t get into discussing the ease with which the powers-that-be resort to censorship by pressing those very issues.

Let’s look at one who historically has been derided by his insistence for independent verification of a claim pushed by his peers.  In John 20, St. Thomas, given the news of a resurrected Jesus, has his doubts, which later leads to the affixing of his nickname.  I would say his “unfortunate” nickname.  “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands,” he says, “and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (v. 25).

Maybe we should first take a step backwards.  We hear that the disciples are huddled in fear behind locked doors.  It appears they have good reason to do so.  However, Thomas is conspicuous by his absence.  We don’t know what he’s been up to; maybe he just wasn’t as scared as the others.

It’s also possible there was a bit of recrimination going on.  It would only be natural for some finger pointing to occur.  In the aftermath of trauma—and this definitely was traumatic—there can be the temptation to lay blame.  Was it the fault of the priests and the Romans?  Was it Judas’ fault?  Those are pretty easy guesses.  However, perhaps something more was happening.  Did they look inward and see their own shortcomings?  There has been some denying going on, and not just by Peter.

Whatever the case, Thomas is with them the week after.  That is when he receives his desired second opinion—and it comes from the man himself.

Honestly, it’s hard to fault Thomas.  It’s not like the others really got it themselves.  For example, while taking Peter, James, and John down from the mount of Transfiguration, Jesus “ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”  Of course, they knowingly agreed, understanding some things are better left unsaid.  No, I’m just kidding!  Rather, “they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean” (Mark 9:9-10).

In other words, they didn’t have the foggiest idea what the heck Jesus was talking about.

2 jnCould we say Thomas wanted to do his own fact-checking?  Jesus agrees to it.  “Do you want to see my hands and side?  Well, here they are.  Check it out.”  Thomas is convinced.  Jesus responds, “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (v. 29).  Is Jesus “blessing” Thomas out?

We should note that after Lazarus has died, Jesus plans to go to his home in Judea.  The disciples beg him not to, understanding he has enemies there ready to stone him if he shows his face.  Still, Jesus is determined.  It is Thomas who steps forward and tells the others, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (11:16).  Thomas is ready and expects to lay down his life with, and for, Jesus.

Clinical social worker Jason Hobbs says, “Thomas was not simply looking for facts…the facts in the way that we think about fact…what is true and what is false…  Thomas needed to touch in order to believe.  He needed to touch something solid, not spirit, not feeling or emotion, but something real.”  He needed to “see” for himself.

I think it’s a good thing we have a record of Thomas’ doubt.  That gives reassurance for the rest of us who sometimes (and who often) doubt.  I don’t think Jesus is chewing Thomas out—or even expressing disappointment.  Let’s remember that it was the men who had trouble believing Jesus was back from the dead.  The female disciples, especially Mary Magdalene, had much less trouble.

On the question of having a record of his doubt, notice the bit at the end.  “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (vv. 30-31).  These words are directed to you, dear reader, just as Jesus said to Thomas, “so that you may come to believe.”

We might easily say “doubting Thomas” displays skepticism.  Mark Buchanan, professor at Ambrose University in Calgary, Alberta, has some comments on that very subject.  “Skepticism,” he says, “has an interesting etymology.  It means to look at a matter closely, to scrutinize, to study with great care and in minute detail.  On this definition, what the church needs is not less but more skepticism.”[1]

Buchanan continues, “I met a man who told me he didn’t believe the Bible because he was a skeptic.  I asked him if he had read the Bible.  ‘No, not really,’ he said ‘I told you, I’m a skeptic.  I don’t believe it.’  This is not skepticism.  This is its opposite—a refusal to investigate, to scrutinize, to ponder deeply.”

3 jn

Something to note about faith: true faith is not blind faith.  How often do we hear, “Faith is blind”?  On the contrary, genuine faith is not a mindless leap into the void—or a mindless leap into the path of an oncoming truck!  Faith has its own evidence.  Faith has its own eyes.  Faith does its own fact-checking.  In 1 John we are counseled to “not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (4:1).

Buchanan gives Thomas credit.  “Thomas was a true skeptic.  He doubted, not to excuse his unbelief, but to establish robust belief.  He doubted so that his belief might be based on something more than rumor and wishful thinking.”  He makes his point by saying that “here is the real sign that Thomas is not some poseur, some mere academic trend-chaser: his seeing gives way, not just to belief, but to worship: ‘My Lord and my God!’”[2]

For Thomas, it isn’t a matter of theoretical argument, but rather it encompasses his whole being.

That becomes true for all of them.  Jesus comes to them, not to prove anything, but to comfort and strengthen.  First it is the distraught Mary Magdalene, weeping uncontrollably at his tomb.  She mistakes him for the gardener.  Jesus, still incognito, asks her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” (v. 15).  Put your tears away.

In the midst of those disciples, dread forcing them to take cover, their Lord appears, twice proclaiming, “Peace be with you” (vv. 19, 21).  And in what many call a preview of Pentecost, he breathed on them, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” and adding, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (vv. 22-23).

How is that a word of comfort and strength?  What good does it do for these frightened folks to talk about forgiveness?  Would that be a word of comfort for us?  Remember earlier.  In times of distress, it’s only normal—and even expected—to thrash about, asking and crying out, “Why?”  What a gift it is to have and know the Spirit of God is with us.  There is that powerful word of knowing we are forgiven, and that we have the power of forgiving others.  Though Lord knows, it doesn’t happen overnight—if it happens at all!

Doubting Thomas.  One moment in his life earned him a nickname that has stuck through the centuries.  What have we been at our worst?  What have we been at our most embarrassing?  What have we been at the time we most want to take back?  (I can think of plenty more than one.)  Now, imagine that as forever being declared as the sum of who you are.  From now on, that is how you will be defined, how you will be identified.

4 jnHow often do we refuse to give the other person the benefit of the doubt?

Imagine if God decided to take us at our worst.  Actually, God does that very thing!  Nonetheless, in spite of everything, we learn with immense relief, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Ro 5:8).

Of that, it is okay to be skeptical!  It is okay to look at the matter closely, to scrutinize, to study with great care, to ponder deeply.  It is okay to take God seriously.  (Yes, it is okay!)  It is okay to join with Thomas the skeptic, and cry out, “My Lord and my God!”

 

[1] Mark Buchanan, Christianity Today, 44:4 (2000 Apr 3), 64.

[2] Buchanan, 67.

* for the faces on the left: fake, real, fake, fake


be afraid. be very afraid

The Fly, with Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis is credited with the demand, “Be afraid.  Be very afraid.”  However, we can come up with numerous ways that command is laid upon us.  Unfortunately, being exposed to manufactured fear has become a way of life.

Are we familiar with the slogan regarding news broadcasts, “If it bleeds, it leads”?  The focus in the news tends to be on bad news.  And what poses as discussion is either interviewing people who already agree with the host or shouting at and interrupting those who don’t.  On occasion, good news finds its way into the mix.  Nonetheless, it seems that the directive, “lead with the bleed,” has been bumped up a notch or three in the past couple of years.  We are learning to fear each other.  We are being censored.  We are taught, like it or not, fear sells.  Panic is profitable, as in billions of dollars profitable.

1[A scared chicken, courtesy of Doug Savage]

Still, there are reasons for fear that are legitimate.  Fear jumping off your roof—especially if you have a three-story house.  Fear driving down the interstate with your eyes closed.  Fear walking up to your wife while she’s cooking and asking, “What is that stench?”

The psalm which is Isaiah 12 addresses a basic fear.  The first two verses tell us,

“You will say in that day: I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me. / Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.”

(Quick note: if you wonder what “in that day” means, see chapter 11, which speaks of the restoration of Israel.)

This is a fear pervading the prophet / psalmist’s outlook, one which is seen to be found in the God of all.  Some might prefer language such as “pervading life itself.”  An elemental anger—an inherent indignation—welling up from the divine is felt.  We might think the whole world is against us!

2However, there is a discovery of salvation.  The prophet Isaiah speaks of freedom from fear.  “I will trust and will not be afraid.”  Trust and fear don’t do very well in the presence of the other.  Fear is afraid of trust.  To be honest, fear is afraid of many things!

We can even be afraid of ourselves.

I remember one day when I was in college and visiting home for the weekend.  I was arguing with my mother—an argument, to my shame, that I started.  Quite simply, she was talking to me about the Lord.  It was a conversation I didn’t care to have, and I made it quite clear.

She responded in an overly emotional manner, and it irritated me.  It made me mad.  I stormed up the stairs to go to my room, and with each step, I became angrier and angrier.  I slammed the door to my room as hard as I could, causing a sound like a thunderclap.

I plopped down in my chair, shaking.  It terrified me that I was capable of such rage.  (And I don’t use that word lightly.)  I was scared.  Needless to say, I didn’t spend the night.  I immediately got in my car and drove back to school.  Fortunately, a few days later, we were reconciled.  Thanks be to God!

Looking back at my outburst that day, I would say that I was convicted by the Holy Spirit.  The Lord was reaching out to me, and I did my best to say “no.”

Verse 3 seems instructive at this point.  “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”  With joy I drew water from the wells of salvation, though it didn’t happen then!

My experience of faith and college differed from what is so often the case.  If college does have any effect on a student’s faith, it’s usually that they lose it.  Of course, it can always be retrieved!  But for me, college is where I found my faith.  And this wasn’t a religious college; I was at a state university, MTSU (Middle Tennessee State University).

Recall my comment about divine anger welling up.  Following along with that image, the fresh water from those wells of salvation quenches the fire of fury.  Salvation brings the ultimate trust, and fear is banished.

That’s not the only time the book of Isaiah speaks of pure fresh water welling up: “The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail” (58:11).

There’s something about how that well water will be drawn.  There’s a certain state of mind, or state of being.  It will be drawn with joy.  Such is the promise of the prophet: with joy.  It won’t be a question of going through the motions, of following a formula, of following instructions on a box.  I mentioned how fear and trust have trouble co-existing.  With joy, that’s even more the case.  The force, the energy, pulsing at the heart of joy is the power of God.  We hear and feel the holy message, “Fear not.”

3

Still, there is a fear many people have, and it is singing before others.  Maybe that’s a fear I would be better off having, at least, according to critiques I’ve received over the years.

However, to that point, there is a theological lesson we can learn from Isaiah.  Verse 5 tells us (no, encourages us, exhorts us) “Sing praises to the Lord”!  If we understand that when we’re singing, we are singing to God, we can be assured we aren’t being graded; we aren’t being critiqued, as I have been!  God is tone deaf in the best possible way.  God is the ultimate in being a forgiving audience.

More than once, the psalms say, “Make a joyful noise!”

There’s a joke along those lines.  Someone is being recruited to sing a solo, and they respond, “I’ll sing a solo.  I’ll sing so low you can’t hear me!”  (I didn’t say it was a good joke.)

Why is Isaiah 12 a text for Advent?  What does it have to do with the coming of Christ?

We always have to be careful when taking an Old Testament scripture and viewing it through New Testament eyes.  Still, this chapter works well for this time of year.  It speaks of hope and joy that the Holy One is in our midst.

The same is true of our epistle reading from Philippians 4.  “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (v. 4).  We are reminded that the Third Sunday of Advent is Gaudete Sunday.  Gaudete is Latin for “rejoice”!

There’s something about verse 5 I really like.  “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.  The Lord is near.”  The Lord is near.  If that’s not an Advent theme, I don’t know what is.

But that’s not what I’m talking about.  The word translated as “gentleness” has many nuances.  The Greek word επιεικης (epieikēs) is powerful.  For example, it expresses what is suitable or fitting.  One described as επιεικης is patient and gentle.  Understand, this isn’t a gentleness born out of weakness.  It portrays one who possesses a loftiness of thought, one who is noble.

4I especially appreciate how it reads in the New English Bible: “Let your magnanimity be manifest to all.”  Be magnanimous.  Be great in character.  Avoid the pettiness, the vindictiveness that so easily infects.  Cultivate the willingness to laugh at oneself.  (Sadly, that’s no problem for me.)

Sometimes I’ve heard people say if they had the ability to do it all over again, they wouldn’t change anything about their life.  After all, it has led them to be the person they are.  Well, I would love to do some things over.  (The day of my meltdown would be one!)  There are many situations in which I wish I had been more… magnanimous.  In that way, we help each other disobey the command to be afraid, to be very afraid.

The apostle Paul counsels us, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (v. 6).  A life of anxiety hampers the desire and ability, not to pray, but to pray with thanksgiving, with gratitude.  There’s a big difference.  Paul says to thank God even while making our requests, our supplications.  One version says, “Be saturated in prayer” (The Passion Translation).

Then what happens?  “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (v. 7).  The peace of God is superior to every frame of mind.

Trust, joy, gratitude—all of these send fear packing.  We can cultivate healthiness as a nation and as a church.  We too often fall sway under the politics of fear, which has its own sad spirituality.  Fundamentally, it’s a way of controlling the population.  A certain level of anxiety must be maintained for it to work.

Elsewhere, Paul cautions us, “the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” (Ga 5:14-15).  If we develop a taste for human flesh, we will never get enough.

Still, there is the holy word of peace, “Fear not.”  It might seem counter-intuitive, but there are ways in which we choose to be afraid.  Sometimes we move heaven and earth to get a sip of that bitter draft of dread.  We ignore Paul’s guidance to not worry, to not get all worked up.  We ignore Isaiah’s encouragement to shout aloud and sing for joy—to raise the roof!

When we do not ignore the prophet and the apostle, what we do is to face down fear.  We embrace a holy boldness.

5

[Something appearing on our wall, y'all]

Can we agree to engage in a kind of rage?  Not the foolish, stupid rage that captured me on the day I spoke of.  No, can we agree to rage at all that would intimidate us, to fill us with fear?  Can we agree to a holy rage?  The peace of God isn’t passive; it flexes its muscles.  It is shalom, and shalom kicks fear in the hiney.

“Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”  Do not be afraid.


confident despair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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There’s some of that confidence of despair!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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


rich in hope

When I think of hope, something that often comes to mind is a movie I once heard described as “a romantic movie for dudes,” The Shawshank Redemption.  Maybe that’s true.  What I can say is that it’s a film with great depth.

For those who’ve never seen it, The Shawshank Redemption tells the story of two men, played by Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, who portray characters locked up in Shawshank Prison in Maine.  Robbins’ character, Andy Dufresne, was wrongly convicted of murdering his wife.  Freeman plays Red, the man who can get you almost anything.

In one scene, we’re in the cafeteria when Andy, fresh out of solitary confinement, sits down with his friends.[1]  He was put there because he commandeered the public address system and played Mozart at full volume.  (By the way, the warden is a quite unpleasant and lawbreaking man.)  The guys ask Andy how he was—how he was able to keep going.  He speaks to them about music.

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He says to them, “That’s the beauty of music.  They can’t get that from you.  Haven’t you ever felt that way about music?”

Red replies, “I played a mean harmonica as a younger man.  Lost interest in it though.  Didn’t make much sense in here.”

Andy pursues the dialogue.  “Here’s where it makes the most sense.  You need it so you don’t forget.”

“Forget?”

“Forget that… there are places in this world that aren’t made out of stone.  That there’s something inside… that they can’t get to, that they can’t touch.  That’s yours.”

“What’re you talking about?”

“Hope.”

“Hope?  Let me tell you something, my friend,” he says while wagging his spoon at him.  “Hope is a dangerous thing.  Hope can drive a man insane.  It’s got no use on the inside.  [That is, prison.]  You’d better get used to that idea.”

“Like Brooks did?”  Andy’s referring to an old man who spent almost his entire life in Shawshank.  When he was released, he was lost.  He was sent from the only home he ever really had.  Fear overwhelmed him, and he committed suicide.  Brooks saw no hope.

Red slams down his spoon and walks away.

That’s not the final word on hope we get in the movie.  Stay tuned for something more “hopeful.”  Still, Red was onto something when he said hope can drive us insane.  Or was he?

In Romans 15, St. Paul does an examination of hope.  He begins by speaking of the so-called “strong” and “weak.”  Very briefly, the strong recognize many things that don’t endanger one’s faith, such as observing ritual dietary laws, or failing to do so.  The weak believe the strong are going astray with their carefree attitudes.  The strong look down on the weak, and the weak judge the strong.

By the way, I wonder which category Paul places himself in?  My guess would be the strong!  Still, here is his directive: “Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor.  For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me’” (vv. 2-3).  And here is his basis: “so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope” (v. 4).  That is our foundation; our hope isn’t subject to the wavering winds that would buffet us around.

Hope can save your life.

2 roThe psychologist Viktor Frankl wrote the book, Man’s Search for Meaning.  In it he speaks of his experiences while imprisoned at a Nazi concentration camp.  While there, he noticed that the “loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect.”  He gives as an example something that the camp’s chief doctor pointed out.  “The death rate in the week between Christmas, 1944, and New Year’s, 1945, increased in camp beyond all previous experience.”[2]

The doctor believed the explanation “was simply that the majority of the prisoners had lived in the naive hope that they would be home again by Christmas.  As the time drew near and there was no encouraging news, the prisoners lost courage and disappointment overcame them.  This had a dangerous influence on their powers of resistance and a great number of them died.”  Their loss of hope was indeed fatal.

The loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect.  It can deadly to others.  Those without hope are easy prey to fear.  Those who are fearful can be deadly to others.  Fear is contagious—much more contagious than Covid, or any other “contagion.”  The fear inside of us is highly transmissible.

Fortunately, there is an antidote to fear and hopelessness.  The apostle Paul says, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (v. 7).  He is speaking first of all about Jews and Gentiles, but the power of welcome spreads in all directions and in all ways.  It is impossible to welcome someone if you are afraid of them.  We often wind up putting up walls and erecting fortresses.

Or we just hide behind the curtains and pretend like we’re not at home.

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To his point about Jews and Gentiles welcoming each other, Paul quotes and paraphrases scriptures from the Old Testament.  He wants to demonstrate how Gentiles are encouraged, and indeed called, to worship the God of the Jews.  He shows how all of them (and us) are pointed toward the Messiah.  He alludes to Isaiah in verse 12 and uses this messianic interpretation: “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.”

With verse 13, we come to the end of the passage.  It is Paul’s grand and glorious benediction; he pronounces this blessing.  “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”  There’s a buffet of tasty treats in that verse.

He speaks of the “God of hope.”  That’s the only place where Paul uses that particular name.  How do we serve the God of hope?  How do we hold on to the God of hope?

Here’s one quick example.  Since March, our church has had signs along South Street and MacDougall Street telling those passing by we’re open every Sunday at 10am.  Every now and then, I’ve wondered if it’s time to take the signs down.  They’ve been up long enough, haven’t they?

Of course, in recent weeks, some churches have taken steps back toward the lockdown we had for so long.

A few minutes ago, when talking about Viktor Frankl, I noted how the prisoners’ loss of hope was fatal.  In this past year and a half, we have learned too much about fatality, courtesy of Covid.  But there has been fatality of a deeper nature.  There has been a fatality to faith.  It goes beyond the extended lockdowns.

A shroud of depression and apprehension has descended upon us.  I spoke of fear and of the fearful.  We’re being fed a diet of fear and anger.

A few days ago, I was watching Zombieland: Double Tap, the sequel to Zombieland (neither of them being the work of art that The Shawshank Redemption is).  Banu and I remarked on how zombies are unable to think (and hope means nothing to them), yet they are ravenous.  They only live—so to speak—to eat.  They spread fear, and yet, they’re not even aware of doing that.

4 ro

[A living dead view of Schrodinger's Cat]

I think to myself and wonder, “Yikes!  How often do I imitate a zombie?  (Well, not to the point of devouring human beings, at least not in a literal sense!  It’s about being unthinking and oblivious to hope.)

Let’s get back to our signs.  With so many churches in a semi-lockdown mode, I think they are a statement of a defiant and holy hope.  We take sensible precautions, but we don’t give in to fear.

Here’s the rest of Paul’s benediction.  What is his desire of the God of hope?  What is his humble and confident expectation?  He prays that we are filled with all joy and peace in believing.  Filled with all joy and peace.  Fear is banished.  Despair is given its walking papers.  Hopelessness is sent packing.

However, this doesn’t happen all by itself.  It happens “in believing.”  In other words, we orient ourselves to that same humble and confident expectation the apostle demonstrates.  There are always the voices, both within and without, that would distract and would have us rest and rely on our own strength.  With belief, there is a sense of knowing, a strong awareness of trust.  Still, we might sometimes feel like the man in Mark 9 with a son in need of healing.  He cries to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (v. 24).

So what is the result?  Paul’s longing is “that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”  The New Jerusalem Bible says, “so that in the power of the Holy Spirit, you may be rich in hope.”

I promised something hopeful from The Shawshank Redemption.  Skipping a lot of important details, Andy escapes from prison, and in the movie’s iconic scene, he raises his hands in the driving rain.  It reminds me of baptism.  Anyway, he has spoken to Red about a town in Mexico where he plans to go.  Years later, Red is released on parole.  He remembers the promise he made to Andy to go see him if and when he left Shawshank.

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We hear Morgan Freeman’s voiceover as Red takes a bus cross country.  “I find I’m so excited, I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head.  I think it’s the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain.  I hope I can make it across the border.  I hope to see my friend and shake his hand.  I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams.  I hope.”

Hope has saved Red.  Hope saves us; hope embraces us, as we welcome the Spirit—as the Spirit welcomes us.  Welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed us.  What would happen if we welcomed hope and allowed it to grab us?  Are we ready to be transformed by hope?  What would that look like?

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

 

[1] www.youtube.com/watch?v=15pqpVbhs0c

[2] Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 4th ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 46.


crimson detergent

Sometimes I’m inspired by a song when thinking and praying about a sermon topic.  Recently there was a scripture text about people reaching a conclusion about Jesus.  He was out of his mind.  He had lost his marbles.  The song “Let’s Go Crazy” by Prince kept going through my head.  Even among those familiar with it, many don’t realize that song is actually about overcoming the temptations of the devil.

Last month there was the Creative Christianity Summit.  Artists and worship leaders from around the globe participated.  There was a sermon / teaching series on the tabernacle of the Israelites.  It was done by Rev. Paul Blackham, who lives in London.  I’ll go into detail on what he said in a few minutes.

1 ex

The song that really captured me—that captivated me—was the hymn, “Are You Washed in the Blood?”  I must confess, it’s never been one of my favorite hymns.  I’m not terribly fond of its tune.  I apologize to those who do like it.  As for the lyrics, to my mind, they lack a certain theological depth.

However, Blackham’s presentation gave me a new appreciation for the musical question, “Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?”  I discovered a solid Old Testament foundation for it.  Blackham spoke of the tabernacle (and we’ll take a quick look at it) as a model of the universe.  But again, it was that image of being washed in the blood which was my main takeaway.

Now, I’m warming up to the song!

As I just said, Blackham’s presentation dealt with the tabernacle.  It served as a portable temple when the Israelites traveled through the wilderness after fleeing the slavery of Egypt.  Every time they struck camp, the sacred tent and its accoutrements were packed up and taken along for the ride.  The tabernacle is described in Exodus, beginning with chapter 25.  I have included a chart of it which I will reference.

The entrance to the outer courtyard was always facing east.  The first stop was the altar of burnt offerings; that’s where the animals were sacrificed.  I want to circle around to the bronze basin or bronze laver (a container of water for washing), so I’ll mention the rest of the tabernacle beforehand.

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We next enter what was called the Holy Place, the first part of the inner court.  The priests conducted rituals, using the golden lampstand, the table of showbread, and the altar of incense.  We then continue into the Most Holy Place, the Holy of Holies, which deserves some explanation.

This was the most sacred place; it was considered to be the dwelling place of God.  The Holy of Holies was a room separated from the rest of the inner court by a veil.  Only the high priest could enter, and that was only one time per year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  The Holy of Holies contained the ark of the covenant, which according to the scriptures, held a golden jar of manna, Aaron’s staff that budded (Nu 17), and the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments.  The high priest would go into the tiny room, sprinkle blood from the sacrifice, and burn incense, thereby receiving atonement from God for his sin and for the sin of the nation.

According to Harrison Ford in the movie, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, one dare not gaze into it.  Those foolhardy enough to do so might suffer the fate of the impertinent Nazis and have one’s face completely melt off.[1]

Now, back to that bronze basin.

Slaughtering all those animals was a messy business.  I have never slaughtered an animal myself, but anyone who has can no doubt attest to what I’m saying.  With blood and guts spilling all over the place, a provision had to be made for cleanup.  We might need a large container filled with water.

Exodus 30:19 says, “with the water Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet.”  To be sure, this is about more than personal hygiene.  It’s about more than “cleanliness is next to godliness.”  Or is it?  There is the reality that drawing near to God meant purification on the part of the priests.  There is a profound ceremonial aspect to the washing.  And as they say, this is not a negotiation.

If you don’t believe me, notice the repeated warning: “so that they may not die” (vv. 20-21).  So clean up your act, or else.

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As our friend Paul Blackham noted, the water became red with blood.  The priests were literally washed in the blood.

(That song, “Are You Washed in the Blood?” has been running through my mind for the past few weeks.  People call that an earworm—a piece of music or song, like an actual earworm, that burrows into your ear and infects you.  The Germans came up with the term.  Maybe someone couldn’t get Beethoven out of their head!)

“Lay aside the garments that are stained with sin, / And be washed in the blood of the Lamb; / There’s a fountain flowing for the soul unclean, / O be washed in the blood of the Lamb!”

We see that image brought into the New Testament, where we’re no longer talking about the blood of an animal.  Rather, the picture is now the blood of the crucified Jesus.  It probably isn’t more clearly illustrated than in chapter 7 of the book of Revelation.

That book is filled with visions given to John.  (This is likely John the apostle, but we’re not totally sure.)  We start with verse 9, which says, “After this, I looked.”  What has just happened is John’s vision of twelve thousand people from each of the twelve tribes of Israel.  They have been sealed as protection from damage about to be unleashed on the earth.  As we see in verse 9, his vision has been expanded.

He sees people from every nation, speaking every language.  John sees a gathering too vast to be numbered, all dressed in white, waving palm branches, singing praises before the throne of God.

Can you recall how large a crowd you’ve been part of, with everyone singing hymns?  Banu and I have gone to one General Assembly; it was in 2004 in Columbus, Ohio.  Being in a worship service with hundreds of people—and worshipping together in spirit—is an experience like none other.  Lifting up one’s voice in a multitude like that drowns everything in praise.  It doesn’t matter if you can’t carry a tune.  The Lord is the best audience!

Notice who’s right next to the throne.  It is the Lamb, slain for us.  What an image this is: the crucified and now triumphant Christ pictured as an innocent, helpless critter.  But there’s more to it than that.  The Greek word here (αρνιον, arnion) is translated as “lamb.”  However, it is literally “lambkin,” a little lamb.  A little itty-bitty lamb.

4 exRemember Mary, who had a little lamb, a little lamb, a little lamb?  She had a little lamb, whose fleece was white as snow.

I do have a point in mentioning the nursery rhyme.  The book of Revelation was probably written in the 90s.  The Roman emperor then was Domitian, the self-proclaimed “Lord and God” Domitian.  This was a fellow with some serious self-esteem issues.  Early in his reign, he hadn’t yet begun his plunge into paranoia.  He enjoyed a certain level of popularity.  Descending into a reign of terror definitely took care of that!

We’re not sure to what extent he persecuted the church, but those Christians calling their Lord and Savior “lambkin” made a powerful statement about what was seemingly powerless being the mightiest of all.

We see angels, elders, and the four living creatures worshipping at the throne, and then the question is put to John, “Who are these folks in white, and where did they come from?”  John replies, “I don’t know.”

The secret is revealed.  “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (v. 14).  Eugene Peterson put it this way: “they’ve washed their robes, scrubbed them clean in the blood of the Lamb” (The Message).  They’ve scrubbed them clean.  I don’t imagine we’ll ever see a laundry detergent company advertising that particular ingredient.  How indeed can blood remove stains?

It’s one thing, as those priests did, to wash your hands in crimson-colored water; it quite another thing to try it with clothing.

Lay aside the garments that are stained with sin.

John is told that they “have come out of the great ordeal.”  The word for “ordeal” (θλιψις, thlipsis) also means “tribulation,” “affliction.”  It has the idea of “pressing together,” of being under “intense pressure.”  Some people think this refers to a certain event or experience.  Others (and I think I would put myself in this category) believe this “ordeal” speaks to life in general.  We all are afflicted by sin.  We all feel the pressures of the world.

The law of Moses says, “The blood is the life” (Dt 12:23).  Washing those robes is washing them with life.  It is washing death away.  When we put on those garments, we put on Christ.  We clothe ourselves with Christ (Ro 13:14, Ga 3:27).  We wrap ourselves with Christ.

5 exWhat is to become of that multitude without number?

We see their destiny, and it is a glorious one.  “They will hunger no more, and thirst no more.”  “The Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (vv. 16-17).  The Lamb will shepherd the sheep.

There are a number of images that speak of the power of Jesus the Messiah: the miracles he performed, his wisdom, his love, and oh yes, a little thing called the resurrection.  Still, there is power in the blood.  The blood is the life.

 

[1] www.youtube.com/watch?v=YcR9k8o4I0w


Spirit of repair and renewal

I want to steal Banu’s answer to something I asked her.  “What comes to mind when you hear the words, ‘creation and Pentecost?’”  “How about when you hear the words, ‘Earth and Holy Spirit?’”

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[photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash]

She spoke of a portal to heaven being opened.  She spoke of the Spirit covering the earth as the waters cover the sea.  I mentioned the book of the prophet Joel, which assures the outpouring of the Spirit “on all flesh.”

This pouring out has sons and daughters prophesying, the elderly dreaming dreams, and the young seeing visions.  There is a note on male and female slaves also receiving the outpouring of the Spirit.  Maybe we can translate that to “everyone, both great and small”!

The promise of “all flesh” receiving the Spirit only refers to human flesh.  Is it possible the animal kingdom could also be intended?  I’m not sure.  I think the animals already have their act together.  It’s the human race that needs to be filled with the Holy Spirit of wind and fire—the wind to steer us straight and the fire to burn away the impurities.

Unfortunately, the church (at least, the church in the West), has rarely thought of creation and Pentecost, Earth and Holy Spirit, as going together.  Happily, that is increasingly no longer the case.

Regarding Joel, we really have no idea when his book was written.  Unlike many of the other prophets, there is no helpful mention of historical markers, such as who was king during that time.  There is, however, mention of a devasting ecological disaster—wave after wave of locusts have swept through and ravaged the crops.  The destruction has been frightful.

They are described in rather stark language.  “They have the appearance of horses, and like war-horses they charge.  As with the rumbling of chariots, they leap on the tops of the mountains, like the crackling of a flame of fire devouring the stubble, like a powerful army drawn up for battle” (2:4-5).

I think I’m safe in saying these critters are unwelcome guests!

2 joelThese locusts are seen as God’s call to repentance.  Joel doesn’t go into much detail as to what the people need to repent of, as some other prophets do.  He just speaks of disobedience in general.  An interesting thing is that this call to penitence involves nature itself—the invasion of locusts and the resulting devastation of the nation’s harvest.

Likewise, the sign of the salvation by God also involves nature.  “I will repay you,” says the Lord, “for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you.  You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you.  And my people shall never again be put to shame” (vv. 25-26).

Before he gets that far, the prophet has a message for creation itself.  He addresses nature.  “Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things!  Do not fear, you animals of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green; the tree bears its fruit, the fig tree and vine give their full yield” (vv. 21-22).  When we look at the reading in Romans, I’ll say more about why I’ve highlighted this.

We might want to dismiss Joel’s speech as flowery symbolism.  He attributes emotion to his non-human, even non-living audience.  (At least, not living the way we think of it.)  Fear not!  Be glad and rejoice!

However, we are today understanding more about these things.  For example, there have been experiments in which rats have been observed consciously sacrificing themselves for others.  (I should add, that wasn’t the expectation at the beginning of the experiment!  No one actually thought the rats would give up their lives to save one of their fellows.)

In the recent movie, My Octopus Teacher (2020), the filmmaker befriends a creature that apparently has a high level of sentience.[1]  I’ll think twice before eating calamari again!  (And I do understand that calamari are squid; but they’re close enough!)

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I grieve for trees that are cut down.  I see them as having some level of consciousness.

My point is that we too readily disregard our fellow earthlings.  Sometimes I think of war and the toll it takes.  Obviously, the loss of human life is both horrific and unnecessary.  When we go to war, it shows a failure of imagination and creativity.  Do we ever consider the mass murder we commit against animals and plants?

Actually, the Bible itself makes an issue of that very thing.  In the law of Moses, in Deuteronomy 20, there’s a section on the rules of warfare.  An environmental clause was inserted.  The Israelites are told, “If you besiege a town for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you must not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them.”

When an army lays siege to a city, it is blockaded.  Supplies are cut off, including food.  Sometimes the water supply is hindered.  The strategy is if the population is starved, denied vital necessities, eventually it will have to submit.

The verse goes on, “Although you may take food from [the trees], you must not cut them down.  Are trees in the field human beings that they should come under siege from you?” (v. 19).  I’m not sure how often that warning—that wisdom—was heeded.  We can learn a lot from it.  It’s an early version of the Geneva Conventions.

Now to my point about emphasizing addressing creation itself in Romans 8.  St. Paul speaks of the present suffering as not even close to the glory which will be revealed, adding that “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (v. 19).  The creation waits with eager longing.  There is an intelligence at work, an intelligence that yearns, and it yearns for the unveiling of God’s children.

I wonder how often we act like the children, the daughters and sons, of God in our care of creation.  We are reminded of that ancient command in Genesis 1 in which the human race was told to “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth” (v. 26).  We should remember that there is a difference between dominion and domination.

There is a reason given for creation’s longing.  It has been “subjected to futility” (v. 20).  That word “futility” (ματαιοτης, mataiotēs) means “vanity” or “emptiness.”  One translation says, “creation was condemned to lose its purpose” (Good News Bible).  Of course, we’re the ones who lost sight of creation’s purpose!  We too often lose sight of our own purpose.

4 joelVerse 20 goes on to say the creation was subjected “not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it.”  As they ask in the crime novels trying to solve a murder, “Whodunnit?”  Who subjected creation to futility?  Was it we humans, or was it God?  Majority opinion goes with the latter.  It’s unclear why God would do such a thing.  One explanation is the ones put in charge by God—us.  We are the ones who screwed it up.

We dump plastic into the soil and into the sea.  We pave over the earth with reckless abandon.  We do chemistry experiments with our atmosphere, altering its composition.  We even inject ourselves with chemicals, the long-term effects of which we really don’t know.

Despite our failings as caretakers, God has made sure that the futility, the purposelessness, we have inflicted has been done “in hope.”  The story isn’t over.  Ultimately, despite our destruction (including self-destruction, God forbid), creation will endure.  Creation will be repaired and renewed.

If all of this is giving you a headache, or maybe giving you a pain in the rear end, take heart!  You’re not alone!  The apostle Paul understands, and it’s causing him to groan.  Actually, what he does is to give us a three-fold list of groaning: “the whole creation” (v. 22), “we ourselves” (v. 23), and “the Spirit” (v. 26).

I won’t into great detail about all of this groaning.  All of these “groaning” words are related to στεναζω (stenazō), which besides meaning “to groan,” also means “to sigh.”  The creation groans with labor pains.  We groan, awaiting our adoption, the final redemption of our bodies.  And that bit about our bodies is important.  Remember, in Jesus the Christ, God chose to be manifest in flesh—to appear in matter, to become part of creation.  Resurrection is not about the spirit; it is about the body.

Lastly, there is the Spirit, who helps in our weakness, not knowing how to pray as we ought.  The Spirit intercedes with sighs (as just mentioned) “too deep for words.”  Some say that refers to glossolalia, speaking in tongues.  However, speaking in tongues is an occasion of elation, as Paul says elsewhere.  In this context, the word is used as an expression of pain, of great discomfort.

The Holy Spirit grieves for us; the Spirit grieves for the creation.  Yet, as I said before, this is not the end of the story.  At this point, let me return to my original question I put to Banu.  That portal to heaven is open.  The Spirit is poured out as the waters cover the sea.

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[photo by Melissa Askew on Unsplash]

Our duty, our calling, our joy isn’t simply to each other.  The gospel, the good news, goes throughout all the earth.  “God so loved the world (the cosmos)…”  Pentecost is a powerful reminder of the awesome privilege we have.  God issues the invitation to join in repairing and renewing the world.

 

[1] www.imdb.com/title/tt12888462


love conquers, fear abandons

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 1 jn[photo by Luis Machado on Unsplash]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7 1 jn

[photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash]

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

 

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

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

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

[4] Rhodes, 25.

[5] Rhodes, 33.

[6] Bultmann, 592.

[7] Bultmann, 592.


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/


death shall have no dominion

“And death shall have no dominion. / Dead men naked they shall be one / With the man in the wind and the west moon; / When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone, / They shall have stars at elbow and foot; / Though they go mad they shall be sane, / Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again; / Though lovers be lost love shall not; / And death shall have no dominion.”

1 roThat is the first stanza of Dylan Thomas’ poem “And Death Shall Have no Dominion.”  As you might have guessed, it was inspired by Romans 6:9: “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.”

Thomas speaks of bones being picked clean, sinking through the sea and rising again, lovers lost but not love itself.  After everything is said and done, death shall have no dominion.

(That poem has appeared in many places, such as in Steven Soderberg’s remake of the movie Solaris.  In one scene, we hear George Clooney reciting that same first stanza.  It was also featured in the show, Beauty and the Beast, starring Linda Hamilton and Ron Pearlman.)

We will revisit death’s having no dominion in a few minutes.

Chapter 6 begins, “What then are we to say?”  St. Paul’s asking a question about something, so let’s check out chapter 5.  Very, very briefly, he’s been talking about Adam and Christ.  Through Adam, sin entered the world.  Through Christ, grace has been extended.  And this isn’t a tiny drop of grace.  We read in 5:20, “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.”  There is a superabundance of grace.  We are awash in grace.

So how do we answer Paul’s question?  “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” (v. 1).  Hey, that sounds like a plan!  Let’s pour on the sin, knowing a tsunami of grace is on the way.  If a little bit do good, a whole lot do better!  I imagine Paul would think about it for a moment, and say, “No way, José.”

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"Look, there's a tsunami!"  "That's nice. Who has the suntan lotion?"

Instead, the apostle asks, “How can we who died to sin go on living in it?  Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (vv. 2-3).

Baptized into his death.  That is a serious way of looking at it.  And it’s also a quite visual way of “looking” at it.  That’s especially true for those of us who were baptized by immersion—going into the grave and being raised back to life.  Accordingly, I have a story of my own baptism.

On the evening of the 3rd of August in 1985, I had what I might call a mystical experience.  I was in college at the time.  I had been meditating on Isaiah 55:8-9.  “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

I began to feel like I was being plunged into an ocean of love.  I was being baptized in love.  It was, as you might gather, a very powerful experience!

At the time, I did not go to church.  My mother, however, had begun attending an Assemblies of God church.  I told her I had this encounter with the Lord, and she said I needed to be baptized.  I really didn’t see the point in it.  What would it serve?  Didn’t God accept me as I am?  Her basic response was it was necessary to make that public profession of faith.

I eventually started attending church, though on a very sporadic basis.  Still, as the months went by, I began to sense baptism was for me.

So on a Sunday evening, the 3rd of August 1986, one year to the night I had my revelation of love, I stepped into the baptismal of the church, with its heated water.  There were two others who went before me: a boy about ten years old and an elderly woman, who upon being raised out of the water by our pastor, began speaking in tongues.

Then it was my turn.  Later on, after the service was over, I told my mother it felt like a huge weight had been lifted from me.  I could breathe.

[Someone is holding the shirt he wore during his baptism.]

3 roSo as I suggested a moment ago, I can relate to this business of dying with Christ and being raised back to life.  “We too might walk in newness of life” (v. 4).

“Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again.”

Paul says, “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin” (v. 6).

(By the way, if we read that bit about “our old self” being crucified with him in the King James language of “our old man,” the unfortunate question might be put to us, “Has your old man been crucified?”  We might wonder if they’re talking about a husband or a father.)

In any event, according to the apostle, we are no longer enslaved to sin.  We are not under its power.  We need not submit to its power.  But if we are really honest, sometimes we like that power!  When we’re presented with blessing and cursing, life and death, too often we go with the latter.  After all, in the hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” we sing the prayer, “Take away the love of sinning.”

I’m not sure when it happens, but at some point early in life, we discover manipulating people can be fun!

Something of which Paul assures us is “whoever has died is freed from sin” (v. 7).  That’s a good thing when what we’re considering is this matter of being crucified with Christ.  Of course, whoever dies is freed from a whole lot of stuff!

Paul continues, “But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.  We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again” (vv. 8-9).  And he finishes that thought in grand fashion: “death no longer has dominion over him.”

“And death shall have no dominion.”  If we have died to sin, what could that mean?

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Israel Kamudzandu, who teaches at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, comments, “Christians must always remind themselves that our old self, our culture, our rights, our private spaces, and the desires of our flesh were crucified with Jesus Christ. Our daily living must demonstrate our newfound and grace-filled status in Christ.”[1]

Being from Zimbabwe, he puts it on a global scale.  “Sin is like a foreign domination in that it dehumanizes and reduces one to a victim position and some people die as victims because no one is there to rescue them…”

I guess the sentiment expressed by death having no dominion is especially meaningful for us in our strange new world.  It is especially poignant.

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke of how we’ve been given a reset button.  What do we do with it?  Are there new lessons to be learned?  Are there old lessons that need to be re-learned?  The coronavirus has given us a sort of pause, so maybe we can use it to reflect on all that life is.  Quite immediately for us, it is our own life.  How do we embrace life and reject death?

In times like these, time is something that can take on a sense of sameness, of uniformity, maybe even of monotony.  Schedules can go out the window.  For the past few weeks, I have felt like Friday was Saturday.  I’m not really sure why.  One thing I can say is that when I realize it is indeed Friday, I’m relieved I didn’t lose a day!

We can embrace life by keeping our minds active, keeping them challenged.  Take this time to learn a new language; develop your artistic side; read good books; do some writing; do more writing.  (I think I’m preaching to myself on that one.)

Is it too far-fetched to say, by not stretching ourselves, we’re embracing death?  Paul says to us, “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (v. 11).  We are called to claim our identity.  As those who have been buried with Christ and raised to new life, we are called to be ourselves.  I find that difficult, and I don’t think I’m alone in that.

Why is it so hard to be ourselves?

“And death shall have no dominion.”  Following from that, what does have dominion is shalom (שׁלוֺם).  The Hebrew term shalom means far more than what our paltry English word “peace” entails.  It is absolute well-being, perfect harmony, Heaven on Earth!  Shalom reaches to God, embraces the neighbor, permeates our politics, cares for creation.  We find shalom within ourselves.  If we take the pause I mentioned a moment ago, if we’re willing to listen, we hear that silent voice coming from within.

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We are called to lay aside the foolish facade the world imposes on us.  We learn to stop the incessant posturing, the soul-draining competition that leads to death.  We kill our spirits struggling to prove that we’re good enough, that we’re worthy, that we deserve love.  The one who has defeated death says, “I don’t care about that stuff!  I offer grace abundant, grace superabundant.”

The power of sin, the power of death, would plunge us into the water and hold us down.  We wouldn’t be able to resurface; we wouldn’t be able to see clearly.  We wouldn’t be able to see, even in those we are told to fear and loathe, the face of Jesus Christ.  We wouldn’t be able to see that his grace abounds.

Death shall have no dominion.

 

[1] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2052