Archive for the ‘Old Testament’ Category

You’re blessed when you stay on course,
walking steadily on the road revealed by God.
You’re blessed when you follow [God’s] directions,
doing your best to find [God].
That’s right—you don’t go off on your own;
you walk straight along the road [God] set.
You, God, prescribed the right way to live;
now you expect us to live it.
Oh, that my steps might be steady,
keeping to the course you set;
Then I’d never have any regrets
in comparing my life with your counsel.
I thank you for speaking straight from your heart;
I learn the pattern of your righteous ways.
I’m going to do what you tell me to do;
don’t ever walk off and leave me. (Psalm 119:1-8, MSG)

 

Obedience isn’t typically associated with poetry.  We think of obedience in terms of laws, rules, and strict observance of a moral code.  We think about punishment and reward.  It tends to be a very rigid concept, sometimes based in fear of consequences.  Much of this way of thinking about obedience has deep roots in the Middle Ages in the Church.  God was viewed as the Great Judge, Jesus a defense attorney, and Satan the prosecution.  This is also the soil from which we get much of the penal substitution theory of atonement – which says, God had to punish sin and chose to inflict that punishment, death, upon Jesus.  It is a very violent view of God that incites fear in us to “toe the line.”

This framework tends to keep obedience as a response to our fear of God’s retribution.  Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” have tingled our imaginations of a God waiting in the rafters for us to break the rules and jump down to confront and destroy us – unless we somehow quickly repent and make ourselves better.  For many Christians, this may be an oversimplification of Jesus’ work and our responsibility.  And, it is!  But, this reflects the traditions that I was often surrounded by and understood Christianity to be about!  Somehow I knew God loved me, but the fear of God’s punishment hung like a dark cloud over my head.  And, it became more complicated as I witnessed many doing what was “wrong” and yet their lives seemed to continue unimpeded by God’s wrath.  It was confusing and eventually unsustainable.  I stopped seeing any need for the Church or my participation in it.  Ultimately, that has been to my loss.

I had reduced obedience to a mathematical equation.  Do good = get good.  Do bad = get bad.  It was this algebraic formula that ruled my relationship with God.  If I performed X, I would receive Y.  “Y” could be anything from God’s love or presence to God acting in a precise way in my life because of my prayers.  The irony and sad reality of this moral formula of faith is that the equation never balanced in my favor – I was always too sinful, not committed enough, undeserving, lacking knowledge, etc.  The scales of morality always suggested that there was no possibility in gaining God’s favor, becoming faithful enough, or being obedient to the necessary degree.  In other words, the mathematical equation was useless and so was the Church that had offered me that kind of faith.

Thankfully, that’s not the end of the story.  I found those in the Church that imagined obedience was more like poetry than prose.  Poetry is expansive, imaginative, playful, honest, and a work of love.  Prose makes everything seem settled, rigid, matter-of-fact.  But, poetry teases the imagination by plunging into the mystery without the need to control it.  That was the hardest thing to learn (and remains the hardest thing to change) – obedience is not about control.  Poetry invites wonder, awe, praise, thanksgiving, and lament.  Prose, on the other hand, often reduces life to principles, formulas, and equations.

Psalm 119 invites us into the poetry of obedience.  It is an acrostic poem, meaning that each stanza begins with a consecutive letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  It is the longest poem within the Psalms and it is all about obedience to Torah, to being instructed in God’s way of living in the world.  It is comprehensive (from “A to Z”) and yet it is not reductive.  It imagines God’s instruction to be a way of life, not simply a list of rules to follow.  It is an invitation to bask in the wonder of God’s commands that bless and sustain life – not as a formula, but as hope-filled promise.

The first stanza of the poem is filled with verbs that beg for obedience to be engaged as ongoing journey.  We seek, we learn, we walk, we observe diligently, we praise, we fix our eyes, we keep God’s decrees.  And for those that enter into this life-giving way, there is blessing.  It is the blessing that is found in walking whole-heartedly before the Lord as those who have been re-created and made new, whose shame has been clothed.  This encounter with God gives way to poetry and praise that imagines obedience as a posture and response of thanksgiving to God’s faithfulness.  Obedience is not rigid, but must be appropriate for each new situation that flows out of our prayerful walk with God.  It is the kind of obedience which leads to humility rather than self-righteous self-promotion.  It is the posture of prayer that seeks to know God more deeply today than yesterday and does fail to glorify God through the entirety of our lives – yes, even our failures.

In the love song of obedience, we find a God that is not waiting to smite us when we fail, like a boy with a magnifying glass over an anthill.  Rather, we find God has already pioneered the pathway of faithfulness, the highway of holiness through Jesus – who is the very poem of God’s life in the world.  God does not ask of us that which God is not willing to also do.  In fact, Jesus’ life of love is one deeply marked by obedience – a love song that is his life-song.  As followers of Jesus, we are called to harmonize with Jesus by allowing our lives to also become a love song, a poem.

Bill Mounce, a noted New Testament language scholar, writes, “Paul tells the Ephesians that ‘we are his workmanship (ποιημα), created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them’ (ESV).”  We are God’s poiema, workmanship, which is where we get our word “poem.”  We are God’s poem.  Like an artist, God sings a love song to the world through us, through our faithful obedience.  It is a song of beauty.  It is a song of redemption.  It is a song that turns ashes into beauty, mourning into gladness, and despair into hope.

Parents nurturing their children is God’s poetry.  Grandparents caring for their grandchildren is God’s poetry. Handling adversity with grace is God’s poetry being sung to the world steeped in anxiety and despair.  Living in generous and neighborly ways reflects God’s poetry.  Lives that reflect the beauty of God’s love, mercy, and justice are lives of poetic obedience offered back to God and to the world.  Such lives invite awe and wonder at the glory and beauty of such a God living in and through us.

“Let My Life Song Sing to You”

Empty hands held high

Such small sacrifice

If not joined with my life

I sing in vain tonight

May the words I say

And the things I do

Make my lifesong sing

Bring a smile to You

CHORUS:

Let my lifesong sing to You

Let my lifesong sing to You

I want to sign Your name to the end of this day

Knowing that my heart was true

Let my lifesong sing to You

Lord I give my life

A living sacrifice

To reach a world in need

To be Your hands and feet

So may the words I say

And the things I do

Make my lifesong sing

Bring a smile to You

CHORUS:
Let my lifesong sing to You

Let my lifesong sing to You

I want to sign Your name to the end of this day

Knowing that my heart was true

Let my lifesong sing to You

Hallelujah

Hallelujah

Let my lifesong sing to You

 

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Towers rise to pierce the sky

Build taller, build more

Look, how grand the work of our hands

Build taller, build more

The Sky is the no limit; we dare not restrain

Until at last, bright shines our name

Build taller, build more

The foundation cracks; our words become babble

The tower turns to dust and rubble; we become scattered rabble

Build taller, build more – the seductive call

No matter its promise, brings ruin to all

Judah’s sin was political and religious violence wielded against the most vulnerable in society.  The economy was organized so that the rich grew richer and the poor were buried in credit card debt.  Families’ homes were foreclosed when they couldn’t pay off the loans.  Political leaders conscripted boys and men for war and women and girls for servile labor, paying them a mere pittance.  The religious leaders proclaimed a health-and-wealth gospel that blessed the nation’s “progress” and supported the king’s agenda to “make Israel great again.”  But, in the end, Judah’s religious and political life is deemed to be idolatrous.  Judah imagined itself to be immutable, invincible, and perpetually chosen by God.  They couldn’t imagine God had a different agenda – not to make Israel “great again,” but to be humble in its walk before God.  As such, God sends Judah, like Israel before it, into Exile, into captivity, into Babylon.

The year 587 for the Jewish people was a living “hell on earth.”  Babylon swept out of the North like boiling water surging in tidal waves over Judah.  Jerusalem was ransacked, its people all but annihilated, the Temple toppled.  You can imagine the acrid smell of burned crops and land, tiny tendrils of smoke rising from the charred grass.  The ground was barren.  The people were destitute and broken.  Those left in the land were generally the weak or the sick or the very poor who couldn’t travel.  The very best and brightest, the rulers and leaders were marched off to Babylon in shackles.

In the scriptures, Babylon takes on a life of its own.  It represents the way of Empires, particularly when they begin to be machines of war and social and economic injustice.  Their way of life results in death.  Babylon embodies, like Pharaoh’s Egypt, an alternative life and narrative to God’s life-giving, life-blessing, life-sustaining way in the world.  Babylon is more than a geographical place.  It is an all-consuming way of life that seeks to shape everyone’s identity to be good Babylonian citizens, to give allegiance to Babylon alone.  Although Jeremiah sees Babylon as an instrument of discipline in God’s hand, nobody ever imagines that Babylon’s way of life is God’s ideal.  Babylon disorients and destroys Judah’s entire way of life and desires to mold the captives into Babylon’s own image.  Babylon wants everyone to look like them, either by choice or under threat of violence: dress like they do, eat like they do, worship the same gods of commerce and power and pleasure, take on Babylonian names, serve the Empire, and revere the King.  The imminent danger for Judah in Babylon is further forgetting their peculiar identity as God’s people in the world and enrolling as full-fledged citizens tutored in the ways of Babylon.

The event of Exile puts into question everything about Judah’s life as God’s covenant partner.  Everything has been uprooted and torn down.  They are thrust into a world that is unfamiliar and threatening.  Their Temple is gone.  Does this mean God has abandoned them?  They are now servants to foreign powers.  Does this mean they are forever cursed?  Their king and kingdom has been destroyed.  What does this mean for their future?  Has God trashed the covenant and all of its promises to make them a great nation?  The Exile is a time of crisis and a questioning of identity.  The future is in jeopardy, if there is a future.  Hope seemed just as shackled as they were in Babylon.

The world I grew up in has seemingly fallen apart.  Society around us is undergoing immense upheaval and lives in deep anxiety about the future.  So much has changed that I no longer recognize the landscape.  The world has shifted and morphed.  I no longer feel at home.  I feel dislocated and out of place, even though I’ve lived here all of my life.  I’m hardly marginalized or oppressed, but I feel like I’m being pushed further to the edge because I can no longer identify with American nationalism, which is so deeply grounded in violence and greedy consumerism.  The pursuit of the American Dream has been more like a nightmare for so many – and the anger, disappointment, and angst are boiling over in society.  For many, Babylon is not a past historical reality, but a living, breathing monster that continues to grab, hoard, oppress, silence, violate, and destroy lives.  So many times I must recognize I not only live in Babylon, but I have been seduced by her ways.

I also serve the Church as a pastor, but sometimes I have trouble feeling at home there as well because everything has become so politicized that it is exceedingly difficult to have charitable conversation with each other.  I feel like a “resident alien” living in this place as someone who just doesn’t quite belong.  Babylon has marked the Church, we have drunk the wine, and found ourselves intoxicated with her promise of power.  It has often left me wondering where God is present in our world and in the Church.  Has God abandoned the Church?  It has created an identity crisis among us, including myself.  What does it mean to be God’s people in places where the culture is trying to shape us in its image?  Where is there any hope?  We have often tried to find our hope in American political systems, politicians, and policies – to no avail.  The more we have pursued these avenues of maintaining power, the more we have become exiled from our Source – Jesus.  When the Church is exiled from Jesus, our identity is easily manipulated and molded to reflect the gods of this age – or, what Jeremiah calls “idolatry.”

The Exile as the further fracturing of identity in God’s people is Jeremiah’s context of mission and ministry.  He has watched his people travelling down a destructive road until it finally implodes in on itself.  What can you do in those moment?  Where can you find hope when it seems like God has abandoned you?  Where is there any solace when the ground is torched, the trees broken down, and the air smells like acidic charcoal and there is no hope for life?  In the midst of this barrenness comes the slightest sliver of hope.  The slightest bit of sunshine in the darkest night.  Exile has happened; the world has changed and cannot be reversed.  Judah has been torn down and overthrown and plucked up.  God has watched over that project the whole time.  But, that is not the final word God offers to Jeremiah or the people.  There is life beyond destruction.

God intervenes in a surprising way.  Where we thought God was gone, God shows up again to our amazement.  God does not finally abandon us in the midst of that dark, dark night.  Instead, God says, “In those days…”  A future promise.  It can’t be seen quite yet, but the seeds have already been planted.  “In those days, they shall no longer say, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth have been set on edge.’”  In other words, we no longer have to be captive to the past.  We no longer have to be captive to our present.  There is coming a time when the past no longer determines the future for everyone.  God is unfolding this new future, this new opportunity, this new life – even in the midst of death.  The slightest sliver of hope – but it could be just enough.  Hope has been unchained and unleashed in God’s coming future.

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I am going to make a new covenant with Israel…” And, remember, Israel is gone and destroyed about 200 years before Judah.  This promise encapsulates them, too.  It goes to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  But, it’s not going to be like the covenant made in Egypt.  Do you remember that covenant?  God’s people had been delivered out of Egypt, given this new freedom, this new promise of life outside the bondage of Egypt.  God gives them the Law, the Ten Commandments, this Teaching, this Way of life that they are to embody together as God’s people living in the world.

But, we find out very quickly they are incapable of keeping the covenant.  Moses comes down from the mountains and sees them worshiping the golden calf, an idol.  As soon as the covenant has been made, the covenant has been broken.  That is the cycle of Israel’s life together with God.  God calls them into a new way of life in this covenant.  Yet, Israel finds itself time and time and time again falling into sin, falling into faithlessness.  It doesn’t seem to get any better.  The Book of Judges shows that it gets worse and worse and worse.  It’s the same song but a different verse.  That is the story of Israel’s life.

This new covenant is not going to be like that.  It’s not going to be this external thing that Israel has to accomplish under its own power and piety.  Instead, God is going to do this new thing to the heart.  God is going to “tattoo” it on our hearts.  God is going to engrave it on our character.  The covenant is not going to be an external set of rules but will deeply shape out character so that we can’t help but live out of the very depths of our lives as faithful reflections of the God who has delivered us from death.

It’s a new covenant, a new way of being, a new way of life that God is going to accomplish.  No longer is this covenant going to be so dependent on God’s people to fulfill.  Instead, God is going to be the One that accomplishes it.  The death of Judah and Israel is not the end of the relationship.  Instead, God is doing something far greater than anything Judah or Israel can imagine.  New life is made possible through the way of death.  They actually have to go through death in order to get to life.  That was God’s plan all along.  God put the old Israel and the old Judah to death, in order that they might be opened up, humble enough to receive God’s new promise of the covenant – this new way of life that isn’t simply a list of rules.  Instead, it will grip our very hearts, shape our very character, and change our very nature.

God’s going to put God’s Law within them and write it on their hearts so that God will be their God and they will be God’s people.  No longer are they going to have to teach each other, “Know God!”  Each one of them, from the weakest to the most powerful, the richest and the poorest – all the community will know God.  There will no longer be an imbalance of power in terms of knowing God.  God will reveal God’s Self to all, equally.  This intimacy with God will be embodied in communities that seek everyone’s well-being.  It will be marked by justice and mercy.  It will be unveiled in worship of the true God which then marks us with God’s character lived out together for the sake of the world.  What a gift!  What a gift!  This is a new, living way for God’s people.

Not only that; but God will no longer remember their inequity.  It’s not that God doesn’t cognitively know, but to “remember” it as in God will not hold it against them.  God’s not going to continue to drudge up the past and hold it over our heads.  God’s not going to continue to look back and say, “Look what you did here!  You should be ashamed now!”  Instead, God is going to put the past in the past so that a decisively new future will emerge in which we have been given freedom from the past.  That doesn’t mean we forget the past, but it means that there is a new way forward where the past no longer has to be our future.

But, this future was not easy to see in the streets of Babylon.  Israel couldn’t deliver itself out of Exile.  Judah couldn’t deliver itself out of Exile.  They could not open up a new way of life.  God had to do it for them!  In the midst of Judah’s societal upheaval, the prophet Jeremiah begins to spout poetry about Creation.

Thus says the Lord,
who gives the sun for light by day
and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night,
who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—
the Lord of hosts is his name:
If this fixed order were ever to cease
from my presence, says the Lord,
then also the offspring of Israel would cease
to be a nation before me forever.[1]

The promise of the covenant is rooted in God’s creative power and love manifested in the Beginning.  This is the God who has created the sun, moon, and stars and put them in a fixed order, the One that rules over all Creation and ordered toward that which is Good.  God is in control of life when it is in order.  But, even as the seas are stirred up and the waves roar and the breakers threaten to crush us, God is even in the midst of the chaos.  God even rules over the chaos.  God rules over both the order and the chaos in our lives.

Therefore, regardless of what life looks like around us, whether it seems to be going well and orderly and right or whether it seems to be going in a disorderly, chaotic fashion; God can use any of those circumstances in order to make us into a new community.  You may not have noticed this, but Israel and Judah were named at the very first of this passage and then suddenly it’s just talking about Israel.  I wonder if that’s because that which had been broken apart, the relationship between Israel and Judah which had been broken apart because of its own sinful ways, has now been brought together.  In other words, God is re-forming that which is broken so that a new people, the covenant people, will be able to live out God’s covenant purposes together.  And God is inviting God’s people to remember their story, remember their identity, and to begin to live in the world on God’s terms.

I think it would be wonderful, in the midst of the chaotic upheaval around us, to recall our story and our identity as the Church.  We need to again hear our poetry about God’s work in Creation by which we know God’s promises and future to be true, even if we cannot see it in the moment.  Let us sing together the hope of our faith, to unleash our imaginations toward the possibilities of God’s redemptive work in our lives and in our world.  May we raise our voices to proclaim again that we are God’s people, marked by God’s covenant being inscribed on our hearts and lives.  Let us be reminded of God’s creative power that will ultimately fulfill God’s covenantal promises.  Let us proclaim our faith, hope, and identity together as we sing “How Great Thou Art!”

 

O Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder

Consider all the worlds Thy hands have made.

I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder

Thy power throughout the universe displayed

 

Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee

How great Thou art, how great Thou art

Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee

How great Thou art, how great Thou art!

 

When through the woods, and forest glades I wander,

And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees.

When I look down, from lofty mountain grandeur

And see the brook, and feel the gentle breeze.
Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,

How great Thou art, How great Thou art.

Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,

How great Thou art, How great Thou art!
And when I think, that God, His Son not sparing;

Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in;

That on a Cross, my burdens gladly bearing,

He bled and died to take away my sin.
Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,

How great Thou art, How great Thou art.

Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,

How great Thou art, How great Thou art![2]

 

 

Bibliography

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003.

Sing to the Lord: Church of the Nazarene Hymnal. Kansas City, MO: Lillenas Publishing, 1993.

 

[1] Jeremiah 31:35-36, NRSV.

[2] Stuart K. Hine, “How Great Thou Art,” Sing to the Lord: Church of the Nazarene Hymnal (Kansas City: Lillenas Publishing Company, 1993), #33.

Desmond Tutu once said, “I’m not optimistic, no.  I’m quite different.  I’m hopeful.  I’m a prisoner of hope.”  These words rattled in my head as I heard the devastating news this week.  My heart ached as I asked my black brothers and sisters, “What shall we say?”  My heart ached for my friends who know all too well the deadly sting of racism and the violence that comes with it.  My heart ached for people I respect and love who wear a badge and serve their community as officers.  I cried over a world and a nation that nurtures hate and exercises violence against their neighbors.  I tell ya: “I’m not optimistic, no.  I’m quite different.  I’m hopeful.  I’m a prisoner of hope.”  And, that is the reason I preach today.

 

The sun beat down on the top of his aging head.  The spindly shrub did little to provide shade.  The sun was always unrelenting in the desert.  Moses sat at the base of the mountain; some called it Horeb, some called it Sinai, still others called it the mountain of God.  He sat watching his father-in-law’s sheep graze, much as he had for the past forty years.

His desert life, a hard life, was far removed from the luxury he had known before coming to the desert… escaping to the wilderness.  The sandy hills were barren compared to the lush, fertile soil of the Nile.  The life of the shepherd hardly compared to life as a prince.

Moses had grown up in Pharaoh’s house, although it was pretty obvious early on that he wasn’t Egyptian.  He was a Hebrew – a people enslaved to Pharaoh.  Yet, somehow, Pharaoh’s daughter had taken him in and raised him as her own.  He enjoyed the finest in dining, education, clothing, housing, and sport.  He had power and authority.  His face was recognized anywhere he went.  Heads would bow and nod to show him honor.  But, here in the desert, sheep were the only subjects over which he ruled… and they didn’t seem too impressed by his previous status as a prince.

Moses recalled walking the streets of Egypt, admiring the splendor and wealth of the nation.  Egypt was growing, expanding, swelling ever more powerful.  Life seemed great.  There was so much to enjoy, so much to see, so much to do.

But, over time, Moses began to look more closely, to observe beneath the surface of Egypt’s beauty and power.  He looked past their military strength, their economic prowess, their political power, their social and economic domination.  Moses saw massive construction projects being built by those who lived in the tent cities in the poorest parts of town outside the walls.  He saw the thin, emaciated brown bodies that serving food to rich, fat rulers.  Egypt’s entire society was built on the backs of sun-kissed bodies.  For four hundred years Egypt crushed those bodies and ground them into dust, while Pharaoh and the rest of the Egyptian power-holders profited and prospered – all at the expense of those expendable, sun-kissed bodies.

For four hundred years, Egypt used, abused, and discarded brown bodies in service to economic, political, and Egyptian societal gain.  Four hundred years of injustice visited upon the Hebrews.  Four hundred years of oppression.  Four hundred years of groaning under the whip of Pharaoh.  Four hundred years of resentment building up pressure that might explode.  Four hundred years of Pharaoh building a system that capitalized on the oppression of others.

We might imagine that this is all in the past, by-gone history, water under the bridge.  But, it’s sad to say, Pharaoh is ever so much alive and kicking.  Violence against brown and black bodies has been happening for more than four hundred years in these lands we call home.

We have benefitted from the labor of brown and black bodies.  We have been made more comfortable by brown and black bodies.  We have raised ourselves up on the backs of brown and black bodies.  And, we continue to utilize oppression the world around to maintain our power and privilege over those same bodies.  For well over four hundred years we have enjoyed the well-being of Pharaoh and Egypt, while others languished under our whips.  For over four hundred years anger has festered and violence has been the only way we know to diffuse the growing tensions… But, there is no lasting peace won by the sword.

Moses shook his head, remembering his failure, his inability to change anything.  It was a problem too big to tackle.  It was overwhelming.  He couldn’t overcome the odds.  All of his power had been exhausted in trying to change the system… and he failed.  He had resigned himself to accept that things are the way they are and that nothing would ever change.  Egypt was too powerful.  The desert was a place to hide from the world’s problems, like an ostrich with its head in the sand.

He recalled his anger at the whip masters.  His fist balled up and his jaw clenched as he saw the brutality visited upon the slashed backs hunched over in agony.  His body shook as the rage threatened to swallow him up.  That’s why he was in the desert – he had allowed his rage to consume him.

He was walking through the streets of Egypt one day when he saw an Egyptian dressed in blue, wearing a badge of authority, using a club to beat and batter one of the Hebrews.  Moses didn’t even think, he jumped on top of the Egyptian officer and beat him until the man lay motionless on the ground in a heap.  The man’s head was bleeding and Moses realized the man was dead.  Without ceremony, Moses buried the man in an unmarked grave and swore the Hebrew man to secrecy.

But, Moses’ secret leaked out.  He learned that his sins were live-tweeted online and broadcast on the local news.  Social media blew up and Moses knew his time was short before Pharaoh would kill him.  So, he ran.  He ran away into the desert.  And forty years passed, but the pain and disappointment never faded, they only grew deeper.  Moses had tried to change things but the system was too big.  Moses thought violence was the answer, but that caused him to lose his influence and sent him into exile.  What is to be done when the broken system is so powerful and seemingly impervious to our protests and our call for change?

Do you recall why Israel became slaves?  Pharaoh was trying to deal with Egypt’s illegal immigrant problem.  Israel, in Pharaoh’s eyes, was a huge liability.  They were becoming numerous – quite a voting bloc to contend with if another nation decided to attack Egypt.  The final solution?  Put a burden so heavy on their shoulders that it would break their back.  Kill their children.  Kill their future.

Much like Pharaoh, we don’t mind turning our eyes away while others are used and abused.  We don’t mind being blissfully ignorant of our nation’s oppressive practices, especially if we benefit from the arrangement.  We love living in a nation of political prominence, economic excellence, technological transcendence, societal “superiority.”  We rarely think about the devastating impact we are having on other nations to maintain our escalating hunger for more wealth and comfort.  We sing about those things as if it is God’s very blessing upon us… when in reality, we have grabbed those things like Pharaoh by building our power and privilege on a mound of black and brown bodies.  And, standing in the pile of those bones, we rejoice with pride at the work we claim our hands have made.  But, in turn, we ignore the hands held open asking to receive a small pittance from the table of our comfort – primarily because those hands look so different from our hands, because they might take away some of what we claim as our God-given birthright.

Moses, like the sniper that killed five Dallas police officers, took matters into his own hands.  He was filled with rage at the injustice of the system and killed an Egyptian officer.  The denial of justice in society created a ticking time bomb that erupted in violence and death.  Unlike Moses, Micah Johnson learned too late that violence only births violence, it does not create justice.  Micah decided to live by the gun and he died by the bomb.  Violence did not solve the problem, but only escalated the violence.  Violence in Dallas tore apart six families, destroyed six lives, and still nothing has changed.  We are just as divided and just as violent.  Even if we don’t use weapons for violence, often times our words are weaponized for violent means.  We use our words just as effectively as guns to kill and wound.  Violence will continue to spill out into our communities until we deal with our society’s injustice toward black and brown bodies.  Violence will continue to spill over into our communities until we forsake our thirst for violence and violent retribution.

Something caught the corner of Moses’ eye.  A shrub nearby seemed to have caught fire.  God, it was hot out here.  He sat watching the shrub burn… and burn… and burn.  Yet, as Moses watched the shrub he noticed that nothing really changed.  The shrub remained the same size and shape.  No ash gathered at the base.  In fact, the shrub looked amazingly unharmed.  He stood and walked toward the strange bonfire: “I’ve got to check this out, why isn’t this bush torched?”

God was watching, waiting.  When Moses started moving toward the bush, God called to him, “Hey, Moses!”

Moses replied, “Hey, it’s me!”

God said, “Stop dead in your tracks! Take off your shoes, this ain’t no regular dirt.  This ground is different because it’s set apart, holy.  Allow me to introduce Myself: My name is I’M GONNA BE WHO I’M GONNA BE.  I AM the God of your family, the God of your people all the way back to Abraham.”

Moses dropped to the ground and buried his face in the sand.  He was deathly afraid to catch a glimpse of God.

God continued: “I’ve been taking notes on my people in Egypt, their cries are like a megaphone blaring out their suffering under their slave-masters.  I have experienced their pain and suffering.  Now, I’m jumping into the fray to pull them out of this pit and to bring them to a better living space.  You better believe Israel’s tears and wailing have caught my ear and my eyes have spied Egypt’s violent and hateful treatment of them.  And, guess what!?  You, Moses, are going to be the person that rescues Israel for Me from Egypt.

Moses was probably ecstatic to hear that after four hundred years, God was going to deliver Israel.  I can imagine tears of joy streaming down his face.  Then, like a deer in the headlights: “’Scuse me, You’re sending who?  I hate to throw a wrench in Your machine, God, but I’m nobody.  I’m not powerful anymore.  I’ve got no juice.  I don’t have the same swag I used to.  I don’t have that kind of influence.  I’m a criminal on the run, marked to be shot on sight.  Maybe You need to find somebody else for Your dirty work.”

God told Moses, “Stop sweating! I’m going with you. That’s how you’ll know I sent you.  And when you’re done freeing Israel, bring them back to this mountain to celebrate with Me.”

Moses wasn’t done giving excuses yet.  “Well, God, what do You expect me to tell everyone when they ask who sent me?  When they ask me the Name of the One I’m representing, what should I tell them?”

If God had eyebrows, they would’ve been raised: “Look, ‘I’m Gonna Be Who I’m Gonna Be.’  Tell ‘em ‘I’m Gonna Be Who I’m Gonna Be’ sent ya.  Tell Israel, ‘Gonna Be,’ the God of your family and people since Abraham sent ya to them!”

God didn’t stop there: “Go, get the people together, grab all of the leaders and tell them: ‘Gonna Be,’ the God of this family since the time of Abraham showed up and told me: ‘I reviewed the video footage of what’s happening to you in Egypt.  I’m busting you outta there and taking y’all to a place with plenty of good things for everyone.  They’ll feel what you’re saying, Moses.  Then, take Israel’s leaders with you and go on up to talk with President of Egypt, Pharaoh.  Tell Pharaoh, ‘God showed up.  Let us go out to the wilderness to celebrate with God.’”

(Pause)  God takes note of the marginalized and oppressed.  Their suffering is engraved in the palm of God’s hand.  Their cry pierces God’s heart like a spear jabbed in the ribs.  Their spilled blood runs down like red rivers down God’s thorn-pricked brow.  God knows the suffering of the destitute and dispossessed; the down-and-out and the downtrodden; the denigrated and the denied.  God knows their suffering as God’s own suffering.

And God wanted Moses to know it, too.  Sure, it was a bush on fire – nothing particularly special about that.  But, that fiery bush erupted in images of bodies lying cold on the pavement.  And God stood right in the middle of that fire so that the bush wasn’t consumed.  When God is present in the midst of the fire, even when the heat is most intense, God can preserve a dried up branch from being consumed.

God catches Moses’ attention with the fiery bush.  God draws Moses’ vision to the fires that seek to destroy God’s Creation, God’s people.  Moses begins to observe and pay attention to the flames of oppression, the flames that destroy community.  And, in seeing the fiery climate that threatens a vulnerable community, Moses’ heart is ignited by God’s Spirit to move.  Moses’ move toward the flaming bush is a step toward God.  But, God isn’t interested in just one step: “Take off your shoes, Moses, because I’m going to need both of your feet for this job.”

The news over this past year may be our burning bush.  Ferguson.  Baltimore.  Orlando.  Baton Rouge.  Charleston.  St. Paul.  Dallas.  God may be trying to get us to recognize our addiction to violence.  God may be opening our eyes to the deep-seated racism still entrenched within us and within our society.  God may be calling our attention to the fire-storm of hatred that leads to violence against others and the ambivalence which permits it to continue unchecked.

In recognizing, instead of ignoring, the fires that threaten to consume us all, we take one step toward God, but God says, “Now, I need both feet.  I’m sending you to represent me and to set my people free.  Free from violence.  Free from hatred.  Free from the denial of our responsibility for these problems.  Free from ignoring our responsibility to change our way of life.  Now, I need both feet, not just one foot… You’re standing on holy ground.  Quit hanging your head in the desert, avoiding the problems of Egypt.  Get in the game – the flames won’t consume you, I’m going with you!”

God warns Moses, despite God’s presence on this journey, it’s going to be hard work.  God says, “Don’t be shocked.  I know Pharaoh isn’t going to budge and let you leave.  He won’t change his mind unless he sees something greater than himself.  And, I’m about to reach out and slap Egypt upside the head with wonders, then Pharaoh will let you go.  And you won’t leave empty handed either.  I’m going to help you leave this place with Egypt’s wealth on your wrist, and new threads on your body and kicks on your feet, both you and your kids are going to be dressed to the nines, while Egypt will be stripped buck naked.”

God warns Moses, God warns us, confronting Egypt is difficult, dangerous work.  Don’t be shocked at the resistance to changing the way our society operates.  Confronting our broken system is hard, dangerous work because not everyone wants it to change.  Some are happy to keep the present arrangement – like Pharaoh – and will even use violence to protect it.  Protesting the wicked corruption of a society that gives advantage to some through the disadvantage of others, may result in crucifixion.

But know that God has already declared victory over the powers of injustice, violence, and death.  God has announced victory over systems of oppression that maintain those systems of injustice.  God says that those society’s will one day be stripped naked, laid bare.  Their glory will be their shame.  Their pride will be their ruin.  Their violent power will be turned back on itself.  Pharaoh wouldn’t relent from his ways until he saw something greater than himself; his arrogance kept him from seeing anything greater than himself.  It led to his ruin.  Let’s not be so prideful as to think that there is nothing greater than ourselves – lest we be stripped naked and our shame laid bare for all to see.

Where do we find God in the midst of such tragedies as we have witnessed this week?  If we wonder where God is at work, we will find God right in the heart of the fires that threaten to consume.  Where lives are being torn apart, God is working to mend them.  Where people are being torn down, God is working to build up.  Where people are being destroyed, God is working to bring new life.  It may be dangerous work, but there’s riches untold in joining our hands with God’s hands, which then joins our hands with the hands of those who are oppressed and marginalized in our world.

God is taking note of the violence and the oppression in our own neighborhoods and communities.  God knows that suffering as God’s own suffering.  God has jumped into the fray.  God wants us to know that suffering as well and to jump with both feet into the fires of injustice to free God’s people.  And we will know it was God that sent us because God will go with us, preserving us through the flames unto everlasting life.  “I’m not optimistic, no.  I’m quite different.  I’m hopeful.  I’m a prisoner of hope.”

 

Within my own denomination, the Church of the Nazarene, there have been several recent developments that have created a great deal of tension.  These situations have raised certain questions among many in our denomination.  For instance, there has been an erosion of trust in our leaders.  This isn’t just among congregants.  Many pastors are struggling to find it possible to keep trusting the leadership being provided.  Also, because of the nature of these situations, many are wondering if there is still a place for them within the denomination.  They feel marginalized and pushed out.  They feel that their voices are not only discounted, but actively silenced.  In times of such crisis, and given our Protestant history, it isn’t surprising that so many wonder if there is a future for the denomination or for us remaining in the denomination.

Along with these various situations of conflict, I have also read a number of blogs and articles about people relocating to other denominations.  Again, many of these individuals felt genuinely discouraged and ostracized because they didn’t “walk the party line.”  They felt the need to look elsewhere for inclusion and acceptance, to be able to have intentional dialogue.  Even big names in theology have moved out of their denominational neighborhood to others (Rachel Held Evans comes to mind).  In the midst of the crises within our own denomination, I have felt the pull and wondered as well if there was a place for me still.  I have experienced in several ways the sense of a denomination that prefers silence over dialogue about serious issues.

And, so, we wonder: If we can’t trust the leadership and they don’t want us, is it time to uproot and plant elsewhere?  I particularly feel that this is the overarching question for many younger members of the denomination.  I had a conversation with a 30-something youth pastor this past week about pastoral ministry.  He asked me, “Are all churches this hard and difficult and hateful.  If so, I’m not sure I want to be a senior pastor and deal with all of that junk.”  What I heard in his question was not a movement away from pastoral ministry, but questioning whether there was a place that would accept him as a pastor because he might challenge others with his understanding of the Gospel.  That’s a sad reality that I have heard younger members of our denomination express and confide.  Perhaps the declining numbers of Millenials entering into these kinds of ministries is because they have seen a denomination that has been slow to create an environment that values their gifts and graces for ministry and doesn’t simply silence their voice.  Thus, we have witnessed an exodus of some very bright, creative ministers to other tribes.  And, we are diminished for it.

Again, the question remains: Is there a future for the denomination or for me in this denomination?  As I have wrestled with these issues, quite intensely, with mentors and friends, I have come to a conclusion.  Yes, there is a future for both the denomination and for me in the denomination.  Granted, it may not be the future I prefer or for which I hope, but there is still a future to which I have committed myself.  Covenant undergirds my commitment and goes beyond mere duty or obligation.  It is a labor of love, which does not guarantee that love might be returned by the other.  As any marriage, it’s not without flaws, squabbles, and difficulties.  But, “for better or for worse”, I have covenanted with this people and with God to work for the good of the other.  It seems to me that this is the attitude we must ultimately adopt, whatever side we fall on.

In reading some comments by John Wesley, I was struck by his very clear admonition to remain where God has placed us.  Wesley was no stranger to conflict, Typically, it came because he challenged the status quo.  His theology and methods were often highly suspect.  Yet, he continued to persevere while remaining within the fold of the Anglican church.  His basis for doing so is rooted in his understanding of God.  He noted that God could often do more in moments of affliction than He could otherwise.  It wasn’t that God was unable to do more in other situations; we just weren’t always as pliable to shape without affliction present.

John wrote in Plain Account of Christian Perfection: “The bearing of men, and suffering evils in meekness and silence, is the sum of a Christian life.  God is the first object of our love: Its next office is, to bear the defects of others. And we should begin the practice of this amidst our own household. We should chiefly exercise our love towards them who most shock either our way of thinking, or our temper, or our knowledge, or the desire we have, that others should be as virtuous as we wish to be ourselves.”  The call of the Cross is the call of suffering.  To be where Jesus is requires us to follow him in bearing the Cross.  We usually expect suffering to come at the hands of a hostile world.  We are then surprised to find that sometimes the Church itself can be the hand of persecution.  Yet, even so, we suffer with Christ for the sake of the Body’s reconciliation and redemption.  Painful, yes.  But, all the more necessary.

These reflections have led me to one of my favorite stories – the story of Samuel and Eli.  The text of Judges ends with the assessment that “everyone does what is right in their own eyes.”  Where that might be commendable in America, it’s a damning conclusion about the community of faith.  Entering the story of 1 Samuel, we hear several times that “the word of the Lord was rare in those days.”  We might hear this to say that God has stopped speaking, like a pouting child not getting their way.  I get the feeling that God hasn’t stopped speaking but that the people, including the leadership, are no longer able to see or hear God’s word being spoken.  It is a time of spiritual barrenness.  Much as Hannah is unable to bear fruit from the womb, Israel is desperately barren and no longer able to bear the fruit of God’s Spirit.

Eli and his sons are the picture of this reality.  Eli, the text says, is getting more blind and deaf by the day.  What he sees, he misinterprets.  What he hears, he misunderstands.  And, even when he does seem to understand, he refuses to act in faithful ways to God.  He accuses Hannah of being drunk when she is praying.  He hears about his two sons taking advantage of the virgins at the Tent of Meeting and sticking their forks in the meat pots (can be read as a euphemism also) of the worshipers so that they can have the best meat for themselves, essentially stealing from God.  Still, Eli does nothing but scold them, but life continues as it did before.  Nothing really changes.  It is a barren situation for the leadership and the community.

A miracle transpires, by God’s grace.  Even though Hannah is barren, God promises to bring life from the barren womb.  In fact, that is what happens.  Samuel is born to Hannah.  After weaning him, she sends Samuel to be an acolyte under the care of Eli.  For those keeping score, this seems like a horrendous and disastrous idea.  After all, Eli is a miserable father and an inept spiritual guide.  Samuel will surely be caught up in the destructive vortex by serving under Eli’s supervision.  Not to mention, at such a young age, Samuel will surely become just another inept leader following in the footsteps of those around him.  The picture is looking bleaker by the minute.

“Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was” (1 Sam. 3:1-3).

I can imagine Eli, who is going blind, enshrouded by the darkness of his room.  Like his blindness, his spiritual leadership is unable to hear or see the Lord.  The lamp of God is flickering, threatening to be extinguished by the slightest gust.  It wavers as if it might puff out of existence, leaving the tabernacle enclosed in darkness.  But, it hasn’t gone out yet… there’s still light left.  Samuel, the young acolyte, lays at the heart of the tabernacle, in the sanctuary.  Proximity to the presence of God is intimated, even though Samuel has yet to have “the word of the Lord be revealed to him.”

It is in those moments of darkness and spiritual barrenness, God speaks.  If the barrenness and darkness are to be overcome, it can only be done because God has spoken and we have heard.  Samuel hears, but mistakes it for Eli’s voice.  He goes to Eli, but Eli tells him to go back to bed.  This happens three times before Eli realizes God is calling to Samuel.  It’s possible we’re supposed to think, “Eli, how blind can you be!?”  But, Eli does finally steer Samuel how to properly respond and hear God.  Samuel does as instructed and hears a word from God.  The word is both a word of hope and a word of judgment.  Samuel now has the task to go and proclaim that message to the community of faith.

“Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground.  And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.  The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord” (1 Sam. 3:15, 19-21).

Dawn appears after the weary night.  Dawn dispels the darkness, scattering it before its warm rays.  God’s presence, God’s word has the same power over our darkness.  At morning, Samuel didn’t just open the doors.  The text should be rendered “he burst through the doors.”  This language is birthing language.  The barrenness of the tabernacle now bears fruit by the grace of God’s word.  Hannah’s barrenness was no deterrent to God’s life-giving ways.  Neither is the barrenness of Israel’s spiritual life a barrier which God cannot transcend.  God can give new life, even in the most barren of situations.  Where the word of the Lord had previously been rare, now it “continue[s] to appear at Shiloh.”  And, where leadership was distrusted, God has sown trust again, even as “all Israel… knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.”  Barrenness to new life.

Part of the story that I find so intriguing is the paradox of Eli and Samuel.  Both were surrounded by the holy things in the tabernacle.  Both were entrusted with the shepherding of the community to be God’s people.  Yet, for Eli, the tabernacle and the holy things became a tomb.  He was enshrouded by darkness and unable to hear God.  For Samuel, however, the tabernacle and the holy things became a womb from which he is birthed into new life.  I find this to be a cautionary tale for our time.

In reflecting on these days in our denomination, I find tremendous hope in the story of Samuel.  We may find our situation full of barrenness and brokenness.  We may even think there is a peculiar silence from God, even though so many claim to speak on God’s behalf.  Yet, God is a God of life able to bring hope from the darkest and most barren of situations.  That’s the Gospel.  We may find ourselves under leadership that is particularly blind and deaf, totally inept, and unable to hear God’s word.  We may despair at finding a place to serve under that leadership, even as it must have been under the rapacious leadership of Eli and his boys.  Out of that soil, God brings forth a prophet to speak both words of judgment and words of hope.

Samuel sticks around long enough for God to work at bringing about leadership changes and reformation in the lives of God’s people.  New life happens!  Samuel is an intricate part of that new movement of God.  Imagine if Samuel had said, “Forget this, I’m out of here.”  It might have been a very different story.

In looking at our denomination, there is much to lament and repent.  The same is true for any denomination.  We have to own up to our barrenness.  We have to recognize our own inadequacies and brokenness.  Or, we risk becoming like Eli, more and more deaf and blind to God’s presence.  At the same time, I believe this moment in our history calls for us to again covenant with each other.  We are in it for the long haul because we believe that God is able to bring new life from very barren situations.  I know I want to be in on that moment when it comes.  Is there a future for the Church, our denomination, for me?  By God’s grace, I believe there is.

Israel had marched out to war against their foe, Philistia.  The Philistines routed them, killing four thousand troops.  Israel retreated and re-grouped.  What could have gone wrong?  Why were they defeated?  Hophni and Phineas, Eli’s sons and fellow priests, surely gathered the army leaders together to instruct them on warfare.  They had neglected to bring the Ark of the Covenant with them.  That was why they tasted the bitter sting of defeat.  After all, if “God is for us, who can be against us?”

The troops run and grab the Ark.  As it enters the camp, the Israelites are thrown into a Pentecostal frenzy.  Victory is in their grasp now that they have God there.  With God on their side, victory is sure to come.  The hollering is deafening, so much so that it travels to the Philistines’ nearby camp.  Fear grips their hearts because “gods have come into the camp.”  The Philistines recall the stories of Egypt’s destruction by these gods.  The “gods’” might had been displayed against the greatest military might in the known world.  It seemed the writing was on the wall, but it was better to go out and die like men than run like cowards and become slaves to Israel.

They clash on the field of battle.  But for Israel the battle is no closer to victory than it was before.  In fact, many more of their soldiers fall to Philistine blades.  Hophni and Phineas are killed and the Ark is carried off into Exile, into Philistine territory.  The glory has departed…

The Philistines march home, carrying on about their feats of strength and courage.  When faced with the terrible god of Israel, the future looked bleak and grim.  Yet, they had emerged the victors and heroes.  They pat each other on the back and laugh at their good fortune, toting home their trophy of conquest – the Ark.  They had captured the gods of Israel.  The only appropriate way to celebrate was to give offerings to Dagon, the god of grain, and to place YHWH in Dagon’s house as a servant god.  Thus, the Ark came to rest in the presence of Dagon, lord of the Philistines.

The irony of this story is that Israel, due to its disobedience, has forgotten the story of its salvation and rescue from Egypt by YHWH.  It is the Philistines who are able, more or less, to recite the story of Israel’s “gods.”  The theologians, those who speak of God, are not God’s people.  Instead, they are the outsiders to the covenant community.  It’s sad to think that outsiders might know the story better than those whom God has redeemed and saved.  The response of the Philistines is one of fear and respect (even if misguided).  The Israelites have become flippant, assuming, and proud.  Their pride results in their destruction and the glory departing.

Of course, we noticed last week that even the “glory” is misunderstood by Israel.  Ichabod’s mother names him “glory departed” because Eli and his sons have died.  In other words, the reign of greed, lust, and abuse that has lined their pockets and brought them power ended decisively.  That is what Israel understands “glory” to entail, but now it’s gone.

As the market crash of 2008 demonstrated, it is easy to get wrapped up in a society that worships security, power, and money that is so fleeting.  The market crash of 2000 and 2008 were often couched in terms that bemoaned the “glory” departing our systems of governance and commerce.  Gone were the glory days.  It seems Israel is not the only one to misunderstand the nature of glory.

Israel has treated the Ark, and by extension God, as a piece of “spiritual technology,” as Eugene Peterson calls it.  God becomes a tool that we manipulate to get what we desire while tagging God’s “approval” on our agenda.  Israel marches out to war backed by the Ark, but never actually addresses God.

God is reduced from being a Person (Subject) who has called Israel into being and transforms God into an Object that Israel can control: God-in-a-box, like a personal genie.  It is the subtle move of talking with God to talking about God.  When God ceases to be Subject and is made into an Object, we have effectively silenced God.

Well, God may speak, but it tends to be our words in God’s mouth.  In essence, we have made God in our image rather than remembering that we are made in God’s image.  And, as such, a God that we have objectified (made into an idol) cannot make demands upon us; only we can make any such demands.

The Philistines march YHWH into the city of Ashdod and into the Temple of Dagon.  They seem to have little more understanding than Israel, even though they do recall the story of Israel’s Egypt exodus.  YHWH is treated like a trophy displaying Dagon’s power over the gods and his favor upon Philistia.  YHWH becomes another magic talisman or god-in-a-box which will bolster their power and help them maintain the security of the nation.  They have no problem with YHWH being a part of Dagon’s retinue, as long as, YHWH does not take the place of Dagon, the god of grain.

Dagon is the god of economic security.  He is the one, according to the Philistines, that keeps the market economy flourishing, as demonstrated in their military conquest of Israel and other surrounding neighbors.  It is an economy based upon power and competition.  Limited resources can only be stretched so far.  The market demands that those resources be hoarded so the Philistines have plenty.

Of course, the Philistines’ plenty is the absence of basic necessities for their neighbors, but that’s the name of the game.  Dagon is the god of commercial and economic success, achieved through the power of politics and military might, but always at the expense of the neighboring communities.  YHWH is placed next to Dagon, symbolizing the Philistines’ hope that YHWH would bless their enterprise though remaining subservient to Dagon, to the economy.

Although the Philistines seem to be more adept theologians than the Israelites in this story, it is obvious that they still lack clarity.  The story of the Exodus is remembered, but it is also quickly forgotten by the Philistines.

God had dethroned Pharaoh, a proclaimed god, whose economic practice made slaves out of people.  Pharaoh’s insatiable desire for more created an environment of amassing great wealth at the expense of the poor and the weak – in this case, the Hebrews.  Pharaoh did not allow anyone to challenge his system, his kingdom.  Pharaoh represents a system of scarcity that must always build more storehouses for his grain and do so by demanding more “bricks” and more productivity from those who do not enjoy the benefits of their labor.  The Philistines neglect the story of Pharaoh, failing to recognize their own similar practices of oppression, dominance, and extortion.  And, as such, they fail to remember the radical call of YHWH to cease the economics of scarcity that grasp and hoard YHWH’s abundant provision in the Creation for all.

The next morning the Philistines go to worship Dagon but find him face down before the Ark.  Thinking that it was merely a fluke, an accident, the people raise up the idol to its proper standing position.  Notice the god cannot help himself.  The people prop up Dagon, expecting him to stand – this god is too big to fail, after all.

The next morning the people return to the Temple of Dagon.  Again, they find Dagon prostrate before the Ark.  This time, however, Dagon’s head and hands have broken off.  Dagon is dead.  YHWH will not play second fiddle, nor be coerced into blessing that which is counter to God’s character and nature of Holy Love.  Dagon, patron of manipulative economic practices, falls apart before a God of abundant generosity.  Dagon is found to be no god at all, but a visible reminder of a broken system of exploitation that results in death and destruction.

Chaos breaks out in the community of Ashdod.  Their practices of taking advantage of their neighbor now comes back upon their head.  Just as Pharaoh’s attempt at genocide by waters comes crashing down upon him and his army, now, the Philistine’s practices of greedy grasping through any means necessary implodes.  To their credit, they recognize that God is acting against their way of politics and economics – represented by Dagon.  God’s “hand is heavy against them.”

But, instead of ridding themselves of Dagon, they rid themselves of YHWH.  They oust YHWH from their halls and send YHWH on “down the road.”  If YHWH cannot be controlled and part of their way of life, then they don’t need to change but must send God away.  God is too dangerous because God might very well expect us to live differently… there’s just too much to lose by leaving Dagon on the floor.  To leave Dagon on the floor might mean changing the way we treat our neighbors.  It might require that we don’t exact violence against them or compete against them.  It might honestly require that we live on less so that others can share in the bounty of Creation.  But, following Dagon is just so… well, it’s just so comfortable and we can’t forsake “the Dream.”

So, regardless of how patched up Dagon looks, we brush him off, pick him up off the floor, and try to cement him back together as much as possible.  It’s easier to ignore what has happened than to truly consider that we have misplaced our hope.  We like the idea of YHWH being in our house… so long as YHWH doesn’t shake things up too much.  But, as soon as YHWH begins to challenge our allegiances… “That’s it, YHWH, please leave!”

Ashdod and its inhabitants aren’t sure where to send the Ark.  The city of Gath decides to give the Ark a try.  Perhaps Ashdod simply was ignorant and didn’t understand how to properly use YHWH.  After all, you can’t use a hammer like a screwdriver.  YHWH, in the proper hands, could be wielded as “spiritual technology” to champion the nation’s cause.

Try as they might, Gath discovers the same thing that Ashdod did.  YHWH will not be “boxed in.”  Tumors and something like the plague breaks out in Gath.  The people are in panic.  Gath plays “hot potato” with the Ark and sends it to Ekron.  But, Ekron doesn’t want it for long because they have seen the devastating effect of allowing YHWH to come into their midst.  YHWH is far too disruptive of their lives to be welcome there.

The five Philistine lords convene to decide what to do with the Ark.  They conclude that it would be best to “’Send away the ark of the God of Israel, and let it return to its own place, that it may not kill us and our people.’ For there was a deathly panic throughout the whole city. The hand of God was very heavy there; those who did not die were stricken with tumors, and the cry of the city went up to heaven” (1 Sam. 5:11-12).

God’s judgment falls upon the nation of Philistia, as it had upon Israel, due to its economic, political, and military practices that preyed upon vulnerable neighbors.  One can recall the story of Gideon threshing grain while hiding out of fear that the Philistines would attack and take what little food they had.  Now, those very systems that live off the backs of those it has enslaved (namely, the poor and those without power) are brought under judgment.  The walls erected by practices of greed and competition buckle, crumbling down.

The Ark is packed up on a cart pulled by two heifers.  The collective sigh of relief by the Philistines can be heard as the Ark disappears over the ridge, headed back to Israel.  YHWH proved too difficult to control and unwilling to bend.  It was too risky for YHWH to remain where YHWH might disrupt life as it was.  The Philistines were relieved when the glory departed.

The glory of God was something that would not be compromised for any nation.  It was a glory that demanded entire allegiance – nothing else was to be in the place of honor that belonged to God.  God would not be used, coerced, or manipulated as a seal of approval for systems and politics that created death and destruction for the weak and needy of those societies.  God’s glory would not bow before the market.  Rather, it was the economic system of grabbing and grasping that finally had to prostrate itself before God.

Hans Urs Von Balthasar writes: “The good which God does to us can only be experienced as the truth if we share in performing it… we must do the truth in love… not only in order to perceive the truth of the good but, equally, in order to embody it increasingly in the world… This is possible because it is already a reality for God and through God” (Theo-Drama: Prolegomena, 20).

Both Israel and Philistia fail to comprehend the good God is doing because they refuse to live out God’s way of being in the world, which is about life-giving, life-blessing, and life-sustaining.  To live otherwise is to create an environment of death, both for our neighbors and for ourselves.

To hold tightly to our idols is to hold tightly to our own lives.  Jesus cautions that “those that hold onto their lives will lose their life.”  Eli’s empire crumbles under the weight of its own greed (1 Samuel 4).  Now, the Philistine community is rupturing from its oppressive economic practices.  If we believe that we can bring YHWH into our lives without also cleaning house, we will be extremely surprised when YHWH begins to shake things up.  YHWH will not turn a blind eye to the idols that we continuously erect.  We very well might find them smashed, laying on the floor in a rubble heap.  God desires our entire lives, our entire devotion, all of our love.  Holding onto “God and (insert any name)” is idolatry that betrays where our hope really lies.

We can respond as the Philistines, though they know the story of YHWH, and try to prop Dagon back up on his feet.  We can ignore God’s claims as the rightful King that calls for our loyalty and love.  Or, our response might be to sweep Dagon up off the floor and throw him in the trash bin where he belongs.

A young man that was a little troubled attended church one morning.  The community was a little wary of him because you never knew what he was going to do.  The pastor preached a powerful sermon on smashing the community’s idols.  That’s all that idols are good for – smashing them!  The church service ended and everyone went home.

However, the young man took the sermon quite literally.  Idols should be smashed.  He later returned to the church with a sledge hammer and destroyed a statue of an angel sitting in one of the flower beds.  The young man had lived out the sermon.  The pastor had figuratively meant that idols should be smashed, but one could hardly say that the young man had not live out the sermon – even if misunderstood.  It may have appeared wild and crazy to the church-goers, yet the young man had demonstrated in a tangible way what it means for us to smash those idols that we hold dear.

The community of faith has time and time again been tempted to follow the gods of economic prosperity.  We have been tempted to bow the knee at the shrine of personal gain at the expense of our neighbor.  We have even willingly validated violent means for holding on to our economic and political security, sometimes while naming God as the one who goes before us to fight our battles.

Would it be fair to say that like Gath, Ashod and Ekron the divisive, destructive nature of politics in our culture might actually be God’s hand against us?  Might we have mistaken just how much God is on our side when we fail to live out God’s call to be a “blessing to all nations?”  Has the death and destruction, blaming and fighting among us sufficiently demonstrated that God will not be pressed into service for any nation or system?

The Scriptures remind us that there will come a time “when every knee shall bow in heaven and on earth and below the earth and every tongue shall confess that Jesus is Lord.”  There will come a time when we will “cry out to heaven” in recognition of the part we have played in living counter to God’s Kingdom.  But, I pray that we will not wait until we are watching the presence of the Lord disappear over the horizon beyond our sight, saying “the glory has departed.”

Lent is a time of repentance, turning away from our broken and sinful ways.  It is a time of recognizing our idolatry, the things that we worship beside God.  And, it is a time of dying to our selfish desires and practices and replacing them with God’s love that overflows as love to our neighbors.  In other words, we pick up our cross and follow Jesus.

We crucify the deeds of the flesh that are death and receive the Spirit of life while we “work out our salvation.”  Lent calls for us to smash our idols and give singular focus to God as the only One worth giving honor, praise, and glory forever.  It is the call to embody God’s holy love, for that is the only way to comprehend God’s good truth.  It’s time to recognize that our idols won’t stand.

Ask an American to tell the story of America and they will begin, perhaps, with the story of the American Revolution where freedom from tyranny was secured.  It will progress to the Civil War and the abolition of slavery.  Naturally, the story will weave its way through World War I and II, where the tyrannical powers of the world were halted by our military might.  Vietnam and Korea.  The Cold War, Desert Storm and the Iraqi War will all make their appearance.  Our imagination, our identity as a country has been shaped by the marking of our history – a history littered with violence.  Some have gone so far as to say that the ethos of our dominant narrative is war. 

        Of course, our violence is not limited to national warfare.  Our history includes the dark shadow of slavery, sexism, and colonialism.  The poor have always and continue to be oppressed by unethical financial practices… just ask Wall Street and Wal-Mart.  Manifest Destiny was thinly veiled genocide hailed as progress.  This fails to mention human trafficking, child and spousal abuse, school violence, and political mud-slinging.  If we have only mentioned our human relationships, what list might we build if we considered violence done to the environment and to the rest of Creation?

The prevailing praxis flowing out of our ethos of violence is necessary to understand.  Our conceptions of power are built on the notion that “might makes right,” no less if by majority vote.  Power is used to attain what one desires and to maintain what one has acquired.  And, if something should be desired or my possessions threatened, then force, violence – even war – are deemed acceptable options to our desired end, no matter who or what might be destroyed.  This “will to power” objectifies the Creation, which includes other humans, for manipulation and exploitation for personal gain, pleasure or benefit.

From this perspective, everything is a commodity to be consumed.  Our consuming is never satisfied.  Our demand continues to climb higher while those commodities becomes fewer.  It is the crisis of the market.  Supply and demand create scarcity, which produces fear, which turns into violence to grab those precious resources.  That’s only one reason nobody wants to be a Wal-Mart door greeter on Black Friday.  Violence is a natural outcome and by-product of consumerism because it is based upon competition for limited resources.  All of Creation suffers as a result.  We are a culture characterized by violence.

The American church has been significantly impacted by this prevailing cultural narrative.  We have engaged in our own methods and forms of violent behavior.  Schism and division.  Proclaiming “truth” without tempering it with love.  We enforce our “rights,” using our power (both individually and corporately) for political posturing and the securing of our “freedoms.”

We have rendered people as commodities to be counted to bolster our attendance numbers to reach the next plateau of growth or what they can do for our ministry until they are used up and discarded, instead of seeing each person as inherently valuable as God’s creation.  We exercise violence through our words against our enemies, by demonizing our opposition.  We do violence to the Gospel when we make it about us.  We do violence to the name of God when the Church cannot be distinguished from the murderous world.

Because our dominate narrative is violence, it is difficult for us to imagine a world otherwise.  After all, how is it possible for our world to change when there is such an extensive history of violence?  Plus, if everyone is looking out for themselves, who’s looking out for me?  The answer, it seems, is obvious.  Kill or be killed.  It’s about survival.  If someone puts out your eye or knocks out your teeth, then it is your right, not only to get even, to exact revenge.  Violence begets violence… and the cycle continues.

Micah, a prophet during the height of Judah’s power, lives in a world filled with violence.  Micah paints a picture of his contemporaries: “Alas for those who devise wickedness and evil deeds on their beds! When the morning dawns, they perform it, because it is in their power. They covet fields, and seize them; houses, and take them away; they oppress householder and house, people and their inheritance” (Mic. 2:1-2).

The leaders of the community are unfamiliar with justice.  Micah testifies against them saying, “[you] tear the skin off my people, and the flesh off their bones, [you] eat the flesh of my people, flay their skin off them, break their bones in pieces, and chop them up like meat in a kettle, like flesh in a cauldron” (Mic. 3:2-3).  The prophets are also culpable.  Micah says they proclaim “’Peace’ when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths” (Mic. 3:5).

God’s people do not look much different than the Assyrians, who had recently destroyed Israel.  They take advantage of the poor, do violence to one another, and misuse the gifts that God has given to them.  Neighbor mistreats neighbor.  The weak of society are trampled under foot.  The powerful and the affluent hoard and oppress to the detriment of the community.  As such, they misuse God’s name.

Micah, however, imagines an alternative script for the ways in which Judah might faithfully live as God’s people again.  Hear what Micah says, “[God] will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths… They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.  Nation will not take up sword against nation nor will they train for war anymore.  Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the Lord Almighty has spoken.”

Weapons of violence are re-shaped as instruments of cultivation.  Power is re-oriented to the sustaining of life and the protection of the weak, not for the exploitation of the poor and the elimination of our competition.  Power is re-directed from “might makes right” to purposefully seeking the “good of all.”  Micah invites a new world into their midst, not as a pipe dream… as an open invitation to live into God’s future now.  It is a future where power no longer resembles the warrior garbed in battle attire.

Rather, it is a future where they are empowered to live in right relationship with one another, enjoying the fruits of Creation which they help cultivate together, and where fear is but a memory.  No longer is their identity to be found in being a warrior, using power for their own security.  God’s people will be those that till the soil, utilizing their power to add value back into the Creation and into the lives of others.

But, of course, it does seem like a pipe dream.  Israel and Judah both fail to live into this future that God is providing.  Several centuries after Micah, Jesus shows up on the scene.  Things haven’t changed much for Israel.  They live under the pax Romana, peace maintained with the keen edge of a sword.  Power politics rule the day.  Rulers, like Caesar, Pilate, Herod, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees, all play by Rome’s rules.  Some placate more than others, but Rome dominates the landscape and the way of life.  It is Rome’s way or the proverbial highway.  Violence is the basis for this so-called “peace.”

Jesus begins preaching, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near.”  He offers an imaginative alternative to Caesar and Herod, to the prevailing violence of politics and religion and business-as-usual.  Fortunate are those who are pure in heart, the peace makers, the meek, the merciful, the poor in spirit, those hungering and thirsting for righteousness, and those that are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.  The world claims that power is for the fortunate.  Jesus re-arranges power and what it means to be fortunate!

Jesus challenges the violence that neighbor committed against neighbor.  He even calls for everyone to love their enemies!  But, in a culture and world where imagination is dominated by violence, it is nearly impossible to see God’s light dawning in the midst of such darkness.  The world’s violence against one another turns to violence against the Creator.  Though the Word  became flesh and tabernacles among us, we do not know him and want to put out his light.  And, so, Jesus is crucified.  The world takes up sword and spear against the Creator and slays him upon the cross.

Yet, that was not the end of the story.  By the power of God, Jesus was raised from the dead.  Death is crushed to death.  Light pierces the darkness, scattering it.  Sin and death are defeated foes.  When confronted by the violence of the world, Christ lays down his life… “[He] was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Is. 53:5).

Christ transforms the cross, the world’s instrument of violence, into God’s instrument of peace.  Beating swords into plowshares.  The cross which was the world’s means of violence, became the very means by which God cultivates and prunes the Creation… readying it for the harvest of salvation.  Jesus, like Micah, wasn’t offering a pipe dream… He is calling us to re-imagine the world, to see God’s future that is even now breaking into our present… offering hope in the midst of violence, offering life instead of death.  And, calling for us to live into that future hope.

St. Francis of Assisi penned a well-known prayer that is very appropriate.  May it be our prayer.

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

Where there is injury, pardon;

Where there is error, truth;

Where there is doubt, faith;

Where there is despair, hope;

Where there is darkness, light;

And where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek

To be consoled as to console;

To be understood as to understand;

To be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;

And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

When we gather at the Lord’s Table, we are confronted by our own propensity toward animosity, hatred, and violence.  Yet, it is at this Table that we are offered a new way, God’s way of being in this world.  Jesus breaks bread with his disciples.  He breaks bread with his betrayer.  The Risen Christ stands among us with pierced hands and feet, saying, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.”

The Eucharist reminds us that Death is not the worst thing that can happen to us… precisely because it is a conquered foe.  At this Table, we remember that “on the night that Christ was betrayed, he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.’  In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood.  Do this, as often as you drink it in remembrance of me.’  For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:23-26).