Where is God? (and is he playing dice?)

Sermon for the 18th after Pentecost, Sept. 30, 2012

Esther 3:1, 8-11; 9:23-28

Note: actually the whole story is the subject, but here’s a small excerpt for a bit of  flavor:

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3:1  After these things King Ahasuerus promoted Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and advanced him and set his seat above all the officials who were with him. 

 3:8 Then Haman said to King Ahasuerus, “There is a certain people scattered and separated among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not appropriate for the king to tolerate them.  9 If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued for their destruction, and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver into the hands of those who have charge of the king’s business, so that they may put it into the king’s treasuries.”  10 So the king took his signet ring from his hand and gave it to Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the enemy of the Jews.  11 The king said to Haman, “The money is given to you, and the people as well, to do with them as it seems good to you.” 

9:23 So the Jews adopted as a custom what they had begun to do, as Mordecai had written to them. 

 9:24   Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the enemy of all the Jews, had plotted against the Jews to destroy them, and had cast Pur—that is “the lot”—to crush and destroy them;  25 but when Esther came before the king, he gave orders in writing that the wicked plot that he had devised against the Jews should come upon his own head, and that he and his sons should be hanged on the gallows.  26 Therefore these days are called Purim, from the word Pur. Thus because of all that was written in this letter, and of what they had faced in this matter, and of what had happened to them,  27 the Jews established and accepted as a custom for themselves and their descendants and all who joined them, that without fail they would continue to observe these two days every year, as it was written and at the time appointed.  28 These days should be remembered and kept throughout every generation, in every family, province, and city; and these days of Purim should never fall into disuse among the Jews, nor should the commemoration of these days cease among their descendants.

Matt 6:25-34

   “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?  26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?  27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?  28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin,  29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.  30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?  31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’  32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

34   “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Where is God? (and is he playing dice?)

What in the world is God doing?  It’s a vexed question.  If God were busy preventing things, then whatever he prevented wouldn’t happen, so we would never know of it.  If God prevented all the evil in the whole world, making this world perfect, still we would never know that he had done anything.  Whatever is prevented from happening, does not happen.  Nothing to see.

Is that what God does; prevent evil, at least some kinds of evil, from happening?  When we look around at what does happen, it’s hard to imagine the kinds of things God might be preventing.  Wars happen.  Even genocides happen.  Diseases, plagues, even pandemics happen.  Accidents happen.  Natural disasters happen.

In all of these,  children are included, not excluded.  People who devote themselves to doing good are not excluded.  Religious people are not excluded.  It’s actually quite hard to imagine what is left to prevent?

Albert Einstein famously said, “God does not play dice with the universe.”  But does He?

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The Age-Old Conundrum

Suffering and evil have always been the fly in the ointment for monotheists (“theodicy” is the technical name for the discussion).  If God is all loving, all good and all powerful, surely he would want to stop evil as much as I would, but unlike me, he could actually get the job done.

This is not a new question.  It did not take a Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins or any of the new atheists to bring it out into the open.  It has been on the table at least as long as monotheists have written down their thoughts.  In the Psalms, the prayers of the Israelites, we read about 20 times the question, “how long?” as in Psa. 89:46:

   “How long, O LORD? Will you hide yourself forever?”

This idea behind the question is that surely an all-loving, good and powerful God would do something about the situation I’m in; what’s preventing him?

Many of us have been involved in project of Reading the Bible in 90 Days.  We are in the middle of the book of Psalms now, so we have heard that question many times already.  We have also just finished reading two biblical books that were written because of this problem – the question, “what in the world is God doing?”: Job and Esther.

The Issue in the book of Job

Job is a long poem about a man named Job, who is righteous, but who suffers horribly.  His animals die, his crops are destroyed, his children all die

Bonnat’s Job

tragically, and finally his own health breaks.  He sits in the ashes, covered in boils, scrapping his flesh with a piece of a broken clay pot.  His wife tells him to get it over with.  She says: “curse God and die.” (Job 2:9)

Job has company.  Four “friends” come and try to console him.  Each believes that Job is suffering for his sins.  How is this comfort?  Well, it’s not, of course comforting to have people tell you that you are guilty.  Except that, the only thing that might be worse than suffering horribly, is to suffer horribly and meaninglessly.  If Job is righteous and does not deserve to suffer, but he suffers anyway, then what?  God is up there playing dice with the universe?  Or else, God is not up there at all?

Job’s friends are convinced that the way the God of the universe runs things is according to his “law of retribution:” everybody gets what is coming to them.  Job suffers, therefore, he must have done something to deserve it.  Otherwise, the universe would simply be chaotic.  One of the “comforters,” Bildad, asks the rhetorical question:

“Does God pervert justice?  Or does the Almighty pervert the right?” (Job 8:3)

The Prologue to the story

Job is not told about the events that happen in the prologue to his story.  We read that up in Heaven God is sitting there surrounded by the council of heavenly beings which includes one named “the adversary, or accuser,” or in Hebrew, “the Satan.”  (nothing more is explained about him here at all).

Satan believes that “righteous Job” is only being righteous because it benefits him.  He is living a rich, blessed life; of course he loves God.  But remove all the blessings, Satan asserts, and Job will curse God.  “Wanna bet?”  Says God (in effect).  “Yea!” says Satan.   So the bet’s on.  It’s a gamble.  The outcome is as open and uncertain as, what?  A roll of the dice, perhaps?   Does God play dice with the universe?

The Issue in the book of Esther

Where is God?  When we read the book of Esther, we never saw or heard from God. God is not mentioned at all in this book.  We read a short excerpt today.

Rembrandt’s Esther and Haman

It’s a great story: the Jews are in Persia where they are still in exile, outside the land of Palestine (which is also not mentioned).  The Persians, having conquered the Babylonians are the new landlords; the Jews are still the tenants.

Nobody seems to like Jews.  “The are different.  Might as well kill them.”  That’s what the pretentious poser Haman tells the king, and he agrees.  Haman suggests they set a day on which all the people can feel free to kill Jews.  What day?  They roll the “Pur” or we might say, “dice” to find a good day.

If you were an all-loving, good, and all powerful God, would you let this happen?  Well, as it turns out, nobody prays for a miracle.  No one cries out to God, like they did when they were slaves under Pharaoh in Egypt, all those years ago.  God does not appear in a burning bush to call some new Moses type of person to confront the king.  In fact God does not appear at all.

Only, this one incognito Jewish girl, an orphan named Esther, wins a national beauty contest, and joins the harem as a queen.  This is one of a number of utterly unlikely, uncanny coincidences that fill this story.

God never shows up in this story, except maybe in the cryptic question that Esther’s surrogate father, her uncle Mordecai asks her:

Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” (Esth. 4:14)

Where is God?  The answer of the Jews in exile is “Who knows?”  Is he up there playing dice with the universe?  “Who knows?”

Plot Exposed: Reversal

But this time, it turns out that Esther is there, in the harem, as queen, for a reason.  She exposes the plot against her people.  Haman, the bad guy, gets all the evil he intended against the Jews back upon himself.  Instead of being slaughtered on the day chosen by that roll of dice, the Jews are vindicated.  The Jews remember and celebrate that day of deliverance in an annual feast, named Purim, for the Pur, the dice.

So, is it the case that whether people live or die is simply a matter of a roll of the dice?   Does fortune or luck or fate determine the outcome?  Or perhaps merely random chance?

“Hints and guesses”

“Hints and guesses” are the only answers given in Job and Esther.  These are given to Job in the mystery of the unfathomably immense universe.  These are given to Esther in the uncanny coincidences of an invisible, unmentioned God.

These are given to us in fleeting moments of awareness, evoked by un-asked for, unexpected triggers: sights, smells, sounds, suggesting a presence, an incarnation – as T.S. Eliot has written:

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“For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.” –
“The Dry Salvages” from the Four Quartets.

Jesus, on the Issue

Perhaps this was what Jesus was getting at in the reading from Matthew:

“Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?… Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin” (Matt. 6:26)

Can the birds of the air be, for us, hints that lead us to guess that there is a heavenly Father?  Can the lilies of the field be hints that allow us to guess that love and goodness are at the heart of the universe?

And can we take from these hints and guesses, the courage to hope, the courage to trust, the courage to relax the worried, clenched, furrowed tightness of fear, and settle down into the arms of our Father in heaven?

This is the world that Jesus chose to live in.  He trusted that his Father in heaven was not playing dice with his life, even if it meant that he, himself was not excluded from suffering; even from death.

This is the world that Jesus is calling us to live into.  It is not a world of predictable blessings for goodness and curses for evil.  It is not a world in which God’s ways are visible and reported on by the evening news.

But it is the world in which we are able to, and called to “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness,”  with the confidence that food and clothing and  “and all these things will be given to you as well” as Jesus taught us.

 

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On Not Being Punished by God: the Trajectory from Retribution to Grace

Sermon for Sept. 23, 2012, 17th Sunday after Pentecost

Note: I’m sorry for such a long reading from the Old Testament: I assure you, it’s for a purpose and will make an impression if you stick with it.

2 Chronicles 26:1-2

Then all the people of Judah took Uzziah, who was sixteen years old, and made him king to succeed his father Amaziah.  2 He rebuilt Eloth and restored it to Judah, after the king
slept with his ancestors.  3 Uzziah was sixteen years old when he began to reign, and he reigned fifty-two years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Jecoliah of Jerusalem.  4 He did what was right in the sight of the LORD, just as his father Amaziah had done.  5 He set himself to seek God in the days of Zechariah, who instructed him in the fear of God; and

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as long as he sought the LORD, God made him prosper. 

6   He went out and made war against the Philistines, and broke down the wall of Gath and the wall of Jabneh and the wall of Ashdod; he built cities in the territory of Ashdod and elsewhere among the Philistines.  7 God helped him against the Philistines, against the Arabs who lived in Gur-baal, and against the Meunites.  8 The Ammonites paid tribute to Uzziah, and his fame spread even to the border of Egypt, for he became very strong.  9 Moreover Uzziah built towers in Jerusalem at the Corner Gate, at the Valley Gate, and at the Angle, and fortified them.  10 He built towers in the wilderness and hewed out many cisterns, for he had large herds, both in the Shephelah and in the plain, and he had farmers and vinedressers in the hills and in the fertile lands, for he loved the soil.  11 Moreover Uzziah had an army of soldiers, fit for war, in divisions according to the numbers in the muster made by the secretary Jeiel and the officer Maaseiah, under the direction of Hananiah, one of the king’s commanders.  12 The whole number of the heads of ancestral houses of mighty warriors was two thousand six hundred.  13 Under their command was an army of 307,500 who could make war with mighty power, to help the king against the enemy.  14 Uzziah provided for all the army the shields, spears, helmets, coats of mail, bows, and stones for slinging.  15 In Jerusalem he set up machines, invented by skilled workers, on the towers and the corners for shooting arrows and large stones. And his fame spread far, for he was marvelously helped until he became strong. 

16   But when he had become strong he grew proud, to his destruction. For he was false to the LORD his God, and entered the temple of the LORD to make offering on the altar of incense.  17 But the priest Azariah went in after him, with eighty priests of the LORD who were men of valor;  18 they withstood King Uzziah, and said to him, “It is not for you, Uzziah, to make offering to the LORD, but for the priests the descendants of Aaron, who are consecrated to make offering. Go out of the sanctuary; for you have done wrong, and it will bring you no honor from the LORD God.”  19 Then Uzziah was angry. Now he had a censer in his hand to make offering, and when he became angry with the priests a leprous disease broke out on his forehead, in the presence of the priests in the house of the LORD, by the altar of incense.  20 When the chief priest Azariah, and all the priests, looked at him, he was leprous in his forehead. They hurried him out, and he himself hurried to get out, because the LORD had struck him.  21 King Uzziah was leprous to the day of his death, and being leprous lived in a separate house, for he was excluded from the house of the LORD. His son Jotham was in charge of the palace of the king, governing the people of the land.

Luke 13:1-5

  At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.  2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?  3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.  4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?  5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

On Not Being Punished by God: the Trajectory from Retribution to Grace

Are you being punished by God?  Have you ever wondered if you were?  Back in the early ’90’s I read a travel guide which said that buying a train ticket in Romania made you feel like you were being punished by God – it was a chaotic and unpredictable process back in those days.

Is that what God does?  Look for people who are breaking his rules and send them punishments, frustrations, losses, sickness, even death?

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Seeing the Big Picture

We do not normally read such a lengthy passage from the bible, but I hope you will see why we needed to this time. Many of us here, who have been involved in the program of reading the bible in 90 days have become aware of how different the bible’s meaning looks when you see the big picture.  By the end of these 90 days, our big picture perspective will be the breadth of the entire bible.

The big picture is not only a different view, and it is not just nice for the sake of context, it is crucial, I believe.  In other words, it’s not just a problem that a person understands the bible less well, when only small parts of it are read; I believe gross misunderstandings arise from readings that do not consider the broad context.

Specifically, reading only small parts of the bible in isolation, a person would never grasp the important trajectories, or arcs of meaning that are so basic and essential to right interpretation.

The Retribution Perspective

Today we read a lengthy passage from Chronicles that clearly shows one trajectory in motion: the doctrine of Divine Retribution; getting what’s coming to you from God.

King Uzziah, we read,

4 …did what was right in the sight of the LORD, just as his father Amaziah had done.  5 He set himself to seek God in the days of Zechariah, who instructed him in the fear of God; and as long as he sought the LORD, God made him prosper.

The text we read gave us ample evidence: prosperity, victories, building programs -all the signs of God’s blessing for being good. The most significant sign of God’s blessing in those days was a long reign on the throne.  Typically 40 years was the ideal.  Uzziah reigned 52 years; nearly a record.  The only biblical king with a longer reign was Manasseh, but that’s another (very interesting!) story.

Oops: good story goes bad

But Uzziah contracted leprosy – which is a sure sign of God’s retributive judgment for sin.  All illness was considered a sign of God’s judgment, but leprosy was the primary example. The classic case was when Moses’ sister Miriam was stricken suddenly with leprosy for challenging Moses’ authority (Numb. 12).

So the difficult question is why did a person as good and faithful as Uzziah receive such a stunning judgment?  What horrible thing could he possibly have done?

Many of you are aware that the book of Chronicles is a re-telling of the stories of Samuel and Kings.  The book of Kings (in which Uzziah is called Azariah, 2 Kings 15) records no wrongdoing at all, except perhaps that his religious reforms were not unanimously accepted by the people (as if any reforms could ever be).  However, Uzziah’s leprosy is recorded in an off-hand manner in the book of Kings.

So, to explain Uzziah’s leprosy, the author of Chronicles, the so-called Chronicler, adds a story about Uzziah becoming prideful which was his downfall. He actually got it in his head that he could do what only priests were authorized by God to do: offer incense to God in the temple.  For that sin, God judged him, the Chronicler tells us, with leprosy, such that he was unable anymore to have normal human contact, but had to live in a separate house for the remainder of his life.

According to the Chronicler, if something good happened, like a long, successful reign, then God was blessing the king’s good behavior.  And if something bad happened – a short reign, an illness, or

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defeat in battle, then there must have been a reason, a sin (or sins).

The doctrine of retribution (in fact, immediate retribution) was a solid foundational explanation for everything, according to the Chronicler.  After all, the Israelites were eventually conquered by their enemies – that had to be because of their culpable sinfulness as a nation.  In fact that is exactly how the book of Chronicles ends: the survivors of the Babylonian assault end up in chains, in Babylon. Only a national repentance born out of humility could possibly assuage God’s justified, certain wrath.

On the other hand

So is that how it works?  Are all the bad things in life punishments from God?  Should we look at our personal suffering, our illnesses, our failures, our losses as God’s judgement?

One of the reasons why the bible is so fascinating to me is that it is not flat.  It is profoundly lumpy.  It does not simply tell one story like a children’s book, about the world and how it works.  There are different perspectives in the bible.  There are ideas in conflict with each other.  Different thought trajectories are set in motion.

Competing Trajectories

For example, is it necessary or not to maintain ethnic purity?  Can an Israelite marry a foreigner?  No, according to the Law of Moses.  Yes, according to the book of Ruth.  No again, according to Ezra, who even requires divorce from marriage to foreigners.  Yes, if it’s already a done deal, in other words no divorce according to Malachi.

Who deserves to live among God’s people as a member of the community?  A full blooded Israelite?  Well then what about an unfaithful one, like Achan, who steals war booty and hides it in his tent?  Or, on the other hand, what about Rahab the prostitute in Jericho and her family? She was the one who hid the Israelite spies and recited a profound speech praising the God of Israel?  Achan’s family dies, Rahab’s is embraced.

What is it that God requires of sinful humans to be acceptable in his presence?  Sacrifices of animals and libations of oil according to the law of Moses.   Neither sacrifices nor oil, but rather, “doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God,” according to Micah.

Theology via Story

The stories in the bible are ways of doing theology.  The events of the long-ago past are recounted, not for the sake of their preservation in the historical record, but as illustrations of theological concepts that the writers want their communities to believe.

Life is complex.  God is invisible to the eye.  How do we understand God’s role in our lives.  We “get it” that God is holy, and we are aware that we often do and say things we should not, and fail to do what we should; so how does this all work out?

Those of us who are reading the bible in 90 days will be reading the book of Job, starting today.  That whole book is a long, hard struggle with the question of retribution.  Is suffering God’s punishment as the Chronicler asserts?  The book of Job takes down that perspective with utter finality.

In fact, the very artificiality of the Chronicler’s excuses and reverse-engineered explanations by which he tries to account for the success or failure of kings by means of finding sins (Uzziah) or sudden repentances (Manasseh), is a clear indication that this trajectory had to die out.  It is simply not the case, as every sensitive human discovers, that good deeds are blessed and bad deeds are punished.

Are we hard-wired for belief in retribution?

But people are funny.  People seem to be hard-wired to want to make the world work according to a scheme of “blessings and curses.”  Karma, reincarnation, and the non-religious idea that simply “what goes around comes around” seem to be the majority view.

But that view is simply wrong.  A moment’s reflection shows how grossly mistaken it is.  If that view were correct, could there be such things, in hospitals, as pediatric oncology wards?

And yet the idea of retribution is somehow persistent – even after the book of Job demolishes it.  The disciples of Jesus, good Jewish boys who must have read the book of Job, still believed it, as did many other people in Jesus’ day.  Jesus, however, did not.

2 He [Jesus] asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?  3 No, I tell you;…   4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?  5 No, I tell you;”

God does not work that way

No, because God actually doesn’t work that way.  What then: Is God benign about sin?  Is he ignorant of oppression and evil?  Is he sanguine about injustice and violence?  No!  But what are his

Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son

alternatives?   What can God do, besides wiping out all the bad guys and starting over with the remaining good guys – which the flood story showed did not work?

He can do what he does: offer grace and mercy to those who seek him, and work behind the scenes to bring good out of evil.

This is what we see over and over in “hints and guesses” in the Old Testament.  There is hope for a nation that was destroyed and exiled, because retribution never has the last word.  There is “a highway in the desert” that leads back home, because God does not abandon his people, even when they abandon their God.

Over and over Jesus tells stories of lostness followed, not by punishment, but by merciful, joyful finding.  The lost coin is found, the lost sheep is found, the prodigal son returns to find a waiting Father and a homecoming feast.

Love Wins

So what about us?  Do you feel that God is punishing you, or has punished you?  Is your suffering traceable to your sins?

That’s not how it works.  Jesus said that the inscrutable way God works is that:

“your Father in heaven… makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45)

You are not being punished by God.  But he is not indifferent to us.  God longs for our love, our trust, our faithful obedience, and our disciplined discipleship.  God also wants our humble repentance when we fail, as we all do.

In the end, grace wins.

Mercy triumphs over judgment.

Love wins.

God is good.

This is what Jesus taught us.  May we believe it.

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Living the Kingship of God

Sermon for Sept 16, 2012,  16th Sunday after Pentecost

Ruth 1:1-19

In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there.  But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name

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of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.

Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” But Ruth said, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her. So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem.

Luke 4:42-43

At daybreak he departed and went into a deserted place. And the crowds were looking for him; and when they reached him, they wanted to prevent him from leaving them.   But he said to them, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.”

Living the Kingdom of God

Don’t you hate it when somebody says, “I’ve got good news and bad news: which do you want to hear first?”  Which do you choose?  I usually want the bad news first.

The bible: good news gone bad

The bible gives us the good news first: God created a good world with good people in it.   But it didn’t last long, did it?  The bad news quickly followed.  First the snake and the “apple” in the garden, then brother kills brother, then Lamech kills the guy who insulted him, and on and on.  By the time of Noah, it says

“The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.  And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” (Gen. 6:5-6)

“God” as a Character in the story

Who is this God we read about in the bible?  I am first going to say something about the God we meet in the bible, and then get into the specifics of the texts before us.

God is God, but when you read the bible you are reading a story in which God is a character.  Sometimes the bible makes him very human-like, as we just heard.  Like a human character, God  has regrets.  He has to deal with unforeseen consequences.  He gets sad – maybe depressed.

At other times we see him change his mind – especially after hearing people crying out in pain, as the Hebrew slaves do in Egypt, or after prayerful

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begging, as Moses often did.

Sometimes he gets jealous; he even calls himself jealous.  Sometimes the character, “God” seems  petty and vengeful, like when he sent poisonous snakes that bit and killed people, just for complaining about living in harsh desert conditions.  I’m glad I wasn’t there; complaining is what I do best.  (Numb. 21)

“God” as a familiar king

The kind of character that God is, in the bible, ends up looking a lot like the way an ancient middle eastern king looked.  He’s powerful.  He must be obeyed, or else consequences follow.  But he constantly has to deal with people trying to subvert his authority.

We must never ever confuse the God that is God, with the character called God in the bible.  The character in the bible, who looks like an ancient king, has a lot of character flaws – but what can we expect?  The character that the biblical writers wrote about had to be one that they had the possibility of conceiving – and a big powerful king was the best they could do.

But it’s not that those writers were blundering fools.  They were on to something powerfully true about God, even though they described in ways far different than the Heavenly Father whose Kingdom had come on earth, as Jesus put it, many years later.

The insight that the ancient writers got right is that God is indeed King, and his people should honor and respect him as king – even if he is not exactly like an ancient Near Eastern monarch.  What does it mean that God is king?

The King-Quest

Many of us have embarked on the project of  “reading the bible in 90 days.”   We have just recently read of  how Samuel, the prophet-judge, reacted when the people came to him and wanted him to anoint a person to be their first king.  He was scandalized.  They didn’t need a king; God was supposed to be king!  In the story, the character God said as much to Samuel:

“they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.”  I Sam. 8:7

What was the Israelite’s political arrangement like before they had kings?   The were a loosely organized set of tribes.  There was no central organization.  They were led by charismatic leaders called “judges” who came along from time to time, mainly to muster the tribes into battle against one of the surrounding nations who were threatening their security.  Sometimes the tribes went to war against each other.

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How was that time, the time of the judges when there was not yet a king?  It was a bad-news story.   Even some of the judges themselves were really awful people – remember Samson?  (His story is not at all fit for children!  It certainly isn’t a ‘family values’ story either!)

The period of the judges finally comes to an end when the people demand that Samuel anoint their first king, which he reluctantly does.    Towards the end of the book of Judges we read a phrase which is repeated several times:

“in those days, there was no king in Israel, and everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”  

By means of this phrase, we who have been reading of this terrible period of time, get the impression that a human king would probably be a good idea.  But this is irony.  The writer knows that his next book will be Kings (all the books, Joshua through Kings have a common author, with the exception of Ruth), and instead of getting better, things get even worse.

The whole story eventually ends with Jerusalem destroyed; a pile of smoking rubble, the temple crushed, the king and all the surviving people hauled off to Babylon in chains.  It is a bad-news story, start to finish!  It does not look at all like God is king.

Ruth: A Different Story

This brings us to our main texts for this morning.  Remarkably, in the middle of all of this badness during the time of the judges when things seemed out of control, “and everyone did what was right in his own eyes” we get the story called the book of Ruth.

Some of you will know that this story is not part of the original sequence, but it was later added, and put into this location, because it tells a story that took place during the period of the judges.  (That decision was made by the ones who translated the Hebrew bible into Greek – the ‘Septuagint;’ our English versions now follows that order.)

Ruth begins, “In the days when the judges ruled…” and proceeds to tell  quite a different story.  Ruth is a story about people who are not living according to the phrase:

“in those days, there was no king in Israel, and everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”  

Living as if God is King

Rather,  the people in the book of Ruth live as if the Lord God is King. The author tips us off in several ways to let us know that this story is going to be different from the stories in the book of Judges.

Did you notice that off-handed greeting that Boaz and his workers exchange?

  “Just then Boaz came from Bethlehem. He said to the reapers, “The LORD be with you.” They answered, “The LORD bless you.” 

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These people are living in a world that is consciously present to God.  God is king here, and his presence is acknowledged in every greeting.

The author has actually sets us up to expect a world different from the world of the book of Judges during which “there was no king in Israel, and everyone did what was right in his own eyes”  by noting several times that Naomi had married into the line of Elimelech.  That name, Elimelech literally means “my God is King.”

So what does it mean then to live as if God is indeed King?  This is why this book is here, and why it is so important to us.  What does it mean for us to pray, as Jesus taught us, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth”?  What does it mean to us that the purpose of Jesus’ ministry was, as he said,

“I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God…; for I was sent for this purpose.”

But Look at the World

Here’s the trouble: look around.  It does not look at all as though God is King of anything.  Look at Syria or Libya, or Iran, or Israel.  Look at Sudan and Somalia.  Look at Detroit and at every major city’s inner-city urban area.  Look at the way greed and corruption seem to be the norm, not the exception.  Look at the way poverty persists.  Look at the state of family life.  It seems as though our times too are times in which everyone does what is right in their own eyes.

Where is God in all of this?  In the book of Ruth, we read that Naomi married Elimelech, but it did not look to her as though God was king.  At the outset of the story they have to leave Bethlehem (which means “house of bread”) because of a famine; no bread.  They become immigrants.

They end up in neighboring Moab where their two sons marry local women, but then Elimelech the father and his two sons die, leaving Naomi with two widowed daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah.  The life that three widows can expect to live, when “there is no king and when everyone does what is right in their own eyes” is not pretty.  It would not be a story for children.

Naomi herself assumes the worst.  She says, on her return trip from Moab, “Call me no longer Naomi, (which means pleasantness) call me Mara, (meaning bitter)  for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.”

Bitter or Blessed?

Life lived without God as King may indeed be bitter.  But appearances aside, when people choose to live as though God is indeed king, everything is different.  In what way?  In every way!  Unprotected single women are safe, even in the field of a stranger.  Widows are looked after.  Bounty is shared without grudging, even abundantly.

Boaz chose to live as though God is King.  He lived into the truth of the Kingdom of God.  His story – which became part of Ruth’s story – was not a common one in the period of the judges, but it was a possible one.

Boaz ended up marrying Ruth so that the family line of Elimelech could continue.  David came from this line, which means also that Jesus came from this family line.

Jesus’ Purpose: announcing that God is King

Jesus came announcing that the climax to this long, often dark, bad-news story of Israel, had finally come.  He came announcing the good news that God is King; the kingdom of God is at hand.

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What does this mean for us?  Right now, Jesus as risen Lord and king is inviting all of us to live into the reality of the Kingdom of God.  We are called to swear our allegiance to God as king; not as a petty, brutish ancient Near-Eastern monarch, but as the caring King who, as Jesus taught us, has his eye on the lilies of the field and the bird of the air.

We can look at the world as it is, and be bitter, like Naomi expected to be.  Or we can look past the surface and see the reality of God’s Kingdom all around us.  We can, in fact, “seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, his justice” (the word means both).

Seek – and keep seeking; because it’s not obvious.  Search – it’s not there on the surface where everyone is doing what suits them still today, as in the days of the judges.  Search, look for, watch for signs that God is King, that God is at work – the signs are all around.  And instead of being bitter, know that you are blessed.  This may not be the common way to live, but it is a possible way.

So then, as blessed people of the kingdom, live into the kingdom; be a blessing.  Be a Ruth to a Naomi in need; be a Boaz to a Ruth at risk; be a citizen of the Kingdom of God to the least of these.”  This is the good news: God is King!  May we all do God’s will as readily on earth as it is done in heaven.

Following the “Jesus Trajectory” Reflections on the theme of Violence in the Old Testament, and a proposal for faithful Christian interpretation of scripture.

following the Jesus trajectory
following the Jesus trajectory

The subject of violence in the bible is much larger than a study of the word “violence” itself, but I thought it would be interesting to start there.

After reading the nearly 60 texts from a concordance search of the word “violence”, (Hebrew: hamas) here are some general conclusions:

  • Violence is linked with evil – evil people, evil plans, accompanied by murderous anger (Proverbs 10:11)
  • Violence is judged as sinful, cursed, will come back on the ones who use it against others, it fills the land and necessitates God’s judgment (Psalm 7:16; 11:5)
  • Violence is linked with court fraud (Ex 23:1; Ps 35:11)
  • One cries out to God to be safe from violence and violent people (2 Samuel 22:3)
  • Violence is a sign of innocence is not having violence on  your hands (Job 16:17)
  • According to the prophets, in the future time of restoration violence will be finished, not heard of anymore (Isaiah 60:18)

So it’s never a good thing, never excused or justified.  It’s always evil, done by evil people, a reason for the righteous to cry out to God and a reason for God to judge the ones who practice it.

Tension in the OT over violence

1.  From the beginning, with Cain’s murder of Abel and Lamech’s boast about killing a boy who hurt him (Gen 4) to the story of the flood in which violence is twice cited as a reason for judgment (Gen 6:11, 13), violence plays a large role and is consistently condemned by God as evil.  And so God destroys the world by a flood – and act of world-wide holy war, leaving no man woman or child alive, except the one family on the ark and the animals they saved; an act of violence on a world-engulfing level.  Violence is used to punish people for being violent.

2.  Just as the death penalty is used against murderers, so violence is used as a punishment for idolatry.  Especially held up as an example of the worst form of idolatry is worship of the god Molech because it includes sacrificing children in the fire (Jer 32:35).  And so because of this extreme, cruel violence, those who practice it must be killed by stoning (Lev 20).

3.  Amos begins with the roaring of the lion, YHWH who encircles surrounding nations and condemns them for extreme acts of violence against other nations, and for this sin he promises their violent destruction.   King Jehu puts an end to the brutal and idolatrous reign of king Ahab (wife Jezebel) by a horrific bloodbath, which is condemned by the prophet Hosea  (2 Kings 10; Hosea 1).

4.  Specific acts of violence are remembered as praiseworthy models, such as Phineas’ zeal for YHWH which motivated him to drive a spear through the copulating couple who had “yolked themselves to the Baal of Peor” (Numb 25).  In fact all the elders had to execute their fellow Israelites while the Lord punished them by a plague.  Phineas is rewarded; with him God makes (ironically) a “covenant of peace.”  David who was helped by God to kill Goliath and later helped in many battles wants to build a temple, but cannot because of the amount of blood he has on his hands (the Chronicler’s explanation 1 Chr 22:6).

5.  The great liberation from slavery in Egypt is the root experience, formative for the people of Israel, constitutive of their identity.  The great violence of slavery is what Moses reacts to, but over-reacts to, by killing an Egyptian.  But the liberation is finally accomplished by God’s action of killing all the first born of the Egyptians.  The oldest strata of Hebrew poetry celebrates the God who delivered Israel by throwing horse and rider into the sea, violently saving the Hebrews from Egyptian violence (Exod 15).

6.  The conquest of the land of Canaan is promised and aided by God who sometimes requires the slaughter of every man, woman and child in acts of herem, or holy war, and who even strips the kingdom from Saul for inadequate slaughter of the Amalekites (1 Sam 15).  But Habakkuk cites the “plunder of many nations” done by the Israelites and the human bloodshed and violence to the earth as a reason why “all that survive of the peoples shall plunder you.”  (Hab 2:8).

7.  The exile itself, Israel’s greatest experience of God’s judgment for her sins, is a massive violence to every level of society, leaving few survivors.  Those who manage to come through the horror alive, in Babylon, are so damaged by the experience that they cannot sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land, but must hang their harps on the willows – as they fantasize about smashing the heads of Babylonian children on the rocks (Ps 137).

8.  The vision of the future time of beating swords into plows and spears into pruning hooks  (Micah 4:3) only further emphasizes that swords and spears are bad things in themselves – regardless of whose hands they are in; and yet there is that hopeful vision of a time of peace to come in which no hand will hold them, neither will people learn how to use them.

Irresolvable Tension remains in the Old Testament

1.  In the end there is an irresolvable tension within the OT on the subject of violence.  It is celebrated and condemned. It is a means God uses against those he condemns and a reason he condemns them.  It is an evil means to stop the evil that it is.  Its immorality as a means deconstructs its justification for use as a vehicle for punishing itself.  Using evil to stop evil cannot be anything but evil.  Using violence to punish violence is violent.

2.  As long as Israel remained a nation in control of her own laws and military (whether the tribal militia or the monarch’s armies) she did not question her own use of violence, but at the same time bitterly complained to God when others were violent against her.

Jesus and Violence

1.  Perhaps it was the experience of Roman occupation with its severe restrictions that opened the door to Jesus’ alternative response to violence.  Clearly not everyone was happy with those conditions: Jesus’ enemies were quite frustrated that they needed Roman permission to exercise capital punishment against him, though they finally managed to succeed.

2.  For his part, Jesus knew that those who live by the sword would die by the sword (Matt. 26:52) and taught his disciples to become blessed peacemakers (Matt 5:9).  The only example of an attempted use of capital punishment that Jesus confronted in the gospels, he stopped (the woman caught in adultery, (John 8).

3.  Jesus, it appears, was implementing as a present reality that the prophets had envisioned as the dawning of the “age to come” when nations would not lift up sword against nation nor even learn war anymore (Isa 2:4; Micah 4).  Jesus followed the trajectory of the prophetic vision, thus becoming the “Prince of peace” (Isa. 9:6) teaching his followers that love of neighbor was second only to complete love of God, and that these two commands encompassed the entire Torah (Matt 22:34-36).  His sermon on the mount included the command, “love your enemies.” (Matt 5:43)

4.  Jesus was innocent, but at his arrest and trial he offered no resistance.  He “turned the other check” allowing the forces of evil to exert against him their full force.  He absorbed that evil, exhausting its power, ending the cycle of violence for all time, “thus making peace making peace through the blood of his cross.” (Col 1:20)

Following the Trajectory

There is a clearly discernible trajectory concerning violence.  In the world of the OT, the authors accepted violence as a given fact of life, both permissible for them to use against enemies, and used by God, the way they conceived of God, and yet, always an evil if done to themselves, for which they cried out to God, and which God helped them escape/recover from.  But the prophets could see a future day when God’s kingdom would come and swords would be put away permanently, peace would reign.  Jesus was on that same prophetic trajectory, asserted that in his presence, the Kingdom had indeed come, the new age was at hand, and that violence would not be the last word.

Major building blocks of a foundation being laid / an angle of trajectory is set in motion

  1. Creation Theology: competing cosmologies (slide: picture of ancient world)
  • Contrast alternative cosmologies: Egyptian, Babylonian

The biblical creation accounts were written to proclaim a theological understanding of the world, in stark contrast with the Babylonian creation story.  Very briefly: the Babylonian story, re-told every year at the new year festival (think: Christmas + Mardi Gras) described a mythical world of the gods in which violent conflict between them finally resulted in the creation of the earth and humans, out of the bloody remains of the looser god.  Humans were products of violence, an after-thought, created to keep the sacrificial fires burning with meat which fed the always-hungry gods.

  • Biblical Creation
    • Intentional creation (not after thought):  Humans are intentionally created, in fact at the height, or pinnacle, on the 6th day of creation, as God’s crowning achievement, in fact created, male and female, “in the image of God” (Gen 1:27)
    • Physical world is good (repeatedly pronounced so)
    • Humans intentionally created, in God’s image, both genders
    • Blessed with fruitfulness (flourishing as well as reproduction) – the blessing theme is reasserted again and again – and extends to the whole earth and all its people, for example Gen. 9:1; 12:1-3)
    • One God – Monotheism (no gods to fear or placate)
    • No nature (fertility) gods, no astral gods, no gods of the underworld
  • Moral Monotheism (the Yahwist Revolution):  unlike all the other ancient religions, Israel’s God cares about how humans treat each other.  This is a massive shift! (Pagan gods were unconcerned about morality: how humans treated each other.  Rather they wanted to be venerated and fed by sacrifices)
  • The Torah vision of a (nearly) egalitarian (except slaves) covenanted community: laws and sanctions for violations are universal, no class distinctions (quite unlike the class-distinctions assumed and embedded in other ancient legal codes, such as the Law of Hammurabi).  Special provisions for support for the “widow, the orphan and the stranger” reverse normal class-based preferential treatment for the wealthy.  Land is equitably distributed and never to be sold on a permanent basis (Sabbaths, Year of Jubilee, Lev. 25)
  • The Torah doctrine of Retribution: Asserted (on the surface; the stories say that retribution is God’s preferred method) and Subverted (narratives of grace and redemption keep returning, inexplicably – if retribution is God’s true way of reacting to human sin) – think of the cycles in  Judges of sin-> oppression -> lament -> deliverance.  If Retribution were the last word, there could only be one round.
  • The Prophetic Vision: following the trajectory of a covenanted society of justice projected into the future: a vision of global peace, justice, security, and inclusiveness (Micah 6 // Isa. 2; Isa 25; 56)
  • Conclusion: from creation to the view of a finally-restored world of peace, God’s will is for human flourishing, which brings to an end all violence.  This trajectory was long in reaching its destination.  It’s implications were only worked-out over time.  But Jesus himself revealed that this is the trajectory that wins, in the end.

A Short Strategy for Reading the Bible

  1. First ask the question: What was it about this particular text that the community of faith found important as a guide to their faithfulness to God, given what they believed that they knew of God then, and how they understood themselves and their context then?
  2.   Then ask the trajectory question: Where does this text sit?  On which trajectory is it?   Is it on the purity trajectory?   Is it on the justice/liberation trajectory?
  3.   Ask the Jesus question, since his revelation of God and God’s will takes precedence for Christians: how does this text fit on the trajectory that Jesus championed?  What did Jesus say or do that has bearing on this text?  How can I understand this text in such a way that it will increase my faithfulness as a disciple of Jesus?
  4.   End with the “end game” or eschatological question: given the vision of God’s future state (Isaiah, & Micah, & Joel & Revelation, et.al.) how does this text move us forward?  I’m thinking of the vision of the Messianic banquet, the throne room of the Lamb, etc.
  5.   Remember, the Holy Spirit’s role is to guide this process, and I believe he has and is guiding it now.

A thought experiment:

If you were to say to people at church: “I have just found a website at which I have purchased a slave from Ghana.  And I have purchased his sister.  They are now my property.  I can do with them as I wish.”  How would they react? (predictably, of course).  But the question is, why would they react with such predictable horror?  What text(s) brought them to that conclusion?  They are already well down the road of the trajectory that Jesus guided us to follow, and that the Spirit is leading.

How does this strategy apply to other issues?

Recommended reading:  “Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of Godby Eric Seibert, Fortress press, 2009

Concordance search for  hamas “violence”: this is a word search for a Hebrew word, so I have selected various English versions in which it is most easily observed.

Gen 49:5-7  5 Simeon and Levi are brothers; weapons of violence are their swords. 6 May I never come into their council; may I not be joined to their company– for in their anger they killed men, and at their whim they hamstrung oxen. 7 Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce, and their wrath, for it is cruel! I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel.

NAS Exodus 23:1 “You shall not bear a false report; do not join your hand with a wicked man to be a malicious witness (literally, “violent witness”).

NAS Judges 9:24 in order that the violence done to the seventy sons of Jerubbaal might come, and their blood might be laid on Abimelech their brother, who killed them, and on the men of Shechem, who strengthened his hands to kill his brothers.

NRS 2 Samuel 22:3 my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold and my refuge, my savior; you save me from violence.

NRS 2 Samuel 22:49 who brought me out from my enemies; you exalted me above my adversaries, you delivered me from the violent.

NIV 1 Chronicles 12:17 David went out to meet them and said to them, “If you have come to me in peace, to help me, I am ready to have you unite with me. But if you have come to betray me to my enemies when my hands are free from violence, may the God of our fathers see it and judge you.”

NAS Job 16:17 Although there is no violence in my hands, And my prayer is pure.

NRS Job 19:7 Even when I cry out, ‘Violence!’ I am not answered; I call aloud, but there is no justice.

NRS Psalm 7:16 Their mischief returns upon their own heads, and on their own heads their violence descends.

NRS Psalm 11:5 The LORD tests the righteous and the wicked, and his soul hates the lover of violence.

NRS Psalm 18:48 who delivered me from my enemies; indeed, you exalted me above my adversaries; you delivered me from the violent.

NRS Psalm 25:19 Consider how many are my foes, and with what violent hatred they hate me.

NRS Psalm 27:12 Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence.

NRS Psalm 35:11 Malicious witnesses (literally, “violent witness”) rise up; they ask me about things I do not know.

NRS Psalm 55:9 Confuse, O Lord, confound their speech; for I see violence and strife in the city.

NRS Psalm 58:2 No, in your hearts you devise wrongs; your hands deal out violence on earth.

NRS Psalm 72:14 From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight.

NRS Psalm 73:6 Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them like a garment.

NRS Psalm 74:20 Have regard for your covenant, for the dark places of the land are full of the haunts of violence.

NRS Psalm 140:1 Deliver me, O LORD, from evildoers; protect me from those who are violent,

NRS Psalm 140:4 Guard me, O LORD, from the hands of the wicked; protect me from the violent who have planned my downfall.

NRS Psalm 140:11 Do not let the slanderer be established in the land; let evil speedily hunt down the violent!

NRS Proverbs 3:31 Do not envy the violent and do not choose any of their ways;

Prov. 4:14-17  14 Do not enter the path of the wicked, and do not walk in the way of evildoers.

15 Avoid it; do not go on it; turn away from it and pass on.

16 For they cannot sleep unless they have done wrong; they are robbed of sleep unless they have made someone stumble.

17 For they eat the bread of wickedness and drink the wine of violence.

NRS Proverbs 10:6 Blessings are on the head of the righteous, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence.

NRS Proverbs 10:11 The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence.

NAS Proverbs 13:2 From the fruit of a man’s mouth he enjoys good, But the desire of the treacherous is violence.

NRS Proverbs 16:29 The violent entice their neighbors, and lead them in a way that is not good.

NRS Proverbs 26:6 It is like cutting off one’s foot and drinking down violence, to send a message by a fool.

NRS Isaiah 53:9 They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.

NRS Isaiah 59:6 Their webs cannot serve as clothing; they cannot cover themselves with what they make. Their works are works of iniquity, and deeds of violence are in their hands.

NRS Isaiah 60:18 Violence shall no more be heard in your land, devastation or destruction within your borders; you shall call your walls Salvation, and your gates Praise.

NRS Jeremiah 6:7 As a well keeps its water fresh, so she keeps fresh her wickedness; violence and destruction are heard within her; sickness and wounds are ever before me.

NRS Jeremiah 20:8 For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, “Violence and destruction!” For the word of the LORD has become for me a reproach and derision all day long.

NAS Jeremiah 22:3 ‘Thus says the LORD, “Do justice and righteousness, and deliver the one who has been robbed from the power of his oppressor. Also do not mistreat or do violence to the stranger, the orphan, or the widow; and do not shed innocent blood in this place.

NAS Jeremiah 51:35 “May the violence done to me and to my flesh be upon Babylon,” The inhabitant of Zion will say; And, “May my blood be upon the inhabitants of Chaldea,” Jerusalem will say.

RS Jeremiah 51:46 Do not be fainthearted or fearful at the rumors heard in the land– one year one rumor comes, the next year another, rumors of violence in the land and of ruler against ruler.

NRS Ezekiel 7:11 Violence has grown into a rod of wickedness. None of them shall remain, not their abundance, not their wealth; no pre-eminence among them.

NRS Ezekiel 7:23 Make a chain! For the land is full of bloody crimes; the city is full of violence.

NRS Ezekiel 8:17 Then he said to me, “Have you seen this, O mortal? Is it not bad enough that the house of Judah commits the abominations done here? Must they fill the land with violence, and provoke my anger still further? See, they are putting the branch to their nose!

NRS Ezekiel 12:19 and say to the people of the land, Thus says the Lord GOD concerning the inhabitants of Jerusalem in the land of Israel: They shall eat their bread with fearfulness, and drink their water in dismay, because their land shall be stripped of all it contains, on account of the violence of all those who live in it.

NRS Ezekiel 22:26 Its priests have done violence to my teaching and have profaned my holy things; they have made no distinction between the holy and the common, neither have they taught the difference between the unclean and the clean, and they have disregarded my sabbaths, so that I am profaned among them.

NRS Ezekiel 28:16 In the abundance of your trade you were filled with violence, and you sinned; so I cast you as a profane thing from the mountain of God, and the guardian cherub drove you out from among the stones of fire.

NRS Ezekiel 45:9 Thus says the Lord GOD: Enough, O princes of Israel! Put away violence and oppression, and do what is just and right. Cease your evictions of my people, says the Lord GOD.

NRS Joel 3:19 Egypt shall become a desolation and Edom a desolate wilderness, because of the violence done to the people of Judah, in whose land they have shed innocent blood.

NRS Amos 3:10 They do not know how to do right, says the LORD, those who store up violence and robbery in their strongholds.

NRS Amos 6:3 O you that put far away the evil day, and bring near a reign of violence?

NRS Obadiah 1:10 For the slaughter and violence done to your brother Jacob, shame shall cover you, and you shall be cut off forever.

NRS Jonah 3:8 Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands.

NRS Micah 6:12 Your wealthy are full of violence; your inhabitants speak lies, with tongues of deceit in their mouths.

NRS Habakkuk 1:2 O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?

NRS Habakkuk 1:3 Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.

NRS Habakkuk 1:9 They all come for violence, with faces pressing forward; they gather captives like sand.

NRS Habakkuk 2:8 Because you have plundered many nations, all that survive of the peoples shall plunder you– because of human bloodshed, and violence to the earth, to cities and all who live in them.

NRS Habakkuk 2:17 For the violence done to Lebanon will overwhelm you; the destruction of the animals will terrify you– because of human bloodshed and violence to the earth, to cities and all who live in them.

NRS Zephaniah 1:9 On that day I will punish all who leap over the threshold, who fill their master’s house with violence and fraud.

NRS Zephaniah 3:4 Its prophets are reckless, faithless persons; its priests have profaned what is sacred, they have done violence to the law

NRS Malachi 2:16 For I hate divorce, says the LORD, the God of Israel, and covering one’s garment with violence, says the LORD of hosts. So take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless.

“Molech” texts (the pagan god to whom child sacrifice was performed):

Lev. 18:21

Lev. 20:2

Lev. 20:3

Lev. 20:4

Lev. 20:5

1 Ki. 11:7

2 Ki. 23:10

Isa. 57:9

Jer. 32:35

“Following the Love Trajectory”

Sermon for Sept. 2, 2012,  14th after Pentecost, 22nd Ordinary, Year B

Lev. 19:9-19

9 When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest.  10 You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God. 

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11 You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another.  12 And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the LORD. 

13 You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.  14 You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the LORD. 

15 You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor.  16 You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the LORD. 

17 You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.  18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD. 

19 You shall keep my statutes. You shall not let your animals breed with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials.

Mark 12:28-34

   28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?”  29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one;  30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’  31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”  32 Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’;  33 and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”  34 When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.

Following the Love Trajectory

Many people think Leviticus is one of the worst books in the bible.  We are in the process of reading the whole bible in 90 days, so many of us have just read it, but I’ve been told that this is the book that kills the enthusiasm of would-be whole-bible-readers.

I understand – but this book sets in motion a crucial trajectory of thinking about God and what God wants of his people that finally leads directly to Jesus himself.  This is powerful and important, so let’s look at these texts before us.

“3 Sisters:” corns, beans and squash

The Three Sisters

To begin, I’m wondering if you have heard of the “Three Sisters”?   The native American Iroquois gave the name “Three Sisters” to three plants that they grew together in their gardens: corn, beans and squash.

The Iroquois discovered that they flourished together, and now scientists understand why.  The corn provides an natural pole for the beans to climb, and by climbing, the beans helps to stabilize the corn plant.  The beans fix nitrogen in the soil, thus enhancing its fertility.  The squash provides natural mulch, reducing weeds and moisture evaporation from the soil.  It’s like God made them to work together.

But, in the book of Leviticus, God forbids the Three Sisters.  Leviticus 19:19 says clearly:

…you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed;”

Many of us here today are wearing clothing made of blended fabrics, but this is also forbidden by God in the next phrase in the same verse:

nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials.

It made sense to somebody back then

Clearly the book of Leviticus, with its rules like these, is from a different time and reveals a different view of the world than the one we share.  The ancient Israelite was aware that there were  different kinds of animals, plants, fabrics and people, and had a strong aversion to mixing different “kinds.”

For another example, to the ancient Israelites, a good animal was one that both split the hoof and chewed cud, like cows do.  Animals that have one, but not both characteristics, like pigs, are therefore bad.  The same is true for fish – they need to have both fins and scales to be pure, which is why shrimp, lobster and oysters are not kosher.

The ancient Israelites believed that they were keeping pure by following this strict separation scheme.  Where they got the scheme remains a mystery to us.  God, they understood, required holiness of his people because God himself is holy, and so, with their understanding of purity and impurity, they believed that God wanted them to avoid the impure.

God’s People-Concerns

God’s concerns, as expressed in Leviticus, however, were not just limited to purity and impurity issues.  God’s concerns also included the well-being of people.  It should not be surprising that a group of people like the Hebrews, who had been slaves in Egypt for 400 years, especially wanted to make laws to protect the poor,

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the vulnerable and the needy, which is exactly what we see in Leviticus.

The verses we read today reveal a concern for the poor and the non-citizen who  were protected by laws such as the gleaning regulations.  Farmers had to leave the corners of their land un-harvested and could only make one pass through their vineyards at reaping time, so that there would be food left over for the poor to glean (which is exactly what is happening in the book of Ruth that we will get to in our reading this week).

The dignity and rights of all of the people, but especially the vulnerable were protected by rules about justice in the courts.  Partiality, either to the poor or to the rich was illegal.

These are people-concerns.  These kinds of laws worked together to produce a community of people, bound together by covenant, creating conditions under which all could flourish and the weak would neither be forgotten nor abused.

Getting Personal

These laws in Leviticus went beyond the formal legal system.  They included personal relationships.  They range from laws about actions to laws about mental states, like emotions.  This is as up-close-and-personal as it gets!

“17 You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin;”

The summit is reached by this famous command (which people are often shocked to find in the Old Testament):

“18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.”

This is the verse that Jesus quoted as one of the two greatest commandments in the whole Torah (or “law”):

28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?”  29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one;  30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’  31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12)

Distinguishing between conventional and moral laws

This is amazing.  You see, the book of Leviticus does not distinguish more or less important laws.  They are all equally important; they all come from the Lord through Moses.  Leviticus does not even distinguish purity laws, like laws about mixing seeds and fabrics and kosher food laws, from laws about moral behavior; laws about the ways we are to treat each other.  Leviticus did not distinguish the command to love your neighbor as yourself from laws against eating pork – but that is precisely the distinction that Jesus did make.

Children vs. Psychopaths

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I have to tell you about something fascinating I just learned about moral psychology.  Studies done with children show that even young children can distinguish between “conventional rules” about things like the need to raise your hand in class before asking a question, and moral laws that the teacher also enforces, like: “in conflicts, use words, but don’t hit.”

When researchers ask the children, “What if the teacher said ‘Today we are not going to raise our hands, we can just ask questions whenever we want to,’ would it be OK not to raise your hand?”, the children agree that if the teacher removed the rule, it would then be OK not to raise your hand.

But when asked if it would be OK to hit each other if the teacher removed the no-hitting rule, children know that it would still not be OK to hit.  Children can distinguish between merely conventional rules from moral rules.

(Turiel E (1998) in Handbook of Child Psychology, The development of morality, ed Damon W (Wiley Press, New York), pp 863–932, cited by Marc Hauser http://youtu.be/963yf616npc @ 11:15)

That distinction is apparently not made by criminal psychopaths.   Psychopaths are people who typically don’t feel empathy, remorse, guilt, or shame. Studies of their answers to similar kinds of questions, show that they make no difference.

Researcher Marc Hauser sums up the findings, saying, “Unlike healthy adults, adult psychopaths will typically judge as equally forbidden transgressions in

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which a person wears pajamas to a restaurant (conventional) and a person who gratuitously hits a waiter in the restaurant (moral).”  Both, to psychopaths, are equally wrong.

(cited by Dr. Marc Hauser http://youtu.be/963yf616npc @ 11:15)

Jesus vs. Pharisees

It is an incredibly important moral insight that conventional rules, like purity laws, are not nearly as important as moral laws about how humans treat other humans.  This is exactly the distinction that Jesus made that the Pharisees did not make, and was the source of the conflict between them.  For Jesus, the primary concern was about people.

But Jesus did not come up with this insight in a vacuum.  Leviticus itself sets in motion both trajectories of purity and what we may call the “love trajectory.”  For the Pharisees, the purity trajectory won, so forget about helping the man laying on the side of the road bleeding – blood contact makes you impure.  The bible says it, and that settles it.

For Jesus, the love trajectory wins, so you go over to the suffering man and do what the Good Samaritan did: you rescue him even if it makes you ceremonially impure.

The End of the Purity Laws

In the end, those purity laws, and temple laws about sacrifice and festival days all vanished.  They have all been fulfilled in Jesus himself, who was the final sacrifice, the scapegoat who ended the need for that whole system.

In its place, we are left with the essence; the core duty that defines us as a faith-community:  we say, along with the scribe who was speaking with Jesus that day:

33 ‘to love him [God] with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this

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is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

And we hear Jesus say to us as he replied to the scribe:

34  “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

What does God want from us?  To follow the Jesus trajectory.  To love our neighbors – all of them, without exception – as ourselves.  And just who are our neighbors?  Only people who wish to escape the obviously limitless claim on our moral behavior that this commandment makes ask that question.

Everyone is our neighbor.  Everyone is welcome at our table, because it is the Lord’s Supper table, and everyone is the subject of our concern.  This is the way of Jesus.  He calls to all of us:  “follow me.”

“Three Sisters” see: http://www.reneesgarden.com/articles/3sisters.html