No Limits

Second Sunday After Pentecost


There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28

In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Acts 2:17, quoting from Joel 2:28

During the most recent Southern Baptist Convention, a great deal of controversy arose when the popular (and very conservative) Christian Bible teacher Beth Moore mentioned that she would be giving the message on Mother’s Day at her home church. The objections came from those who think that Paul’s letters to the Corinthians and Timothy prohibit women from speaking in church. But there are other passages, like the Galatians passage that is part of today’s lectionary reading, that pretty clearly seem to say just the opposite. The Spirit blows wherever it pleases, and it pleases to flow to all sorts of people. It refuses to be confined to manmade boundaries. You can’t put limits on who God calls to speak God’s truth, any more than you can put limits on the Spirit.

I have to wonder why the men who came to this particular conclusion, out of everything in the Bible, chose to base their reasoning on these two verses, and seemingly ignore the many other places in the Bible where women do take leadership roles, including exercising authority over men and speaking for God. The stories of Deborah in the time of the Judges and of Huldah, advisor to King Josiah, are but two examples, and let’s not forget that the first witnesses to the Resurrection were women. Paul himself seems to offer contradictory advice, not only among his different letters, but sometimes even within the same letter. For example, in chapter 14 of 1 Corinthians, Paul says that women are not permitted to speak, but in chapter 11, he gives instructions for how women who speak should dress. Paul offers many other instructions on proper church behavior for both women and men which are widely ignored. Men should have short hair and women should have long hair. Men shouldn’t wear hats in church, but women should. Women shouldn’t wear makeup or jewelry.

The picture above is very interesting to me. It is one example of very early Christian art found in Italian catacombs, which date to the second and third centuries AD. A woman, thought to be Mary, stands with her arms raised in what is termed a “liturgical pose”, with the four gospels on either side of her. A picture is worth a thousand words, and that was probably even more true in pre-literate societies. It sure looks to me like she is assuming a leadership and instructional role. There’s also quite a few interesting stories of female leaders in extracanonical literature of the same time period. (more here)

I don’t see how any serious student of the Bible can long toe the current Southern Baptist line, and I am continually amazed by the theological contortions people will go through in order to harmonize contradictory instructions in order to make them apply across all time and space. (For example; one man suggested that it was okay for a woman to give the Sunday message if it was bookended by a man introducing her and giving concluding remarks after her message) Serious students of the Bible read the Bible enough to recognize “proof-texting” when it happens. Not only is it wrong to take verses out of their immediate context, they must be considered in relation to the culture that produced them and to the rest of the Bible. If you don’t consider context holistically, you can make the Bible say anything you want it to say. There’s an old joke about one frustrated scholar explaining this by saying “read this (Judas went and hung himself) and now this (Go thou and do likewise)”

Baptists have it right when they encourage people to read the Bible regularly. I am amazed at the biblical ignorance that is seems to be epidemic today, and I am grateful that I grew up in a tradition that stressed continuing Bible study as important for all ages. Traditionally, Baptists also emphasize the importance of a personal experience with God, out of which grows the concept of the “priesthood of the believer”. Christians relate directly to God, without the need for another human to mediate that relationship. That means that we are able to interpret and apply the Bible for ourselves under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And as I read and consider the Bible, the whole Bible, in its cultural context, along with my own personal experience, I come to a very different conclusion about the proper role for women in the church.

I think that the proper role for women is to do whatever God has called them to do. And I think that those who would attempt to prevent women from answering that call are in a rather precarious position, for they oppose not women, but God.

Your sons and your daughters will prophesy. There is no superior gender, ethnicity, or social status as far as God is concerned. And that’s good news to me.

New Wine, Great Sheets of Animals, and the General Conference

No one tears a piece out of a new garment to patch an old one. Otherwise, they will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, ‘The old is better.’”
Luke 5:36-39 (also Matthew 9:16-20 and Mark 2:21-22

About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. 12 It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. 13 Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.
Acts 10:9-16

I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to the recent special general conference of the UMC, which has been my adopted church home since leaving the SBC. The conference was specifically called to discuss what rules, if any, the UMC ought to impose on its member churches with regard to same-sex relationships. There were two main proposals, the One Church Plan, and the Traditional Plan. The One Church plan would have allowed individual congregations to decide how to handle requests to perform same-sex marriages and/or whether to allow GLBTQ people to become pastors of Methodist churches. The Traditional Plan would forbid these in all UMC churches. By a narrow vote, the Traditional Plan was approved, but its constitutionality and enforcement protocol remain in question.
I live in the Western Jurisdiction of the UMC, which is overall more inclined to take an inclusive view on this divisive subject than some of the other geographic jurisdictions. Following the vote, there was great rejoicing on the part of those who believe same-sex relationships are a mortal sin, and great sorrow on the part of those who believe GLBTQ people are part of God’s good and diverse creation.

I fall into the sorrowful camp on this, not only for reasons of science and empathy, but also for theological reasons. And I came to an inclusive perspective not because I don’t read the Bible, but because I do. I’m aware of the Bible verses usually cited to forbid same-sex relationships, but I’m also aware that translation and context matter in Biblical interpretation. What “the Bible clearly says” depends a great deal on what translation you are using, as well as the bias of the translator. And there are many things that “the Bible clearly says” that are widely ignored (like working on the Sabbath) or thought to be obsolete cultural mores (like wearing clothing made of mixed fibers) Why is this particular taboo given such relative importance?

Some will cite Genesis 1:27, where God creates mankind male and female in his own image, and commands them to be fruitful and multiply. If procreation is the criteria for a valid, God-approved marriage, what of those who cannot have children? Barring some miracle along the lines of the Sarah and Abraham story, my childbearing days have been over for quite a while now. Is my marriage still valid? Should postmenopausal women be forbidden to marry? How does the elevation of procreation as an imperative for marriage fit in with the Catholic doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary? Jesus quotes the Genesis passage, but he does so in the context of forbidding divorce to heterosexual couples. When I read the Genesis passage, I don’t understand it as being about the primacy of binary sexuality, but about the equality of men and women created in the image of a God who can’t be understood in an anthropomorphological way. When I read Jesus’s application of the Genesis passage to first-century divorce practices, I don’t understand him to be talking so much about sex, but about the misuse of power by men against women.

My theology comes not so much from individual Bible verses, but from the Bible taken as a whole, and particularly the Bible as it seems to be understood by Jesus. And it seems to me that quite a lot of what Jesus had to say and do was in the direction of inclusion, not exclusion; of principles rather than rules. What “the Bible clearly said” to Jesus was often quite different from what “the Bible clearly said” to religious people who opposed him. That’s how I understand the parable of the wineskins. The rules-based religion Jesus’s opponents promoted had become ossified, like the hardened, inflexible wineskins of the parable. Jesus wanted to bring the people of God to a better understanding of what God expects from humans in terms of their behavior. Jesus understood God’s Prime Directive to be “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and like new wine this principle cannot be confined by a set of rules.

Take Sabbath-keeping for example. “Honor the Sabbath day to keep it holy” is actually one of the Ten Commandments, unlike prohibitions against same-sex marriage or gay clergy. It’s a good commandment, and I think the principle behind it is still valid today, even if it is widely ignored. It isn’t good for anyone to work 24/7. We might call it “down time” instead of “rest”, but that’s the idea behind it. Unfortunately people have always had a nasty tendency of idolizing rules while forgetting the reason the rule was created. Hezekiah had to destroy the bronze serpent Moses had created to cure a plague of snakes, because the people of God had started worshipping it rather than remembering why Moses created it in the first place. By the time of Jesus, Sabbath-keeping had become more of a burden than a welcome respite to people. Jesus’s attention to the principle rather than the rule of law often caused him to come into conflict with those who believed the rule was inflexible. If Jesus could help somebody, he would, and it didn’t matter what day of the week it was. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

Like the Sabbath, I think marriage meets a human need- the need for intimacy and companionship. The creation story in Genesis 2 includes a statement by God that “it is not good for the man to be alone. I will create a suitable partner for him“. Yes, I know the first couple was heterosexual, but there wasn’t exactly a large human population at the time from which to make generalizations. When large populations are considered, the majority of people will preferentially seek partners of the opposite sex, but some will be attracted to partners of the same sex, or not feel much in the way of sexual attraction at all. (It’s sadly interesting, although logically consistent, that some in the no-exceptions-to-binary sexuality camp even look askance at asexual, celibate people as being deviant in some way. I find that attitude very strange from both a Biblical and an early church history viewpoint.)

In the Acts passage cited above we read of Peter’s hunger-induced dream of the great sheet filled with items on his potential dinner menu, including, I assume, shrimp and bacon as well as steak and lamb chops. “Do not call unclean anything God has called clean“. This had to have been extremely difficult for Peter to accept, as it was a monumental change of the rules for an observant first-century orthodox Jew. The books of Moses clearly prohibited him from eating non-kosher foods. Peter understood the meaning of the dream to be that the good news Jesus brings is for everyone, not just for Mosaic law-abiding descendents of Abraham. In response, he goes to the home of a Gentile God-seeker named Cornelius and says, You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.”…I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. Peter then shares the good news of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection with Cornelius and his family. God shows up in a dramatic way, demonstrating his approval of both Peter, who broke what he thought were the rules by coming under Cornelius’s roof, and Cornelius, who was already considered to be an uncircumcised rulebreaker.

Of course, nothing is truly settled, then or now. There were some believers who held to a more rules-oriented criteria for inclusion in the family of God, and some who held to a less rules-oriented criteria. Later in Acts, we read of the Jerusalem Council which was convened to decide which, if any, rules Gentile converts were required to follow. Paul’s letters seem to indicate that he repeatedly had to deal with the same problem in the nascent Christian churches. (for example, his sarcastic suggestion to some of the Galatians here) On the other hand, while the Philippians and Galatians erred on the side of rules-for-the-sake-of-rules, Paul had to rein in the “if it feels good, do it” Corinthians. There’s a difference between breaking rules in order to do good to people, and breaking rules in order to please yourself, without thought of how your behavior might cause harm to someone else. Both “the rules are the rules” and “anything goes” are incompatible with the principle of the One Rule to Rule Them All that we call the Golden Rule or the Royal Law.

Does God sometimes change the rules? And if so, which ones? Or does the Bible show an evolving human understanding of God, and how God expects people to behave? My bet is on the latter. The books of Moses contain quite a few rules that are questioned by some of the greatest of the Hebrew prophets, as well as by Jesus and Paul. So I think that I’m in good company when I question the rule that only heterosexual marriages are valid, or that God only calls heterosexual males to be pastors. I’ve seen those rules hurt too many people. I’ve seen those rules cause too many people to turn away from God. And I don’t think God is too happy when we use rules in ways that harm rather than help people, or cause people to turn away from God.

To those who ask me, “What if I’m right and you’re wrong?” I will answer “What if I’m right and you’re wrong?” I would rather err on the side of inclusivity than exclusivity, because it seems to me that’s what Jesus did. He was continually criticizing those who threw up insurmountable barriers of religious rules that kept people away from God, and he was often criticized for the company he kept.

I think that God’s grace can’t be limited. God pitches a bigger tent and invites more people to the table than we think. And that’s good news to me!

Thou Shalt Not Make Graven Images

You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

The second commandment overlaps the first quite a bit, so much so that in some faith traditions the two are combined. While the first commandment is concerned with putting God first, the second specifically deals with symbols for the kind of things that might be given priority over God. Depending on the translation, these may be called “idols”, “carved images”, “likenesses”, or “statues”, and the categories used to describe these were quite broad. Most scholars believe that it was not images per se that were forbidden, but the worship of those images. However,  there are some Biblical literalists who disagree. The Protestant reformers  in Tudor England went about destroying religious works of art quite zealously. and there are many other examples of iconoclasm throughout history. An internet search on the phrase “graven images” will show you that there are people who hold to that line of thought today. One site I visited even suggested that allowing children to play with stuffed animals was a violation of this commandment, and might create an opening for demonic attack. (Cue theme from “The Exorcist.”)

Since I am not a literalist, I tend to agree with the idea that it is not the “likenesses” themselves that are a problem, but idolatry, or prioritizing anything above God. God is not particularly concerned with the family pictures or artwork I display on my walls, or my Instagram pictures of cats, but God is concerned that I have the right priorities. Anything that is given priority over God’s prime directive of love can become an idol. It is not things themselves that are bad, but the wrong use of things, and even good things can become idols. Each one of the “seven deadly sins” can be seen as idolatry: the result of taking something good and elevating it to a bad extreme. And symbols which might have represented one thing at one time can come to represent something entirely different at another time. When the created symbol becomes more important than the reason it was created, bad consequences are sure to follow.

There’s a story in Numbers about a bronze snake that God commands Moses to make intended to be an instrument of divine healing. Many years later, the writer of the book of Kings commends Hezekiah for destroying it   because it had become an object of worship.. It seems to me that the meaning of the symbol had changed over the years. Where once it was used by God as an instrument of healing, it came to mean something different in Hezekiah’s time. Perhaps they still saw it as a source of healing, but one that was under their control instead of God’s. Burn a pinch of incense, say the right words, and you would be healed. God has become a peripheral part of the equation, subject to the magical properties of the symbol. The story reminds me of the proliferation of relics in the medieval Catholic church, which were often viewed as having magical healing properties.

When I think of the de-evolution of the bronze snake into an idol, I can’t help but think of the quasi-idolatry demonstrated by some in connection with the American flag, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the National Anthem. As I understand it, the flag and the Pledge of Allegiance were meant to be symbols of the freedom and unity enshrined in our Constitution.”One nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”. The brouhahas over standing vs sitting vs kneeling when the National Anthem is sung have eclipsed the original meaning of these symbols; it seems the symbols have become more important than the reasons they were created. If the flag “still stands for freedom, and they can’t take that away” why shouldn’t a person have the liberty to stand or sit or kneel as they choose? I suppose freedom also means a person attending a sporting event has the right to drink beer, talk to neighbors in the stands, or peruse a smartphone during the national anthem, although I personally wouldn’t opt to do those things. As I understand it, those who choose to kneel are doing it because they do believe in freedom, liberty, and justice for all, and love America enough to want to see those ideals more fully realized. And I’m really not sure how the idea that not standing is meant to convey a lack of support for those serving our country in the military got into this equation at all. Just as the Israelites forgot the original purpose of the bronze snake, I’m afraid that the meaning of the flag as a symbol of freedom and equality has become distorted into something different. Unity in conformity has replaced unity in diversity.

And while I’m busily alienating those who don’t agree with me about this, I don’t think national flags belong in churches, either, especially not front and center on the platform, and certainly not as the focal point of a worship service. I’m all for celebrating Fourth of July with flags and parades and fireworks and patriotic songs, but to me those patriotic displays belong in a secular setting, not in a church. I’m pretty uncomfortable when love for God is conflated with love for country. As a Christian, my primary allegiance is to God and the kingdom of God, which transcends all national boundaries. As the writer of Revelation envisioned heaven  “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:“Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”  I really am concerned that, for some people, the American flag has become an idol, one which is elevated in practice if not in name above God. And of course, this is only one example of a misused symbol.

“Thou shalt not make any graven images”. I’m afraid the human race hasn’t outgrown the siren song of idolatry. And as Moses warned, when we listen to it we endanger not only ourselves, but our children and our children’s children and our children’s children’s children.

 

Zephaniah: Things Aren’t Always What They Seem

 Woe to the city of oppressors,
rebellious and defiled!
She obeys no one,
she accepts no correction.
She does not trust in the Lord,
she does not draw near to her God.
Her officials within her
are roaring lions;
her rulers are evening wolves,
who leave nothing for the morning.
er prophets are unprincipled;
they are treacherous people.
Her priests profane the sanctuary
and do violence to the law.

Zephaniah is bound to create a bit of cognitive dissonance for Biblical inerrantists. The writer identifies himself as  ” Zephaniah, son of Cushi, the son of Gedaliah, the son of Amariah, the son of Hezekiah, during the reign of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah”. He then proceeds to announce impending doom coming for Judah, along with the surrounding nations, because of their continuing sins against God and neighbor. There’s nothing new about that motif; the problem is the time frame. Zephaniah’s invectives, which include the royal family,  occur in the time of Josiah. Elsewhere in the Bible, Josiah is portrayed as a very good king, in fact one of the best as measured by his singlehearted devotion to God and attempts to stamp out idol worship. The priests and prophets who are castigated as being unprincipled, treacherous, and profane would have included Hilkiah, Josiah’s mentor, as well Jeremiah and other prophetic luminaries. as  So what’s going on here?

Some more literally-minded scholars will attempt to harmonize the discrepancy by assuming that Zephaniah’s prophecies are from very early in Josiah’s reign, when he was still a minor, and before the Book of the Law (probably Deuteronomy) was discovered during temple renovations. That doesn’t really make sense to me, especially as Zephaniah invokes judgement not on the king himself, but on the “king’s sons” And as we know in historical hindsight, that’s exactly what happened. Whether you judge them on political or theological criteria, Josiah’s sons were bad kings, and their poor leadership led to Jerusalem’s conquest and the Babylonian exile. So other scholars think Zephaniah was written after the monarchy came to an end.

I’ve always wondered why Josiah met such an early and untimely end, considering that the books of Kings and Chronicles present him in such an unwaveringly positive light.According to the prevailing traditionalist theologies of the time, that should not have happened. God rewards the good guys with health, wealth, and long life, while punishing the bad guys with the opposite. Clearly, that was and is an inadequate understanding of God and the way God works.

I see the Bible is a rich and living book not because God magically dictated every word to an auto-writing scribe, but because it contains so many different perspectives. We all try to make sense of what is going on around us, and see the world through our own lenses. Perhaps Zephaniah’s writings date from the time of Josiah, but from his vantage point things were not going so swimmingly. Perhaps they are from a later time period, one in which the exiles struggled to make sense of history. Regardless of when it was written, Zephaniah says to me is that things are always more complicated than they seem. As Paul observed, we “know in part and prophesy in part” and “see through a glass darkly”.  Or as Mulder and Scully might say, “The truth is out there somewhere”.

I appreciate the Bible as a record of humanity’s evolving understanding of God. For me, acknowledging that its writers were a diverse group of people, each with their own particular perspective, doesn’t diminish but enhances my faith. The details may differ, but the story is the same: There is a God; he wants us to live in love and justice with each other; and he is always working with and through us to make that happen.  And that’s good news to me.

Amos: A Call to Social Justice

Thus says the Lord:
For three transgressions of Israel,
    and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because they sell the righteous for silver,
    and the needy for a pair of sandals—
 they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
    and push the afflicted out of the way;
father and son go in to the same girl,
    so that my holy name is profaned;
 they lay themselves down beside every altar
    on garments taken in pledge;
and in the house of their God they drink
    wine bought with fines they imposed.

Although there are many passages in the Law and the Prophets which warn that God is not happy when the game of life is rigged in favor of the upper classes, no one sounds the call for social justice as clearly as Amos. Along with  Isaiah, Hosea, and Micah, Amos is set in the 8th century BC, “in the days of King Uzziah of Judah and in the days of King Jeroboam son of Joash of Israel“.

Life for the upper classes in the time of Jeroboam II seemed to have been pretty good. Israel enjoyed military successes against Syria and a booming economy based on trade with Assyria and Egypt. But Amos warns that all is not well in God’s eyes. There is tremendous and accelerating income inequality. The rich and powerful take advantage of the poor and marginalized to become even richer and more powerful, and they live lives of hedonistic unconcern for the least among them. God is angry, and  his judgement is on the way. Amos hears God warning the Israelite one-percenters: “I will tear down the winter house as well as the summer house; and the houses of ivory shall perish, and the great houses shall come to an end” and “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan who are on Mount Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, “Bring something to drink!” The Lord God has sworn by his holiness: The time is surely coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks.”

Amos presents God as being particularly upset with those who see themselves as religious, but do not express their faith in acts of justice and mercy. God is disgusted by their pious, empty acts of worship, and  many who long for the “day of the Lord” are in for an unpleasant surprise. It will not be what they expect. ” Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall and was bitten by a snake.  Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it? I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.  But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

We know the rest of the story. Amos gets reported to the king for his unpatriotic, heretical prophecies and Jeroboam tells him he should just leave the country if he doesn’t like the way things are. Nothing changes, and  Israel eventually falls, ironically to their former trading partner Assyria.

Amos is a very scary book to me, because I can’t help but see many parallels between the world in which Amos lived so many centuries ago, and the one in which we live today. Income equality is a serious and growing problem. Too many people go through life like hamsters on a wheel; the faster they run and the harder they work, the farther behind they fall. We have plenty of people today who profess to a form of religion while denying its substance. Preachers of the prosperity gospel distort the words of Scripture into promoting  something completely different from the gospel of Christ. And like Amos, those who attempt to issue words of warning are maligned and ignored. Martin Luther King famously quoted Amos in his “I Have a Dream” speech.  If you’ve never read the entire transcript of Jeremiah Wright’s infamous sermon, here’s a link. He certainly seems to be channeling Amos, “colorful metaphors” and all.

So where’s the good news in Amos? In the midst of all the dire warnings, there are words of hope. Some are conditional: there is still time to change the behaviors that have set Israel on an accelerating course into judgement. Amos implores them to “seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said. Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.” And amazingly, some are unconditional. One day, God is going to put right what humans have caused to go so terribly wrong: “The time is surely coming, says the Lord, when the one who plows shall overtake the one who reaps, and the treader of grapes the one who sows the seed; the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it. I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.”

God is in control, and working, with and without our help, to fix all that is broken and wrong in the world he created and called “very good”. And that’s good news to me.

Jeremiah/Lamentations: When All Seems Lost

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.
‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.‘”   –Tolkien

Alas, my mother, that you gave me birth, a man with whom the whole land strives and contends! I have neither lent nor borrowed, yet everyone curses me. -Jeremiah

It would be understatement to say that Jeremiah lived in difficult times. The northern kingdom of Israel had already fallen, and the southern kingdom of Judah was about to be overthrown as well. Jeremiah understood the cause of the looming defeat of God’s chosen people to be due to their unfaithfulness to God. I find it interesting that Jeremiah first began to hear from God in the thirteenth year of King Josiah’s reign, and Josiah was a pretty good king by Biblical standards. Following a couple of pretty bad kings (his father and grandfather) Josiah took the throne at the age of eight.  After the boy-king grew up, he instituted a number of serious reforms “in the eighteenth year of his reign”. Josiah intended to get  the people right with God, by force if necessary, and continued his efforts until his death about five years later “in the thirty-first year” of his reign. Although Jeremiah composed a lament after Josiah’s death, he doesn’t mention Josiah’s reforms. I have to wonder if Jeremiah and Josiah had more interaction than the Bible records. Perhaps Jeremiah’s warnings were part of the impetus behind Josiah’s urgency in making changes.

In any event, Josiah was killed in a battle with Egyptians he probably shouldn’t have fought, and his reforms turned out to be short-lived. Perhaps the people didn’t really buy into them, but were only pretending to be faithful to God in order to avoid the consequences of violating their kings’s orders. Josiah’s sons were not good kings according to any kind of Biblical or political standard, and things went downhill rather quickly after they took charge. Jeremiah continued to prophesy “through the reign of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah, down to the fifth month of the eleventh year of Zedekiah son of Josiah king of Judah, when the people of Jerusalem went into exile”.

Jeremiah is a young man when he begins to preach, and his entire adult life seems to have been given entirely to proclaiming words he believes God wants him to say but no one wants to hear. He foresees disaster coming upon his country, and not only does no one heed his words, he is often ridiculed and punished for saying them. Other prophets claim to speak for God and contradict what he says. Political leaders see him as treasonous, because he advises submission to rather than fighting against the invading Babylonian armies.  He is imprisoned, put in the stocks, threatened with death, and thrown into a muddy cistern. The king cuts up the scroll on which Jeremiah has written the words he has heard God saying, and burns it. Feeling used and abused by both God and humans, Jeremiah wishes he could choose not to speak, but he literally can’t help himself.

“You deceived me, Lord, and I was deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed. I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me. Whenever I speak, I cry out proclaiming violence and destruction. So the word of the Lord has brought me insult and reproach all day long. But if I say, “I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,” his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.”

Jerusalem falls as Jeremiah had predicted, and the Babylonians set him free, probably because they’d heard that he advised the residents of Jerusalem to cooperate with their Babylonian conquerors. His freedom to move about is short lived, however, because he continues to receive and pass along what he hears God saying, and that advice runs contrary to what the surviving remnant of people want to hear. They think if they go to Egypt they won’t have to submit to Babylonian rules and regulations, but Jeremiah knows that the Babylonians are coming for Egypt too, and that things will be infinitely worse for them there. Jeremiah is forced to go with them to Egypt, where he presumably will die along with the other refugees. The last we hear from him, he is still proclaiming “the words of the Lord” in Egypt, and his countrymen are still ignoring what he has to say.

I don’t think that if Jeremiah were given a choice, he would have chosen the times in which he lived.  And unlike Frodo in Tolkien’s story, Jeremiah didn’t live to see a rewarding outcome to what he decided to do with the time he was given. And yet, because of his faith in a faithful God, he foresees a restored and renewed Israel:

This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place.  For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.  I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”

Even if we can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, even if we don’t see the results of the good we try to do, even if the arc of the moral universe seems not to bend at all, even if all seems lost, God is still there for those with eyes to see and ears to hear him. But wait, there’s more! Not only is God still there, God is still working with and through and in spite of us.  Somehow, God will manage to work past all the foolishness and stubbornness and injustice and evil that humans both cause and suffer. And that’s good news.


Good Kings, Bad Kings

 

King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women besides Pharaoh’s daughter—Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites. They were from nations about which the Lord had told the Israelites, “You must not intermarry with them, because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods.” Nevertheless, Solomon held fast to them in love.  He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray.  As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been.  He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites. So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord; he did not follow the Lord completely, as David his father had done. On a hill east of Jerusalem, Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the detestable god of Moab, and for Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites.  He did the same for all his foreign wives, who burned incense and offered sacrifices to their gods. The Lord became angry with Solomon because his heart had turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice.  Although he had forbidden Solomon to follow other gods, Solomon did not keep the Lord’s command.

The books of Kings pick up where the books of Samuel leave off. David dies, and his son Solomon becomes king after a brief power struggle with his older brother. Solomon starts off fairly well, asking God for wisdom to effectively govern his people, but then things start to go downhill. He builds an elaborate temple for God and palace for himself, along with a number of other ambitious projects requiring a great deal of taxation and conscripted labor. His primary method of international diplomacy seems to have been marrying into the families of the surrounding nations, and he did quite an astonishing amount of that. He also seems to have not fully bought into the idea of monotheism and decides to cover his bases by building places of worship for gods other than Yahweh. So Solomon, who ruled the united kingdom of the twelve tribes at its zenith at about 1000 BC, is given rather mixed reviews. The nation splinters in two after the death of Solomon; and over the next few hundred years, Judah and Israel are ruled separately by kings of varying competency.  Israel falls to the Assyrians in 722 BC and Judah to the Babylonians in 586 BC. (click here for a bit more of this history)

For the writers of Kings, good kings were those who were unwaveringly committed to the God of Israel and actively discouraged the worship of other gods, often by quite violent means. Most of them, with a few notable exceptions like Hezekiah and Josiah, failed miserably at this task. From this perspective, Israel and Judah were conquered not because of bad leadership on the part of their monarchs, or because of the greater strength of the invading armies, but because the people had strayed from following the first commandment: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”

So what’s the good news in the sad story of the decline and death of a nation as told in the books of Kings? I think it lies mostly in the fact that we know what happens next. The concept of monotheism is developed and refined in the crucible of exile. Prior to this time, most people understood that gods were not only many, but also localized. Yahweh was the god of the Israelite people, just as Ashtoreth, Chemosh, and Molek were the gods of the peoples who occupied the surrounding lands. Sometimes there were divine territorial overlaps, resulting in several dramatic  “my god can beat your god up” stories, the most famous of which is probably Elijah vs. the prophets of Baal. If gods are limited to particular territories, then it follows that God wouldn’t leave his home territory and accompany the exiles to Babylon.

Somehow, sometime, somewhere in Babylon the exiled Israelites began to understand that God was bigger than they thought. God wasn’t limited to the land of Israel, but was with them in Babylon. The dwelling place of God was not a place in space and time, but a place in the heart. There is no where they could go, or be taken, where God would not be with them. As Paul expressed it so beautifully many centuries later,

For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

And that’s good news.