A cry of blessed desperation

Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem (Luke 13:31-35) ends on a note of hope, “And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” This is the cry of “Hosanna!” which the crowds would be shouting upon his entering the city. It is also the “Hosanna!” of the Sanctus et Benedictus, the unending hymn of angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven which worshipers join each time they celebrate the Eucharist.

It is, ultimately, a cry of victory. The Lord’s Anointed One (Messiah) will come to save and deliver his people at last. In the present time, however, it is a cry of desperation, “Save us now, Lord! How long will you delay? Come and rescue your people!” This is why the Pharisees were so upset when the crowds greeted Jesus in this way (Matthew 21:15).

Jesus laments over Jerusalem because the Holy City and its people are about to reject God and his promised Messiah. There can be only one way for Jerusalem to be saved now. Its people must come to a place where they know only desperation, and in that desperation, cry out, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

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Driven away by love (Mark 10:17-31)

uptton-clive-the-rich-young-manThe rich young man wanted to know what he had to do to inherit eternal life. He knew all the commandments and had kept them from his youth (or so he claimed). He still lacked one thing, though, so Jesus told him to “go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

Upon hearing this, the young man “went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.” Gaining eternal life meant losing temporal pleasure. It was a price the young man was unwilling to pay.

Many are drawn to Jesus because of his love, the love that counted not even death too great a cost to purchase the world’s redemption. Yet, in this instance, Jesus’ love turns the rich young man away. “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” It was the same love that drew Jesus to the cross that compelled him to tell the young man what he was lacking in his search for eternal life. This time, however, that love did not draw the young man in. Rather, it drove him away.

What the young man lacked was not compassion for the poor. Neither did he lack a heart filled with charity for others. What he lacked was faith in Jesus to provide for all of his needs. The young man failed the test not because he wasn’t willing to give up his possessions, but because he wasn’t willing to trust Jesus. He could hear Jesus’ commandment not as a loving invitation to enter into a life-transforming relationship, but as an impossible requirement for membership in an exclusive club.

Eternal life does not come cheap for anyone. It costs us everything because it cost Jesus everything. In love, he invites us to die with him to sin and rise with him to new life in the kingdom of God. That boundless, infinite love draws in all who have faith. It also drives away those who lack it.

Where does God want to live?

David thought it was a good idea. He wanted to build a dwelling place for God which was, at least, comparable with his own “house of cedar” (2 Samuel 7:2). After all, why should the Lord of the universe dwell in a tent while the ruler of such a small kingdom enjoyed such plush accommodations? David was embarrassed by this seeming inequity and wanted to correct it. His heart was in the right place.

God, however, saw things from a different perspective.

Through the prophet Nathan, the Lord said to David, “Would you build me a house to dwell in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent for my dwelling” (2 Samuel 7:5-6). All those many years, God had never complained about his accommodations. By dwelling in a tent, he was able to move freely among his people. In the days of the tabernacle, the people did not have to come to God. Rather, God would come to his people. His true home was with them.

When Solomon succeeded David as king in Israel, he did build a house for God, a magnificent temple in Jerusalem which became the center of religious life for the nation. It only seemed right, for God had told David that Solomon would build the temple, hadn’t he?

Well, not really.

God said to David that “the LORD will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, but my steadfast love will not depart from him” (2 Samuel 7:11b-15a).

The reference to David’s “offspring” encompasses far more than just Solomon, David’s immediate successor. It refers to the whole “house” which the LORD promises to “make,” that is, the house of David from whence will come the Messiah who will take upon himself the iniquity of all the people, endure the discipline required for it, and demonstrate through his suffering the steadfast love of God.

The true “offspring” of David, the one who will “build a house” for God’s name, is Jesus. In him is embodied the not only the true character and nature of God, but also the true heart of God which yearns for fellowship with his people. From the very beginning, God’s desire was to be “Emmanuel,” God with us.

When the temple was built, however, it dramatically changed the dynamic of the relationship between God and his people. Rather than God coming to the people, the people had to come to God. God’s presence was no longer symbolized by a tent, free to roam about. It was instead symbolized by a huge, ornate, stone structure in the heart of Jerusalem. Now, God’s presence was restricted and confined within the temple. In time, it was further restricted to the people who were most closely associated with the temple, namely the priests and other religious leaders who drew their livelihood from the religious cultus. As these elites became more and more important to the maintenance of temple life, they became enamored with, and inevitably corrupted by, its treasures. Meanwhile, the people on the outside were viewed as “outcasts” and “sinners,” unworthy of the bountiful favor of God which the elites thought was theirs to do with as they pleased.

With the best of intentions, the temple had been constructed to house the presence of God and stand forever as a symbol of that presence in the midst of God’s people. But, by Jesus’ day, it had become a symbol of elitism and corruption, a prime target for God’s wrath. To his disciples, who demonstrated a foolish admiration for the temple’s architecture, Jesus said, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Mark 13:2).

Thrown down the temple was, at the hands of the Romans, a mere forty years after Jesus uttered those words. It wasn’t the first time. The Babylonians had taken it down once before. But the fall of the second temple was decisive because there was an inextricable link between it and the true “house” which Jesus himself “raised up” through his death and resurrection. In his vision of New Jerusalem, John says, “I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place [literally, “tabernacle”] of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.” (Revelation 21:3) A few verses later, he says, “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (Revelation 21:22).

Through his death and resurrection, Jesus restored the original dynamic of God’s relationship with his people. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt [literally, “tabernacled”] among us” (John 1:14a). From the very beginning, God has desired to dwell not “in houses made by hands” (Acts 7:48b), but in the midst of his people, finding in their hearts, cleansed from sin by the blood of the Lamb, his true and eternal home.

Herod’s ignominious end: An act of judgment and mercy

HerodAntipas_v1_FullActs 12.20-24 records the account of the ignominious end of the reign of Herod Antipas. Death befalls the king “because he did not give glory to God” (v. 23b). No doubt he gloried, instead, in his own vanity, relishing the accolades of the crowd which declared, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” (v. 22). It was precisely the kind of praise Herod wanted from “the people of Tyre and Sidon,” who had come to him to ask for peace. But it was a coerced form of praise. Herod had staged the event, having “put on his royal robes,” taken “his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them” (v. 21).

It was the perfect setting for a king to garner the praise of his fickle subjects. “Look at me!” Herod says. “See my flowing robes. Look at my glorious throne. Hear my voice. Am I not a god to you? Do I not deserve your praise and adoration?”

But, as the saying goes, be careful for what you wish. Herod got the praise of the people, but his failure to praise God cost him his life. As the people glory in his vanity, Herod is struck down by “an angel of the Lord” (v. 23a). God can tolerate no pretenders. To him alone belongs the glory. Human beings were created to glorify God. When they act contrary to creation, they suffer the consequences. For Herod, those consequences were most severe.

God’s striking down of Herod was no mere act of petulant jealousy. In failing to give glory to God, Herod was also failing the people under his authority. He was causing them to bow at the feet of a mere man and proclaim him a god. In pouring out his wrath on Herod, God was showing mercy to the people who had been acting out of ignorance.

Herod’s rotting corpse was “eaten by worms.” In fact, a strict reading of the text suggests the worms starting feasting on him even before “he breathed his last.” Whatever the order of events, it was a gruesome end.

“But the word of God increased and multiplied.” Did the people, having seen Herod struck down, then glorify God? Perhaps some did but, as illustrated in today’s Gospel reading, some people are hard of hearing even when God does speak through the Person of his own Son.

Devoted to destruction: An early exercise in hermeneutical gymnastics and creative (dis)obedience

[An oldie but goodie that, in light of recent occurrences, is worthy of re-posting.]

Samuel_rebuke_Saul

The fall from favor of Saul, the first king of Israel, is a vivid illustration of the consequences of rebellion and a typical human attempt to rationalize disobedience into obedience. In 1 Samuel 15, Samuel instructs Saul on behalf of the Lord, “Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (v. 3).

The instructions are clear. But Saul engages in one of the earliest recorded examples of hermeneutical gymnastics. “But Saul and the people spared Agag [king of Amalek] and the best of the sheep and of the oxen and of the fattened calves and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them. All that was despised and worthless they devoted to destruction” (v. 9).

When confronted by Samuel about his failure to obey the Lord’s command, Saul denies that he has been disobedient. He says, “I have obeyed the voice of the LORD. I have gone on the mission on which the LORD sent me. I have brought Agag the king of Amalek, and I have devoted the Amalekites to destruction. But the people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the best of the things devoted to destruction, to sacrifice to the LORD your God in Gilgal” (vv. 20-21).

Needless to say, neither Samuel nor the Lord is impressed with Saul’s creative interpretation of obedience. Even “the best of the things devoted to destruction” are still “devoted to destruction” and are, therefore, wholly unacceptable as a sacrifice to the Lord. What Saul and “the people” (upon whom he would apparently lay all blame for any deviation from the original plan while exonerating himself) would offer as a sacrifice is an utter abomination. That which is “devoted to destruction” is unholy and cannot be offered as a sacrifice to a holy God.

Whether it’s sheep and oxen under the Old Covenant or the living sacrifice of our very selves under the New Covenant, nothing unholy can be brought into the presence of God. That which is “devoted to destruction,” that is, the sin which enslaves us in rebellion and idolatry, must be utterly destroyed. To claim certain sinful inclinations are “gifts” to be celebrated within the worshiping community is a most abominable form of blasphemy, borne of a most arrogant presumption that rebellion against God can be rationalized into obedience by offenders who always seem to find clever ways of avoiding personal responsibility for their sinful actions.

The tongue tells the tale

One of the reasons many, particularly in the Protestant tradition, have become ambivalent about the Epistle of James is a misunderstanding of the type of literature it is. Whereas Paul, being himself a Pharisee trained under the respected teacher Gamaliel, wrote from the perspective of Christ being the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. James wrote from a different, but equally important, perspective.

The great tradition of Hebrew wisdom was embodied by Solomon, the wisest of Israel’s kings and perhaps the wisest man who ever lived. Proverbs is his most memorable work, as well as most of the book of Ecclesiastes and the dialogue with his beloved, the Song of Solomon. Several non-canonical books of the Apocrypha are also attributed to him.

 

James was steeped in this tradition. Consequently, his epistle is a collection of wise sayings and godly counsel. Perhaps the most practical of all his wisdom is his advice concerning the tongue. “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire,” he writes, echoing Solomon. “And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness” (James 3:5-6). James sees the tongue as the epicenter of human evil, untamable by any human being. It exposes the double-mindedness of man, his utter inability to live consistently in obedience to God. For while we may, at one moment, use the tongue to “bless our Lord and Father,” we may, at the next moment, use it to “curse people who are made in the likeness of God” (James 3:9).

This kind of forked-tongue double-mindedness, says James, “ought not be so” (James 3:10). Human beings are created to obey God at all times, not only to honor him with our lips, but also to glorify him with our lives. The tongue tells the tale, whether we  are truly honoring God or vainly invoking his name. We cannot control the tongue unless we are submitted unreservedly in absolute obedience to God. For only then can our tongue praise his name and our lives reflect his glory.

The kingdom is staring you right in the face

“The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed,” Jesus says, “nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17.20b-21).

This, our Lord says in response to a question from the Pharisees about “when the kingdom of God would come” (v. 20a). It is a question which betrays the Pharisees’ utter faithlessness. Face to face with the One who embodies the kingdom of God, they nevertheless ask, “When will the kingdom come?”

Implied in Jesus’ answer is the Pharisees’ insistence on some kind of observable “sign.” But in answering as he does, Jesus effectively tells them, “If you cannot see the kingdom right before your eyes, no sign will convince you. You will run after every charlatan and pretender who comes along saying, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ All the while the kingdom you seek is staring you right in the face.”

Jesus is the kingdom of God, the very embodiment of God’s new order. The Pharisees’ failure to see what is literally within their grasp is only further proof of this. In the kingdom of God, privilege counts for nothing. Those, like the Pharisees, who think they have it all figured out will be the ones who miss out. As Jesus embodies the kingdom of God, the new order of the world to come, the Pharisees embody the absolute worst of the old order, the world that is passing away. They are the representatives of “this generation,” the corrupt religious establishment which would reject Jesus and send him to the cross.

Jesus compares his inquisitors to the people of Noah’s day who were “eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage” (v. 27), blissfully unaware of their impending doom. So, too, are the Pharisees like like the people of Lot’s day, “eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all” (vv. 28-29).

By invoking these images of past judgment, Jesus is warning the guardians of the status quo that his day is coming and they will be held accountable for their actions. They will reject him. They will kill him. They will pretend business as usual. But the Son of Man will have the last word.

But there is also a word of caution to Jesus’ disciples. They must remain alert, lest they suffer the same fate as the Pharisees. If they become too concerned with saving their own lives, they will be swept away, also, in the coming judgment. “Remember Lot’s wife,” Jesus says (v. 32). She looked back upon Sodom and became a pillar of salt. So it will be with any who try to preserve any part of the old order. It is passing away in judgment. The way of faith is the way of flight. Flee from this passing world and look forward — LOOK UP! — to the glorious new world of the kingdom of God which, even now, “is in the midst of you.”