JOSHUA It’s Hard to Leave Egypt Behind

It’s been a bit since I last blogged any devotionals based on readings from Joshua, and I was so close to finishing! So, here we go, last stretch.

14 “Now therefore fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15 And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

16 Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods, 17 for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our fathers up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight and preserved us in all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed. 18 And the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.” (Joshua 24:14–18 ESV)

What struck me about this passage, from Joshua’s long valedictory speech (he dies at the end of this chapter), is Joshua’s command to “put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.” I would have thought that by this point, with Israel long into securing the land of promise — or, ahem, taking possession of the land the Lord God is giving them — would have long given up the gods, the rituals, the worship of Egypt. Left them behind, drowned, in the Red Sea.

After all, aren’t these God’s people, pure and sinless, worshiping the Lord God alone, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Have we not renewed the covenant between God and his people several times in this land of promise? Have we not seen the new generation circumcised? Have we not celebrated the passover as we waited outside Jericho?

With all of that, why warn Israel about those annoying false gods of faraway Egypt? Unless, for some strange reason, they were still a temptation?

It’s like the Saudi clerics who regularly issue warnings to good Saudi Muslims not to congratulate non-Muslims in the kingdom on Christmas and Easter. No one would be issuing warnings unless good Muslim shopkeepers were telling their Christian customers, “Merry Christmas!”

All this time, all of this space between Israel and Egypt, the drowning of Pharaoh’s army, and Anubis, Osiris, and Amen Ra are still interesting. Still compelling. Still being served. Still the objects of fierce devotion.

The gods of neighbors. Of conquerors. Of those who enslaved. Still an attractive nuisance. Even after the generation which saw slavery in Egypt has gone. This devotion, handed down, it has survived in the midst of Israel. Despite all that God has done.

Oh, Israel confesses it will follow the Lord God who called Israel, freed Israel, and gave Israel the gift of this land. But like every confession Israel makes — “Just as we obeyed Moses in all things, so we will obey you.” Only they didn’t obey Moses… — this seems half-hearted, a thing Israel knows it’s supposed to say so it can look good before God’s anointed before getting back to the serious business of groveling before statues and sacrificing small children in fires. I’m not sure Israel means it. Not really.

But you know what? It doesn’t matter what Israel means or says. God is still with Israel whether Israelites dance around Asheroth poles or bow down to Anubis or not. Joshua says he and his will serve only the Lord, and we have no reason to doubt that. But even idolatrous Israel is still God’s own people. The failure to worship the Lord God alone will not be a reason for God to abandon his people. Leave them to wallow in their crapulence, deal with the consequences of their idolatry, yes, God will do all of that and then some.

But God never abandons his people. Even as some may have worshiped the gods of Egypt, God still fought for them, took the land for them, drove out the Canaanites and delivered them into the hands of Israel. Israel is not the people of God because of anything they have done — they are the people of God because God gathered them, formed them, blessed them, favored them.

This is God’s doing, and not ours. We cannot undue it. No matter how much Egypt we carry with us into the land of promise.

Fighting Biology, Fighting Purpose

NPR’s Morning Edition had a very interesting little piece about those life-like dolls used to instruct teen girls on the evils of early pregnancy:

https://www.npr.org/player/embed/491906474/491906475The upshot? The dolls appear to encourage more pregnancy than they discourage — a conclusion that seems to disappoint the authors of the study.

Our global meritocracy demands delaying family creation and focusing, instead, on education and career. Marriage and family are not a step in the direction of adulthood, they are capstone events that come atop other kinds of success. The meaning of human existence is found in paid work, in careers, in employment. That is what it means to belong, contribute, and to be important. It’s a powerful worldview at work here. And it works for many people.

But … it’s also, in many ways, goes against the grain of what many (possibly most) human beings probably want in life. The meaning of existence for many people — nearly all in human history, and I suspect most today — is found not in paid work (which is done and tolerated as part of a larger and wider web of relationships) but in life together. In our relations to each other, in family, in neighborhood, in community.

So, let me suggest — most women in the world want to be wives and mothers. (Most, but certainly not all.) Most men want to be fathers and husbands. (Again, most, but certainly not all.) Because we have to understand — most human being cannot have fulfilling, meaningful careers that will leave much of a mark on human history or even be considered “important” work. Meaning and purpose are found in small things — love, children, marriage, friendship, community, work done well and competently to make all that possible. Instead, loving and belonging are what give us meaning and make us important.

While it is wise to discourage teen girls from having babies in a world in which credentials and careers matter and do provide stability and define success, we forget that for many, this very kind of inconvenient caring is what it means to love and be human. To be important. To matter.

You can’t fight biology or purpose with everyone.

In a mediated world, where we are constantly presented images of people more beautiful and successful and important than we are, in which success is getting that degree and then that career that gets you noticed and makes you famous and important (yes, I plead guilty to this), we forget that the most important people are the ones we meet, we make, we love, we care for.

And there is nothing wrong with that.

Some Very Good News for a Change!

Good morning all! There have been times, like the last two weeks, when I kind of lose my will to blog because I get worried about all the other things I have to do. Recently, that meant dealing with — and worrying about — my inability to find a job.

Well, I am employed now, as a reporter for the Columbia Basin Herald in Moses Lake, Washington!

What that means for this blog is that I’m going to focus a great deal more on scripture commentary and a lot of the social criticism I do — which isn’t much — will drop. I still have to finish my reflections on Joshua, and then move on to something else. And I still want to regularly reflect on readings from the Revised Common Lectionary. However, know this: I don’t believe that faith in God is somehow separated or isolated from ordinary, secular life.

But … work! Paid work! So, say a prayer and thank God and pray for courage and strength. The ministry I do with abused kids still continues (I had hoped to get a night a decent sleep Sunday before my first day of work, but God sent several young women my way who needed kindness and the courage to walk away from abusive situations), and my call to what we Lutherans call “word and sacrament ministry” is still as strong as ever. I am, however, committed to this calling reporting and writing in Washington, doing it well, doing it right, and doing it for a couple of years. I’m tired of wandering, and would like a home.

So, we’re here. Thank you all for your prayers and concerns. May the Lord be with you all!

An Update

Just in case anyone is concerned, I want to apologize for not blogging in the last few days. Things have not been going well this week, and it’s taking a lot of energy just to hold myself together right now.

However, just so you know, things are bubbling, and I hope — I really truly hope — to have something resembling good news to report in the next few days. Until then, please, pray, that God has finally heard, and remembered, and acted to deliver.

Amen.

Conservatism, Good Order, and Protecting the Weak

In a long piece over at The American Conservative on the limits of consent as a guiding ethic for our sexual culture, Grace Olmstead has some very interesting things to say about culture, gender roles, and virtue — something a lot of conservatives have talked about in the last few decades:

The seeds of sexual assault are going to start young, Smith is right about that. But talking about consent to a kindergartener is not going to solve the problem—because a young man like Brock Turner doesn’t care whether or not a woman gives him consent. He’s already decided that his desires trump the needs or desires of anyone else around him. We need to reach beyond sexual politics, and seek to guide the hearts of our children: teaching them what is right, and stirring in them a desire to do what is good.

When I was a young girl, I remember reading Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. Say what you will about the romantic, embellished prose or stereotypical characters—it taught me what it looks like to be a lady, and what it looks like to be a gentleman.

Take, first, the character Rebecca: noble, valiant, stubborn, virtuous. She has self-respect and nobility. When others treat her badly, it doesn’t upend her security or confidence. When she’s threatened by a man who wants to her to become his mistress, she firmly, resolutely tells him “no.” It doesn’t matter what the world thinks or what the consequences might be: she knows what is right. And she has the dignity and courage to pursue that unflinchingly.

Then there’s Ivanhoe: a valiant knight, caring son, loyal lover. He also does what is right, no matter the consequences. Near the end of the book, Ivanhoe seeks to rescue Rebecca from her tormenter and be her champion—even though he’s in love with someone else. This is what a gentleman is: someone who seeks the wellbeing and safety of vulnerable people around him, regardless of whether it’s in his own interests.

Words like “lady” and “gentleman” seem antiquated in today’s society; and it’s true, they’re derived from a time in which gender roles were less fluid and sexual mores were more strict. But I’d argue that ladylike and/or gentlemanly behavior needn’t be consigned to the history books, because these words capture what it means to have a virtuous balance of self-respect and deference, dignity and charity. Being a lady has nothing to do with acting “feminine” or wearing frilly clothing. Being a gentleman has nothing to do with lording one’s might or “manliness” over others—quite the opposite. These words describe a person who prizes their own self-worth and dignity, while also caring deeply for the wellbeing of those around them.

I’m deeply sympathetic to what Olmstead writes here. I do think virtue, especially a virtue which puts the well-being of the weak and the vulnerable above self-interest, is a noble aspiration, well worth having and cultivating. I’ve often thought some more old-fashioned notions that might govern bigotry, harassment, hate speech, and microagressions — that such expressions are simply rude and thus beyond the pale in civilized and polite company — would help considerably foster character and create spaces we can all live, work, and love in.

I want to live in this polite, respectful, and highly idealized world of gentlemen and ladies.

And I will even go so far as to note that I think a lot of conservative intellectuals believe that good social order — conservative, christian, traditional order — will do exactly that; it will foster the character of people who will put the well-being of the weak and vulnerable above their own.

As First Things editor R. R. Reno says in an interview about his most recent book, Resurrecting The Idea of a Christian Society,

Our paganism is soft and small, not hard and grandiose. We worship the hearth gods of health, wealth, and pleasure. But it’s a cruel paganism and in the book I detail the ways in which it’s especially hard on the poor and vulnerable. I want readers to see that a concern about traditional morality isn’t “moralistic.” It reflects a desire to defend the weak and vulnerable—a crucial biblical imperative.

I believe he really believes this (because he’s right, especially the nature of American paganism), that traditional morality reflects a desire to defend the weak and vulnerable. It is a biblical imperative.

But here’s the rub — most conservative Christians are probably less conservative than they are authoritarian. Their faith in good social order, and that order itself, isn’t a means to an end — it is an end in and of itself.

Growing up in and around the military, on army bases across the country and then in a very far flung and conservative suburb of Los Angeles, social order was imposed and enforced rather brutally. Conformity was demanded, and non-conformity was rather brutally punished. Men and women who failed to adhere to the norms were beaten, bullied, marginalized, excluded. We weren’t safe. Now, some may say that in conformity is our well-being, but this way of arranging the world — of demanding sameness, compliance, conformity before considering anyone’s well-being — doesn’t put the needs of the weak and vulnerable first. Instead, it attempts to eradicate weakness and vulnerability, and failing to do that, it attemtps to make the weak and the vulnerable “disappear” altogether.

Social and cultural conservatives have only themselves to blame for the collapse of their ideals. Never in the 1980s and 1990s did I hear any social or cultural conservatives even hint they cared about the well-being of the weak and vulnerable beyond their shrill exhortations on behalf of the unborn — exhortations that always struck me as deeply hypocritical since most social and cultural conservatives didn’t much care about the predations of the market, accepted bullying in school, were always quick to support war, and seemed to believe in a harsh social darwinism when it came to the poor, people of color, or people who are queer.

Or simply people who could not or would not conform.

The weak and the vulnerable in America’s conservative authoritarian communities were at the mercy of society’s good order. An order built on bullying, violence, exclusion, and death. The experience of being on the receiving end of that order is, I think, something that holds a lot of the Democratic coalition together — we (because I am a blue state person culturally if not politically) have been the weak and the vulnerable and have found no protection. Indeed, that good order has brutalized, exploited, and marginalized us, and then it has demanded we accept our reduced and excluded status and the violence done to us as social goods and morally right.

As the way things should be.

The social order emerging from the left will, sadly, become just as brutal and authoritarian as the order it is replacing, especially when it comes to the sexual revolution and matters of imposing and enforcing ideas of gender and racial identity. That order will find its own to brutalize and marginalize. Because that’s what social order does.

But conservatives — especially conservative Christians — hold no moral high ground here. Reno is a day late and a fistful of dollars short. Because many of us experienced a conservative order that pretty well brutalized us. Conservatives wouldn’t be in this position if they hadn’t held so tight to a social order built on racism and segregation, absolute conformity to a certain kind of white, bourgeois ideal, formal and informal violence meted out harshly, and held love of neighbor to be some kind of secondary or even tertiary command from God — a nice idea to be thought of every now and again, but something that ignored the harsh reality of a world in which some people just needed a beating (or two, or three) in order to straighten up and fly right (or held down, or pushed out of the way).

In this, the Trump campaign is probably a far clearer and much more coherent expression of American “conservatism,” the kind of social order conservative Americans believe in and the way conservatives have envisioned and enforced order, than anything said or written by an editor at First Things.

JOSHUA Reaping What You Did Not Sow

Chapter 24, the final chapter of Joshua, begins with Joshua relating Israel’s story to the people as they are gathered to hear his last testament to the people of God gathered at Schechem. And Joshua tells them of the nature of the gift they have received from God:

I gave you a land on which you had not labored and cities that you had not built, and you dwell in them. You eat the fruit of vineyards and olive orchards that you did not plant. (Joshua 24:13 (ESV)

This is a world in which we all strive to make more than we take, in which we admire self-reliance, in which we claim “I built this!” And take great pride in what we build, accumulate, and leave behind. We earn what we earn, digging and hewing and carving it out of the very ground we walk upon.

We earn. It’s what we do. It’s what we strive to. We labor. It is honest, decent, moral. To earn our daily bread. I want to earn. I want to work and draw a paycheck or even sing for my supper. I want to know I’ve done honest labor, can care for my family, and even help support others. An orphanage in India I have been aching to help.

But Joshua reminds Israel that they did not earn this land. And have they not worked it. They reap fruit they did not sow in a land that was full of people they have driven out, killed, conquered, and enslaved. I suspect this strikes many of us as tremendously unjust — especially in a world where war and conquest, occupation and imperialism, are viewed with great disdain, as fundamentally immoral acts.

Western Christians — at least some of us — are repenting of these things, and repudiating church teachings that proclaimed lands already full of people actually empty, places open for conquest and settlement. We condemn this kind of thing, we do not celebrate it.

And we certainly don’t attribute this kind of gift to God.

All this reminds me of the parable of the Ten Minas in Luke 19:11–27. It’s a harsh parable, especially when it comes to the servant who was so afraid that he did nothing with the sum he’d been entrusted with:

20 Then another came, saying, ‘Lord, here is your mina, which I kept laid away in a handkerchief; 21 for I was afraid of you, because you are a severe man. You take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.’ 22 He said to him, I will condemn you with your own words, you wicked servant! You knew that I was a severe man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow? 23 Why then did you not put my money in the bank, and at my coming I might have collected it with interest?’ 24 And he said to those who stood by, ‘Take the mina from him, and give it to the one who has the ten minas.’ 25 And they said to him, ‘Lord, he has ten minas!’ 26 ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” (Luke 19:20–26 ESV)

I’ve heard lots of attempts to turn this into a critique of the political and economic system of the empire in which God is not complicit, none of them ring true, I believe the harsh master off to claim the kingdom in another land is Christ1, and he is returning to the judge the church — his followers who have been entrusted with the wealth of God in the absence of our master.

And this brief passage from Joshua bolsters that view. God does, in fact, give to those who have not earned, who did not deserve. God takes from those too frightened to live (and maybe sin) boldly in faith. Many reap who never sowed seeds of wheat, and much sowing is done by those who will never take a scythe to the grain they have planted. Who will never thresh.

Earlier in Luke 12, Jesus tells the story of a rich fool who takes comfort knowing his silos are full of grain, who relaxes to eat and drink, not knowing he will die that night.

But God said to him, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”

Is God just or unjust here? Perhaps because this parable is a critique of wealth, couched in terms of inevitable and inescapable death, that we can accept it. We will all die. We will all leave behind things, the wreckage of our lives, that will become the possessions of others. The parable of the minas is different. It suggests a coming judgment — and like many of the judgment stories in Luke, it’s a harsh and brutal judgment — in which God will actively take from one who has little and give to one who already has more than enough.

Like the parable of the minas, however, this gifting of the land — a land already populated with women and men, old and young, full of cities and fields — is conditioned upon Israel’s adherence to the covenant. And we are about to reach that moment in the biblical narrative in which the Israel will begin to reap the consequences of its failure to do as God commanded when the gift of this land was made. God will stop fighting for Israel. Eventually, this land will vomit Israel out. Just as God said it would.


  1. I believe the allusion here is to Vespasian, the Roman general who in the midst of the Jewish War, left with a legion to seize power in Rome, placing his son Titus in charge of besieging Jerusalem and destroying (accidentally, if press reports are to be believed) the city. ↩︎

JOSHUA God Fights for You

1 A long time afterward, when the Lord had given rest to Israel from all their surrounding enemies, and Joshua was old and well advanced in years, 2 Joshua summoned all Israel, its elders and heads, its judges and officers, and said to them, “I am now old and well advanced in years. 3 And you have seen all that the Lord your God has done to all these nations for your sake, for it is the Lord your God who has fought for you. 4 Behold, I have allotted to you as an inheritance for your tribes those nations that remain, along with all the nations that I have already cut off, from the Jordan to the Great Sea in the west. 5 The Lord your God will push them back before you and drive them out of your sight. And you shall possess their land, just as the Lord your God promised you. 6 Therefore, be very strong to keep and to do all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, turning aside from it neither to the right hand nor to the left, 7 that you may not mix with these nations remaining among you or make mention of the names of their gods or swear by them or serve them or bow down to them, 8 but you shall cling to the Lord your God just as you have done to this day. 9 For the Lord has driven out before you great and strong nations. And as for you, no man has been able to stand before you to this day. 10 One man of you puts to flight a thousand, since it is the Lord your God who fights for you, just as he promised you. 11 Be very careful, therefore, to love the Lord your God. 12 For if you turn back and cling to the remnant of these nations remaining among you and make marriages with them, so that you associate with them and they with you, 13 know for certain that the Lord your God will no longer drive out these nations before you, but they shall be a snare and a trap for you, a whip on your sides and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from off this good ground that the Lord your God has given you. (Joshua 23:1–13 ESV)

Joshua’s valedictory — his final message to the people he was called and chosen to lead — is a reminder: It is the Lord your God who fights for you. Israel can only stand against Canaan, take this land, because God is fighting for and with Israel.

One man beats a thousand not because of Israel’s strength, or purity, or righteousness, but because the Lord God of Israel fights there, with Israel.

(This is the faithfulness of Joshua’s namesake who gives himself up to death to take away the sin of the world.)

But we have a promise here too that if Israel turns its back on its God, fails to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might,” God will stop fighting for Israel. God won’t abandon Israel. God will just stop fighting for Israel.

Note well what sin is at stake here — idolatry. An idolatry made flesh in the form of the Canaanites remaining in their midst. An idolatry made real in the tempting flesh of those very same Canaanites, who loom as a threat to Israel’s “rest” and well being. Everything that will put Israel at risk, that will eventually make Israel “perish from off this good ground” begins with idolatry. With the gods of Canaanites and with the Canaanites own fleshy existence.

Everything begins with idolatry.

This biblical story is a metaphor for us, a way for us to understand who we are, our history, our present, and our circumstances. The church in West faces an enemy not in Islam, but in the very modernity and enlightenment we birthed. The decline of Christendom — in all its forms — is a judgment upon the church, for our faithlessness and our idolatry. For our failure to love the Lord our God with hearts and souls and might. For our trust in these very fleshy and corporeal gods beside us, gods who promise us reason and answers and enlightenment.

But as much as we want to read this history as giving us a way out — that this time, we can obey — we cannot read Joshua’s warning without knowing and understanding what comes next: Israel does not love God mightily with hearts and souls. Israel clings to Canaanites (in part by enslaving them), to their gods. Israel is given an if/then, else/then, but there really is no successful outcome. There’s just a falling away.

So, if we think that somehow we can love mightily with hearts and souls, we are mistaken. This history tells us who we are — people who cling to false gods out of of lust, love, devotion, compulsion, power, the desire to dominate. Israel is not saved because a tiny remnant of Israel is faithful; Israel is saved because God hears, knows, and remembers, and is faithful to his promises.

GOSPEL Fill Your Lamps, Keep Them Lit

Except that the gospel reading I just reflected upon was from several weeks ago. Oops. My bad.

So, this is today’s gospel reading, Luke 12:32–40, for the twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Year C), according to the Revised Common Lectionary.

32 “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

35 “Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning, 36 and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks. 37 Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them. 38 If he comes in the second watch, or in the third, and finds them awake, blessed are those servants! 39 But know this, that if the master of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have left his house to be broken into. 40 You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” (Luke 12:32–40 ESV)

What does it mean to be ready? To stay awake? To be dressed for action and to keep our lamps burning? To fear not?

Sure, it means to pray, and worship, and teach, and baptize — because, as the next section of Luke (which is not included in the lectionary) states, the wise manager is one the master sets over the household, and who treats his calling with the responsibility to merits — caring for the servants under him and “giving them their portion of food at the proper time.” (Luke 12:42)

To stay awake to do our master’s work — to care for the poor, to live in charity with each other, to forgive the sins of our sisters and brothers, to love our enemies and serve them, to cast out demons and to heal, to bear witness to him who came and lived and did all these things among us, to confess that

Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again!

And to trust God in all things. Including our provision.

To be awake, to live without fear, to keep our lamps burning, is to do these things seeing Christ in all we love, knowing the Master will come at any time. Knowing the master may already be in our midst.

To sleep, then, to fail to be ready, is to think we have time to spare, time to “beat the male and female servants, and to eat and drink and get drunk.” (Luke 12:45) It is to fail to live conscious of both Christ’s presence in our midst and his immanent return (he is both here right now and not quite yet.)

To be ready is not to be pure. It is to love, remembering that we are conquered and occupied, ruled by our enemies. It is those enemies who rule us, brutally, that we are to respond in love to. We cannot be pure — we cannot find a bunker or a monastery or an enclave or a tiny duchy to hide in and hope to live untainted by a fallen, sinful, vicious world until Christ comes. We live in that world, and we love in the world, and while we are to love each other — a mutual self-giving — we specifically love strangers and enemies as a people who will likely not return that love.

Love our neighbors and our enemies. That’s how we get ready. That’s how we keep our lamps burning and stay awake.

GOSPEL Eggs and Serpents and Daily Bread

I’ve not written a sermon for a while because … well, it’s been hard to be motivated. But I’m enjoying the reflecting I’ve been doing of late on Joshua, and I thought it worthwhile to start reflecting on the weekly revised common lectionary readings. So, here goes. The gospel for this week, the tenth Sunday after Pentecost (Year C), is from Luke, chapter 11.

1 Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 2 And he said to them, “When you pray, say:

“Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.

3 Give us each day our daily bread,

4 and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.”

5 And he said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, 6 for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; 7 and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? 8 I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. 9 And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. 11 What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; 12 or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:1–13 ESV)

This is a hard word to hear this morning.

I have asked, and I have not received. Work, a job, something to provide for myself and my family. And nothing. I have sought, but have not found.

Perhaps I have not been impudent enough. Perhaps I have not demanded enough. Or knocked at midnight and insisted, “please, give me, because my wife and my daughter are in need. Because we are travelers, weary, tired, looking for some place we can belong and be useful. Some place, any place…”

Perhaps that is my problem. Jesus speaks of asking here, and we know that frequently in scripture, God does not deliver his people without their first asking — even if it only wordless groans and inchoate cries for help to the great beyond, or a pleading with God to “do as you see fit, only deliver us today!” Without their first pleading, begging, demanding. “Were their not enough graves in Egypt? Were we brought this far to die?”

Because it does sometimes feel that way. That we have been brought into the wilderness, only to perish — of thirst, of hunger, at the hands of our enemies.

At the hands of God.

It may be, however, that God needs our pleas, our demands, our groans given up to heaven like smoke wafting from a incense brazier. I know, I know, we all believe in an omnipotent, omniscient God who knows everything, and knew it long before he spoke the world into being. Such a God knows our hearts, knows our needs, knows our very souls!

What is the point of prayer? Of praying? Of asking? Of crying out, or demanding? Did God not know of Israel’s plight in Egypt, Israel enslavement and suffering, until the groans and cries rose to God, prompting God to remember his covenant with Israel, to see Israel, to know Israel’s plight?

Fine questions for dinner conversation, but they miss the point. We need our groans, our cries, our demands. And if we are in a relationship with this God who has called us, who yanked us out of Egypt into a seemingly unending wilderness, who walked among us as one of us, then we need to speak to that God — our wants, our needs, our pains, our sorrows, our suffering, our joy, our thanks, and our praise.

We need these things. We need the words, we need to speak to God. As Jesus points out here, we aren’t mere playthings to God — we have a relationship with him. And a relationship involves give and take, questions and answers, conversation, an exchange. And one of the reasons I have trouble with speaking of God as omniscient and omnipotent is that it is impossible to have a real relationship with someone who already knows everything about you and can learn nothing from you.

To ask of God is to prompt a response, if for nothing else it is to receive forgiveness and daily bread. A father knows much about his son, but will still respond when asked for something — and will respond with something good, something beneficial, something the will benefit and not harm.

In the end, of course, Jesus speaks here of the Holy Spirit. But even that we are to ask for. Even as we have received that Spirit — in fire and breath — with an abundance we cannot even measure.

We are to ask. We are to seek. Because … we shall find.

It’s Okay to Serve Nebuchadnezzar

Christendom left Christians, particularly European and American Christians, with a sense that they were empowered and entitled to organize the world. And with that came an obligation to do good and confront evil.

It makes sense that, in a Christian world, the teaching of the church would be far more prescriptive — telling people how to act and how to live in accordance with God’s wishes for humanity and the good order of creation — than descriptive — merely stating the what, how, and sometimes even why of puzzles humanity finds itself dealing with. The church, after all, has an order to uphold and protect, an understanding of what it means to be human.

In the millenia-and-a-half of functional Christendom, the church came to understand God primarily as creator rather than redeemer. Redemption could be taken for granted (in the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ), and so the creation needed to be explained.

The problem with this is that it doesn’t really reflect Israel’s experience and understanding of its encounter with God in scripture. In the Bible, God is met primarily as a redeemer rather than creator. The creation could be taken for granted (it was always there, and it wasn’t going anywhere, and so it didn’t really need explaining), so what needed to be understood was redemption.

Because God was met not in the phrase “let there be light” but in the words “Do not be afraid.”

The creation-centeredness of our theologies has forced us to focus on the right order of the world. Coupled with power, Christians have come to believe the world was ours to organize the way God wants it organized, either because we are imposing order on the world or simply helping the order inherent in God’s good creation realize itself. Creation-centered theology is a theology that wants and needs power — it needs to shape and form the world and all those in it.

But the Bible is not the story of a powerful people. It is the story of one man and his (rather sizable) family told to leave him home for a place he will only be shown when he gets there. It is the story of promises given to that man, to his descendants, to a kingdom that rises and falls, is conquered and occupied and carried into exile. Throughout this story, this people — Israel — are constantly subject to the whim of others, mostly enemies, and what they have, they have solely because this God of the promise has given it to them.

They have earned nothing. They have conquered nothing. They have not even fought for much of anything. God did the fighting. Most of what they have been given is taken from them, and they are left weak, defeated, and scattered, with nothing more than the promises that old man was given long, long before.

This story — promise, rise, defeat, exile — is our story as the church. We have forgotten it is our story because we think we have transcended it. Because we have taught ourselves for so long that we must confront evil and defeat it, that we have a duty to order the world, that we must remain pure and upright and always do good in order to save our souls, we forget that our story is one of sin and consequence, of conquest and subjugation and exile.

And serving those who conquered and exiled us.

This is especially important as Christians — mostly conservatives — wonder what to do with modernity, with a secular politics in the West (especially America) that no longer treats their faith with much respect or privileges their truth claims or institutional structures. The desire to protect themselves, to find a champion (Damon Linker’s interpretation of Donald J. Trump’s appeal to evangelical Christians) who will subdue enemies, seems to have guided much Christian thinking in the West for the last century.

But how should Christians deal with enemies?

The gospel is clear: love them. I constantly focus on the fact that the Beatitudes is a guide for faithful living while occupied and oppressed. Israel was not free, and was not going to be free through its own efforts. Freedom came another way — in love, a love that would not flinch in its encounter with the enemy oppressor, but would also not meet violence with violence. It was a love grounded in solidarity, in generosity, that met inhumanity and violence with forgiveness and “follow me.”

But even before Jesus meets his people in the midst of violent Roman occupation (and predicts far worse), the Hebrew Bible tells us of what it means when Israel is beaten, broken, and carried away into exile.

1 In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. 2 And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, with some of the vessels of the house of God. And he brought them to the land of Shinar, to the house of his god, and placed the vessels in the treasury of his god. 3 Then the king commanded Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility, 4 youths without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king’s palace, and to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans. 5 The king assigned them a daily portion of the food that the king ate, and of the wine that he drank. They were to be educated for three years, and at the end of that time they were to stand before the king. 6 Among these were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah of the tribe of Judah. 7 And the chief of the eunuchs gave them names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego. (Daniel 1:1–7 ESV)

Nebuchadnezzar laid waste to Jerusalem. He killed its leaders, destroyed the temple — the house David promised and Solomon built for God to live in — and carried off the best and brightest of Israel as well as what remained of its wealth and its ceremonial objects. Because of what he did, it would be impossible to worship, and the people of Israel must have wondered — on that long trail of tears from Judah to northern Iraq — what would become of them now that the one thing that held them together — worship — was no longer possible.

If there was ever a reason for non-cooperation with any kind of government, it would be now. It would have been more than appropriate for Israel to tell the Babylonian king to go screw himself sideways and let them weep by the banks of that distant and foreign river by themselves.

Instead, the best and brightest go to serve Nebuchadnezzar, the king who destroyed their temple, conquered their people, and carried them off into exile.

How do you deal with your enemies? You love them. You serve them. This isn’t gospel squishiness … this is hard-headed Hebrew Bible history.

Oh, you speak truth to your enemies. You bear witness to the God who redeems. You refuse to bow down to their idols. You don’t eat the king’s food. You worship even when it is outlawed. You remember and confess who you are and whose you are. But you do this still serving, still loving, and trusting in God.

The church, with its rules and laws and teaching, has forgotten how to trust God. It has forgotten how to be church when the world isn’t organized in its favor. It has forgotten how to be church when it doesn’t have social and political power. Because to be Christian in Christendom is to live with a sense of agency and power, something Israel possessed only sporadically. The church has forgotten that our calling as God’s people is to be faithful, and not successful. The promises we have been given do not include success. Or power.

It will be tough to be faithful in modernity, to eat only vegetables rather than meals cooked in the king’s kitchen, to pray with the windows open so everyone may see. Modernity is all about reducing human beings to mere things to be used, consumed, discarded, and abandoned. It is about forming a standardized and commoditized humanity that conforms easily so individual human beings can be used easily. While we should not be about that, the church in modernity has easily surrendered itself to this objectification of humanity, embracing all the various ways human “things” can best be managed and put to use. It is because of this surrender to modernity, I think, that we have been defeated, and have been carried off into exile, into Babylon, where we are beginning to gather by the river’s edge and weep for what we have lost.

But we can, in good conscience, serve Nebuchadnezzar. We can, in good conscience, serve state and society in modernity, even given all modernity is and does. So long as we remember that the king of Babylon was only a man. That modernity is a transitory thing. It has come, and it will go. And that we have a promise of deliverance, a promise real in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, who lived and died and rose under occupation. Who showed us what it meant to love and even serve our enemies.

Enemies who ruled us without pity.

We can still serve them, our enemies. We can still bear witness to the truth of God’s redeeming love. We know will be delivered because we have already been delivered. We do not need a protector or an avenger like Donald J. Trump. His promise of power and protection is akin to that of King Zedekiah, who started a pointless war with Babylon he could not win. We have Christ, who has overcome the world and defeated death. We have the promises of God. And they are true. They have not failed us.

They will never fail us.