What Jesus Looks Like Sometimes

A longtime friend and supporter of my ministry sent the following, about sex offenders and those on the registry in church:

“I don’t know what to do. What would you do if a sex offender showed up at your church,” he asked.

“Well, it happens almost every week. I would say, ‘I’m so glad you are here’, and then probably ask him if he wanted to help me serve communion, or lead us in prayer.”

He looked like he had swallowed something distasteful, so I went on.

I told him that the sex offender registry as it is currently doesn’t really tell us anything about the person. Getting caught peeing in the bushes near a school, being 21 and having consensual sex with a 17 year old, and molesting a 4 year old are all things that will get you on the registry, but not all of those people are of equal risk to others.

The author, Hugh Hollowell, is a Mennonite pastor who calls himself “the pastor of last resort,” I title I like so much I’m going to steal it and use it someday. He does the kind of ministry I do, I would like to do — hardscrabble ministry with lost and broken people in a place no one loves or cares much about.

But the last year has brought me here, to a ministry of mercy for abused and abandoned foster kids, most of whom are victims of sexual abuse, and many have been trafficked. I deal frequently with victims, I hear such terrible stories, and I try to minister to them, to help them understand how God is present in their lives. How God is redeeming them.

So it’s hard for me to have much sympathy for the perpetrators, many of whom are very bad men — beating, raping, abducting, buying, selling. Treating these amazing young women as mere things for pleasure and profit.

Much of the time, I want vengeance. Suffering for these men for the evil they have wrought. I don’t see them as redeemable. Not really.

But Hollowell is right. The people we label as “sex offenders” come in all shapes and sizes. For a while, I counseled a young man named Aiden who was doing six months in juvenile detention because, at 16, he had sex with his 14-year-old girlfriend. The age of consent in Washington is 16, and it’s a hard age of consent — there are no allowances for young teens who have sex with each other. Her parents found out, and were not happy. Aiden said he was okay with his sentence — it kept him off the registry, and probably gave him a chance to rethink his life a bit.

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Sadly, doing this ministry, I’ve met too many young women – 13 and 14-year-olds — with much older boyfriends — 17, 18, 19. I’ve counseled and ministered to teenage girls protecting themselves by being with men in their 20s. And some are having sex with parental permission because the parents know at least the boyfriend is kind, treats their daughter well, and keeps her safe. (Because once a girl is a rape victim in a small community, predators of all ages seem to know, and the girl is a target.) Or because there are no parents at all. This is hardly ideal, and I only grudgingly accept it, but sometimes it’s the best protection a young woman can find.

(I’ve seen what foster care can do, and what kind of charnel houses and torture chambers foster home can be. And the police aren’t much use unless a crime is actually being committed and they can stop it in the act.)

But you know, even the rapists, even the traffickers, even the murderers, are not so far in the dark that Jesus isn’t light for them, that Jesus doesn’t love them. Doesn’t redeem them. Doing what I do right now, with the victims, means I’m probably not the person to pronounce that love — I’m too close to those who have suffered. Nor does the pronouncement of that love negate any responsibility we have to punish those who hurt others and keep the vulnerable safe.

The ideal place for such a ministry is prison.

But some of these men get out. Live in our midst. And Jesus loves them too. Died for them and rose for them, pronounced to some “today you will be in paradise with me.” You wouldn’t have such people worship in a church full of victims. Not unless there was some very serious repentance, penance, and reconciliation, not unless the victims themselves want that, lead that, set the terms and have the final say.

We do need to be reminded sometimes, though, that no one is so far from the love of God that they should be excluded from the church, from the people of God, no matter who they are.

No matter what they have done.

On Being Forgiven

I was perusing the first couple of chapters of Leviticus yesterday afternoon, between noodling on my guitar and reading online essays, when I noticed something beginning in chapter four that seems crucial to the whole system of repentance and sacrifice:

And the priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven. וְכִפֶּר עֲלֵהֶם הַכֹּהֵ֖ן וְנִסְלַח לָהֶֽם (Leviticus 4:20)

Some version of this is repeated four times in chapter four, which describes sin offerings for sins by the priest (which brings “guilt upon the people”), the whole congregation, a leader, and one of the common people. In each instance, the priest will accept the sacrifice required, make atonement, and forgive the person who is seeking forgiveness.

This is for sins committed without intention to sin — accidents, mistakes, forgetful or thoughtless moments. It’s clear here intent is important. One who intends to sin is measured by a different standard.

Which makes sense to us.

What struck me here is how central forgiveness is here. The priest shall make atonement, and they shall be forgiven. There is no examining of the heart here, no querrying of intentions. To bring the required sacrificial animal to the priest, one without blemish, is enough. That in and of itself signals a desire to repent, to atone, and then have that atonement accepted and forgiveness — סָלַח — is required. At least here.

This is true for individual sin and collective sin:

If the whole congregation of Israel sins unintentionally [make a mistake], and the thing is hidden from the eyes of the assembly, and they do any one of the things that by the Lord’s commandments ought not to be done, and they realize their guilt, when the sin which they have committed becomes known… (Leviticus 4:13)

Yes, this requires an understanding of sin — its being revealed, made known, and guilt realized — but that requires atonement made, and once atonement is made, the sinner(s) forgiven.

But forgiveness … is pronounced. To all who come, knowing they have sinned or having had their sin made known to them, and wish to repent.

yomkippur

This strikes me because the church (especially the liberal church) has confused inclusion with forgiveness. Yes, inclusion of those formerly excluded by the teaching from the community of God’s people is a prophetic promise and a gospel realization (Acts 8:26–40). Those who had been excluded may indeed feel themselves broken, unclean, cast out, rejected, and certainly understand the welcome of Jesus to eat at his table — even to sit at the head! — as long promised redemption.

They may also feel like sinners, having been told most of their lives they are sinful simply for being who they are, and excluded for their own good. And the good of those gathered at the table.

But sinners are also those who have done wrong, made mistakes, and through their acts, separated themselves from the presence of God in the tabernacle at the heart of God’s people. The church still struggles with that residue of pietism, of being the true body of Christ, of being a people pure and sinless, a people in no need of redemption to begin with. (If you need God’s grace, you clearly haven’t earned it!) The church — liberal and conservative — would still rather be that church, I think, than deal with this real, bloody, messy, gut-spilling work of atonement.

And forgiveness.

Reading the Whole Story

N.T. Wright explains why the whole story of scripture is important, and why we need to understand our Sunday (or daily readings in the context of that entire story.

Whole Bible education. The New Testament makes no sense without the old. This story is our story, and we need to read it seriously, take it seriously, let it shape and form us, and live it seriously.

Also, this.

This is what I want to do: foster a congregation that lives embedded in this story, and the historic ritual of the church catholic and apostolic (daily prayer and eucharist, for example). It is worth doing, telling this story of God’s called out people, our failure to be faithful, and our redemption from exile and captivity — from the consequences of our failure.

That it is God’s acts which form us, and hold us together, and not our deeds. Not our obedience. Not our faithfulness.

The End of Denominationalism

I was chatting with a friend from seminary, somewhat lamenting my situation in life (no formal church home, and no denomination that will accept me and ordain me), when my conversation partner, an up and coming theologian, noted the following:

Denominations are just about over anyway.

He’s right. I should not be so distraught over my failure to find denominational acceptance.

I’ve touched on this subject before. The churches that succeed will build networks, inside and outside confessional boundaries. I don’t have much support right now, but I do have support, and it crosses denominational lines. It even includes some nonbelievers, people who have faith in me and the work I have been called to do.

I can build on this. As soon as I have a proper foundation, I plan to.

There will continue to be a place for denominations, especially in place where church culture is the thickest and the need or desire for immediate cultural competency is the strongest. But that very need – which churches spend an awful lot of time and resources catering to – keeps them too inwardly focused. A lot of denominations, as they slowly decline, will basically become chaplaincies. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this (ministering to the dying is one of our callings), and it’s the residue of American Christendom where the culture was expected to do the work of faith and character formation (and the denominations would top it off with a bit of confessional catechesis).

But what this also means is that congregations in denominations don’t really know how to form disciples. And I see nothing in the denominations or even many non-dom churches that tell me they know how to live in exile. They cannot conceive of being Christian in opposition to or alienation from the majority/ruling culture. Without a Caesar of their own to love (as opposed to simply honor), because Caesar is (or must be) one of them. In this, sadly, progressive churches are perpetuating many of the worst elements of American Christendom.

In fact, many American churches won’t know how to survive without a culture they can work with and influence. American Christians and American churches have no idea how to live in exile.

And they seem utterly unwilling to learn.

Something I’ve noticed as I’ve wandered Eastern Washington. There are still a lot of churches here. Downtown Spokane is stuffed to overflowing with mission outreach churches serving the homeless and the poor. Whether they do it well or not, I’ve yet to figure it out.

But there are a lot of churches.

However, the most vibrant churches seem to be non-denominational. And in tiny towns surrounded by wheat fields and scrubland pasture, like Odessa, Washington (founded long ago by proud German immigrants), the churches that in the Midwest or back East would belong to struggling denominations have all been given over to pentecostals, or have become “community” churches, or have been abandoned altogether. Even Catholicism is waning here where there aren’t immigrants from Mexico or Latin America.

I’ve not been in a lot of these churches, not yet, so I have no idea what gets preached in them. From what I have heard so far, though, I suspect a fair amount of cultural despair (hope for national and communal revival intertwined with that odd sense of persecution that conservative Christians have always carried with them) combined with an intensely personal Jesus who saves and an insistent teaching of rules for good behavior — right-wing therapeutic deism — which is not the gospel.

It’s not real hope. It’s a false hope that still yearns for and demands the culture, rather than the church, do the serious work.

SERMON No Gospel But Christ’s

I didn’t preach this Sunday, but if I had, it would have gone something like this.

Third Sunday After Pentecost (Year C)

  • 1 Kings 17:17–24
  • Psalm 30
  • Galatians 1:11–24
  • Luke 7:11–17

11 For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. 12 For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. 13 For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. 14 And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. 15 But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, 16 was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.

18 Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. 19 But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. 20 (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!) 21 Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. 22 And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. 23 They only were hearing it said, “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” 24 And they glorified God because of me. (Galatians 1:11–24 ESV)

Who is this Paul character, and why should we listen to him?

After all, he’s new at this, just started preaching the good news of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, and he doesn’t possess the proper pedigree. He didn’t hang out with Jesus, or Christ’s followers, he wasn’t there when Jesus preached, or healed, or raised anyone from the dead, or when Jesus had that last supper with his followers in that rented room, and he certainly wasn’t threatened later that night he was betrayed, handed over, tired and tortured and put to death.

He didn’t stand there at the foot of the cross, linger as darkness descended upon the land, stare up in uncomprehending anguish as Jesus breathed his last, painfully exhaling “it is finished” as the nails ripped his flesh.

This Paul wasn’t there to take Jesus down, wrap him in a shroud, didn’t donate his own tomb for Jesus’ burial. He didn’t weep and mourn that sabbath, wasn’t with the women or Peter or the other disciples when they eagerly and strangely told us the tomb was empty.

He certainly wasn’t with us in the days following, when we were scared, and locked the doors, when we wondered if that horrible that thing that happened to him … could happen to us? Did he break bread with us when we were frightened, when we were lost?

No, he did not.

In fact, this Paul was one of the reasons we were cowering in the darkness, behind locked doors, frightened and uncertain and wondering what happens next.

And now here he is, preaching Jesus!

I’m certain some of us are glad, and are, in fact, glorifying God. He did persecute the church. Persecute us. I’m certain some of us lost loved ones and friends because of him. We all lost brothers and sisters in the faith. This is truly the grace of God!

But I suspect others of us are sitting angry and silent. Who does he think he is, this upstart, this convert, who didn’t take any of the risks we took, who didn’t share anything with those of us who were there from the beginning, who didn’t learn what he needed to know from those of us who were with Jesus — who knew Jesus — but claims, rather strangely, to have received this gospel “through a revelation” directly from Jesus Christ.

Who spent some time in the desert meditating and considering this revelation.

Uh-huh, sure he did. Yeah, right, as if he was struck blind on the road to Damascus. Look, there’s only one gospel, and it’s ours. We possess it, we curate it, we preach it, we teach it. We control who, and how, the Son reveals himself to anyone. It’s ours, and it doesn’t belong to any upstarts who come wandering in from just anywhere — but especially those who’ve spent serious time persecuting and killing us, breathing threats and murder against us, terrorizing us.

This gospel, it’s ours. Ours.

I don’t know what we’re going to do with this man Paul, especially as he claims authority to preach and teach to the gentiles — gentiles! If God had intended to call them to follow, chosen them to be part of his people, God would have! Yes, God has occasionally reached out, fed and healed and even raised the dead of faithful non-Israelites, but including them as the people of God? Really?

We’ve not licensed Paul. We’ve not endorsed or approved him. And we need to reign him in, somehow.

We’re going to have a lot of work to undo, a lot of letters to write, a lot of pastoral visits to make, a lot of wrongs to right. Because this guy Paul, he’s been busy. Scribbling and scribbling, keeping the Roman Imperial Postal Service quite occupied with his correspondence. I mean, we have to do this, right? We’ve got to make sure the correct gospel is preached by the right people to the right people.

What gospel am I talking about? Well, I mean what God has done for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. How we met God in Jesus, and how his dying and rising has defeated death and sin, and given us new life, risen life, eternal life, to love our neighbor as Jesus loves us, to care for the poor, to welcome strangers, to heal the sick and even raise the dead! That’s the gospel we’ve been given, and the gospel we’ve got to protect and defend!

Does Paul preach that gospel? Does he teach it to the churches he writes to? Does he now live for Jesus the way we live for Jesus?

… He does? Really? Really? Are you sure? REALLY?!?

Well, then I guess maybe we can live with him. Maybe. Praise be to God, and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins, who delivers us from the present evil age, and to whom belongs the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Wait… those are his words too? Damn…

Having Protectors Matters

Jacobin Magazine, the online Marxist publication (and fantastically unapologetic about it!) has a fascinating and heartbreaking piece on the misery inflicted on women, children, and poor families by the Irish state’s close cooperation with the Catholic Church:

By 1924, there were more children in industrial schools in the Irish Free State than there were in all of the industrial schools in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland combined. The system was abolished in England in 1933, but in Ireland, particularly following the suppression of the 1935 Carrigan Report, the reformatory system continued for decades.

The Carrigan committee was tasked with investigating the “moral state” of the country, but on viewing the committee’s findings the Department of Justice decided to conceal the report. According to an internal memo, the report “was unbalanced to be too severe on men, while overlooking the shortcomings of women in these matters, and the, at times, highly coloured imaginations of children.”

But as the Carrigan committee revealed, abuse was rampant in Irish institutions, and was strongly determined by class and status. Jim Beresford, a former resident of the Daingean Industrial School, put it this way: “What eventually stopped them abusing me was that I had parents, and I was articulate. Most of the other children were inarticulate and illiterate because they had spent their whole life in the institution.” [Emphasis mine — CHF] Beresford managed to escape and his sister immediately put him on the boat to England where he remained, a fugitive at fifteen years old.

Many others were less fortunate. In 1939, twin girls born to a single mother in Cork were placed in Clonakility Industrial School. One of the girls, Annie, remembers beatings, bed-wetting, and humiliation. With regard to her education she states: “The classroom was a place of punishment. It was where we watched people being sadistically beaten. If we were ambitious to study, they did not like that.”

No doubt the desire of the church to control and moralize about all human behavior, from that of single women to poor families, contributed to this, though Jacobin makes no case whatsoever in this piece for the contributions of Catholic Social Teaching to the miserable and inhuman conditions that Ireland’s poorest and most vulnerable people found themselves subject to in the six or seven decades following Irish independence.

Nor do I share Jacobin’s faith in the secular state (whether rightly guided by revolutionary socialist theory and ideals or not) to do any of this right either. The quote I highlighted is a reality, sadly, of what it means to be subject to institutions. (And socialism of any flavor will only make that worse.) Many of the kids I do ministry with are foster kids, have been in and through the system (which is definitely not church run in this country), and foster kids by definition have no one to fight for them, no one to advocate or agitate for them. It’s why they have contacted me. Because there is no one else to listen.

They are the perfect victims. And they remain perfect victims whether they face and impersonal church or an impersonal state.

The Torah is harsh in its teaching to Israel on how those who have no protectors, no one to fight back if they are wronged — strangers, wanderers, widows, and orphans — should be treated. And what will happen to Israel if they fail to heed the words of their Lord:

21 “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. 22 You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. 23 If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, 24 and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.” (Exodus 22:21–24 ESV)

And if this wasn’t enough, Moses commanded Israel to remember the teaching as they prepared to cross the Jordan and take possession of the promised land:

“‘Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. ’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.” (Deuteronomy 27:19 ESV)

I won’t call down curses upon Ireland, but the Irish church, that’s another matter. A church that would cooperate so closely to immiserate and abuse so many deserves to fall by the sword, burnt to the ground, left fatherless itself, cast into exile, its good and pleasant land left empty and desolate.

To the Church in Philadelphia

7 “And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write:‘The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.

8 “‘I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. 9 Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie—behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you. 10 Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth. 11 I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. 12 The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. 13 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” (Revelation 3:7–13 ESV)

Power. Δυναμις. The ability to act. To be strong. To do anything. But especially anything good, or virtuous, or meaningful, or wonderful. This church has none. It is powerless. It does little good in the world. What works Christ knows, and remembers, are probably few.

The church today worries about power. Conservatives lament the end of a social order they built and that made sense to them. Having had power, they taste their powerlessness all that more intensely, and they fear the end — they fear death and irrelevance. The world has turned its back on established and eternal truth.

The progressive church laments a world still governed by prejudice and structures of discrimination, a world that seems almost impervious to change and reform and abolition despite our best human efforts and many years of good intentions. They taste powerlessness too, even as they pick up that power which seems to be slipping from the hands of others. Because so many still suffer, so much remains to be done, and we are so far from the goal.

“You have but little power.” This is a church that cannot do much, cannot change much, cannot accomplish much.

And yet, Jesus says, “You have kept my word and not denied my name.” In the face of utter powerlessness, in the face of that “Synagogue of Satan,” those who say they are Jews, those who say they are God’s people, but are not — difficult words for us to hear given how Jews have fared in Christendom and at the hands of Westerners — Jesus is reminding this church that he, and not their works, have opened whatever doors, accomplished whatever works, done whatever good, they are called to do.

… [S]eek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:33 ESV)

This powerless church, however, is promised something — it will be spared the coming tribulation. Hold fast, be faithful, remember the promise of our Lord.

Because no matter how powerless we are, how little we can do, we can still trust God. We can still be faithful. We can still love as we are loved.

To the Church at Sardis

1 “And to the angel of the church in Sardis write:‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.

“‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. 2 Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. 3 Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you. 4 Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. 5 The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. 6 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” (Revelation 3:1–6 ESV)

You have the reputation of being alive… This letter is to a well thought of, highly respected, probably even envied church. One that, at least to those who hear of it, is vibrant and alive and bustling with work and energy and faith. And maybe they were, once.

But not any more. I worshiped at such a church for a while, a community of people I loved, but who were living off the tale they told themselves of another era, a time when they had lots going and were the center of attention.

Virtually every old and established church in America is that way. Breathing the vapors of another era, wishing desperately that the 1958 or 1963 or even 1971 they designed and built their church for — a time when the place was full, the money was abundant, and the programs easy to run — would come back. Some churches do this better than others, and that wonderful church I attended was coasting far on its heritage and its memories of who, as a community, they once were.

Note what Jesus tells Sardis here after he declares them dead. He does not tell them to go back to what they were, those glory days that were the truth behind their reputation. “Wake up, and strengthen what is about to die…” Not “grow and multiply and become wildly successful and deeply purpose driven,” but simply: repent and be faithful. And if they continue to sleep, if they continue to stumble toward death thinking only their reputation will save them, Jesus will come as a thief in the night and take from them even the little they have left.

Hold fast to what we have received from Jesus — the good news, our baptisms, the supper — for even if we are few, even if we are dying, we can still be faithful. We can still do and be what we have been called to.

In the face of death, Jesus calls us to live.

To the Church at Pergamum

12 “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write:‘The words of him who has the sharp two- edged sword.

13 “‘I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells. 14 But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. 15 So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 16 Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth. 17 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.” (Revelation 2:12–17 ESV)

To a church situated in the midst of Satan’s stronghold — where else would “Satan’s throne” be? — Jesus speaks some strange and hard words.

This is a faithful church, one that holds fast to the name of Christ, even in the face of death. But it is a church where some strange things are believed and taught.

I honestly do not understand the Balaam/Balak reference here. I know the story, from Numbers 22–24. Balak is the king of Moab, and he sees what Israel has done. He calls upon Balaam

“Behold, a people has come out of Egypt. They cover the face of the earth, and they are dwelling opposite me. Come now, curse this people for me, since they are too mighty for me. Perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them from the land, for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” (Numbers 22:5–6 ESV)

God, however, tells Balaam, “You shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.” (Num 22:12) And three times Balaam blesses Israel when Balak demands he sacrifice (each time seven bulls and seven rams upon seven altars!) and curse Israel. Balaam concludes by cursing Moab, and Amelek, and a handful of other peoples Israel has found troublesome and inhospitable. After which, “Balaam rose and went back to his place. Also Balak went his way.”

Balaam is again mentioned in Deuteronomy 23:4–5, as part of the reason neither Ammonites not Moabites are allowed to “enter the assembly of the Lord.” And again in Joshua 24, where the account echoes Deuteronomy — Balaam was hired to curse Israel, but would listen to Balaam. “Indeed, he blessed you. So I delivered you out of his hand,” God tells Israel in Joshua 24:10.

And there is a mysterious reference in 2 Peter to Balaam as Peter describes a group of believers who have “gone astray” to follow “the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing.” (2 Peter 2:15) I find the Numbers account reasonably sympathetic to Balaam — he is not a bad guy, just some kind of priest for hire who God uses to bless Israel when he has been hired to curse the people of God. He ends badly, according to Joshua.

But clearly there is a “way of Balaam,” and it is not a good way. It is one that leads the followers of Jesus astray.

Repent, Jesus tells this church — as he tells nearly all the churches to which he dictates these letters to — or else Christ himself will come and deal with those who trust in the wrong things and work the wrong works within the church.

And to “the one who conquers” — a promise also made to each church, and again in Revelation 21 to all the followers of Jesus with the presentation of the New Heaven and New Earth — something secret will be given: hidden manna and a new name. Sustenance in the seemingly never-ending wilderness and a blessing after a long and brutal struggle with God.

These are the promises of our Lord to a church that lives where the very throne of Satan sits, that struggles with false and misleading teachings in its midst, that struggles with works that bear bad fruit.

Be faithful. Trust God. Even if no one else ever knows.

To the Church at Smyrna

8 “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write:‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.

9 “‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.” (Revelation 2:8–11 ESV)

Do not be afraid.

Wherever that is said in scripture — usually directly by God, or an angel, or from God through an anointed leader like Moses — you have the gospel, the Good News of God for the people of God. For humanity. For the world.

Outwardly, Jesus is not calling upon this community to repent of anything. But he is telling them, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer.” Jesus already knows what this church deals with — struggle, suffering, oppression, affliction, evil, poverty, destitution, and the slander of those who claim to be God’s people but clearly are not — and he is calling them to remain faithful in the face of what appears to be much worse to come.

Be faithful unto death, Jesus says, because what matters is not death itself, the death we see, the death we think is the final end, but “the second death.” This is the first mention of “the second death” in Revelation, something spoken of nowhere else in scripture. This “second death” has no power over the martyred dead, those who die bearing witness to Christ and will rise to rule with him (20:6), and “the second death” is the consigning of Death and Hades — the place of the dead, which Jesus holds the keys to (1:18) — themselves to “the lake of fire,” which is the fate of all those who are not found in the “Book of Life” (20:6). The “lake of fire” and “the second death” will also become home to

… the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.(Revelation 21:8 ESV)

But we who are faithful unto death, who bear tribulation as Christ bore the sin of the world on the Cross, who conquered death by dying, we will receive a crown of life.

Be faithful, Jesus says. And do not be afraid.