ADVENT 9 / It Sucks to be Born at Such a Time

This year, for the four weeks of Advent, we are doing the #RendTheHeavens devotion at both The Featherblog as well as Psalm 10 Ministries.


The earth lies defiled under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant. (Isaiah 24:5 ESV)

Punishment.

I hate that word.

“God will punish you!” I’ve heard it. Not recently, not as an adult, but as a child, from some people who called themselves faithful Christians, followers of Jesus, people who pointed fingers and said, “God will punish you because you do not believe!”

As an adult, I’ve seen the shaking of heads, heard the whispered muttering which suggests that my problems, my suffering, are all my fault. If only I was a better person, more pious, of better character, I would not have suffered, not be poor, not be in such need.

My fault.

God is punishing me. For my faithlessness.

Maybe.

There are consequences for sin. War and penury, defeat and conquest and exile.

But often times, children pay for the sins of their parents. Some pay for the sins of others. The generation of Israel that went into exile was not that generation whose sinfulness, whose faithless idolatry, brought about war and death and exile. It is not fair, and it does not seem right to us.

But it is the way of things.

When we sin, we who God has called to follow, we set into motion things we cannot control, things we cannot see or understand until they are upon us. We may live well, but in that living well, and all that comes with it, are the seeds of our destruction. Israel under Solomon was a rich and powerful state, with a huge army and a sprawling court of ministers and priests and officials and concubines. But that power brought with it the cause of its destruction, as Israelites rebelled against the cost of that army and court, failed to show mercy and forbearance to each other, and rejected the God of Israel as they deliberately rejected the inheritance of David.

The earth becomes defiled. The consequences of sin become bigger than us, seeping into the air and the water — in, with, and under the sky and the soil. Everywhere. The consequences of sin from long ago oozes and poisons everything, wrecking and ruining individuals, families, neighborhoods, communities, even whole kingdoms.

This is not punishment. Those who sin often times live lives of ease. But their sin, that ease, creates conditions that someone will, eventually, pay for. Sucks to born at such a time. To know that once, life was easy and life was good, but now, not so much. Sucks even more to know that ease and that goodness is likely one of the reasons things are so hard now.

Not my doing! I didn’t do this! I’m not the cause of this! The earth is not defiled because of what I have done! I shouldn’t have to pay for this! To suffer for the sins of others! It’s not right! It’s not fair!

But defiled it is. With sins I inherit but did not commit.

JUDGES That Israel Might Know War

A reading from the Book of Judges, the third chapter.

1 Now these are the nations that the Lord left, to test Israel by them, that is, all in Israel who had not experienced all the wars in Canaan. 2 It was only in order that the generations of the people of Israel might know war, to teach war to those who had not known it before. 3 These are the nations: the five lords of the Philistines and all the Canaanites and the Sidonians and the Hivites who lived on Mount Lebanon, from Mount Baal-hermon as far as Lebo-hamath. 4 They were for the testing of Israel, to know whether Israel would obey the commandments of the Lord, which he commanded their fathers by the hand of Moses. 5 So the people of Israel lived among the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 6 And their daughters they took to themselves for wives, and their own daughters they gave to their sons, and they served their gods. (Judges 3:1–6 ESV)

Why might Israel need to know war? Why might God need to know whether Israel will do as it is commanded?

God already knows Israel won’t. This is settled. Judges begins with this failure. God knows Israel will fail, will not fight and not separate itself and will, instead, subjugate and copulate with the people of Canaan. (You likely cannot have one without the other.) And worship their gods.

So, is war good for Israel? War is inescapable. As Israel intertwines itself with the people whose land they are settling, they will also be subjugated by those people. The wars Israel will fight will no longer be for conquest, but for survival and liberation. They will need rescuing, redeeming. War will be the instrument of their (all-too-regular) redemption. And so the rest Israel was given briefly at the end of Joshua’s leadership will remain a dream, a distant dream.

In this, I am reminded of the expulsion of Eden, when Adam is expelled from the Garden and the ground cursed. He shall have to sweat and work for his bread from a ground that once gave plenty with little or no work. He shall fight thorns and thistles, and for what? For uncertain daily bread. Fighting a ground for his sustenance he shall be buried in when he dies.

Some days will be good. And some will not.

And so, Israel struggles. Mostly against itself. Mostly against its sin. Against the consequences of its sin. God will continue to fight for Israel — the people of God were no more abandoned than were Adam and Eve. But God does not alter their condition any. War will be their lot, their struggle, their fate. For both subjugation and liberation. We will win, and we will lose.

A day will come when Israel will no longer need to learn war — Isaiah 2:4 promises that day will come — but it is not today. Today, we learn to fight.

Because without our will to fight, God cannot be in our midst.

JUDGES Our Condition

A reading from Judges, the second chapter.

16 Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them. 17 Yet they did not listen to their judges, for they whored after other gods and bowed down to them. They soon turned aside from the way in which their fathers had walked, who had obeyed the commandments of the Lord, and they did not do so. 18 Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge, and he saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge. For the Lord was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them. 19 But whenever the judge died, they turned back and were more corrupt than their fathers, going after other gods, serving them and bowing down to them. They did not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways. (Judges 2:16–19 ESV)

This is our essential condition, as the people of God, as the church. In our faithlessness, in our inability and unwillingness to follow the teaching of God, we are given over — we give ourselves over — to those who would plunder us.

And plunder us they do.

God has pity on us, and saves us from our conquerors, from the consequences of our sin, of our faithlessness. We are not unfortunate people. We are sinners. We are cot redeemed from mere circumstances, we are redeemed from our sin.

And while we can be rallied to righteousness and faithfulness every now and again, idolatry is our fundamental sin. The worship of that which cannot save us is our fundamental sin. We cannot help ourselves.

This short narrative is the explanation. It is truth, and it is all we need to know about ourselves.

But it is also the narrative into which Christ comes. He is our judge, and he redeems us in our sin. He is faithful when we are faithless. He does not die, and therefore, we have no reason to turn away from God, to seek salvation in that which cannot truly help us — money, power, privilege, position, might. And yet we do.

And when we do, we are eventually given over to those who will plunder us.

But Christ, the righteous judge, is still with us. Even when we are faithless, he is faithful. He is our faithfulness, showing us that even when we forget, and walk away, we are never wholly and completely given over. We are afflicted and oppressed, but never abandoned.

We have a righteous judge, who is with us, until the end of the age.

JUDGES Life Amidst Thorns and Snares

A reading from Judges, the first and second chapters.

27 Manasseh did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth-shean and its villages, or Taanach and its villages, or the inhabitants of Dor and its villages, or the inhabitants of Ibleam and its villages, or the inhabitants of Megiddo and its villages, for the Canaanites persisted in dwelling in that land. 28 When Israel grew strong, they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but did not drive them out completely.

1 Now the angel of the Lord went up from Gilgal to Bochim. And he said, “I brought you up from Egypt and brought you into the land that I swore to give to your fathers. I said, I will never break my covenant with you, 2 and you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall break down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed my voice. What is this you have done? 3 So now I say, I will not drive them out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you.” 4 As soon as the angel of the Lord spoke these words to all the people of Israel, the people lifted up their voices and wept. 5 And they called the name of that place Bochim. And they sacrificed there to the Lord. (Judges 1:27–28, 2:1–5 ESV)

Israel put its faith in its own strength. In its own means. As it faced its enemies, the Israelites no longer believed in the command of God — “I will drive them out before you” — and instead looked its arms and its numbers and its power and said, “we can control you, and we can oppress you, and we can deal with you.”

“We can deal with your gods.”

Again and again, Israel is told — make no covenant with the people of the land, make no deals, do net let their altars and their objects of worship stand, lest they “become a snare in your midst.” (Exodus 34:12) We are not told why their gods will be so attractive, why dealing with them and eating with them and making love to their daughters is so dangerous, except that their worship will be so much more attractive than that of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who called us and saved us and redeemed us.

We aren’t told why. Maybe the false idols of the Canaanites demand so little of us, demand only what we are happily willing to give. Maybe the worship of the Canaanites is so sensual, the food of the Canaanites is so delicious, the company of the Canaanites so pleasurable, that we cannot help ourselves.

And maybe we are so enamored of our power that we think, “We have the swords, we make the laws, we are in control, our God is powerful and has given them into our hands. Their labor makes our lives easier. We can bear their company.”

So now, God tells us we have to live with these people, in our unhappy relationship. In the kind of terrible closeness conqueror and oppressor have with those have they dispossesed and enslaved. That relationship changes us, turns us into a callous and brutal people, people who have little problem with the daily cruelties needed to keep others subordinate, to compel their labor, to deny them their humanity.

This will make us people who cannot love our neighbors. Who cannot love God. Who cannot love ourselves.

So we live with the smoldering resentments of those we have conquered and enslaved. We live with their desire for vengeance. It will overtake us a time or two.

We have to live with the consequences of what we have done, and failed to do, and who we have become. A people who trust our means, our abilities, our strength, to protect and save ourselves. And not God. This is our faithlessness, and our sin. Our doom has been set into motion. We have set it into motion. God has told us more than once what the consequences will be.

And so we weep.