JOSHUA Betraying Jericho

8 Before the men lay down, [Rahab] came up to them on the roof 9 and said to the men, “I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you. 10 For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you devoted to destruction. 11 And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the Lord your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath. 12 Now then, please swear to me by the Lord that, as I have dealt kindly with you, you also will deal kindly with my father’s house, and give me a sure sign 13 that you will save alive my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.” 14 And the men said to her, “Our life for yours even to death! If you do not tell this business of ours, then when the Lord gives us the land we will deal kindly and faithfully with you.” (Joshua 2:8–14 ESV)

Rahab is a prostitute, so it wouldn’t be all that unusual that single male travelers — even strangers — would make their way to her place for some “rest” and “relaxation.” It would also be a good place for strangers and visitors to get some information on a place, to take the measure of a people, and maybe hear a little gossip.

It also makes sense that such a place would be watched, especially since the king of Jericho knows an enemy army — the army of Israel — looms just across the river, waiting.

We don’t know much about Rahab (רָחָב, which means proud, but also roomy and wide — Rahab is a real broad!), except that she is a prostitute (זוֹנָה, from the verb זנה which means “to fornicate”), known to friend (the king knows her, whatever that might mean) and foe (the Israelite spies know to go to her as well, whatever that might mean) alike.

We do know she is not condemned. Not for being a prostitute. She is praised by Hebrews (for her faith) and James (for her works), but certainly not for her profession. James and Hebrews don’t shy away from her occupation either — she is, after all, Rahab the prostitute (Ῥαὰβ ἡ πόρνη), as if somehow that’s her proper name.

But she’s also a traitor — she betrays her people to the Israelite spies. The tales of what God has done for Israel — from the Egyptian rescue onward — have been told far and wide, and because of that, Rahab tells the Israelite spies,

… our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the Lord your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath. (Joshua 2:11 ESV)

Seeing the Lord at work redeeming, guiding, and giving Israel victory convinces Rahab that the God of Israel is God, al least the only god that matters. With all we’ve been told in the chapters prior to this, all the descriptions of Israel’s looming faithlessness and failure, she sees inexorable success, she sees glory, and she sees doom for her own people. In betraying her demoralized city (there is no fight in Jericho’s men), she seeks to become part of something bigger (Matthew puts her, or someone named Rahab — Ραχαβ — in his genealogy of Jesus) — this people of God who about to swarm over the Jordan.

She sees God at work, and alone in Jericho, she surrenders. To God. To God’s people.

She asks that Israel spare her family, and in something reminiscent of the night death took the firstborn of Egypt, the spies tell her to tie a red ribbon to her window shutters and stay inside. A red ribbon marks the home death, in the form of the Israelite army, is to pass over. All are killed. Jericho is put the torch.

But Rahab, who saw the work of God in this enemy army, who saw salvation through surrender, who lied to her king, hid the spies, and sought a future with the conquerors and destroyers of her people, she and her family lived. As Joshua writes,

… she has lived in Israel to this day, because she hid the messengers whom Joshua sent to spy out Jericho. (Joshua 6:25 ESV)

The army is Israel’s, and the taking of the land is beginning. But the prophet Jeremiah will have a similar epiphany, when the army in Babylon’s, and the city is Jerusalem. And the future is in a distant exile.

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.

LENT I Am Afraid

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)

I write this unable to sleep. Someone I love is missing. AgainBethany. And her parents too, this time. And again I have that sleepless, burning, gnawing in my guts. I’m helpless.

I fear what Bethany might be about to suffer. I fear it. The last time this happened, I desperately pleaded with God, “please, take me, and let this girl live.” Never in my life have I ever pleaded with God like this.

Never in my life have I meant it.

I don’t want tribulation. I don’t want poverty. I don’t want to be faithful unto death. I don’t want to die. I don’t want Bethany to suffer or die. She has suffered enough, endured enough, her young life has been filled with such tragedy, such sorrow, such violence, and such despair, enough to fill a dozen lives.

Tears enough to flood the world and drown everything in it.

I don’t want to conquer. I simply want to live. And I want Bethany to live, too. Again, I would give my life for hers, though I know mine has no value to the people who have taken her — if she has indeed been taken.

I’m sick. And I am afraid. My faith melts away and little is left. I am praying for the redeeming power of God, for a flood to drown the armies of Pharoah. But whatever Jesus means by this second death, I fear the first more. I fear the devil and his prison. I fear what may be happening to Bethany this very moment. I am afraid. And I don’t know how not to be afraid right now.

SERMON — Nothing to be Afraid Of

I didn’t preach on Sunday — instead, I played some original songs for the folks of Payne AME Church in Chatham, New York — but if I had, it would have looked something like this.

Advent 1 (Year C)

  • Jeremiah 33:14–16
  • Psalm 25:1–9
  • 1 Thessalonians 3:9–13
  • Luke 21:25–36

25 “And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, 26 people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

29 And he told them a parable:“Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. 30 As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

34 “But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. 35 For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. 36 But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” (Luke 21:25–36 ESV)

And there will be signs. In the sky. On the earth. The very creation of God will be in turmoil, the highest heavens and the sea itself bearing witness to what is happening. To what is coming.

Jesus is speaking to his disciples here of fear. Paralyzing fear. Conquering fear. Debilitating fear. Fear that leaves us incapable of moving, of acting, of thinking. Of even paying attention.

Fear in the midst of violence and terror. Fear in the midst of war. A war the Jesus says will befall Jerusalem, a war that will come in “the days of vengeance,” a war that will be wrath against the people of Jerusalem, and the city itself. And those people — God’s people, God’s stiff-necked, unfaithful, disobedient people — will, according the words of Jesus, fall by the sword, be led captive and scattered among the nations of the world, and will be trampled underfoot.

We’ve seen cities burn. In our lifetimes, we’ve seen cities burn. From war, terror attack, riot, and uprising. We’ve seen cities burn. Across the Middle East, cities in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya smolder and crackle under the weight of siege and aerial bombardment. We fear terrorist who have so successfully — but very sporadically — unleashed violence in our midst, attacking us in our very own cities. Not quite laying waste to them, not quite surrounding them with armies, not quite leaving them desolate. But terrifying us anyway, leaving us uncertain about some of our neighbors — can we trust them? — and what the future holds in store.

Well, let me put you at ease. There will be more. More terror. More war. More death. More desolation. Lots more. The killing and the dying and violence will continue. Feel better now?

Do not be afraid. God speaks these words, or some version of them, more than any other in scripture. Do not be afraid. And God does this when Israel, when the people of God, are most afraid. And honestly, their fear is most warranted.

The time God says this the speaks to me most clearly is that moment when Israel, fleeing from their slavery in Egypt, is caught — water in front, Pharaoh’s army closing in fast. Nowhere to go. No forward, no backwards. Nothing is left. There is no future, just desolation, despair, and pending doom. “It is because there are no graves in Egypt that you, Moses, brought us out here to die in this desolate place?” Afraid, angry, desperate, Israel has lost all hope. There is nothing left to hope for.

This is when Moses speaks the words of God — “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today. … The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.”

Fear not. Words spoken to a frightened people, a hopeless people, a people so overcome by fear that they have given up any sense they have a future.

This is when God speaks these words to us. Not on calm and peaceful mornings, not when life is secure and we are confident, but in those moments when we have lost all hope. In those moments when it seems most clear there is no hope to be had. Fear not.

Luke’s Gospel almost begins with this admonition, do not be afraid, spoken by an angel to Zechariah when his is told he and his wife Elizabeth — they had been long unable to conceive a child of their own — will have a son, John, who will become John the Baptist. “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard.” And again, to the young Mary, betrothed to Joseph, who hears these very same words, “do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And you shall conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.”

Fear not, Jesus tells his tiny flock in chapter 12, for it is God’s good pleasure to give them the kingdom. This after a long sermon telling his disciples not to be anxious, not to worry about their futures, about where their daily bread and their clothes will come from. God knows you need these things, Jesus says, and God’s got it. God has got you. God has got us. The kingdom is ours, and we who have been called to follow Jesus will have treasure that cannot be stolen and cannot rot or rust.

Fear not. Do not be afraid.

I know, this is easier said than done. I have been overwhelmed by fear and uncertainty, and sometimes I have been truly convinced I have no future. I don’t get excited much about current events anymore — about wars and rumors of wars, about signs in the skies — and I don’t do a lot fainting with foreboding over what is coming in the world. I do, however, sometimes wonder if God has led me all this way — through Islam, as a witness to the attacks of September 11, 2001, through seminary and the humiliating and painful mess that was candidacy for ordained ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — through all off this simply to die in some forgotten corner of the world, alone and unwanted. I wonder. I truly do. Because it has seemed, at times, like there is nothing left.

Nothing to hope for.

It’s in this moment Jesus tells us — stand up straight, raise your heads, look up. Your redemption is at hand. This is not the end. You do have a future! Walk and live with confidence in the midst of the violence and meaninglessness of the world. Your redemption — our redemption — is at hand.

Stand up. Walk confidently as men and women who know you — all of you — have lives that matter to God. All of you have futures. All of you have something to hope for. And someone to hope in. Jesus.

Do not be afraid. Stay awake, straighten up, and live. Like the redeemed people we are.

Heading’ Out to Indy, Yeah, Brother!

A short personal note here. I am scheduled to be interviewed on TBN’s Praise The Lord talk show on Friday. Two hours. To talk about my book, sit and look pretty on set, and maybe — oh, just maybe — play a song or two. (Maybe.) Regardless, I’m talking about the book and about ministry. Not sure what else will happen.  I’ll be on set for two hours, so I’ve been told, from 11:30 to 13:30, but I need to be there an hour before the program begins.

This is just another very strange event in a deeply strange life. I had thought once that maybe the strangeness would stop, and I would settle down. But no, that doesn’t appear to be happening. I’m not sure what to make of it.

Actually, that’s not true. I know exactly what to make of it — I’m nervous and anxious. And my guts are doing what my innards do best when I get this way. They go all akimbo. No, I’m not giving any of you any more details. The next 48 hours are going to be weird — a long drive to Indianapolis (the program originates at WCLJ). And it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

This is a little like getting ready to face an ELCA candidacy committee. Actually it’s worse — the audience is by far larger (millions!), and the consequences could be far greater (I hope some possibilities open up as a result of this) — and it’s much better, because unlike with the DC candidacy committee (all of this described in my book) I’m not facing people who hate me or fear me (or both). There are ways this interview could get awkward, and I’m going to try to make sure I’m present and cheerful and thoughtful and let the Spirit work over me. I’ve never done anything quite like this before. And hopefully, this will be a beginning.

Not long ago, I figured something out — the point and purpose of my life is to bear witness to the grace and love of God in Jesus Christ. I think that’s the point of all life — that’s who we are. But I can only control how I live, how I respond to this grace that has swept me up rather brutally, and really without my consent. Think Elijah draping his cloak over Elisha as the younger prophet-to-be works the field, or Samuel hearing the voice of God as he sleeps in the temple with Eli, or Jesus calling the disciples from their nets as the fished on the Sea of Galilee.

Or the words God speak to Jeremiah. I’m not much of a youth anymore, being a decrepit 47 now, and I’m not sure why God would call me, of all people, to this long, hard, miserable road of bearing witness. But these words are comfort and strength, and may even settle my gurgling guts:

7 But the Lord said to me
“Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’;
for to all to whom I send you, you shall go,
and whatever I command you, you shall speak.
8 Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
declares the Lord.”
9 Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth. And the Lord said to me,
“Behold, I have put my words in your mouth.
10 See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to break down,
to destroy and to overthrow.
(Jeremiah 1:7-10 ESV)

I don’t feel like I’m set over kingdoms and nations. I’m just an unemployed ex-reporter with a useless, gold-plated education, and a seminary wash-out. (The last bit is not true; I have the MDiv. But I’m not going to be ordained any time soon.) I’m a failure, and who will listen to me?

And yet, as my friend David would no doubt lecture me right now — millions will listen. Many already have. More will. I have been called to speak. I am not shouting into an empty room.

Do not be afraid. There’s nothing God says more throughout scripture. Divine command. Do not be afraid. I am scared. Scared because I have no idea what is coming. Scared because the story I’ve told in this book makes me so very vulnerable.

All I have is the word of God, the promise of God.

1 On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret, 2 and he saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3 Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. 4 And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” 5 And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” 6 And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. 7 They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. 8 But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus ‘knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” 9 For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” 11 And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him. (Luke 5:1-11 ESV)

Considering the Myth of Islamophobia

Red Dreher writes over at The American Conservative this morning about how the term — and concept — of “Islamophobia” (a word I have never liked) is used:

Whenever people outside of the media say that journalists are afraid to criticize Muslim radicals or print cartoons the radicals find offensive is because journalists are afraid they’re going to be blown up, I tell them that is not true. The truth is that they loathe ordinary unenlightened people more than they fear jihadists. There is always this great unwashed mob of right-wing lunatics just looking for an excuse to carry out pogroms against Muslims in the wake of Islamic terrorism. The fact that these Muslim-bashing episodes are always just that — episodic, I mean — never seems to change their minds.

Central to the story I tell in my book, The Love That Matters, is the fact that I was Muslim for about 16 years — roughly 1988 through to 2004 — and so I think I can comment on this with some knowledge.

Dreher’s right, and so is Brendan O’Neil, in the piece for The National Review (shudder). Well, they are at least right that there is no “Islamophobia” in the West, and that some Western elites are deeply bigoted against working-class and some middle class people they are elected (or appointed, or however that happens anymore) to govern. This is the clerisy versus the rest of the bourgeois, a long fight in the West that clearly hasn’t gone away and won’t soon.

It brings to mind something that happened long ago, in 1991, at the San Francisco Islamic Center. It was a long ways away from where we lived, but I would make my way there occasionally — several times a week — to pray and have fellowship with other Muslims. The population who worshiped there were mostly working class immigrants — North Africans and South Asians.

It was a couple of weeks after the Iraqi invasion and annexation of Kuwait, and as Americans were preparing themselves for the possibility of war with Iraq, tensions were beginning to tighten. A lot of Muslims were nervous, Christian media was apocalyptic, anger was focused on Arabs and Muslims. The Islamic Center had gotten some threatening phone calls.

They were in the process of finishing construction on a small room to handle the dead — where bodies could be washed prior to funerals — and I was helping a little and listening to several of the mosque elders talk about the situation. One brother mentioned the threats.

“Doesn’t that scare you?” I asked.

He stopped working at looked at me intently.

“I am from India. Life has no value there, and it takes nothing for Hindus to decide to kill Muslims. The terrible things they say, and then do when they want. You have no idea. This is nothing. You people have no idea what real violence is like, and how to live with it. It is something to remember, but not fear. You have no idea what it is to truly be afraid.”

And the look in his eyes told me he was speaking from real experience. He knew exactly what he was talking about.

And with that, we went back to work.

I have always remembered this. What happens in the West, right now, is somewhere between isolated acts and coordinated campaign. There are no programs, and there likely won’t be, nor is it likely anyone will be rounded up, despite what guests and hosts say on FoxNews. There is fear (there is far too much fear, and everyone — I mean everyone — is simply too afraid for their own good), and there is some panic, but right now, everyone seems to be behaving themselves. (Just like the Bush administration’s torture regime — it is horrific people were tortured, but right now, it is important to also remember how few actually were. The precedent is troubling, because if torture “works,” then why not use it routinely? But it doesn’t appear to have been used routinely.)

One of the advantages of having been a Muslim in the West was learning to live as a member of an identified and identifiable minority. And to do so with courage and confidence, something Westerners don’t seem to know how to do. Because the denizens of the West don’t seem to feel safe unless everyone, or nearly everyone, conforms and believes (and I promise I will deal with this problem the West has with pluralism at some point in this blog, it is one of my “big ideas” of late), unless there is some kind of confessional uniformity, even in secular society (that confession being secularism).

If I ever get to pastor a church — and I dream of a little storefront chapel with daily worship and Bible studies and communal lunches — my hope is to help convey some sense of that confidence and courage to frightened people in need of the hope that the presence of God, and not the social uniformity or safety in numbers, brings.

Until then, I can only convey the message God most frequently speaks to his people: Do not be afraid.