Opting for Benedict

So this comment I made on Rod Dreher’s blog, as he took apart Rachel Held Evans’ tweet storm rant about Rod’ latest book, seems to have gotten some traction:

Progressive Christians and the Progressive Church is still wants American Christendom to work, still cannot tell the difference between state and society and church, and still very much want it to be 1962, when the church was influential and church leaders were listened to and everyone was good and bourgeois and belonged. Oh, they want a far more integrated version of 1962, complete with same-sex marriage. But their church is just as much Christendom, just as imperial, just as Constantinian, as the conservatism they decry. They want to be the chaplains to a well-ordered, relatively just (or justice oriented) state and society.

It does not help any that most progressives are trapped in a narrative of the civil rights movement that leaves them envious, guilt-ridden, self-conscious and with a sense of both deep unworthiness AND a belief the fundamental work of the civil rights movement remains unfinished. The church is the active conscience of the society, a very 19th century idea, and they are the people called upon to do that prophetic work of moving the beloved community forward. Of course progressives are going to hate the Benedict Option, because the Progressive Church exists to reform state and society, not to foster faith or form disciples.

But THAT in a nutshell is THE problem of the American church, one I have written about to much less acclaim or even notice than Dreher. The church in virtually all its forms — Progressive, conservative, orthodox, fundamentalist — demands the culture do the heavy lifting of forming disciplines, that there is no difference between citizenship and discipleship, and that the church’s job isn’t to form disciples but ensure the culture works on their behalf. That, more than anything, is going to mitigate against any kind of faithful Benedict Option in America because the church doesn’t really know how to be counter cultural, or an alternative community, for any great length of time, without aspiring to bourgeois stability and social power. That’s what’s going to be toughest for faithful followers of Jesus — the desire and expectation, almost inbuilt in the American church, that believing and belonging are virtually automatic endeavors in which church teaching and practice are mere add ons.

Nothing I haven’t said here before.

As I have watched the conversation develop around something like The Benedict Option — an idea I’ve had for a long time, given that I was Muslim for part of my life and understand what it is to belong to a religious minority that has little or not social power, and must struggle to affirm and live out both individual and collective religious identifies and confessions — I’ve developed a few concerns.

My first concern is that the those who support the Benedict Option too often ignore the story of Israel in scripture. In particular, the story that Israel is a failed polity, and that God acts to raise or redeem dead or captive Israel. Israel’s story is one of rise and fall and resurrection and redemption, and for us to appreciate our condition we need to understand our history is Israel shaped. That is, the promises God makes to the church through Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, and Solomon, and fulfills in and through Jesus Christ — a home of our own, a blessing to the world, many descendants, and a king on the throne for ever and ever — are realized in our failure and our powerlessness, and not our success and power.

This is, I believe, the struggle of the Hebrew Bible — what do God’s promises mean to us given that everything has seemingly come to naught? That we are a conquered and exiled people, that this is our essential condition. We may yearn for power — “Give us a king, that we may be like other people!” Israel demanded of Samuel — but we are told that power will lead to our enslavement. (And it does.) More importantly, Israel’s wealth and and power, and the things needed to maintain that wealth and power, are what undoes that state. Power and wealth undo themselves.

Our power, and our wealth, undo us. Have undone us.

The history of the church can be understood best by setting it side-by-side with the history of Israel, which rose and fell, which was divided and conquered and sent into exile. Which achieved great things with power, and promises to us were made through that power (Christendom and all its works), but that power eventually undid us. Modernity and enlightenment are Babylonians and Assyrians (I have been meaning to write in some depth about this), and they have come to carry us away.

Without the full appreciation of the story of Israel as our story, our history, our purpose, and our meaning, we cannot really make sense of what is happening to us as church.

And I don’t see a lot of this among those calling for a Benedict Option. Too much of what passes for thought in Benedict Option circles is grounded in philosophy, particularly historical church teaching with a universalist claim, a church rather angrily but impotently trying to tell the world what is true and how to live.

Second, there is a lack of a proper prophetic voice among those promoting something akin to the Benedict Option. Israel may have been overrun by Assyria and Babylon, but they were just instruments of God’s judgement upon Israel’s faithlessness and idolatry. The sin was not Assyria’s or Babylon’s, though they would pay. The sin was Israel’s.

And Israel’s sin was idolatry. The worship of other gods. Faith in its own power to save itself — its mighty men, its armies, its wealth.

While I look upon Modernity and Enlightenment as akin to Assyrians and Babylonians, they aren’t external to the church. Christendom birthed them, raised them, made them possible. Our idolatry is our surrender to Modernity and Enlightenment and their truth claims. It is likely there could be no other way — God, through Moses, pronounces blessings and curses upon Israel in the Torah, and outlines the history of success, failure, and most importantly, redemption. The appreciate the Israel shape of our history, we must also appreciate the sins we are paying for are ours, and not the world’s.

We are paying for the idolatry of our ancestors. We are paying for their faithlessness. We are paying for the things they put into motion when they believed in power, privilege, and position, when they accepted without much struggle the truth claims of modernity. (Again, as I have said before, resistance to modernity and enlightenment was and is both pointless and futile.) The sin is ours — I cannot emphasize that enough. We are not at war with a sinful world. We live under the judgment of God.

In this, we have to remember God’s last word on our sin, our idolatry, our faithlessness, is always redemption and resurrection.

Finally, there is the matter of remnants. Does God save the remnant because they are faithful or is the remnant faithful because God has saved it?

This is not a small question, because at work among the Benedict Option folks is a belief that only the truly orthodox will survive. Maybe. However, God’s stipulation for redemption from the disaster he tells Israel it will face for its faithlessness is not rigor and right faith, but sincere repentance. We don’t what of Israel’s faith and faithfulness survived Babylon, but we do know the command to the faithful wasn’t “believe rightly!” but “flee Jerusalem!” (A teaching echoed by Jesus later.) Remember, we are a people called and gathered by God, and not our faith. God is in control, and so if we are truly going into exile, we have no real idea what our descendants will inherit.

Which also reminds me — if a Benedict Option is about saving children from the pollution of the world, that vision is both too large and far too small. It fails to trust God. It fails to see where we are called to meet that sinful world and proclaim good news. And it fails to appreciate that we can only pass on what we have inherited as faithfully as possible, but we have no say about how any of that gets used.

And it will also become one more bit of bourgeois reaction that will happily reach for any club offered to keep a sinful world at bay.

We are faithful failures, we followers of Jesus. Scripture gives us lots of examples of how to live under occupation or when facing Assyrians and Babylonians. From Jonah to Elijah and Elisha to Daniel to the disciples Jesus called to follow. And that’s all we can do … follow.

Follow wherever God leads. Even into exile.

It’s Simply Too Late

So, Vice President-elect Mike Pence will take the oath of office on Ronald Reagan’s Bible, and he will place his hand specifically on 2 Chronicles 7:14

… if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.

It’s an interesting choice.

Pence could have chosen anything from chapter 6, which is the Chronicler’s account of Solomon’s prayer after he blessed the people of Israel and dedicated the temple. In fact, the words of Solomon’s prayer would have made more sense, that long plea Solomon makes for mercy and forbearance from God to forgive Israel when Israel repents.

When the prayer is done, Solomon calls God down from Heaven to dwell in this newly built house, and this his presence may never depart Israel:

41 “And now arise, O Lord God, and go to your resting place, you and the ark of your might. Let your priests, O Lord God, be clothed with salvation, and let your saints rejoice in your goodness. 42 O Lord God, do not turn away the face of your anointed one! Remember your steadfast love for David your servant.” (2 Chronicles 6:41-42 ESV)

Fire does indeed come down from heaven during this long ceremony, after this long prayer, and Israel grovels before the Lord.

Then, long after the dedication is done and the ceremony finished, God appears to Solomon “in the night” (an interesting reference, given that Solomon said at the beginning of chapter 6, “The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness [Exodus 20:21]. But I have built you an exalted house, a place for you to well in forever.”) and answers Solomon’s prayer. I have chosen this house, God says:

13 When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, 14 if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. 15 Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place. 16 For now I have chosen and consecrated this house that my name may be there forever. My eyes and my heart will be there for all time. 17 And as for you, if you will walk before me as David your father walked, doing according to all that I have commanded you and keeping my statutes and my rules, 18 then I will establish your royal throne, as I covenanted with David your father, saying, You shall not lack a man to rule Israel.’
19 “But if you turn aside and forsake my statutes and my commandments that I have set before you, and go and serve other gods and worship them, 20 then I will pluck you up from my land that I have given you, and this house that I have consecrated for my name, I will cast out of my sight, and I will make it a proverb and a byword among all peoples. 21 And at this house, which was exalted, everyone passing by will be astonished and say, Why has the Lord done thus to this land and to this house?’ 22 Then they will say, ‘Because they abandoned the Lord, the God of their fathers who brought them out of the land of Egypt, and laid hold on other gods and worshiped them and served them. Therefore he has brought all this disaster on them.’” (2 Chronicles 7:13-22)

Pence is quoting from the promises of God made to Solomon, and by themselves, they sound like an open-ended promise to the people of God — remember me, and I will remember you. After all, God now dwells in the midst of the people, hearing and seeing all that they do. Feeling all they do.

Pence, like a lot of American Christians, confuses America the nation with the People of God. This promise is made to Israel, and by extension the church. There is no other people of God. Christians in Christendom easily confuse nation-state and community because the Christendom community is bounded by both church and state, it is both polity and congregation. To be Christian is to be a citizen (and vice versa). It’s an old problem, one Christians have never dealt well with. But I see no covenant between God and America, no evidence that God ever cut one with America past the self-righteous assertions of American Christians who confuse their civic enterprise with the call to follow Jesus.

But Pence makes another mistake here. This is not an open-ended promise. This is not a theoretical if-then, else-then. Like every set of promises God makes to Israel, it is embedded in the story of Israel’s failure. God speaks to Solomon of the consequences of turning away (Solomon is not the sinner in Chronicles he is the Deuteronomistic account), and Israel, under Solomon’s successor Reheboam, begins to turn away. Rebellion, idolatry, abandonment of the teaching, all lead to war and suffering and conquest.

It’s an object lesson — God demands our faithfulness, and God exacts a price for our faithlessness — but it must also be read embedded in the story of Israel. Which is one of faithlessness and failure. All that God promises Solomon in verses 19-22 comes to pass.

The repentance Pence quotes here comes, if it all, in Nehemiah 9, centuries later, when the exiles have been gathered, the law read, and the covenant renewed — under conditions of limited sovereignty, of Persian rule.

Most Christians do not want to deal with the fact that the story of Israel is one of failure. The story of the church, therefore, must also be one of failure. We will fail. We have found God’s favor and been blessed but God’s favor also included curses for faithlessness. And as often as we have done what we are told, we have not. Again and again, we are conquered and driven into exile, mindful that no arrangement we can put together on the basis of God’s promises and our adherence to the teaching will last forever.

It may be we are a faithful people living in a time of curses. That too is a divine calling, for which we are to bear witness, both prophetic and pastoral. Some of us, maybe many, are called to be priests without a temple. It may be if God’s people — the church in America — will repent, God will fulfill his promises and relent for a season. But we cannot even agree right now on what constitutes our sin, and because America, rather than the church, is what’s at stake for us, the supposed faithful remnant are constantly pointing at those outside, those others who do not share our virtues, and we say their sin got us here. And not ours.

And it may simply be far too late for repentance, whether we speak of Christians or Americans. Storm is coming, Assyrians and Babylonians are shoeing horses and sharpening swords. Consequences we began to bring upon ourselves long ago. God may relent, for a time, but it is probably too late to do much of anything except watch, pray, and seek safety.

Your Downfall is Rooted in Your Triumph

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (now THERE’S a title!) reviews The Politics of Virtue: Post-Liberalism and the Human Future, the new book by theologians John Milbank and Adrian Pabst, in The New Statesman.

I want to like Milbank, and his critique of modernity, but I have found the man to be far to awful a writer to deal with seriously. Williams wanted to like him too, and has some good things to say about the book, though he is also critical of portions of the book.

I’ve not read it — I cannot afford books right now, and I’m nowhere near a serious university or seminary library to indulge myself — so I don’t know.

But Williams has this observation of Milbank’s and Pabst’s critique of where the West, where Christendom, “went wrong”…

Milbank and Pabst see the dissolution of this classical Christian picture by the individualism of the Reformation as a cardinal moment in the decay of the West. In other words, the very moment identified in conventional history as the birth of “Western” supremacy – the triumph of a notion of individual right, the recognition of the objective authority of scientific method – becomes the cradle of the metacrises through which we are now living.

I’m not going to deal with the accuracy of either William’s characterization of Milbank and Pabst, or Milbank’s and Pabst’s assertion made in the book, save to say that the idea a civilization’s downfall can be found in its greatest strengths and traced from it peak is a very biblical notion.

1 Kings 10 outlines King Solomon’s wealth — 666 talents of gold come to him in one year, not including all that came “from the explorers and from the business of the merchants, and from all the kings of the west and Thousands of chariots and soldiers, silver as common as gold, and giant ivory throne.

23 Thus King Solomon excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom. 24 And the whole earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind. 25 Every one of them brought his present, articles of silver and gold, garments, myrrh, spices, horses, and mules, so much year by year. (1 Kings 10:23-25 ESV)

He fills his palace with 700 wives and princesses, and 300 concubines. All of this — women, court, army — is costly. Israelites and Canaanites alike are conscripted to build, and taxed for it all.

Now, ostensibly, God promises to rip the kingdom from Solomon’s hands because he has allowed and encouraged and even likely participated in the idolatrous worship of some (many?) of his non-Israelite wives/mistresses/concubines. (1 Kings 11:9-13) For the sake of David, God will allow Solomon to reign over a wealthy, powerful, united kingdom.

The price to be paid for Solomon’s unfaithfulness will only come after. Solomon will not pay it himself.

It comes in the form of Jereboam, the son of one of the king’s female servants (a mistress?), who rebels against the king. When Solomon dies, Israel comes to his son Reheboam and asks for relief from the taxes, from the forced labor, from the cost for this kingdom, this court, and this large standing army.

Reheboam refuses, and in his arrogance, promises more taxes and tribute and conscription.

So Jereboam leads the rebels, who disown and denounce the monarchy and the state. “What portion do we have in David? We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse! To your tents, O’ Israel! Look now to your own house, David!” shouted the rebels, who go their own way, found their own state, and build their own temples.

Solomon’s empire was strong, powerful, wealthy — and that strength, that power, that wealth, was its own undoing. In this, I believe we see something about ourselves as both human beings and as the people of God. We are undone by our power, which sets into motion things we cannot control, cannot fix, cannot repair, and cannot even fully comprehend. I see the story of the church in this light. American Christendom is being undone by the very power, wealth, privilege, and influence it still yearns and aches for. Indeed, Western Christendom itself is being undone by its centuries of power.

Because power undoes itself.

And, to the extent the history of Israel tells us something about what it means to be human — the condition of humanity writ small — then this is true of peoples and nations and empires. An act of faithfulness, particularly on the part of the ruler, can arrest the decline and collapse for a time, but it cannot stop the coming judgment, which was set into motion long before and rooted in the very things that made the society or state powerful and important to begin with.

It also means that sadly, those who pay the price, bear the consequences of sin, are not those who sinned. Solomon died the ruler of a powerful, wealthy state, though he’d also been promised his son would not rule that state. The Babylonians, the ultimate consequence for the sins Solomon set into motion, would not show up and defeat Judah for several centuries. Jereboam would erect golden calves in Bethel and Dan, and proclaim them Israel’s gods, but it would be some time before the Assyrians arrived and destroyed the northern kingdom.

So I am willing to accept Milbank’s and Pabst’s characterization of the West’s decline — the very moment those things arose which made Western Christendom and the secularism arising from it the power that could conquer and organize the world are also the moment the decline begins, because those very things which made the West the supreme global power are also those same things which will bring about its demise.

It’s true. It’s human. And it is inescapable and inevitable.

JUDGES Scraps Under the Table

I have decided my Monday Devotionals will take us through Judges just as they took us through Joshua. So, without further ado, a reading from the Book of Judges, the first chapter.

1 After the death of Joshua, the people of Israel inquired of the Lord, “Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them?” 2 The Lord said, “Judah shall go up; behold, I have given the land into his hand.” 3 And Judah said to Simeon his brother, “Come up with me into the territory allotted to me, that we may fight against the Canaanites. And I likewise will go with you into the territory allotted to you.” So Simeon went with him. 4 Then Judah went up and the Lord gave the Canaanites and the Perizzites into their hand, and they defeated 10,000 of them at Bezek. 5 They found Adoni-bezek at Bezek and fought against him and defeated the Canaanites and the Perizzites. 6 Adoni-bezek fled, but they pursued him and caught him and cut off his thumbs and his big toes. 7 And Adoni-bezek said, “Seventy kings with their thumbs and their big toes cut off used to pick up scraps under my table. As I have done, so God has repaid me.” And they brought him to Jerusalem, and he died there.

8 And the men of Judah fought against Jerusalem and captured it and struck it with the edge of the sword and set the city on fire. 9 And afterward the men of Judah went down to fight against the Canaanites who lived in the hill country, in the Negeb, and in the lowland. 10 And Judah went against the Canaanites who lived in Hebron (now the name of Hebron was formerly Kiriath-arba), and they defeated Sheshai and Ahiman and Talmai. (Judges 1:1-10 ESV)

So, Joshua is dead, and Israel is leaderless. There is no successor to Joshua. Not now. Not yet.

Instead, God picks the tribe of Judah, along with Simeon (because Simeon’s land is smack in the middle of Judah, and Simeon will disappear into Judah) to resume fighting, to continue to conquest.

But note here, even as God picks Judah and Simeon to lead the fighting (a collective leadership akin to the post-Stalin or post-Tito arrangements made in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia respectively, and it will face a similar end), the Lord is still doing the real fighting, is still achieving the real victories here, still delivering the Canaanites into Israel’s hands. These are not Israel’s victories. They never were, and they never will be. Nothing fundamental has changed.

Not yet.

Long-time reads of this blog (assuming there are any) will know I am not a believer in what comes around goes around, so I find the fate of Adoni-Bezek — אֲדֹֽנִי־בֶזֶק The Lord of Bezeq — intriguing. At the hands of the Israelites, he suffers the same fate he used to inflict upon those he conquered. I’m not inclined to call this justice poetic or otherwise, but he does confess — “So God has repaid me.”

But I cannot read this without also thinking of Jesus’ encounter with the gentile woman in Mark 7 (where she is described as Syropheonician) and Matthew 15 (where she is described as a Canaanite). “Yes Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (Mark 7:28) He fed those he conquered with scraps, scraps they would have a hard time picking up because he deprived them of their thumbs. And now how is conquered, thumbless, trying to pick up scraps from under the table of Israel.

I’m not sure what this allusion — if Jesus is even drawing from this image of the conquered and humiliated foreigner (being a syrophoenician in Mark makes her an outsider; being a Canaanite in Matthew makes her a subject person) scrounging under Israel’s table — does. The story we have in both Mark and Matthew tell us that while Jesus sees his ministry entirely to the “Lost sheep of Israel,” and he basically calls the woman a “dog” in both passages, the story also gives us a Jesus surprised by her faith, and in both stories, her faith in Jesus heals the woman’s daughter.

By contrast, Adoni-Bezeq seems only to grasp that “God” (אֱלֹהִים, and not The Lord יְהוָ֖ה, which is how non-Israelites tend to meet the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) has paid him back. In the form of Israel’s conquest. Even this is faith, understanding that God is the author of one’s misfortune and poetic vengeance.

Perhaps we should be surprised by his faith, and never has there been such faith in Israel, to understand that God has repaid one’s own evil and oppression for evil and oppression. (This is a self-realization, not a self-righteous third person accusation. Remember that.) To have been the doer of evil who, now thumbless and toeless, gets what has really just happened to him. Because sometimes that happens.

It will happen later in this story, as faithless Israel is itself conquered and carried into exile. Recompense for its own sin. Faith in the righteous judgment of God is still faith. Even when there is no escape past “today you will be with me in paradise.”

It’s also interesting that Judah and Simon bring this conquered king of the Negev to Jerusalem, which is still at this point a Canaanite city that Israel is still making war against. The men of Judah manage to sack and burn the city here, but they don’t secure it. It is still full of foreigners.

How Long, O’ Lord?

A reading from Habakuk, the first chapter.

1 The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw.
2 O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not hear?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?
3 Why do you make me see iniquity,
and why do you idly look at wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
4 So the law is paralyzed,
and justice never goes forth.
For the wicked surround the righteous;
so justice goes forth perverted.
(Habakkuk 1:1-4 ESV)

How long, O’ Lord?

I suspect many of us have cried this, wondered this, whispered this. Words sent into the air, to evaporate, to decay, unheard.

How long, O’ Lord?

The world is full of violence. It is full of wickedness, and it goes unpunished. There is injustice everywhere. “Why do you make me see it?” This is our world.

This was also Habakkuk’s world. He is speaking to the later kings of Judah, kings who failed to follow the law and worship God, kings who put their trust in wealth and power and in the worship of false gods.

10 And the Lord said by his servants the prophets, 11 “Because Manasseh king of Judah has committed these abominations and has done things more evil than all that the Amorites did, who were before him, and has made Judah also to sin with his idols, 12 therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Behold, I am bringing upon Jerusalem and Judah such disaster that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. 13 And I will stretch over Jerusalem the measuring line of Samaria, and the plumb line of the house of Ahab, and I will wipe Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down. (2 Kings 21:10–13 ESV)

Judgement is coming, and it’s coming because of Israel’s faithlessness. Because of Israel’s idolatry. Because of Israel’s sin. This is God’s message to Habakkuk too, as he stands and wonders how much longer he must see, must live with and bear, the violence and injustice of the world.

5 “Look among the nations, and see;
wonder and be astounded.
For I am doing a work in your days
that you would not believe if told.
6 For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans,
that bitter and hasty nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth,
to seize dwellings not their own.
7 They are dreaded and fearsome;
their justice and dignity go forth from themselves.
(Habakkuk 1:5-7 ESV)

Judgement is coming, in the form of Babylon, to to pluck up and destroy. “They all come for violence, all their faces forward. They gather captives like sand.” (Habakkuk 1:9) It is coming, and it is coming in God’s time.

To the question of “How long, O’ Lord,” God answers, soon and very soon.

It’s a judgment Habakkuk says he will wait quietly for.

But it is not a perfect justice that is coming. It is a rough justice, one of violence itself. It is justice because those who live in comfort and ease, who live and profit and get pleasure from brutality and violence, will themselves fall to the sword and will themselves become captives.

Babylon is the means, the hands doing God’s work, but Babylon is not free from that very same judgement. “Woe to him that builds a town with blood” God tells the prophet of the Chaldeans. The cup Babylon has made others drink will itself be passed to Babylon. And the Chaldeans shall be made to drink.

This is little comfort, however, when you live in the time of violence and injustice. When what you see all around will not stop. Cannot be made to stop. In which no one who wrongs you or anyone else will ever be held accountable. But perhaps knowing those who wrong you will themselves eventually fall by the sword — a sword which itself God will avenge himself upon — is enough.

… the righteous shall live by his faith. (Habakkuk 2:4)

We live by faith, in the promise of God, that this violence is not all there will be. Habakkuk did not live to see the promises of God fulfilled. But he trusted God. And waited “for the day of trouble” — knowing he would likely die waiting. Sometimes that is all we have.

It’s a terrible answer. To know that you may never be rescued, may never be redeemed. It is a terrible faith.

But the faith we have, the faith we confess, isn’t quite so hopeless. “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise,” Jesus says to the repentant thief dying with him. We believe in a redemption so real that we do not have to wait for it. We are saved, redeemed, right now, even if we can hold nothing in our hands and see nothing in our world that shows us we are redeemed.

We live, as Christ lived. We die, as Christ died. And we will rise, as Christ rose.

That is the only answer I have in the face of the violence and injustice of the world. It is the only hope I have. It is the only truth I can confess.

It is the only thing I know that’s real.

JOSHUA Heeding the Voice of a Man

1 As soon as Adoni-zedek, king of Jerusalem, heard how Joshua had captured Ai and had devoted it to destruction, doing to Ai and its king as he had done to Jericho and its king, and how the inhabitants of Gibeon had made peace with Israel and were among them, 2 he feared greatly, because Gibeon was a great city, like one of the royal cities, and because it was greater than Ai, and all its men were warriors. 3 So Adoni-zedek king of Jerusalem sent to Hoham king of Hebron, to Piram king of Jarmuth, to Japhia king of Lachish, and to Debir king of Eglon, saying, 4 “Come up to me and help me, and let us strike Gibeon. For it has made peace with Joshua and with the people of Israel.” 5 Then the five kings of the Amorites, the king of Jerusalem, the king of Hebron, the king of Jarmuth, the king of Lachish, and the king of Eglon, gathered their forces and went up with all their armies and encamped against Gibeon and made war against it.

6 And the men of Gibeon sent to Joshua at the camp in Gilgal, saying, “Do not relax your hand from your servants. Come up to us quickly and save us and help us, for all the kings of the Amorites who dwell in the hill country are gathered against us.” 7 So Joshua went up from Gilgal, he and all the people of war with him, and all the mighty men of valor. 8 And the Lord said to Joshua, “Do not fear them, for I have given them into your hands. Not a man of them shall stand before you.” 9 So Joshua came upon them suddenly, having marched up all night from Gilgal. 10 And the Lord threw them into a panic before Israel, who struck them with a great blow at Gibeon and chased them by the way of the ascent of Beth-horon and struck them as far as Azekah and Makkedah. (Joshua 10:1–10 ESV)

This is where the sun stood still, where stones fell from heaven and obliterated the fleeing army of the five Amorite kings as the birds destroyed Abraha’s army as it laid siege to Makka in Surah 90 of the Qur’an.

This is a battle Israel fought not on behalf of itself, but of its newfound Gibeonite allies — Hivites who signed a covenant with Israel, who sought Israel’s protection because they feared Israel’s God, who lied about who they were, and how far they came, in order to make that covenant with Israel.

A covenant Israel had no business making. A covenant forbidden in the Torah because the people of Gibeon are Canaanites.

Israel did not have to wage this battle, to fight this fight, as the five Amorite kings lay siege to Gibeon. Joshua did not have to take his mighty men of valor up from Gilgal to save this people who lied their way into a covenant with Israel. And God, who had forbidden even the idea of Israel cutting covenants with Canaanites, did not have to favor Israel in this battle.

But Joshua leads the army to Gibeon. And Israel’s God is there too, fighting for Israel, in a battle on behalf of a people Israel was absolutely forbidden from cutting a covenant with! God, who gave the law and said no mercy and no covenant with the Canaanites, now telling Joshua “do not fear!” as Israel prepares to do battle on behalf of dishonestly acquired Canaanite allies.

So much for the law. I’m not saying it isn’t important. But it isn’t all there is. God meets Israel in its situation — a situation that has careened completely out of control, if obeying the law were all that mattered. And God meets Israel in that situation, where Israel is, in what Israel has done, and fights for Israel.

God is fighting for Canaanites here. The very Canaanites God commanded merciless war against.

I wrote yesterday that it seems, at least here, that the words of God’s people are at least as important as the words of God given to God’s people. The author of Joshua, in speaking of the sun standing still over Gibeon that day, said it this way:

There has been no day like it before or since, when the Lord heeded the voice of a man, for the Lord fought for Israel. (Joshua 10:14)

Except that there have been many such days since. Not when the sun sat still in the sky. But when the Lord heeded the voice of a man, and fought for his people.

JOSHUA Hung On A Tree (Part 1)

23 But the king of Ai they took alive, and brought him near to Joshua.

24 When Israel had finished killing all the inhabitants of Ai in the open wilderness where they pursued them, and all of them to the very last had fallen by the edge of the sword, all Israel returned to Ai and struck it down with the edge of the sword. 25 And all who fell that day, both men and women, were 12,000, all the people of Ai. 26 But Joshua did not draw back his hand with which he stretched out the javelin until he had devoted all the inhabitants of Ai to destruction. 27 Only the livestock and the spoil of that city Israel took as their plunder, according to the word of the Lord that he commanded Joshua. 28 So Joshua burned Ai and made it forever a heap of ruins, as it is to this day. 29 And he hanged the king of Ai on a tree until evening. And at sunset Joshua commanded, and they took his body down from the tree and threw it at the entrance of the gate of the city and raised over it a great heap of stones, which stands there to this day. (Joshua 8:23–29)

So says the Lord our God:

22 “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, 23 his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance. (Deuteronomy 21:22–23 ESV)

Ai is taken by a feint, a rouse, a deception — one of many in Israelite warfare that will give the battlefield to Israel. And the city, and all that are in it — 12,000 human souls — are killed.

All but the king. Who is taken, likely abused and tortured, and “hanged on a tree.” (“Impaled on a stick” according to the JPS Tanakh, also translated that way in Deuteronomy 21) The word here, in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) is “ξύλο,” or wood. Peter will use similar language his defense of the faith in Acts when he preaches in the temple:

“We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree.” [ὃν ὑμεῖς διεχειρίσασθε κρεμάσαντες ἐπὶ ξύλου, literally “by your hands hung on a pole.”] (Acts 5:29–30)

This is used twice more in Acts. Here…

And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree [κρεμάσαντες ἐπὶ ξύλου]… (Acts 10:39)

And here…

And when they had carried out all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree [καθελόντες ἀπὸ τοῦ ξύλου] and laid him in a tomb. (Acts 13:29)

This punishment — and we will see more of it in a few days — is reserved here for the king of an enemy city. What crime this unnamed king of Ai (מֶלֶךְ הָעַי) has committed we do not know, save for maybe being the king of an enemy city.

So far as I can tell in scripture, this punishment — hanging on a tree, impaling on a stick — is reserved solely for enemy kings. For those Israel, and its commander Joshua —  יְהוֹשֻׁעַ, Ἰησοῦς, “the one who saves” — conquered, defeated, and captured in battle. It is the ultimate humiliation, this public death, this hanging, this impaling, this nailing, the ultimate expression of power and contempt, reserved for the leader of a city given into the hands of rapacious, conquering Israel.

For an enemy — our enemy — given into our hands, one God has delivered up and devoted to destruction.

JOSHUA“Just Like We Followed Moses”

10 And Joshua commanded the officers of the people, 11 “Pass through the midst of the camp and command the people, ‘Prepare your provisions, for within three days you are to pass over this Jordan to go in to take possession of the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess.’”

12 And to the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half- tribe of Manasseh Joshua said, 13 “Remember the word that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you, saying, ‘The Lord your God is providing you a place of rest and will give you this land.’ 14 Your wives, your little ones, and your livestock shall remain in the land that Moses gave you beyond the Jordan, but all the men of valor among you shall pass over armed before your brothers and shall help them, 15 until the Lord gives rest to your brothers as he has to you, and they also take possession of the land that the Lord your God is giving them. Then you shall return to the land of your possession and shall possess it, the land that Moses the servant of the Lord gave you beyond the Jordan toward the sunrise.”

16 And they answered Joshua, “All that you have commanded us we will do, and wherever you send us we will go. 17 Just as we obeyed Moses in all things, so we will obey you. Only may the Lord your God be with you, as he was with Moses! 18 Whoever rebels against your commandment and disobeys your words, whatever you command him, shall be put to death. Only be strong and courageous.” (Joshua 1:10–18 ESV)

So, in Joshua, Israel has a leader. A commander, loyal and courageous.

But does Joshua have followers?

At first glance, in this passage, he does. All of Israel, encamped on the east bank of the River Jordan, ready to cross into Canaan and do battle. He has commanded them to get ready, to prepare their weapons and their provisions — three days worth — and march into the promised land.

And Israel responds — “All that you have commanded us we will do, and wherever you send us, we will go.” Ready to follow wherever Joshua, wherever Israel’s God, leads them.

Just as we obeyed Moses, Israel tells Joshua, we will obey you.

Except … Israel disobeyed Moses a lot. Almost constantly. Grumbled and rebelled (more than once) and sought to return to comfortable lives in Egypt. Cavorted with Moabites, was so terrified of the Canaanites it got them stuck in the wilderness for another 40 years. Israel was frequently whiny and faithless and frightened. Moses constantly complained to God about “this stiff-necked people” and at least once God threatened to kill the whole lot off and start over with Moses and his (half-Midianite) descendants.

Cantankerous, wild, disobedient Israel. Promising to obey Joshua. Just as they “obeyed” [sic] Moses. Yes. This is going to go well. If Joshua is smart, he has an inkling of what’s coming. Perhaps this is why God gives Moses such a dire vision of the future in Deuteronomy 31:16–22 just before Moses dies. A vision committed to song, a song Moses teaches to Israel. Israel is commanded to obey, to follow the teaching, told again and again that by the words of the teaching, which are not empty, “you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess.” (Debt 32:47)

Yes, Israel has a leader in Joshua. A fearsome leader, one who will not flinch in the face of the task he has been given. And all Israel follows God’s own counsel when he walks in their midst, and commands him to be “strong and courageous.”

But does Joshua really have followers?

Nothing Beats Everything

Peter Leithart, who I first encountered reading his book Defending Constantine, blogs over at First Things, and I find him by far the most readable of the bloggers there. He had this to say today about the power of God to attract, even when we have nothing to show for ourselves, and I really wish I’d said this myself:

Christians today often think that the church needs to be powerful and well-ordered to attract notice. This is nothing less than unbelief.

Think of Ruth the Moabitess, who attaches herself to Naomi when Naomi has nothing (Ruth 1:15–18). Naomi went out of Israel full — with husband, two sons, everything she needed. While in Moab, she lost everything.

The Lord has made her life bitter. But precisely at that moment, when Naomi has nothing and can produce nothing, when she’s reminding Ruth that she can’t possibly produce another husband — just at that moment of utter emptiness Ruth commits herself to Naomi, and to Israel.

Naomi says, God has dealt harshly with me. He’s emptied me of everything. And Ruth says, I want your God to be my God. Somehow, mysteriously, uncannily, miraculously, Ruth finds something in a woman who has nothing. Somehow, she knows that the God of empty Naomi is a God of salvation.

By attaching herself to the empty widow, Ruth finds a place in the family tree of David and of David’s greater Son. Clinging to the widow with nothing, she becomes an agent for the restoration of everything.

Paul was not thinking only of Jesus and the early church when he said, “God has chosen the weak things of this world to shame the things which are strong” (1 Corinthians 1:26–31). That’s the story of Israel, and the story of the church.

Yeah, this. Every bit of it.

How Will Anyone Ever Know?

There’s a hymn I really, really hate.

Actually, there are several. I hate “On Eagle’s Wings” (ELW 787 for you ELCA Lutherans out there). I mean I loathe this hymn. I has an awful melody that’s impossible to sing well, and its tawdry sentimentality unsettles my bowels. I understand the lyrics are drawn from Isaiah, and some of the images from psalms, but it’s still a piece of dreck that I do not ever want to hear again. Continue reading