Do Not Fear the King of Babylon

When we think of the conquest of Judah, and the destruction of Jerusalem, we tend to think of the exiles taken into captivity, hauled off to build a city of their own along the banks of Euphrates, to play their songs for those who will never truly appreciate those songs, and to weep and mourn and remember the loss.

But there was another remnant of Judah whose lives were also changed by the war that laid waste to Jerusalem:

9 Then Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard, carried into exile to Babylon the rest of the people who were left in the city, those who had deserted to him, and the people who remained. 10 Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard, left in the land of Judah some of the poor people who owned nothing, and gave them vineyards and fields at the same time. (Jeremiah 39:9-10 ESV)

The elites have been carried into exile. The people who keep and preserve the stories, rituals, and myths of Israel, who tend the temple, who count the coins in the treasury, who determine and manage the affairs of the court and the nation — they are gone. The city is broken and burnt, as wasteland, a shell of what it once was.

But only the elite have gone into exile. Judah is still full of Judeans, who are still God’s people, people with a language and culture and customs, and they have inherited the land from its dispossessed elite. The occupiers have doled out some of that which they have taken from the people they have conquered, and given it to the poor, to those “who owned nothing.”

It is interesting to note how this distribution of land comes about. As a result of the conquest and destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of Judah’s elite. I wonder how many of those who “owned nothing” were actually debtors who had been dispossessed, for whom this is something of a redemption as outlined in Leviticus 25. “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. For you are strangers [תוֹשָׁבִ֛ים] and sojourners [גֵרִ֧ים] with me. And in all the country that you possess, you shall allow redemption of the land,” God tells Israel through Moses in Leviticus 25:23-24.

So, this land doesn’t belong to Israel. It belongs to God. Any talk of promised land and title deed needs to remember that. And even as Babylon has taken possession, it is still God’s land. Nebuzaradan, the Babylonian captain of the guard who with his own hands packed Israel off into exile, speaks to Jeremiah with the voice and authority of God — “The Lord your [singular] God pronounced this disaster against this place. The Lord has brought it about, and has done as he said. Because you [plural] sinned against the Lord and sis not about his voice, this thing has come upon you [plural].” (Jeremiah 40:2-3) He appoints a governor, Gedaliah, the son of Ahikam, son of Shaphan, to rule the remnant in Judah.

And Gedaliah speaks to the conquered remnant of Judah: “Do not be afraid to serve the Chaldeans. Dwell in the land and serve the king of Babylon, and it shall be well with you [plural].” (Jeremiah 40:9) And many refugees return to Judah, all but the elites of Jerusalem, and “they gathered wine and summer fruits in great abundance.” (Jeremiah 40:12)

So, perhaps it makes some sense that in the wake of the disaster, the land that had belonged to the elites — who sit in carts and trudge in long caravans on their way to far-off exile — gets doled out to “the poor people who owned nothing.” They are still the people of God, these poor who own nothing, still inheritors of the promise, even as their elites have been carted off into exile.

There are two remnants here. Those in Babylon, who would found the settlement of Tel Aviv along the banks of the Euphrates, who would wonder what the promise of God meant given the disaster that transpired, and what the promise of God to dwell among his people meant given that God’s house has been reduced to rubble and is, to boot, so far away. And those is Judah, who have inherited the land, who are left to work it.

Of course, there is chaos. Gedaliah, the leader of the Judean remnant, is murdered by a member of the dispossessed royal family. And his murderers eventually flee with Jeremiah and many of the other remnant of Judah to Egypt, even after Jeremiah warns them not to. Jeremiah pronounces doom on those who flee to Egypt, and says few will return to Judah. Those who go to Egypt will be tempted by its gods, and that remnant will be consumed by sword and fire and famine.

And they are. Again, this is no abstract if-then, else-then.

But it’s worth it to remember Jeremiah’s words to the remnant in Judah, as they pondered their fates following the assassination of Gedaliah. While Israel did not heed Jeremiah’s words, it is worth remembering God’s promise to a conquered and occupied people:

10 If you will remain in this land, then I will build you up and not pull you down; I will plant you, and not pluck you up; for I relent of the disaster that I did to you. 11 Do not fear the king of Babylon, of whom you are afraid. Do not fear him, declares the Lord, for I am with you, to save you and to deliver you from his hand. 12 I will grant you mercy, that he may have mercy on you and let you remain in your own land. (Jeremiah 42:10-12 ESV)

Receiving a Babylonian Pension

I was perusing the last few chapters of Jeremiah the other day (because I do that), and noticed that the very last chapter of Jeremiah — chapter 52, the chapter after all the all the curses against the nations, especially the long two chapter judgment of Babylon — is a fairly straight forward narrative. And it ends with this description of deposed King Jehoiachin’s life in Babylonian exile:

31 And in the thirty-seventh year of the exile of Jehoiachin king of Judah, in the twelfth month, on the twenty-fifth day of the month, Evil-merodach (אֱוִ֣יל מְרֹדַךְ֩) king of Babylon, in the year that he began to reign, graciously freed Jehoiachin king of Judah and brought him out of prison. 32 And he spoke kindly to him and gave him a seat above the seats of the kings who were with him in Babylon. 33 So Jehoiachin put off his prison garments. And every day of his life he dined regularly at the king’s table, 34 and for his allowance, a regular allowance was given him by the king, according to his daily needs, until the day of his death, as long as he lived. (Jeremiah 52:31–34 ESV)

Compare that with the end of 2 Kings 25:

27 And in the thirty-seventh year of the exile of Jehoiachin king of Judah, in the twelfth month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, Evil-merodach (אֱוִיל מְרֹדַךְ֩)king of Babylon, in the year that he began to reign, graciously freed Jehoiachin king of Judah from prison. 28 And he spoke kindly to him and gave him a seat above the seats of the kings who were with him in Babylon. 29 So Jehoiachin put off his prison garments. And every day of his life he dined regularly at the king’s table, 30 and for his allowance, a regular allowance was given him by the king, according to his daily needs, as long as he lived. (2 Kings 25:27–30 ESV)

These are virtually identical passages. The last king of Judah, Zedekiah, who rebelled against Babylonian rule and brought this final destruction upon Judah and Jerusalem, suffers a particularly awful fate — both Jeremiah and 2 Kings relate that he is forced to watch the Babylonians slaughter his sons (with Jeremiah adding that the Babylonians kill all the officials of Judah), at which point the Babylonians gouge Zedekiah’s eyes out and haul him in chains back to Babylon, where he dies a miserable death in one of Nebuchadnezzar’s dungeons.

There’s no hope in this.

Which is why this last bit, about Jehoiachin finding room at Evil-merodach’s table, is so interesting. Chronicles ends with the conquest of Babylon at the hands of Persia — forecast by Jeremiah at the end of his book — and the proclamation of Cyrus that the exiles of Judah can go home to rebuild the house of God in Jerusalem. But 2 Kings and Jeremiah end with defeat and destruction. A burnt city, a destroyed temple, and a bloody and eyeless king cuffed and manacled and led to his death.

This is death. And nothing of the promise of God to restore his people can come of this. There’s nothing of David left.

But there is. Jehoiachin, king before Zedekiah, whose brief reign was marked by war and siege:

8 Jehoiachin was eighteen years old when he became king, and he reigned three months in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Nehushta the daughter of Elnathan of Jerusalem. 9 And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, according to all that his father had done. (2 Kings 24:8–9 ESV)

Jehoiachin (יְהֹויָכִין also known as Jeconiah) and his family surrender to the Babylonians, who carry them off — along with the spoils of the city — and Nebuchadnezzar makes his uncle Zedekiah king in his place.

Jehoiachin “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” He was an idolatrous king — by the point, idolatry has become the way Israel does business, so lost has the worship of the Lord become. Even with an intact temple in place in the center of the city. Jehoiachin follows the revelation of God given through Jeremiah to the people of Judah: “he who goes out and surrenders to the Chaldeans who are besieging you shall live and shall have his life as a prize of war.” (Jeremiah 21:9)

He surrenders. And saves his life. His wicked, godless, immoral life.

And yet here he is, later in life, dealing with a successor to Nebuchadnezzar, released, paroled, pensioned. He now has a place at the king’s table. And no doubt he enjoys all the king of Babylon has to offer him. I doubt he has changed his idolatrous and likely lustful and lascivious ways. After all, the king of Babylon probably lots of beautiful young women at his disposal for the use of “guests” like Jehoiachin/Jeconiah.

Jehoiachin the captive. The sinner. Not Zedekiah’s dismal, eyeless end. But not the thing of hope either.

Except … Jehoiachin shows up as Jeconiah in Matthew’s genealogy of Christ (Matthew 1:11–12). Viewed by itself, his is a sinful, dissolute, and probably somewhat pointless life. But viewed as part of the whole story, he is the bearer of the promise of God. A distant bearer of that promise, to be sure, but without Jehoiachin/Jeconiah, there will be no Joseph to be the husband of Mary and foster father to Jesus, who is the fulfillment of all of God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, David, Solomon, and to Israel through the prophets.

It’s a reminder as we view lives we consider pointless, empty, and dissolute (our own, or the lives of others), that we may not live to see the promises they will bear, the hope they will give life to. That if we live with hope, then we must live with that hope too.

LENT Never God’s Last Word

12 Then the cities of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem will go and cry to the gods to whom they make offerings, but they cannot save them in the time of their trouble. 13 For your gods have become as many as your cities, O Judah, and as many as the streets of Jerusalem are the altars you have set up to shame, altars to make offerings to Baal.

14 “Therefore do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer on their behalf, for I will not listen when they call to me in the time of their trouble. 15 What right has my beloved in my house, when she has done many vile deeds? Can even sacrificial flesh avert your doom? Can you then exult? 16 The Lord once called you ‘a green olive tree, beautiful with good fruit. ’ But with the roar of a great tempest he will set fire to it, and its branches will be consumed. 17 The Lord of hosts, who planted you, has decreed disaster against you, because of the evil that the house of Israel and the house of Judah have done, provoking me to anger by making offerings to Baal. (Jeremiah 11:12–17 ESV)

Didn’t I just say on Sunday that disaster wasn’t a punishment from God? That suffering wasn’t a sign of the judgement of God?

They aren’t. And I believe it. Jesus said so. At least in the case of the seemingly meaningless. Like the collapse of tall buildings. Or death at the hands of the state.

But in scripture, God frequently uses others — Philistines, Assyrians, Babylonians, and by allusion, Romans — as means of judgment upon Israel. For Israel’s idolatry, for its failure to care for the least in its midst — strangers, widows, orphans — for its faith in its own power, strength, and wealth. These are Israel’s sins, the sins that matter, the sins that bring judgment. And so, the Lord has decreed disaster against the house of Israel, and nothing — nothing — can avert it. Not sacrifice, not pleadings, not prayer.

Do not pray for this people. The judgment of God is coming And nothing can save them.

There are consequences for sin and faithlessness. David and Solomon’s kingdom was divided because of its faithlessness, the northern kingdom disappeared underneath an Assyrian onslaught because of its faithlessness, and now Judah — little Judah — will face a Babylonian army because of its faithlessness.

In Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, God outlines the blessings to come if Israel follows the covenant God has made with it, and the curses that will come if Israel proves faithless. But it isn’t an either/or promise. It is a both/and. “When all of these things come upon, the blessing and the curse,” God tells Israel in Deuteronomy 30, when you consider your exile and/or miserable state because you have failed to uphold the teachings of God, and you “return to the Lord your God,” then God will restore Israel.

Repentance. This is what God truly wants. This is what Jesus tells us matters. Repentance that leads to trust in God, and self-giving love of neighbor.

Sometimes it does not come in time to avert the disaster. Sometimes the disaster is needed to teach and refine and burnish. Sometimes the disaster catches us unawares, and we are gone. There are events in my life — like the ending of my first pastoral internship — which I have come to see as a judgment upon my faithlessness. God teaching me, in disaster, in dislocation, in exile, how to be faithful. Because I wasn’t. I didn’t pay attention the way I should have.

Repent. Turn your life around. Be who God has called you to be. Even as the fire consumes you.

Even as the fire consumes you.

Because judgement is never God’s last word on our sin. Resurrection is.

Room For All Who Come

Apropos of nothing in particular, these two passages of prophetic scripture are speaking very powerfully to me right now, to this ministry with abused and neglected kids I seem to have been called to.

This passage from Isaiah 54 has long resonated with me, for a couple of years now, and I feel in my bones as if this promise — because my wife and I do not have children of our own — has been made specifically to us:

1 “Sing, O barren one, who did not bear;
break forth into singing and cry aloud,
you who have not been in labor!
For the children of the desolate one will be more
than the children of her who is married,” says the Lord.
2 “Enlarge the place of your tent,
and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out;
do not hold back; lengthen your cords
and strengthen your stakes.
3 For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left,
and your offspring will possess the nations
and will people the desolate cities.
(Isaiah 54:1-3 ESV)

And this passage from Jeremiah 31 — a stunningly beautiful chapter that begins with God promising to gather the scattered people of Israel and redeem them from their sin and their exile — describes, I think, with intense beauty this ministry I find myself doing:

15 Thus says the Lord:
“A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.”
16 Thus says the Lord:
“Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears,
for there is a reward for your work,
declares the Lord,
and they shall come back from the land of the enemy.
17 There is hope for your future,
declares the Lord,
and your children shall come back to their own country.
(Jeremiah 31:15-17 ESV)

“For I will satisfy the weary soul,” God promises toward the end of the chapter, “and every languishing soul I will replenish.”

Amen. Let it be, Lord. Let it be.

SERMON – Give Us the Glory

I didn’t preach today, but if I had, it might look something like this.

SERMON Lectionary 28 / 20th Sunday After Pentecost 2015 (Year B)

  • Isaiah 53:4–12
  • Psalm 91:9–16
  • Hebrews 5:1–10
  • Mark 10:35–45

The disciples of Jesus didn’t get it. They didn’t get Jesus. They didn’t really understand who he was or why he had come or what he had come for. I’m not sure, half the time, they were really listening.

And so, in a bit that should have been part of our reading today, left out of both last week’s and this week’s gospel passages, is Jesus, telling his disciples what they are actually going to Jerusalem for:

32 And they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them. And they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. And taking the twelve again, he began to tell them what was to happen to him, 33 saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. 34 And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.” (Mark 10:32–34 ESV)

Mark is the shortest of our gospels, but this little bit has some fascinating details. Jesus walked ahead of his disciples, they were amazed, and following Jesus, they were afraid. All this before Jesus describes the awful things that are about to happen to him — betrayal, arrest, condemnation, humiliation, death.

Yes, three days later, Jesus tells his amazed and frightened disciples he will rise again. Not dead. Very, very, not dead.

And how do James and John respond to this?

Give us a place of honor at your side, in your glory.

Glory. They want glory. Literally, here, they want the attention, the honor, they want the eyes of all the world upon them, thinking those eyes are on Jesus. They want to share in the light that shines upon Jesus, their teacher and friend. They want to be part of it.

Now, maybe they think this walk to Jerusalem is about a kingdom that will look and smell and taste and be like Rome. Power that can do what it wants, when it wants, where it wants, how it wants. Power that knows little restraint upon passion or desire or avarice. Perhaps they think this kingdom is like that, and whatever power is coming to Jesus, they want a share of that.

Well, who wouldn’t?

There’s nothing in the passage, though, that suggests they think that way. I like to think sometimes that the disciples were good, earnest revolutionaries on their way to Jerusalem to seize power, ends the Roman occupation, and create what they truly believed was the kingdom of God, but honestly, we don’t know what was in their minds. Perhaps all that is happening here is callow ignorance and boasting, like Peter, who will later swear that he will never leave Jesus when the Lord described how he will be abandoned by all who follow him. Maybe they are humoring the boss, or sucking up, or maybe they think that whatever is coming, they really, truly, honestly want part of it too.

But they don’t really understand Jesus. They have no idea what they are asking for. They will know, eventually, after Jesus is dead, and risen, and ascended. They will know. But not that day. Not on that road.

Can you drink the cup that I drink? Jesus asks.

A cup. Jesus will later gather with his disciples, in what must have struck them as a weird and terrifying meal, break bread with them, and pass it around. “This is my body,” he tells them. He then takes a cup, he gives thanks, and he passes it around. “This is my blood,” he says.

Later that evening, as Jesus struggles with what is about to happen, what he has time and again told his disciples will come to pass, he will pray in the garden of Gethsemane to the Father to “remove this cup from me.”

This cup. The cup that Jesus drinks. That he shares. The cup he asks — no, he pleads — with the father to take away.

[Pause]

Jeremiah speaks, in chapter 25, of something called “the cup of the wine of wrath.” God tells the prophet to give this cup to all of the nations I am sending you — beginning with the Kingdom of Judah — and make them drink of this cup. And when they drink, God tells Jeremiah, all of these nations shall “stagger and be crazed because of the sword that I am sending among them.”

The sword. War. War without mercy, without limit, without pity is coming, and it will begin with Jerusalem, which will become a desolation and wasteland. And then it will seep outward, to Egypt, to Moab, to Edom, to the Philistines, to the rest of Israel’s neighbors, and eventually, to the north and the south, far and near, and all of the kings of the earth shall drink of this cup, ending with the King of Babylon — the Rome of Jeremiah’s time.

Then Jeremiah writes:

“Then you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Drink, be drunk and vomit, fall and rise no more, because of the sword that I am sending among you.” (Jeremiah 25:27 ESV)

The cup of the wrath of God, full to overflowing, filled with war and violence and fear and death. No one with any sense would take that cup and drink it. Not gladly. Not happily. Only in fear and trembling. And even then, not if you absolutely had to. I’d refuse it if I could.

And God knows this. Which is why he tells Jeremiah:

28 “And if they refuse to accept the cup from your hand to drink, then you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts: You must drink! 29 For behold, I begin to work disaster at the city that is called by my name, and shall you go unpunished? You shall not go unpunished, for I am summoning a sword against all the inhabitants of the earth, declares the Lord of hosts.” (Jeremiah 25:28–29 ESV)

What if this is the cup Jesus passes around the table, the cup Jesus begs the Father to take from him, so that he doesn’t have to drink it?

[Pause]

On that night when Jesus was betrayed, he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank of it.

All of them.

All of us.

When we gather at this table, when we celebrate this supper, when we eat bread and drink wine, we think of reconciliation and forgiveness, of belonging and unity, of the grace and mercy and God, a self-sacrificing gift of salvation made in fear and trembling. But what if this bread, and this cup, is also the wrath of God, poured out upon the world, swords loosed against all who dwell on earth, a judgement upon us, for our sin, our violence, our desire for wealth, and power, and glory?

I have a confession to make. I’ve never been comfortable with saying that Jesus somehow takes the wrath of God for me, so I don’t have to. That Jesus dies for me. I don’t buy it. I don’t believe it. My eyes tell me a different story, one of sin and suffering and death. Everywhere. So much. If Jesus is busy dying for us, taking wrath in our place, drinking a cup that we cannot drink because it is too much to bear, then honestly, I don’t know what to do. Because we all still suffer. We all die.

We all drink that cup. Without even thinking about it.

I think it’s better — and a great deal more correct — to say Jesus lives and suffers and dies with us, drinks this cup with us. Does it first. Is out in the lead, amazing and terrifying us at the same time. And then he rises, defeating sin and death and showing us that the wrath of God looks more like resurrection than it does a rain of fiery stones from heaven.

Or a Babylonian army besieging the city. Or Roman legions laying waste.

In taking the wrath with us, and then rising on the third day, Jesus shows us that the wrath of God is not something to fear. It will not make us fall so that we will rise no more. We are free to live without fear of that wrath. Because it cannot leave us dead and desolate.

Jesus tells John and James, “That cup that I drink you will drink and the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” They will drink — oh, will they drink. They will preach and teach and heal and raise from the dead. And like Jesus, they will suffer. And they will die.

And like Jesus, they will rise.

We will rise.

So as we gather at this table, take this cup, each and every one of you, and drink. Drink of the wrath of God, poured out upon the world. Drink also of the mercy of God, the promise of God, poured out for many. Drink of the life of God, given, so that we may live.

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)

There’s Complicity, and There’s Complicity…

Apropos of a conversation of sorts taking place in the comments section (thank you Laurie and Doug), yes, we are all complicit in the societies in which we find ourselves. To some degree, which is why I don’t go anywhere near as far as some of the radical reformers (anabaptists) in saying society or community must be morally pure or else the believer’s salvation is at stake. It’s not, and nothing from a smart reading of scripture — especially the New Testament, and exilic documents like Daniel and Esther — suggests that if you understand that Christians/Jews were a minority living in a society whose terms they could not dictate.

Remember, in Matthew 25, the sheep and the goats are distinguished by acts of kindness and love for the weak and the vulnerable, not support for policies, politicians, governments, or regimes. That sort of thing he’s been beyond control of most people anyway (even in allegedly democratic polities).

Rather, what the “Benedict Option” for me is a state of mind, a realization of who the people of God really are. Modern Christians, especially Americans, have a deep and troubling problem of not being able to distinguish the moral order of the created (or redeemed) cosmos with the actual order they find themselves in. Americans in particular have theologized the American founding, and turned it into a kind of natural theology that seeks to, or should, order and govern the world.

Or, to put it another way, Western Christians have never entirely been able to tell the church and the state apart. Not as institutions, but as spacial entities. I am both a citizen of the United States and a baptized follower of Jesus Christ. Americans, especially (but are not alone in this), have confounded and confused the two, mistaking American values for Gospel values and a certain reading of scripture as supportive of the American endeavor in ways God does not seem to support God’s people in scripture. (Remember, Israel is “chosen” but also bears the worst of God’s judgment.)

Yes, Jeremiah passes God’s instructions on to exiled Israel:

4 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:4-7 ESV)

Do good, love your neighbors, and seek the good of the place you live, and the people amongst who you live, but never forget — you are an exile, a subject, and this is not your land. It can entail participation in politics (though I think that’s a distraction), but it must always remember — we are a subject people, and that is not ours to change. To quote Ezra and Nehemiah’s prayers, “we are slaves this day.” And this describes Israel’s relationship to Persia, the nation that ended its exile, whose king, Cyrus, was God’s “anointed.”

This is also the essence of Paul’s instructions to the church in Romans 13, especially when he reminds that church that *love of neighbor* and not love or loyalty to the state is what is at stake when he writes, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”(Romans 13:8 ESV)

So, for me, the Benedict Option is a reminder that, as Christians, we cannot and should not expect that the moral order of the universe will or should reflect itself in the physical ordering of the world. And that exile, not dominion, may be the natural state of the church on this side of the eschaton. Israel wept for its exile, but lived in exile nonetheless, and ever after, Israel’s sovereignty was constrained.

It means remembering that America is just another contingent part of the natural order, an accident of history which has come and will, at some point, go. Because all things pass away. It is the church — and America is most definitely NOT the church — that will remain. To the extent that too many American Christians have deeply confused the two, struggling more for an American order rather than to follow Christ as Christ called us to follow, well, this is why we need something like the Benedict Option.

It is to remember what Paul wrote to the church in Philippi. That was are, in the end, citizens not of any earthly polity, but of a heavenly one.

17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (Philippians 3:17-21 ESV)

Fiddling (or Strumming the Ukulele) While Christendom Burns

A couple of short responses, because I’m busy job hunting and working on music today. Yes, I am literally strumming my ukulele while Christendom burns.

Why celebrate the demise of Christendom? Well, the reasoning is complex for me.

First, remember — I was tossed out of a Christendom church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, for being too much of a sinner. I have, to one extent or another, been an outsider all of my life. Someone who was not allowed to belong. Or who was deliberately and brutally excluded. Now, I’ve long blamed that on America, but I’ll be blunt — I hold the church in America somewhat responsible for that as well.

Someone once noted, in a biography of Joseph Stalin, that the reason so many Jews were revolutionaries in late 19th and early 20th century Russia was because Jewish life was so very precarious in late 19th century Russia. Jews could not be vested in order and stability, and those who didn’t leave (and even many who did) were drawn to revolutionary ideologies which sought to topple the whole system that restricted where they could live and subject them to regular violence. (I’ve always thought central to neoconservative thinking on tyranny was the Jewish experience in Russia as a kind-of cultural memory.) For many, bolshevism was intended to bring about a better world, but it would do so by demolishing the existing one.

And I get the appeal. The world has not been particularly kind to me (even as a great many people in it have been). Institutions have not been kind. The church, for all the kindness and belonging I have found in it, has not been kind. It has not welcomed me very well nor accepted me. Late American Christendom has no place for me. To ask me, then, to support an order that deliberately excludes me is asking a lot. It’s asking a great deal of me to reach out beyond myself, to see a good I can only tangentially experience, or be a part of. It’s basically telling me: I have to support and even love the order that beats the crap out of me and leaves me half-dead by the side of the road. Because the alternative could be worse.

Yes, I get the alternatives could be worse. Many of those old bolsheviks, if they didn’t die in the Revolution or the Civil War, perished at Stalin’s hands in the dank cellars of the Lubyanka. Post-Christian modernity will eventually come to demonstrate just how cruel it can be.

But to ask me to love Christendom … is asking too much. I cannot know if there would have been a place for me in a more confident Christendom of another era. I think so, just like there was a place for my very opinionated and abrasive Grandpa Featherstone as a senior civil servant in the middle of last century. (He would not survive government service, or maybe any other institutional life, today.) But there clearly is no place for me today. It’s hard, then, as one deliberately excluded, to feel all warm and fuzzy because the thing which deliberately excluded me is busy collapsing.

I suppose that makes me a bit of nihilist.

I try to balance this with my sense of call, and knowing what we are called to — to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, knowing that God loves us. In some ways, this is going to be harder in post-Christendom, and the church structures which empowered and enabled that kind of care and love will be restricted or simply go out of business. It will make it harder to materially care for the weak, the vulnerable, and the abandoned.

But I’m Jeremiah here. There’s no saving this church from collapse, from defeat, from conquest, from exile. I truly believe that what is happening to the church right now is something of God’s judgement on us — on our faithlessness, on our idolatry (we eagerly and happily worshiped the gods of modernity too), on our lack of hospitality to strangers, and on our unwillingness to truly care for the weak, the vulnerable, and the abandoned. We squandered our inheritance long before Nebuchadnezzar and his soldiers showed up.

I don’t think I’m so much celebrating the collapse as simply stating the obvious — there’s no defending Jerusalem from the armies of Babylon besieging us. To save yourself, you need to accept defeat, to accept exile, and trust in God. Because this journey is not about what we do, but it is about what God does. And God is faithful. Christ is faithful. We are church not because we are kind and decent people, but because God has called us. We shall be redeemed. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not next year, maybe not for many decades or even centuries hence. But we, as God’s people, will be redeemed.

Until then, we need confess our faith — Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again — and live, and love our neighbors, as if that is the only thing that matters. Because it is. This brave new world will break, brutalize, and discard a great many people. They are who we need to love.