What a Real Prophet Does

Andrew Perriman, who both says too much and too little, has this to say about the role of the church and social transformation and what it truly means to be prophetic:

The Law of Moses mandated for Israel distinctive patterns of righteous and just behaviour. It was a primary responsibility of judges and kings and other leaders—right down to the chief priests and elders of Jesus’ day—to uphold righteousness and justice. And when things got out of kilter, as they inevitably did, the prophets drew attention to the fact, called Israel to repentance, and warned of national disaster if those responsible failed to put their house in order.

But it can hardly be claimed that the Jews programmatically engaged in—or were encouraged to engage in—social activism outside of Israel. The most that can be said, I think, is that if they had kept the commandments and walked in the ways of the Lord, they would have modelled righteousness and justice for the surrounding nations.

More:

Would we call John the Baptist a social activist? He tells the crowds to share their clothing and food. He tells the tax collectors not to take more than is permitted. He tells soldiers not to “extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusations” (Lk. 3:10-14). But this is a call to internal reform, and in any case the basic message is that the axe is already laid to the root of the fruitless trees, that the Lord is coming with his winnowing fork in his hand “to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (3:17).

Jesus’ mission to Israel had nothing to do with social transformation. It was too late for that. The “kingdom” message was that unjust Israel was facing destruction. John had been the last of the prophet-servants sent to the mismanaged vineyard of Israel in search of the fruit of righteousness, and the wicked tenants had killed him. Now God was sending his Son, and they would kill him too. What would the owner of the vineyard do? The chief priests and the elders of the people knew the answer: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons” (Matt. 21:41).

In short, we are not called to change the world because by the time a prophetic call is made, it is too late. Reform won’t matter. Even the example Perriman cites of Daniel 4, in which Daniel counsels Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon:

[B]reak off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed, that there may perhaps be a lengthening of your prosperity. (Daniel 4:27 ESV)

That line, “showing mercy to the oppressed” (literally “be gracious to the humble ones”) is interesting, because as king, the oppressed Nebuchadnezzar would deal with would be people he oppressed himself, as king, as the leader of a government that ruled in his name.

But all Daniel is saying is that maybe, just maybe, God might relent for a season if you change your ways. Temporarily. Maybe.

Because the die is cast. Babylon is done. As was Israel and Judah even before they were formed, before the days Solomon took to bedding and keeping non-Israelite wives and lovers. A good king, like Josiah, might delay the rot a bit, postpone the end, but what is clear in both New and Old Testaments is that the end is coming. Because the end is judgment upon God’s people, and then as Perriman later notes, the pagan empire. Babylon/Empire is the tool of judgment upon Israel/Church, but then God enacts a stern vengeance/justice upon the Empire. It too will be subject to God.

To be a prophet, then, is not to say: The end is coming, change your ways that you may avert the end. Rather, it is to say: the end is coming, change your lives that you may live and survive the end.

I have danced around this for a couple of years now, but I think this understanding of our story as Israel/Church is the only understanding that works. It is why I think a Benedict Option ungrounded in the biblical story of Israel/Church, that understand prophetic judgment even as metaphor, will fail to appreciate the real scope of what is happening to us.

What is happening?

Modernity and enlightenment are Babylon and Rome, the beguiling means God is using to judge the church. Not America. Not Europe. But the church. The people of God. We are being called to change our lives not to save the world, but to save ourselves, to accept defeat and conquest and exile, to be a remnant God will use to resurrect his people in the future. In turn, as the powers of the world are the instruments of God’s judgment upon a faithless and idolatrous church, upon one too comfortable with and in Empire, God will judge the powers of the world. They have already been found wanting.

ADVENT 5 / Fire

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


… when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning. (Isaiah 4:4 ESV)

Fire destroys. It doesn’t usually clean.

Unless you consider that fire can be used to clear away that which is unneeded, unwanted, unsightly, embarrassing, inconvenient, and downright troublesome. Think Naomi Klein’s “disaster capitalism,” which never lets a good crisis go to waste. The upending of the meagre lives of the poor in some kind of calamity — tsunami or hurricane (there we go with the water again) or financial crisis — always manages to be the means by which someone who is rich becomes richer, one more tool the powerful use to get and keep their way.

Fire destroys. It lays waste. And what is left behind … is rebuilt upon. By those who have means. To the exclusion of those who don’t.

Sometimes the fire is set on purpose.

There is also the fire of revenge. For many years, I wanted nothing more than to douse the whole wide world with something flammable and set it alight. I wanted to watch it, and everyone in it, burn. Down to nothing. I wanted to put an end to humanity and my misery and my loneliness and the cruelty of the world. I was angry, enraged at a world that had let me suffer, had made me suffer, at a world that seemed to exist somewhere between a callous indifference and calling all it had done to me righteousness.

Give me a match. Because fire destroys.

The people of God … have sinned. We have worshipped that which has not saved us, and cannot save us. We have sacrificed the bodies, spilled the blood, valued as nothing, those whom God cherishes, those whom God has not asked us to sacrifice — orphans, widows, the weak, strangers, foreigners. We have been indifferent to their fate, to what we have done to them, called our cruelty righteousness so we can enjoy our ease. And God tells us … payment is coming, in the form of a terrible fire which will consume everything. A divine vengeance which will burn to the ground all that we have made with our hands, all we venerate, all we value.

It will destroy. Little will be left. It will clean. And in that fire, we who survive … shall be made right.

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.

The Lectionary This Week – Fill Your Lamps

Where I contemplate on the Sunday scripture readings according to the Revised Common Lectionary.

Lectionary 32, 09 November 2014 (Year A)

  • Amos 5:18-24
  • Psalm 70
  • 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
  • Matthew 25:1-13

I’m going to a little something different as I consider these lectionary readings this week.

The last time these readings rolled around was 2011. Kurt Hendel, a professor of church history and Lutheran confessions at LSTC, asked me to play a song I’d played earlier in the semester, “No People, No Pity,” one of two I wrote on prophetic judgment and promise for the confirmation kids at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Somonauk, Illinois, for a sermon he was set to preach in the seminary chapel the week of these readings.

I was not keen on playing the same song twice in one semester, so I told Dr. Hendel I’d write him a pair of songs based on the Amos reading and the Matthew reading. It wasn’t a commission as such, but what came out of this was “Fill Your Lamps” and “Let Justice Roll Down.” And writing these songs about this bit of the lectionary was actually quite eye opening.

First, the readings. I’ll start with Amos:

18 Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why would you have the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, and not light,
19 as if a man fled from a lion,
and a bear met him,
or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall,
and a serpent bit him.
20 Is not the day of the Lord darkness, and not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?
21 “I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,
I will not look upon them.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
(Amos 5:18-24 ESV)

What we have hear is the passing of judgment on the Kingdom of Judah, following the long indictment of Israel and Judah (which themselves come after an indictment and judgement of Israel’s neighbors). It proclaims the “Day of the Lord,” which apparently some in Judah are eagerly awaiting. (Rapture, anyone?) Amos says that day will not go very well for those who actually want it to come. It will be a dark and frightful day, full of dread, and pain, and suffering, and death.

And now, the Matthew reading, which at first glance struck me as utterly unrelated:

1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him. ’ 7 Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. 8 And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out. ’ 9 But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves. ’ 10 And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. 11 Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us. ’ 12 But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you. ’ 13 Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. (Matthew 25:1-13 ESV)

Again, this is a judgment text, in a long line of Matthew judgment texts. And for Matthew, for the community Matthew speaks to (and for), escaping the coming judgment is hugely important. That some will be swept up in that judgment, and not ready for it, is also crucial to Matthew. I have written at length about judgment previously, and so I will set that aside today.

When I looked at these two texts, and considered how to make songs out of them, the thing that struck me most was how to balance them against each other, and how to make sense of them in terms of each other. The editors of the Revised Common Lectionary didn’t just simply pull them out of hat, or matched them together on a whim. There was a reason. To quote Craig Satterlee, “They may have actually known what they were doing.”

The link, I decided, was in the judgement of the deeds in question. In the Amos reading, God utterly rejects Israel’s worship, its sacrifices, its praises. They are meaningless, and God has promised to flood Israel and destroy it rather than heed worship and praises that were empty and pointless. The justice God plans is an annihilating justice, and it reminded me of desert storms that seemed to come out of nowhere, dump an intense and overwhelming amount of rain, and then as quickly as they came, simply move on or disappear. Gullies become temporary — and frequently dangerous — temporary rivers.

“Let Justice Roll Down” is a fairly straightforward rewording of the text, with my experience of desert rain (From New Mexico, California, and Saudi Arabia) informing how I understand the flood of justice that Amos is calling down. I’m not a “social justice” Christian, and I frequently find social justice talk smug and self-righteous, as most of those talk that talk seem to me to assume they are always on right side (or will be) of God’s justice. Amos here is reminding all who listen that God’s justice is overwhelming and annihilating — it destroys all in its path (Noah’s flood, for example).

We experience that annihilating justice as mercy in baptism. Because in baptism, we are put to death, we are annihilated, and then raised again. There is the prophetic promise of new life that Amos leaves to the last few verses of his long and somewhat frightening declaration of judgment. And at Kurt Hendel’s suggestion, I altered the repetition of the last verse to reflect the fact that even though these quick desert storms wash away and destroy, they also provide the necessary water for the plants of the desert to bloom. Desert plants bloom quickly and furiously after a even a short rain. New birth, new life, coming from the annihilating flood.

And now that I look at the passage, the desert comparison is even more apt, because Amos also wants “an ever-flowing stream.” After washing away the old, this new water will not be subject to the vagaries of the monsoon cycle, but rather, will bubble up and provide water so a garden can grow and thrive where once only parched plants and the hardiest of critters struggled to survive in the harshest of conditions.

I don’t remember if I played that revised second refrain in chapel or not when Dr. Hendel preached it. It wasn’t part of my original lyrics, and I’ve scrawled them at the bottom of the lyric page.

Okay, but how does this relate to the Matthew reading? I mean, aside from judgment, which I’m not really dealing with today? I thought a lot about the relationship between the actions condemned in Amos and approved of in Matthew. What might be the difference? God condemns empty worship for the sake of empty worship in Amos. But why might those who fill their lamps be the young women ready to meet the bridegroom here?

This is where I got creative with “Fill Your Lamps.” I’m going to post the lyrics to the son as well, and I hope you can see what I’ve done.

Fill your lamps with the oil of gladness
Fill your lamps with the oil of kindness
Keep your lamps full, wait for the Lord to come

Fill your lamps with the oil of healing
Fill your lamps with the oil of blessing
Keep your lamps full, wait for the Lord to come

Fill your lamps with the oil of patience
Fill your lamps with the oil of celebration
Wait for the Lord to come

Dark midnight’s coming, yet the Spirit pours
Abundant oil to anoint and to restore

Fill your lamps with the oil of friendship
Fill your lamps with the oil of worship
Keep your lamps full, wait for the Lord to come

Fill your lamps with the oil of compassion
Fill your lamps with love in action
Keep your lamps full, wait for the Lord to come

Fill your lamps with the oil of mercy
Fill your lamps with the oil of hospitality
Wait for the Lord to come

Behold, it’s midnight, and the bridegroom’s here!
In our darkest moment God’s light appears!

I made the oil, and the filling of the lamps, a metaphor for the commands Jesus gives in the Sermon on the Mount, and elsewhere in Matthew, on how we should live together as the people of God. In effect, we fill our lamps and “wait for the Lord to come” by living as Jesus has called us to live — with self-giving love, compassion, mercy, and kindness. Our lives together as a community of people, the love we show to each other and to the world, is itself a form of waiting for the Lord. Yes, the implication is some will be ready and some will not. But that message is central to Matthew — some will, in fact, be ready, and some will not. Judgment is coming, the master is coming, the bridegroom is coming. We don’t know when. So be ready.

The main difference I saw when I wrote these two songs — Amos condemns acts aimed at solely pleasing God for the sake of pleasing God. By “filling the oil” with the content of the beatitudes here, Jesus is encouraging acts intended not to please God but to show love to neighbor by noting that such acts will also please God.

This song is an exhortation, and not a condemnation. But if I want to go that route, then something this approach to the reading suggests is that this Christian way of living together is not a commodity, not something that can be bought or bartered or traded. It cannot be given away either. It must be carefully cultivated, and it cannot simply be acquired at a moment’s notice. (And even the virgins who are ready fall asleep, and are awoken by the bridegroom.) Kindness. Mercy. Generosity. Love. These are not easy things. They are hard, and hard to live in an unkind and violent world.

Now, perhaps I am doing a tremendous injustice to the passage by making the oil (and the lamps) so metaphorical. I don’t know. I do know I like “Fill Your Lamps,” and it was one of my more inspired melodies. Because I don’t actually write musical notation, it took concerted effort to remember this melody (that happens a lot), some deliberate dwelling on it before it got properly lodged in that part of my memory that contains song melodies.

And so, I will be playing this song this coming Sunday at Grace Lutheran Church in Westchester, Illinois. Come out and listen, and maybe even sing it with me!