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.

ADVENT 11 / Words Matter

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

You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. (Matthew 12:34 ESV)

Words matter.

It matters what we say, because what we say reflects what we think, what we feel, what we understand, what we truly believe and confess. It what we say publicly to people, about them, what we conclude. Because in our words and thoughts and feelings are the buds from which will flower and bear our fruit.

Good fruit or bad fruit. A tree is known by the fruit it bears.

So what we say matters. What we think matters. What we feel matters. What’s in our heart matters. Because from all this spring our deeds, and the deeds that matter, as Matthew notes, are simple ones, acts of kindness and mercy and in a cruel and merciless world — food for the hungry, a cup of water to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, and company for the sick, lonely, and imprisoned.

It is hard to work deeds of love and mercy when your heart is cruel and unkind. The heart will out. Thoughts and feelings will out.

Jesus says our words and our deeds will be measured. We will be judged on the basis of what we say and do.

So our words matter.

JOSHUA No Forgiveness

19 Then Joshua said to Achan, “My son, give glory to the Lord God of Israel and give praise to him. And tell me now what you have done; do not hide it from me.” 20 And Achan answered Joshua, “Truly I have sinned against the Lord God of Israel, and this is what I did: 21 when I saw among the spoil a beautiful cloak from Shinar, and 200 shekels of silver, and a bar of gold weighing 50 shekels, then I coveted them and took them. And see, they are hidden in the earth inside my tent, with the silver underneath.”

22 So Joshua sent messengers, and they ran to the tent; and behold, it was hidden in his tent with the silver underneath. 23 And they took them out of the tent and brought them to Joshua and to all the people of Israel. And they laid them down before the Lord. 24 And Joshua and all Israel with him took Achan the son of Zerah, and the silver and the cloak and the bar of gold, and his sons and daughters and his oxen and donkeys and sheep and his tent and all that he had. And they brought them up to the Valley of Achor. 25 And Joshua said, “Why did you bring trouble on us? The Lord brings trouble on you today.” And all Israel stoned him with stones. They burned them with fire and stoned them with stones. 26 And they raised over him a great heap of stones that remains to this day. Then the Lord turned from his burning anger. Therefore, to this day the name of that place is called the Valley of Achor. (Joshua 7:19–26 ESV)

What we have here, brothers and sisters, is a sinner. A real, honest-to-God sinner. Brother Achan put us all at risk by taking and keeping a coat and some money, things God wanted set aside, God wanted to keep for himself. Brother Achan took these things thinking god wouldn’t notice. That God wouldn’t see.

But God did see. And God knew. And we paid a price — our army was routed at Ai. And until we deal with this sinner, we will be defeated. We will not stand before our enemies. God has abandoned us. As God told us,

“Something proscribed is in your midst, O Israel, and you will not be able to stand up to your enemies until you have purged the proscribed from among you.” (Joshua 7:13 JPS Tanakh)

It is not enough that Brother Achan has confessed, though it is well and good that he has. Because, sisters and brothers, we know that confession is good for the soul.

However, we offer him no forgiveness. We cannot. There is none to offer. Because what he did put us all at risk. This poor decision of his, taking things that by right belong to the Lord our God, brought the judgement of God down upon us. Put our entire enterprise, our nation, at risk. For that defeat, and all the defeats that will come as long as he in our midst, we must do more than expel him.

Fire and death. For him and his family. And everything he owns.

For we must purge the sinner from our midst.

We must.

SERMON: Through Unquenchable Fire

I didn’t preach this Sunday, but if I had, I would have preached something like this.

Baptism of Our Lord / First Sunday After Epiphany (Lectionary 1, Year C)

  • Isaiah 43:1–7
  • Psalm 29
  • Acts 8:14–17
  • Luke 3:15–22

15 As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, 16 John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is 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.”

18 So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. 19 But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, 20 added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.

21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:15–22 ESV)

There’s something about threshing floors in scripture.

They aren’t just the place where the wheat and barley are brought in, where the hard physical work of pounding the stalks of grain to separate grain from chaff. They are sacred places, where the sweat of human endeavor meets the all-too capricious grace of God — grace given in soil, sunlight, rain. Or the lack of these things.

Scared places. It was a threshing floor on the far side of the River Jordan where the sons of Israel mourned their father’s death before buying him in the promised land. It was upon a threshing floor that Gideon laid a fleece and twice tested the command of God to go and save Israel. It was upon a threshing floor that Ruth, the Plucky Little Moabite Girl™, seduced her redeemer Boaz, guaranteeing that David would be born and become king of all Israel. It was upon the threshing floor of Oran the Jebusite that David and Solomon built the temple, the house where the God of Israel dwelt amidst his people.

Sacred places. Holy places.

And places of judgment. Because here, at the threshing floor, we finally know — is what we’ve done enough. In this place the work of human hands meets the all the things God gives us that are beyond our control. Do we have enough? Have we done enough? Will there be enough? Farmers — and that was most of humanity throughout most of history — understood just how subject they were to things they didn’t control and couldn’t even begin to understand. All they knew is that the stuff of life, today’s and tomorrow’s meals, and of future harvests, came from this place, and as they worked beating out the harvest they tossed clouds of sharp, itchy and swirling chaff, good for nothing except kindling.

Or to disappear in a stiff wind.

We have today John speaking of judgment. He begins this conversation with the crowds that come to him by calling them a brood of vipers and asking them, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” And yet, despite the verbal abuse, the people come to John, in anticipation and expectation. They sense, feel, know, that the time of judgment and redemption is at hand. Is John the one?

No, John says. Another is coming — he will baptize with fire, and he will work that threshing floor until the harvest is in, all of it, and there is nothing left but grain in the barn and chaff in the fire.

An unquenchable fire.

Judgment is coming upon that sacred place where the dirty, sweaty, daily work of human hands meets the overwhelming power of the divine.

It’s hard to speak of judgment. Especially a harsh judgment of separation that ends with chaff tossed into an unquenchable fire. We seek a God of love, mercy, forgiveness, and inclusion. A God who leaves the 99 to look for the lost one. A God who welcomes the wastrel son who absconded with his part of the fortune and squandered it on riotous living. A God who forgives and welcomes even penitent thieves into his kingdom.

But there can be no forgiveness, no mercy, without judgment. I’m not merely an unfortunate soul. I’m a sinner. I am lost. I am afraid. I am faithless, a coward when it counts. A betrayer. I trust too much in the work of my hands. I put my faith in gods that did not make me and cannot save me. I have been judged. Am I fruit or am I chaff? What will I become when I hit that threshing floor, when all that I am meets all that God has done and is doing? Will I bear fruit in keeping with repentance?

If I’m chaff … well, that fire of judgment awaits. Maybe it’s the eternal fires of a place we’ve taken to calling hell — some smooshing together of Hades, Gehenna, the special hell that is Tartarus, and the Lake of Fire where all of those places will be consigned. And maybe that unquenchable fire is the destruction brought about by war and conflict, in which Babylon, in which a Roman army, in which Modernity and Enlightenment, destroys the City of David, knocking down the stones of that very temple built upon a threshing floor.

If I’m fruit, it’s because Jesus was light and heat and good soil and rain. It’s because Jesus waded into the water with me. Even as John the Baptist warns the people — and tell me, which of you would go seeking redemption and salvation from a preacher who had rather pointedly called just one of many wriggling, poisonous snakes? — that another is coming with fire and the Holy Spirit, they keep coming. Into the water. It didn’t matter that John said he was unworthy. The people knew what he was giving them. They knew the word and promise of God when they heard it.

So they kept coming. Into the water. Until there were none left to be baptized. Then Jesus came, last, after “all the people.” There he was, at the banks of the River Jordan, the only one in no need of this water, of repentance, of forgiveness. And he waded in. Together, with us, in this water.

He is the beloved Son. We share in that, his anointing, that deep and intense love with the Father and the Holy Spirit. And he … he shares our judgment. He is thresher and harvest. We nail him to that cross and raise him high outside the walls of Jerusalem in anticipation of the judgment to come. He dies, not for us, but with us.

And just as he walked into that water with us, he walks through the fire of judgment with us. And he is not burned. He is not consumed.

Like a grain of wheat, Jesus is beaten out upon a threshing floor by calloused human hands covered with blood. Jesus is planted. In the ground. And he rises from the dead — new life out of death. This is the promise of God. That the judgment to come may separate the wheat from the chaff, and consign the useless bits to an unquenchable fire. But we who are with Christ need not worry. We will rise again with Jesus.

Because he has gone through water and fire with us.

Sermon — Do Your Job, Let God Worry About the Rest

I didn’t preach today, but if I had, it would have gone something like this.

Advent 3 (Year C)

  • Zephaniah 3:14–20
  • Isaiah 12:2–6
  • Philippians 4:4–7
  • Luke 3:7–18

7 He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father. ’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 9 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

10 And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” 11 And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”

15 As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, 16 John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is 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.”

18 So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. (Luke 3:7–18 ESV)

I love John the Baptist. I truly do. He’s crazy weird, this prophet of God, this man who points the way to the coming of God’s anointed savior of Israel. We don’t have the full John the Baptist weirdness here in Luke that we have in Mark and Matthew — the John who wears crude clothes and eats bugs and honey, who probably has that wild look in his eyes, the unkempt beard and the messy, matted hair that would make you want to cross to the other side of the street if you came across him one day while out shopping.

But the John we have here is no more sedate, no more respectable, than the John of Matthew and Mark. He proclaims a baptism — a dunking in water — for the forgiveness of sins, and the crowds listen to him, much like the stunned people of Nineveh listened to an exasperated Jonah.

And they came. In crowds, probably begging to go under, to know their sins had been forgiven.

So John, how does he respond? Does he smile wide and say, “Welcome to our worship service, thank you for coming!” “I’m glad you could be here?” “I’m John the baptizer, what’s the most important thing I can do for you today?”

No. He calls the people who have come into the howling wilderness to see him and be baptized by him “A brood of vipers,” and he wonders who on earth warned any of them to flee “the wrath that is to come.”

Bear good fruit, he tells them, because merely claiming Abraham as their ancestor is not going to help them. Not going to save them from the wrath that is to come. Be your own righteous, he says, because no one else’s righteousness is going to save you that day.

If you don’t bear good fruit, you’re doomed, he says.

I’m trying to think of how I’d feel if my wife and I walked into a church and the pastor there called the two of us “vipers” and wondered who told us to flee the doom that was coming? What John has here are, to put it mildly, not good customer service skills. He is not winning any points when his evaluation comes due.

And yet the crowds don’t leave. They don’t vote with their feet. They know the truth when they hear it — just an Nineveh understood God was speaking when Jonah spoke, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” — and they stand right there. In the face of being called ignorant, misguided vipers at risk of judgment for failing to bear fruit, they push back at John the cranky baptist.

“What then shall we do?”

To those who have more than they need — two tunics, enough to eat — John tells them to share. To the tax collectors, he tells them to collect no more than they are authorized to do, basically condemning them to poverty merely for doing their work. (Because tax collectors typically made their living by exacting more from people than they legally owed.) To the soldiers, he tells to them to be content with their wages, and do not extort or demand money from anyone for any reason.

We tend to theologize scripture too much, I think, drawing out giant abstractions from simple statements that were probably never meant to be foundational. One thing we theologize far too much about is the state, is government, and we have done so from Jesus’ admonition — when asked about taxes — to give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s. (It’s not clear from that passage that anything actually belongs to Caesar, aside from the coin bearing his likeness.) We have done so from Paul’s writing in Romans 13 that “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God,” and that the sword is not a threat to those who behave themselves.

And we have done so, I think, from this little passage. Because John the Baptist doesn’t condemn the soldiers, some have said, means he doesn’t condemn armies or war or any of the things that go alone with it.

It’s as if we need God’s explicit approval or condemnation to properly ascertain the order of the cosmos. So that we can properly order the world ourselves.

I don’t think scripture works that way.

Besides, John is making an interesting point here that has nothing to do with government or the good order of the world, a point that I didn’t see until recently, until I began this series of Advent sermons.

The crowds have gathered in response to John’s call to repent. To be baptized. He calls them out — who told y’all to flee the wrath, the judgment, that is to come?

In the face of that coming judgment, John tells them, bear good fruit.

In the face of that coming judgment, John tells the rich among them to share.

In the face of that coming judgment, John tell those with power and authority to limit what they take, don’t use violence, and be content with what you have.

Think about this. Judgment is coming. Doom is looming just across the horizon. It will ravish and conquer and destroy. It will reduce Jerusalem to a pile of rubble. And there will come a point in which all those in Israel who are paying attention will head for the hills to escape what’s coming.

But not today. John doesn’t tell anyone to live in fear, stockpile food, or gold, or dig a bunker. He tells them — bear good fruit.

The answer to fear is faith. The answer to uncertainty is — love your neighbor.

I want you to remember this. To consider this and understand it. We are not called to love our neighbor because it is easy, because our neighbor is lovable, because the world is kind and there are no monsters — no Romans, no Mongols, no Nazis, no Islamist terrorists — waiting to detonate bombs and invade our country. John, and Jesus, are telling us to bear good fruit, to share and be content, to not use violence, in a violent and uncertain world. A world in which we are surrounded and conquered and occupied by those who hate us and would harm us without thinking twice.

They are neighbors. Our neighbors. The people we are called to love.

The rich, who might have every reason to fear having enough, are told to share their surplus with those who do not have. The tax collectors, who make as living charging more than they are entitled to take, are told to take no more than they are authorized. Soldiers, who live on violence and extortion as part of their duties occupying and humiliating Israel, are told to stop using violence as a part of daily business and to be content with their wages.

God’s answer to fear and uncertainty here is — love. Kindness. Mercy.

That is our response too. We, who come looking to have our sins forgiven, are given a task in response — bear good fruit. Love neighbors. Share with those who do not have. Do not use violence. Be content.

This is not God’s response to a kind, gentle, decent, compassionate world. This is God’s response to a violent, brutal, chaotic, threatening and uncertain world. Love.

Love even though you will have less. Love even though you cannot make ends meet. Love even though it does you no good and gets you no benefit. Love even though no one will ever love you back.

Love. Because God loves. Because god so loved the world.

Do not worry about the wrath to come. Do not spend your time searching the skies or the news or your neighborhoods for signs. Do not worry about trying to prepare yourself to survive whatever disaster may be looming. The wrath is coming. We cannot stop it, and we likely cannot even get out its way.

This is what it means to wait for God, and to bear good fruit. Love God and love your neighbor. And let God worry about the rest. Because whatever is coming, your redemption — our redemption — has already been secured.

Sheep And Goats

Andrew Perriman over at P.OST has been thinking about the judgement of the sheep and goats as related in Matthew 25, and he has come to an interesting conclusion — one which I share:

The judgment of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31–46 is a good test case for how New Testament eschatology works. It is usually read as an account of a final universal judgment, on the assumption that we are still waiting for the Son of Man to come on the clouds of heaven at the end of history.

The implication is that at the final judgment people will be judged according to how they treated other people—“the least of these my brothers”—when they were hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, imprisoned, or in need of hospitality. It is sometimes put forward as a biblical argument for a social justice gospel. I have some sympathy for the missional end, but not for the exegetical means.

Perriman continues:

The problem with this reading is that in the context of Matthew’s Gospel “the least of these my brothers” are clearly the disciples (cf. Matt. 10:16–42), who would face great hardship and persecution as they went about their mission in the period leading up to the Jewish War against Rome. So what is the criterion for judgment? Quite specifically, it is whether or not the nations took care of the disciples. …

When the Messiah comes, he will judge the nations not according to general ethical or religious standards but according to how they have treated Israel. Nations which have not known Israel, and more importantly have not oppressed Israel, will be spared. Those nations, however, which have ruled over Israel and trodden down the seed of Jacob—Rome at the forefront—will be given up to the sword.

As I noted, I share this conclusion. “The least of these may brothers” is typically thought to refer to the poor and needy — the people we who are followers of Jesus are supposed to help. This passage is frequently used by supporters of the social gospel as a justification. And it’s a solid interpretation from power — this is, it presumes Christians are or even should be a people in a position to help others. But I’ve grown less convinced of that. I think Jesus is speaking about his disciples — about us, the church — when he says “the least of these my brothers.”

For Perriman, this is about God’s coming judgment upon the pagan world. I don’t disagree with that, but I also see a larger horizon to this as well. The implication is clear — God will judge the world according to how it treats the church.

Again, as we find ourselves living in an increasingly hostile post-Christendom world, in which the church finds itself powerless and in exile, this is one more thing we need to remember. There will be those who are not followers of Jesus who will visit us when we are sick, or in prison (yes … prison; you ready for that?), who shared basic necessities with us. Food, clothes, water. A hostile pagan secular world will also be full of people who will respond to us, the church, in our suffering with compassion and mercy.

God’s got this. The world, its peoples, will be judged by how they treat the church. However we might feel about the condition of the world, God has got it covered.

PSALMS — A Tree In The Desert

It was Martin Luther, I think, who saw the Psalms as the prayers of Christ. That’s one way of looking at them. They are, at least, a nice collection of meditations on the condition of God’s people, on God’s promises, and where those two things meet.

I’ve not read the psalms as thoroughly as I should have. I am trying to correct that, and include some of my musings on the psalms, as I contemplate, here. (This may, or may not, be in any kind of order.)

So, Psalm 1.

1 Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
2 but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.

If I am supposed to be that man, then clearly I am not blessed. Nor particularly happy, which is what this word — אָשַׁר — means. I don’t walk on the path (“stand in the way” could also mean blocking here, but the Hebrew speaks of going the same path that sinners do here) of sinners, nor sit at the seat of scoffers, but I suppose I might be called a one-man parade of wickedness, sin, and scoffing. I mean, I suppose it depends upon who you ask.

And I’m not sure I delight in the teaching of the Lord (בְּתוֹרַ֥ת יְהוָ֗ה) except maybe to see where it deviates from the actual story of scripture. I certainly don’t meditate on on it day and night.

I think this describes Jesus. He did not walk in the counsel of the wicked, or travel the paths of the sinners, or sit at the seat of the scoffers. He delighted in the teaching of the Lord, and he seem to think about that teaching a lot. Even when he wasn’t teaching himself.

And yet, Jesus did kind of walk in the counsel of the wicked, and the paths of sinners, and even sat in the seat of scoffers. I think of his arrest, his trial, his long walk to Golgotha. He walked the path of a sinner, as a sinner, but not a sinner. He walked in the counsel of the wicked, but not as one doing wickedness himself. And he sat in the seat of scoffers, but not to scoff. He was scoffed, berated, abused, and tortured. All the way to his death he was mocked and scoffed at — “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” (Mark 15:29-30)

And so yes, Jesus. Blessed.

3 He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.

I love the desert. I love the patches of life that sprout up out of nowhere in a hot, dry, inhospitable land. In places where the rains aren’t regular, tall trees can only really grown where there is regular water, from a spring, or a river fed regularly by snowmelt or rain or springs somewhere else.

The man who avoids the ways of sinners, scoffers, and the wicked, who meditates on the teaching of God, is just such a tree. In a place of scarcity, that path and that teaching are abundance, the kind of abundance that guarantees regular blossoms — and not just the flowers that appear after a heavy downpour or a monsoon, and disappear just as soon as the water is gone — and much fruit. With predictable certainty.

This is Jesus, complete even with crucifixion imagery (thanks to Deuteronomy 21:22-23, in which the man put to death by hanging on a tree — עֵץ, the word in Hebrew is the same in both passages — is “cursed by God” and his death “defiles the land”), who becomes the cross, and in becoming that cross, bears abundant fruit of new life. This death is God’s bearing fruit, yielding abundantly, it is God’s prosperity for the world.

4 The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
6 for the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.

The wicked, however, are temporary. There are here, and then gone. The waste from the harvest.

And, in fact, the wicked will not even stand (לֹא־יָקֻ֣מוּ) when the time of judgment comes. There are several images that come to my mind with this. First, the wicked will simply be blown away with the judgement comes (whatever that is). All that remain standing will be the righteous — those who do what the first two-thirds of this psalm suggest.

Second, if we speak of judgment in terms a very specific event (Daniel 12) with as resurrection, the use of the verb קוּם “to stand” may be a way to refer to the resurrection (it is in the Qur’an). Thus, the wicked are not resurrected on the judgment (מִּשְׁפָּ֑ט) but simply perish. They are ushered into non-existence.

But I think, again, of Christ. He stands at the judgment. He is the resurrection. The rest of us, like chaff, are blown away. We do not stand. We have nothing to stand upon. Our ways perish.

All we have is him who is righteous, who is happy and blessed contemplating the teaching of God. He is our path, he is our way, he is our seat in the company of those who sing praises. He is our abundance.

He is our righteousness. Our blessedness. And our life.

The Church and Modernity

Peter Berger makes an interesting point over at The National Interest:

The term “Islamophobia”, as used in current Muslim usage, refers to the negative attitudes of non-Muslims toward Muslims. This is generally a problem for Muslims living in the diaspora, who are afraid of what the non-Muslims do or might do to them. In Muslim-majority countries the fear is generally the reverse—the others are afraid of the Muslims. One can understand why Muslims are worried about anti-Muslim feelings and actions. But going on and on about Islamophobia may also be a convenient way of avoiding the central problem for Islam in the contemporary world: What has been and what should be the relation between Islam and modernity? [Emphasis in original.]

Islam is not the only creed that is dealing with this. But it is the creed where this debate over the kind of modernity (and note, it is not a dispute for or against modernity, but what role religion will play in organizing and shaping modernity) has become the most violent. Continue reading