Spring is a time of renewal. Many ancient civilizations had stories about a god who died and then came back to life, symbolizing the cycling of the seasons. The story of the gods Baal and Mot from ancient Ugarit is an example of such a tale. Mot (whose name means death) is the ruler of the underworld and the god of sterility. Baal, the king of the gods, challenges Mot, and Mot swallows him is his gaping jaws, crushing him with his teeth. Baal's sister Anat avenges Baal's death by killing Mot, as vividly described in this passage: "With the sword she cleaves him, with fan she winnows him, with fire she burns him, with hand-mill she grinds him, in the field she sows him." Baal returns to life, and El, the great creator god, knows that Baal lives because the earth comes alive again: "The heavens rained fat, and the wadis (creeks) flowed with honey." The renewal that we see every spring reminds us that God never abandons his people. The prophet, not content to reference the cyclical nature of the seasons, gives the Jews in Babylonian exile another reason to hope: the lesson of history. Remember that the God you serve made a highway through the sea and crushed the mightiest power on earth to set you free from bondage, he tells the people. Now God will do an even greater deed; God will free you from an even more powerful enemy! We like to read a passage such as this and imagine ourselves as those whom God frees from our problems, and that is a perfectly valid reading. But do we ever see ourselves as the powerful of the world, oppressing others? When we are oppressors rather than the oppressed, this passage warns us that our downfall is sure. There is a tendency in the United States today, and in the West in general, to put a great deal of faith in military might. The U.S. often refers to itself as the world's only superpower. The next time you hear that phrase, ask yourself, what happened to the world's other superpower, the Soviet Union? The U.S.S.R. was an immensely powerful nation that ruled over 300 million people directly and guided the destinies of many other nations with an iron fist. Yet in a matter of about two years, the Soviet Union lost its empire, then it lost its very existence, in an almost entirely nonviolent overthrow. God sees the condition the world is in, and God cares about the oppressed. No nation is so strong that it can afford to ignore the plight of other people in its quest for perpetual hegemony. "I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert," says the Lord. "I will give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise." As we rejoice in a new spring (apologies to readers in the southern hemisphere!), and as we consider God's actions in history, let us commit ourselves to becoming God's chosen people and identifying with others who are as well, particularly those who suffer under the heel of poverty and oppression.
In 1931 a severe drought hit the American Midwest and the Southern Plains. Farmland that had been over-plowed and over-grazed began to lose topsoil as the wind carried it away, creating great dust storms. This region of the country became known as the Dust Bowl. By 1934, giant dust storms had spread throughout the country, and 75% of the land was affected by drought. About 100 million hectares of farmland had lost either all or most of its topsoil. On 14 April 1935, the worst sandstorm in the history of the country occurred, earning that date the name Black Sunday. Under President Franklin Roosevelt, farmers began using techniques that conserved the soil, and the government took many steps to help them in their efforts to stay afloat. By 1938, conservation efforts had led to a 65% reduction in the amount of soil blowing every year, and in 1939 the rain returned and the drought ended. This period of time, which coincided with the Great Depression, was one of the most difficult times that the nation had ever faced. People's faith in God was tested. Why doesn't God hear our prayers? many people wondered. Years after many of the Jews returned from Babylonian exile to the land of Judah, the people of the land were again suffering. Though the Persians were benign rulers for the most part, allowing the Jews to govern themselves to a large extent, the land, perhaps as a result of poor farming techniques or maybe because of local climate change, became unproductive and barren. Droughts were common, and rain was less frequent. They, too, wondered why God didn't seem to care. Today's psalm reading is a beautiful reminder that God's people have faced troubles in the past, and God has blessed them with good fortune. The psalmist invites those with faith in God to remember God's past blessings and to entreat God to turn toward the people of God and bless them once again. The psalmist is confident in God's goodness. He invites his readers to affirm: "Those who sow in tears will reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves." When your situation looks bleak, don't despair. If you've lost one job, God has another for you. If you've suffered loss, God will sustain you and restore your joy. When you experience setbacks, don't worry, for God will stay with you and guide you on your way. It's not always easy to maintain a positive attitude, but when we remember all that God has done for us in the past, it's a little bit easier. If the psalmist were writing today, perhaps he would quote the words of Commander Taggart (Tim Allen) of Galaxy Quest: "Never give up! Never surrender!" God is on your side!
When I was growing up, one of my friends used to regale me regularly with the boasts of one of the kids in his neighborhood. "I got the best bike in the store." "My parents are taking us all to Disney Land." "My dad bowled a perfect game." The joke among the other kids in the neighborhood was that this kid had bragged, "I may not be the greatest, but I'm the best you'll ever see!" Although employment counselors and business teachers will sometimes tell people to brag (but not lie) on their résumés, bragging rarely advances one's standing with other people. In fact, although a few people revel in the boasts of their heroes and heroines, most people are turned off by braggadocio. Those who brag about their spirituality or closeness to God are particularly hard to take. I've seen too many self-righteous people fall victim to one temptation or another to believe anyone claiming a special relationship with God. In fact, it's been my experience that those whose lives most closely emulate Christ's say very little about it. When Paul wrote the letter to the Philippians, he had to contend with a faction in the church that claimed a superior spirituality, apparently because they believed themselves to be more fastidious about following the requirements of the law. Paul tells his readers that if those people have reason to boast, he himself has even greater reason. His credentials as a Jew were flawless. His reputation as a zealous defender of the faith was unparalleled. Yet none of this was important, Paul said, because his own righteousness was inconsequential. All that mattered was the righteousness imparted by faith in Christ. Paul's goal in life had changed. Formerly, he wanted to be recognized as an expert in the law and a leader among the faithful. Now his goal in life was to know Christ, to understand his teachings and to emulate his life. Paul desired both the power of his resurrection and a share of his sufferings. The power I can understand, but why the suffering? Paul understood that suffering for the cause of Christ is redemptive. Profligate suffering is useless and a form of pride, but suffering for one's beliefs, or suffering to protect others, or suffering in solidarity with others who are suffering can be a powerful witness to the truth. Paul didn't want to suffer, but he understood that if God allowed Jesus to suffer, Paul would likely be asked to suffer as well for the sake of the gospel. The resurrection follows the cross, and power follows suffering. Paul ultimately suffered death at the hands of the Romans for his faith, but in suffering willingly he exhibited the power of the gospel at the same time. Don't brag about your spiritual endeavors or the number of hours you spend working for the kingdom. If others praise you, fine, and if not, God knows your heart.
For another discussion of this passage, click here.
Two weeks ago I was in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, with other members of my church, on a mission trip. While we were in the capital, we had the opportunity to visit the Cathedral of San Miguel. In the midst of a city where many people live in scarcely imaginable squalor, the white towers of the cathedral rise high into the sky. On the inside, the entire front of the sanctuary, including the altar, numerous statues, and ornate carvings, are covered in gold. The splendor of the cathedral is a far cry from the glories of St. Peter's in Rome or St. Mark's in Venice, but it still stands in stark contrast with the poverty of Tegucigalpa, the capital of the poorest country in Central America. Some would say that the luxurious décor of the cathedral is wasteful, but I disagree. I think that it is a monument to the love that the people have for God. When Mary took a bottle of expensive perfume and poured it on Jesus' feet, Judas complained that she was wasting money that could have been given to the poor. The evangelist suggests that Judas had ulterior motives in making his comment rather than genuine concern for the poor. I wonder if that isn't true of us on many occasions as well. We see an altar covered in gold and complain that it's a waste of money, then we spend the money in our pockets on souvenirs in the gift shops instead of giving some of it to the poor on the streets. We complain that the church down the street has a ridiculously expensive pipe organ, but we don't contribute to our own church's fund to buy new hymnals. We gripe about the high salaries that the leaders of a nationwide charity have, but we don't give money to other charities whose leaders don't make quite as much. We're all hypocrites, because while we complain about the spending habits of other people, we, too, could make better use of the money that God has given us. I think it is certainly possible for a church to spend its money wastefully on itself and its facilities, but I also think that the appearance of our church buildings reflects what we think of God. When we worship God in a building that looks like a giant warehouse, when the money was available to create a nicer worship atmosphere, what are we saying about God? Stained glass windows are expensive, but they can be powerful aids to worship and inspirations to those who visit the facilities. A big pipe organ is certainly not a necessity (in the worship service in the cathedral, the only instrument we had was a guitar), but in the right hands an organ can sing God's praises with beautiful melodies and harmonies. I've had powerful worship experiences in great cathedrals, and in cinder block buildings, and even outside. There are no rules for what a congregation should spend on its facilities or how elaborate the decorations should be. However, a little advice: when you hear one of your fellow church members complain about an expenditure that would enhance the worship experiences of people for years to come, remember Mary's sacrifice and Jesus' response. The beauty of a church's art and architecture, like the sonority of its music and the poetry of its liturgy, can help us turn our eyes on God, which is the beginning of worship.