February is Black History Month in the U.S., a month in which we remember the struggles, suffering, accomplishments, and triumph of African Americans throughout history. Dr. Charles Drew developed new techniques for blood storage and led the Plasma for Britain project during World War II. George Washington Carver, who is famous for the many products he made from peanuts, also developed drugs to help combat glaucoma. Matthew Henson was part of the first successful expedition to the North Pole in 1909. Ralph J. Bunche won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950 for mediating the truce between Israel and the Arabs. 2008 may see the first African American on a major party ticket for the presidency, depending on how Barack Obama does in the primaries. It is unconscionable that Black Americans were looked down on for so long by White Americans, an attitude that has not yet fully disappeared from the American scene. It is also unfortunate that so few Whites, or others outside the African American community, pay much attention to Black History Month. Black History Month is not just Black history, it is American history. It is your history and mine, regardless of whether we're Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, or anything else. According to Deuteronomy, when the Israelites entered the promised land, they were instructed to tell the history of their ancestors. "My father was a wandering Aramean," they would begin, and they would recite the history of their ancestors' travel to a new land, the oppression they found there, the deliverance that God brought about, and the blessings they were now receiving. If we have blessings today, we should certainly thank God for intervening on our behalf. We should also thank our ancestors who have gone before us, preparing the way for the life we now lead. Moreover, we should also thank the ancestors of others, whose sacrifices, voluntary or otherwise, made our ancestors' lives possible. The land we live in was, to a large extent, built on the backs of slaves. If we prosper today, we should think of all those who came before, Black or White, slave or free, male or female, and thank God for them. At the same time, we must resolve never to allow the chains of injustice to enslave another group of people, not in our prisons, which hold huge numbers of users of illegal drugs without a record of violence; not in our factories and fields, where employers exploit undocumented workers in order to line their own pockets; and not in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where prisoners are being held without the right to consult an attorney, the right to receive visits from the Red Cross, or the right to habeas corpus. Black History month should remind all of us that unjust chains were meant to be broken.
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 (first published 29 February 2004)
I haven't seen The Passion of the Christ yet, although I have tickets to see it next week, but I've read and listened to several reviews of the movie. Some reviewers really like the movie, and others really dislike it, but all agree that it contains some of the most graphic violence ever shown on screen. As I read this psalm, I'm reminded of the story of the temptation of Jesus in the gospels (see today's Gospel reading), where Satan quotes Psalm 91:11-12 to Jesus: "For he will give his angels charge of you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone." As Passion reminds us, God's promise to protect the faithful from harm is not always fulfilled. Why not? If I "abide in the shadow of the Almighty," why shouldn't I be able to count on God's deliverance from the worst of life's storms? Maybe the example of Jesus is just an aberration. After all, he was destined from birth to sacrifice himself on the cross for the sins of the world, so that subsequent believers wouldn't ever have anything really bad happen to them, right? This seems to be the opinion of many who buy into the dispensationalist view of the end times that is promoted by such books as The Late Great Planet Earth and the Left Behind series. Faithful believers are raptured from the earth just before the beginning of the Great Tribulation, so they don't have to undergo the worst suffering the world has ever seen. For years I've wondered why some people would think that God would spare them from suffering when God didn't spare Jesus from the same fate, not to mention Paul, Peter, James, most of the other disciples, early martyrs such as Justin and Polycarp, Joan of Arc, Jan Hus, and many others. Maybe it's just wishful thinking. None of us wants to contemplate enduring the kind of suffering that Jesus and countless of his followers have gone through. Or maybe it's a refusal to face reality. Although we know that people even today suffer because of their beliefs (non-Christians as well as Christians), we pretend that it isn't real. We make up a theology that gives us the illusion that suffering doesn't exist, at least not for us. We need to remember the life of Jim Elliot, a modern-day missionary and martyr. Elliot went to Ecuador at the age of 25 to bring the gospel to an unreached people group, the Auca Indians. Four years later he and four other missionaries were killed by a group of the people Elliot was trying to serve. Two years later his wife Elisabeth wrote a book describing her husband's life, ministry, and martyrdom. The book describes Elliot's trust in God and his certainty that he was doing what God wanted him to do. Nowhere is there a hint that he expected to escape suffering just because he was doing the work of God. The name of the book was taken from this psalm: In the Shadow of the Almighty. It takes faith to believe in a God who rescues you from every danger. It takes more faith to believe in a God who goes through the fires of life with you. I think it takes even more faith than that to watch someone you love suffer, while you pray for a deliverance that you know may never come. God grant us the grace to live in your shadow through both deliverance and suffering.
Romans 10:8b-13 (first published 29 February 2004)
In contrasting the righteousness that comes from the law with that that comes from faith, Paul draws on traditional Jewish exegetical strategies to interpret Deuteronomy 30:12-14 for his readers. In the context of Deuteronomy, Moses is telling the people that the commands that God is giving them are not onerous or hard to grasp. There is no need ascend to heaven or cross the sea to find out what God wants: the answer is as near as one's own heart and mouth. The people have heard the command of God, and they have repeated it to one another. Now it is incumbent upon them to observe it. Paul takes these words that originally referred to the Mosaic law and applies them instead to faith in Jesus Christ. There is no need, he says, to ascend into heaven (a reference to Christ's presence with God), nor is there a need to descend into the realm of the dead (a reference to Christ's death). One need not look for Christ in heaven above or in hell below, for he is as near as the breath we breathe. The Deuteronomy references to the mouth and heart are transformed into admonitions to confess with the mouth and believe in the heart. Why does Paul take a passage that referred quite positively to the Mosaic law and the ease with which people could know it and follow it and use it to suggest that the Mosaic law was hard to follow and had been supplanted by a message of simple faith? I believe the answer is legalism. In the minds of some of Paul's contemporaries--and probably Paul himself at one time in his life--the law was something that had to be followed meticulously and by dint of great effort. No longer was it presented as something joyous and life-giving. Now it was a book of rules that had to be followed scrupulously, on pain of God's disfavor. In that context, Paul was right to remind his readers that God's salvation is there for everyone to receive, not just those who have the time and resources to dedicate their lives to its pursuit through ritual and study. As the law was originally intended, so the gospel was now for everyone, Jew and Gentile alike. Unfortunately, some Christian groups today have followed the same path of the early Paul and have transformed the Christian gospel into a set of hard and fast doctrines and rules that must be assented to and followed in order to attain salvation. Although fundamentalists claim to preach a message of salvation by faith, they have redefined faith to include intellectual assent to a set of doctrines that is not only unbiblical, they are also unnecessary. Salvation today does not depend on acceptance of biblical inerrancy. How could such a doctrine be in the Bible anyway? Nor does a proper relationship with God require that a person adopt a particular stance on doctrines such as the virgin birth or the nature of the atoning death of Jesus, much less such peripheral doctrines as the age of the earth, the origin of the universe, or the interpretation of the fossil record. Salvation today is just as simple as it was in the days of Paul. Christians who confess that Jesus is Lord and believe in God's resurrecting power have a relationship with God, regardless of their opinions about other doctrines. Faith is just the beginning of a life of following God, of course, for obedience to God's guidance is required of all believers. Although Paul does not address this issue here, since he is drawing a contrast between the religion of legalism and the religion of faith, there is an interesting reading in the Greek text of Deuteronomy that differs from the Hebrew. Whereas the Hebrew says in Deuteronomy 30:14, "The word is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe," the Septuagint reads, "The word is in your mouth and in your heart and in your hands to observe it." Salvation is accessible to all who take God into their hearts and speak the words of God with their lips, but until we also work the works of God with our hands, our salvation is not complete.
Luke 4:1-13 (first published 29 February 2004)
In chapter seventeen of the book The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis describes Jesus' temptation in the desert after his baptism by John. The reason for Jesus' sojourn in the desert, in the novel, is that he wants to discover the path that God wants him to take. He knows that God has called him to speak to the people, but he is unsure what to say. Should he adopt John's call to the people to repent? That is exactly what John urges him to do, but Jesus does not think that he should adopt John's message, for he believes that God has a different path for him. As he is about to enter the desert, he encounters his disciple and friend Judas. Judas longs for God to deliver Israel from the Romans, and he believes that God has called Jesus to be his instrument of salvation. He offers to accompany Jesus into the desert, but Jesus tells him, "The desert is not big enough for two. Go back." Theologians have speculated for centuries on the significance of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness and on the importance of the three temptations that he faces there. There are doubtless many ways to interpret this passage, but one key to reading Luke's account of the temptation (which differs from Matthew's in the order of the second and third temptations, as well as in several details) is to remember that the temptations Jesus faces are temptations tailored specifically for Jesus, not for anyone else. That the temptations Jesus faces are unique is suggested by the first one: the challenge to turn a stone into bread. Though I've sometimes wanted to turn inanimate objects into edible food, I've never actually been tempted to do so, because I don't have the ability to do it. This is what Kazantzakis implies when he has Jesus say, "The desert is not big enough for two." My temptations will not be yours, and yours will not be mine. We must each face our own temptations and conquer our own demons. In the second temptation, Jesus sees a vision of all the kingdoms of the world. All he has to do to gain authority over all of them is to worship the devil. I've had bosses who from time to time reminded me of the devil, and I've also had the experience of working for myself, and I much prefer the latter. The problem with working for someone else is that you have to adopt their vision as your own. In many cases that's a perfectly reasonable thing to do, but that wasn't true for Jesus. He knew what his agenda was, and he knew that he couldn't accomplish it by following the dictates of someone else. In particular, he knew that he couldn't give another the worship that was only appropriate for God. In the third temptation, the devil, quoting Psalm 91, tells Jesus that he could make a tremendous impression on the people by leaping from the pinnacle of the temple and floating gently to the ground, supported by angels. Jesus replies that the prohibition against testing God is more important than the statement of the psalm that God will protect his people. Jesus is clearly stating that certain principles are more important than others. Obeying God is a more universal command than obeying human authorities. Seeking peace is more important than the law of retribution. Loving your neighbor trumps the necessity of pointing out their sins and weaknesses. When faced with the opportunity to attract attention to himself but disobey God, Jesus chooses to obey God. Maybe Jesus' ministry would have reached more people had he succumbed to the devil's temptations, but integrity was more important than fame. What temptations are you facing in your life? They're not the same as those your neighbors face, and they must be faced with the resources you have. Temptation conquered can lead to spiritual growth, as long as pride doesn't interfere. Temptation succumbed to can also lead to spiritual growth, following repentance. Until we are tempted, we don't know what we're capable of enduring for God. Like Jesus, we can conquer our temptations if we'll learn to rely on God's power in our lives.
"Isn't love enough?" [Jesus] asked.
"No," answered the Baptist angrily. "The tree is rotten. God called to me and gave me the ax, which I then placed at the roots of the tree. I did my duty. Now you do yours: take the ax and strike!"
"If I were a fire, I would burn; if I were a woodcutter, I would strike. But I am a heart, and I love."