Saturday, March 26, 2011

Devotional for the Eighteenth Day of Lent

For scoundrels are found among my people;
 they take over the goods of others.
 Like fowlers they set a trap;
 they catch human beings. (Jeremiah 5:26)

Jesus said to them, “My time has not yet come, but your time is always here. The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify against it that its works are evil.” (John 7:6-7)

But you indeed are awesome!
 Who can stand before you 
when once your anger is roused? From the heavens you uttered judgment;
 the earth feared and was still when God rose up to establish judgment,
to save all the oppressed of the earth. (Psalm 76:7-9)

A few years ago I learned that my great-grandfather, a preacher and hymn writer, authored a lengthy book titled, The White Slave Hell: Midnight in Chicago Slums. Chief among the concerns he expressed about liquor, tobacco, and gambling, was sex trafficking. He wrote of brothels in Chicago that were staffed by young women recruited from Europe, whose lives had been destroyed by forced prostitution. His call was for the church to rise up and oppose this horrible industry. The book’s copyright date is 1910.

We increasingly hear stories of human trafficking all over the world, including here in the US. People’s hearts are stirred when they hear of the suffering of people who are forced into slave labor and sexual bondage. It is even more distressing when we recognize that these practices have characterized the world for a very long time, sometimes right under the noses of religious people.

God speaks through the prophet Jeremiah and identifies those among the people of Israel who are enslaving others. The combination of power and greed produces an evil that is absent of heart or soul, and those who benefit from the practices appear to be willing to fight to protect their work. Jesus recognized that when evil is opposed, hatred is the immediate response. It is a dangerous task to oppose evil.

People who like to talk about theology will often speculate about the nature of God’s wrath. I’ve heard some comments that make God sound like Zeus, zipping around the heavens looking for someone to smite with a lightning bolt. The psalmist, however, speaks differently about God’s wrath. It is anger that results in judgment, a judgment that pursues the rescue of the oppressed.

Bono (of the band U2) is quoted as saying, “God is with the vulnerable and poor.” I think the Bible would agree with him. When God establishes justice, oppression is revealed, and God gets angry—not, apparently, angry in order to destroy, but angry in order to rescue. The God of the Bible seeks to rescue a world gone mad, and he starts with the oppressed. Maybe that’s why, when John the Baptist inquired about whether or not Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus answered:

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.” (Matthew 11:4-6)

But people did take offense, and Jesus was killed as a result. If, as we believe, the fullness of God was in Jesus (Colossians 1:19), then what happens when the ultimate messenger of rescue is killed by the dominant powers of the world? It means that evil won the day.

There is something coming, however, called resurrection. When the One who came to bring rescue to the world defeats evil and death, something awesome has broken into the world. And it is an awesomeness into which we are invited to participate.

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