Monday, March 28, 2011

Devotional for the Twentieth Day of Lent

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.” (Jeremiah 7:3-4)

Do not remember against us the iniquities of our ancestors;
 let your compassion come speedily to meet us,
 for we are brought very low. Help us, O God of our salvation,
 for the glory of your name;
 deliver us, and forgive our sins,
 for your name’s sake. (Psalm 79:8-9)

Yet many in the crowd believed in him and were saying, “When the Messiah comes, will he do more signs than this man has done?” The Pharisees heard the crowd muttering such things about him, and the chief priests and Pharisees sent temple police to arrest him. (John 7:31-32)

Institutions seem to take on lives of their own. People become committed followers of professional sports teams (often over multiple generations), even though the players routinely change, and most aren’t from the team’s hometown anyway. It is the institution of the team that captures the fans’ loyalty. A business might dominate the spotlight of an industry for decades, and people point to the long-term work that it has done. Yet, the personnel of that company and its structures have routinely changed over the years. Institutions appear to become bigger and more alive than the people who inhabit them. They can also create a loyalty that is focused on a concept rather than reality.

The ancient people of Israel allowed the institution of their temple to provide evidence of their faithfulness to God. Even though the prophet Jeremiah spoke to them of their duplicity, they would point to the institution of the temple and claim that they were acting justly when, in fact, they were oppressing the poor and worshipping idols. Jeremiah pointed to a disaster yet to come, one that would come as a result of Israel’s defiance.

The psalmist speaks in the midst of the people after that disaster had arrived. Israel chose to play politics by the ways of the rest of the world, and they lost at that game. Jerusalem was destroyed, and the people hauled off into exile. In their new existence, Israel cried out for a rescue and for forgiveness.

When Jesus came along, claiming to be the one sent by God to bring rescue and forgiveness, he was not received well by the ruling religious elite. Jesus didn’t speak of defeating foreign invaders or making Israel a dominant world power, but instead spoke of truly being God’s people, ones who lived out the implications of forgiveness and love in the midst of their own exile. His words challenged their control and their sense of being right. After all, they had evidence: The institution of Judaism was still alive, and their temple and holy city, Jerusalem, were in tact (even though they were now under the boot heel of Rome). Their best solution to the problem of Jesus was to try to arrest him.

When it comes to God, it is easy for us to get institutional. We find comfort in our affiliation with a particular church or denomination, or we lock ourselves into neat certainties with unquestionable doctrinal positions, and then point to those things as evidence of our piety. Being part of a community of faith is important, as is being able to affirm common beliefs. But believing in our institutions, even if they are religious ones, doesn’t equate with being a people whose lives are transformed and whose engagement with the world is redemptive. Even right belief alone doesn’t accomplish that (“You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder” – James 2:19).

Institutions are fine, as long as we see them for what they are. God desires our hearts.

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