Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Devotional for the Twenty-First Day of Lent

Give ear, O my people, to my teaching;
 incline your ears to the words of my mouth. 
I will open my mouth in a parable;
 I will utter dark sayings from of old, 
things that we have heard and known,
 that our ancestors have told us. 
We will not hide them from their children;
 we will tell to the coming generation 
the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might,
 and the wonders that he has done. (Psalm 78:1-4)

For the people of Judah have done evil in my sight, says the Lord; they have set their abominations in the house that is called by my name, defiling it. And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. (Jeremiah 7:30-31)

Therefore [Abraham’s] faith ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ Now the words, ‘it was reckoned to him’, were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification. (Romans 4:22-25)

Nations like to tell stories of the past, especially when the stories are celebrative. The accounts of bondages broken, enemies overcome, and triumph over adversity fill national imaginations and are passed on to each new generation. Some of the stories are true and others are legend. The parts that are more likely to be avoided are the ways the nations have oppressed others, damaged their own citizens, looted treasuries, and any number of violations.

The psalmist opens up by preparing the hearers for a history lesson that must be passed on to succeeding generations. All must be taught, he claims, and so he begins an account that he describes as “dark sayings of old.” The national imagination of Israel included past sins and violations against God and others. The consciousness of the people would be branded with the recognition that Israel, a nation like no other, a people formed and nurtured by God to be his light in the world, had turned from God and suffered dire consequences.

The prophet Jeremiah offers graphic detail of Judah’s (the southern half of what was originally Israel) offences: The sacrifice of children in the fires of Topheth, a site of pagan worship in the valley of Hinnom (referred to by Jesus as Gehenna, which is usually translated in English as hell). Jeremiah goes on to say that the fate of wayward Israel will be in that same place, where their bodies will be stacked like cord wood, serving as food for scavenger birds.

The stories of the people of God are not sanitized in the Bible. Their own family history is both redemptive and dark, and it is, we are told, not to be forgotten. As a people before God, they are to always remember who they are and from where they have come. It is, in many ways, a dark story.

We, as followers of Jesus, now share that family history. We are given, however, a new act to this play of call, formation, sin, disaster, and exile. The apostle Paul says that we share the faith of Abraham as we trust in what God has done in Jesus. This Jesus, who represents all of Israel and the whole of the world, allows himself to be destroyed by all the forces of evil, suffering the consequences of this dark history on behalf of all. But this is not just a story of vicarious suffering and death; it is a story of God’s dismantling of the power of sin and death to close the book. In the resurrection, the story begins anew, and the people of God, while remembering our dark history, now trust in the author of the story to write the ending that he has always intended.

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