Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Devotional for the Twenty-Second Day of Lent

O that my head were a spring of water,
 and my eyes a fountain of tears,
 so that I might weep day and night 
for the slain of my poor people! 
O that I had in the desert 
a traveler’s lodging-place,
 that I might leave my people 
and go away from them!
 For they are all adulterers,
 a band of traitors. (Jeremiah 9:1-2)

“But my people did not listen to my voice;
 Israel would not submit to me. So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts,
 to follow their own counsels. O that my people would listen to me,
 that Israel would walk in my ways!” (Psalm 81:11-13)

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

Getting what you want is not always a good deal. In one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes, a criminal is killed and wakes up in the afterlife. His mysterious host tells him that he now can have everything that he has ever wanted. The man, assuming that this must be heaven, indulges himself in his every desire, getting any woman he wants, always winning at cards and pool, never without a pocket full of cash. After a while, the routine and boredom makes him crazy, so he demands from his host that he be sent to “the other place.” His host smiles wickedly and responds, “But Mr. Valentine, this is the other place.”

After generations of chasing after idols and investing themselves in international politics and conflicts, God finally gave the people of Israel what they wanted: A life without him. God speaks through the prophet Jeremiah in a voice that is filled with grief over the loss of the people. The psalmist, likewise, expresses sadness over the demands of the people to have their own way.

There is a renewed interest, at least among many American Christians, in the topic of hell. While much of the American imagination about hell is more informed by movies and images from Dante’s Inferno than it is by the Bible, it is still a topic worth exploring. In the end, hell appears to be a life without any trace of God, and it can be experienced while people are still alive. How it might work on the other side of death is where the discussion gets really heated. The idea of having some sort of existence without God—not just ignoring God, but having his presence completely extracted—is disturbing enough on its own; that we might exist in such a state because of our own demands is even worse. Hell just might be the ultimate in getting exactly what we want, if what we want is everything on our terms.

Following in the way of Jesus doesn’t always line up with what we want. Yet, Jesus claims that following him removes us from wandering around in darkness and places us in the light of life. I imagine that a life without God is the worst kind of darkness imaginable. It wouldn’t be just the absence of light, but also the absence of goodness, kindness, decency, compassion, and love. Think about being surrounded by like-minded people who lack all of those things because of God’s absence. That would truly be hell.

The very presence of Jesus among his own people is the in-flesh demonstration of God’s unfailing, persistent love. The numerous texts of lament in the Bible do not result in God finally giving up on his people. Jesus comes, in the fullness of the Father, and calls his people to reconciliation and faithfulness. They still respond violently, demanding what they want, which is a life without Jesus. But God still doesn’t give up, and in the resurrection he brings the light of life to bear on the world.
If we demand and receive a life without God, it won’t be out of God’s neglect.

No comments: