Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A Lenten Reflection for March 5, 2013

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 7:30-32)

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. (Psalm 78:2-3)

If there was ever an apt description of Hell, the valley of the son of Hinnom—or, Gehenna, as it was called in Jesus’ day—would be it. The ancient Hebrew people joined in with the idol worshippers in the local area and sacrificed their own children to a fire-filled god in that valley. In the time of the Roman occupation of Israel, Gehenna had become a flaming garbage dump, where refuse and the bodies of executed criminals rotted and burned day and night.

The account of this tragic failure of the people of God says something about the nature of evil. Some might say that God is in control, that he is sovereign, and all things come from his hand—good things for blessing, bad things for discipline and punishment. After all: Either God is in charge or he isn’t.

But in some ways, God isn’t in charge, at least not in that way. God may be sovereign, the rightful ruler of all things, but the realm over which he is king is a broken, distorted realm. The ancient Hebrew people embraced an evil that was of their own making, and it was an evil that had never entered God’s mind—we are told that he never commanded it. The people took upon themselves a sin that would mark them for generations to come and bring a curse upon the land where their children’s ashes were scattered.

And yet, God did not give up on the people. The psalmist writes, “Yet he, being compassionate, forgave their iniquity, and did not destroy them; often he restrained his anger, and did not stir up all his wrath. He remembered that they were but flesh, a wind that passes and does not come again (78:38-39).”

I am amazed that this dark episode wasn’t edited out of the Bible. It’s the dirtiest of all laundries and you would think that people would just want to forget it. But they kept the story alive for generations, reminding their descendants that the people of God are a broken people and capable of the worst evils imaginable. The most astonishing thing that would be passed on to each generation was that, in the midst of human failure, God remains faithful. God remembers our frailty. We might suffer the consequences of our embrace of evil, but God still forgives.

I wonder if the first 10,000 years or so of eternity is spent in abject amazement as people are confronted with the pure reality of both evil and forgiveness. We see them now abstractly; then we will see face to face.

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