Sunday, January 17, 2010

From Imprecation to Intercession

(A sermon based on Psalm 137, Matthew 5:43-48 & Luke 23:32-34 for Sunday, January 17, 2009)

It matters that we Christians read the Bible. It also matters how we Christians read the Bible. It furthermore matters—it matters very much—that for us Christians Jesus is Lord. Put all of that together, and we are left with this: it matters that when we read the Bible we read it with the mindset that Jesus is Lord of our reading and Lord of the living that results from our reading. It is vital, in other words, that we Christians read our Bibles and live our lives through the Jesus lens—through the lens of the teachings, the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus.

The importance of such reading was underscored this week in the aftermath of the terrible earthquake that struck Haiti when a prominent television minister opined that the earthquake—indeed, the entire difficult history of the nation of Haiti—can be directly connected to long-ago supposed sin of those people.

Now, it is true that choices matter; it is true that actions have consequences; it is true that God judges sin. It is also true that the Bible contains stories about God destroying places and the people in them as judgment for their sins.

It is also true that Haiti sits right on top the fault where the North American and Caribbean tectonic plates meet.

It is finally true, though, that our Bibles teach us that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” and that “in Christ God was reconciling the world unto himself” and “in (the Son) the fullness of God was pleased to dwell”—it is finally true, in short, that Jesus Christ is the ultimate revelation of God, which means both that all of Scripture is fulfilled in him and that all of Scripture is to interpreted through him.

So we must take very seriously what Jesus said in Luke 13:

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did’ (vv. 1-5).

Jesus said that to ask about the guilt of people who suffered relative to that of people who didn’t was to ask an inappropriate question. He went on to say that we are all at risk because of our sins, the implication of which is that we are better served to consider and deal with the sins of which we know we are guilty rather than to spend time speculating about the sins of which someone else may be guilty.

And then there is John 9: “As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (vv. 1-3). Again, Jesus says that questions of fault or blame are inappropriate; what matters, as the subsequent words of Jesus reveal, is that we who follow Jesus function as conduits of the works of God—God’s grace and mercy and love—in light of the situation in which people find themselves. Our place is not to assign blame—our task is to bring the mercy and grace of God to bear in the lives of hurting people.

You see, how we read the Bible—whether we read it as Christians, as people for whom Jesus is Lord—makes a difference not only in our understanding but in our attitudes, our beliefs, and our lifestyles.

Let’s consider a matter that might hit a little closer to home for most if not all of us: the matter of dealing with those who have hurt us. The question is, are we entitled to hold a grudge and to desire retribution or must we forgive?

The Bible has passages in it that seem to condone holding grudges and desiring retribution; an excellent example is Psalm 137, a psalm written after the Babylonian Exile that looked back on that terrible experience at a time when the scars were still much in evidence. The psalm is sad throughout and beautiful up to a point, that point being when it turns from the passion of lament (“By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion”) and the promise of remembrance (“If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!”) to a plea for vengeance (“O daughter Babylon…. Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!”) that culminates in a gross and cruel imprecation or curse (“Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”).

Grossness and cruelty notwithstanding, I should note some things about this imprecation. First, it is a plea for justice and justice is a necessary thing in society; the psalm asks only that what was done to the victims be done to the victimizers. Second, it expresses very real human reactions and emotions of which we are all capable and that are understandable; the expressed desire for revenge comes from the anger that is associated with grief [cf. J. Clinton McCann, Jr., A Theological Introduction to the Book of Psalms (Nashville: Abingdon, 1993), p. 118] and all of us have been there, are there, or will be there—I can remember times of grief in my life when it would have been a great relief to have been able to express no-holds-barred anger against somebody other than myself and God.

So how do we read such a text through the Jesus Lens, through the words, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus who is our Lord and who is the living Word and who is the ultimate revelation of God?

Well, I’ll go ahead and put it out there: I don’t believe for a nanosecond that Jesus would have thought or said “Yay for those who dash against the rock the heads of the children of the priests who set me up and of the Romans who nailed me up!” It is not enough, though, to say that Jesus invalidates this imprecation, this curse—indeed, it is not even right to make that claim because Jesus fulfills the Scripture, he does not invalidate it.

The examples that we have in the Gospels of Jesus’ interpretations of Scripture show that he favored the ideal over the concession—that Jesus stressed the ideal will of God for humans in their relationships rather than the concessions that God has made because of our sin—in other words, Jesus in his life and words and death opened and paved and pointed toward the way that God ultimately desires to deal with people and that he would have us deal with each other.

In Psalm 137, the speakers do not ask for the opportunity to take vengeance themselves; they turn their desire for vengeance over to God—a desire that was justifiable, mind you—which raises the question of what would God ultimately do with it? Clinton McCann has suggested in his discussion of both Psalms 109 and 137, using the life of Elie Wiesel as an example, that the honest expression of grief and rage can ultimately lead to compassion for humanity and, he continued,

It is clear that a process of remembrance that develops beyond grief and anger to embrace compassion is based ultimately on forgiveness, as is God’s compassion. If we are correct in assuming that vengeance submitted to God results eventually in forgiveness and compassion, then we must conclude also that Psalms 109 and 137 point finally to the cross. (McCann, p. 120)

The cross of Jesus and his subsequent resurrection ultimately show us what God has done and will do with vengeance and grief and rage—God takes them onto God’s self and overcomes and redeems them. That is what God has done, is doing, and will do.

And God, because the Kingdom of God is present among us, because the life of Christ is living in us, because the Holy Spirit is dwelling among us, is through and in us overcoming and redeeming grief and rage and vengeance.

So we must take very, very seriously the twin facts that Jesus asked forgiveness for those who were crucifying him and that he taught us to pray for our enemies.

The forgiveness of those who have hurt us, then, is the ideal toward which God in Christ is moving us. Jesus told us to forgive and Jesus forgave—so we forgive. Jesus prayed for his enemies and told us to pray for our enemies—so we pray for our enemies. It’s a lifelong journey and it’s not easy but this way from vengeance to forgiveness, this way from imprecation to intercession—it is the way that reading—and living—through the Jesus Lens causes us to go.

But, you might say, Jesus was Jesus, and you would be right.

Still there is Stephen who prayed for forgiveness for the men who were stoning him. And there is Corrie Ten Boom who, a couple of years after the end of World War II, encountered and forgave a Nazi guard from the camp where she watched her sister die. And there are so many others.

We need one more.

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