Ancient Answers


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It’s His Nature

In the middle of Lent we pause to reflect on the Cross of Jesus Christ. And we hear again Jesus calling us to take up our cross and follow him. Take up the cross that represents the weight of my ungodly thoughts and actions, the weight of my neglect of the least of his brothers and sisters. Pick up your cross – don’t let it weigh you down any longer. Pick it up so you can follow Christ with it. And as you follow Christ, it will become light and lighter to the point where it simply disappears. That’s the miracle.

There is a beautiful story of an old man who used to meditate every morning under a big tree on the bank of the Ganges River. One morning, after he had finished his meditation, the old man opened his eyes and saw a scorpion floating helplessly in the water. As the current brought the scorpion closer to the tree, the old man quickly stretched himself out on one of the long roots that branched out into the river and reached out to rescue the drowning creature. As soon as he touched it, the scorpion stung him. Instinctively the man withdrew his hand. A minute later, after he had regained his balance, he stretched out again to save the scorpion. This time the scorpion stung him so badly with its poisonous tail that the man’s hand became swollen and bloody and his face contorted with pain.

Just then, a stranger was passing by. He shouted out: “Hey, stupid old man, what’s wrong with you? Only a fool would risk his life for the sake of an ugly, evil creature. Don’t you know you could kill yourself trying to save that ungrateful scorpion?”

The old man turned his head. Looking into the stranger’s eyes, he said calmly, “My friend, just because it is the scorpion’s nature to sting, that does not change my nature to save.” Just because it was the scorpion’s nature to sting did not mean that the man would change his nature to help and to save. Powerful.

Can you hear Jesus in the old man’s words? “Father, forgive them. They do not know what they are doing.” We are like the scorpion, we know not what we are doing. But that does not change Jesus. It is his nature to save and to lead us to new life. But we have to leave the scorpion life behind. Or, better yet, pick up the scorpion nature and stretch it out for Christ to take and heal it. That is the meaning of our cross. So take up your scorpion, your cross, and follow Jesus. Feel your cross get lighter and lighter as you follow him. It is his nature to heal and to save.


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Take hold of your life!

I woke up this morning with a song that I kept singing quietly all morning:

Κράτησα τη ζωή μου κράτησα τη ζωή μου ταξιδεύοντας

ανάμεσα στα κίτρινα δέντρα κατά το πλάγιασμα της βροχής

σε σιωπηλές πλαγιές φορτωμένες με τα φύλλα της οξιάς,

καμιά φωτιά στην κορυφή τους˙ βραδιάζει.

The poet George Seferis (1900-71)

The very first line is the hardest to translate, for me at least. Is it “I held my life”? Is it, “I held on to my life”? Is it, “I kept hold of my life”? Is it, “I took hold of my life”? Any of these translations is literally correct. But it makes a lot of difference which English translation I choose. Is my life something that I hold like a bag of groceries? Is my life something I protect and hold on to tightly? This second meaning is the one preferred by published translations, and probably comes closest to the original meaning and circumstances of the poet who wrote these words. Or is my life something I take hold of in a momentous decision to make it meaningful? That last is the translation I choose today. It is also what Lent teaches me: To grab hold of my life, to live it to the fullest, without fear and without protective covers, so that I may with boldness come to the night of Pascha and “receive the light from the light that never sets.”

The words are from the poem “Epiphany 1937” by George Seferis, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1963. It was set to music by the great Mikis Theodorakis, and was recorded in 1962.

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Here is my translation of the whole song, though I have trouble translating the full impact of the word πλάγιασμα. Is it “slanting” as in published translations, or is it something more like the “cover” of rain? Maybe someone could give me a better translation of that one word which seems to be important in the overall meaning of this song/poem.

I took hold of my life, I took hold of my life traveling

among yellow trees beneath the slanting rain

in silent slopes loaded with the leaves of beech trees

no fire on their peaks; it’s getting dark.

It is because it’s getting dark that we need to “take hold” of our lives. And it is because it’s getting dark that we “keep hold” of our lives! The mistake most of us make is that we keep hold before we take hold! We protect our lives before we have actually lived our lives. That indeed is a very profound problem.

 


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We need the prophets!

lent_desktopThere are still two days left to Lent this year, but this is the end for me. This is the last of my Lenten Reflections for this year, and I’m writing it because of the reading today of Isaiah 58:1-11. We began Lent back Feb 23rd with Isaiah 1:1-20, a reading which included these words spoken by God to his people:

“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of he-goats.

“When you come to appear before me, who requires of you this trampling of my courts? Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and the calling of assemblies — I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you spread forth your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.”

Today we hear similar words:

Thus says the LORD: “They seek me daily, and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God… ‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have no knowledge of it?’ Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers… Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a man to humble himself? Is it to bow down your head like a rush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under you? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the LORD?true-fasting1

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then… you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, “Here I am.”

We begin Lent and we finish Lent with similar messages. It’s easy to get carried away with the special spirituality and fasting of the Lenten season. It is easy to become self-righteous because of the spiritual Lent_Slide1disciplines of Lent. It is easy to become so self-absorbed with our own righteousness that we ignore the broader responsibilities of being a follower of Jesus. Even though the Orthodox Church has kept to the rigorous disciplines of the early centuries of Christianity, these readings at the beginning and end of Lent remind us that the disciplines of fasting and prayer are not the whole message and purpose of Lent. Thanks to the prophet Isaiah, the Church has a built-in corrective to the natural human tendency to become self-absorbed and self-righteous.

But we have to read and listen to these messages that are built into the season of Lent. Next Monday night, many of us will sit in churches and hear the long Gospel reading from Matthew that includes chapter 23. How will we listen to the harsh exposure of hypocritical worship from the mouth of Jesus? Will his words shake us? Or will his words just form part of our “Holy Week experience” to be forgotten the minute we turn the pages of the Holy Week service book?

When Jesus confronted hypocrisy, he spoke in the same spirit as the prophets of ancient Israel. We need the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, not because of prophecies they allegedly made about the future, but because they reveal the heart of God to us, even in the 21st century. Their message is as relevant today as it was 2,500 years ago. During the regular Church year, we only read the prophetic passages that are presumed to be prophecies of the Messiah Jesus. Only during Lent do we read a prophet without reference to Messianic predictions. And that prophet is Isaiah every year. But there are other prophets besides Isaiah. We need all the prophets, they need to be part of our daily Bible reading. We need to be challenged by them every day. They knew God better than any other man or woman in history, except Jesus, who is in the bosom of God the Father (John 1:18).

lent-graphic-cns


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bible blog 1651

I’m taking a break from my daily Lenten reflections. Today’s reading of Genesis 22:1-18 is the story of Abraham’s “sacrifice” of his son, Isaac. Instead of my own thoughts, I’m re-posting the blog that my friend Mike Mair posted on this passage a month ago. He uses a different translation of the Bible than what I use, but he has some excellent thoughts on this crucial story from Genesis.

Emmock's Blog

This blog has been following the book of Genesis and the Gospel of Mark since the new year. Previous posts can be found in my archives.

GENESIS 22 (from the Schocken Bible)

rembrandt rembrandt

Now after these events it was

that God tested Avraham

and said to him:

Avraham!

He said:

Here I am.

He  said:

Pray take your son,

your only one,

whom you love,

Yitzhak,

and go-you-forth to the land of Morriya / Seeing

and offer him up there as an offering-up

upon one of the mountains

that I will tell you of.

Avraham started early in the morning,

he saddled his donkey

and took his two serving lads with him and Yitzhak his son

he split wood for the offering-up

and arose and went to the place that God has told him of.

On the third day Avraham lifted his eyes

and saw the place from afar.

Avraham said…

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The Missing Comfort

The beginning of the Book of Isaiah identifies the period covered by the prophet: “The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.” This would place the ministry of Isaiah roughly in the period 750-700 BC, during the latter days of the Assyrian Empire. An inkling of what’s to come, however, is proclaimed at the end of chapter 39: Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Hear the word of the Lord of hosts: Days are coming when all that is in your house, and that which your ancestors have stored up until this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the Lord

Assyrian horse and archer (Click to enlarge)

Assyrian horse and archer (Click to enlarge)

As Chapter 40 begins, the Jews are indeed captives in Babylon. This was the age of superpowers, something we children of the 20th century can easily relate to. Assyria had already fallen to the Babylonians about 70 years earlier; the city of Jerusalem had been devastated by the Babylonians in 587 BC and the Jews were carried off to Babylon as captives. There they wept, longing for Jerusalem (Psalm 137):

Medieval Greek manuscript of Psalm 137 (136 in Septuagint)

Medieval Greek manuscript of Psalm 137 (Click to enlarge)

By the rivers of Babylon—
    there we sat down and there we wept
    when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
    we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
    asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
    “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How could we sing the Lord’s song
    in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
    let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
    above my highest joy.

So, much has happened between Chapters 39 and 40. Chapter 40 introduces a completely new situation – and a new author.

There is almost universal scholarly consensus that there are three distinct authors in the Book of Isaiah: Chapters 1-39 being the writing of the 8th-century prophet called “Isaiah”; Chapters 40-55 are the work of an anonymous author who has been called “Deutero-Isaiah” (Second Isaiah); and finally, Chapters 56-66 are by “Trito-Isaiah” (Third Isaiah). Scholars have concluded that “Deutero-Isaiah” wrote around 540 BC, and “Trito-Isaiah” a little later still, around the year 520 BC.

Click on map to enlarge

Click on map to enlarge

There are about 160 years separating the end of Chapter 39 and the beginning of Chapter 40. The Jews are in Babylon, but Babylon is already facing its own demise due to the rise of the Persian Empire, the same Persian Empire that will threaten Greece in days to come. Chapter 40 begins with words of comfort to the Jews in Babylon. The time of their exile is coming to an end and Babylon will receive retribution at the hands of the Persians. Indeed, “Deutero-Isaiah” has been nicknamed the Book of Comfort.

Unfortunately, our lectionary reading today, Isaiah 40:18-31, bypasses the words of comfort that grace the beginning of this Second Isaiah. These are the same words that Handel set to indescribably beautiful music for tenor soloist in his oratorio, Messiah:

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplish’d, that her iniquity is pardon’d. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Ev’ry valley shall be exalted, and ev’ry mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight, and the rough places plain.

These are amazing words, whether sung or read. But the entire chapter 40 is one of the monumental high points of the entire Bible and should be read in its entirety. You can read it here, in the New Revised Standard Version – not as poetic as the old King James translation that Handel used three centuries ago, but still resonating with the powerful messages of comfort. Too bad our lectionary chose to omit ‘comfort’ from our Lenten reading, for we all need comfort.

Isaiah has been valued in Christian tradition primarily for its ‘prophecies’ of Jesus – ‘prophecies’ of the birth of Christ in Chapters 7, 9 and 11; and the profound ‘prophecy’ of the passion of Christ in Chapter 53. But this is a very limited way to read this most extraordinary of biblical books.

Walter Brueggemann is one of the most remarkable students and preachers of the Bible, and has published dozens of books filled with wisdom and contemporary relevance. He published a two-volume ‘companion’ to Isaiah and I’d like to quote something he wrote:

It is a matter of considerable importance, in my judgment, that Christians should not preempt the book of Isaiah. It is legitimate to see how the book of Isaiah fed, nurtured, and evoked Christian imagination with reference to Jesus. But that is very different from any claim that the book of Isaiah predicts or specifically anticipates Jesus. Such a preemption, as has often occurred in the reading of the church, constitutes not only a failure to respect Jewish readers, but is a distortion of the book itself. It is strongly preferable, I suggest, that Jews and Christians together recognize that the book of Isaiah is enormously and generatively open in more than one direction. No interpretive tradition is able to monopolize and close interpretation. This is a difficult and important question to which respectful attention must be paid.

What an honest and generous outlook, so different from the totalitarian tendencies of many who claim to read and understand the Bible. What a fantastic word he uses: ‘generatively’! He is telling us to approach the Scriptures with anticipation of what the text will generate in us who read. This is why the word of God is always new and can generate new insights every time we come to it. I love Brueggemann; you can’t go wrong with any of his books.

Here’s more of what he wrote as I conclude my post for today:

Believing people (Jews and Christians), moreover, dare to imagine that the same Holy One who acted in that time and place in disruptive and embracing way still continues to disrupt and embrace even now. Thus the relevance of the text is evident. It cannot be arrived at too easily, but it is an insistent relevance that cannot be put off for too long either….The gospel to be received in faith is an offer of comfort in the midst of every crisis. (Isaiah 40-66, pages 6-7)


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Revolution thwarted – but not dead

It is a fact of human history that revolutions almost always end up as something other than originally intended. The revolution of faith that God initiated in chapter 12 of Genesis, when Abraham obeyed God’s call in faith and moved from the land of his father to the land God chose for him, that revolution of faith has led to four thousand years of conflict in that land that we have mis-labeled “holy land.” What is holy about a land that has caused more bloodshed, more hatred than any other land on the planet? Already in chapter 13, we see the beginnings of what is to come, when Abraham and his nephew Lot agree to a parting of ways to avoid fighting over land.

But our lectionary reading for today, Genesis 13:12-18, avoids the reason for the separation of Lot and Abraham and jumps directly to God’s promise of the land that will be the source of so much conflict. Did God not know that this land would become the source of so much ungodly hatred? But that’s to ask the question from the wrong perspective. God did not write Genesis, people wrote it – people who had a vested interest in pressing claims on the land and the various promises God made. God has his own purposes; how those purposes are interpreted by humans and how they are put down on stone and paper is another thing.

Or are we to take the promises to Abraham and his descendants as another test, like the test in the garden? If it was a test, then we have failed royally, for 4,000 years! And we’re still failing, as the recent re-election of Benjamin Netanyahu clearly shows. One of the hymns of the Third Sunday of Lent, the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross, has these words:

Come, all you kindred of the nations (αἱ πατριαὶ τῶν ἐθνῶν), and let us honor the Cross of the Lord. Rejoice, O Cross, perfect redemption of fallen Adam. Glorying in you, our faithful kings laid low by your might the people of Ishmael.

These are the words of an imperial Orthodoxy facing the threat of Arabs (“the people of Ishmael”) in the Middle Ages. Today the land is the place where apocalyptic violence by followers of the three Abrahamic religions feed into dreams of “armageddon” that extremists in all three religions promote as literal interpretations of their “scriptures”!

Today’s reading from Isaiah 37:33-38:6 certainly does not help: “For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David” (verse 35). The problem arises when scriptures are given a political spin that they don’t originally possess. God defends the city because of his own commitment to it and to David. But God also does not hesitate to destroy the city or hand it over to enemies of David. And we see this ambivalence throughout the historical and prophetic books of the Hebrew scriptures. The bottom line for God is not the political meaning of Jerusalem and the “holy land” but the presence of justice and righteousness.

The Hebrew word for justice is the same word for righteousness: tzedakahצדקה. It is the same in Greek: δικαιοσύνη, one word for both concepts. In the mind of the biblical writers, justice and righteousness are two sides of the same thing. It’s only in the minds of some Christian interpreters of Paul’s letters that “righteousness” has become something narrower, defining a particular view of salvation. In interpreting Paul’s statements that we are not “justified” (=made righteous) by the “law” but by faith alone (Galatians 2:16 and elsewhere in Romans and Galatians), it seems to me that some Christians have thrown out the baby with the bathwater and have lost the double meaning of the one word in both Hebrew and Greek scriptures. Throw out the “justice” meaning out of some dogmatic concern not to do “works of the law” (Galatians 2:16 again) and you’re left with an inward-looking, one-on-one version of faith that has nothing to do with God’s abiding concern for social justice throughout the scriptures.

That’s also the danger with how we usually translate the 4th and 8th Beatitudes:

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

In both, the word in the original Greek text is δικαιοσύνη. When “righteousness” is only a personal virtue characterizing one’s relation to God, I can’t quite see how one might be “persecuted” for it. But people who hunger and thirst for “justice” and work for it might very well be persecuted, even in our allegedly enlightened modern age. They are the same people who are also “merciful” and “peacemakers” in the 5th and 7th Beatitudes.

In these Lenten Reflections I have not often referred to the daily readings from Proverbs, but today I choose to do so. Consider these assertions from today’s reading:

He who oppresses a poor man insults his Maker,
    but he who is kind to the needy honors him.
The wicked is overthrown through his evil-doing,
    but the righteous finds refuge through his integrity.
Wisdom abides in the mind of a man of understanding,
    but it is not known in the heart of fools.
Righteousness exalts a nation,
    but sin is a reproach to any people.

God’s view of righteousness is inseparable from acts of justice, both on the personal and national level.

The call to us today is the same as the call to Abraham in Genesis 12:1, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” But for us, the calling is not so much to leave our homes, but to leave our inherited thoughts behind, to encounter God with open minds and hearts, to learn anew the meaning of promises and to renew the revolution that has been thwarted. The abrahamic call to us is to join God’s revolution of faith and righteousness and justice! The revolution has been thwarted, but it is not dead or buried. As long as we can honestly encounter the scriptures as if for the first time, the revolution can happen again – a revolution of faith, a revolution of the renewed heart and mind that God seeks to cultivate in us. May Lent always be a time to pause and open our hearts to God’s renewing spirit.

 


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Only Two Ways to be Honest with God

In thinking about today’s reading from Genesis 12:1-7, I can’t find something better to write than what Mike Mair wrote a couple months ago about this passage. He is a biblical blogger in Scotland whom I’ve quoted in the past and who has posted some responses to my own posts. I obtained his permission to quote his commentary here. His original blog post can be found here.

This begins a new section of the book of Genesis: the story of the beginnings of humanity in general is complete and the story of Israel begins. Of course, the author has planned this from the start. He wants to say that God’s solution to the problem of his out-of-control creature, humanity, is to persuade some of humanity to learn his goodness and to represent it in the world. We should wonder at this strange tactic. Why can God not control what he has made? The answer is evident in the story of Noah: he could wipe out humanity but he cannot force a creature made in his image to obey him; so unless he wants to start all over again he has to find another tactic. He has to persuade humanity of its own free will to go his way. So we have to see his work with Avram and his descendants as an expression of his faithfulness to his creation and to his human creatures especially.

Persuasion, even divine persuasion, starts with one person, in this case Avram, a descendant of Shem, whose father Terah has moved from Ur of the Chaldees, more accurately in Sumer, to Harran in the territory of the Mitanni, on the border of modern Syria and Turkey. The accompanying map shows the extent of the migration. Ancient sources record a variety of nomadic peoples whose journeys took them across the borders of great empires like Sumer and Egypt. Avram’s family is identified as already nomadic, since his father has migrated from Ur to Harran. The command of the Lord, therefore is not utterly foreign to Avram, but it is presented as decisive. There is no preliminary explanation given by the author, just a command: Go-you-forth. It is not an aimless journey, however because a destination is declared: “the land that I will give you”, which is identified within a few verses as Canaan. Both the author and his original audience know that this is the land of Israel, the land promised.

abrahams-journey-map

The command of God points to a future in which Avram and his descendants will enjoy God’s blessing but will also be carriers of God’s blessing to the human family. This is God’s solution to the problem of humanity. Avram is to BE a blessing to others. God  cannot simply bless his creatures! The blessing has to come through creatures who have been persuaded of God’s goodness and will in turn persuade others. This is a very strange concept of deity. As the passage tells it, God needs Avram more than Avram needs God.

Avram’s ready response is made clear; he moves out of Harran with his wife and his own complete household. Other members of his family remain but his nephew goes with him, along with the “people they had made-their-own”, that is, workers and slaves. Avram is not exploring, he is moving house. 

Ancient landmarks such as Shekhem, Moreh and Beth-El are noted in connection with Avram’s places of sacrifice to YHWH, but the crucial detail is that Avram “sees” YHWH, that is, he has a vision of him. In the story of Avram and subsequently in Genesis, God no longer talks person to person as he does to Noah, but is a little more distant; perhaps there is a vision or a sign, or a messenger, or several messengers, but the communication is a little less direct than in chapters 1-11. Some have suggested that the author wants to depict Avram as the first of the “seers” or prophets of Israel. In any case the verb “to see” will play an important part in his story.

Holy-Patriarch-AbrahamThe narrative makes God’s promise crystal clear: “I will give this land to your seed”; and shows Abraham’s acceptance of it by his establishing of sacrifice sites and his journeying through the land. The reader is left in no doubt that this passage records a new, distinctive vision of God. Some of what has seemed contradictory and inexplicable in chapters 1-11, now becomes comprehensible as the long-term strategy of God is made clear.

Most of us read this beginning of Abraham’s story with a sense of removal. We don’t hear the voice of God telling us to get up and go somewhere. But then we’re not Abraham and our ears are too busy listening to other voices. Today’s reading of Isaiah 29:13-23 speaks to our own experience as followers of Christ who struggle to preserve some authenticity and wholeness in our faith walk. But immediately before this reading come two verses (29:11-12) that are simply amazing:

And the vision of all this has become to you like the words of a book that is sealed. When men give it to one who can read, saying, “Read this,” he says, “I cannot, for it is sealed.” And when they give the book to one who cannot read, saying, “Read this,” he says, “I cannot read.”

The illiterate cannot read. But neither can the literate read, because “it is sealed.” What is sealed? The prophecies, the scriptures! Who sealed them? The rulers of the people, who are labeled as “scoffers” in 28:14. But more immediately here in chapter 29 (verses 9-10), the prophets!

Stupefy yourselves and be in a stupor,
    blind yourselves and be blind!
Be drunk, but not with wine;
    stagger, but not with strong drink!
For the Lord has poured out upon you
    a spirit of deep sleep,
and has closed your eyes, the prophets,
    and covered your heads, the seers.

It is a horrifying vision. What hope is there for the people when even the prophets no longer receive the words of God? This is the famine that the prophet Amos warned about:

famine 1“Behold, the days are coming,” says the Lord God,
    “when I will send a famine on the land;
not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water,
    but of hearing the words of the Lord.

This is why we have trouble relating to Abraham’s hearing the voice of God. We are living in the time of famine! Yes, millions of copies of the Bible are printed every day in every known language of the planet. In English alone we have who knows how many translations and versions that you can pick up in a local bookstore or order from Amazon and have delivered to your door by UPS! It would appear that there is plenty of Bible going around. And yet, there is a famine – because the people of God are in a drunken stupor of materialism and comfortable Christian lives (so-called). Were these words spoken by God only for the dwellers of Jerusalem in Isaiah’s time?

“Because this people draw near with their mouth
    and honor me with their lips,
    while their hearts are far from me,
and their fear of me is a commandment of men learned by rote. (29:13)

Woe to those who hide deep from the Lord their counsel,
    whose deeds are in the dark,
    and who say, “Who sees us? Who knows us?”
You turn things upside down!
    Shall the potter be regarded as the clay;
that the thing made should say of its maker,
    “He did not make me”;
or the thing formed say of him who formed it,
    “He has no understanding”? (29:15-16)

How many of us do not shiver when reading these words? And yet, we claim to read the Bible! Every year, on the Monday of Holy Week, at the evening service of the Bridegroom, the Gospel reading includes all of chapter 23 of Matthew. I don’t know how I make it through that reading every year or how I don’t hang up my vestments and quit on the spot. I don’t know how anyone in the Orthodox Church makes it through that reading! I don’t know how any priest or bishop of the Orthodox Church can read that Gospel and not quit or start a revolution of faith! Those are the only two options it seems to me.

These are the only two ways that we can be honest with God: Either quit or start a revolution! Everything else, everything in between, is lip service. This easygoing relationship we have with God, church tradition, the Bible, and with our own consciences – it’s all dishonest. God started a revolution with Abraham. By the time of Isaiah, the revolution was long in the past and easy believism ruled the lives of the people. But even here, God was ready to do something new, to renew the revolution that had started with Abraham:

Therefore, behold, I will again
    do marvelous things with this people,
    wonderful and marvelous… (29:14)

In that day the deaf shall hear
    the words of a book,
and out of their gloom and darkness
    the eyes of the blind shall see.
The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord,
    and the poor among men shall exult in the Holy One of Israel. (29:18-19)

Therefore thus says the Lord, who redeemed Abraham, concerning the house of Jacob:

“Jacob shall no more be ashamed,
    no more shall his face grow pale.
For when he sees his children,
    the work of my hands, in his midst,
    they will sanctify my name;
they will sanctify the Holy One of Jacob,
    and will stand in awe of the God of Israel.
And those who err in spirit will come to understanding,
    and those who murmur will accept instruction.” (29:22-24)

I pray that God can still do this renewal. I pray that God can still renew the fire of revolution in the church and in the hearts of all who want to follow Jesus. May the cloud and sleep that have come over our faith be dispelled once again, and may the famine cease. As Mike wrote in his post that I’ve quoted above, Abraham is not exploring, he is moving house. We also need to move house, and there’s a lot of moving to do! May Lent challenge us every year with these readings from Genesis and Isaiah to set a moving date.