Sunday, June 28, 2015

Pax Deus

Pax Deus
John 14:27
            It’s easy to have world peace.  All that is needed is a ruler so powerful that he (she) can control the entire world; so dominant that he (she) will tolerate no dissent; and so cruel that he (she) punishes any sign of rebellion immediately, viciously, and totally.  Such a situation occurred when the Roman Empire was at its height.  Most of the then-known world was under the control of Rome.  The emperors brooked no opposition.  Any hint of revolt was quickly crushed, with all rebels not simply put to death, but executed publicly and in the cruelest way possible. 
            Lest we think that Jesus Christ and the two thieves were the only ones to suffer crucifixion, remember that it was the favorite form of punishment for anyone who dared stand against the forces of Rome.  The concluding scene of the movie “Spartacus” gives us a good example.  We are shown a view of the Appian Way, the main road into the city.  Down the road, as far as we can see, there are men hanging on crosses, the remnants of a failed slave rebellion.  Anyone entering or leaving Rome would have to pass these dying men. 
            Death came slowly and painfully for those who were crucified.  They were given no water to drink.  Slowly, painfully, their weight interfered with their ability to breathe.  Sometimes death took days, while the body inexorably caved in upon itself. 
The lucky rebels died in battle.  Yet even here no mercy was shown.  The emperor’s soldiers were chosen for their cruelty, then trained to be efficient and merciless killers.  They didn’t just kill:  they dispatched their opponents as brutally as possible.
Who would want to rebel?  Who would want to stand up to Rome, knowing that their fate was sure and certain?  The Pax Romana was assured.  As long as the empire maintained its military superiority and its vicious battle plan there would be peace—but at what price?  Peace was purchased at the expense of freedom. 
What a contrast from the peace Jesus offered his disciples in his final words to them before he too suffered a rebel’s death!  “Peace I leave with you,” he said; “my peace I give to you.”
This is not a new concept.  This is the same peace God promised God’s people from the beginning:  God’s shalom.  This is the peace of Eden before Satan.  This is the peace Isaiah described in 65:25:  “They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain.”  The peace at the end of time will be the same as at the beginning of time—not just the absence of conflict, but a peace so perfect humans can’t envision it.  Natural predators and their prey will coexist.  Children will be able to play in the open without fear of gunshot or molestation.  Those who have been enemies for centuries—millennia!—will love their opponents as they love their own families.  Peace will not come because a dictator achieves world domination, but because almighty God—who created the world—will set everyone free. 
But what about now?  Can we have peace now?  “Yes,” Jesus says.  “I leave my peace with you now.  You won’t be able to do much about external conditions, but if you follow me and do my Father’s will, you will have internal peace.  I’m not offering peace as the world does, with strings attached, or in exchange for your freedom.  I’m giving you shalom, free for the taking, given by my grace and through my love for you.
What will you choose:  pax terra or pax Deus?  What are you willing to give up:  life lived by the world’s standards, or life lived in alignment with God’s will? 

It’s your choice.  Choose wisely.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

A Radical Approach

A Radical Approach
Deuteronomy 1:1-8
            Forty years!  It had been forty years since God had parted the Red Sea to allow the Israelites to leave Egypt, then closed it over Pharaoh and his army.  For forty years they had wandered in the wilderness of Sinai and the Negev.  Now their wandering was over.  The Promised Land was in sight.  Just across the Jordan River lay the paradise God had prepared for them—the paradise God had been preparing them for all this time.
            But first, a final word from Moses, the prophet who had faithfully led them all these years.  Who else could God have trusted to carry them through these difficult times?  Who else would have put up with their complaining, their rebellion, their turning away from God?
            Moses knew he would not be permitted to lead the people into their promised reward.  He would stay on this side of the Jordan.  Tradition says God led him up Mount Nebo, showed him a vision of the land Israel would inhabit, and then received Moses to his final reward.
            Moses used his farewell address to remind the Israelites of all God had taught them.  Deuteronomy means “the second giving of the law.”  The book is a review of God’s instructions.  We find the Ten Commandments here, restated to remind the people of their obligations to God and their neighbors.  The commandments are the basis of the social, legal and religious code by which the Israelites were to live in their new home.
            Today these commandments seem fundamental to us.  We could not envision our lives without them.  Even those who do not subscribe to the first four (Israel’s relationship with God) find the last six an excellent basis for relationships between people.  I believe it would be difficult to find many nations that do not include them—in one form or another—in their social/moral/legal codes.
            We might think of these commandments as a conservative approach to morality, but that was not true when they were first given.  They were radical.  It’s true that many nations would have had some sort of code that permitted people to live together.  After all, killing, stealing, lying, coveting, illicit sexual relations are problems in any society, and must be outlawed in order for people to be able to coexist; but here they have the power of God behind them.  Killing is not just a crime against a fellow human being, but a sin against God.  The same is true for the other commandments that concern how we relate to our neighbors. 
            To make matters even more serious, the social/moral code is prefaced by a religious code—and what a code it is!  It establishes monotheism as the law of the land, an idea so radical in its day that only Israel followed it.  It is true that for a brief period Egypt had a pharaoh who tried to install a monotheistic religion, but the attempt died with him.  Only Israel of all the nations of the known world at that time believed in the supremacy of one God before whom all human beings and all other heavenly beings must bow.  This was a radical concept!
            Should this surprise us?  Not really.  If we read the Bible carefully we will see that God is a radical.  There is nothing conservative about God.  The laws given by God prove this.  “I am the LORD,” God says.  “You will worship me and only me.  No other god, no other heavenly being, no other object deserves your worship, only me, and you will love your neighbor—all your neighbors—as you love yourself.”

            God’s social code enshrines the idea of democracy.  If we read carefully we see that the commandments make no distinction among people.  There is no preferred upper class.  No one shall kill.  No one shall take what doesn’t belong to him/her.  No one has a right to another person’s spouse, or anything that belongs to any other person.  All are equal in God’s sight and before the law.  God is not a conservative.  God is a radical—and God’s law proves it.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

A Cry for Help

A Cry for Help
Exodus 3:1-8
            After listing the sons of Jacob who emigrated from Canaan to Egypt, announcing the death of Joseph, and letting us know that the children of Israel had prospered, the sacred writer tells us, “Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”
            Changes of leadership can be bad for some groups of people, especially those in the minority.  A country can have a significant minority population that fits well with the majority, that does very well for itself, and becomes somewhat integrated with society, but when a new leader, or political party, or governing philosophy or style arises, its minority status becomes alarmingly clear.
            Too often throughout history that minority has been Jewish.  In pre-Exodus Egypt, in Europe from the Middle Ages through the middle twentieth century, in the Middle East today, those of Jewish heritage were and are a minority either persecuted or in danger of persecution.  Are they the only minority to suffer?  By no means!  We have only to look at African-Americans or Hispanic-Americans today, or perhaps Muslim-Americans in the near future to see persecution.  Whoever the people, whatever the time or circumstance, we must realize that persecution of one class of people by another is morally wrong.  Moreover, in nations claiming to be Christian, it must be recognized as being against God’s law.
            Let’s focus on Israel in Egypt.  Things had started off well for Jacob’s children.  Because of Joseph’s service to the nation, Pharaoh had welcomed them with open arms, giving them fertile land to dwell in.  Israelites and Egyptians lived side by side in peace and prosperity.
            Then arose a king who had not known Joseph, who did not have open arms for Jacob’s descendants.  Suddenly, neighbors became strangers, not to be trusted but to be envied for their success.  It wasn’t right for them to do better than the native population.  It wasn’t proper for them to have better homes and farms than their Egyptian counterparts.  Something must be done!
            And done it was!  First, forced labor, then slavery, then genocide, until the children of Israel cried out to their God.  Perhaps, in the good years, they had forgotten about God.  Perhaps they had ceased to pray, to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Perhaps they felt they were doing all right without God’s help.  Perhaps they had forsaken the God of Israel and had begun to worship the gods of Egypt.  Now everything had changed.
            In their helplessness and distress they cried out to God, and God heard them.  YHWH—I AM—sent Moses to break Pharaoh’s heart of stone and lead Israel out of bondage and into the Promised Land.  You would think that would have been enough to seal the relationship between God and God’s people forever, but it didn’t happen that way.  Throughout history, Israel’s leadership led the people astray, or laid a heavy burden of servitude and economic inequality on their backs.  Sometimes the well-off people followed willingly, condemning their less-fortunate brothers and sisters to lives of poverty and misery.
            Whenever the people cried out to God, God sent a deliverer—a prophet, a wise king, an inspired leader.  Finally God sent Jesus Christ, the ultimate answer to the people’s cry for deliverance.
            Today people in bondage still cry out to God.  Whether that bondage is economic, social, psychological or spiritual, whatever pit humans may have fallen or been pushed into, God hears their cry.  But who will help?  Where is the deliverer who will save them?

            Every Christian must raise a hand and say, “Here I am, Lord!  Send me!”