It fascinates me when I think about those peculiar bedfellows. Hope and despair.
How can we be victorious when it feels all is lost? Much more than mere feeling, or passing sentiment, how can we sing our song in a strange land? I confess that there are times when I feel all thumbs. When I can tell no one is buying what I’m selling and there are low points where I cannot blame them.
No one needs compelling evidence that there is evil in this world.
The news, our communities, our lives are filled with examples that convince. Freddie Gray‘s smashed larynx and nearly severed spine in Baltimore. Walter Scott shot in the back in Charleston. Tamir Rice murdered in Cleveland. Eric Garner and Eric Harris expressing with their dying words that they cannot breathe, to no avail.
I remember when I learned about the way crucifixion kills. I never gave it much thought coming up. I guess I just thought the nails piercing the skin forced one to lose too much blood on the cross. Coming up we always sang about the blood. Communion was about the blood. Movies and television shows always depicted Jesus shedding a lot of blood so I suppose I put two and two together.
While it is true that one loses a lot of blood when crucified that is not the primary cause of death. Crucifixion is an exceptionally cruel way to die because amongst the nails piercing your skin and the practice of breaking the bones (which Jesus was not subject to), asphyxiation is the primary cause of death. While on the cross, your body stretched out, breathing becomes a laborious task until it is an impossible task and breathing stops. It is a death void of mercy.
Leaves little wonder why Jesus in the midst of such agony would quote the psalmist in his plea, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We too must wonder if we have been forsaken. When this bitter soup is continuously reheated and the actors tragicomically fill their roles. Everyone fulfilling their duty to the zeitgeist. Eat. Sleep. Outrage. Repeat. Unfriend people on Facebook. Attend a march or two. Refuse to watch mainstream news. Ultimately feel overwhelmed, perhaps defeated but begrudgingly press on. Does our blood cry from the ground?
I am encouraged by my inability to excuse myself from God’s presence. The psalmist has found nowhere to go where God is not. The psalmist reveals that even when we make our beds in hell, God is there. God is in our streets, with us in the jail cell, in the paddy wagon, with us as we mourn, with us as we suffer.
This presence comforts me but perhaps you remain unconvinced of its significance. Perhaps you cannot see the benefit of God’s presence in these circumstances.
Victory as presented through a biblical lens is peculiar. Scripture speaks about swords being beaten into plowshares, lions eating straw and a time when the wolf and the lamb will feed together. These examples are hopeful examples, a time when we will have to study war no more but ring hollow in our landscape because our society is disinterested in turning instruments of war into tools of agriculture. Our society cannot comprehend why one would eat straw when one is an apex predator, fully capable of sinking one’s teeth into whatever one chooses. Our society has conditioned us to believe the lamb has gone for the okey-doke and it is only a matter of time before the wolf’s plan is fully revealed and that foolish lamb gets got. Our society has created a lens where anyone who concedes power is foolish, might makes right and just hospitality is weakness.
There’s no room for the gospel in that worldview. When one hears the gospel under those conditions they must hear a toothless message. Where turning the other cheek is no longer an act of endurance but is a capitulating act of cowardice. You hear that a lot in the struggle, don’t you? Where the struggle is reduced to either being a disciple of King and non-violence or a Malcolm X type of brother who ain’t with all that. The gains gotten through non-violence seem inconsequential to the hell still being caught that an alternative seems seductive. We reduce Malcolm to a righteous Rambo who kicks in the door and takes everything back. But this lens sees only what it wants to see. It has no room for gleaning lessons from the lives actually lived by these men and is often unwilling to broaden that lens to include the men and women through whom we have reached this point. There is a danger when we can no longer learn. When we’ve figured it out or made our world so small that our context has the only hell being caught.
And let us make no mistake: people the world over are catching hell. There is something cold and sinister about making someone legitimize their suffering. Why is my personhood disquieting? Why must I assert my dignity? Who made it ok for me to be irrelevant? Or silenced? It should not be subversive to say black lives matter. To live my life confidently, knowing that “I am not forgotten” as the singer says, “God knows my name.”
It is exciting to see our text today on a cosmic battleground. Michael, the archangel defeats the dragon. As a result the dragon and the dragon’s angels are thrown out of heaven. When we look at verse 9, where the dragon is thrown, the verb used to show Satan’s defeat, eblethe, we see that this verb is passive. It is a device used in scripture referred to as a divine passive. An action that is initiated by God. Michael represents God’s combat capabilities but this triumph over the devil is achieved by God.
When I first read Paradise Lost I was in awe of the swift defeat Lucifer received when he attempted to revolt against God. The character appeared shocked and dismayed; simply didn’t know God had such capabilities. The same is true and much more so in this text where a cosmic battle of majestic magnitude is won through an act of humiliation.
Verse 11 tells us that the ones who were accused by the accuser have “conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.” It is on this plane, in our terrain where this cosmic battle is won. An ultimate sign of shame, defeat, complete dehumanization is the device used to reveal real power. Christ performs the greatest act of empathy the world will ever know. Unwilling to be a sideline savior, Jesus offers himself and reveals himself as the Christ. It gives a greater understanding to the power of prayer, coming together as community and what is possible when the lordship of Jesus Christ is taken seriously. Here we see what happens when what is bound on earth is bound in heaven. Our tendencies are challenged. Our worldview is subverted. Every misconception of what power actually looks like is destroyed. Victory is found in the blood of the lamb.
I am mystified by verse 12. It is easy to create a perennial parallel here; rejoicing in heaven and running through the earth with my woes. The evil that we face on this plane is deadly; you don’t need me to tell you that. It is a cost we know too well. But it is not the end of the story. The devil is no match for God. Evil, no matter how ubiquitous, has not received a blank cheque. This hell we are catching is nothing more than the death throes of a system that is falling and cannot get up. Every lash it makes against us, another proof of its demise. It cannot last, it will not last, it does not have the victory.
Brothers and sisters we must live victoriously. Not guided by the boots on our necks nor seduced by tales of alternative means for power. New Testament scholar Eugene Boring notes “If Revelation teaches anything, it is that the power by which God brings the kingdom is the power of suffering love revealed in the cross.” Our Lord stands at the door and knocks; calling us to participate in God’s life. Live passionately for justice. Let your life testify to who God is, what real power looks like. Amen.
(Picture taken from https://scoutdog.files.wordpress.com/2007/12/looking-out-window-6-7-07-001.jpg)
Youse a stupid dog.
Wha yuh a look fah een?
Deh deh a look pon window…wha yuh tink?
Parousia nah start today, papa.
Yuh nuh see seh we nuh ready?
Bwoy mi tell yuh!
I think Jesus show up right ya now we’d kill him again.
In all a him glory (tell the story!)
We so fool fool, we see him and tink seh
Di big man fit di description.
Bwoy mi nuh know!
Yuh tink dem woulda stop and frisk mi King?
Have a picnic, put a fiyah pon a cross or wha?
Baptize wid di firehose.
Last supper wid skittles.
Iced tea a fi wi blood type.
Mi like him, me’d a show up as a dawg.
No mongrel to wi ting.
Deh yah a wait pon mi Shepherd still.
Leadership can be weary you know. You feel a conviction and move on it. Unsure if you’ll be headed up the mountain by yourself but you just know you have to go. There are other times where you feel provoked to move, not by gumption or a still small voice. No this provocation is from external pressure. And in spite of its weight, this pressure to keep up is unsuccessful in getting you to move. Something about it just does not seem right, so you stand still. Leadership, in every permutation, requires a willingness to listen. And even in listening there must be a discipline to listen for the right voice. Dr. King noted the multitude of voices; how many forces are at the proverbial table ready to speak up when decisions must be made. Cowardice asks, “is it safe?” Expediency, “is it politic?” Vanity, “is it popular?” But conscience asks the question, “Is it right?” Dr. King understood that “there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular; but one must take it because it is right.”
Jonah fascinates me. This brother hears that he has to go to Nineveh and speak against the wickedness in that city and refuses to go. Jonah flees for Tarshish and from the Lord’s presence (Jonah 1:3). The ship he is in is met with a storm and Jonah is eventually thrown into the sea and takes up residency in the belly of a great fish for three days and three nights. After being thrown overboard and living in the belly of a fish, Jonah makes his way to Nineveh where the people repent and God does not destroy their city. This tale contains characters whose behavior is unexpected. Jonah, being the prophet after all, is the one we expect to model right behavior. And seeing that Nineveh was about to be destroyed for their iniquity, one would not be out of pocket to expect some reckless behavior once the story reaches Nineveh. But surprisingly we see a king who models humility for his people. The king joins his people in mourning; he rises from his throne, removes his royal attire and covers himself in sackcloth and ashes (Jonah 3:6). Furthermore, the king of Nineveh declares that all in Nineveh, human and animal alike, will participate in this solemn assembly. All must participate in this act of repentance.
You’d think that this incredible act of contrition–a whole city destined for destruction repenting!–would soften Jonah’s heart toward Nineveh but he is disinterested. The story ends with Jonah not feeling needed. He knew God was compassionate and abounding in love so he figured this outcome could have happened with or without him (Jonah 4:2). Jonah sets up shop to the east of the city and waits to see what will happen. Jonah wants the Lord to take his life but God makes a bush for him. A bush that gives him shade, a bush that saves him from his discomfort (Jonah 4:6). For the first time in the book, Jonah is actually happy. This happiness is shortlived as a worm attacks the bush and it withers. The elements of wind and heat over take the prophet and once again Jonah says to the Lord, “It is better for me to die than to live,” (Jonah 4:8, NRSV).
God calls Jonah out. Jonah is furious about the outcome, no longer wants to live and is mourning over a bush. God says to him if he is going to be outraged about these matters, then shouldn’t God be “concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:11, NRSV).
Now before we get comfortable in our seats of judgment, let us not forget that we are not far removed from such obstinance. How many times do we ignore the right voice? We let the phone ring. We take another aisle at the supermarket. We cross the street. We play the perverse game of “I hope they didn’t see me.” We find ourselves unwilling in moments to extend any kind of hospitality. We will not go.
I believe that we leaders today have a lot to learn from the book of Jonah. In light of the difficult times we currently inhabit in the United States, I have grown weary of leaders’ inability and unwillingness to address systemic racism. The #BlackLivesMatter movement has birthed two understandings in my soul. Some matters are suprapolitical. Issues of human dignity, providing security and sustenance for our children, and how we treat the “least of these” should not be political matters. It should not be politically expedient to further marginalize people. It should not be beneficial to maintain status quo if people are dying as a result. I have come to a place where politics pales to prophecy; where truth telling is all that matters because it is the only thing that sets us free.
Secondly, I view #BlackLivesMatter as a call to participate in God’s life. I hear the Christ of Revelation standing at the door and knocking (Revelation 3:20), bidding us to follow, compelling us to carry our crosses.
Doing this work, “the work our souls must have” (allusion to title of Emilie Townes’ chapter “Ethics as an Art of Doing the Work Our Souls Must Have” in the Womanist Theological Ethics: A Reader, eds. Katie Geneva Cannon, Emilie Maureen Townes, Angela D. Sims) is costly. Taxing. Exhausting. We walk with hope and despair tightening around us making it difficult to breathe. But we press on because we know the talents we have received and we refuse to call God a liar. Refuse to live as if we are less. Refuse to live as if the deaths of our children and loved ones is an acceptable lot in life.
It is time for us as followers of Christ to take love and hospitality seriously. I love the image given in Revelation 3:20 where Jesus says “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me,” (Revelation 3:20, NIV). What does our world look like when the voice we listen to harkens us to show hospitality? What does the church become when we disrupt oppression and take up the pursuit of justice? What happens when our unreadiness subsides, we no longer fear ostracism or irrelevancy and outrightly refuse to impede justice? Friends, we are all called to participate in God’s life. Restorative justice is a significant aspect of this participation.
I pray for a radical redefining that buffers our stubborn ways into steadfastness. So many avenues where we are the Jonahs, unwilling instruments of God’s mercy, surly ambassadors of God’s everlasting love. Our actions articulate our understanding of the gospel far more than our words ever will. While our words drip honey, our treatment of one another–particularly the least of these–is a lemon juice gospel. “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up,” (Galatians 6:9, NRSV). We cannot have reconciliation without repentance. A repentance reflective of our trust in the God whose love is unstoppable. A trust that compels us to embodied worship. No more disjointed understandings; a full infatuation with God. The God who compels us to participate in God’s life. The God who compels us to focus on the least of these. Comfort the afflicted, speak truth to power, and mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15).
May we be changed and cease our rebellion against God and be so filled with God’s love that we, even we, become instruments of hospitality, ministers of presence in the most unexpected of places. May our understanding of who our neighbors are be broadened and may all of God’s children know us by our love, our commitment to being who we say we are, and no matter how difficult the situation or tempting desertion is, hold fast to our God and our neighbor and lovingly say, “We won’t go.”
Feel the riddim.
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