Embrace the Crazy in Christmas

Today I wish to direct your attention to a piece by Mandy Rogers-Gates at the her.meneutics blog entitled “Let Christmas Be Complicated“.

As evangelicals, we crave a simple faith which breaks out neatly into categories of black and white, good and evil, right and wrong.  Something we can shove in the faces of all those godless postmodern liberals running around out there, clamoring about how it’s all relative and there’s no black and white only shades of gray.  Reality check:  There is good and there is evil but the boundary between the two is not nearly as straightforward as we would like it to be.

Consider how this plays out in the story of Christmas.  In the gospel of Matthew, almost immediately after the birth of Jesus we get the story of the flight to Egypt.  Joseph and Mary were warned in a dream that Herod was on the hunt for Jesus.  Why?  Because Herod had gotten wind that this baby Jesus would grow up to be king of the Jews.  But the Jews already had a king.  This did not sit well with him, so he wanted Jesus dead.  So Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt with Jesus, and laid low there until the situation cooled off.

But what about all the other babies in Bethlehem?  You see, Herod did not take too well to the news that Jesus was nowhere to be found.  He wanted to make sure Jesus was good and gone, so he had all the babies killed who could possibly be the same age as Jesus, and who therefore could potentially be Jesus.

There were lots of sad mothers that day.  Matthew tells us twice that all this happened so that Old Testament prophecy might be fulfilled:  First, the flight to Egypt, which fulfilled Hosea 11:1 (“Out of Egypt I called my son”).  Then there are the words of Jeremiah:

A voice was heard in Ramah,
Weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children;
And she refused to be comforted,
Because they were no more.

Imagine if you were one of those Jewish mothers in Bethlehem.  Your son had made it through that critical first year of life, which was by no means assured–life was hard in first century Israel–only to be killed brutally by Roman soldiers because the king up at Jerusalem had decided he posed a threat.  Now imagine someone telling you that your suffering and loss fulfilled an Old Testament prophecy concerning the coming of the Anointed One and was part and parcel of God’s plan.  It would ring a bit hollow to you, I bet.

Now, does the fact that this happened mean that it had to happen?  Did it have to happen this way, or could God have fulfilled these prophecies another way?  Put it another way:  Did God need for those babies to die–did God want those babies to die–in order for Jesus to come into the world?

There are no easy answers to these questions.  Yet too often we come to Scripture expecting easy answers.  We want everything simple, all wrapped up with a nice little bow on it.  Yet Scripture doesn’t always play by those rules.  Scripture doesn’t give us the easy answers we crave.  Instead it gives us questions and leaves us to wrestle with those questions.

Read: “Let Christmas Be Complicated” by Mandy Rogers-Gates

Light of the World: The Christmas Story

nativity1

Today we are going to talk about the Christmas story.  Why?  Because it is entirely possible that some of you could have made it this far into the Advent/Christmas season without even once having heard the Christmas story.  We intend to remedy that today.

To begin with, we note that there are not one but four accounts of the life of Jesus.  These are the gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Only two of these accounts mention the birth of Jesus:  Matthew and Luke.  Mark does not even mention the birth of Jesus.  John mentions it but does not say anything about what happened, instead he focuses on why it happened:

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

–John 1:9-13

First thing to note here:  Though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.  We have this idea, if you listen to the ways in which evangelicals talk about such things, that the light shines in a room where it’s obvious that we’ve been needing some lightening up around here, and our Christianity has the best bulb for the job.  Reality check:  Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not understand it.

The other thing to note here is the words “believed in”.  This was a combination of two Greek words which had never before been combined.  It gave a twist to the idea of belief which had never before been expressed in language: that of belief not as the acceptance of and assent to a set of facts or a body of truth, but rather as trust in an actual person.

At this point, let us say a few words about the “personal relationship with Jesus” thing which is such a big idea in evangelicalism.  The idea of a “personal relationship with Jesus” is a flawed and incomplete truth, yet it gets to one of the core distinctives of evangelicalism which is the desire for a vital, meaningful connection with God and experience of His presence in our lives, and the belief that such a connection can be had.  Faith is more than just assenting to the statement of belief that is on file down at your church or denomination’s front office; instead it is a personal engagement with and trust in a God who became a person and lived among us.

Now, on to the Christmas story.  We go to Luke 1:

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.”

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

–Luke 1:26-38

First of all, there are lots of people running around out there saying that they have seen angels.  Heads up:  If you saw something and the first words out of his/her/its mouth were not “Do not be afraid”, then what you saw was not an angel.

Next:  We do not appreciate this yet here it is:  Mary’s life was about to be turned completely and totally upside down.  She was about to spend nine months carrying a child who was not hers and Joseph’s, when she and Joseph were not married yet.

We go to Matthew:

This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

–Matthew 1:18-24

When Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant, of course he is freaked out.  Who wouldn’t be?  He and Mary were engaged, except that this was more than engaged:  This was a legal marital status, meaning that they were promised to be married.  In all probability, they had been promised to each other from birth.  Now Joseph was a righteous man and he did not want to expose Mary to public ridicule, let alone the death penalty which the Old Testament prescribed for a situation such as this.  So he had in mind to break it off quietly–at least as quietly as it could possibly be done, considering that they were legally promised to each other and breaking it off would be a public, legal thing, sort of like a divorce.  It took a timely appearance by an angel to keep the whole thing on track.

Now the angel said to Joseph that the baby was to be named Jesus.  What Joseph heard was not “Jesus” (an Anglicized translation by way of Latin from Greek), but rather “Yeshua” (Hebrew), the same name as “Joshua”.  More than likely this evoked for him memories of the Old Testament stories of Joshua leading the Israelites into the Promised Land and subduing and driving out all Israel’s enemies.  More than likely he was thinking “Yeah, there are a lot of enemies here who could use some subduing and driving out”, so the next part of the angel’s message probably didn’t even register with him:  He (Jesus) would save his people from their sins.  It wasn’t until after Jesus died and rose from the dead that this would register with anyone.

Some decades later Paul would come to faith in Jesus.  Paul had been a zealous Pharisee, a persecutor of those who were part of what he considered to be a heretical knockoff Jewish sect.  As such, his concerns, like the concerns of most devout Jews of the time, were:  Who will save Israel from her present state of slavery and in-our-homeland-but-might-as-well-be-in-exile exile at the hands of her enemies?  Who will restore the kingdom and put the son of David back on the throne in Israel?  God showed him Jesus, crucified and risen from the dead, as the answer to all these concerns.  As Paul reflected on this he began to realize that if that was the solution, then the problems Israel faced were much much deeper and much much worse than just Rome.  Indeed, Israel’s trouble extended all the way back to Adam and it affected not just Israel but all of humanity.  The true problem at issue here was sin, not just as bad behavior or failure to comply with a set of commands but as a condition of the human heart, a condition which would of necessity lead to complete and absolute separation from anything having to do with God.  The only remedy was for God Himself to become one of us, and ultimately to die and rise from the dead.

We now go back to Luke:

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

–Luke 2:1-20

So Mary and Joseph were all settled in at Nazareth, getting ready to have the baby.  Yet the Old Testament prophets said that the Messiah was to come from Bethlehem.  So Caesar Augustus (or one of his close advisors) gets it into his head that taking a census of all the known Roman world would be a good idea, and off we go.

Now we have this picture of Joseph and Mary on a donkey, trucking along all by themselves through the Israeli badlands to Bethlehem.  Great picture; not a shred of biblical evidence for it.  We don’t know what the picture was really like.  In all probability it wasn’t just Mary and Joseph; the journey was hard and it was too dangerous for two people to make all by themselves.  More than likely they had a bunch of other people along with them for the ride.

So now we get to Bethlehem and the birth goes off.  Mary treasures all these things and ponders them in her heart.  Of course she does; she can’t really tell anyone else about them because who would understand?

Our first passage came from the gospel of John.  Now John and Mary were with Jesus when he died; Jesus commanded John to take her in and take care of her.  Tradition has it that that is exactly what he did.  So John had several years, decades even, to live with Mary and hear from her all about Jesus’ birth and what it had meant to her and her reflections upon it all.  More than likely his account was formed on a deep level by this knowledge.

Pete Enns on Christmas in America and Ancient Israel

Today I wish to direct your attention to a post from Pete Enns entitled “What Christmas in “Christian America” tells us about ancient Israel“.  Enns’ big idea is that the way Christmas is celebrated nowadays in America, with it being a national, secular-ish holiday that has little if any religious significance for the majority of those who celebrate it, provides an analogy for life in Old Testament Israel.

We have this idea that the ancient Israelites were just as aware as we are of what one reads in the Old Testament.  As if every Israelite family was sitting around, having daily devotions, carrying their Bibles with them whenever they went to temple or synagogue.  Reality check:  There was no “Bible”–certainly not as we know it today–back in Old Testament times.  The Old Testament–such as it was back then–was not something which every rank-and-file Jew had in their home or to carry around with them.  Reading and writing were something which only trained scribes did.  The printing press and the Bible in every person’s possession were relatively recent innovations in the scope of human history.

Thus, the reality of Israelite faith as it was lived out on the ground during the time of the kings (prior to the exile in Babylon) was significantly different from what we read about in the Old Testament.  They had the Temple, the priests, the sacrifices, and all the religious feasts, to be sure, but it all made little if any difference in the daily, on-the-ground existence of Israelites living at the time.  Most of them–they were probably just going along with the cultural flow.  Just like the majority of people who celebrate Christmas in America nowadays.

So when you read the Old Testament, the story here is not so much one of out-and-out rebellion by the Israelites against clearly spelled-out and clearly understood commands from God, but rather one of a monumental disconnect between what was happening in Jerusalem among the religious elites and what was happening on the ground in the lives of average Israelites all over the land.

Read Pete Enns “What Christmas in “Christian America” tells us about ancient Israel”

Advent Week 4: Where Do We Go From Here?

advent4We are now in week 4 of the Advent season.  Advent is the four weeks before Christmas; more precisely it is three full weeks plus whatever fraction of a week is needed to get us to Christmas.  Advent is a season of darkness; the general, pervasive darkness of a world in waiting for its long-promised Savior and Redeemer Jesus Christ, whose coming we celebrate in a couple of weeks.

During this season, what we usually do around here is pick an Advent-related topic and talk about it for four weeks.  This year, we are talking about exile because it is a timely thing to talk about, with that Supreme Court decision a few months back, the cultural shifts which made it possible, and many other things which are happening in the world today.  It is abundantly clear that we as Christians no longer enjoy the privilege, prestige, and influence in society at large that we once did.

Exile was God’s judgment on Israel’s faithlessness and idolatry.  For them it meant actual exile as the Babylonians invaded, sacked Jerusalem, and resettled the majority of the Israelite population in Babylon.  We as the present-day Church face nothing of the sort, yet all the same we find ourselves living in a new reality which in many ways resembles the reality Israel found herself living through during the Babylonian captivity and the centuries which followed.  In this series we are unpacking what exile looked like for Israel and what it looks like for us, how we got here, and how we are to adjust to this new reality and carry on as the people of God.

In previous weeks we saw Israel’s story as a cycle of obedience/blessing followed by disobedience/judgment followed by eventual redemption and restoration.  We saw that, as noted above, exile was God’s ultimate judgment on Israel’s disobedience.  We saw that Israel’s story is our story as the Church, and that we face conquest and exile, in a manner of speaking, because of our systemic capitulation to the false gods of Enlightenment-based modernity.  Enlightenment concepts such as the nation-state, economics, the social sciences, progress, the sexual revolution, moral progress, reason, romanticism, and historical idealism are all woven deeply into the very DNA of Western Christianity, and now it has come too far and the invading Babylonians are at the gates, as it were.  At this point the wise thing to do is to surrender or flee the city altogether.

Last week we looked at Jeremiah’s words to the Israelite exiles in Babylon in Jeremiah 29, and came around the idea that we should live and work peaceably in the world we find ourselves in, working for the good of our neighbors and our society at large while recognizing that we will probably not get any say in how things are run in society at large.  We cannot and should not try to “save” ourselves from the reality of our present situation–i. e. try to bring back the American Christendom of the 1940s and 1950s (for example); any such efforts cannot and will not end well.

Now we come to some practical, down-to-earth ideas as to how this plays out.

First, an example of how NOT to live in the new reality we are discussing here.

starwarsYou may have seen or heard this story; a megachurch up in New Jersey is attempting to capitalize on the current Star Wars buzz by doing a Star Wars-themed Christmas service, complete with a live nativity in which you get to hold a lightsaber and take your place with Luke, Leia, Han Solo, R2-D2, and other Star Wars characters.  Here is the link to the promo page on their website, where you can see it all for yourself.

This is just like so many of evangelicalism’s attempts to engage the culture.  It takes something which is getting lots of buzz right now and screams out loud to the entire watching world, “LOOK!!!!!  OVER HERE!!!!!  BEHIND THE POTTED PALM!!!!!  WE GOT JESUS, DON’T YOU WANNA COME SEE?!?!?!?”

What I’m talking about here is something completely different.  Here are some things TO do:

–First, be intensely and intentionally relational.  Modernity says that human beings are no more than things to be managed; used and then discarded when they have outlived their usefulness.  It is not to be so among us.

We must reclaim the value of Christian friendship.  Celebrate the Church as the family of God–as an alternative to the biological family.  This means conservative evangelicalism will have to give up its incessant fixation with the biological family.

Evangelicals have conflated faithfulness to God with faithfulness to the notion of family, as if the forces of evil are those godless liberals who are attacking the traditional family and traditional family values, and we are called upon to defend God and the Christian faith by defending the traditional family.  And yet, despite all the culture war rhetoric about queers and godless liberals run amok and other threats to the family, our society places a very high premium on family life.  It is increasingly difficult to live as a family of one in a world made for two.  There are many places in town where I could not live–would not want to live–because it is nothing but families with children who live there.  If I were to live in any such places as a single person, and especially as one who is getting on in years, I would be considered significantly out of place, and even creepy.  It is hard to eat out as a party of one when all the restaurants in the city are filled with parties of two or more, though I don’t let that stop me.

And the church has played right into this cultural idolatry of the biological family, even while claiming that the family is under attack.  People are confused about our message, to the point that many think the Gospel is synonymous with family values.  Much of the programming in churches is directed toward families and children, and churches are all trying to outdo each other in terms of what they can provide for YOUR family.  (Note that the Star Wars Christmas service mentioned above is promoted as a family-friendly event.)

To be sure, the institution of the family holds a high place in the economy of God. Throughout the Bible God’s love for His people is described in terms of family relationships–husband and wife, father and child, etc. Large portions of the New Testament are dedicated to how we are to live in our family relationships. Yet a lot of what Jesus says in the Gospels is about commitment to him in spite of family expectations. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters–yes, even his own life–he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26) “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:51-53) “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:50)

The Church is an alternative family, united in friendship and common love, where the unloved, abandoned, and unwanted, those who come from broken families, and yes, those who, like me, are families of one, can find home, belonging, community, and acceptance.  Let us reclaim this vision of the Church as the family of God, as an alternative to the biological family.

–Do not care about the world’s political arrangements.  We won’t get a say in that.  We still work to seek the welfare of the city, and that includes voting and holding office in places where we have the freedom and opportunity to do so, but we do so knowing that it is our conquerors’ city and not ours.  We will have little if any say in its governance.  We are subjects of the present world order, not participants in crafting it.

This means we are to be non-ideological.  Ideologies are incomplete truths.  They are useful in limited ways, but they always pretend to be more than what they really are.  Don’t be conservative or liberal, progressive or reactionary.  Instead, as followers of Jesus, we are to show the world that there is another way to live, grounded in the true story of a God who sacrificed Himself for us rather than demanding that we sacrifice for Him.

Power is being taken from us.  Why not lay it down freely, of our own accord?

–Embrace liturgy.  Accept the craziness of what we believe.  Stay grounded in the liturgy of the historic Church.  It is a time-tested means of keeping the main thing the main thing, of keeping the Christian story and message in front of us at all times.  It is a drama and story that connects us to God and to each other.  It forms us as a people who are waiting faithfully for our Redeemer who has come and is coming again.

If your church doesn’t do anything with the liturgy, then nip out the back door every once in a while and find one that does.  Evangelicals have historically been averse to liturgy, largely because of a general aversion to anything that looks, feels, or smells Catholic, but that is starting to change.  There are a lot of churches out there nowadays that are doing good things with the liturgy, and you won’t have to go too far to find one.

–Finally, live with hope.  The captivity of the Church to Enlightenment-based modernity is God’s judgment upon us, but our children will be redeemed.  Babylon was conquered by Persia, which was conquered by Greece and then Rome, which was conquered by the Church.  The lies and empty promises of Enlightenment-based modernity and secularization will be judged and will eventually fall.

Exile means living purposefully in the world and with each other.  Let us plant trees, have children, love our neighbors, and wish the best for our enemies.  What is truly important all belongs to God and will all come back to God no matter what.

When Being Human Isn’t Good Enough

Today I wish to direct your attention to a couple of posts from around the blogosphere this past week.

First is a post which appeared over at the Desiring God website entitled “Ransomed: He Sets the Prisoner Free” by Elizabeth Wann.  This is a piece by a self-confessed indie kid in which she describes how the indie lifestyle led to a certain arrogance and hardness of heart which was not becoming of a good Christian life.  This led her into a place of spiritual slavery which became apparent to her when a relationship ended badly.

This piece speaks to one of the standard anxieties of evangelicalism:  namely, that being human is simply not good enough for God.  Wann was into the indie lifestyle–liking new bands before they became popular, going to indie bars with all her indie friends to listen to indie bands.  Not that there is anything inherently wrong with the indie lifestyle per se, but when it comes into contact with the corrupt human heart, the result is an idolatrous devotion to the indie lifestyle.

Since when is this something to be repented of?  Since when is the human need and desire for belonging, expressed through a certain musical/lifestyle preference and community with others who share said musical/lifestyle preference, something to be repented of?

John Piper has been on my shit list ever since “Farewell Rob Bell” a couple of years back, and this is one of the primary reasons.  In his formulation of Christianity, being human is something to be repented of, in tears and on one’s knees.  I cannot and will not accept this.

The next piece I wish to share appeared at internetmonk.com this past week and is entitled “You don’t have to ‘do grief right’“.  It is a reflection on how evangelicals are taught to handle grief, with its jumping-off point the story of a nationally known up-and-coming pastor who recently lost his wife in horrific fashion.  His response to the loss has led to internet/Fox News conspiracy theories that he was involved in her death.  In his statements following her death, which are quoted copiously and linked in the article, the pastor talks at length about God’s purpose in the tragedy.

The takeaway:  We don’t know, and can’t know, God’s purpose in events of horrific loss.  We don’t know, and can’t know, what God wants to say to others/the church through such events.  The experience of losing someone close to you is not something to be “used” or “wasted”.

It is perfectly human to hurt and grieve in the face of horrific loss, to not know any of the answers as to God’s purpose in said loss, to not have positive feelings to balance out the negative, in short, to not be in control of the grieving process.  Yet in the universe of evangelicalism, we imagine that through the right tools and principles applied at the right time and in the right fashion, we can shortcut the grieving process and effect a return to happiness.  We imagine that we must remain positive at all times, in all circumstances, to bear a good “witness” to a world that needs to hear the Gospel message of Jesus Christ.  As a result, much that is part of the normal human experience has no place in evangelicalism.

Don’t accept this, people.  It is not right.

In both of these pieces, the recurring theme is that being human is not good enough in evangelicalism.  Don’t accept this, people.  God knows that we are human, and He is okay with it.  If your theology does not permit you to accept this, then change your theology.

Advent Week 3: What Does Exile Mean to Us?

advent3We are now in week 3 of the Advent season.  Advent is the four weeks before Christmas; more precisely it is three full weeks plus whatever fraction of a week is needed to get us to Christmas.  Advent is a season of darkness; the general, pervasive darkness of a world in waiting for its long-promised Savior and Redeemer Jesus Christ, whose coming we celebrate in a couple of weeks.

During this season, what we usually do around here is pick an Advent-related topic and talk about it for four weeks.  This year, we are talking about exile because it is a timely thing to talk about, with that Supreme Court decision a few months back, the cultural shifts which made it possible, and many other things which are happening in the world today.  It is abundantly clear that we as Christians no longer enjoy the privilege, prestige, and influence in society at large that we once did.

Exile was God’s judgment on Israel’s faithlessness and idolatry.  For them it meant actual exile as the Babylonians invaded, sacked Jerusalem, and resettled the majority of the Israelite population in Babylon.  We as the present-day Church face nothing of the sort, yet all the same we find ourselves living in a new reality which in many ways resembles the reality Israel found herself living through during the Babylonian captivity and the centuries which followed.  In this series we are unpacking what exile looked like for Israel and what it looks like for us, how we got here, and how we are to adjust to this new reality and carry on as the people of God.

In previous weeks we saw Israel’s story as a cycle of obedience/blessing followed by disobedience/judgment followed by eventual redemption and restoration.  We saw that, as noted above, exile was God’s ultimate judgment on Israel’s disobedience.  We saw that Israel’s story is our story as the Church, and that we face conquest and exile, in a manner of speaking, because of our systemic capitulation to the false gods of Enlightenment-based modernity.  Enlightenment concepts such as the nation-state, economics, the social sciences, progress, the sexual revolution, moral progress, reason, romanticism, and historical idealism are all woven deeply into the very DNA of Western Christianity, and now it has come too far and the invading Babylonians are at the gates, as it were.  At this point the wise thing to do is to surrender or flee the city altogether.

So now we come to the question:  What does this look like?  What does all this mean for us?

We go to Jeremiah 29:

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

…”For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”

–Jeremiah 29:4-7, 11-14

Here is the context:  The Babylonians had invaded and sacked Jerusalem and carried off most of the Israelite people to Babylon.  At this point there was still a remnant in Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside, ruled over by Zedekiah who was basically a puppet king.  Jeremiah was with this remnant.  False prophets had been prophesying to the exiles in Babylon, saying basically that it would not be long until the Babylonians were defeated, the exiles returned home, and business as usual would resume.  So Jeremiah wrote this letter to the exiles in Babylon to tell them that, no, it was going to be a while.  Go ahead and settle down, build houses, plant fields, marry and have children.  This is your home now.  You will live out the rest of your days here, and so will your children.  But their children, or their children’s children, will see deliverance from Babylon.  They will return home, they will experience redemption and restoration.

Be patient.  There will be deliverance.  But in the meantime, act like this place of exile is your home.

For the Israelites in Babylon, this was no small thing.  When Jeremiah was asking the exiles to pray for the city where they settled, he was basically asking them to pray for the people who have enslaved them–their captors, their enemies, their tormentors.  They knew this, and it had to have gone against everything in them to accept this.  Recall that these are the same people about whom the Israelites prayed that they would be repaid for what they had done, that their babies would be dashed against the rocks (Psalm 137).

So how does this apply to us as the Church?

It means that we should be patient and live in the situation we find ourselves in.  This is where we are, and nothing we can do can change it.  There is no bringing back the American Christendom of the 1940’s and 1950’s, no reversing the cultural shifts which have led to its demise.  We should live and work in the world we find ourselves in, recognizing that we will probably not get to have any say in the prevailing ideas and trends of this world, just as the Israelites did not have any say in how things were run over in Babylon.

Occasionally we may be called upon to engage the powers that be in our world with the truth of God, just as Jonah preached to Nineveh to warn them of God’s coming judgment.  And Nineveh repented.  In the same way we may be called upon to speak truth to modernity, and it may be that modernity will listen and repent.

Or we may be called upon to be like Elijah and Elisha, who engaged the enemies of Israel, occasionally in fiery confrontation like Mount Carmel, but mostly grace and healing.

It all adds up to Jesus.  Basically we should be Jesus in a world that is at war with us, even murderously opposed to us.  Don’t be defensive or combative, but instead be hopeful, humble, and faithful.  Don’t attempt to “save” ourselves from the new reality of our present condition; this cannot and will not end well.  Wait upon the redemption of the Lord, knowing that we already have the reality and assurance of this in Christ.

Next week we will look at some practical, down-to-earth ways in which all this plays out.

Advent Week 2: What Does Exile Look Like?

advent2We are now in week 2 of the Advent season.  Advent is the four weeks before Christmas; more precisely it is three full weeks plus whatever fraction of a week is needed to get us to Christmas.  Advent is a season of darkness; the general, pervasive darkness of a world in waiting for its long-promised Savior and Redeemer Jesus Christ, whose coming we celebrate in a couple of weeks.

During this season, what we usually do around here is pick an Advent-related topic and talk about it for four weeks.  This year, we are talking about exile because it is a timely thing to talk about, with that Supreme Court decision a few months back, the cultural shifts which made it possible, and many other things which are happening in the world today.  It is abundantly clear that we as Christians no longer enjoy the privilege, prestige, and influence in society at large that we once did.  We now find ourselves living in a new reality which in many ways resembles the reality Israel found herself living through during the Babylonian captivity and the centuries which followed.  In this series we are unpacking what exile looked like for Israel and what it looks like for us, how we got here, and how we are to adjust to the new reality we find ourselves in and carry on as the people of God.

Last week we laid out that exile is God’s judgment on Israel’s faithlessness and idolatry.  We saw Israel’s history as a cycle of obedience, blessing, disobedience, judgment, and eventual redemption/restoration.  We looked at some lengthy passages in Leviticus and Deuteronomy which spell this out in graphic detail.  We noted that this was not an if/then, either/or proposition (if obedience then blessings/if disobedience then judgment), but a both/and.  Israel experienced both blessings for obedience during the time of David, the greatest of Israel’s kings, and judgment for disobedience as it all unraveled in the centuries which followed, culminating in the exile to Babylon.

So why is all this important?  Because it is OUR story as the Church.  We currently face conquest and exile, in a manner of speaking, as a consequence of our own idolatry.  We serve the false gods of Enlightenment-based modernity.  We have no hope of accommodating the ideas and presuppositions of modernity–anymore than Israel had any hope of defeating Assyria or Babylon.  These idols of Enlightenment-based modernity do nothing for us, yet they demand much bloody sacrifice on our part.

The entire system is set up this way.  Enlightenment concepts such as the nation-state, economics, the social sciences, progress, the sexual revolution, moral progress, reason, romanticism, and historical idealism are all woven deeply into the very DNA of Western Christianity.  This is pervasive throughout all of Western Christianity, whether in the liberal mainlines which are all about science and progress and the next big intellectual fad, or in conservative evangelicalism which is completely enamoured of a church growth ideology which says that corporate America has told us who we are and whose we are.  We believe that the very same qualities which make one a good citizen of a modern nation-state also make one a good Christian disciple, and we have set up our churches and denominations along those lines.  We believe that Christian discipleship and community are things which can be industrialized, commoditized, and mass-produced, and we have built organizations which are adept at doing exactly that.

At this point an illustration is in order:  Every week as I come to church, I see lots of families with young children making their way in.  As I mentally contrast this with my own family which consists of me, my imaginary wife, and 2.6 imaginary kids, I cannot help seeing this as a reminder of everything that I ought to be but am not.  A reminder that, on a very fundamental level, I do not belong because I do not want the same things that so many around me want, in the way they ought to be wanted, nor can I bring myself to want those things.

I am not sure how much of this is due to factors inside of me which I do not fully understand, which make it difficult for me to experience belonging and connection, and which make me a difficult person to be connected to, and how much of this I can conveniently blame on how the Western church is set up.  But what I do know is that if enough people out there complain of having an experience similar to mine, the typical response in the vast majority of churches will be to establish a program for single people, or to look at the programs they currently have.  Well, you would be very hard-pressed to find a singles program anywhere in the country that is better than what my church has, so programming is clearly not the issue.  Yet whenever a certain class of people experiences difficulty connecting with the church, the knee-jerk reaction of the vast majority of churches out there is to look to programming:  What sort of programs would help these people connect?  What sort of programs do we have in place?  How can we improve our programs so that we get better results?

That these are the go-to questions to ask whenever somebody (or multiple somebodies) experiences difficulty connecting with the Church–shows how deeply the lies of Enlightenment-based modernity have penetrated the Church.  It is not about people; instead it is all about programs, institutions, processes, standards, structures, accountability, quantifiable results, and rigid controls.  Now contrast this with the so-called Islamic State, which is having tremendous success connecting with young people, especially here in the West, because they reach them organically, building supportive, empathetic relationships in which young people are able to see their story, their struggles, their lives, all in the context of a much bigger story.  Here is a money quote from a piece by Charles Featherstone which I linked a couple of weeks back:

Here the whole problem of the West (including the church) lies bare — we cannot conceive of anything or anyone working outside the confines of our bureaucratic and institutional structures. We cannot think outside of those structures, and we cannot hire (or call) people who don’t quite fit in them (or don’t fit in them at all) because fitting in those structures, conforming to them, is more important than actually accomplishing the things those structures and institutions are designed to accomplished. In our modern understanding, man was clearly made for the sabbath, and damned is the man who cannot or will not rest on the seventh day.

At this point, let me return to an earlier point regarding Israel’s cycle of obedience/blessing/disobedience/judgment.  This was not an either/or, if/then proposition (if obedience then blessing; if disobedience then judgment).  This was a both/and proposition:  You will experience obedience and blessing; you will ALSO experience disobedience and judgment.  And we know from Israel’s history that that is exactly how it played out.

This is freeing for us.  Why?  Because it shows us that we don’t have to “save” the Church by our own efforts.  It’s not going to happen.  The future of the Church is not dependent on our efforts to restore the American Christendom of the 1940s and 1950s or reverse the cultural shifts which have led to its demise.  Nor is it dependent on our efforts to purify the Church doctrinally by purging out all the “false Gospels” which have no power to save and all who hold to them and teach them.  What is coming next for the Church is coming, and there is nothing you or I or anyone else can do to alter that.

There is no “saving” the Church.  Not now.  It has come too far, and now the Babylonians are at the gates, as it were.  At this point, the wise thing to do is to flee the city or to surrender to the invading Babylonians.

What does all this mean?  And what does it all look like for us as the Church?  We will look closely at that in the weeks to come.

Advent Week 1: Exile

starbucksICYMI (that’s In Case You Missed It, for those of you who are not millennials or otherwise familiar with the ways millennials express themselves via texting and social media), the Christmas season is upon us and has been for a few weeks now.  And with it, the so-called War On Christmas which seems to consume the energies of everyone in some sectors of American evangelicalism.

Starbucks has introduced its new cups for the Christmas season.  These are plain red, with the green Starbucks logo on them.  Predictably, evangelicalism is in an uproar.  Why?  Because by stripping away all Christmas symbols and patterns from the cups, Startucks is supposedly stripping away Christmas from our culture.  Why is this a thing?  Because apparently some people have WAY too much free time on their hands.

But for now, we will leave behind all the antics of the Starbucks-haters and others who are out there trying to push the so-called War on Christmas to the forefront of the public consciousness.  For now, and for the next four weeks, we will enter into a completely different universe.

Advent is the four weeks before Christmas.  More precisely, it is three full weeks plus whatever fraction of a week is needed to get us to Christmas.

Advent is a season of darkness.  Not the special darkness of Lent, which results from the shadow of the Cross falling squarely across our path, but a more general, pervasive darkness, the darkness of a world in waiting for the coming of its long-promised Savior and Redeemer.  During this season, liturgical churches change the color and the decor and do some things differently.

What we usually do around here during this season is pick an Advent-related topic and talk about it for four weeks.  This year we are going to talk about the concept of exile.  Why?  Because it is a timely thing to talk about right now.  That Supreme Court decision a few months back, the cultural shifts of the past few years which made it possible, and many other things that are happening in the world today make it abundantly clear that we as Christians no longer enjoy the privilege, prestige, and influence in society at large that we once did.  We now find ourselves living in a new reality which in many ways resembles the reality Israel found herself living through during the Babylonian captivity and the centuries following.  Some would call it persecution.  I think it is wrongheaded and unhelpful to conflate the loss of privilege/influence we are currently experiencing with actual persecution.  It may come to that at some point later on down the road, but we are not there yet, or anywhere even remotely close to that.

But whatever you care to call it, the fact remains that we are now living in a new reality.  We must find ways to adjust to this new reality and carry on as the people of God.  That is what we are going to talk about in the coming weeks.  Along the way we are going to unpack questions such as:  What is exile?  What did it mean for the Jewish people?  What does it mean for us?  How did we get here?  Where do we go from here?  How do we live in light of where we are now?

To guide our thinking on all this, let me direct your attention to a piece by Charles Featherstone entitled “What Exile Looks Like“.  It is a fairly lengthy read in which he unpacks some of his own ideas on the concept of exile, what it looked like for the Jewish people, and what it will look like for us as the Church.

To begin with, let us look at what exile is and what it meant for the Jewish people.

In the world of Old Testament Judaism, exile was the end result of God’s judgment on Israel’s faithlessness and idolatry.  As a consequence of serving false, foreign gods, Israel would experience the violent judgment of God.  This is laid out clearly and graphically in Leviticus 26:

“‘If you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands, I will send you rain in its season, and the ground will yield its crops and the trees their fruit. Your threshing will continue until grape harvest and the grape harvest will continue until planting, and you will eat all the food you want and live in safety in your land.

“‘I will grant peace in the land, and you will lie down and no one will make you afraid. I will remove wild beasts from the land, and the sword will not pass through your country. You will pursue your enemies, and they will fall by the sword before you. Five of you will chase a hundred, and a hundred of you will chase ten thousand, and your enemies will fall by the sword before you.

“‘I will look on you with favor and make you fruitful and increase your numbers, and I will keep my covenant with you. You will still be eating last year’s harvest when you will have to move it out to make room for the new. I will put my dwelling place among you, and I will not abhor you. I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt so that you would no longer be slaves to the Egyptians; I broke the bars of your yoke and enabled you to walk with heads held high.

“‘But if you will not listen to me and carry out all these commands, and if you reject my decrees and abhor my laws and fail to carry out all my commands and so violate my covenant, then I will do this to you: I will bring on you sudden terror, wasting diseases and fever that will destroy your sight and sap your strength. You will plant seed in vain, because your enemies will eat it. I will set my face against you so that you will be defeated by your enemies; those who hate you will rule over you, and you will flee even when no one is pursuing you.

“‘If after all this you will not listen to me, I will punish you for your sins seven times over. I will break down your stubborn pride and make the sky above you like iron and the ground beneath you like bronze. Your strength will be spent in vain, because your soil will not yield its crops, nor will the trees of your land yield their fruit.

“‘If you remain hostile toward me and refuse to listen to me, I will multiply your afflictions seven times over, as your sins deserve. I will send wild animals against you, and they will rob you of your children, destroy your cattle and make you so few in number that your roads will be deserted.

“‘If in spite of these things you do not accept my correction but continue to be hostile toward me, I myself will be hostile toward you and will afflict you for your sins seven times over. And I will bring the sword on you to avenge the breaking of the covenant. When you withdraw into your cities, I will send a plague among you, and you will be given into enemy hands. When I cut off your supply of bread, ten women will be able to bake your bread in one oven, and they will dole out the bread by weight. You will eat, but you will not be satisfied.

“‘If in spite of this you still do not listen to me but continue to be hostile toward me, then in my anger I will be hostile toward you, and I myself will punish you for your sins seven times over. You will eat the flesh of your sons and the flesh of your daughters. I will destroy your high places, cut down your incense altars and pile your dead bodies on the lifeless forms of your idols, and I will abhor you. I will turn your cities into ruins and lay waste your sanctuaries, and I will take no delight in the pleasing aroma of your offerings. I myself will lay waste the land, so that your enemies who live there will be appalled. I will scatter you among the nations and will draw out my sword and pursue you. Your land will be laid waste, and your cities will lie in ruins. Then the land will enjoy its sabbath years all the time that it lies desolate and you are in the country of your enemies; then the land will rest and enjoy its sabbaths. All the time that it lies desolate, the land will have the rest it did not have during the sabbaths you lived in it.

“‘As for those of you who are left, I will make their hearts so fearful in the lands of their enemies that the sound of a windblown leaf will put them to flight. They will run as though fleeing from the sword, and they will fall, even though no one is pursuing them. They will stumble over one another as though fleeing from the sword, even though no one is pursuing them. So you will not be able to stand before your enemies. You will perish among the nations; the land of your enemies will devour you. Those of you who are left will waste away in the lands of their enemies because of their sins; also because of their ancestors’ sins they will waste away.

“‘But if they will confess their sins and the sins of their ancestors—their unfaithfulness and their hostility toward me, which made me hostile toward them so that I sent them into the land of their enemies—then when their uncircumcised hearts are humbled and they pay for their sin, I will remember my covenant with Jacob and my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land. For the land will be deserted by them and will enjoy its sabbaths while it lies desolate without them. They will pay for their sins because they rejected my laws and abhorred my decrees. Yet in spite of this, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or abhor them so as to destroy them completely, breaking my covenant with them. I am the Lord their God. But for their sake I will remember the covenant with their ancestors whom I brought out of Egypt in the sight of the nations to be their God. I am the Lord.’”  (Leviticus 26:3-45)

And in Deuteronomy 28-30:

If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come on you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God:

You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country.

The fruit of your womb will be blessed, and the crops of your land and the young of your livestock—the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks.

Your basket and your kneading trough will be blessed.

You will be blessed when you come in and blessed when you go out.

The Lord will grant that the enemies who rise up against you will be defeated before you. They will come at you from one direction but flee from you in seven.

The Lord will send a blessing on your barns and on everything you put your hand to. The Lord your God will bless you in the land he is giving you.

The Lord will establish you as his holy people, as he promised you on oath, if you keep the commands of the Lord your God and walk in obedience to him. Then all the peoples on earth will see that you are called by the name of the Lord, and they will fear you. The Lord will grant you abundant prosperity—in the fruit of your womb, the young of your livestock and the crops of your ground—in the land he swore to your ancestors to give you.

The Lord will open the heavens, the storehouse of his bounty, to send rain on your land in season and to bless all the work of your hands. You will lend to many nations but will borrow from none. The Lord will make you the head, not the tail. If you pay attention to the commands of the Lord your God that I give you this day and carefully follow them, you will always be at the top, never at the bottom. Do not turn aside from any of the commands I give you today, to the right or to the left, following other gods and serving them.

However, if you do not obey the Lord your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come on you and overtake you:

You will be cursed in the city and cursed in the country.

Your basket and your kneading trough will be cursed.

The fruit of your womb will be cursed, and the crops of your land, and the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks.

You will be cursed when you come in and cursed when you go out.

The Lord will send on you curses, confusion and rebuke in everything you put your hand to, until you are destroyed and come to sudden ruin because of the evil you have done in forsaking him. The Lord will plague you with diseases until he has destroyed you from the land you are entering to possess. The Lord will strike you with wasting disease, with fever and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought, with blight and mildew, which will plague you until you perish. The sky over your head will be bronze, the ground beneath you iron. The Lord will turn the rain of your country into dust and powder; it will come down from the skies until you are destroyed.

The Lord will cause you to be defeated before your enemies. You will come at them from one direction but flee from them in seven, and you will become a thing of horror to all the kingdoms on earth. Your carcasses will be food for all the birds and the wild animals, and there will be no one to frighten them away. The Lord will afflict you with the boils of Egypt and with tumors, festering sores and the itch, from which you cannot be cured. The Lord will afflict you with madness, blindness and confusion of mind. At midday you will grope about like a blind person in the dark. You will be unsuccessful in everything you do; day after day you will be oppressed and robbed, with no one to rescue you.

You will be pledged to be married to a woman, but another will take her and rape her. You will build a house, but you will not live in it. You will plant a vineyard, but you will not even begin to enjoy its fruit. Your ox will be slaughtered before your eyes, but you will eat none of it. Your donkey will be forcibly taken from you and will not be returned. Your sheep will be given to your enemies, and no one will rescue them. Your sons and daughters will be given to another nation, and you will wear out your eyes watching for them day after day, powerless to lift a hand. A people that you do not know will eat what your land and labor produce, and you will have nothing but cruel oppression all your days. The sights you see will drive you mad. The Lord will afflict your knees and legs with painful boils that cannot be cured, spreading from the soles of your feet to the top of your head.

The Lord will drive you and the king you set over you to a nation unknown to you or your ancestors. There you will worship other gods, gods of wood and stone. You will become a thing of horror, a byword and an object of ridicule among all the peoples where the Lord will drive you.

You will sow much seed in the field but you will harvest little, because locusts will devour it. You will plant vineyards and cultivate them but you will not drink the wine or gather the grapes, because worms will eat them. You will have olive trees throughout your country but you will not use the oil, because the olives will drop off. You will have sons and daughters but you will not keep them, because they will go into captivity. Swarms of locusts will take over all your trees and the crops of your land.

The foreigners who reside among you will rise above you higher and higher, but you will sink lower and lower. They will lend to you, but you will not lend to them. They will be the head, but you will be the tail.

All these curses will come on you. They will pursue you and overtake you until you are destroyed, because you did not obey the Lord your God and observe the commands and decrees he gave you. They will be a sign and a wonder to you and your descendants forever. Because you did not serve the Lord your God joyfully and gladly in the time of prosperity, therefore in hunger and thirst, in nakedness and dire poverty, you will serve the enemies the Lord sends against you. He will put an iron yoke on your neck until he has destroyed you.

The Lord will bring a nation against you from far away, from the ends of the earth, like an eagle swooping down, a nation whose language you will not understand, a fierce-looking nation without respect for the old or pity for the young. They will devour the young of your livestock and the crops of your land until you are destroyed. They will leave you no grain, new wine or olive oil, nor any calves of your herds or lambs of your flocks until you are ruined. They will lay siege to all the cities throughout your land until the high fortified walls in which you trust fall down. They will besiege all the cities throughout the land the Lord your God is giving you.

Because of the suffering your enemy will inflict on you during the siege, you will eat the fruit of the womb, the flesh of the sons and daughters the Lord your God has given you. Even the most gentle and sensitive man among you will have no compassion on his own brother or the wife he loves or his surviving children, and he will not give to one of them any of the flesh of his children that he is eating. It will be all he has left because of the suffering your enemy will inflict on you during the siege of all your cities. The most gentle and sensitive woman among you—so sensitive and gentle that she would not venture to touch the ground with the sole of her foot—will begrudge the husband she loves and her own son or daughter the afterbirth from her womb and the children she bears. For in her dire need she intends to eat them secretly because of the suffering your enemy will inflict on you during the siege of your cities.

If you do not carefully follow all the words of this law, which are written in this book, and do not revere this glorious and awesome name—the Lord your God— the Lord will send fearful plagues on you and your descendants, harsh and prolonged disasters, and severe and lingering illnesses. He will bring on you all the diseases of Egypt that you dreaded, and they will cling to you. The Lord will also bring on you every kind of sickness and disaster not recorded in this Book of the Law, until you are destroyed. You who were as numerous as the stars in the sky will be left but few in number, because you did not obey the Lord your God. Just as it pleased the Lord to make you prosper and increase in number, so it will please him to ruin and destroy you. You will be uprooted from the land you are entering to possess.

Then the Lord will scatter you among all nations, from one end of the earth to the other. There you will worship other gods—gods of wood and stone, which neither you nor your ancestors have known. Among those nations you will find no repose, no resting place for the sole of your foot. There the Lord will give you an anxious mind, eyes weary with longing, and a despairing heart. You will live in constant suspense, filled with dread both night and day, never sure of your life. In the morning you will say, “If only it were evening!” and in the evening, “If only it were morning!”—because of the terror that will fill your hearts and the sights that your eyes will see. The Lord will send you back in ships to Egypt on a journey I said you should never make again. There you will offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but no one will buy you.

These are the terms of the covenant the Lord commanded Moses to make with the Israelites in Moab, in addition to the covenant he had made with them at Horeb.

Moses summoned all the Israelites and said to them:

Your eyes have seen all that the Lord did in Egypt to Pharaoh, to all his officials and to all his land. With your own eyes you saw those great trials, those signs and great wonders. But to this day the Lord has not given you a mind that understands or eyes that see or ears that hear. Yet the Lord says, “During the forty years that I led you through the wilderness, your clothes did not wear out, nor did the sandals on your feet. You ate no bread and drank no wine or other fermented drink. I did this so that you might know that I am the Lord your God.”

When you reached this place, Sihon king of Heshbon and Og king of Bashan came out to fight against us, but we defeated them. We took their land and gave it as an inheritance to the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh.

Carefully follow the terms of this covenant, so that you may prosper in everything you do. All of you are standing today in the presence of the Lord your God—your leaders and chief men, your elders and officials, and all the other men of Israel, together with your children and your wives, and the foreigners living in your camps who chop your wood and carry your water. You are standing here in order to enter into a covenant with the Lord your God, a covenant the Lord is making with you this day and sealing with an oath, to confirm you this day as his people, that he may be your God as he promised you and as he swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I am making this covenant, with its oath, not only with you who are standing here with us today in the presence of the Lord our God but also with those who are not here today.

You yourselves know how we lived in Egypt and how we passed through the countries on the way here. You saw among them their detestable images and idols of wood and stone, of silver and gold. Make sure there is no man or woman, clan or tribe among you today whose heart turns away from the Lord our God to go and worship the gods of those nations; make sure there is no root among you that produces such bitter poison.

When such a person hears the words of this oath and they invoke a blessing on themselves, thinking, “I will be safe, even though I persist in going my own way,” they will bring disaster on the watered land as well as the dry. The Lord will never be willing to forgive them; his wrath and zeal will burn against them. All the curses written in this book will fall on them, and the Lord will blot out their names from under heaven. The Lord will single them out from all the tribes of Israel for disaster, according to all the curses of the covenant written in this Book of the Law.

Your children who follow you in later generations and foreigners who come from distant lands will see the calamities that have fallen on the land and the diseases with which the Lord has afflicted it. The whole land will be a burning waste of salt and sulfur—nothing planted, nothing sprouting, no vegetation growing on it. It will be like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboyim, which the Lord overthrew in fierce anger. All the nations will ask: “Why has the Lord done this to this land? Why this fierce, burning anger?”

And the answer will be: “It is because this people abandoned the covenant of the Lord, the God of their ancestors, the covenant he made with them when he brought them out of Egypt. They went off and worshiped other gods and bowed down to them, gods they did not know, gods he had not given them. Therefore the Lord’s anger burned against this land, so that he brought on it all the curses written in this book. In furious anger and in great wrath the Lord uprooted them from their land and thrust them into another land, as it is now.”

The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.

When all these blessings and curses I have set before you come on you and you take them to heart wherever the Lord your God disperses you among the nations, and when you and your children return to the Lord your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you. Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the Lord your God will gather you and bring you back. He will bring you to the land that belonged to your ancestors, and you will take possession of it. He will make you more prosperous and numerous than your ancestors. The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live. The Lord your God will put all these curses on your enemies who hate and persecute you. You will again obey the Lord and follow all his commands I am giving you today. Then the Lord your God will make you most prosperous in all the work of your hands and in the fruit of your womb, the young of your livestock and the crops of your land. The Lord will again delight in you and make you prosperous, just as he delighted in your ancestors, if you obey the Lord your God and keep his commands and decrees that are written in this Book of the Law and turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.

See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.

But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.

This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

When we look at these passages, we are accustomed to thinking of them as an either/or, an if/then proposition.  If obedience, then blessing.  Or if disobedience, then judgment.  But that is not what is being said here.  In reality, it is a both/and.  Israel would experience both blessings for obedience AND judgment for disobedience.  But at the end of the day, there would be redemption.

As we look back on the history of Israel, we know that is in fact what happened.  The book of Judges gives several accounts of judges who led Israel in the time before the monarchy, each a microcosm of the history of Israel:  obedience leading to blessing, then disobedience leading to judgment, then repentance and redemption.

Then the monarchy was established and there was blessing under Saul and David.  After Solomon there was rebellion as Jeroboam broke away from the house of David and Israel split into two kingdoms.  This did not end well; after a couple of centuries the northern kingdom was overrun by the Assyrians.  Judah hung on for a couple of centuries more, but was eventually overrun by the Babylonians.

While the kings of the northern kingdom were uniformly bad, the southern kingdom had a few good kings in the mix.  Generally the quality of a king could determine the fate of the kingdom for a generation or two.  But at the end of the day, the final destiny of the people of Judah was exile in Babylon, and that is where 2 Kings ends.