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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Wailing Destruction

This is Holy Week, so liturgically we are focused on the last days of Jesus.The Jewish Bible book, Lamentations, is often used this time of year. It was written in the time of Jeremiah, just after the Babylonian invasion which put an end to Judah. The parallel between Judah in Jesus day and in Jeremiah's times are pretty amazing. The fall of the city (in Jesus' day it was 'the end' of Israel until our own time) was devastating, in part because it was not only the capital city but in a sense it was God's city (His name was in the Temple). During Holy Week the liturgy of Morning Prayer includes daily readings from Lamentations. Lamentations is the wailing voice of the city of Jerusalem after the first fall. In reading it today I was drawn to underline the verbs describing God's actions. God has: humiliated, thrown down, not remembered, destroyed,broken down, brought down, cut down, withdrawn, killed, destroyed... well you get the drift. It is devastating language, made all the more ferocious by the huge number of verbs, coming in such close proximity. Twice it says the Lord is like an enemy. Broken down and destroyed appear numerous times each.

In our Gospel today, Jesus told the parable of a landowner who made a vineyard. He details the step by step process of the owner creating the vineyard and then recounts the numerous times a slave was sent to get the owner's share. Some they abused, others they killed. Most commentators think Jesus is making an allegorical reference to Israel's abuse of the prophets. The "son" who is sent, a self-reference to Jesus, is killed "in order to get the inheritance for ourselves." The tragic conclusion, he will give the vineyard to someone else, has long been understood to refer to the church/Gentiles. Jesus' judgment on the Temple and city come to pass. In Josephus' history we read the stomach turning account of how bad things got. Suffice to say that while Roman legions encircle the city, within the walls a civil war of unimaginable brutality and violence raged in the Temple environs. The words of Lamentation are as applicable there as in their original setting.

Jesus' death should be understood in a context of God's wrath. The generation after Jesus, Rome actually did what the Babylonians had done in Jeremiah's day. The intersection of geo-politics and theology is hard to understand. We prefer causality to be simple and straightforward. Yet some how God is at work in a world where people make decisions. The exact mechanism for how the two interact is a mystery. We tend to see events as singularities, whereas the connection of past, present and future (from God's view) are more tightly wound than we seem to be aware.

In our own age, the church in the West and western civilization seem to be experiencing their own moment of crisis. Wrath, whatever else it means, seems to be both active and passive. Human choices produce their own consequences. Even so, God is also at work (and because He loves so much He gets angry at our refusal to live right--whatever anger means when one is speaking about the eternal God!) and that work is justice.  Much of it is pretty bleak. And Holy Week is bleak, very bleak. It is a story of betrayal and cruelty, injustice and savagery. It is also about fidelity and courage. It is a small light in an encompassing darkness. The life of Jesus makes His death all the more understandable. Here is the end result of love and goodness in our world. Jesus stands in the gap, taking on Himself the sins of us all. Yet Holy week ends in darkened silence. Too many Easter egg hunts and family celebrations come early; interrupting the time for deeper reflection and he chance to prayerfully enter into Thursday night and Friday. The cross is too awful. We cannot fathom it and do not want to try.

It all ends badly. A silent tomb and the sobbing survivors, their dreams, like Jerusalem, destroyed and pulled down. God 'feels' like an enemy--untrustworthy and cruel. So we wail... Holy week is dark and it ends in darkness. The seventh day of the old creation echoes the first Saturday in Genesis: silence. rest.

But on Sunday the new creation begins. Death is not the last word, after all. Another Word is spoken. A word of life and hope. We do well to celebrate with faith and joy. We also do well to keep an eye on things this week. The prophet's warning must be heeded. There is resurrection, but there is also wrath.

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