Sunday, November 19, 2006

Fearful in the Hands of the Living God

Daniel 12:1-4a(5-13)
Hebrews 10 31-39
Mark 13:14-23
Psalm 16 or 16:5-11

Today's passage from Hebrews states that "[i]t is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God." Lordy. On the face of it, that's not very encouraging. Is not much of the emphasis in many churches given to "fall[ing] into the hands of the living God" as a joyous thing? A thing of plenitude? A thing of abundance? The beginning or the affirmation/confirmation of material prosperity? Isn't calling "to fall into the hand of the living God" a "fearful thing" a downer? Shouldn't we prefer the more upbeat things about God and Christian life?

I'm not sure that Hebrews is suggesting that we shiver and quake in the hands of the living God. We aren't much good for anyone or anything if we are living in a state of fear or panic. I think the word fearful suggests more of the gravity of what has happened when we fall into the hands of the living God. In short, we see more. We are (maybe I should say should be) more aware of how out of joint the world we live in is in relation to the Kingdom of God.

Take for example, what Hebrews later says about reasons for this fearful thing: "You had compassion for those who were in prison , and you cheerfully accepted the plundering of your possessions, knowing that you yourselves possessed something better and more lasting." It is these things that Hebrews says brought suffering and public prosecution and humiliation. What's that again? Prosecuted for having compassion for prisoners? Humiliated for knowing you possessed something better and more lasting than possessions (read money)?

Yes. The writer of Hebrews has witnessed Jews who have become Christians be persecuted. But it goes beyond this context. Time and time again, biblical texts, and especially Jesus, guide us in what our attitudes should be toward prisoners: we are to have compassion, serve them, visit them, love them. That's a fearful thing. It's not fearful because of what the prisoner might do to you or me, it's fearful because it means setting aside or overcoming deeply held prejudice that the prisoner is scum. We are to love scum? If scum is our enemy, yes. If scum is in prison, yes. If we enact this biblically described service to the imprisoned, we know what we'll face: You are a bleeding heart! That guy should rot! How can you even be in the same room with her!

It does not appear that the writer of Hebrews, nor Jesus, are even thinking about reforming prisoners. They don't say anything about helping turn their lives around. All they say is visit them and have compassion.

So that's a fearful thing. And how about "cheerfully accept[ing] the plundering of our possessions"? Goodness. That's a thought that strikes fear into our hearts. But the cheerful acceptance isn't a condoning of robbers and tax collectors. It's the cheerfulness that comes from knowing that these possessions, this money, has temporary value. Possessions and money come and go. They are mutable. Not the living God. The living God is "more lasting", indeed; the living God is everlasting.

What's everlasting is what the living God stands for. The living God stands for what endures in life: compassion, justice, integrity, service, respect, forgiveness, and the other prevailing characteristics of the Kingdom of God. If we cling to possessions and money, work to build our own kingdoms, at the expense of justice, service, forgiveness, then we do the opposite of what is described in Hebrews. We become those who cheerfully accept the plundering of our honesty, compassion, integrity, service to the poor and the imprisoned, our forgiveness, etc., and act as if our money and our possessions are something far better and lasting.

As I wrote last Sunday, it's all subversive. We fear subversion. The living God subverts our received ways of understanding and doing things, whether in relation to prisoners, our possessions, or our enemies. That's why it is fearful to fall into the hands of the living God. The living God is out of step with the world we have created. (I know the usual way to say this is that the world is out of step with the living God, and that's true. But we have created a world and God is not about to get it step with this, our lesser creation.)

To close, I'd like to look at a few of Jesus' words in the passage from Mark. Jesus warns of false prophet and false signs. He tells us to be alert. If I could, in my sudden presumption, sum up the whole of the Bible, it would be in these two words: be alert. Buddha put it a slightly different way: be awake. Both of them are saying the same thing. In a world so out of keeping with the Way of Truth, it is easy to be seduced into patterns and ways of life that are not in keeping with what is the way of compassion and justice. Become asleep, become complacent, become self-satisfied or become self-righteous, and you will lose your consciousness, your alertness to the ways of the world.

Being fearful in the hands of the living God is another way of saying be alert. The Kingdom of God is at hand, but it is very unpopular and routinely scorned, both inside and outside the Church. Therefore, be alert, be awake, persist in the vision of the Kingdom of God and it will be your place of refuge and peace.

1 comment:

Nina Miller said...

What an interesting interpretation! I'm not a christian (nor any other religion) - I landed here trying to chase down a citation for the "fearful god" verse - but I am so impressed with your analysis. Very thought-provoking. I had no idea what the verse meant before I read your post, but now I think you must be right. Thank you!