As we near the end of the church’s year and the beginning of Advent, two of today’s scripture readings can cause us useless trouble unless we hear them thoughtfully. Malachi puts into the mouth of God (as if God had a mouth or a voice or a vocabulary) a very harsh judgment: all who do evil will be destroyed by fire, reducing them to stubble. And in Luke’s version of the Gospel, Jesus predicts that all sorts of catastrophes, some by the forces of nature and some by the will of evil authorities and warring nations, are about to occur and must be seen as a sign of God’s judgment on human society and also of the end of the world as we know it.
What are we to make of this?
Jesus was a Jewish rabbi. Rabbis, like persons in any other profession, have methods and techniques that have been passed on down the ages from generation to generation. One of those many methods of getting the people’s attention and reaching into their hearts and minds is called the apocalyptic, which focuses on the inevitable death of every human being and the death of the world itself – realities none of us likes to think about. As a way of shaking up their hearers and forcing them to face their ultimate future — to deal with their mortality, as we might put it — the rabbis made frightening word pictures for them.
Matthew, Dennis, and Sheila Linn are the authors of one of my all-time favorite books, Good Goats, Healing Our Image of God. They’ve written much about how we imagine God, and in the book I just mentioned they wrote, “…exaggeration (or hyperbole) was a common way of speaking in Jesus’ culture. When he spoke in ways that seemed to threaten vengeful punishment, Jesus’ listeners would have understood that his words were not intended as threats or as predictions of what was inevitably going to happen to them. Rather, such words were intended as warnings, meant to wake (them) up and deter (them) from destructive behavior.”
I offer you a lens through which to discover what Jesus had in mind when he used such terrifying images with his disciples as a way of getting them to think more seriously about the quality of their own lives. The “lens” is this simple truth: the choice is ours as to how we shall imagine the invisible God: we can see God either as the Judge who condemns, or as the Compassionate One who forgives and transforms.
You know which one of those two images Jesus used in describing God, especially in his immortal parable about the prodigal son. Then don’t allow yourself to be distracted or thrown off-course by the techniques he used as a typical rabbi!
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A timely footnote: To millions of Americans, the result of last Tuesday’s presidential election was a frightening warning of terrible days ahead, including possibly the ultimate destruction of the United States of America. Just as we need corrective lenses to understand the occasional apocalyptic language of Jesus, so do we here & now in order to interpret correctly what we are hearing about our government, present and future. The best lens I have thus far found was published this past Thursday, written by the brilliant New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who said, “The time for ranting is over, and it’s time to accept the inevitable. Trump has surprised us in many ways this year, and let’s hope and pray that he will stun us once again by repairing the tears he made in our social fabric. Let’s give him a chance — for those are our democratic values.”
In the column right next to Kristof’s, Erick-Woods Erickson wrote, “Those of us who opposed him should pray for him and give him a chance.”
It seems to me, and maybe it does to you also, that as followers of Jesus that must be our choice. By making it, we are expressing our faith and hope both in the Spirit of God and in the strength of this remarkable country we so love.