Sunday, February 8, 2009

Haven't You Heard?

Readings: Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

Have you not heard? The LORD brings princes to naught.

Let's count a few of the recent ones, shall we? Number 1, Hitler. Oh, wait, he shot himself after millions of soldiers and thousands of pilots and seamen kicked the asses of his army, navy, air force, and civilian population, and leveled most of the buildings in most of the cities of his country. Number two, Stalin. Well, he seemed to die of something like old age after killing millions of Soviet citizens and initiating the Cold War by bringing the Iron Curtain down on Eastern Europe. Mao Zedong? Old age again. Pol Pot? Old age. Robert Mugabe? Getting older, still pending.

There are many forms of prayer, and one of them is lament. My lament is that we can take 20th and 21st century history as license to be skeptical about Isaiah 40:21-31. But I also notice that the Soviet Union, the old "Evil Empire," is no more, and that Communism as a secular religion no longer holds many hearts in thrall. Maybe the LORD lays the princes low after all.

Laurence Gonzales notes in his book, Deep Survival that most people who survive catastrophes pray, even the ones who are agnostic or atheists. The form of prayer called supplication, asking for help with our real needs, helps us face and focus on them, which helps us to survive.

So is it real or all in our heads? Does prayer work, or does it just help us work?

There is a story about the man sitting on his roof in a flood who prays to the LORD. Eventually, a boat comes by to rescue him. "No thanks," he says. I trust in the LORD to save me. Another boat motors by, and he again declines their offer, saying, "I trust in the LORD." A helicopter hovers over him, and again he refuses rescue, declaring his faith in the LORD. Eventually the flood waters cover his house and he drowns. When he gets to Heaven, he complains to the LORD that the LORD ignored his prayers and let him die. "No I didn't," says the LORD. I sent you two boats and a helicopter."

Maybe it's a matter of failing to see what is, because we are too focussed on what we want to be. We expect to be saved in some spectacular, supernatural way, rather than noticing that we are being saved in a ordinary, natural way. Maybe it's a matter of looking beyond our immediate rescue to see the bigger picture.

In Mark 1:29-39 Jesus heals people. The next day, there are still more people to be healed, but he moves on to the next town, because he is not about healing people. He is about getting his message out. Healing people establishes credibility and gets attention for the message. But the message is the main thing, and healing is a side issue. What matters is the message.

The message is the Good News that the Apostle Paul proclaims in 1 Corinthians 9:16-23. To proclaim it, he does whatever is necessary, becoming one with all to whom he preaches. To the Jews he is a Jew, to the Gentiles he is a Gentile. He acts like he is rich or poor, as needed.

And what is the message? That the LORD takes pleasure in those who attend to him, who hope in his steadfast love. That those who have done evil will repay. That would be Justice, but then we would all be in trouble, because we have all done evil things, large and small. Someone else - Jesus - has stepped in and paid the price we would otherwise have had to pay ourselves. We are forgiven, but forgiveness did not come cheap.

Now Paul thought that you had to believe in Jesus as your Lord and Savior in order to be raised to Eternal Life. As if there are lots of doors in the afterlife, and that you have to go through the right one - the one that Jesus is hiding behind - in order to get to Heaven. On the other hand, it could be that Jesus is behind all the doors, and that Hell is refusing or fearing to go through any door at all. Or it could be that Jesus doesn't hide behind the doors - he comes out to you and guides you through.

I don't know. I do know that the early Christians, like Paul and the other Apostles would not have willingly committed themselves to martyrdom for any but the first alternative. But were they right, or is some other alternative right? Or is the question itself beside the point? One fine day, usually before we are ready, we each of us will find out.

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