Friday, April 22, 2011

This Is Why I Weep

Churches come and go, I guess. Along my commute to work there used to be what looked like a stuffy old conventional fundamentalist church. It had, apparently, bought land at just the right moment, and the town grew up around it. That stuffy old conventional fundamentalist church has since been replaced by a hip new marketing-savvy church looking to make a a big splash in our community. They hang banners in four colors, displaying a test-marketed church name and a web address. The building is no longer stuffy and old; it's suddenly retro and chic.

I miss the stuffy old conventional fundamentalist church, not because I'm a stuffy old conventional fundamentalist but because, during Lent, they always caught my attention and framed my thinking during my commute in a way that a four-color banner displaying a web address and a test-marketed church name simply can't. There, planted in the vast expanse between the road and the church building, were three crosses and a stark, black and white banner: "Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?"

That phrase may evoke for some memories of driving through the rural south, where local zealots had erected makeshift billboards confronting sinners and promising God's judgment. The intent of the display was obviously to evoke for many the cost of Jesus' crucifixion, to recreate the drama of the moment. But for me it evokes something different: the destruction of the city of God.

I'm reminded of the destruction of God's city because, the three crosses notwithstanding, that's what the quotation represents. It's pulled from the first chapter of the book of Lamentations, written by the prophet Jeremiah. There he mourns the destruction of Jerusalem, the City of David, the city on a hill:

Bitterly she weeps at night,
tears are on her cheeks.
Among all her lovers
there is no one to comfort her.
All her friends have betrayed her;
they have become her enemies. . . .

The roads to Zion mourn,
for no one comes to her appointed festivals.
All her gateways are desolate,
her priests groan,
her young women grieve,
and she is in bitter anguish.

Her foes have become her masters;
her enemies are at ease.
The LORD has brought her grief
because of her many sins.
Her children have gone into exile,
captive before the foe. . . .

In the days of her affliction and wandering
Jerusalem remembers all the treasures
that were hers in days of old.
When her people fell into enemy hands,
there was no one to help her.
Her enemies looked at her
and laughed at her destruction.
The kingdom of God, in the minds of the people of God, had dropped anchor in Jerusalem. Zion had become the center of the Promised Land, the resting place at the far end of a liberated people's exodus. King David had consecrated the city; King Solomon had built God's temple there. God, in the minds of God's people, had settled down in Jerusalem--until the people's enemies had moved in and leveled the place.

Why? Why would God allow such a thing to happen to his people--to himself? Jeremiah's prophecy continues:

Jerusalem has sinned greatly
and so has become unclean.
All who honored her despise her,
for they have all seen her naked;
she herself groans
and turns away. . . .

All her people groan
as they search for bread;
they barter their treasures for food
to keep themselves alive.
“Look, LORD, and consider,
for I am despised.”
Jeremiah doesn't deny the culpability of God's people. They are not guiltless; there's blood on their hands and the callousness that attends to any imperial ambitions. But just deserts aside, there's no delight to be taken in such suffering. Only the wicked could look on in glee; only the heartless could walk by without a thought.

“Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?
Look around and see.
Is any suffering like my suffering
that was inflicted on me,
that the LORD brought on me
in the day of his fierce anger? . . .

“My sins have been bound into a yoke;
by his hands they were woven together.
They have been hung on my neck,
and the Lord has sapped my strength.
He has given me into the hands
of those I cannot withstand. . . .

“This is why I weep
and my eyes overflow with tears.
No one is near to comfort me,
no one to restore my spirit.
My children are destitute
because the enemy has prevailed.”
It's been said that in stepping into the River Jordan and then going to the desert and then challenging the Temple system, Jesus was retelling the story of Israel the people of God, reminding his people (and all who would come after them) that the grand narrative of history is a matter of people breaking faith with God and God going to great lengths to redeem the relationship. Jesus was baptised, and set on the course that he took from there, "to fulfill all righteousness." Our history with God is complicated; it is we who complicate it, and it is God who resolves it.

As such, the destruction of Jerusalem seems an apt analogy for the execution of Jesus. The death of God at the hands of God's creation is a moment that only the heartless can ignore, only the wicked can delight in, and only God can redeem. However casually we pass by, it is not nothing that this Good Friday signifies to us; as a matter of fact, it is everything.

1 comment:

Andy said...

"The death of God at the hands of God's creation is a moment that only the heartless can ignore, only the wicked can delight in, and only God can redeem."

Now THAT is a sentence. Amazing post, Dave.