Sunday, April 24, 2011

Your Walls Are Ever Before Me: An Easter Reflection

In my last post, most excellent theophilae, I recalled the destruction of Jerusalem, lamented by the prophet Jeremiah. That was a sad day for the people of God - one of far too many, in my opinion. We might just as easily recall the theft of the tabernacle by the Philistines, the civil war led by the son of King David, the enslavement in Egypt, the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The story of God's people is brimming with stories of very sad days. Each of them demands its own search for meaning, but on reflection we find that they each have in common not God betraying the people, but the people betraying God.

They also each have in common an eventual - sometimes imperceptibly gradual, sometimes almost overnight, but always, in retrospect, inevitable - redemption of the moment. Oh, the pain is not forgotten; it's part of the legacy of God's people now, part of the long story being told. But the pain is transformed into joy, the mourning turned into dancing. The tabernacle was returned to God's people, but not before the Philistines learned that God alone is sovereign over all the earth. David's kingdom was restored, and a much humbler king completed his reign and turned over the throne to his much wiser son. The Egyptians were eventually pressed to release God's people, who then marched gradually into a land promised to them long ago. And, read to the end, the Bible tells us that the Garden we left will become a city, where we will live and reign with the one God forever and ever.

And so it is with the destruction of Jerusalem, and so it is with the execution of the Christ.

First, the latter. An impotent governor, trying to maintain control of a tyrannized people by controlling who lives and who dies, is brought a man of peace who nevertheless has offended the religious sensibilities of the people of God - by confronting their excesses and departures from their sacred texts, by describing God (and himself) in uncomfortably powerful, uncomfortably loving ways. This is not behavior becoming of an itinerant (read: homeless) teacher (read: upstart). Nor is it becoming, in the eyes of the tyrants, of a man of the tyrannized people. The impotent governor, at the request of the people of God, delivers the uncomfortably powerful man of the people to his death, where he reportedly says, "Forgive them, for they do not know what they do."

"Who can forgive sins but God alone?" some might have wondered when they heard him.

Three days later the uncomfortably powerful man cannot be found in his grave. Rather he is showing up among those who love him, declaring the defeat of death. The old things are passing away, everything is being made new. Three days after the execution of God comes a very good day.

Now to the former - the destruction of Jerusalem. Jeremiah's lamentation ends similarly to how it begins, with devastation and despair. From chapter one:

How deserted lies the city,
once so full of people!
How like a widow is she,
who once was great among the nations!
She who was queen among the provinces
has now become a slave.

Bitterly she weeps at night,
tears are on her cheeks.
And from chapter five:

You, LORD, reign forever;
your throne endures from generation to generation.
Why do you always forget us?
Why do you forsake us so long?
Restore us to yourself, LORD, that we may return;
renew our days as of old
unless you have utterly rejected us
and are angry with us beyond measure.
Jeremiah is right to ask, but his memory is wrong. The long story of the Bible is not a story of God forgetting or forsaking; it's a story of God remembering and restoring. If God can bring good from the execution of God, if God can still care for the people of God even after such a bitter betrayal, even after such a revolting, tyrannical act, if God can make all things new in the wake of such a cosmic cataclysm - then can any hardship really be considered the end of the story?

The prophet Isaiah gives voice to God, answering Jeremiah's lament directly:

But Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me,
the Lord has forgotten me.”

“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast
and have no compassion on the child she has borne?
Though she may forget,
I will not forget you!
See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands;
your walls are ever before me.
This is our God, who brought each of us out of Egypt. This is our God, who is rebuilding paradise for our eventual return. This is our God, who forgave us from the seat of his own execution. It is this God toward whom we direct our laments, and it is this God who we trust to make good of them.

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