Thursday, November 18, 2010

Evil, Prayer & the Return of the King

The following is a transcript of my homily preached Thursday, November 18th during Homiletics class at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA. The homily is based on the office readings for Friday of Proper 28, year two: Psalms 102 & 107; Malachi 3:1-12; James 5:7-12; Luke 18:1-8.

This life is like living in Gondor under Denethor. Do you know the story? In J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga, the great kingdom of men, Gondor, has been without a king for ages. A long line of stewards—provisional administrators—has kept the land in working order in the intervening years. Yet the threat of evil has always lurked just across Pelennor fields and now it threatens to wipe out known human civilization. The steward Denethor has been unwilling and unable to rally other kingdoms to the front line defense and so will stand alone. Denethor and his armies are losing a war of attrition and will surely not survive the onslaught of Mordor’s troops massing behind the black gate.

But then the true king returns. The one king, Aragorn, destined to lead the men of Middle Earth in victorious battle against Sauron and his armies and restore peace. He oversees the defeat of radical evil and the restoration of the good kingdom. The stewards, at best, wielded a provisional authority, a holdover in the absence of true kingship. Aragorn, however, wielded an apocalyptic authority bequeathed to him by prophecy and lineage. For lack of more refined Tolkien-esque language, I’ll call it God-given authority. Anointed authority. Messianic authority.

Our world exists under the reign of provisional rulers, stewards of authority with neither the power nor the inclination to bring messianic peace. They cannot and will not “beat their swords into plow-shares and spears into pruning hooks.”[1] So we live with the unsettling and intractable pains of an ungoverned world. Injustices go unavenged. Suffering goes un-soothed. Tears remain un-wiped. The dead remain in their graves. Our readings for today speak to such a world, for they presuppose it when they discuss God’s arrival on the earth—the true return of the king.

Here’s what they say. God promises in the third chapter of Malachi that he “will be swift to bear witness against” the many evildoers in this world, such as “the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me.” [2] In Luke 18 Jesus makes a tacit indictment of temporal rulers as wicked judges who neither fear God nor care about other people. And the book of James opens with instruction on how to deal with the many and inevitable trials of this life; its fifth chapter with words spoken against the rich who “condemned and murdered the righteous one.” [3]

Yet they hope for an end to this dreadful situation. In Malachi God is coming to judge evil. James promises us that the one we wait for is merciful and compassionate. And in Luke the good God answers the plaintive cries of his people. These passages promise us the advent of apocalyptic authority, when the true king will come on the stage and laugh derisively at the Denethors of the world and dash the nations into pieces like pottery. [4] They are charged with the eschatological hope that the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdoms of our lord of his Christ and he shall reign for ever and ever! [5] These authors speak of no fairy tale delusion meant to ignore the suffering and struggle of the present. These men faced it head on, in the Lord, grappling with the messy existential crisis of “Why is this world so messed up? Why are these pagan tyrants ruling the world? Why do so few people acknowledge Jesus as lord and Christ? Why, why, why?” They were there, they lived in it and through it and they were dying in the arena for it.

This is why James has to say in chapter 5 verses 7 and 11, “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord… Indeed we call blessed those who showed endurance. You have heard of the endurance of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.” Hardly the words of a romantic! Basically we’re warned, “Remember Job’s life? Don’t expect it to be any better than that and you won’t lose your faith.” It sounds dark, but remember that Job’s story ended with a lesson: God is God and you are not. Jesus himself embraced a modified version of this when he said, “Not my will, but yours be done.” [6]

So we who live in this quagmire of provisional authorities must learn the lesson of Job and of Gethsemane or risk rejecting the king who will one day return and sort out this horrifying mess. That lesson? Your life is forfeit and the best thing to do with it is to spend it utterly unto the promise, purpose and command of the creator god and his Messiah, Jesus. This potentially sounds entirely dreadful. However, in Luke 18, Jesus tells “a parable about [our] need to pray always and not to lose heart.” [7] In it we learn that the god to whom we are indebted is not a capricious perpetrator of chaos but rather one who hears and answers the prayers of his people who cry out to him day and night.

Jesus concludes this parable, asking, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” [8] Not all of us here will face the darkest existential terrors this world offers its inhabitants. However, as disciples of Jesus, we cannot expect a fate any better than our master’s. The Jesus pattern—the prototypically Christian one—is constant and continual reliance on Father God through prayer in the midst of an evil world. Did Yahweh forsake Israel forever to Pharaoh’s oppression? No! He heard their cry and sent Moses to deliver them. A deep prayer life exists as a groaning pang in the midst of a suffering world, calling out to the one true king.

As Christians we don’t fully know the “why” of the problem of evil. Even polite discussions of the subject tend to reveal deep theological and philosophical fault lines between denominations and ecclesiological bodies. But we do know the “what then.” Through faith in the good and strong God followed and embodied by our Lord Jesus Christ, and through a life committed to reliance upon him through prayer and devotion we become living testimonies to the reality of a king other than Caesar, a lord other than the banal forces of money, sex and power which dominate the globe. Let us turn to him today and everyday, rest our hearts in his presence and turn our prayers and actions toward his purposes. Amen.

[1] Isaiah 2:4
[2] Malachi 3:5
[3] James 5:6
[4] Psalm 2
[5] Revelation 11:15
[6] Luke 22:42
[7] Luke 18:1
[8] Luke 18:8

1 comment:

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