Friday, August 13, 2010
About the year A.D. 57, a Jew from Tarsus wrote one letter to a fledgling church community in Rome. A few years later the Romans would execute its author, and subject that church to withering persecution -- to no avail. The church would survive, and would preserve, copy and transmit the letter across the world. Rome, the biggest and baddest sword-bearer the world had yet seen, would die and leave behind its artifacts, while the one letter sent to the Roman church would change the lives of millions of men and women and alter the course of world history more than once.
For example, over three hundred years after the letter was first published, a thirty-year-old African teacher of rhetoric named Augustine took it up and read from it in a garden in Milan, Italy. Reading one exhortation from the letter -- "put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to gratify its desires" -- he passed from death to life. The western world would never be the same.
Over a thousand years after that, a tormented Augustinian monk in Germany pondered the letter for many painful hours until he realized that "the righteousness of God" was not the terrible threat he'd supposed, before which he had long cowered, but a precious spring of comfort and confidence. Scales fell from his eyes, and before long he was nailing ninety-five theses to a door in Wittenberg. Europe would never be the same.
About four hundred years after that, a young Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, would expound this letter in a way that signaled a clear break with his theologically liberal teachers: he rather audaciously said that God is there and he is not silent. Barth's exposition, Der Romerbrief, would provide theological seed which would later produce the Barmen Declaration and the Confessing Church -- the faithful German Protestant resistance to the most ruthless sword-bearer of its day, Nazi Germany.
The Maker of the heavens and the earth has many tools at his disposal to shape the world. His most enduring marks have been left by the live coal from the heavenly altar, by which he sanctified the lips of his prophets and the writing hands of his apostles. Their words, in turn, have left deep and lasting marks in the course of history, compared to which the marks of the mighty sword-bearers proved faint and fleeting.
One letter the Apostle Paul sent to the church in Rome -- about, of all things, the righteousness of God revealed in the life, passion, death and resurrection of a man born in the small town of Bethlehem and raised in the smaller one of Nazareth, about God's faithfulness to his people Israel and his generosity in drawing Gentiles to share in his faithful promises to Israel -- soon proved mightier than the Roman sword.
And that epistle is the appointed nightly reading for the middle weeks of Trinity season. Happy weeks lay ahead.
Each of the four evangelists writes, in his own way, the climax of Israel's story, and so they all start their work so as to connect it with what had gone before. So the first characters to appear in Luke's gospel are Zechariah and Elizabeth; Wright says of them in his first lecture that "they walk right out of the pages of the Old Testament." Which is true; they are Abraham and Sarah, Elkanah and Hannah, all over again. They are a couple counted righteous -- "walking blamelessly" is how Luke describes their life. They keep and are kept by their covenants with one another and with their faithful God. They are in every way good and admirable. But "they had no child . . . and both were advanced in years."
Luke proceeds to tell the story of the appearance of the angel to Zechariah in the Temple, of the angel's good news -- "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John" -- of Zechariah's disbelief and his being stricken dumb until John's birth. Significant as that story is, I'll pass over it to get to Elizabeth's response to the fulfillment of the angel's word:
After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, "Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people."
I find Elizabeth's response so incredible that I have been turning it around in my mind all week, thinking about the kinds of habits of mind, and the kind of theology, that would produce the kind of character from which such a response would issue: no denial of long suffering and reproach, yet no "it's about time" bitterness; no pride, and no showboating before neighbors who'd undoubtedly been wagging their tongues about "poor, barren Elizabeth" for years.
From just this brief bit of her story, you can safely deduce a few things about Elizabeth.
First, she took her community seriously, even though doing so required that she endure its ugly side (is there any other way to take your community seriously?). Well she knew "her reproach among people." And she did not chalk it up to their sheer foolishness; had she long been saying to herself, "Whatever; Zechariah and I have more wisdom in our baby fingers than all our baby-popping friends have put together," she would never have responded to her vindication as she did. Even though she undoubtedly knew many things her people did not -- long and faithful suffering is an effective teacher -- she respected her people enough to care about their collective judgment.
Second, she took the real world seriously, though doing so required that she endure its pains (is there any other way to take the real world seriously?). Psychological comfort, isolated from the real world of time and dust and water and wind and bread and wine and other people, wasn't going to cut it for Elizabeth. Recently on Facebook there was a sad outbreak of the following status: "God sees you've been struggling with something. God says that's over." Zechariah and Elizabeth struggled with barrenness for years; they prayed long and fervently, with hearts clean as you'll find anywhere, and yet they still struggled. Had someone told them in the midst of their long suffering, "God says that's over," I imagine their response would have been an uncomprehending stare. And they would have been right. If we are pleased with introspective psychological comfort, we are too easily pleased. If we are pleased with private psychological comfort, and do not cry out for public vindication -- vindication of the name of God, vindication of our neighbors and, yes, vindication for ourselves -- we reveal that our spirituality is more Buddhist than Christian, that we have cultivated an unhealthy detachment from the good world that God made. Elizabeth cared about the real world, even when reality bit and repeatedly aggravated the sore spot in her life. She did not lap up psychological bromides, but held on to her holy discontent until the day good news arrived and its fulfillment was made manifest in her womb.
Finally -- and in tension with her holy discontent -- Elizabeth took the faithfulness of her God seriously. The one thing we spot in this text to distinguish Elizabeth and Zechariah from Abraham and Sarah, and from Elkanah*, is that Elizabeth and Zechariah never relied upon their own devices to produce children. They did not hedge their bets and trust anything in the created order to vindicate them, nor did they take their vindication into their own hands. They were simpler. They walked faithfully and humbly before God, and pleaded for a child. If that plea went forever rejected -- and at the point Luke picks up the story, it looked virtually certain it would go forever rejected -- they would go on walking humbly before God as they always had, trusting that even his perpetual "no" was a faithful and just decree.
These things are not easy to hold together: on the one hand, rest in the faithfulness and justice of God; on the other, righteous unrest in the hard realities of the real world, realities which, for a time, that same faithful God has decreed. Elizabeth -- may her tribe ever increase -- held them together. And so when the long-in-coming vindication did come in the form of her son John, she understood its meaning: the vindication came not from the world, but it was publicly manifest in the world, to be a blessing and sign of the glory of God for the world.
* Elkanah had two wives. From three facts -- his evident affection for Hannah, Hannah's barrenness, and the fruitfulness of his other wife -- I propose the following as probably sound deductions: (1) Hannah was Elkanah's first wife, and (2) Elkanah took his second wife chiefly, perhaps solely, to produce children and heirs.
** All quotations from Luke 1-2 are from the English Standard Version.