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The Prophet and The Politician

He is in your hands,” King Zedekiah answered. “The king can do nothing to oppose you.
Jeremiah 38:5 (NIV)

Not long ago I ran into an old school friend from my middle school and high school years. In casual conversation about where our respective journeys have taken us, she asked if I was ever going to run for political office as had been my plan and passion back in the day. I was taken aback that she remembered, and I laughed to myself as I realized how long ago I tossed that childhood dream by the wayside.

Along my journey I’ve known some individuals in politics. Being an Iowan, I have occasionally involved myself in the election process and rubbed shoulders with a few of the small army of candidates who come campaigning for President every four years. I believe that there are really good people in politics who do their best to do good for our country. Yet, here’s what I have observed:

Politics is a game. Power is the prize. A politician says what people want to hear just to get elected. They then say and vote as the power brokers of their party demand in order to get ahead. Both parties pull identical political stunts (depending on their power position in the moment) then point the finger at the opposing party and scream accusations as if they’ve not done the same thing a few years before.

While I’m sure it’s somewhat different at a local level, I learned long ago that I’m not wired to play that game. It would slowly drain all Life from my spirit.

To get a feel for what’s happening in today’s chapter of Jeremiah’s story, you’ve got to read the political situation that’s present between the lines. First of all, the ancient practice of siege warfare was a slow, brutal process. The Babylonian army had surrounded Jerusalem and cut off all supply lines into the city. As the supply of food and fresh water diminish, fear and anxiety grow to unprecedented levels among the population. Power structures break down and those in power desperately try to stave off anarchy.

King Zed finds himself between a rock and a hard place. His political rivals, sick of listening to Jeremiah’s incessant prophesies of defeat, ask the King for Jeremiah’s head. The King grants it (because that’s what you do when you’re a politician trying to hold onto power). Jeremiah is thrown down the bottom of a muddy well to die. The King’s eunuch then asks the King (in private) if he might rescue Jeremiah. The King tells him to do so in secret (because when you’re a politician you secretly work back channels to accomplish what you want).

Jeremiah is summoned by King Zed who asks the prophet to give him a Word from the Lord. “Give yourself up to the King of Babylon and you’ll live,” Jeremiah tells him. Zedekiah, however, is afraid that those citizens who have already surrendered themselves to the Babylonians will turn against him if he gives himself up (and a politician is always worried about maintaining his/her power, popularity, and position). Jeremiah assures the King this will not happen.

Upon conclusion of their private conversation, King Zed warns Jeremiah that he will be asked what they talked about. Being a politician, Zed tells Jeremiah how to “spin” his answer so as to avoid political trouble for both of them (because a politician is always looking for a good win-win).

This morning in the quiet I find myself thinking about the contrast between Jeremiah the prophet and Zedekiah the politician. The prophet suffers for speaking the truth and being true to the Message, but beneath the suffering the prophet seems to exemplify a certain spiritual peace that comes from being true, steadfast, and faithful. The politician, on the other hand, enjoys the position and creature comforts afforded by his power, but beneath the surface lie fear, anxiety, worry, and the mental chaos from constantly navigating political minefields in the endless desperation to survive.

I am thankful this morning for the good people I know doing their best to serve in the political arena (on both sides of the aisle). I’m also thankful that God led my journey down a different path than the one I’d desired when I was a wee lad. I’m wired to be more prophet than politician, I think.

Though, I confess that I’d prefer not to get thrown into a well.

The Great Debate

Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.”
John 8:58 (NRSV)

In yesterday’s post, I got to thinking about the events John describes in the context of our own contemporary presidential election in the United States. I’d like to extend the metaphor today because you can’t truly understand the context of the events in today’s chapter without understanding that there is an on-going political debate taking place. The issues being debated are the very two questions with which I ended yesterday’s post:

  1. Who is Jesus?
  2. What do we do with Him?

It’s also important to understand that the party officials, the Jewish religious leaders, were all lawyers. They acted much like Supreme Court justices interpreting our Constitution, only they were legal experts interpreting the Law of Moses (all the religious rules and regulations in the Books of Exodus, Leviticus, et al). These lawyers were also in political, social, and economic control of the Jewish people under Roman occupation, and of the Temple. These legal, religious, political officials were threatened by Jesus for a number of reasons.

First, Jesus was highly critical of these political, religious lawyers (in today’s debate Jesus calls them children of the Devil). Second, Jesus’ teaching and actions were a tectonic paradigm shift that cut against the grain of the ruling party’s conservative, narrow interpretation of what God desires and expects of His followers. This threatened their thought control over the populace. Finally (and getting to the real crux of the matter), Jesus was also extremely popular and it was creating social unrest that threatened these lawyers political and social control. Their power, authority, and economic cash cow was threatened (think of it like one of our political parties who might lose their control over Congress).

And so, as Jesus is in the Temple teaching, these legal/political/religious party officials send waves of lawyers to debate Jesus on a variety of issues. Their goal is to trap Jesus into saying something that would give them authority, according to their almighty law, to arrest and kill the young troublemaker from Nazareth.

First, they send a woman caught in adultery who, by law, should be stoned to death for her crime. The legal team, however, seemed to forget that the law calls for both the woman and her adulterous lover to be condemned. Jesus, however, refuses to debate the jots and tittles of the legal issues. He simply highlights the accusers own sin and hypocrisy, publicly shaming them into abandoning their blood fury.

The next legal team questions  the claims Jesus has been making about Himself on the grounds that the law requires two witnesses. Jesus counters that God, the Father, is His second witness. He adds that if the lawyers would get their heads out of the law and sought to  know the Father (author of the law), they would understand this.

Finally, the lawyers ask Jesus point-blank who He is. Jesus once again offers cryptic answers to the direct question, stating that they will know for sure “when you have lifted up the Son of Man” (a prophetic foreshadowing of Jesus’ own crucifixion).

The audience is impressed with Jesus’ dismantling of the lawyers’ arguments. The debate is going Jesus’ way, and many of the Jews in the audience decide to switch their party affiliation and join Jesus’ camp.

The debate now shifts and Jesus goes on the offensive. Like all good politicians, the ruling legal officials liked to align themselves with the beloved, historical pillars of the party. They were known for calling themselves “children of Abraham” and draping the mantel of Abraham’s legacy around their shoulders. Jesus questions their hypocrisy, asking why they have been in their smoke filled back rooms plotting to kill Him.

The debate quickly spirals into back and forth name-calling (sound familiar?). The lawyers hold fast to their “Children of Abraham” branding. Jesus counters by accusing them of being murderers. The lawyers raise their own Abraham claim and double down, claiming that God is their father. Jesus counters that the devil is, in fact, their father because, like the devil, the evidence proves they are all liars and murderers. The lawyers, now really pissed off, counter by calling Jesus a demon and then throw in a racial epithet by throwing out rumors (from the internet, no doubt) that Jesus is a actually a half-breed Samaritan.

Jesus then shifts the debate once more, this time claiming that He personally knows their beloved Abraham (to wit: “I knew Abraham. Abraham is a friend of mine. You, sir, are no child of Abraham.”), and that Abraham rejoiced to see Jesus’ take up His campaign. The legal team scoffs. This is ludicrous and insane. Abraham lived over a thousands years ago. How could Jesus actually know Abraham?

Jesus ends the debate with the most headline grabbing, jaw-dropping, topic trending statement of all. Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I am.” Only, in the Hebrew language Jesus used the word that is transliterated into English: “Yaweh.” Yahweh is the name God gave to Moses on the mountain when Moses asked who He was (See Exodus chapter 3). Yaweh was the unutterable, sacred, holy name of God. To the Jews, Yaweh was forever to be considered “He-who-must-not-be-named.” In saying “Yaweh” Jesus both directly claimed that He was God and gave his political opponents their legal grounds to pounce. And, pounce they did. The lawyers suddenly became executioners. They immediately picked up the stones (perhaps the dropped stones intended for the adulterous woman) to carry out swift justice.

Today, I am reminded that I am reading the testimony of a member of Jesus’ own inner circle, John, who was a first-hand original source witness of this debate. I am struck by the fact that Jesus seemed to foreknow the way these events were going to play out, and ultimately contributed to their outcome. I am, once again, reminded that Jesus claimed to be God. If Jesus wasn’t lying, and if He wasn’t crazy, then I’m left to accept that He was exactly who He claimed to be. And, I’m left to make up my own mind about the second issue of the debate: What am I going to do with Him?

 

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Smoke Filled Back Rooms of Jerusalem

The Pharisees heard the crowd muttering such things about [Jesus], and the chief priests and Pharisees sent temple police to arrest him.
John 7:32 (NRSV)

It has been fascinating for me to read John’s biography of Jesus during the current presidential election. The election is all about popularity, sound bytes, what this person said about that person, what that person thinks about this person, who came to this event, and who sat out of that event. It’s a whole lot of zany humanity, and that is exactly what is happening in today’s chapter.

After the post shore-lunch debacle [see yesterday’s post], Jesus has seemingly chosen to call an end to his whistle-stop miracle tour in fly-over country. There is conflict among his team and fighting among his own family. Jesus organization seems to be fractured from infighting. And now, there’s a big event looming in the Capitol city of Jerusalem. Everyone is going to be there. His family sarcastically rides Jesus that if He wants to be Mr. Big then He has to go to the festival. Jesus chooses out, the abruptly decides to make a surprise appearance.

In the Capitol of Jerusalem, the political atmosphere is tense. Political polls about Jesus are mixed but popularity has swung so much His way that the party establishment are running scared. They begin a smear campaign. They put out sound bytes announcing that there is no way Jesus can be the Messiah on legal grounds because Jesus hails from the Galilee district and the Law clearly says that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem. Plus, Jesus performing miracles on the Sabbath day of rest is at the very least a misdemeanor if you’re going to split legal hairs. In a “smoke-filled back room” the  party officials and insiders decide to have Jesus arrested and muscle the young upstart into line.

Jesus, meanwhile, is drawing huge crowds. His message is as confusing as ever. He’s talking like he’s been smoking one of those Turkish hookahs. “My teaching is not mine, but the One who sent me” (Hold on. What does that mean? Who’s Jesus working for? Is Jesus starting a Third Party?) “I’m going where you won’t see me” (Is he leaving? Is he getting out of the race?).   “I come from the Father” (Yeah, in Nazareth.). “You don’t know the Father, but I know Him.” (Wait a minute. Yes I do. Joe the Carpenter. Fixed a table for me once).

Despite the confusing rhetoric, Jesus is mesmerizing. He is unlike anything anyone has ever seen. No one talks like this. No one does the things Jesus does. It’s so compelling that even the Capitol police sent to arrest Jesus decide to disobey orders and face the reprimand they know they’ll get from party officials.

The political situation is heating up and everyone is asking two questions:

  1. “Who is Jesus?”
  2. “What do we do with Him?”

And, in retrospect, that seems to have been Jesus’ intention all along. Everyone needs to answer those two questions.

 

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Featured image from darthdowney via Flickr

A Cynic’s Confession

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.
1 Timothy 2:1-2 (NIV)

When you live in Iowa, you get a larger dose of American presidential politics than most. Iowa is the first state in the parties selection process for presidential nominees. Therefore, Iowans tend to have a more generous dose of candidates, surveys, and political ads before everyone else. I kind of like it, in the general sense. About 95 percent of the time the major media outlets ignore us here in flyover country. If there’s not a tragedy, natural disaster, or the need for a heart warming Americana story, then they prefer to keep their cameras and microphones grounded on the coast. It’s nice to have the opportunity for our thoughts and opinions to matter for a few months.

At the same time, I will admit that the whole presidential circus gets a bit silly at times. I was once avidly involved in the political process, but confess that I have become jaded and cynical the further I’ve progressed in life’s journey. I vote regularly and do my civic duty, but I am increasingly appalled at how elected leaders look out for themselves and leverage our collective future to solidify their personal standing in the present. I’m talking both sides of the aisle here.

As I read Paul’s admonishment to pray for “all those in authority” this morning, I was struck by just how cynical I’ve become. It’s almost to the point of being a fatalist. If I’m truly honest, I have to admit that I find myself thinking, “What will be will be and my prayers, petitions, and intercessions won’t make a bit of a difference.”

Then, I think of Paul and Timothy out there under Roman occupation  and sandwiched between persecution from both Jewish authorities and Roman authorities. Theirs was not a representative republic. They didn’t have a vote. The media of the day was not surveying everyone in Ephesus to find out what they thought, and Caesar was not pandering to the backwater Hellenists. Their political impotence was far greater than mine, and still Paul urged vigilant prayers for all in authority.

Today, I’m a bit humbled to admit how hard my heart has become towards those in governmental authority. I am revising my prayer list. If you’ll excuse me, I have a few petitions to bring before the highest authority of all.

A Very Different Kind of War

source: mkrigsman
source: mkrigsman

We are human, but we don’t wage war as humans do. 2 Corinthians 10:3 (NLT)

For most of my life, the headlines have been filled with news of one war or another. As a child, my first recollections of television news were reports on the war in Vietnam. I grew up in school hearing about the Cold War. In high school there were wars with the Soviets and Afghanistan, and there was conflict between Britain and the Falkland Islands. The U.S. had a conflict with a tiny island nation of Grenada. Then came the first Gulf War, and then the War on Terror. The second war in Iraq followed by war in Afghanistan. Now the headlines are filled with talk of war in Syria.

My experience is not unique. All of us can mark time along our life journey by the wars we remember. War has been an ever present part of the human experience. When Paul was writing his letter to the believers of Jesus in Corinth, they were living near the heart of the Roman Empire. Paul had grown up surrounded by the occupational forces of Rome and he witnessed continuous conflicts with Rome both at home and in Jerusalem. When it came time to teach the followers of Jesus about the ever present conflict being waged in the spiritual realm, the very real images of soldiers, conflict, and war were readily available to Paul as word pictures to which everyone of that day could relate.

One of the most important things I have come to realize and internalize about the spiritual conflict in which we are engaged is how different it is with the physical war to which we are accustomed. In fact, war in the spiritual realm is the very opposite of war on a human scale. In the spiritual conflict our greatest weapon is love. Our tactics are forgiveness, sacrifice, generosity, service, kindness, and grace. The result of a successful campaign in the spirit realm is salvation, peace, healing, wholeness, and restoration.

Today I am reminded that while there are similarities between war in the physical realm and war in the spiritual realm, I must never forget the stark differences between the two. I must fully embrace the contrast if I am to be successfully engaged in the spiritual conflict in which I am enlisted.