The Plague and the Promise

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by Tad de Bordenave

In the records of biblical history we read of times when God directly intervened in the affairs of our world. The lesson in this Sunday’s reading from Isaiah 45 gives a clear example. “I will go before you, Cyrus, and level mountains. I will smash gates of bronze and cut through bars of iron. I will do this so you will know that I am the Lord.”

My interests are God’s declarations of plagues at specific times and upon specific people. Always provoked by idolatry and the wickedness of the people, God’s intrusion also included a social dimension–the call to turn from cold neglect to compassion for the needy. The message that God sent with the plague included the promise of blessing if the people turn to him with signs of repentance.

I believe that dual declaration of plague and promise holds the lens that brings focus on the days we are living in. With abundant humility and a bit of doubt—or maybe the other way around — I am beginning a series of weekly postings that will examine what we see through that lens. I hope to bring attention to God’s purposes and the path to the promise of his blessing. That purpose is to draw us deeper into knowing him, and that path is to do his justice and show his kindness.

Fundamental to this interpretation is that God does intrude into our affairs—both on the personal scale and on the larger world scene. After all, we do pray for parking places as well as for the president, don’t we? Still, marking connections between God and governments can carry questionable ramifications and must be done with exceeding hesitancy.

Which brings up the question: what special wisdom have I to make assignment of plague to this person or that event? Whatever the category of special dispensation, whatever the esoteric counsel requisite, I assure you (as you already suspected) I have none.  I dare not venture into the blurred terrain between the newspaper and the movements of God. No, I won’t do that, but I will enlist two sets of consultants.

Some of you may recognize one group. These would be “Friends of St. Paul.” Back in the spring I wrote a series on several of these relatively obscure figures but people who made lasting contribution to the church. In my fanciful imagination I met with each on a bench in heaven when they could elaborate on their role.

These will make return appearances, each bringing their particular insight to the plague and the promise of our day. We will meet them not on a bench but, naturally, by Zoom and at a location of their choice.

The other group of expert witnesses will come from afar and from before. The relevance of each for today’s scene will become clear as you meet them. One was a French aristocrat with profound discernment about American democracy (Alex de Tocqueville). One was a Russian dissident whose wisdom  pierced our culture’s flaws (Alexander Solzhenitsyn). One boldly preached the Kingdom of God in Hitler’s Germany in the midst of Allied bombs (Helmut Thielicke). One took us into the dark and deadly intrigues of the Grand Inquisitor (Fyodor Dostoevsky).

God intends for the plague to remove all idols and to acknowledge him as the only God. Instead of living by bread alone, he wants us to abide by every word that he speaks. That means for us to seek, value,  honor, and defend what he tells us in the Bible. It means knowing that he is the source of all that is wise, true, and holy. It means that we know him as the one who is high and lifted up and in his presence we bow in reverent awe. For he is God and there is no other.

The promise comes with the kind of repentance that John the Baptist taught–not in words only but in changes of behavior. The marks of godly repentance are frequently listed throughout Scripture: at the plea in Micah to love kindness, to do justice, and to live in humble fellowship with our God; at Jeremiah’s Temple sermon to care for the refugee, the fatherless and the widow, and those whose blood is innocent; then at the Lord’s judgment for the homeless, the captive, the hungry, and the poor. Without these reversals of behavior—national and personal—God knows our repentance to be a sham.

Let me insert here a quote from my father. I found this in an article he had prepared in 1949, another time of dangerous worldwide scourge. I was struck—and very pleased personally—to see how his statement fits our context also. “The only hope of preventing future conflict must be a penitence that results in the greater measure of justice that God demands, if nations are to survive.”

With this background I will commence the series. Our guest next week will be Eutychus. Remember him? He was the one who slept through Paul’s sermon and missed the message. He will have much to say about what we must not miss.

Others we will hear from will be Manaean with warnings of cultural chaplaincy;
Damaris and the suffering of God;
Onesimus and the power of friendship;
some of the 500 who heard of hope and judgment from the resurrected Christ;
Lydia and new ways of mission expansion;
and Demas whose experience carries warnings of lukewarmness.

These and others will illustrate the theme of God’s plague and his promise for us today.

I close with a sentiment that C. S. Lewis expressed at the end of one of the books within Mere Christianity: “This is the stage where the road passes over the rim of our world. No one’s eyes can see very far beyond that: lots of people’s eyes can see further than mine.” I welcome what your eyes tell you.

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