Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Reformation


At the Garner house, we splurge on a cable package that allows us to watch all the kid channels like Nick Jr. and Disney Junior and all the sports networks like ESPN17, but we don't spring for any of the movie channels. When people talk about their favorite shows on HBO or Showtime, I just smile and nod and say, "That sounds interesting," because we don't get those channels. We do, however, get a lower-class set of movie channels--not the kind that spends money on creating original series that win scores of Emmys but the kind that buy the rights to one or two big-name films and then show them every night for a few months.

One of those films has created a rift in our family. Every time I see that No Country for Old Men is on, I stop flipping through the channels to watch it, and Elizabeth sighs and says, "You know that I don't like this movie. Should I go into the other room and read?" That's not a genuine offer, of course. It's wife-speak for "Hey, dumbass, for the umpteenth time, I don't want to watch this; turn the channel!"

But when she's not home--or not paying attention--I get sucked into that slow-playing drama of life and death and decision. I can watch any two or three minutes of the film and be glad that I did. One scene that sticks with me is the moment when Llewelyn Moss is in the Mexican hospital and talks to Anton Chigurh on the phone. The latter has been hunting the former, trying to get back a large sum of money that the latter had stumbled upon and kept for himself. In a cool, unemotional tone that is indicative of Chigurh, he gives Llewelyn a choice. He can either bring the money back and save his wife's life, or he can keep running until Chigurh finds him and kills him and then goes to kill his wife. As he says on the phone, "That's the best deal you're gonna get. I won't tell you you can save yourself because you can't." Although dark and sinister, there's a principled fatalism that dominates the film. It's a hard look at reality that I find penetrating.

We encounter a similar sort of fatalism in today's reading from the Old Testament (2 Kings 22:14-23:3). King Josiah has directed that God's temple be refurbished, and, during the construction project, Hilkiah the high priest discovers the Book of the Law--an ancient, long-forgotten testament to what God had asked his people to do. When Hilkiah read it, he took it to the king and read it to him, and the king's reaction was powerful: he tore his clothes. He knew that those words meant trouble because his people had been doing just about everything that the Book of the Law had told them not to do. So the king sent the priest to ask the Lord what should be done. The prophetess Huldah offered a remarkable response:
Thus says the LORD, I will indeed bring disaster on this place and on its inhabitants-- all the words of the book that the king of Judah has read. Because they have abandoned me and have made offerings to other gods, so that they have provoked me to anger with all the work of their hands, therefore my wrath will be kindled against this place, and it will not be quenched. But as to the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the LORD, thus shall you say to him, Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Regarding the words that you have heard, because your heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the LORD, when you heard how I spoke against this place, and against its inhabitants, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and because you have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, says the LORD. Therefore, I will gather you to your ancestors, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace; your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring on this place.
Forgive the long quotation, but, to me, it reads with as much drama as No Country for Old Men. What will happen? God is going to come and bring disaster upon his people. They have gone astray in the worst possible way, and there will be a punishment for it. But the king, whose heart was torn when he discovered the sin that he and his people had committed, would not see this disaster but, instead, would die in peace before the terrible events unfolded. I hear God saying to his people, "You can't avoid the consequences of your actions, but I respect your repentance."

On the surface, that's not a very Christian thing to say. (And, perhaps, it shouldn't be since it's from the Hebrew bible.) But, if we dig a little deeper, I wonder what we might discover in this story.

Remember, of course, that these histories weren't being written as they unfolded. They were written generations later as a testament not only to the past but also as an instruction for the future. This isn't, therefore, a passage that speaks to the futility of repentance but to the power of reform. Even when all of God's people are headed down the wrong path there is still value in turning around and searching for God.

We often diagnose a crisis with the benefit of hindsight. What got us into WWI? Maybe we shouldn't have allowed Hitler to spread across Europe unchecked. No wonder the dot-com bubble burst. Stronger levies and a clearer evacuation plan are necessary in places like New Orleans. Of course poor regulation on complex derivative securities and too-big-to-fail financial institutions led to a sharp decline. As the events unfold around us, we only get a glimpse of what is happening and why we are powerless to stop it. Afterwards, however, we can pick the problem apart and figure out what to do next time. That is the witness of Josiah's story.

No matter what 2 Kings says, I don't believe God works as simply as to bring disaster upon his people as punishment for their sin. I think it's more complicated than that. I think there are geo-political, economic, cultural explanations for the collapse of the Judean kingdom that, to an ancient ear, are inseparable from the economy of sin and punishment. But remember how the story ends. Even though calamity ensues, God preserves a remnant of his people. God's promises are not defeated even if his people are sent to Babylon in captivity. Even in the Old Testament, humanity's sin is not the end of the story. And that brings me back to Josiah.

In a long history of wicked leaders, we celebrate Josiah for his period of reform. The temple was cleansed. The covenant was renewed. The false worship was purged from the land. And, for a time, everything was as it should be. Josiah reigned and died after a period of renewal. And, eventually, God's people forgot what it meant to belong only to him. And the neighboring nations invaded and besieged Jerusalem and defeated the people of Judah. But they didn't forget Josiah. And they didn't forget the power of repentance.

Jesus Christ is our testament that sin is no match for the power of God. The resurrection is a reminder that repentance will always have value. We might not be able to avoid the earthly consequences of our bad decisions. Those of us who destroy our bodies through the abuse of alcohol aren't magically given a new body when we stop and repent--at least not in this life. But we do believe that even our broken bodies are made new on the other side of repentance. We are called to remember the power of reformation. No matter how dark things get, God's forgiveness will win the day. Remember the power of God's mercy. Seek a period of renewal. Return to the Lord and his covenant. And know that your remembrance is not lost to God. 

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