The upside-downness of Lent
Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ reproduces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for February 27th: 1 Kings 19:1-8; Psalm 32; and Hebrews 2:10-18. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
Lent in a certain way is about turning the usual upside down. It is meant to be disruptive. This comes across in today’s readings. In the first selection, we hear of King Ahab. He is the son of Omri, the founder of a dynasty that ruled the northern kingdom of Israel after its split with the southern kingdom of Judah. Omri is judged an evil king in the Bible, but he was a successful ruler. He expanded the borders of Israel and he founded the capital city of Samaria. Ahab succeeded his father upon his death.
Omri was a military commander, and a successful one. His son Ahab is depicted in the Bible quite differently. Ahab is too weak to confront the prophet Elijah and in today’s reading he bemoans the situation to Jezebel his queen. Jezebel is assertive immediately and threatens Elijah, vowing by her gods to assassinate him within the day. Omri was strong-willed, as was Jezebel, but Ahab was not of this ilk. King Ahab turned his father’s, and even his queen’s, example upside down.
Elijah, for his part, is fresh off a brutal religious-fanatical spree of violence. He has wantonly killed other religious prophets because they were other. His fearsome bona fides are marked by the blood of the 450 murdered. Elijah had proven to have access to powerful, heavenly assistance when he called down fire from heaven. I find it strange that following this miraculous sign from the sky that Elijah would then cower before the threat of Jezebel, a pagan just like the murdered 450 prophets, and also a woman. This woman’s words terrify the fearsome prophet Elijah so much so that he runs away. We see again an example of events turned upside down.
Then in the reading from Hebrews, we encounter an extremely profound reversal. Hebrews, it is argued, is written by an anonymous author to a community of Jewish-Christians who are struggling with their new faith, and who are contemplating a return to the more familiar Jewish religion. Hebrews encourages them to remain faithful to Jesus who is depicted as the High Priest, which by the way is the only New Testament reference to any Christian priest. Jesus and Jesus alone is the Bible’s only Christian priest.
Hebrews presents Jesus as both the priestly officiant and the sacrifice. For Jewish-Christians struggling with the upside-down reality of a crucified Messiah, Hebrews does not shy away from the cross, but presents it as the perfect and therefore unrepeatable sacrifice to God by God. This makes all other repeated sacrifices unnecessary and inferior. Hebrews also sees in the suffering Messiah a sacred connection between God and humanity. Hebrews moves beyond atonement, a focus on sin removed, and toward at-one-ment, a focus on the holy communion between God and humanity in the person of Jesus, especially in the suffering of Jesus. We read today, “Because [Jesus] himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” In a world often marred by suffering that we thrust upon ourselves and suffering that is inexplicable, we have Jesus who is at-one with us in that Jesus has suffered as one of us. Jesus is the living empathy of God. Jesus suffers so that when we suffer there is no barrier when we need to come closer to God for comfort and strength.
This is the upside-down new reality of Christianity. Elijah relished the power of God when fire came down from heaven, and then carried away by this power savagely slaughtered 450 people. The power of God when abused can become a justification for man’s inhumanity to man. Then comes along a crucified Saviour, one who suffers to be at-one with others who suffer. Power is turned upside-down and its symbol is the cross. This Lenten season let us strive to better understand the intended disruption that God reveals in the upside-down power of the cross.
If you’d like, here is the link to the Southern New England Conference’s daily reading schedule: www.sneucc.org/lectionary.
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