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 March 17th: Psalm 63:1-8; Daniel 3:19-30; and Revelation 2:8-11. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
Today’s three readings speak to us about the comfort our faith can give us in times of danger or distress. The setting assigned to the Psalm is when David was hiding out from the wrath of King Saul. When the days were bleak and allies uncertain, David still had God: “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.”
After Judah had been defeated by the Babylonians and deported out of their lands, some remained faithful to Yahweh no matter what the consequence. When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to compromise their faith in the one God, Nebuchadnezzar, the ruler of the Babylonian Empire, was so enraged that he threw them alive into a furnace. Looking into the furnace, Nebuchadnezzar sees a fourth person with the other three, and the king exclaims, “‘… and the fourth has the appearance of a god.’” Yahweh protected His faithful servants even when they were being threatened by the king of the most powerful empire of that day.
And in the Book of Revelation, the seer reveals to the church in Smyrna that persecution is inevitable. In the first reading, the oppressor was a king of a minor nation. In the second, the torment of believers was at the hands of the ruler of a mighty empire. In Revelation, the suffering is the result of supernatural evil. The evil is so powerful that the promise of protection cannot be offered, but the seer encourages believers to remain faithful because: “Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death.”
I don’t know if it’s noticeable on a first read, but there’s an inverse relationship playing out here. The less severe the threat the greater the reward, and vice-versa. Saul is a minor figure on the world stage. His opposition to David is completely reversed. The hunted David replaces Saul as King of Israel. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego face down the leader of an empire. They are saved, but their victory is limited to appointment in some provincial position that helps to maintain the conquering empire of the Babylonians. Those persecuted in the church of Smyrna are not able to be saved from physical harm, but their nemesis is not human. It is Satan. They are pawns in a supernatural confrontation of good vs. evil. They cannot be promised protection, but they are assured of salvation in the hereafter.
How does this interact with Lent’s message of a crucified Saviour? What does Jesus’ death say about God’s providence and comfort? What are we as believers in a crucified Saviour to expect in times of personal distress and general danger? How is faith intended to offer comfort when problems weigh heavily upon us and some are far beyond our control? If God accepts suffering and even death in Jesus, what in the world does that reveal? I, as a person of faith, do not accept that it implies a feckless God. There is a whole realm of theology that deals with the reality of bad things happening without any semblance of divine justice. It is called theodicy, and it comes to the fore in this Sunday’s readings and sermon.
I’d ask you to think about this in the context of Lent, and maybe think about joining us on Sunday as we talk more about it, all while in the house of the crucified Saviour.
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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