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 7th: 1 Chronicles 21:1-17; Psalm 17; and 1 John 2:1-6. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
If you were with us yesterday for church, you heard the Gospel selection of Jesus’ temptation or testing in the wilderness. I shared my thoughts that the literal reading of the text distracted from the powerful meaning of the text. Two thousand years ago, people saw evil spirits everywhere. Heck, even 300 years ago and only about 100 miles east of here the people of Salem saw evidence of witches right in their very own neighbours.
If you want to read a frightening book, read or re-read Arthur Miller’s The Crucible about the Salem witch trials. It was set in the 1690’s, but it’s message was meant for the 1950’s. The Cold War witch hunts were conducted by Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee. McCarthy judged Miller a Communist and just like in Salem the only way for Miller to exonerate himself was to name names, which he refused to do.
There were consequences for being a person of principle. Miller’s previous play was the much-acclaimed Death of a Salesman. It ran on Broadway for 742 performances. The Crucible was produced after Miller’s appearance before McCarthy. It lasted for only 197 performances, and it only made it this long because the cast accepted a pay cut to keep the show on stage. Miller’s next play lasted for only 149 performances, and then Miller was banished from the stage for the next nine years.
I think McCarthy was far more un-American than Miller; I think the Salem witches were innocent and the judges guilty; and I think there are far more profound issues in the account of Jesus’ testing in the wilderness than a devil carrying Jesus from mountaintop to Temple pinnacle. But that was all in yesterday’s sermon. In today’s reading list, I would like to ask you to add one additional verse. It is 2 Samuel 24:1, which states: “Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, ‘Go, count the people of Israel and Judah.’”
When this account is rewritten during or after the nation’s exile to Babylon, we now read in today’s selection from 1 Chronicles: “Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to count the people of Israel.” I don’t know if you caught the significant change between the first and second text. If you look at them a second time, you’ll see that in the first text what God had done becomes in the second text what Satan had done.
The reason for the change is not a change in the nature of God. It was a change in the theology about God. Before the Exile, Israel counted God as the uncontested supernatural power, which meant that God was responsible for good and for bad. During the Exile, the Jews were exposed to a dualistic theology, one of a good God and an evil nemesis. This was to alleviate the problem of theodicy, the accusation that God caused bad things to happen to good people. And the two texts above show this taking place right in the biblical text.
Additionally, Jesus comes to us from a different place that simply does not need the distraction of evil spirits. Instead, as we read in today’s selection from 1 John: “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” Jesus the righteous is our advocate not our accuser. The shift in religious thought has moved from evil to righteous, from accusation to advocate. This is the Saviour we seek to know better during our Season of Lent.
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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