Behind the Scenes with the Minor Prophets – Lent 2021
March 3, 2021
A Grounding Center, A Daily Practice
I’m convinced that all people need a daily practice that provides time and space for reflection on our lives, the cultivation of character and peace, and grounding in our deepest values and relationships. There are many forms of such daily practice taught both inside and outside of world religions, paths both ancient and modern as well. And the Bible is not the only text that can help us in the grounding. I have personally found my daily practice in the tradition and faith of Jesus. And Lent is our church’s most focused annual opportunity to cultivate such a practice. The minor prophets have some material that is hard to read, but each week there are ideas and phrases that have carried enormous power across the centuries – power to shape lives and movements and cultures for good. There are lines in the guide this year that have reshaped history. There are a couple of lines in this year’s guide that anchor my own life purpose. This Lent, I invite you into this daily practice together with your church community to see what will ground and grow you there, to center yourself in what is most important each day.
Learning to Read the Bible, Even with its Texts of Terror
To ground in any ancient tradition, we will come across material that is accessible and inspirational, alongside that which seems outdated and offensive. The Bible is no different. There are a few texts so troubling and violent that feminst scholar Phyllis Trible has called them “texts of terror.” The minor prophets contain none of these texts of terror, but they have material that is troubling. To be faithful to God, we cannot reach such texts as the ancients did. We are invited to read them afresh, with the help of the loving Spirit of God, who makes all things new. The text I preached this past Sunday from Hosea isn’t one of these texts of terror, but it’s not far afield. In it, a woman simply labelled as a prostitute is used as a metaphor for a wayward nation, and God is said to threaten the ones God loves with punishment. Suzanne Watson, Ryan Daniel Dobson, and the team behind the 2019 film Hosea reimagine this text through Gomer’s perspective, asking provocative questions about what love feels and looks like, even when life knocks us far afield from love. Love involves the relentless pursuit of the good of the beloved, and love involves the willingness to feel and experience another’s pain.
As a pastor, I want you to have freedom to read the Bible with your mind and heart alive. I want you to recognize when you understand and love what it says. And I want you to be free to argue and push back with the text and with God when it troubles you. The Bible, on the whole, is a faithful witness to the living, loving, life-giving God. But some parts need more interpreting and repurposing than other parts.
Perfect Love Drives Out Fear
By reading even some of the harder texts of the Bible, we’re trying to learn with the Spirit of God to purify our tradition, so to speak, so that all that is left in it is love. The prophets themselves criticize major themes of the religious tradition they inherit. They say that God loves mercy, not sacrifice, even within a Bible that has other texts that commend sacrifice. So the prophets invite us to continue to critique our religious tradition.
I do this by disbelieving what the prophets themselves say about God’s desire to punish disobedient children. Along with I John, chapter four, I believe, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love.” I believe that God judges and God disciplines, but I do not believe God punishes. The talk of punishment in the prophets is partly ancient religious culture, partly a metaphor for the natural consequences of unjust living, and partly a personification of the very real anger of God. But it isn’t a literal description of God’s character or ways in the world. You do not need to fear that God wants to punish you when you screw up. God loves you, and God seeks to drive out fear in your life, inspiring you to higher levels of faith, hope, love, and dignity.
The Emotional Life of God
What the intensity of the prophets’ talk about God does is show us that God is not impassive as the Greek philosophers believed a god must be. God is so invested in this world that God feels what we feel and is emotionally responsive to what happens in God’s creation. The scriptures consistently teach this about God, and the emotional life of Jesus enfleshes it as well. God is not a distant and mysterious force. And God is not an aloof monarch. God is much more like a loving parent. Loving parents feel protective and disappointed anger. Loving parents face heartbreak when their kids go astray. And loving parents pay attention, nurture, sing over, and remain devoted to their children. As is God to you and me and all God’s children.
I hope that the rest of our six weeks with the prophets keeps helping you grow a daily practice, engage the hard parts of our faith tradition, learn that you needn’t fear a dark side of God, and know that God is emotionally engaged and responsive to us all still.