What Can the Righteous Do?

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

There is an old saying — at least I’ve heard it all my life — that I will have to clean up a bit for Morning Prayer:  “When you’re up to your waist in alligators, it’s hard to remember that you came here to drain the swamp.”  Unfortunately, “drain the swamp” now has political connotations; that’s not what I have in mind at all.  I’m thinking more theologically, more along these lines:  the moment of crisis is not the best time to tackle deep, theological questions.

A young woman — a new widow with an infant child — talks to her priest very soon after burying her husband.  “Why did this happen to him, to me?  He was a good man, a faithful man.  How could the Lord do this to us?”  The woman is in crisis.  If I were her priest, I would not attempt to answer her questions at that moment; I would not delve into the issue of theodicy with her in that state.  Even if I could explain perfectly — and I can’t — that wouldn’t matter.  She doesn’t really want an explanation.  She wants her husband back.  She wants her life back.  She wants the pain to cease.

When you’re up to your waist in alligators, it’s hard to remember that you came here to drain the swamp.

So, I would assure her of God’s love for her, for her child, and for her husband.  I would assure her of the church’s love, and I would commit on behalf of the church to walk with her through her grief, to support her as family, to meet any needs she and her child might have going forward.  I would talk to her of hope and of resurrection.  I would tell her to cast her grief and her questions upon God in prayers of lament.  I would encourage her to hunker down, to hold on, to drink deeply from the well of faith.  There will be time later to deal with her questions.

This is, in part, why I have been reticent to do much public theology in this time of pandemic and social unrest.  Why has God allowed Covid-19 to devastate our world?  Has he brought this plague upon us as punishment?  Why so many natural disasters in the midst of it:  hurricanes, derecho, wildfires, floods?  What is God up to?  Good questions, all, but now may not be the right time for them.  Hunker down, hold on, drink deeply from the well of faith.  We’ll talk later, we’ll theologize later when the moment of crisis has passed.

When you’re up to your waist in alligators, it’s hard to remember that you came here to drain the swamp.

I am not trying to avoid the difficult questions.  The church can and must address them.  I am suggesting that timing is important; timing is of the Lord.  Better than dealing with these questions in the midst of a crisis or even after it, is resolving them before the moment of crisis:  better to be prepared than to recover.

Psalm 11 — a Psalm of David — is a good place to start.  If anyone knew moments of crisis, it was David.  He could navigate them, withstand them, because his faith, his life, were founded on the goodness and faithfulness of God before the moments of crisis broke over him.  He could say:

Psalm 11:1–3 (ESV): In the Lord I take refuge; 

  how can you say to my soul, 

“Flee like a bird to your mountain, 

 2  for behold, the wicked bend the bow; 

they have fitted their arrow to the string 

to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart; 

 3  if the foundations are destroyed, 

what can the righteous do?” 

This is a man who knew how to hunker down in the Lord, to hold fast to the Lord, to drink deeply from the well of faith.  This is a man who had found the Lord to be a safe refuge, a rock, a fortress.  This is a man who could ignore the anxiety around him, dismiss the fearful advice the mob:  “Run away.  Flee like a bird to your mountain.”  The  mountain here may be an allusion to the high places, those hilltops where pagans and even Israel sacrificed to the gods of the nations.  “Hedge your bets,” the mob shouts.  “Grasp for security wherever it might be found.”  Our culture has its mountains too, its high places where sacrifices are offered to the false gods of pleasure, prosperity, power, and pride.  “Run away:  flee like a bird to these mountains,” says the mob.  No:  in the Lord we take refuge.

Then comes the key question, the one we need to have answered before the evil day comes, before the time of crisis:  “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?”  In one sense, that’s a false question; its assumption is in error.  It’s like asking:  What color is yesterday?  It is a false question because the foundations of the righteous cannot be destroyed.

Ephesians 2:19–22 (ESV): So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. 

This foundation — the foundation of the righteous — cannot be destroyed because it is built upon the witness of the apostles and prophets and held fast by Jesus Christ the cornerstone.  The holy temple of the Lord built on this foundation cannot be destroyed.  This is the wisdom of Psalm 11, written a millennium before Jesus, because it looked forward to Jesus.  In answer to the question “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” David answers simply:

Psalm 11:4 (ESV): The Lord is in his holy temple; 

the Lord’s throne is in heaven…

The only foundation that really matters — the foundation of the Lord’s holy temple — cannot be destroyed because God dwells in the temple and secures it.  His throne may be in heaven, but as Isaiah saw, his train fills the temple on earth.  No, the foundation cannot be destroyed, but it can be shaken, it should be shaken by the praise of angels, archangels, and all the company of the righteous in heaven and on earth:

Isaiah 6:1–4 (ESV): In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called to another and said: 

  “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; 

  the whole earth is full of his glory!” 

4 And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 

What can the righteous do in the moment of crisis when the world cries “Flee to the high places and offer sacrifices to the gods of the nations”?  The righteous come to the temple of the Lord whose foundations can never be destroyed.  The righteous lift up their voices in the cry, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!” and they shake the foundations of that temple with praise.  The righteous hunker down, hold fast, and drink deeply from the well of faith

The foundations of false security, of first world privilege, of scientific omniscience and omnipotence, of political protection are being destroyed around us.  False expectations of health and long life, of a hospitable natural world, of social progress are being destroyed around us.  The thin veneer of faith of our post-Christian culture is being stripped away and the chasm at the heart of Christendom is being laid bare.  Fine.  Good. So be it.  Thanks be to God, even.  That which is false must crumble so that which is true may be seen to stand firm, immovable.

Haggai 2:5–9 (ESV): My Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not. 6 For thus says the Lord of hosts: Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land. 7 And I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the Lord of hosts. 8 The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, declares the Lord of hosts. 9 The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts. And in this place I will give peace, declares the Lord of hosts.’ ” 

What can the righteous do?  Take refuge in the Lord who is in his holy temple, whose throne is in heaven.  Amen.

About johnaroop

I am a husband, father, retired teacher, lover of books and music and coffee and, as of 17 May 2015, by the grace of God and the will of his Church, an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Diocese of the South. I serve as assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN, and as Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of the South.
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