A Homily for ADOTS Morning Prayer, 30 Oct 2020
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other” is an axiom attributed to theologian Karl Barth. I don’t know that he said exactly that, but he did say something like it:
“Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.”
That sounds good and reasonable and faithful, and it is; but what it’s not is easy. It is a theological and homiletical tightrope, greased at that. Only those whose balance is unshakable, whose instincts are honed and sure, whose wisdom matches their knowledge should risk stepping out on that wire. Which means that I shouldn’t. Which means that I’m getting ready to anyway.
Here are the twin problems, the equal and opposite dangers, that a preacher faces when holding Bible and newspaper together. Either he reads the Scripture through the lens of what is most culturally current and pressing, which is, to some extent almost unavoidable, or else he imports and applies ancient words and norms to a modern circumstance that is not equivalent and to which they may not apply directly. One error uses the newspaper to misinterpret Scripture, and the other error falsely uses Scripture to bludgeon the newspaper. I’ll probably commit both errors in what follows.
Samaria, the northern kingdom, has fallen. Its sins were many:
2 Kings 17:14–18 (ESV): 14 But they would not listen, but were stubborn, as their fathers had been, who did not believe in the Lord their God. 15 They despised his statutes and his covenant that he made with their fathers and the warnings that he gave them. They went after false idols and became false, and they followed the nations that were around them, concerning whom the Lord had commanded them that they should not do like them. 16 And they abandoned all the commandments of the Lord their God, and made for themselves metal images of two calves; and they made an Asherah and worshiped all the host of heaven and served Baal. 17 And they burned their sons and their daughters as offerings and used divination and omens and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger. 18 Therefore the Lord was very angry with Israel and removed them out of his sight. None was left but the tribe of Judah only.
Here, I’m tempted to pick up the newspaper and make comparisons with Scripture, Samaria to the United States: both stubborn, both wayward and unbelieving, both disobedient to God’s statutes, both pluralistic, both idol worshippers, both sacrificing children to false gods. Then, I would be almost forced to conclude that the Lord is very angry with the United States and is poised to remove this nation out of his sight. And that may be, but the truth is that the United States is not Samaria. God has neither called the United States as he called Israel, nor made covenant with this nation as he did with Israel. God has not explicitly given the United States the same vocation as he did Israel: to be a holy people, a kingdom of priests, and to be the instrument through whom God would redeem the world and make his blessing redound to all nations. The United States in not Israel, which means the United States is not Samaria. These words in 2 Kings were not written about the United States, though certainly they were written for it and for all other nations: cautionary tales to which this nation should pay attention. If Israel was to be a light to the nations, then we should see ourselves by that light and avoid the same dark places that made Samaria stumble and fall.
Here’s where I begin to see more direct comparisons between our newspaper and this biblical text:
2 Kings 17:24–26 (ESV): 24 And the king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria instead of the people of Israel. And they took possession of Samaria and lived in its cities. 25 And at the beginning of their dwelling there, they did not fear the Lord. Therefore the Lord sent lions among them, which killed some of them. 26 So the king of Assyria was told, “The nations that you have carried away and placed in the cities of Samaria do not know the law of the god of the land. Therefore he has sent lions among them, and behold, they are killing them, because they do not know the law of the god of the land.”
The United States is not Samaria, and our citizens are not, by ethnicity, God’s covenant people. We are much more like this ragtag band from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sephar, brought in to populate and tend a land not our own. And, we’ve brought with us, or in many cases together we’ve created, our own gods.
2 Kings 17:30–32 (ESV): The men of Babylon made Succoth-benoth, the men of Cuth made Nergal, the men of Hamath made Ashima, 31 and the Avvites made Nibhaz and Tartak; and the Sepharvites burned their children in the fire to Adrammelech and Anammelech, the gods of Sepharvaim. 32 They also feared the Lord and appointed from among themselves all sorts of people as priests of the high places, who sacrificed for them in the shrines of the high places.
These are strange names and strange gods. Ours are much more familiar, with common names, but no less idolatrous for all that: Power, Wealth, Pleasure, Freedom, Tolerance, Race, Party, and a host of gods to whom we sacrifice our children — Choice, Debt, Busy-ness, Irreconcilable Differences. And, each of these gods has its priests and priestesses, its temple prostitutes, its high places and shrines. God sent lions among the new inhabitants of Samaria to kill some as a warning to all. Have we no lions, no warning signs ravaging our land? What of divisions along racial, economic, and party lines; violence in our streets; economic collapse; plague; natural disasters? I don’t know if any of these are from God; I’m no prophet. More likely they are from the false gods that we worship: spiritual and natural consequences for our rebellion against the God who created us, the Saviour who redeemed us, and the Advocate who would sanctify us, if we but let him. The false gods are not impotent; first they deceive, then they destroy.
When the king of Assyria heard about the lions he perceived that the god of the land — he presumed that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was merely a localized deity over geographic Israel — he perceived that the god of the land was punishing the people for not including him in their pantheon.
2 Kings 17:27–28 (ESV): 27 Then the king of Assyria commanded, “Send there one of the priests whom you carried away from there, and let him go and dwell there and teach them the law of the god of the land.” 28 So one of the priests whom they had carried away from Samaria came and lived in Bethel and taught them how they should fear the Lord.
So, let’s pull this together and wrap it up. We are that priest — we, the Church — sent to our land, sent among the worshippers of the gods we see on every page of the newspapers, in every CNN and FOX News broadcast, sent to dwell among all the peoples brought hither to populate and tend this land. We are that priest sent to dwell among this people to teach them the law — the Gospel — of the God of this and every land: the King of kings, the Lord of lords, the ruler of all creation, and the head of the Church, to whom be glory now and unto the ages of ages. We are that priest sent to tell them not of another god to add to their pantheon alongside their idols, but to call them to renounce their idols and embrace the one God, living and true, from before time and for ever. We are that priest sent to proclaim that one day every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father. We are that priest sent here to cast down every idol, to root out even the mention and memory of their names, to destroy every pagan altar — first in our lives, in the lives of our families, and then, please God, in our communities and towns, our states and our nation. This will not happen in my lifetime. It will not happen in yours. My daughter will not see the work complete. It is the ongoing work of every generation until Jesus comes again on the last great day to judge the living and the dead. But it must be done, and done by each us. That is the priesthood of all believers.
Bible and newspapers: that’s the story they tell. Amen.