• • •
he will rouse himself as in the Valley of Gibeon—
to do his work, his strange work,
and perform his task, his alien task …”
• Isaiah 28:21
“What is more alien to salvation than destruction?
And yet this is what Christ does to his own.”
• Martin Luther
• • •
I had an “aha” moment when I read these words of Martin Luther, and I imagine he had a similar moment when he first thought them. The idea that God who created the heavens and earth is also bent on destruction seems … well, alien. But then again, it explains so much.
A few evenings earlier I came home from a Greek translation class with thoughts of the passage we worked through in Mark 11. In it, Jesus was walking toward Jerusalem and spied a fig tree from afar in full leaf. It was not the season for figs, yet coming close he looked for fruit he knew he would not find. And finding no fruit he pronounced words of destruction over the tree.
Going on into the city, he went to the temple and found the moneychangers conducting business in the court of Gentiles. Theirs was a legitimate and necessary business conducted in an illegitimate place – and taxed by Caiaphas, the High Priest, who wanted a percentage of the trade. Having tables set up inside the temple area instead of outside necessitated merchandise to be carried in, thus making it a thoroughfare … thus violating the temple laws designed to keep it sanctified for prayer and worship.
Was Jesus angry? Scripture doesn’t say. After he turned over the tables and benches of those changing money and selling doves, he taught them saying, “Is it not written: “‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”
Ah, aside from the economic activity that quenched the spirit of prayer, the temple market excluded Gentiles from the place designated for them to worship and learn of God. For this, Jesus rebuked the Jewish leaders whose shepherding responsibilities were abandoned to business management and whose apathy prevented the “all nations” from coming.
He upset them. He upset their tables, their profits, their systems, their ways. And according to my Greek teacher, he may have done it more than once – even several days in a row. From ruthless encounters with fruitless fig trees to ruthless encounters with fruitless priests and people, Jesus’ alien workings withered things. Whether it was once or multiple times, he made the teachers of the law so afraid that they plotted to kill him. He put fear into their hearts.
Don’t our hearts also quake with fear when he crashes into our lives and upsets our systems and our ways, our families and our jobs, our health and what temporary peace and happiness we manage to find in a hostile world? It’s tempting to chalk these things up to the wrath of a holy God or the caprice of a heartless God, but it’s so very difficult to chalk them up to the alien work of a loving God who first destroys in order to make new.
Yet, the human suffering we witness and acts we perceive as God’s wrath may, in reality, be the greatest evidence of his love. Before we make that leap, let’s consider what inspired Luther to develop his thoughts on God’s alien workings.
Although devoted to God for all his days, Luther was also tortured for many of them. This student, monk, priest and doctor of the church struggled to work out his salvation with much fear and trembling. One conclusion he came to, and which his own life reflected, is that God tears down in order to rebuild. He kills to give life. He strikes down the lesser in order to raise the greater. According to Luther, “God promotes and perfects his proper work by means of his alien work.”
Revelation and inspiration on this teaching sprang partially from Isaiah 28. In this chapter, reference is made to how God enabled David to destroy the Philistines at Mount Perazim like a flood of water and how, in the Valley of Gibeon, God rained hailstones upon the Canaanites as Joshua routed them.
Although they were Israel’s enemies, there are plenty of accounts in which Israel, the apple of God’s eye, was also the object of his destruction. We might conclude that these alien acts always follow on the heels of disobedience, but sometimes not. There are accounts of other destructions that seem, from a human perspective, unfair in their length, or severity or focus. Think of Job, for example – a man who was destroyed in his family, his wealth, his social standing and his health – all because he was, in God’s own words, “blameless and upright, a man fearing God and shunning evil.”
Luther contended that we are wrong to believe God’s wrath is simple retaliation, to see it strictly as cause and effect. It springs from passion, not apathy or annoyance. Only great love motivates the orchestrations of such a jealous Lover. Luther wrote, “If jealousy is removed love is of necessity removed as well, since these are inseparable activities.” It’s when he leaves us alone to the eternity of our own nothingness we have most to fear.
“Alien” comes from the Hebrew zuwr, meaning foreign or strange. At first glance, we might also think it means rare, but the Bible is filled with accounts of the devastations God not only allowed, but, at times perpetrated. No, alien seems apt. For a God who declares love for his people over and over, his destructions seem numerous and hard to explain.
Just like his Son, God seems fond of acting out parables of destruction and has done so throughout history – in allowing a serpent into the Garden, in deluging the earth with a great flood, in Egyptian enslavements, Babylonian captivities and Roman occupations – even in the wolfish abuses of Pharisees against their own sheep.
On less global and national levels, there were also God’s destructions of the personal kind. Think of Abraham being commanded to sacrifice his son, Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers and imprisoned by a lying Mrs. Potiphar, David running for his life from Saul’s hit men, Elijah evoking the murderous wrath of Ahab and Jezebel, Moses herding sheep in Midian for a third of his life, dragging the Israelites through the desert for another third and ultimately losing the privilege of the Promised Land for striking a rock. There was Ruth struggling to support herself and her mother-in-law in their widowhood during a famine, Daniel sitting in a cave among ravenous lions for offending the king’s court with his prayers and Esther risking her life to avert Haman’s holocaust.
One could argue that God didn’t actually destroy these people, but in the swirling events of their crises, they no doubt felt the jaws of destruction closing around them, just as we would … just as we often do. Still, he took them down into hard-pressed places with no practical means of escape. He was their only way out, their only means of redemption.
He has reiterated his parable throughout history, but his masterwork of wrath and destruction, love and redemption was displayed in what he did to Jesus, his beloved Son, on the cross. His penchant for this parable is further displayed in the lives of those who follow him and even some who try to run away from him. His alien work of destruction continues in every life in which he desires to bear fruit.
When Jesus and his disciples passed the fig tree on the way out of Jerusalem, Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”
“Have faith in God,” Jesus answered.
Have faith in God? But it’s withered. It’s destroyed.
Then he told them that faith could obliterate mountains. He was telling them that withered fig trees could one day bear fruit, and errant nations could fall in love with God again. His whole life was about telling us these things. His resurrected life in us is about telling the world these things.
Consider the blind men of Matthew 9 who called to Jesus for mercy. What did Jesus do? He ignored them and went inside. I don’t know why. Maybe the mercy the men had in mind was a handout. Maybe Jesus wanted them to have enough faith in God to knock down a mountain. After awhile, they came to him, this time prepared to receive their sight. Alien. Strange. Destructive. Redemptive.
The story of the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15 is similar. She came asking that Jesus heal her daughter. Okay. She had faith for a healing, but what about believing that in Christ, there is no Jew nor Greek, male nor female? Again, Jesus seems to rebuff someone in need and he does it in no gentle way. He takes her down into her cultural nothingness. He seems to say, “What about your mountain? Can you believe you are more to God than a dog?” Looking inside herself, seeing him in front of her calling faith out of her depths she found she did … and it was a very great faith.
Job, whom God all but sacrificed, came to the point of seeing that though he loved his life, his family, his wealth, his reputation and personal righteousness, he would die before losing faith in God’s goodness. “Though he slay me, I will trust him.”
Strange parables and alien acts. We look for the warm, fuzzy God from whom nothing harsh or painful comes. We look for the wrath-filled, holy God from whom we expect to be squashed like bugs. But we don’t look for the God who loves us so much that he will take us down into depths of despair in order to mine hidden reserves of faith. Then, lovingly, he raises us if we will let him. It’s all so much more complicated and inconceivable than we want it to be. It’s the stuff of fear and trembling. It’s the choosing of faith and the blasting of mountains. And sometimes, if the way is very hard, it’s the chipping away at them … pebble-by-pebble … for a lifetime.