Monday, February 27, 2017

Nahum: Vengeance Is Mine

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Nahum 1:1-9:

In his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner recounts an event early in his career when he was called on to help a couple whose only child, their 19-year-old daughter had died suddenly and unexpectedly of a burst blood vessel in her brain. He said that when he went over to their home he expected anger, grief, shock, but he didn’t expect the first words they said to him which was “You know, Rabbi, we didn’t fast last Yom Kippur.” Yom Kippur is the Jewish day of atonement, the most important of the high holies in Judaism, a day in which people, even many non-observant Jews, will refrain from work and will fast and seek forgiveness for the sins they have committed in the past year, and committing not to do those sins again. When this couple was struck by tragedy, they reverted back to a basic belief that God punishes people for their sin, and thus the death of their daughter had to have been caused by their failure to participate in Yom Kippur six months earlier. If only they had done that, they thought, then their daughter would be alive.

When my brother was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 20, my father had the same thought. He believed that God was punishing him for the sin of pride, by striking out at my brother. My brother’s cancer was a lesson that God was trying to teach my father and to punish him for a perceived slight to God. These are not unique stories, because they happen all the time with people seeking to give some meaning, some reason, some purpose for something that has happened in their life, and often it comes to a belief that God has caused this to happen, which often comes with a statement like “everything happens for a reason” or more specifically “This is part of God’s plan even if we don’t understand what that plan is.”

There is certainly some scriptural background for this belief, although it’s not as strong as those who use it tend to believe it is. But the evidence still exists, and the largest argument for this belief, especially that we are punished by God for the sins we commit, or at least the possibility that we could be punished, comes the prophets who clearly make that claim. As we have been talking about the 12 Minor Prophets for the past 6 weeks we have talked about the fact that Israel, or Judah, or Nineveh, or Edom are going to be destroyed because of what they have done. That God is going to destroy these nations because they have violated either what God has called for them to do in practicing justice and mercy, primarily, or, on the other side for the foreign nations, they will be punished for how they treated Israel and Judah.  But regardless of the reason, the point is that these terrible things are happening because God is causing them to happen. Not that God is allowing it, but that God is causing it. God is punishing them specifically.  We’ve sort of talked about it, or danced around the edges of this issue, but we haven’t addressed it specifically, and so we will today. Do bad things happen to us, and to others, because God is punishing us or trying to teach us a lesson?

I think the prophet Nahum is a good place to ask these questions because his prophecies against Nineveh in particular are so violent and so clear about God’s vengeance, or as he says, avenging nature, that they should leave us asking these very questions. These images are often so troubling that to a large degree Nahum has been ignored by the church. His writings have never been included in the lectionary, which are the recommended scripture readings for each Sunday and holiday of the year, it’s easier to ignore them then to deal with the issues they bring up.  Like most of the other minor prophets, we know next to nothing about Nahum. We are told that he is from the town of Elkosh, which is only mentioned once in scripture, here, and we have no idea where it is located, but presumably it’s in Judah.  He makes reference to the fall of Thebes, which happens in the year 663 and he is writing about the coming destruction of Nineveh, which is destroyed by the Babylonians in the year 612, so his career takes place sometime in that time period.  But, one of the most interesting piece is that the name Nahum appears only one other time in scripture and that is in Luke in his geneaology of Jesus. Now it doesn’t say it’s this Nahum, but since the name Nahum does not seem to be all that prevalent, this is probably the one and the same.

If you were here when we talked about Jonah you may remember that I talked about Nahum then because both Jonah and Nahum make proclamations against the city of Nineveh, but the outcome and the language used is very different. In Jonah’s story, Nineveh is not destroyed because the city repents, but Jonah didn’t even want to go to Nineveh for exactly that reason because he says he knows that God is slow to anger, merciful and abounding in steadfast love, and he would rather see Nineveh destroyed. Jonah wants vengeance against Nineveh for what they do in the world and how they act, which includes not only brutal acts of warfare, for which they were very proud, but also the act that when the Assyrians conquered a territory that they removed those who lived there taking them to another area of the empire and replacing them with someone else who had been moved from their homeland. It is this act that that not only causes the ten northern tribes to disappear into the sands of history after their defeat, but the people who replaced them came to be known as the Samaritans, a group hated by people in Judah even to the time of Jesus 600 years later. So, their actions have not just immediate repercussions, but long-term repercussions.

And so, Nahum is rejoicing in his proclamation that they will be destroyed. He is rejoicing that God is avenging and wrathful, a warrior God, and that while God may be slow to anger, God is also great in power and will punish the guilty and will destroy his adversaries. So, the destruction of Assyria, of which Nineveh is the capital city, is not just something that happened.  This is not just one of those things. This was not just a matter of chance. This is the work of God. This was God saying that good will prevail and evil will be punished, this was part of God’s plan.  Now, there is something that is deeply appealing and attractive about an avenging God who sets things right, who rules over all the nations and will reward the good and defend them against those who would seek to harm them. And that’s all well and good and until we begin to actually think about the story and until we begin to remember what set this situation up in the first place as well as beginning to take the cry of innocent victims seriously.

Clearly, to take scripture seriously, which is much more than quoting mere platitudes about scripture, requires us to deal with the violence that is portrayed in Nahum, and the other prophets and why it takes place, and that is because of God. Is God vengeful and violent? Does God overcoming the vengeance and violence of others by doing bigger and better vengeance and violence solve any problems? Because the reality is, we are told that Israel will be destroyed because they have been unfaithful to God and they have not practiced justice within the realm, and so God will see them destroyed, by whom? The Assyrians.  The same way we are told that God will use the Babylonians to destroy Judah, are being used by God. That is God causes the Assyrians to attack Israel and to be successful in those attacks. So, it doesn’t really seem fair that Assyria should then be punished for the behavior that God called for originally does it? And you might say, “God used the Assyrians to attack them but they used methods God didn’t want them to use,” which may be true but then also says that not everything is God’s plan.

But an even bigger problem is that in God’s calls for justice, as we’ve been talking about over the past few weeks, the way that justice is determined is what is happening to those at the bottom of society, those who have no say in what their governments are doing, after all these are not democracies, and certainly have no control over the fact that the elites are not practicing justice, and after all those at the bottom are the ones dealing with the realities that the elites are not practicing justice. But in times of crisis, natural disaster, or in this case, an invasion, what group, as a general rule, tend to be most affected negatively? It’s those at the bottom. Think of the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. Those who had financial wherewithal fled New Orleans; it was those who could not afford to get out that paid the worst immediate costs.  So, in the destruction of these kingdoms, those who had nothing to do with it are not protected, they are not spared, they are wiped out right along with those whom we are told are guilty. Does that seem fair? Does that live up to the standard of justice that God has called for us?

In Proverbs we read “No harm happens to the righteous, but the wicked are filled with trouble.” (Prov. 12:21)  Isaiah says “Tell the innocent how fortunate they are, for they shall eat the fruit of their labors. Woe to the guilty! How unfortunate they are for what their hands have done shall be done to them.” (Isa 3:10-11) So, that means if we are righteous, nothing bad will happen to us, and if we are not then bad things will happen to us. I guess that means that none of us are righteous, that everything bad that has happened is God’s punishment.  That’s exactly what Job’s friends say to him when he is stricken, is that even if he thought he was righteous, he must not be otherwise these bad things would not be happening to him. Except that’s clearly not what has happened, and not only does Job reject what his friends say to him, but so does God. Job is a righteous man, that’s what we are told right at the beginning, and the negative events in his life don’t happen to him because he has done wrong, they happen because his righteousness is being used as a test. Now I don’t think we can say that when bad things happen to us it’s because our righteousness is being tested, nor is it because God sends it to us because God knows we can handle it. That answer doesn’t make it any better, but what Jesus says is God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matt 5:45)

There is an Iranian folk proverb that says “If you see a blind man, kick him; why should you be kinder than God?” That is one of the major problems with believing that bad things happen because of bad things we have done, of sins we have committed, is that it means that God is no longer on the side of the victim, the side of the person suffering or being affected, but instead God is on the side of the perpetrators, or the natural disaster. If we look at the holocaust it is to say that the Jews and the others killed obviously did something to deserve that punishment, and that God was not with those in the concentration camps, but instead God was with the Nazis. I hope that we can find that very idea morally repugnant, and as the German theologian Dorothy Soelle has said of such a justification, “who wants such a God? Who gains anything from worshipping [that God]?” I might even ask, can we worship that God? If we believe that God is with people in their time of suffering, that God hears the cries of those who are in despair, that it is God who gives us the strength and the power and the endurance to get through the dark times in our lives, then can we simultaneously say that God is responsible?

Now the one thing I can say for the prophets is that it least they are telling people why they are being punished, but the punishment, if it is such, that is meted out affects everyone, but what we also read in scripture in Ezekiel, chapter 18, is “A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child; the righteousness of the righteous shall be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be his own.” That is if God is punishing someone, that punishment shouldn’t poor over onto others. Children are not punished for the sins of their parents, how we started today’s message, and parents are not punished for the sins of their children, nor are neighbors punished for the sins of their neighbors. Which makes the punishment that we hear about in the prophets a little extreme is that everyone is caught up in the catastrophe. And if we want to argue that maybe there are no innocent people and that others are being punished for their sins, it’s just that we are not told what they are, I think that too requires some explication. Because if you are punished for something, but are never told what that something is, is that effective punishment? And I know that some of you, when being asked what am I in trouble for, have said “You know what you are in trouble for,” and I have to tell you that is not effective. If they knew they probably wouldn’t be asking. If I just walk up and smack one of my daughters, or do something else to discipline them and they have no idea what it’s for are they learning something? Are they likely to stop doing what I want them to stop? No, because they don’t know what it is, so for those who think that you may have been punished by God for something at some time, did God ever tell you what it was? If not was it good punishment? No, and I would also argue was not from God.

Because the other problem with this scenario is that it makes obeying God not an act of love, but an act of fear, and God is not a loving, forgiving parent, but a vengeful and angry tyrant. Now this is not to say that God does not get angry, because what scripture shows is that God does get angry, and we have to learn to deal with that side of God’s personality, which is perhaps another sermon for another time, but we are told that God’s ways are not our ways and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and in hearing that, for me, my baseline is that God has to be better and bigger than I am, and whereas I might want to strike out in anger, God is slow to anger, whereas I have things I might not want to forgive, God’s forgiveness is endless, and whereas there are people I might not want to love, God is love and therefore what God does better than anything else is to love. God is looking for ways to love us, not to punish us, because God so loved the world that God sent his son not to condemn the world, but to redeem the world. To restore wholeness and relationship, to show what love and forgiveness really mean, to bring healing to our relationships with each other and with God.

So, I believe, when we see disasters, both natural and manmade, when we see pain and suffering, when we see illness and disease, when we see destruction and death, that God is present in those situations, not because God caused them to happen, but because God responds to us when we cry out, even when our sighs are too deep for words, that God is there not in judgment, but in love. While it might be easier to believe, and give us more assurance to think that everything happens for a reason, the truth is sometimes they just happen, not because we’ve been bad, not because we are being punished, not because of anything we have done, but simply the fact that we are alive, and to blame them on God, or to give credit to God, as Nahum does, is to do a disservice to God.

To go full circle, Rabbi Kushner also recalls that during the height of the God is dead phenomenon in the late 60’s seeing a bumper sticker that said “My God is not dead; sorry about yours.”  And he said that in response to those who would say God has caused these tragedies, his bumper sticker would say “My God is not cruel; sorry about yours.” God does not strike out at us when we go astray, because the truth is all of us fall short of the glory of God, but instead God calls us to come home, to come home and receive God’s forgiveness and God’s love, when we are in pain we should cry out to God not “why did you cause this to happen,” but instead “God I need your help to get me through,” because as Paul says, there is nothing in all of creation which can separate us from the love of God, and God seeks not to punish but to redeem, not to strike out but to love, not to avenge but to forgive, not to condemn, but to save. I know that it is so my brothers and sisters. Amen.

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