Friday, October 04, 2013

Smuggling the Gospel: Lectio Divina on II Kings 19

The Assyrian king Sennacherib is besieging Jerusalem. He boasts of all the kingdoms he has laid waste to; where are their gods, whom they trusted to protect them? King Hezekiah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem would be fools to believe that YHWH would succeed where multitudes of others had failed. Better that they just surrender and be well-treated in captivity rather than die resisting. Resistance is futile!

Hezekiah takes the written message from the Assyrian king and literally lays it out before YHWH in the temple. "What are we supposed to do now?" he inquires. Through the prophet Isaiah, YHWH's response comes: Stand firm. Do not surrender. Sennacherib thinks he's "all that," but the truth is, he's just a tool. He's been "played" by God and he doesn't even know it. All of his victories have happened because they have been in accord with the purposes of God, but the conquest of Judah is not among those purposes. That night, the Assyrian garrison is mysteriously decimated--185,000 troops just "wake up dead" the next morning, and Sennacherib returns to Nineveh (only to be assassinated by his own sons, we learn from other sources).

We see Jesus, the One Who Saves, the Word of the Holy One, present in this passage in the form of Isaiah's oracle; one might even say, in the person of Isaiah himself, which is hugely appropriate, given the significance of the document that has Isaiah's name attached to it in the development of both Jewish and Christian understandings of messianic deliverance.

The remnant of Christendom, if not Christianity itself, is besieged in the western world by the forces of secularization, manifested in a constantly-morphing dance between antipathy and apathy. The dancers seem to be at the heard of a juggernaut. They say to Christianity, "We have already trivialized you and made you irrelevant. Soon we will bury you, and you will be forgotten. You may as well just surrender and enjoy the dance rather than suffer and die resisting us. Resistance is futile!" Individual Christians and church communities are tempted by this invitation, and suppose they can at least buy some time by appearing to cooperate, by accommodating to the demands of secular society. But this is not a strategy for deliverance; it only prolongs the process of inevitable defeat.

Isaiah's oracle comes to us as powerfully as it did to Hezekiah: Stand firm. Do not surrender. Even now the risen Christ is hitching himself to the coattails of secularization, using the very forces that appear to undermine and threaten Christian faith and practice as tools, as "mules" by which the gospel is smuggled into unsuspecting environments. The invitation to the remnant of Christ-followers in the western developed world is to watch, to be alert, to begin to see how God is acting in the unlikeliest of places, in the very currents and trends that seem to be pulling the props out from under the Christian project.

We do well to remain quietly and confidently vigilant, seeking to discern not only how God is acting, but how we might ourselves learn to be smugglers of the good news that "God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself."