A Fire in the World

You would think that 99% is a pretty amazing number as far as righteousness goes. Righteousness just shy of 100% is more than most of us can grasp or even imagine. And yet, steady and widespread righteousness doesn’t cause the kind of joy in heaven that repentance does. For when one repents, when one is found, the angels sing and the saints clap their hands. Jesus reminds us that God’s concern and vision are global, but in the vast stretches of time and space every single person matters, and 99 is still one shy of fullness. Life is not complete until all are at home, until the very last one has been found, and wholeness has been restored.

You know the angels were sitting on the edge of their seats these last few days, holding their breath. They were looking down from heaven on a little church in Gainesville, wondering what on earth had gotten into Terry Jones and his little flock.

This past week we have been praying for the victims and survivors of the San Bruno explosion, the devestating blazes that swept across Detroit, and the wildfires in the Colorado foothills. But you don’t need a leaky gas line to cause an explosion, or lightning to start a blaze. Some of the most destructive fires don’t begin when the match is lit. They begin with words. “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire,” we read in James 3:5-6, and we know it is true. The tongue is a fire. It begins with inflammatory words coming across the radio or tv, and you won’t have to wait long until some fool thinks it’s OK to pour gasoline over construction equipment and set it on fire, just because it is being used for building a house of prayer for Muslims.

Yesterday we remembered those who died in the attacks of September 11. We know the fires in the Pentagon and the World Trade Center weren’t started when the jets hit the buildings. Incendiary speech lit a fire of angry, violent rectitude in the hearts of men who became mass murderers. The tongue is a fire.

Who would have thought that one preacher whom barely anybody knew just weeks ago, would set the agenda for the international media for days? Who would have thought that one man with fear and anger in his heart would keep everybody on high alert, from the White House to the Department of Defense, and from the Vatican to the most remote village in Afghanistan? What was he thinking? What kind of justice did he imagine in his heart when, back in July, he sent a message declaring September 11, 2010 International Burn a Koran Day? The tongue is a fire.

I get nervous when I hear inflammatory speech. I get very nervous. In Germany, on May 10, 1933, only weeks after the Nazis had come to power, large piles of wood were erected in town squares and other prominent places across the nation. And when night fell, they were turned into pyres. In what was called an “action against the un-German spirit,” books that did not meet Nazi standards of purity and truth, were thrown into the fire. And it wasn’t just small groups of uneducated, misguided individuals who participated; professors, students, and even librarians cheered as they tossed into the flames the works of Kurt Tucholsky and Bert Brecht, Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud, Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos, and scores of other authors who didn’t fit the Nazi vision of culture.

It didn’t take long, and the book burners turned to Torah scrolls.

And, Lord have mercy, soon the book burners fired up the ovens in Auschwitz.

I cannot act surprised when inflammatory speech starts fires. It has happened in Germany and all over Europe, it has happened in Rwanda and Darfur, it has happened in Kosovo, it has happened too many times. The tongue is a fire, and for the sake of life and justice and all that is holy and sacred, whether we are Christians, or Jews, or Muslims, or Atheists, we must learn to bridle our tongues and listen with great care. We must learn to heed the call to cease fire.

You know the angels have been holding their breath these last few days, but there is no greater joy in heaven than what erupted yesterday, when Terry Jones said, “We have decided to cancel the burning.” Thanks be to God.

I’ve been reading Psalm 14 these last few days.

Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds.

I’ve been reading Psalm 14, and I’ve been saying to myself, “There are plenty of fools who say in their hearts, ‘There is a God’ and do abominable deeds.” There’s no lack of foolishness dressed in religious garb. Religious conviction doesn’t necessarily translate into wisdom and goodness; we know how easily it can turn into hatred and terrible violence.

Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds.

These lines weren’t written for talk radio to give some fool license to make fun of people who don’t believe that God exists. This psalm was spoken, written down, and passed on from generation to generation, to give voice to our fear, to give voice to our hope. Over the centuries, the words have soaked up tears and questions and daring faith.

It begins with the voice of one who has looked around and seen little light, only corruption and abuse. It is the voice of one who struggles to understand the injustice and brutality among human beings. What are they thinking?

Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread?

Their violence denies the reality of the Lord, the God who freed the Hebrew slaves. Their corruption and oppression denies the reality of the God who established covenants so that life would flourish, and who sent prophets so that justice might roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream (Amos 5:24). Clearly, they no longer recognize God as God. Clearly, they assume that they will not be held accountable for their actions. The wicked do abominable deeds, and not only do they get away with it, they do quite well and prosper. Listen to the same voice from another psalm:

Their bodies are sound and sleek. They are not in trouble as others are. They are not plagued like other people. Pride is their necklace and violence their dress, and their eyes swell out with fatness. They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression (Psalm 73:4-8).

Clearly they imagine that there is no one who notices or cares. Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God” and they speak and act as they please, laughing all the way.

The voice of one who suffers in such a world of almost complete unrighteousness, where there is no one who does good, no, not one – the voice of the psalm now leads us into a long silence.

What if God is indeed far away?

What if God is not interested, or distracted, or unavailable or powerless in the face of the wicked and their defiance?

What if they get away with it and that’s the end of the story?

What if they do terrible things and the world just turns?

This long silence is where each of us has to find the courage to continue to lament and pray and hope with the voice we encounter in the psalm. This long silence is the moment when the angels in heaven are holding their breath, because every single person matters. There is no one who does good, no, not one, the voice cries, but unrighteousness is not complete unless we turn to it or succumb to it. And every time one of us turns to the righteousness of God, the angels sing.

The voice in the psalm dares to claim that God is not absent; that God is with the company of the righteous, and that the Lord is a refuge for the poor. God is not far away but present with the abused and the oppressed. That is the testimony of a voice that for centuries has soaked up tears and questions and daring faith in dark times. There is no proof that faith is legitimate in the darkness we see around us and within. There is no proof that trust in the promises of God and the life that is shaped by it can prevail over against the powers that sow hatred and death. There is no proof, only the testimony of those who have gone before us, proclaiming God’s faithfulness while yearning for the day of fulfillment. There is no proof, only witnesses.

We trust and proclaim that in Christ, all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.

He embraced our life’s deep brokenness, and we trust that his embrace is God’s embrace.

He welcomed sinners and ate with them, and his hospitality is God’s hospitality.

He himself was devoured like bread and he said, “Forgive them, they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). And his forgiveness is God’s forgiveness.

The life of Jesus, the life of this witness, his death on the cross, and his resurrection speak to us of God’s faithfulness to the end. Because of Jesus we find the courage to believe and pray and hope, as well as the courage to serve and work. Jesus has lit a fire in the world, a fire of love and mercy, and God helping us, we will do what we can to fan its flames.