March – The mysteriousness of God’s ways
Sunday, March 6: Deuteronomy 26:1-11
The first few words of the confession to be recited by the Israelites are intriguing. Verse 5 reads: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien,” As the Israelites are asked to offer their first fruits, they are reminded first of their heritage – as wanderers and as slaves being oppressed under foreign rule.
For a second here, we are forced to think of the Israelite ancestors in a different light. Not as the great patriarchs of the Israelite clans, but as a landless nomad. (Scholars are divided on whether it is Jacob or Abraham who is referred to here).
If we take Abraham, we think of someone who was forced against his will (Gen 12:1) to leave his inheritance and live in a land totally unknown to him. Then as his descendants multiplied, they became Hebrew slaves who were oppressed and afflicted (v.7). In these verses, I cannot help but think of the landless refugees in limbo on (in the words of Aboriginal Christian leader Brooke Prentis) “these lands now called Australia.”
Like Abraham and his descendants, they were forced against their will to leave their homeland, and search for asylum in other lands. Yet, unlike Abraham, they do not incur the same blessings, as many still don’t settle but are detained inhumanely in detention centres and poorly conditioned shelters.
This certainly challenges us to think of this Lent season differently. I consider two points. First, while the Israelites were able to give first fruits out of the lands they had settled and occupied, what of those other refugees and asylum seekers who do not share the same privileged status? What could they possibly give up, after giving up everything for nothing? Giving up something for Lent, means that there is something to give up. Sadly, for some, there is nothing to give up!
Second, we must acknowledge that we are also wanderers to these lands (that is, non-indigenous) who have benefited from its first fruits. Might this be the time to reflect on our own wandering ancestry, as the Israelites have been asked to reflect on?
To reflect on how our indigenous folk had given up most of their lands so that we may live here. We may need to challenge ourselves then to use this experience, to extend our “outstretched arm” (v.8) to the aid of those less fortunate, and those in the margins.
Sunday, March 13: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
If you are a parent, I’m sure you’ve heard it. And if you are your mother and father’s child, I’m also sure you’ve said it as some point: “Are we there yet?” A simple, yet annoying question to those who are being asked. Yet, there is frustration for both parties.
For the parent, they may respond in frustration: “Look, we’re not there yet, but see that sign, it says we have 35 km to go, so we’ll get there soon.” For the child, they are bored and just want to be released from the confines of the family vehicle.
In this Sunday’s reflection, we continue reflecting on the wandering Aramean: Abraham, who in this passage establishes a covenant with God. The thing I find interesting about this covenant, is the curious nature of Abram (later Abraham), that is, his tendency to be inquisitive. “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless” (v.2) “You have given me no offspring” (v.3) “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” (v.8) And if we read forward to Gen 18:23-33, his curious character becomes borderline annoying and perhaps irritating (well, if that was me he was asking).
Yet, there is something about asking questions that is similar to the child asking “are we there yet?” When we consider covenants in the Bible, it is easy to assume that it is of a formal nature, with formal language. Ironically, as seen in today’s passage from Genesis, God’s terms of the covenant are actually in response to Abram’s questions.
Further to the irony, it seems that Abram, and not God, dictates the terms of the covenant! It’s not so much the signs that I value in this reflection, but the questions that lead us to those signs.
Perhaps we see questions as a sign of our lack of faith, yet as Abra(ha)m has shown to us, asking questions can fuel our faith, and drive us to the next horizon. During this Lent season, we are meant to give up something, but perhaps we could start by not giving up our inquisitive nature, and instead harnessing it into building/rebuilding our faith, so that God can show us the horizon beyond our bordered bodies.
Sunday, March 20: Isaiah 55:1-9
Despite the warm invitational tone in the early verses of this passage, verses 8-9 present a different one.
The mysteriousness of God’s ways and how they are beyond human comprehension are exhibited in these verses. When reading this, I am reminded of the frustrations of the biblical sceptics, namely, Job and Qohelet (the protagonist of the book of Ecclesiastes). In their search for wisdom, they find that at the end of the day, most of life’s answers are beyond human comprehension (cf. Job 37:5; Eccl. 11:5).
Could there be a sense of frustration heard in verses 8-9? When faced with life’s many difficulties, the question “Why?” is heard from those suffering. Verses 8-9 seem to answer this question, but how much assurance can we claim from these verses? How do these verses provide comfort to those suffering a debilitating disease, or losing a loved one, or undergoing depression and anxiety?
The Lord’s ways are high as the heavens (v.9), but what does that say about our own thoughts? Are they meaningless? This is not an indictment on God, but a chance for us to actually pause and reflect on how these words can be applied, because truth be told, the theology is not straight forward. Perhaps one could label these words as a “cop out.” So, what do we do?
I have no simple answer, in fact, it is likely that I have no answer at all. And that is ok, because sometimes, not having an answer is the most appropriate answer. Just like how Job and Qohelet ponder on the inexplicable nature of life’s hard questions, perhaps this is what verses 8-9 are also teaching us.
The status quo is that these verses reflect the distinction between the divine and human thoughts, which speak to God’s superior ways. But according to our human sceptical nature, these verses might also suggest the author’s vexations at the ambivalence of life, that are congruent with our own states of confusion. And during this Lent season, that’s ok, because understanding and accepting that there are things that are difficult for humans to comprehend, might just be the assurance that we all need.
Sunday, March 27: Josuah 5:9-12
Don’t we all love the feeling of overcoming the final hurdle? Relief and joy are perhaps the most common emotions. These sentiments are associated with reaching that final stage, just as the Israelites experienced joy in finally escaping the encroachment of the Egyptians. But what about Israel’s relief? The relief of never having to deal with a colonial power such as Egypt again. The relief of not being chased, and not looking over their shoulders?
For many of us, this sensation of relief is familiar. Especially if one has been part of a toxic environment, or been in a toxic relationship, and coupled with the emotion of having to walk on egg shells.
It can be emotionally and psychologically crippling and can lead to severe depression. And when this happens, one desires to hear the words of the Lord in verse 9: “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” In the Hebrew, the word “disgrace” is translated in the NRSV from the Hebrew word “herpat” which can also mean “taunt” or “shame.” In this Lent season, let us think of those who have been disgraced/taunted/shamed, and seek to have their disgrace/ taunt/shame rolled away.
We could begin this within our families, within the institutions we work or are educated in, within the church! Let this be an appeal to call out bullying, harassment, bigotry, sexism, misogyny, racism and other discriminatory behaviour.
May this also be a call to social justice: to seek respite for those who have been vilified and victimised due to their marginalised state, the colour of their skin, their race and ethnicity, their gender, and their sexuality. To be allies to anti-racism, LGBTIQA+ rights, Black Lives Matter, indigenous rights, so that we may roll away their disgrace/taunt/shame!
These reflections for March were written by Rev. Dr Brian Fiu Kolia.