I heard a gasp and saw Tom pitch backward. It was as though his feet had slipped out from under him. That was possible; we stood by the shore of a mountain lake, new snow falling, the temperature near freezing, eating lunch. It was quiet except for the rustling of food wrappings—peace like you would set it up in a screenplay. But Tom’s body hit the ground with a thud. He never stumbled; his hands never groped to stop his fall. I stepped forward, asking if he was alright. On Tom’s face was a look of panic. He gasped and seemed to strain for breath. It seemed as though life was pulled from him. A-B-C: no B, no C. Then the counting—too fast, slow down: 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and . . . . We were, I think, five of six miles from the trailhead. Each of our packs held upwards of fifty pounds, the combined weight of overnight gear and alpine climbing equipment. Within minutes Jim and I were hurtling back down those miles, through clouds that clung to the Mission Mountains. We ran, stopped, checked for a cell signal, regained our breath. Then we were off running again in stiff leather boots, our backpacks left at the lake. A map, keys to the van and a couple of foil blankets were stuffed in our pockets. Cell coverage was spotty in western Montana. It probably still is. The mountain ranges south of Glacier National Park are remote. It is wild country pinched up between Flathead Lake on the west and the Great Plains to the east. We prayed as we ran. We pleaded with God for the life of our older friend—for a cell signal—for his sake, for ours, for the sake of his boys.
. . .
Have we not all been there at one point or another, in one way or another? We plead for the lives of others or for our own. We plead for a signal, for a sign that our needs are known. We go week after week barely getting by. We want a sense that the way things are is not the way they will always be. We want to have hope.
The Assyrian empire dominated the ancient near East for more than two centuries, some one thousand years before the Common Era. After the ancient kingdom of Israel split into the northern and southern halves—Israel in the north and Judah in the south—the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom. Shalmaneser V laid siege to Samaria, Israel’s capital for three years and it fell in the year 722.
For Assyria victories were not merely tic marks in a column of wins. They were not ‘Royals’ from Kansas City, but conquers from Assur and Nineveh. They won, not with singles and home runs, but with battering rams and siege works. They used tortured and mutilated those they conquered. Broken bodies were their propaganda. After overtaking Samaria the Assyrians deported a vast number of the inhabitants of Israel. Many were sent north toward Aleppo and some as far east as modern day Iran. From this expulsion come the whispers, persisting to our own day, of Israel’s “lost tribes.” But Shalmaneser wasn’t finished with deportation; he then carted in other conquered peoples to replace these who had been banished. These would become the Samaritans of Jesus’ day. Reconfiguring conquered peoples in this way made rebellion less likely. It turned victories into cultural obliteration and severed people from the places in which they were rooted.
That was Assyria at the height of its power. But empires come and go—even the ruthless ones. The collapse of Assyria came quickly. In something like thirty years its dominance was eaten away by the ascendant powers of Egypt and Babylon. This now was Jeremiah’s day.
Judah, the surviving southern half of ancient Israel, saw in Assyria’s collapse a chance to re-assert itself. It was Josiah, who had been crowned king of Judah as an eight-year-old, that led the campaign. The land of Judah over which he ruled was critical to international travel, through it ran the coastal highway on the Mediterranean’s eastern edge. And in 609 Josiah went into battle in support of the Babylonians against the Egyptian forces. He was killed.
What followed was a series of proxy wars and puppet kings, with Judah caught in between the gigantic powers of Egypt and Babylon. In 586 Jerusalem and its cocky king Zedekiah were overtaken by Nebuchadnezzar the Babylonian emperor. Zedekiah’s sons were killed in front of him. He was then blinded and hauled off to Babylon as a trophy. Many others from Jerusalem were deported as well. In this exile lie the seeds of Judaism centered on the synagogue instead of the temple, the rabbi instead of the priest. Here too are the roots of global Christianity, the faith of the diaspora instead of the landed.
. . . To much of this Jeremiah was a witness.
Jeremiah chapter 31 comes from a section of his work known as the Book of Comfort. He wrote to the exiled. In verses eight and nine we read this:
See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame,
those with child and those in labor, together;
a great company, they shall return here.
With weeping they shall come,
and with consolations I will lead them back,
I will let them walk by brooks of water,
in a straight path in which they shall not stumble;
for I have become a father to Israel,
and Ephraim is my firstborn.
Jeremiah is speaking of the hope of return. He is speaking of the return of those too weak to fight their way back. Hope was central to Jeremiah’s message. It is central to our faith. We need it deeply . . . .
Here, though, there is something unavoidably difficult. Jeremiah was right, some would return from exile—but not all. Jewish communities remained strewn across these regions of the near East for some two thousand years. For many who did return the results were not the climactic renewal of their nation, as they had hoped. Their leaders would once again be overtaken and the re-built temple once again destroyed. Their hopes were fulfilled in half measure.
If we would read the gospel passage the lectionary assigns for Sunday the 25th we would read the story of one of Jesus’ famous healings. Jesus doesn’t tell the sick or the disabled to simply be satisfied with their state. He heals them. But our experience, I think it is safe to observe, is more like the ancient Jews feebly returning from exile than it is the bluster and drama of Jesus’ signature miracles. We do experience certain types of healing but rarely the full healing we hope for. And as much as our culture wants us to avoid thinking of it—we all die.
. . .
Jim and I were at the trailhead when we heard the ranger’s radio. It had taken hours. We had driven half way to the paved road before our phone connected. Despite the signal fire, the helicopter had a hard time finding the location. Apparently there was more than one Lost Sheep Lake. The coordinates on our map were vague. The clouds were low. At the trailhead we heard the helicopter pilot’s voice over the radio. He said it was a “code black.” “Code black,” is pretty easy code to decipher. Then the pilot added something just as poorly coded about not being equipped for ‘recovery’ missions. Our friends had done CPR for hours; they would now have to keep a vigil through the dark Montana night. Jim and I promised to be back at first light.
I would hear Tom’s gasp for weeks and see him fall, in the cafeteria, on the sports field, when my roommates slept.
. . .
The biblical writers knew this bitter side of life quite well, for theirs was a time when each life was balanced precariously on the edge, tipped by drought at one year or invading empires the next. And yet the poet of Psalm 126 is hopeful. The poet prayers for the return of God’s blessing, like the intermittent water of the dessert. The poet asks that “those who sow in tears” would “reap with shouts of joy.” And there I think is an important insight. You see we’re all pretty familiar with the idea that we reap what we sow. Paul even brings out that old saw in his letter to the Galatians. He tells them not to sow in the flesh but, rather, in the Spirit (6:7-8). Sow in tears; reap in tears might be the logical equilibrium. But the psalmist doesn’t think the world is so closed. And neither, in the end, does Paul. He believes the presence of God’s Spirit in our lives here and now can produce joy.
God didn’t spare Tom, nor us, his friends, from grief. Several of us went back later, approached Grey Wolf peak from a different aspect and completed the climb. We didn’t climb it for closure; I doubt such a thing exists. We climbed it for the same reason we tried initially, because it was beautifully positioned and well suited to our ability, because it required us to traverse a glacier and kick steps up a snowfield, because it was a wonderful thing to do with friends and a wonderful way to feel joy on the ragged edge of life.
What then does it mean to hope? What does it mean to hope that this next week will be better than the last or that our friends will notice our discouragement? What does it mean to hope that we won’t disappoint our spouse or that our parents will find a way to stay together? What does it mean to hope that a dastardly illness will be brought to heel or that when life presses in on us we will at least have options? What does it mean to have hope?
The Scriptures tell us that hope is our response to a gracious, loving and ultimately just God. We hope because God’s abiding love is manifest in two ways: one is simply through the constancy of the earth. We are dust, creatures of clay soaked for a moment with life. The medieval mystic Julian of Norwich was given a vision of God’s love. The image she relates years later is quite famous: she says Jesus showed her “a little thing, the size of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand, and to my mind’s eye it was as round as any ball. I looked at it and thought, ‘What can this be?’ and the answer came to me, ‘It is all that is made.’ . . . In this little thing,” she continues, “I saw three attributes: the first is that God made it, the second is that he loves it, the third is that God cares for it” (Showings, 7). This is God’s prevenient sustaining power. This is common grace.
In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, as it’s recorded in Matthew, there is the famous line about loving our enemies (5:43-48). What follows, is less commonly remembered: Jesus says that God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” We can have hope, on account of this first manifestation of God’s grace, because God upholds the world and its systems which provide for the continuation of life. The streambeds in the Negev desert do, on occasion, fill with water, just as the Psalmist says. There is joy to be had in the fact that life continues. There are new opportunities, new people to meet, second chances to show our love and new passions to discover. It very often does get better.
This natural or common grace, though, does not stand obvious in itself. It does not address us directly. I’m reminded of a story Jean-Paul Sartre tells in one of his introductory lectures to existentialism. The story is of a young Jesuit, a monk, whom Sartre met in prison. (That must have been a rather surprising collection of prisoners, with monks and budding existentialist philosophers rubbing shoulders.) The Jesuit had chosen his life’s trajectory after experiencing an impoverished childhood, losing his father, doing poorly in school, failing his military training and bungling a love affair. The young man took all this as a sign that he wasn’t meant for worldly success: God intended him for the religious life.
Sartre points out, perceptively I think, that even in deciding to interpret his situation as God’s direction, the young man had chosen his own path. For Sartre there is no escape from such choices. As much as we like to think it, he believed, we create the stories that give our lives meaning. We might conclude with Sartre that it is just as easy to look at the world as a death machine as it is a sacrament of hope. In Sartre’s thinking there is no avoiding the resulting sense of forlornness. We make of the world what we want. We are on our own and hope is our creation. It is an expression of our will.
And if all we have is the grace of nature that is a very real risk. A risk that would end up making our lives only about what we decide or what we do. But Christians believe God’s abiding love is not only demonstrated through this ‘natural’ or hidden grace. It also breaks in and interrupts the world. It addresses us. God acts and speaks. And we let the water of God’s love wash over us and bring hope to life within us. Faith and grace together.
Something of this comes through in Hebrews chapter seven. We’ll end with this. In that part of this ancient letter the anonymous author describes Jesus as a priest. He begins the chapter by comparing Jesus to the mysterious Melchizedek.
Melchizedek lived during the time of Abram. He wasn’t a Hebrew himself but somehow was both a priest and a king before Abram’s children had either. Jesus is a priest-king like that, the author of Hebrews explains. To be a priest is to be one who stands between God and the people. It is to be a sacramental person, representing one to the other. Jesus does that, but he is different from the older, common priests. He holds his office forever. He is holy and blameless. He has no need to offer sacrifices; instead, he offers himself and shatters the cult system. In Jesus God addresses human creatures in uncommon fashion.
For Christians, then, there is hope that goes beyond the ancient and very natural code of guilt and reciprocation. There is hope that we don’t in fact get what we sow. We get what this priest-king has sown, and we harvest in joy. I hope then that Tom’s death by Lost Sheep Lake isn’t the end of his story. I believe it isn’t. His life, like most of ours, was a mixed bag with all kinds of seeds. But I believe that Jesus’ victory over death is Tom’s. Jesus victory over death, in all its forms, is ours. This is the good news! We see hints, reflections, glimmers of this victory in the lives of those around us. They corroborate our hope; they release our joy. Kyrie eleison.