Judgement and Mercy on the Eve of the Ascension
But if you do not listen to me, if you fail to keep all these commandments of mine, if you reject my statutes, if you spurn my judgements, and do not obey all my commandments, but break my covenant, then be sure that this is what I will do: I will bring upon you sudden terror, wasting disease, recurrent fever and plagues.(Lev 26:14-16).
This from the Old Testament reading appointed for this week, today and yesterday, in the Daily Office. Plague and sudden terror: it is remarkably current.
It brings us to the question that has been voiced here and there about the pandemic: is this to be reckoned a judgement of God? In what sense is this to be reckoned as judgement?
The answer comes, like the question, through the church’s cycle of prayer and seasons, the rhythm of the Christian year. The Daily Office is part of the discipline of prayer and the Word that our church enjoins upon us as Christ’s people. Every day, to read the appointed Scripture and say the prayers; every week at the Eucharist to hear the Old Testament and New Testament and Gospel in a cycle that follows the life of Jesus and the great saving events of our history. Advent and Christmas, Epiphany, Ash Wednesday and Lent and the high holy days on which our faith comes to its heart and climax: Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Day of the Resurrection. Alleluia! Christ is risen!
That cry of triumph comes to its completion tomorrow, on the Feast of the Ascension. Christ is risen indeed, “to make all things new in heaven and on earth” (Eph 1:10), Jesus rising in the flesh to the right hand of God, taking our flesh with him into the victory of God.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ (Eph 1:3).
That, too, is from our Daily Office readings for today.
The cycle of the Christian year with its daily and weekly prayer and scripture reading is a discipline of grace. It is a discipline: a work appointed that in the long practice of it teaches us something (makes us Jesus’ “disciples”). It is a discipline of grace, because it teaches us to live in God’s time and not in our own time alone; because it frees us from captivity to a time we make for ourselves, alone, and draws us out of loneliness into the time of Christ.
This is not just mid-May in the time of the virus. This is the Eve of the Ascension in the time of God’s grace.
If, then, we are called to think about judgement now – called by COVID19 perhaps, in the events of the day; called by Leviticus certainly in the cycle of the Christian year – we are given this framework in which to think about it: the Word of God in Leviticus and Ephesians; the acts of God in Jesus the Christ. This Word and these acts give us the true shape of the times, as we live through them again and again in the unfolding of the Christian year.
What does the time of the Christ, this Eve of the Ascension, tell us about the time of the virus?
Leviticus, today, stands back to back with Ephesians. In the time of the Christ, the two are spoken together.
Leviticus is clear: plague and sudden terror are real possibilities in the life of God’s own dear people because God’s people have the choice to be for God…or not.
You shall keep my sabbaths and revere my sanctuary, God says to the people to whom he has come – the people whose cry he has heard in the land of slavery, whose suffering he has seen; whom he has come down to deliver. You shall keep my commandments, God says to the people he loves: I am the Lord.
To love the God who loves us; to keep his sabbath and revere his holy place and observe his commandments: this is to live in sync. It is to live, as Stanley Hauerwas has said of the cross, “with the grain of the universe.” Because “I am the Lord.” God is Lord. That is who God is.
It is his good pleasure to give peace in the land and plenty, to walk to and fro among us. “I will become your God and you shall become my people” (Lev 26:12).
But if not…But if you do not listen to me, God says, if you spurn my judgements, “then be sure that this is what I will do: I will bring upon you sudden terror and wasting disease” (Lev 26:15-16).
We sow sudden terror for ourselves when we choose to live out of sync, against the grain of the world, without reference to (or reverence for) the word of God.
Leviticus sees a logic: when we turn away from the One who is the centre, “things fall apart.”
Full disclosure: I do not believe God sent the virus. In a sense, He did not have to. We created the conditions for this pandemic all by ourselves: you could track the virus’ spread along the flight routes of the wealthy world. The closures have given to us clear skies, seas un-clouding, wild goats nibbling at the hedges in Wales, and time and home and quiet. Shutdown has shown us how much we have lost of the beauty of the world.
And this is judgement. We have gone astray. We have failed to revere God’s holy place, land and church both. We have forgotten God and treated the life he has given us as a commodity: making our lives, our children’s lives no more than a path to material gain…though increasingly we will settle for some really high-quality entertainment. Really? Is that what the miracle of this body is about?
Is it not rather to raise our voices in prayer and praise to the King of all creation, to joy every day in the gift of a world full of wonder, to live not to get for ourselves but to give ourselves as He has done, as He has done, Christ Jesus our Lord: to fill up what is lacking, as Colossians says, in our Lord’s suffering for this world’s salvation.
In the Providence of God, pandemic has become the instrument of God’s mercy, a mercy that is – the Eve of the Ascension tells us – compounded of judgement and grace.
The virus and its consequences belong to a world falling apart, and we are not without blame.
But God does not leave us there, in our own time alone. Though we have too often left him, God does not leave us here alone. In God’s hands our time, this time of the virus, becomes the time of his grace.
Yet even then, in their enemies’ land, I shall not have rejected nor spurned them, God also says in Leviticus 26. Because I am the Lord their God (26:44). I will remember the covenant I made with them. I am the Lord.
I will show them the evil they have done. I will show them the beauty they have lost. I will give the land back its sabbaths, the rest that belongs to God’s time and allows the land to flourish.
All the time of its desolation the land shall have the sabbath rest which it did not have when you lived there (Lev 26:35). Again, apropos.
Judgement and mercy; mercy and judgement together.
To forget God is to live against the grain of the universe. It brings judgement in its wake. This much Leviticus and the virus make clear.
And this, too: even then I shall not have rejected them.
This word too rises today. Already in Leviticus it sounds, and on the Eve of the Ascension, here in the time of the virus, it becomes a trumpet-call:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…who has chosen us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love (Eph 1:3-4).
In Christ to rise, to rise with our Jesus bodily into holiness, bodily into blameless lives, hearts that hear God and hands that hold and love and keep and treasure his Word.
This is a gift that has been given us, in Jesus the crucified King. That we might no longer forget the Lord but live in him. That we might live in him every day, in his word, in his grace, in his truth, in his redeeming love; every day lifted up with him into holiness, into a life where we will not be to blame. A life where the land may have its sabbath rest because we know its beauty is the Lord’s; a life where we may know day by day the quiet that is our inheritance, the peace of Christ that is the true shape of the life God has made.
Hail the day that sees him rise! He takes our hand and draws us with him, even in this time of the virus. Tomorrow is our rising too, and the hope of our world.
Happy Ascension Day.