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St. Asaph's Balm in Gilead
Asaph prayed: How long, Holy One? Will you be angry forever? You must be angry - look at what has happened to us. Our whole world has been turned upside-down. The barbarians are not just at the gate; they have come crashing through, slashing and burning everything in their wake.
The Psalmist Asaph describes watching Nebuchadnezzar and his men hack away at the temple and its ornaments with hatchets and hammers in Psalm 74 and continues the theme in today’s psalm, 79, focusing on the unburied corpses rotting outside and perhaps inside of the sanctuary. Then the Babylonians burned the tabernacle that was supposed to be permanent - at least more permanent than the wilderness-wandering tent - they burned the holy place where God’s unutterable Name dwells, down to the ground.
Surely God was furious. Certainly with the Babylonians who would get theirs in the end, but even more with the Judeans and the few remaining Benjaminites who together were the surviving remnant of what had once been a united Israel with imperial dreams. How else could one explain why the Creator of the heavens and earth who condescended to dwell in a house of earth and stone vanished in the face of the Babylonian advance, withdrawing divine protection. Now there was only the fog of war and smoke and ashes, rubble and corpses and so many questions.
How was such a thing possible? Had God rejected God’s people? Had God rejected their worship? Asaph’s theology represents one of the broad streams in the biblical narrative, one also joined and shaped by the words of Jeremiah from the back-water town of Anatoth who hoped one day to make it to the big city and make it big. I imagine Jeremiah wished he had never left the small security of his little country hometown. But in spite of everything they say and experienced - indeed perhaps because of their sorrow and grief, both Asaph and Jeremiah still believed in a relational God who would hear the prayers of the penitent, forgive, heal, redeem and restore. Even if it took some time.
Asaph returned to this theme again and again in the twelve-composition Psalter with which he is credited. Psalm 74: “Why God do you reject us forever?” Psalm 77: “Will the Sovereign reject forever and never again accept?” Psalm 80: “How long will you fume at the prayers of your people?” Today’s psalm, Psalm 79: “How long, Holy One? Will you be angry forever?”
For the Psalmist Asaph, the destruction of the temple in 586 BCE by the Babylonians under the command of Nebuchadnezzar was an apocalypse. It was the end of a way of life and a moment of revelation.
The revelation which took some time to unfurl like a tattered scroll, was that the destruction of Jerusalem, the dissolution of the monarchy through execution, imprisonment and sorry replacements, the loss of sovereignty, waves of exiles and refugees, crushing poverty and homelessness, burned and butchered bodies in the street were in fact not the end of Israel, her God, her relationship with her God or even God’s love and power to save, to deliver, to redeem, to restore.
Asaph didn’t know it yet but he was part of the crafting of the national story of hope and faithfulness, redemption and restoration. Psalm-poets like Asaph and prophet-poets like Jeremiah preserved the good, the bad, the ugly, the horrific and the hopeful in the story of Israel. Their songs and stories became sacred, then scripture for generations of their people long after their deaths and, through the torah and teaching of a Galilean rabbi to Judean and Samaritan women and menn and even Gentiles and, what some have called the absurdity of the gospel and others have called the scandal of the cross they have become scripture for us here, today.
The stories of the destruction of the temple in 586 BCE and again in 70 CE have no exact parallel in our experience. As horrific as were the attacks on 11 September 2001, and as shocking as they were, there were not entirely unprecedented. Yet there are some parallels. I think there are more parallels with the bombing of Pearl Harbor in terms of how unfathomable and how confusing the very idea of such an attack was to folk near and far. Perhaps, as I was recently reminded by a student, the best parallel is with the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki - nothing could prepare them or the world for not one but two atomic bombs falling out of the skies raining melting liquid death.
In each devastated location, Ground Zero, the Pearl Harbor Naval Station, the Empire and nation of Japan new, previously unimaginable life sprang forth from the rubble, dust, ashes, disease and death of their devastation. People survived and thrived. Life, love and laughter returned. The faithful and the faithless prayed and played. Children were born, the story was told and retold. Cities and nations, trees and parks began to heal and rebuild.
There is something else about the loss of the temple in Jerusalem, specifically the loss of an entire worshipping culture that strikes me as particularly relevant today. The entire religion had to be reinvented: rituals, ordinances, liturgy, language, space and place. What do we do? What do we say? Where do we say it? Who can say it? Who is listening? How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
There is no altar of sacrifice, no altar of incense, no choir of psalmists, no priest and as for the few remaining prophets at that time - Jeremiah got himself kidnapped to Egypt and missed both the Babylonian Exile and struggle for survival in what was left of Jerusalem. And Ezekiel heard a word from the Lord that said don’t say anything prophetic outside the sealed doors of your house, because you live in Babylon now and you’re going to be here awhile.
From the ashes of the temple rose more than a new temple obsessed over by Herod. There rose a renewed religion, a renewed liturgy, a new tradition of prayer with and without animal sacrifice that has stood the test of time, crossed rivers and seas and continents and survived the destruction of the temple and sacking of Jerusalem again and again and again. The practice of prayer endures even now in a bitterly divided, war-wounded and weary Jerusalem wrestling with the promise of peace in our lifetimes.
The conflagration of Jerusalem gave birth to the scriptures we cherish as God’s broken people struggled to pass on to their children a living faith in a living God who hears and answers prayer in spite all evidence to the contrary.
They told the stories their parents told them and they called on literate souls, perhaps like Asaph, to write them down. Jeremiah, God bless him, was illiterate but he had a scribe named Baruch. The prophet Huldah was another story, but her story is another sermon.
For many Christians, the Jerusalem temple in a specific place and time has been replaced by a Church that transcends time, place and space. And yet for all that the church is bigger than any building, diocese, synod, denomination or communion, there is a very real fear that the barbarians are not just at the gates, but within. The ones hacking and axing the soul and body of the Church are her own sons and daughters as we fight, slash and burn each other and the sacred space over the breadth and narrowness of the Church, her rites, ordinances and sacraments. Who is welcome? Who can bless? Who can be blessed?
As the Church splinters - around the edges or even at the heart - into new configurations, the anguish of Asaph (now St. Asaph in the Anglican Communion), still cries: How long, Holy One? Will you be angry forever? You must be angry - look at what has happened to us. Our whole world has been turned upside-down. The barbarians are not just at the gate; they have come crashing through, slashing and burning everything in their wake. Only now we are the barbarians, each with some complicity in the pitched battles in our sanctuaries.
Exiled and exiling, we are the Church, whole and broken. And to us an embarrassingly poor prophet with no seminary education and an arrest record, who is probably on Homeland Security’s watch-list - perhaps he was “renditioned” to Egypt by the government - the prophet cries:
Jeremiah 8:18 My deepest grief is over me, sorrow is upon me, my heart is sick. 19 Ah! The sound of the scream of my people from a distant land: “Is the Holy One of Old not within Zion? Is her Ruler not within her?” (“Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign vanities?”)
20 “Harvest is past, summer is ended,
and we, we are not saved.”
21 On account of the brokenness of the daughter of my people
I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.
22 Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no healer there?
Why then has the health of the daughter of my people
not been restored?
9:1 Who will give me waters for my head,
and a spring of tears for my eyes,
that I might weep day and night
for the slain of the daughter of my people?
Asaph’s question was, “How long?” Jeremiah’s question is, “Where is God?” “Is the Holy One of Old not within Zion? Is her Ruler not within her?” For if God is still within the midst of God’s people, whether the dispossessed poor of the land or the exiled refugees in Babylon and even Egypt then yes, there is a balm in Gilead. The healing presence of the living God was already at work, in the psalmist’s lament and the prophet’s cry, in the demolition of the stones of the temple, in the preservation of the soul of the temple, in prayer, poetry, song and shout and in the written and received word.
When we fear for the Church and ache for the Church, we would do well I think to remember the example of the temple. The place where God’s name, Too-Holy-to-be-Pronounced, dwells can never be destroyed. Even now there are people praying at all that remains of those broken and repaired walls. And on the ancient foundation of those once crumbled walls are newer stones. But more secure and enduring than the stones which in truth may fall again, is the response of the faithful God to the prayers of the faithful and the faithless.
When the Church speaks of schism, I ask, “How long?” When congregations reconfigure into new communions on a foundation of broken communion, I ask, “Is the Holy One of Old not in Zion?” And when my own diocese is in the news more than I would like and for all the wrong reasons, I ask, “Is there no balm in Gilead?” And then I hear Asaph, interceding for his people, and we join our voices to his, praying for our people when we pray his psalm, “Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your Name; deliver us, and forgive our sins, for your Name’s sake.”
The practice of prayer is itself a balm in our Gilead. It is confession and profession, hope and faith and even desperation. It is belief and doubt and even frustration. The practice of prayer endures because there is a God who hears, forgives, redeems and restores.
The Church’s walls may crumble - and some are literally falling down, but the Church will endure like Asaph’s psalms to give voice to the cries of a generation we can only imagine, and to proclaim the redemption of God’s people that Jeremiah prophesied.
In the Name of God: Shaddai, Shalom ve’Shekinah – Sovereign, Savior and Shelter. Amen.