Churches for the Middle East (CMEP) offer a series of Lenten devotions for 2021 on the theme of “Beacons of Hope: Journeying in Faith for Peace and Justice in the Middle East”, by Kevin Vollrath.
Revised Common Lectionary Readings for Lent 2021
The search for just peace in Israel/Palestine resonates throughout Lenten Lectionary scripture. Whether sources for sermons or for comments and illustrations within sermons, these brief meditations may stimulate your thinking and planning.
Joel 2.1-2, 12-17
A day of darkness, destruction and trembling comes; a great and powerful army comes. Yet even now, who knows whether God will not turn, relent and leave a blessing.
However dismal and discouraging the state of Palestine, hope must endure. The ministers of the Lord must say, ‘Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among nations.’ Both Israelites and Palestinians must know that a nation cannot long survive via darkness and destruction. Peace can come only through faithfulness to God’s justice.
The singer acknowledges that every one of has transgressed. Every one of us is imperfect and blameworthy. Leaders of both Palestine and Israel need constant re-examination of their motives and policies to be sure that they are genuinely working for tolerance and peace. By indifference or ignorance or uncritical acceptance of received official judgments of the rightness of the actions of governments and individuals of Israel or Palestine, we here too in North America are complicit. God himself is judge’, and cares equally for Palestine and Israel, ‘and all that moves in the field is mine’. All people, says God, ‘must call on me in the day of trouble’, and receive God’s guidance in building ways for peace, not violence and oppression.
2 Corinthians 5.20b-6.10
‘At an acceptable time, God says, ‘I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.’ After more than a hundred years of Palestinian dispossession and suffering, we ask when there will be the time of God’s favour. ‘See,’ God says, ‘now is the acceptable time’. The ongoing sufferings cited by Paul–‘beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, sleepless nights, hunger’: these the Palestinians have suffered and suffer now, ‘having nothing’. What is happening is sin, yet we know that God made Christ to live in sin, to live with us and be our salvation. As Palestines and Israelis suffer, so does God’s Son. The acceptable time can be now, if we respond to Christ’s call for hope, faith, love and peace.
If you pray in view of others, at the synagogue or church or in the street, saying what your hearers know is institutionally correct and safe, you may not doing God’s will, however much you yourself and others may call you pious. Pray in and from your own private heart. Study and think and learn for yourself. Take to heart the sufferings in the Holy Land in our times. Do not simply repeat established mainstream policies and judgments. Do not be afraid to speak against uncritical acceptance of Israeli ‘anti-terrorism’.
God’s covenant with Noah, symbolized by the rainbow after storm. God’s promise that ‘never again will all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood’. For decades, Palestine has suffered from the contrary–not flood, but water shortage brought about by climate change and by disproportionate directing of Palestinian water to Israeli settlers. The flood of settlers and settler violence, the flood of Israeli troops, are of Genesis proportions in their destructiveness. Despite God’s covenant, why does this continue? Because a covenant is between two sides: not only God’s promise, but human effort. Humans must do their part. Build the dykes that will stop hatred and violence, and drain them away. Plant and tend ew growth. After devastation, let God’s creation flourish again, to benefit all
A prayer for deliverance from enemies. Israelis who fear the spectre of Islamist terrorists may turn to this psalm–‘Do not let my enemies exult over me’. But the psalm does not encourage or even permit a them-versus-us attitude of ill-will toward enemies. God is merciful, and ‘all the paths of the Lord are steadfast love’. All paths: Israelis and Palestinians must both walk together the paths love, toward peace.
1 Peter 3.18-22
Instruction to slaves to accept authority, even ‘of those who are harsh’. A difficult passage in our era of Black Lives Matter and repudiation of North America’s slave-holding past. Powerless, oppressed, should slaves–or Palestinians in occupied territories–or anyone powerless and oppressed–meekly accept, defer, and obey? Is Peter pro-slavery? Peter assures us that ‘if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval’. He does not say, however, that cruel slave-masters have God’s approval. It’s clear that he believes they do not. Slavery, like many or most social institutions–like the occupation of Palestine– establishes and perpetuates inequalities.
The baptism of Jesus. And in the last two verses, his forty days of wilderness temptation, and John’s arrest, and Jesus re-emerging in Galilee ‘proclaiming the good news’. What’s all this Good News then? John’s message is two-fold: the reign of God is near; and we all must repent and change our ways to ways that conform to God’s intent. Like John preaching personal transformation–which is also political, as the personal is always political–Palestinians who do likewise now suffer by the hundreds in Israeli prisons, or have been summarily executed by Israeli soldiers who are both judge and hangman. Ironically, deprivation in the wilderness has not weakened but strengthened Jesus’s faith, as it can strengthen faith of those deprived in Palestine. Like them, John did not live to see the new world Jesus Christ would offer. But one person’s work, however modest, eccentric even, helped make straight the way. What can each of us do to help straighten the way to just peace in Palestine?
Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16
God’s covenant with Abram, re-named Abraham. God promises Canaan ‘as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants”. A passage that for many recent decades has inspired and ‘justified’ innumerable acts of Zionist aggression. But a covenant means responsibilities on both sides. God adds in verse 9 that ‘As for you, you must keep my covenant’. This, God says, specifically means male circumcision—a new commandment, which is why God has to mention it specifically. Implicit but obvious in the covenant—i.e., it goes without saying—is that God’s chosen people must follow all of God’s commandments. Including, at a minimum, the Hebrew Ten Commandments: which, among other things, forbid killing, theft, bearing false witness against one’s neighbour, and coveting any of your neighbour’s possessions. Surely these laws apply in Israel’s dealings with its neighbours, including and especially Palestinians.
Praise for the everlastingness of God’s reign. Praise for God who has not despised or scorned ‘the suffering of the afflicted one’. ‘The poor will eat and be satisfied’. Nothing in the psalm implies that this practical love for the oppressed excludes Palestinians. God is God of all. Where any suffer, God suffers. God’s call is for the end of suffering, the wiping away of every tear.
Paul is clear: God’s covenant with Abraham was not because of law, not about circumcision or any other policy, but from ‘the righteousness that comes by faith’. When religious faith is hijacked by whatever politics or ideology, the Covenant is broken. Faithfulness to the Covenant means not just selecting which of God’s laws to obey, but constant effort to obey them all—including again, for example, those Ten Commandments.
Mark 8.31-38 or 9.2-9
When Jesus forecasts his physical death, Peter is dismayed and resistant. But to focus on material well-being in this world is, says Jesus, work of Satan. Look to your soul. Not just ‘How long will you live?’ but ‘How will you live?’. For where is the profit if ‘you gain the whole world and lose your soul’? Where is the profit if Israel gains the West Bank via violence, prejudice and hatred, but loses its national soul?
The Ten Commandments, from the God of Deliverance, the God “who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery”. The people tremble, for indeed these are hard laws. The first is perhaps the hardest of all: ‘You shall have no other gods before me’. ‘No idols’, says the second Commandment. To put national pride or material profit or ethnic privilege above any other consideration is to choose an other god. It is idolatry pure and simple, in Israeli government policy or anyone’s.
Praise for the glory of God’s creation; sky and earth and law. Easy words to say, and trite if we only say and do not live them. But who can discern their own errors, their ‘hidden faults’? We are called to be what we were made, a part of God’s created glory. This will take constant and faithful vigilance. We must question our habitual behaviours, our loyalty to received and unexamined ideas. We are called as individuals and as nations—whether Canada or Israel—on this quest to identify errors of policy and practice, and ensure that in all matters we follow the ways of the God who in love has created and endowed our world.
1 Corinthians 1.18-25
‘Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?’ To follow Jesus Christ means contradicting much of the world’s received wisdom; the unexamined precepts of the established order; the conventional wisdom. Is it foolish to believe in justice for Palestinians? To believe in a peace that is just for both Palestinian and Israeli? Paul and Jesus call us to another way. Let us follow another path. The broad path we’re on now leads only to disaster, for Palestinians and in fact for us all.
Nothing else ever drew Jesus to violence more than the corruption of the Temple, the turning of the sacred home of God to a den of thieves. ‘Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!’ A nation does not lie or die by economics alone. When the government of a country founded on the magnificent Hebrew Scriptures behaves as a bully and tyrant and killer of children—a Herod—it is time for thorough and absolute cleansing, and rebuilding in God’s true image.
A snake on a pole. The Israelites rebel. They wonder if they’ve lost direction on their way to the promised land. No food, no water, no shelter. Enemies and snakes assail them. Moses on God’s instruction raises a new standard, and all who trust are saved. The current way of Israel’s government is the wrong direction. It’s no way to a promised land, and no way to live in one. Palestinians too can see they’re not making much progress. It’s time for all to take a look at what God offers and requires, and to set out on a new path to just peace.
Psalm 107.1-3, 17-22
People are dying; not only Palestinians with their appalling mortality rates from so many causes, but Israelites with their relatively wealthy economy, ‘merchants on the mighty waters’. They were ‘at their wit’s end’—the way we all feel when we ponder the apparently intractable problems of a Middle East just peace. But God ‘rescued them’—all of them—‘from the grave’. God redeems. God’s ‘love endures forever’. But first’ they cried out to the Lord’. Let us all dedicated ourselves in new ways to discerning what God is requiring that will bring that just peace.
Does it not seem—and not only when we ponder the condition of Israel and Palestine—that we live in woe under ’the ruler of the kingdom of the air’, the spirit of disobedience to God, the one who goads us to ‘gratify the cravings of the flesh’, and the means to worldly power? Have we forgotten that we all of us are God’s handiwork, made fit for our one purpose, ’created to do good works’? Then let us understand and work through the lens of God’s purpose, which Jesus put succinctly as loving God, and our neighbours as ourselves. Palestinians and Israelis literally are neighbours. Neither can serve false rulers.
‘Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness.’ The light is Jesus Christ, the One Body of whom all are members. Indeed the present time and future of Palestine is dark. ‘Everyone who does evil hates the light’. Improvised explosive devices, and stealing land and killing and imprisoning and dispossessing children are dark and evil acts. Palestinian and Israeli must recognise that they are one, united in one body and one land; and a just and prosperous future for one depends on a peace that is just for all.
People broke the covenant with Noah, and the covenant with Abraham, and now a patient God offers yet a third—but hopes to avoid the same mistake again of dealing with the faithless. This time, ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts’. But it appears that yet again in Palestine and Israel the covenantal ink has faded, the people have disobeyed, and the deal is off. Under this new covenant, how would the Middle East look? We would see a just peace, a peace that the God of Judaism, Islam and Christianity inspires all to work for. A peace enforced by violence, by bulldozers, soldiers, and prisons for Palestinians, is no peace at all.
‘I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches.’ These would be God’s statutes, not those of calculating politicians and jurists. They are just and they apply to all equally—Jew and Moslem and Christian, Israeli and Palestinian. They do not countenance imprisonment without trial, family separation, bulldozed homes and olive groves. We pray, for every country, statutes that in conscience the people can rejoice to follow. Great riches without just laws and just peace mean losing one’s soul.
God names Jesus as ‘a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek’. One of the Bible’s most mysterious figures, but we know that the name means something like ‘king of righteousness’, and in Genesis 14 he blesses and bring brings out wine and bread to Abram, when Abram and his people are yet on their perilous way to their new promised homeland. This wine and bread they share. Will it not be wonderful when Israelis and Palestinians, who both consider Palestine their traditional home ordained by God, would learn to share, sacramentally.
Jesus foretells his death. Yet in his death, all the world will be redeemed. ‘I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ How many will die in the West Bank, in Israel, in Gaza, till all say, ‘No more death’, ‘No more martyrs’, and death becomes catalyst for just and lasting peace? The instigating moment of change may be something apparently insignificant, yet profound in its potential: ’Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed’. We must not lose hope. In the affairs of humankind and God, in Israel and Palestine as everywhere, who knows what tiny event may be a tipping point?