Turning and turning in the widening gyre...

Sometimes things fall apart, and sometimes they come together.

Tonight I watched a movie called Water, about an eight-year-old Hindu widow who was sent to a widows' home. Considered to have shared in her husband's death, and therefore half-dead, she would be unclean for the rest of her life--even after ritual purification, her touch would defile others. I've been reading Things as They Are, about Amy Carmichael's work in India in the early 1900s, and she discusses widows' lives in detail. A man in Water tells a widow that widows have three options: suttee, or burning with their husbands (the movie is set in 1938); denial of all earthly desire; or marriage to the husband's younger brother, providing the family agrees. A widow lives under a curse. She failed to keep her husband alive, and therefore must live apart and beg--or whore--for her food. She lives in bondage, always hoping that she will have enough faith in her god to be released at the end, and possibly to be reborn as a man, if she is a woman of high caste.

I thought about that, and then I thought about the Brahmin in the movie who said that Brahmins get to sleep with any women they choose, and they bless the women by sleeping with them. You see, they are holy by birth. And then I thought about what I've been learning in Old Testament: every religion has holy men who are inherently better than others, and untouchable in some unfathomable way. Every religion has people set apart, sacrosanct by their own efforts or by some accident of birth. Every religion, that is, but Christianity.

In the Old Testament, we can see that the priest, and even the High Priest, has to make an offering for himself before he can offer for the people. Before the Day of Atonement, the High Priest must spend seven days in purification, under intense questioning, a time so stressful that the priest and his questioners tremble and cry. On that day the priest must lay his hands on the head of a bull, confess his sins, and then slaughter the bull for his sins. He must be covered by the blood, just like the people for whom he is about to make the atonement sacrifice. "There is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good and sinneth not."

Take it into the New Testament: We have a great High Priest who does not need to make atoning sacrifices for Himself, because He is perfect, both priest and sacrifice. He is atonement in the flesh. He is the bridge between law and grace, between justice and wrath, and mercy. His priesthood is greater by far than Aaron's, and He by His blood sanctifies each of us, making us "a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that [we] may proclaim the praises of Him who called [us] out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people, but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy" (I Pet. 2:9-10). There is no special, holy caste among us. Think of it: all through the Old Testament, with whom does God's heart dwell? The poor, the helpless, and the widow. What was Jesus' purpose in coming here? He said, "The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD" (Luke 4:18-19; Is. 61:1-2). Jesus' heart was with the broken down, destroyed, and oppressed. He loved and had mercy on those whom the world saw as vile and utterly to be rejected. And who was Jesus? "He is despised and rejected by men, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded by our transgressions, He was bruised by our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth. He was taken from prison and from judgment, and who will declare His generation? For He was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgressions of My people He was stricken. And they made His grave with the wicked--but with the rich at His death, because He had done no violence, nor was any deceit in His mouth. Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief..." (Is. 53:3-10a).

I think often we forget to what great extent He identified with us. Jesus, a rabbi, holy by custom and nature, YHWH in the flesh, became sin for us. He became the thing He most hated, for us. What do you think killed Him? I have heard it said that He died of a broken heart when God, who has purer eyes than to look on sin, turned His face away from His Son and broke a fellowship more intimate than any we have ever known. It cuts to the heart, friends.

But think about what He did in His life. The woman with the issue of blood touched Him, and He became ritually unclean, according to the Levitical laws. He not only touched lepers; He clasped them to Himself. Jesus, many times in His every day life, became ritually unclean to touch those despised of men. Jesus intentionally turned the supposed holy order on its ear. He, the only Holy One, willingly touched unclean people. He played with children--stopped in the middle of a sermon, in fact, to include children in the kingdom of God. Jesus' heart was always with the helpless. Look at John 2:13-17. "Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. And He found in the temple those who sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers doing business. When He had made a whip of cords, He drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen, and poured out the changers' money and overturned the tables. And He said to those who sold doves, 'Take these things away! Do not make My Father's house a house of merchandise!' Then His disciples remembered that it was written, 'Zeal for Your house has eaten Me up.'" Who did Jesus single out especially when he drove the people from the temple? Those who sold doves. And who would have bought doves? The poor. In the Old Testament system of graduated sacrifices, the poor were allowed to bring birds to sacrifice for their sins if they could not afford sheep. It's one of the neatest pictures of God's mercy. He makes repentance possible for all. But what was happening in the temple was a racket. Not only was the outermost court--into which, I believe, Gentiles could enter--filled with the noise of buying and selling instead of worship, and with the litter and excrement of animals instead of clean people and clean sacrifices, but the people had come up with a system to abuse God's standards. Because of the Levitical standards for a spotless sacrifice, there had long been a system of Levite guards at the front of the Temple, who would examine the animals for their acceptability as sacrifices. At the time of Jesus, the guards would routinely declare suitable animals unsuitable, and offer to let the worshiper trade his animal for a temple animal, for a reasonable sum. Further, they insisted that all money be presented in the form of temple coin, which money changers would change at an inflated rate. So the priests were profaning the court that the Gentiles could enter, subtly declaring that God didn't care about them, and they were also taking massive advantage of worshipers, especially the poor. Is it any wonder that Jesus, furious, took the time to braid a whip together so He could beat people out of His temple? But the part I love best is that He singled out those who took advantage of the poor for a special rebuke. His heart was with the poor.

What does this have to do with Water? Jesus loves widows. Jesus loves the poor, the disadvantaged, the unclean, and those hated by society. Jesus loves the rejects. Do you realize, in a world of gods that did not respond to the cries of the poor, our God led the way for them to come to Him? Even more, He came and found them! Oh, to understand the neverending compassion of my God. I think if I did, if I saw His glory like that, I would die. It is too great for me.

What does this mean in your life and in mine? We come proclaiming liberty to the captives, healing to the brokenhearted, and sight to the blind. We come able to touch those the world sees as untouchable, not a people, and defiled. In Water, a man told a widow not to let her shadow touch a bride, because it would defile her. Listen: Paul walked with God, and God so touched his life that even the touch of his shadow would bring healing. We have a share in that. We have love that the world cannot understand. We--and I do not condescend here; I speak the truth--have access to the love of God, and no one else has that. According to I John, we are the only people who have access to love at all, because the world can offer parodies of love, but it can never make the real thing.

At the end of the movie, a Brahmin widow delivered the young girl into the hands of Gandhi's followers, in the hope that they would be her deliverance. What struck me about this scene was that people from all over her village thronged a railway station to hear Gandhi speak for five minutes, jostling each other, not caring about defilement because they were drawn to Gandhi. It broke my heart. Gandhi told them that he had stopped thinking of God--and though it is capitalized I do not mean my God--as Truth, and had discovered that Truth was God, and the search for truth would bring liberation. I ached, because here were hundreds and hundreds of people flocking to see a false prophet, preaching lies that sounded near enough to the Truth to convince, and what they received was only a sick parody of the real thing. Gandhi reached out and blessed little children, but he was only a man. People followed him to the death, and he was only a man.

Friends, we do not serve a parody. We serve God, a very God, who is good and who does good, the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy, who has loved us with an everlasting love. I am as guilty as anyone of this, but why are we not beating down doors to tell people about Him, about Life? We have Someone to offer; the world has only a farce. What are we doing with this great blessing? Why have they still not heard?

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