Let them praise his name with dancing
and make music with timbrel and harp.
For the Lord takes delight in his people.
He crowns the poor with salvation.
Psalm 149: 6
Yes, a time is coming when your enemies will raise fortifications all round you…they will leave not one stone standing on another within you–and all because you did not recognize your opportunity when God offered it.
Luke 19: 43-44
. . .
I remember reading an (unpublished) essay by John Howard Yoder when I was in graduate school. Since the two other theology students in my year group were both Mennonites, reading some Yoder was inevitable, and I benefited from my encounter with the Mennonite tradition. On the particular occasion these readings call to mind, however, I was troubled by the bit of Yoder I was reading. Although I hesitated to say so, I thought he was making a theological mistake. So I mentioned it to the friend I considered the most gentle and least likely to take my disagreement with Yoder as a personal affront. The problem was, I explained, that Yoder made it seem as if God’s mercy had a boundary, and that we might test God’s patience and find the place where it ends and his wrath begins. That’s not what God is like, at least the God I believe in. I don’t remember the conversation that ensued, really; I expect my friend tried to unpack this bit of Yoder for me, gently and irenically. He also suggested that my objection was actually a theological point and not pure affect. I will always be grateful for that affirmation, as I was very unsure of myself at the time.
The passage from the gospel reminds me of that encounter with Yoder because it seems here that God’s mercy has run out. The same God that the Psalms celebrate and call us to praise for his faithfulness and steadfast love seems to abandon his people for failing to see clearly. Surely not! I think…but then it is Jesus who is speaking, and he ought to know. It’s perplexing. How can the one whose mercies are “new every morning” allow our enemies to triumph? And, more importantly, will God really abandon me if I get it wrong, if I don’t see which way he’s directing me? Is there just one opportunity?
Of course Jerusalem is razed, the people go into exile, and then God restores the city and makes possible the rebuilding of the temple. God doesn’t abandon his people forever. So I am right, in a sense: God does work all things together for good; in the end, all will be well. (If it’s not ok, so the saying goes, it’s not the end.) But that does not mean that we shouldn’t work hard to see, and to allow God to clear the obstacles to our vision, so that we don’t miss opportunities for blessing, or worse, go blithely into devastation because we weren’t paying attention. God redeems. God restores. God will make all things new. We can trust that. And yet, as Rowan Williams points out, ‘grace will remake, but will not undo.’ Grace does not restrict our freedom, nor does it allow us to shirk our responsibility. Grace assures us that when we fail God, for lack of faith or vision, God will not fail us.
As 2 Timothy 2:13 has it: “even if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself.”