Mar 13, 2014

Lenten ashes amid fires of conflict

Ash Wednesday
 On March 5, 2014, we observed Ash Wednesday, with a service of confession, repentance and the imposition of ashes. My sermon for Ash Wednesday, based on Matthew 6:16-21, may be found here.

First Sunday of Lent
On March 9, the first Sunday in Lent, we were joined by members of Corpus Christi Lutheran Church in Barinas and Pastor Miguelangel Perez of El Paraiso Lutheran Church in Barquisimeto for the Divine Service. The appointed text was Matthew 4:1-11, the story of the temptation of Jesus in the desert. I explained in the sermon that the devil tempted Jesus to be one of the various types of false messiahs that we still find in our world today. There are those who preach a "gospel of prosperity," that if only you believe hard enough, God will provide you with all of the material things that you want. There are those who preach a "theology of glory," that the true sign of God's favor can be found in signs and wonders and displays of power. Then there are those who preach a gospel of conquest, establishing the kingdom of God on earth by force of arms. The temptation of Jesus was to gain a following by become one of these false messiahs. The temptation for us is to follow one of these false messiahs, rather than follow Jesus to the cross. The text of this sermon may be found here.

On March 12, Venezuela marked a full month of protest marches in its larger cities. As a result of the conflict between the current government of Venezuela and its opposition, more than 20 people have died and hundreds have been injured. Here in La Caramuca, however, life goes on as usual, which means we quietly deal with the more mundane concerns which drive the protests. There are empty shelves in all of the stores, long lines to received rationed supplies of basic foodstuffs, the cost of a bus or taxi to Barinas has doubled in the last six months or so, and last night we were without electricity for several hours.

But for someone trying to further the mission of the church in Venezuela, it is even more difficult to deal with the religious undercurrents in the present political unrest. I do not think the pulpit should be used as a political soapbox. It is not a preacher's job to endorse political candidates, take sides in partisan political debates, and certainly not to advocate the overthrow of an exisitng regime, but rather to proclaim the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ to people living under all forms of government and economic order. At times, however, political debates escalate beyond issues of civil order into the realm of divine law (legalized abortion/euthanasia vs. the Fifth Commandment, for example, or same-sex marriage vs. the Sixth Commandment). In such cases, the church must reaffirm that certain matters are not polticially negotiable, but have been ordained by God. In the examples of abortion and same-sex marriage in the United States, Christians must deal with political movements which violate what we call in our catechism, "the second tablet of the Law" or the commandments which spell out how we are to love our fellow human beings as ourselves. In Venezuela we are dealing with infractions of the "first tablet of the Law", the commandments which may be summarized as "love the Lord, your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind." That is to say, on both sides of the conflict here, we find forms of idolatry.

On the one hand, we have what is literally a "personality cult" built around former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. The religious nature of this cult has only become more obvious since Mr. Chavez's death from a cancer a year ago. Some North American media have noted some rather odd things that the current Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has said about his predecessor. That the spirit of Hugo Chavez speaks to him by means of a small bird; that the face of Hugo Chavez appeared to workers in a Caracas subway tunnel; that Hugo Chavez died just in time to go to heaven and help God pick a new Pope; and that he (Maduro) likes to sleep in Mr. Chavez's tomb to receive inspiration and guidance. It is important to understand that statements like these are not weird quirks on the part of Mr. Maduro, hand-picked successor to Mr. Chavez, but typical of the essentially religious devotion with which "true believer" chavistas regard their former leader.

There actually is a song that is played on the radio which speaks of Hugo Chavez as "my eternal commander and my eternal friend" who "will live forever in the hearts of the people." There are chavista who consider themselves Christians despite the inconsistency between this the Christian beliefs that only God is eternal and only the Holy Spirit should live in the hearts of the faithful.

Now, you might think that those opposed to the chavista government would be the voice of sanity and reason, but here you find those who should know better quoting from Reinaldo dos Santos, "the Prophet of the Americas." Mr. dos Santos was born in Brazil, the fifth of eight children. Even as a boy he claimed to receive dreams and visions. Although he grew up in poverty, a noted Brazilian astrologer took Mr. dos Santos under his wing, underwrote his secular education and also instructed him in astrology and other occult disciplines. He continued his occult studies in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Mexico.

His followers believe Mr. dos Santos to have accurately predicted, among other things, the fall of the Twin Towers in 2001, the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, and the death of Pope John Paul II. In regard to Venezuela, he is supposed to have predicted Hugo Chavez's rise to power and his death. More recently, he has predicted the imminent downfall of the current Venezuelan government, which is why many of the opposition like to quote him. However, in doing so, they disregard the many Scriptural warnings about consulting astrologers, psychics and others who claim knowledge of the future apart from divine revelation.

We find divine revelation in the pages of the Holy Scriptures, which tell us that all we need to know about the future is that it is in God's hands, and that at the end ot time, Christ will return in glory, balance all accounts and take us and all the faithful to a much better place than what we know now. As Christians, we should know that the kingdom of God is not of this world, that all earthly governments are destined to fall, and that we should avoid "messianic" political movements of whatever origin, that promise an end to poverty, war and all manner of evil if only their leaders were in charge. For the origin of poverty, greed, injustice, war and all social ills lies in the sinful human heart which can only be changed by the light of Christ.

We continue to pray for Venezuela as a nation, that God might grant it a peaceful resolution to its conflicts, but above all that the Word of God may not be bound, but have free course and be preached to the joy and edification of all God's people, in Venezuela and the world. Amen.
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