The curse came.
It broke over their heads like a storm, like a thunderhead gathering at sundown, like a night when the air is still and heavy, and the hushed sky rips apart with a crash.
It came like a vulture landing, like a big shadow sweeping the brown grass. He sidles and circles the corpse, stands erect to see better, and stretches his naked neck to the full. Hopping closer, he stretches forward, pecks, and leaps back. He watches for a second more; no movement. Then he croaks once and throws himself on the body. Into its flank he strikes his heavy beak. He flaps for balance and thrusts backwards with feet and wings to strip the skin from the ribs and belly.
The curse ... no oath or damning word, but the unseen passage of a whole land into a brutal and pitiless spiritdom.
The summer sun dries up every pool and stream and almost every river. It drives the desperate frogs deep into the mud cracks and forces the storks to feed on locusts. It kills the food plants and wilts the fig trees over the heads of the panting herds.
A choking dust falls like rain, seared in the whirlwinds of a thousand-day drought. Overhead a sky of bronze gleams as if heated by a torch and underneath the scorched earth lies blackened like an iron pan on an open flame.
Come harvest time, little grows. The wheat is blighted, blasted by fungus that makes the golden fields look like moonscapes. One afternoon, hailstones like marbles break the stalks in two, followed by a beating rain that bows the grain heads down into the mud.
It had never been so before. The friendship of their God had always been on their land and His promised help had always preserved them from disaster. No enemy had ever overrun them like this. Generations before, one of their fathers, Abraham, had walked with their God. He had listened to the voice of his conscience and obeyed what he knew was right. The trust he felt in his God was unshakable. He believed whatever He said. He trusted Him to such a degree that his God came to know his heart. They had an intimate friendship with one another. Even when tested to see if his obedience was true, he worshiped God supremely and gave Him the uttermost sacrifice — his son, the essence of his heart. Because of his pure trust, his son was spared and his obedience won the promised protection for his land and for his descendants.
Time passed. Years turned into centuries. Men lost the relationship with their God that their forefathers had. They drifted away from having an intimate friendship with Him and grew dissatisfied with His thoughts. Instead of walking uprightly in accordance with His laws, they became bent over in slavery to a burdensome corruption of it. Never content with what their God provided, they created other gods for themselves to accommodate their lusts. Loyalty and faithfulness to Him were replaced by arrogance and restlessness. The whole nation turned away from obedience and trust into reaching and grasping for anything that would fill up their barren lives.
Children roamed the streets of the cities looking for pleasure. They acted as though they had no fathers or mothers. Sons treated their fathers with contempt and daughters scorned their mothers. A man’s enemies were those in his own household. Thieves robbed their own and prostitutes plied their trade openly, without shame. Anger and murder filled their homes and streets like a plague until no one trusted anyone else. The stench of the land was like a rotting sore.
All around them were the diseased, the deformed, the blind, the deaf, the dumb, the lame, the crippled, the paralyzed, and the demon-possessed. There was no wholeness, no soundness, no justice.
The curse changed what was once fruitful into a parched wasteland, a mere husk, a stale hunk of rock-hard bread. The thirsty and starving wandered through it, looking for help, but there was none. Society was like a market place, a vain fair where men hawked their consciences and dignity for a night of cheap thrills. Their daughters were like whores, their sons like drunkards. It had permeated every area of society, like oil soaking into a rag.
Then he came.
He grew up in their midst like a tender shoot. Like the root of a plant surviving in the desert, he sprouted up among them. His life was like a young sprig growing out of an ancient stump.
He was a simple, childlike man who listened when people spoke to him. His ears were attuned to the afflictions of their hearts and he responded with the truth he knew in his own. It was painful for him to look upon the plight of his people. Never had there been so much sickness or corruption in all levels of society or so many religious hypocrites or pretenders or lawless men. Though many had grown dull to the effects of the curse and had conformed to the abnormal society around them, he felt keenly every intrusion of the curse into even the smallest areas of their lives.
It made him sad to see how calloused people’s hearts were, how little they cared for one another, and how they despised the needy and poor among them. It also made him burn with anger to see how men had substituted customs and traditions for the intimate relationship with their God that men like Abraham had once had. The lies that held so many around him in bondage weren’t able to hinder his belief in his God and his faith in his God’s promises.
He was unpretentious, a humble man who didn’t pride himself on his looks or his intelligence or his accomplishments. He didn’t get his security from all the things he did, or was naturally good at doing. If a matter came to his attention, he didn’t make a snap judgment on it like the clever ones about him — those who lived in the false authority of their cursed rightness. Instead, he waited to hear what was right in his own heart, and from his intuition and conscience he spoke. In the fear of God he judged with justice the poor of the land. For although many looked poor and needy, he knew who truly was and who wasn’t. And though the curse was upon everyone in his society, he could only lift it off the necks of the poor and humble, for they were the only ones who would receive his help. None of the proud or self-exalted would ever listen to him.
He lived as innocently as a child. He spoke simply with straightforwardness. He wasn’t concerned about the world’s standards — what was fashionable or what was popular. His likes and dislikes weren’t petty and self-interested. Rather his satisfaction and good pleasure came from carrying out the deeds that his God had given him to do. And he was unable to do anything without Him.
One thing for sure, he wasn’t complicated. It wasn’t hard to follow what he said. It didn’t take a lot of complex reasoning to decipher his sayings, and no one had to be a genius to follow him. In his own words, the way to reverse the effects of the curse was simple and clear:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account…
The only difficulty in understanding his words comes about when the twisted human heart makes things complex. Nothing he said or did was to be daring or to show off. All he wanted to do was tell people the truth.
Those who were childlike could hear the truth. Those who weren’t complicated could hear his voice. The simple and the needy weren’t deaf to him; they responded. The truth he knew was the overwhelming reality of his God’s presence in his life and His promises to His people.
He came to start a new Israel, a new society free from the curse. He came as a prophet, as one who felt the heartbeat of his God and heard his intimate thoughts. Though he was the Son of God, it wasn’t as God that he walked the earth. He lived and breathed and walked the earth as the son of man, who had left behind all his divine privileges and rights. He hungered and suffered and endured trial as a man. He wasn’t God one minute, when things got hard and he needed an escape, and man the next, when things got easier. He was a man all the time. He had to suffer like the rest of us. It was something real. It surrounded his life at all times like night around a star.
Every way he turned, the cries of his people reached his ears. They were always around him, always in need. When the enemy’s lies bent people’s backs to the ground so they couldn’t even straighten up, he felt sorry for them and reached out to heal them. When everyone clamored to make him king, as much as he loved them, he moved away from them. They had been walked over so many times before, they’d follow just about anyone — not just him, but anyone who’d give them a free piece of bread. It got so bad, he couldn’t even be with them. He didn’t withdraw into mysticism or retreat to the desert, nor did he go on pretending that everything was okay. It was as though their whole society had been turned upside down and shaken up, and there was nothing they could do to get it back aright. All they could do was blame him. And all he could do was stand and take it.
Like an umbrella of protection, he lived for those who clung to him. Beneath his covering was the shelter they needed from the storm. And at his side was the safety they longed for, far from the approach and slime of this world’s vultures.
Then he died.
To break the curse he died. To break its sway he suffered death as one under its power. He faced it without fear, knowing that his God would rescue him. Three days and three nights later, he was alive again, resurgent, brimming over with victory. He filled all those who had sought after him and those who had remained at his side with the very same spirit he had that overcame death. The very same life that had been in him was now in them.
His life was a social life, an overflowing river that flowed out of his heart toward others. His words and actions teemed with life and he poured it out generously like water. In him was a rich, lavish, endless, and inexhaustible supply of life. It brimmed over in every direction, in every situation, to every kind of person, stimulating and quickening them with kindness and hospitality. He had enough life in himself to be able to go on and on and on. Every bit of it that he had, he freely gave away to others. What he didn’t need to sustain himself, he extravagantly gave to those around him. He cheered them up when they were discouraged, he consoled them when they were depressed, he squandered all that he had upon them in order to keep them till the day when they, too, would be doing the same thing.
Now that same life is here amongst us. It is a blessed life. Like a day in early springtime, a day of melting ice. When you walk from town past fields still patched with old snow, it is warm in the sun. Though neither lilac nor apple are yet in bloom, their branches are silently filling up with the swell of the first sap. On that day, rivulets collide and advance, trickles flow steadily through the blond grass, sweet-tasting brooks surge into cold lakes, and out of them flow swelling torrents. It’s like water flowing, all day long, fed with snow and heat, dew and moonlight. It’s a wide, sure water, a river, always and forever.