Sunday, October 16, 2022

Chalice of Catastrophe

Wine is part of the biblical picture of rejoicing. One of the psalms declares that God created “wine to gladden the heart of man” alongside “bread to strengthen man's heart” (Psalm 104:15). We're told that “bread is made for laughter, and wine gladdens life” (Ecclesiastes 10:19). “Plenty of grain and wine” was Isaac's blessing over Jacob (Genesis 27:28), and in Moses' final blessing over Israel, he announced that God gave them “a land of grain and wine” (Deuteronomy 33:28). It's no wonder that Jesus' first miracle was providing plenty of wine – no, not grape juice, but real wine, alcoholic wine, and the real good stuff, at that (John 2:1-11). So too, wine is also part of the biblical picture of worship. From the very first book of the Bible, “bread and wine” are brought out by God's high priest as an act of worship (Genesis 14:18), and ever after, each sacrifice in Israel was accompanied by a “food offering” of oiled flour or bread and a “drink offering... of wine” (Leviticus 23:13). And in turn, God allowed Israel's priests to rejoice in him by enjoying those offerings: “All the best of the wine and of the grain, the firstfruits of what they give to the LORD, I give to you” (Numbers 18:12). An Old Testament parable sums it all up by referring to “wine that cheers God and men” (Judges 9:13).

But the Bible also uses wine as a picture of wrath. It by no means ignores wine's potential to be a source of ills, a cause of harm. The first time wine shows up, it's when Noah “drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent,” and his son Ham “saw the nakedness of his father” and sought to bring him shame and disgrace (Genesis 9:21-22). Ten chapters later, and Lot's daughters, brought up in Sodom, use wine to get their father drunk and take advantage of him in some very unsavory ways (Genesis 19:32-36). Moses refers to Israel having enemies whose “wine is the poison of serpents” and a “cruel venom” (Deuteronomy 32:33). In the chaos that punishes King David after his sin, David's son Absalom waits for David's other son Amnon to get drunk on wine, and then Absalom gives the order to assassinate Amnon (2 Samuel 13:28). Israel's wise people warn: “Do not look at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup and goes down smoothly: In the end, it bites like a serpent and stings like an adder” (Proverbs 23:31-32). “Wine is a mocker..., and whoever is led astray by it is not wise” (Proverbs 20:1). I still half-remember the night, living in Greece during my college years, I learned that the hard way. I quite quickly (and repentantly) understood why the Apostle Paul bluntly commands: “Do not get drunk with wine” (Ephesians 5:18).

As we continue our journey through Habakkuk, listening as he eavesdrops on the future and hears a series of woes and taunts aimed at Babylon and its king Nebuchadnezzar, this fourth taunt objects to the way Babylon influences and exploits its neighbors, treating them like Ham treated Noah, like Lot's daughters treated their father, like Absalom treated Amnon. “Woe to him who makes his neighbors drink – you pour out your wrath and make them drunk, in order to gaze at their nakedness!” (Habakkuk 2:15). It's hard to know whether that's something Babylon did literally – were they plying war prisoners like King Zedekiah with wine, getting them drunk, taking advantage of them, and laughing at them? – or if he's talking about the influence Babylon has over other nations being like getting the world drunk. That's how Jeremiah takes it. And so he says: “Babylon was a golden cup in the LORD's hand, making all the earth drunken. The nations drank of her wine; therefore, the nations went mad” (Jeremiah 51:7). In other words, 'wine' was an image for Babylon's influence and wrath.

But just as Babylon (literally or figuratively) used intoxication to humiliate, debase, exploit, and take advantage of the world, Habakkuk has some news for them: “You will have your fill of shame instead of glory. Drink, yourself, and show your uncircumcision! The cup in the LORD's right hand will come around to you, and utter shame will come upon your glory” (Habakkuk 2:16). That is, just as God handed Babylon to other nations as a cup of wine for them to drink from, Babylon's turn to drink is coming, and then Babylon will know how it feels.

This image Habakkuk uses, of God passing people a cup of wine that represents divine wrath and punishment, is actually a pretty common one all over the Old Testament. Isaiah describes how Jerusalem “drank from the hand of the LORD the cup of his wrath” (Isaiah 51:17), and Jeremiah's ministry was described by God as being that of a bartender of punishment, passing God's cup to one nation after another: “Take from my hand this cup of the wine of wrath, and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it” (Jeremiah 25:15).

And the Bible envisions this as having four effects. First, God's cup puts people in a stupor, or it makes them stagger. Isaiah envisions Jerusalem, after drinking from God's cup, as needing to be guided by the hand because she can't walk straight, only nobody helps her (Isaiah 51:18). One psalmist complains to God: “You have given us wine to drink that made us stagger” (Psalm 60:3). God tells Jeremiah: “They shall drink and stagger and be crazed” (Jeremiah 25:16). Second, God's cup exposes people's naked sins. Jeremiah warns the Edomites who celebrate Jerusalem's downfall that “to you also the cup shall pass: you shall become drunk and strip yourself bare..., he will uncover your sins” (Lamentations 4:21-22). Third, God's cup makes people behave ridiculously or get sick. Ezekiel says that the cup Samaria drank when the Assyrians destroyed it has now passed to Jerusalem, and so “you shall drink your sister's cup that is deep and large; you shall be laughed at and held in derision, for it contains much” (Ezekiel 23:32). And Jeremiah portrays Moab drinking Babylon so much that “Moab shall wallow in his vomit, and he too shall be held in derision” (Jeremiah 48:26). And finally, God's cup is a symbol of destruction. Jeremiah warned Jerusalem that God was saying, “I will fill with drunkenness all the inhabitants of this land..., and I will dash them one against another” (Jeremiah 13:13-14). But the same was the message for all the nations he preached to: “Thus says the LORD of Hosts, the God of Israel: Drink, be drunk and vomit, fall and rise no more, because of the sword that I am sending among you” (Jeremiah 25:27).

Nor is this only for the international scene. “It is God who executes judgment, putting down one and lifting up another. For in the hand of the LORD, there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed, and he pours out from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs” (Psalm 75:7-8). That's what Psalm 75 says. So that's what God had in store for people clinging to sin: to drink from his cup, his chalice of catastrophe.

Which is why it's all the more significant when we turn the page to the New Testament and hear Jesus speak of “the cup that I am to drink” (Matthew 20:22). In case we're in danger of missing what he's saying, the Gospels show us Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, on his knees, asking God his Father whether there's another way: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39). What cup? The only cup we've been talking about – the chalice of catastrophe, “this cup of the wine of wrath” (Jeremiah 25:15) “in the LORD's right hand” that was coming around to Babylon (Habakkuk 2:16). Who deserves to drink it less than Jesus Christ, the sinless Son of God? And yet who alone can stomach it, if not Jesus Christ, the sinless Son of God? “Not my will, but yours, be done,” he prays in the garden (Luke 22:42). He takes the cup of the wine of wrath from his Father's hand, to drink it himself, though innocent. And when Peter tries to prevent the arrest of Jesus, Jesus rebukes him: “Shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (John 18:11).

And so Jesus drank it. He staggered and stumbled beneath the weight of the cross. He was stripped naked, or close to naked, by the soldiers. He was nailed to the cross and laughed at by the crowds as if he were a drunk man. And at last he was pierced and destroyed from the land of the living. The chalice of catastrophe did its work at Calvary. Only, that wasn't the end of the story. Because what he did is, he drained the cup of wrath to its dregs, and he filtered it through his holy life, a life that his Father would never let be abandoned, because Jesus' life was the life of God himself in the flesh. And from his veins, Jesus pours back his lifeblood to fill the cup again. “The cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood,” he tells us (Luke 22:20). And this, now – this, for us – is “the cup of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 10:21). To those who drink it unworthily, it is (more than ever) a chalice of catastrophe for the faithless and the unrepentant (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:27). But to those who drink it worthily, who come with repentance and faith, who come as disciples made alive by grace and who hunger and thirst for more and more life, then the blood of Christ is a wine of joy and worship. It is a “cup of salvation” (Psalm 116:13). Let us lift it high, to the cheer of God and man, and eat and drink – we, who once were Babylon facing “the cup of the wine of the fury of his wrath” (Revelation 16:19), but now are sons and daughters of God Most High, drinking our share in Christ's chalice of catastrophe that we might inherit a share also in his glory (Romans 8:16-17). Let us eat and drink worthily from his altar, and live.

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