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Agony and glory

Sutherland Springs reminds us politics isn’t ultimate

Agony and glory

A memorial at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

In a news week consumed with the ugly convulsions in a Senate race in Alabama, my mind keeps returning to the red roses in a tiny church in Texas.

Have you seen the images?

The members of First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, turned the site of a madman’s massacre in their little sanctuary into a moving memorial to the 26 churchgoers cut down during morning worship on Nov. 5.

The place where an unborn child, an 18-month old baby, a 14-year-old girl, a 71-year-old woman, ten members of the same extended family, and many others fell and bled and died after morning hymns—this place has been washed and cleaned and painted a bright white on walls and floors and ceiling. White chairs sit where victims died, bearing the names of the fallen. On each chair sits a single red rose, brilliant in color against the sea of white.

The vivid hues bring a verse to mind: “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow.”

This is the heart of the gospel that reverberated in First Baptist on that Sunday morning before and after death approached. In a turbulent world of politics, sin and turmoil, this gospel is what is worth living and dying for.

Politics aren’t ultimate.

Every politician and every voter in every race—no matter how monumental it seems at the moment—are like the grass of the field that flourishes in the morning and withers in the evening. We are a mist.

If this sounds like the writer of Ecclesiastes—“vanity of vanities, all is vanity”—it might be because I’ve been reading that book a lot lately. I learned recently that the Hebrew word hebel—translated “vanity” in Ecclesiastes—is more literally rendered “vapor.”

The idea isn’t that our lives are futile. It’s that they’re fleeting, and only God controls their ultimate contours and meaning.

The first place it shows up in the Bible is the account of Cain and Abel: The Hebrew word for Abel is hebel. Adam and Eve got a horrendous glimpse of what sin had introduced into the world as their oldest son murdered their younger son in cold blood: Life is a vapor.

But even while Abel’s life was a vapor, his quiet devotion to God landed him a spot in the famous hall of saints in Hebrews 11. Abel never married, never had children, and never held a leadership position, but Abel pleased God. And “through his faith, though he died, he still speaks.”

He still speaks.

Not because he held great influence or stemmed the tide of sin that was about to wash over the world. He speaks because he had faith in God, and he offered faithful worship.

Yes, what we do now matters for future generations, but even as we apply our faith to our private and public lives, we never control the outcome. We are a vapor. God is sovereign. Our call is to trust in Him, not the levers we pull or the company we keep. Indeed, the Apostle Paul warned the Corinthians not to be led astray from “the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ.”

The most critical thing we can do for our posterity is what the members of First Baptist were doing on that Sunday morning when the whole world wasn’t yet watching: giving glory to God in a local church and trusting in Christ to forgive their sins and make them new.

With Sunday coming, let’s let that ambition be our preoccupation. If we need help, let us sing: Put no confidence in princes, nor for help on man depend; he shall die to dust returning, and his purposes shall end.

Hallelujah, praise Jehovah.


  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Sat, 11/18/2017 06:49 am

    Jamie - These are good thoughts to ponder. And this in the midst, or immediate aftermath, of a horrendous and unspeakable atrocity. Mentioning Abel is appropriate, though not necessarily for the reason that you mention. But Hebrews 11:4 and again in 12:24 gives significant credence to him and his faith evidenced by his sacrifice, accepted by God, during life and then his death and his shed blood. I really like 12:24 where the writer compares the blood of Abel that spoke from the ground after his death with the blood of Jesus that speaks "better things." That is what we cling to after these horrid atrocities. The blood of Jesus, his sacrifice, that purifies "once for all" (Heb 10:10). He is offering better things, the new covenant. Hope after death.

    I do want to add that the mere use of a Hebrew word can be misleading. This is especially true if using Strong's concordance which is a good, but not always trustworthy aid, for the English reader. It is unclear, probably doubtful, that his name is related to the hebel of Ecclesiastes. I quote from The Theological Wordbook of the OT,

    "The proper name, Abel, the second son of Adam, is also written hebel. Whether or not there is a connection between this and the substantive under discussion [hebel as "vapor" or "vanity"] is another matter. Most of the Hebrew lexicons have connected "Abel" with the cognate Akkadian word ablu/ aplu "son. " One will note that Abel is named in Gen 4 without any explanation, a fact that can hardly be without significance since almost all the proper names in Genesis are explained by assonances."

  • PaulC
    Posted: Mon, 11/20/2017 01:32 am

    I don't think we can assume that Abel never married, simply because there is no mention of a wife or children born to him.  Cain's fear that anyone finding him could kill him implies that there were many people living at that time.  Because Eve saw the birth of Seth as a replacement for Abel whom Cain killed (and thus a comfort) implies that Seth's birth came soon after Abel's death--agreed, that we do not know how soon, but I think it is reasonable to suppose it was not a huge number of years later.  Seth's birth came when Adam was 130,(Gen. 5:3)  which means that he was born about 130 years (within a year) of the Creation.   About Abel, it seems safer to say that we don't know.  The genealogy given in Genesis 5 only follows the line that leads to Noah, not all of the other people, and it only gives us the name of the first born sons. 

  • sonjakpcooper
    Posted: Mon, 11/20/2017 10:41 am

    Amen, Jaime.