The devil quotes scripture. This book that we read from every week can be twisted. Its words can be made to serve evil purposes. That’s not a surprise to anyone, of course. We look around and see the Bible used to harm all the time. We have it in our own Anabaptist history.
Let me give you one example from a few centuries ago. In 1534, in the first decade of the movement, Anabaptists won the city council elections in Munster, in Germany. This was unprecedented and explosive. The outside Catholic and Protestant authorities were alarmed and cracked down. They surrounded the city with an army. And the Anabaptists inside Munster became convinced that Jesus would come back soon and that their task was to make Munster a model of biblical community. Part of this, as far as I’m concerned, was very good! They confiscated the property of the rich and shared it out among everyone. But it went off the rails. A few town leaders soon had all the power in their hands and were hoarding the property that should have been shared in common. Inspired by the many marriages of David, Solomon, and others, they also instituted polygamy. The town leaders forced single women to marry—with the most powerful men ending up with the most wives.
These Anabaptists also minted coins bearing the phrase, “the Word became flesh,” suggesting that at Munster the Kingdom of Heaven was finally becoming a reality. It’s a bitter, ironic motto. The word did become flesh, as John’s gospel declares. But not at Munster. On human lips the deepest truths of scripture may become lies.
Today I want to tell the story of an Anabaptist woman named Anna Jansz who lived during this time. Her life, alongside the passages we read today, gives us a picture of what it means to struggle with scripture and slowly learn how not to misuse it. For Anna Jansz, reading the Bible well involved paying attention to the places she found painful and tending them like you would tend a wound.
Anna Jansz lived a short life, like many others in the first generation of Anabaptist martyrs. She was born in the Netherlands in 1510 and executed there in 1539 for being an Anabaptist. She did not migrate to Munster, as some other Dutch Anabaptists did. However, she did write a song that captured these wild and desperate hopes. The first line of the hymn is “I hear the Trumpet sounding” and so it was called the “Trumpet Song.” It became a popular hymn among Anabaptists in the 1530s. The song is all about the dramatic social transformation she thought God would soon bring about. She uses agricultural images from the Bible to suggest that maybe the Anabaptists would be the ones to help bring this new world into being—a process that might get a little violent. “O Murderous seed, what will you do?” she asks the rulers in her hymn “Offspring of Cain, you put to death the Lambs of the Lord, without just cause. It will be doubly repaid to you. The time has now come to reap, For evil has gained the upper hand.” Addressing the faithful, aka the Anabaptists,: she concludes, “Whet your scythes, the Harvest is ripe!”
In the apocalyptic literature of the Bible—the books of Revelation and Daniel and others that talk about the end of the world—there’s this idea that after there is a certain total number of faithful people in the world, Christ will return. Based on her readings of these passages, Anna thought the Bible promised that the final judgment was at hand in the 1530s. In her hymn she addresses faithful Christians and says “your number will soon be complete.” After that, the harvest would begin.
This stirring hymn inspired people who had been oppressed by the social hierarchies of 16th century Europe. But these hopes failed when the besieging forces of the Catholic overlord of Munster broke through its walls in 1535, a year after Anabaptists had taken power there. Anabaptism was discredited, a failed project of radical change that the authorities now had good excuse to stamp out entirely. Anabaptism slowly regained its footing in the Netherlands through the efforts of leaders like Menno Simons and the witness of nonviolent martyrs like Anna Jansz—her story is not done yet and I’ll get back to it in a few minutes. Simons and Jansz, as we’ll see, insisted that this movement was about nonviolent change, not what had happened at Munster. And so a new name came on the scene to make that difference clear: these were Mennonites, not Munsterites.
But meanwhile, back at the aftermath of the siege of Munster, the leaders there were brutally killed. The corpses of three of them were hung in cages from the town’s main church, St. Lambert’s Cathedral. Those cages still hang from that cathedral today, nearly 500 years later. You’ve gotta be careful how you read the Bible.
Anna’s hopes probably sound both familiar and strange. We don’t expect the end of the world, at least not the way she and the Munsterites did. But we do hope that God is transforming the world. Even more down to earth, though, anyone who reads the Bible will find that it makes promises to them. And sometimes these promises seem to fail. It’s frustrating, doubt-inspiring, at times painful. And what do we do then?
Take Psalm 91 that we read earlier. “In the shelter of the Most High…there shall no evil happen to you…For he shall give his angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways.” It’s beautiful, and comforting! But of course evil does happen to you and to me. And when it does, what does it mean then to claim Psalm 91 as our own?
This is a problem the people of Israel faced in Exodus 17. God had promised them rest and a home after slavery in Egypt. As with Anna Jansz, that promise seemed to have failed, as years of wandering in the desert followed their exodus from Egypt. The Israelites cried out in anger. Exodus says they “tested the Lord, saying ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’”
This theme is part of what Jesus’ temptation in Luke is all about too. The devil quotes Psalm 91 at Jesus. “’If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you.” Jesus responds, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy 6. Near the end of that passage we read “Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you did at Massah.” Massah was the place in the desert in Exodus 17 where the people of Israel felt that God had failed to uphold the promise. Exodus 17, Deuteronomy 6, Luke 6—these are all layers of the same story about the feeling of pain and failure and doubt that comes when God’s promises in scripture don’t pan out. So what does Jesus mean—“Do not put the Lord your God to the test”?
Let’s look more closely at the temptation of Jesus in Luke 4. The devil tempted Jesus to force the fulfillment of biblical promises, by empty spectacle or by showy force. If the Bible is to believed, Jesus will be and is the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords. But not like that. Not that kind of ruler. Not like they did it at Munster. Not like Anna Jansz had said would happen in her song. For Jesus, the Bible’s promises weren’t permission slips to claim his birthright by force.
Jesus does not throw himself from the temple. He does not raise himself up. Instead, he lives a life of wild and faithful patience and it is others who lift him up, onto a cross. There, the wisdom of God is put to the test by sinful humanity and in the resurrection, not found wanting. I’m reminded here of another part of Exodus, when vengeful Pharaoh pursues the refugee Israelites out of Egypt and Moses says “The Lord will fight for you and you have only to keep still.” When Jesus says “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” I think he means that it isn’t up to us to make scripture’s promises come true, in the way we think they will. At Massah, at Golgotha, we did put God to the test—Lent is a good time to begin remembering this again—and Christ the wisdom of God, passed the test. Like Israel facing Pharaoh’s army, our job is to keep fiercely still. The test has already been passed; our vocation is to abide, with wild and extravagant patience.
I haven’t told you the end of Anna Jansz’s story. It’s a tragedy, but one through which we can glimpse this same wild patience.
Sometime after the fall of Munster, with her hopes of transformation dashed and a dangerous future ahead of her, she fled to England. In the fall of 1538 she returned to the Netherlands with her infant son Isaiah. A hymn betrayed her. She never made it home.
As she was traveling in a wagon near Rotterdam she sang a song that her companions recognized as Anabaptist, and one of them turned her in. She might have been singing her own Trumpet Song. She spent a few months in prison, was convicted of having been rebaptized, and executed by drowning in Rotterdam on January 24, 1539. Before she died, she passed on a written letter to her son, called her Testament, which you can still find in a book called the Martyrs Mirror. In that Testament she came back to those same apocalyptic verses she had written about in her Trumpet Song. But she meant them now quite differently.
In her Trumpet Song she had written about how the number of faithful people had been “completed,” according to 2 Esdras and Revelation, and that this meant final judgment was coming imminently. This idea is still important in the Testament. But now it is a lament and a plea, not a confident prediction. She joins her own sorrow at her death with the pleas of the martyrs in Revelation. “‘Lord Almighty God,” she writes, quoting Revelation 6:8, “when wilt Thou avenge the blood that has been shed?” (453). Only after the martyrs have completed “the number and fulfillment of Zion, the bride of the Lamb,” she writes, will the New Jerusalem come “down out of heaven” (453). A time will come when all will be put right. She hasn’t lost that confidence. But she no longer knows when that will be. Instead, she joins her pain to the pain voiced in scripture itself. Its laments have become her laments.
This is just what Jesus does too. He does not force the fulfillment of the Bible’s promises about the son of David and the Messiah. When others lift him up, onto the cross, he cries out with scripture, quoting Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Scripture was something Anna Jansz lived with, like a companion. It was a friendship, and like any friendship, there was sometimes pain. Scripture helped raise Anna’s hopes of radical transformation, and then these hopes were dashed and her life faced a brutal and violent end. But in her Testament she returns again to those same verses about final judgment. Like a wound, she attends to the places in scripture that had occasioned such trouble for her. By returning to the site of her wounds, she found that she could voice her suffering with the Bible’s own words. That refrain in Revelation became her own. “Lord Almighty God, when wilt thou avenge the blood that has been shed?” Scripture’s wounds are our own. Scripture’s hopes, too, may become ours.
This is what I want to leave you with: like so much else, our life with scripture requires endurance. It requires the wild patience that Anna Jansz exemplified, and that Jesus fulfilled. Anna’s hopes fail. Munster fails. But Anna has another, more extravagant kind of hope. It’s the hope that all the failures of her life and all the messy human contradictions of the Bible itself are held together and redeemed in the heart of God. It’s the hope that if she continues to endure she will be enfolded into the story God is telling with our lives and with scripture. May we too live such a wild patience.