Saturday Night Theologian
20 February 2005

Genesis 12:1-4a

In 1988 God called me and my family to move to South Africa. Actually, it was a person who made the actual phone call that morning. After having stayed up all night working on a seminar paper, while the printer was humming merrily along, the phone rang, and a complete stranger was on the other end of the line. After a brief introduction, he asked the question: "How would you like to go to South Africa for a year to teach?" He described South Africa as the most beautiful country in the world, but I knew about apartheid, and I had some misgivings. At the same time I was excited about an opportunity to travel to a part of the world I'd never seen and experience things I might never get to experience again. A few months later my wife, my nine-month-old daughter, and I left our home and jobs, and I took a leave of absence from seminary, to go to South Africa. I taught in the Baptist Theological College in Cape Town for a year, and I studied at the University of Stellenbosch. Of equal importance were the encounters I had with students, fellow professors, and our neighbors. I saw terrible oppression first-hand, in the cities and in the townships, but I also saw the tremendous resilience and faith of the people. We lived across the street from a mosque, and we learned that Muslims were good neighbors and people of deep faith. I taught my students, but they also taught me. Overall, I have no doubt that I learned much more from the experience than I could ever impart to others. It's scary when God calls you to leave your home, your country, your comfort zone to go to a new place, but that's exactly what God asked Abram to do. Associated with his marching orders was the promise that God would bless him and his family in unbelievable ways, if only he would have the faith to obey. What might the world have been like today if Abram had said no? Three great religions--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--might never have come into existence. If Abram had said no, people today wouldn't have his great example of faith. If he had said no, there would have been no one to urge God to spare the righteous in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah--the plea itself is important, regardless of how many righteous were actually found. If he had said no, we would never have heard the greatest story of faith in the Bible, the story of the Binding of Isaac. But Abram didn't say no, he said yes, and the rest is history. Or is it? Have you ever considered whether God asked anyone else to leave their homeland before asking Abram? Maybe Abram was the second person God asked; maybe he was the third; maybe he was the thousandth. How many people missed out on a blessing because they refused to heed God's call? More importantly, how many of their neighbors suffered because they refused to go? What is God calling us to do today? Maybe we answered God's call yesterday, or last year, or many years ago, but are we still receptive to new challenges? Are we willing to step out of our comfort zones and go where God leads, regardless of the cost? Sometimes when God calls us, it doesn't make much sense at the time. Sometimes God wants us to pack up and move. At other times God may call us to stay right where we are, even in the midst of a difficult situation. Whenever God calls us, and whatever God calls us to do, you can be sure that great blessings are in store, both for us and for those with whom we will come in contact. What is God calling you to do today?

For another discussion of this passage, click here.

Psalm 121

Many people in the ancient world believed that their gods lived on the tops of mountains. The Greek gods lived on Mt. Olympus. The Canaanite gods lived on Mt. Zaphon. The Hebrew God was identified with Mt. Sinai in the pre-kingdom period and with Mt. Zion at a later time. Pilgrims who made the journey to Jerusalem to attend one of the three annual feasts had to travel uphill as they approached the city. This increase in altitude was so noticeable that the songs the pilgrims sang on their way to Jerusalem were called "Songs of Ascent." When they arrived in the city, they had to make their way uphill again to approach the temple mount, or Mt. Zion. Psalm 121 is one of several entrance liturgies that are found in the Psalter. It begins with a brief statement from the worshiper concerning the source of help. It is not to be found in the mountains, that is, not with any Canaanite gods or with the gods of other nations who dwell on high. Help comes only from Yahweh, the maker of heaven and earth. In the liturgy found in the psalm, the priest follows with a statement proclaiming God's vigilance ("he who keeps you will not slumber"), protection ("the sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night"), and care ("the Lord will keep you from evil"). As worshipers enter the temple, the priest tells them that they have entered the mountain sanctuary of God, where they will be safe, protected, and taken care of. The church today should be a sanctuary to which all people seeking God can turn, but unfortunately it isn't always. Some churches today are "niche churches," targeting a specific group of people for ministry. Now there is nothing wrong with trying to reach a particular type of person, particularly if the target audience consists of people who are routinely ignored or ostracized by other churches. The danger lies in being so focused on a particular group of people that others don't feel welcome. I'm not talking about people who visit a church and don't feel comfortable with the style of worship. There are many different worship styles, and different people prefer different styles, but a huge difference exists between not feeling comfortable and not feeling welcome. Other churches preach a "gospel" of inequality, one in which different classes of church members are recognized. For example, men might be elevated over women, or married people might be elevated over divorced or single people. Still other churches ostracize "sinners," as if we weren't all sinners. People in this type of church claim to hate the sin but love the sinner, but what the "sinners" usually perceive is in fact hatred of themselves as people. If they're gay they're not welcome. If they're hooked on drugs they're not welcome. If they're an unmarried couple that lives together they're not welcome. If they have a prison record they're not welcome. If they have a mental illness they're not welcome. If they vote for the wrong political party they're not welcome. We sometimes refer to the church building as a sanctuary, and it truly should be a sanctuary in two senses of the word. First, it should be a place where people encounter the holy. Second, it should be a place where anyone can come and feel safe, protected, and loved.

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

In the Apocalypse of Abraham, a Jewish pseudepigraphical book dating to the early Christian era, Abraham is living in Haran in the house of his father Terah, serving the pagan gods of his father. One day Abraham finds a stone idol fallen to the ground, and when he and Terah try to put it back in its proper place, its head falls off. Terah carves a new body, attaches the old head, and smashes the original body to pieces. Later Abraham observes that a wooden idol that has fallen into the fire is unable to save itself from burning. Abraham draws the conclusion that the idols are not really gods at all, and he says facetiously to his father, "Father Terah, do not bless your god Mar-Umath [the stone idol], do not praise him! Rather praise your god Bar-Eshath [the wooden idol] because, in his love for you he threw himself into the fire in order to cook you food." As a result of his rejection of the gods of his father, the one true God appears to him. This story is consistent with a tradition preserved in one of the Palestinian targums (Aramaic translations) that Terah was an idolater who was destroyed by God and that Abraham recognized the folly of idolatry prior to beginning his journey to Canaan. These speculations concerning the origin of Abraham's faith make good stories, but they are just that: speculations. In truth, it really doesn't matter how Abraham came to have faith. Whether it was the result of a gradual process of spiritual enlightenment, whether he learned it from another person, or whether he received some kind of divine revelation is unclear. The bottom line is that he believed that God wanted him to go, so he packed up his family and his possessions and he went. Paul points out that Abraham believed God prior to receiving the covenant symbol of circumcision, so the comment in Genesis 15:6 that Abraham's faith was accepted by God as righteousness proves to Paul that we are all made right with God by faith, not by works. The debate over faith and works is as old as the church, and it continues today. James' point that faith without works is not real faith is certainly valid, but Paul has grasped a concept that is as revolutionary now as it was then. We can't do anything to earn favor with God. We are all idolaters, worshiping gods that are no longer stone or wood but that turn us from the real God just the same. When in the midst of fabulous wealth we pray for continued financial blessings, we are worshiping the god of greed. When we see God's hand guiding us up the ladder of success, stepping over others or tossing them out of our path on the way up, we are worshiping the god of success. When we ask for divine help in gaining control over others, we are worshiping the god of power. When we pray for our military around the world and don't pray for the people who are the targets of their bullets and bombs, we are worshiping the god of nationalism. When we feel content about our own righteousness and look down on others who are not as good as we are we are worshiping the god of self-sufficiency. These gods sometimes get us in their grips so completely that we can't even see the one true God. That's when we must have faith: faith that God will forgive our idolatry and guide us to a proper understanding of the divine, faith that God can help us bridge the gap that separates us from God and from one another, and yes, faith that leads us to do all we can to share this God with others.

John 3:1-17

In 1976 Chuck Colson published a book called Born Again. It described his personal encounter with God in the wake of his role in the national tragedy of Watergate. When Jimmy Carter ran for president, he was the first major candidate to talk openly about being "born again." Many Christians today would describe themselves as "born again" to new life in God through Jesus Christ. The phrase comes from the story of Nicodemus' encounter with Jesus in the third chapter of John. The interesting thing about the modern use of the phrase is that it signifies a misunderstanding of the main point of the story. Nicodemus, a Pharisee whom Jesus describes as a "leader of the Jews," comes to Jesus "by night," signifying his spiritual ignorance. When Nicodemus affirms Jesus' relationship with God, Jesus tells him that he must be born anothen. This word in Greek can mean either "again" or "from above." Nicodemus understands it to mean the former; Jesus means the latter. Nicodemus' failure to understand the word is demonstrated when he asks, "Can one enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?" Jesus, of course, is talking about a spiritual rebirth, not a physical one. One must be born of both water and Spirit, he tells Nicodemus. Though the reference to water is probably an allusion to baptism, it is also used to speak of physical birth, in contrast to spiritual birth, as Jesus' next, parallel, statement shows: "What is born of the flesh (= water) is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit." He then proceeds to make another play on words, this time based on the Greek word meaning both "wind" and "spirit." Christians who use the phrase "born again" today do so in large part because the King James Version mistranslated it, so it has become standard in the English language. Furthermore, they understand that it means a spiritual rebirth, so I am not arguing that they have fallen into Nicodemus' error (which he seems to have overcome, based on the other references to him in the gospel of John). I do believe, however, that substituting "born from above" for "born again" in everyday parlance might lead to a better understanding of the divine-human encounter. The phrase "born again" can lead to an unhealthy emphasis on a spiritual birthdate (e.g., "I was saved on July 16, 2004"). While it is true that many people experience God for the first time (at least in their own understanding) at a particular moment in their lives, others would describe their spiritual journey as a gradual awakening, one in which they can't point to a specific day and time of conversion. Those who have experienced a "crisis conversion" (as it is sometimes called) must realize that their personal experience is not prescriptive for others, and I speak as a person who comes out of a tradition that emphasizes the "crisis conversion" and who can point to a specific day and time of conversion. To me, the phrase "born from above" can express a repeated, or even continual, process of divine-human interaction better than "born again" does. Moreover, it is a better reminder that the source of our new life is "from above," from beyond ourselves, from God.

For other discussions of this passage, click here and here.