Saturday Night Theologian
11 June 2006

Isaiah 6:1-8

The Texas Republican Party held its annual meeting this past week, and the chairwoman of the party made a startling announcement: "[God] is the chairman of this party"! I wasn't aware that God had been demoted. The very idea of reducing God to the official spokesmodel of a political party, or even its CEO, is offensive in the extreme. It belittles God, and it makes claims for a secular organization that are clearly ridiculous. In 2004, shortly before the U.S. presidential election, Sojourners magazine began running a series of ads in selected publications with the following message: "God is not a Republican. Or a Democrat." The point of the ad was to emphasize that God could not be exclusively identified with one political party, for both--and all others--constantly need to check their party's platforms, actions, ads, and attitudes against the high standard of God's holiness. When Isaiah saw a vision of the Lord that day on his visit to the temple, he heard the seraphs--mythological chimeras--call out to one another, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory." The threefold repetition of the word "holy" emphasizes the unique holiness that God possesses. Only by special dispensation can humans stand in the presence of a holy God, and to attempt to control God, manipulate God, or co-opt God for personal or political gain is nothing short of blasphemous. The seraphs in the vision have the right idea about how to behave in God's presence. "With two wings they covered their faces." They acknowledged their unworthiness to look upon God directly. Only God is absolutely holy, so humans must admit that they consistently fall short of God's objectives for their lives. "With two wings they covered their feet." "Feet" here is a euphemism for "genitals," and covering the genitals is symbolic of covering the unclean parts of our lives from God. It does not mean that we should try to hide our sins, for all we do is known to God. It does mean that we should try to eliminate our sins through repentance, and even conversion, if necessary. "With two wings they flew." If the seraphs were winged serpents, as many scholars have suggested, their wings were intended as a mode of transportation. While acknowledging their unworthiness before a holy God, they nevertheless continued to use their wings to fly. Humans need to continue to do what God has called us to do, despite our unworthiness, weakness, and even occasional (or more frequent) failures. We can't use our unworthiness to serve God as an excuse not to serve God! If God can get over it, so can we.

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

Psalm 29

From 1789 to 1947, the United States had a Department of War. In 1947, the War Department became part of the National Military Establishment, which itself was renamed in 1949 the Department of Defense. The shift from a cabinet-level Department of War to the Department of Defense sounds like a good idea, for the emphasis of the department is no longer on making war but on defending the country. Unfortunately, however, the U.S. has continued to prosecute wars and inaptly named "police actions" over the subsequent 57 years, usually only remotely or rhetorically tied to the necessity of defending the country. In the meantime, the U.S. defense budget has grown exponentially, so that now it is larger than the combined defense budgets of every other nation on the planet. Has the massive spending of the military made the U.S. the safest nation on earth? No, not even close. As a matter of fact, our outlandish spending and provocative actions around the world have made the U.S. a target for all sorts of enemies of the state. Ironically, then, U.S. military strength has made us more vulnerable to attack. The psalmist ends his psalm praising God's majesty with this verse: "May the Lord give strength to his people! May the Lord bless his people with peace!" At first glance, strength and peace might seem mutually contradictory, particularly when the example of the U.S.--and other militarily powerful countries such as Russia, Israel, and Great Britain--are considered. However, this initial impression is wrong, because "strength" doesn't necessarily imply military strength. Ancient Israel was never a regional powerhouse; at best it was the dominant small state in a neighborhood of small states (which, in addition to Israel and Judah, included Edom, Ammon, Moab, and Aram). Nevertheless, Israel (in a larger sense) survived what outside observers might have considered a death blow, when Judah's monarchy was overthrown, its capital was destroyed, and its leaders were taken into exile. It wasn't military strength that preserved Judah through the exile, it was moral strength and, even more importantly, religious strength. Judah's understanding of God deepened during the exile, and the Jews emerged from Babylonia with a God who was no longer merely a national god, but one who was the only true God of the whole world. If nations today want to receive God's blessing of peace, they need to learn to exert moral strength, as well as the kind of religious strength that puts the best teachings of their religion into practice: caring for the poor, loving their neighbor, and opposing injustice in all its forms. Military might may be impressive on the outside, but it is the weakest form of power. May God indeed bless the entire world with peace, and may God teach us all to have the strength of character that can oppose the constant drumbeat of war.

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

Romans 8:12-17

The Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed this week by U.S. forces, working in conjunction with Iraqis. Zarqawi unleashed a reign of terror on Iraq shortly after the U.S. invasion, targeting Shiites primarily, but also killing Sunnis whom he saw as collaborators with the U.S. In his perverse evaluation of God's will, he believed that his actions were pleasing to God, because he was rooting out the unfaithful from Iraqi society. Christians, Jews, and people of every faith--or no faith--roundly condemned Zarqawi's actions, including the majority of Muslims both worldwide and in Iraq. When an individual is guided by hatred, prejudice, and religious extremism it's easy for other people to identify that person as a dangerous crank, completely out of touch with God. Or is it? How many other people, who are perhaps not as open about their extremism and prejudice, operate publicly with an air of legitimacy among at least their followers, and often also among their co-religionists, even if they might disagree with aspects of their belief systems? Paul says, "For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God." The problem comes in recognizing whether people who claim to be led by God, like Zarqawi, are really being led by God. The Protestant emphasis on faith rather than works as the sole requirement for salvation leads many believers, particularly fundamentalists and their ilk, to accept uncritically a person's claims to being led by God. "He is a man of God," they say, "so his position on this issue must be right." However, we must learn to evaluate such claims on the basis of a person's actions rather than claims about faith. Those truly led by God's Spirit will act in ways consistent with the principles of justice and love. Specifically, revenge, wars of choice, xenophobia, greed, selfishness, and arrogance are inconsistent with the ways of God, and God's people should acknowledge as much. The ultimate loyalty of people of faith must be to God rather than to any individual, movement, or political party. We show ourselves to be children of God not by the words we spout or the beliefs we claim to hold, but by the deeds we do.

For another discussion of this passage, click here.

John 3:1-17

The time has come.
The time has come.  The time is now.
Just go, Go, GO! I don't care how.
You can go by boat.  You can go by cow.
Marvin K. Mooney, will you please go now!
In Dr. Seuss's book Marvin K. Mooney, Will You Please Go Now, the unknown narrator urges young Mr. Mooney to depart with all due haste, by any means possible. It is irrelevant to the narrator how Marvin achieves his exodus, whether by boat, jet, lion's tail, the postal service, or Kazoom (an imaginary contraption designed to shoot people through the air, like a circus cannon), as long as he goes. At the end of the book we find that, indeed, "The time had come, so Marvin went." The means of his departure remain shrouded in mystery. All that matters is the simple fact that he left. The story of Nicodemus's visit to Jesus begins with a simple notice. "He came to Jesus by night." If this statement is an indication of the time of day of Nicodemus's visit, one can speculate as to the reason for choosing the evening hours as the proper time to make a call. Perhaps Nicodemus was afraid his colleagues might see him visit Jesus, so he used the cover of darkness to accomplish his mission. Maybe Nicodemus's nocturnal visit was made simply because that was when his daily tasks were completed. On the other hand, if "night" indicates a measure of spiritual darkness rather than a specific time of day, Nicodemus's desire to see Jesus indicates an attempt to overcome his insufficient knowledge, as well as a recognition that in Jesus he can find the answers he is seeking. Many elements of the story that we might want to know are missing from the Johannine narrative. How did Nicodemus come to learn about Jesus? Was he acting on his own initiative, or did others encourage his visit? Were others in his circle of friends aware of his visit, or did he keep his encounter a secret? Was there a specific crisis in his life that led Nicodemus to seek out Jesus? All these questions and more can be raised, but the text refuses to respond, so we are left with our speculations. What we do know is that, regardless of his motivation, Nicodemus did go to Jesus. In the Gospel of John, Jesus represents the eternal Logos, the eternal Reason of the universe, the divine wisdom that shapes and orders the world. Nicodemus, aware of the deficiencies in his understanding of God and the world, went to the right place to attain wisdom. Today many potential sources of wisdom are available to us: self-help groups, books, television, religious organizations, political parties, civic groups, institutions of higher education, and more. Some of these resources might point us in the right direction, while others will not. It is incumbent upon us to understand the world we live in so that we can live wisely and authentically. As Proverbs 4:7 says, "The beginning of wisdom is this: get wisdom." Nicodemus saw in Jesus a unique source of divine wisdom, and regardless of his specific reasons for going, like Marvin K. Mooney, Nicodemus went.

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