Saturday Night Theologian
22 October 2006

Isaiah 53:4-12

All Saints Day, which is observed on November 1 by Roman Catholics and some Protestant Christians, is a day set aside to remember Christian saints, those people of God whose lives have been extraordinarily dedicated to serving God in a variety of ways, including ministry to those in need, contemplative writing, exhortation, teaching, evangelism, and more. This day is distinct from days set aside to remember individual saints, because it is more inclusive. Roman Catholics and others have lists of people who have been recognized officially by the church as saints, but all traditions recognize the fact that many unknown saints have lived their lives in relative obscurity, perhaps only influencing a handful of people, yet living lives devoted to both God and their fellow human beings. Many people identified as saints took their witness to God to the ultimate extreme of being killed for their faith. These people are known as martyrs, a word that derives from the Greek word for "witness." Our reading today from Isaiah is one of the most famous passages in the book, because of its association with the life of Jesus by the early church, but it is also one of the most enigmatic. The church has recognized in this passage a description of the suffering and redemptive death of Christ, but it apparently referred to someone entirely different when it was first written. Who was this person, this servant of God, who was despised and rejected, oppressed and afflicted, who was ultimately led like a lamb to the slaughter? Why did the author of this servant song see in his death healing for his nation? All we know about this unknown saint is that he did his best to speak for God, in the midst of steady opposition, and in the end he paid the ultimate price for his witness. There are many in recent times who have stood for justice and become martyrs for God: Oscar Romero, Rachel Corrie, and Martin Luther King, Jr., to name a few prominent people. How many more, though, have suffered for their testimonies, losing their lives in Darfur, in Iraq, in Israel, in Palestine, in Afghanistan, or in the streets of Chicago or Houston? How many others have not lost their lives but poured out their lives for years by serving others and showing them God's love? The world abounds with saints who are largely unknown, who seek no recognition and probably won't get any. God calls all of us to lead lives that are a blessing to others, even if they be in obscurity. Are we living the lives of saints?

Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c

In 1574, during one of the many wars of religion that swept Europe in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, Spanish troops laid siege to the city of Leiden in the Netherlands, because the inhabitants of the Netherlands had rebelled against the King of Spain. In desperation, city leaders ordered that the dikes that protected the region from the sea be opened, and soon the low-lying areas around the city were flooded. When rains added to the floods, the Spanish army withdrew, and the Siege of Leiden was lifted. The city was delivered, but the surrounding farm and pastureland was ruined for many years. The psalmist speaks to God of the primeval waters, "You set a boundary that they may not pass, so that they might not again cover the earth." Last year at this time we were experiencing record high temperatures as a side-effect of Hurricane Rita. This past August the area recorded the highest average monthly temperature ever. And it's not just here in South Texas. From ice-free zones at the North Pole, to melting ice shelves in the Antarctic, to melting permafrost, to the pole-ward march of many different temperate species, to the migration of tropical diseases into traditionally subtropical climes, the earth is getting hotter. Global warming is a reality that even the president can no longer deny (though he can still ignore it). The boundaries that the psalmist says God set for the waters are retreating year by year, so that by the end of the century the Florida Everglades, various island nations, and many coastal cities may be under water, unless, like Leiden, they start building dikes--hopefully dikes that are sturdier than the levees that were built to keep the waters out of New Orleans. Psalm 104 praises God for God's wonderful world, and it is truly a world that is magnificent in its beauty and diversity of life. It is a world entrusted to humans, and we're not doing a very good job of managing it. From global warming caused in large part by humans burning fossil fuels, to overpopulation (the U.S. population reached 300 million this week), to habitat destruction, to species extinction at an unprecedented rate, evidence suggests that the earth is suffering at our hands. It is time for people of faith to say "enough is enough" and demand that our leaders protect our planet. The earth is a precious gift from God. We cannot squander it.

Hebrews 5:1-10

"It was easy for Jesus to resist temptation, since he was God." This is a common statement that people make regarding Jesus' living a sinless life. "The God that the Muslims worship isn't the same as the Christian God, Jesus Christ." This comment from a recent letter to the editor of a local denominational paper also reflects a common belief among Christians. If people would bother to read the Bible, they would find a different story. The author to the Hebrews describes a Jesus who was very human in his struggles with sin and suffering. "In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him." Nowhere does the author say that Jesus was free from temptation or sin because he was divine. In fact, he says just the opposite. Jesus' resistance to sin was the result of his pious, prayerful life. As a very real human being, Jesus was perfected by his suffering, and for this reason, God designated him a "high priest according to the order of Melchizedek," that is, the ideal intercessor for weak, sinful humanity. These statements are impossible to reconcile with the facile description of Jesus as God, as though that were all that needed to be said. Any theory of Jesus' divinity must take into account the human nature that the Bible clearly indicates that Jesus had. Early Christian scholars such as Origen and Augustine understood that Jesus must be seen as fully human, and they struggled to craft a theology of the Trinity that took Jesus' humanity fully into account. The church, in turn, declared heretical those views of Jesus that reduced his humanity (or his divinity) below 100%. Systematic theology aside, I personally find the notion that Jesus was perfected through suffering inspirational, because it gives meaning to an experience that is common to almost everyone in the world at some time in life. Just as Jesus learned obedience through suffering, so we too can learn to obey and trust God in the midst of personal difficulties and even tragedies, and we can encourage others to seek God in the midst of their struggles as well.

Mark 10:35-45

Some of the greatest nonfiction stories in print are accounts of journeys that people make, either alone or with others, from one place to another. Jack Kerouac's On the Road chronicles his experiences traveling with his friends in a search for meaning (with a focus on their investigation of drugs, poetry, jazz, and sex). John Steinbeck's Travels with Charlie are a lighter travelogue, describing his journeys around the U.S. with his dog. Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has little to do with either Zen or motorcycles, as the author himself notes, but it does describe a cross-country trip with his son and the philosophical insights he garnered while traveling. The Motorcycle Diaries is based on Che Guevara's journal entries about a journey around South America as a young medical student, mostly by motorcycle but sometimes on foot, learning about the world. Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods describes his adventures walking the Appalachian Trail, the people he met, and the animals he saw and sometimes tried to avoid. People learn when they travel, and they often come in contact with people who learn from them as well. Mark 10 describes the journey that Jesus made with his disciples from Galilee, where the bulk of his public ministry occurred, to Jerusalem, where he was preparing to spend his last week on earth. Knowing what he knew, as the Gospel of Mark describes it, what would Jesus do during that final journey of his life? Pretty much the same thing he did the rest of his life, with one exception. He debated theology with his opponents, blessed children, gave career advice to a rich young man, warned of the allure of wealth, mediated a dispute among his followers, and healed a blind man. Par for the course. What was the exception? Jesus is not given to making bold claims about himself in Mark, and even as he approaches the city in which he will die, he does not proclaim his own glory. On the contrary, he leaves his disciples with a saying that can serve as their model for the rest of their lives. "The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many." Rather than reminding the disciples that he was the Messiah, a claim they didn't really understand anyway, Jesus told them about his raison d'être, his reason for being. Jesus was more concerned with serving others than with being recognized as a great man (remember the "messianic secret"), and he wanted his followers to be as well. It's a natural human tendency to crave recognition for our accomplishments, and a measure of recognition is not a bad thing, particularly if it serves to challenge or inspire others, but it is the service itself that is most meaningful.