Saturday Night Theologian
3 December 2006

Jeremiah 33:14-16

This week Israeli president Ehud Olmert announced yet again his government's intention to find a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Although problems abound in the Middle East--from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan to Iraq to Iran to Syria to Lebanon to Pakistan--the key crisis is the sixty-year old conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Resolving that crisis would not bring and end to all the problems in the Middle East, but it would take much of the wind out of the sails in the other crises. As we start a new church year with the first Sunday of Advent, our reading from the prophet Jeremiah reminds us that hope springs eternal. "In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety." And which days are those? The days in which the righteous Branch from David "shall execute justice and righteousness in the land." There are undoubtedly some Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere whose twisted devotion to what they erroneously perceive as God precludes them from seeking solutions to problems that involve justice and equity. However, the vast majority of people both in the Middle East and in the West truly want a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem, and to other regional problems as well. The key to the solution is the word "justice." Countries or groups that seek only their own interests will find that their heavy-handed approaches hurt themselves as well as others. Only when groups with competing interests work together, talk, and really listen to one another, with the goal of arriving at a mutually acceptable just solution, will peace have a chance in the Middle East. As Western Christians, our role must be to champion the cause of justice for all, especially for those who are suffering the most from the ongoing violence and political oppression in the region. Justice for the Palestinians, as well as for the Israelis, is a worthy goal toward which Christians should recommit themselves in this season in which we anticipate God's miraculous intervention in world affairs.

Psalm 25:1-10

In 1933 Harris Birkeland, a Norwegian biblical scholar, published a book which investigated some of the most common Hebrew words used to describe the poor and humble in the Psalms. He said that the words ani and anaw, the second of which occurs twice in Psalm 25:9, mean someone who is insignificant, poor, lowly, broken-hearted, distressed, oppressed, or deprived of one's right. Another word that might be used is marginalized. The psalmist says that God leads the humble in what is right, or more literally, in justice. Furthermore, God teaches the humble the way of God. Why does the psalmist focus on those who are the least in society? Why not say that God leads the rich and powerful in the ways of justice? Perhaps the psalmist focuses on the humble because he realizes that the rich and powerful have little problem finding advocates for their causes. When the rich are accused of crimes, for example, they are able to hire the best attorneys, and the legal system rarely works against them. The poor, on the other hand, are often at the mercy of unjust, or simply uncaring, people who are cogs in the criminal justice system. Even outside the context of crime and punishment, the poor often face extremely difficult uphill battles just to survive in a world that is tailored for the rich and the middle class. This psalm is a reminder as Advent begins that God cares for the poor and sides with them in their struggles against injustice. If we would be on God's side, we should do the same.

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

Eighteen years ago my wife, daughter, and I spent our first Christmas away from all our other family members. While they were celebrating the holidays in the (relative) cold of a Texas winter, we spent our Christmas under the summer sun of Cape Town. In those pre-Internet days (at the time, the Internet primarily connected universities, government contractors, and large companies to one another--it hadn't yet reached South Africa), communication over thousands of miles was anything but instantaneous or inexpensive, and we could afford about one phone call per month back home, plus letters delivered by the aptly named snail mail. Today I am back in Texas, but my daughter is now several thousand miles away in England. Fortunately, however, communication technology has greatly improved, and we're able to talk to her on the phone (much cheaper than 18 years ago) or via the Web (free!) on a pretty regular basis, not to mention e-mail, IM, etc. Still, talking to someone is not the same as being with them, so we look forward to her coming home for Christmas. In Paul's letter to his friends and children in the faith in Thessalonica, he indicates his joy to hear that they are doing well in their walk with God and his earnest desire to see them again in the near future. Advent is a time of preparation. We get ready for the Christmas holidays, and we look forward to friends and family that we'll see soon, perhaps for the first time in a year, or in many years. We're also reminded at this time of the year that we should prepare ourselves for God's advent in our lives. Just as the Jews two thousand years ago eagerly anticipated the coming of the messiah, so people of faith today anticipate God's next bold move in our own lives, and in the lives of those around us. The expectations of many were fulfilled in Bethlehem two millennia ago, but the birth of Jesus was not the end of God's plan--far from it. God continues to work in people's lives today, and if we have the faith to see it, we can experience and celebrate what God is already doing among us, and we can continue to anticipate with excitement what God will do next.

Luke 21:25-36

One of the themes of the Gospel of Luke is the delay of the Parousia, or Second Coming of Christ. Just as Jesus' earthly followers thought that he would establish his kingdom immediately, so early Christians expected Jesus to return to establish his kingdom in the very near future. When months turned into years and years turned into decades, though, some Christians began to wonder if their expectations were misplaced. Jesus' words to his disciples contain both a promise and a warning. The promise is that the end will come at some point. The warning is that until it comes, the disciples should make sure that they are always prepared. After two thousand years, despite the sometimes sensational claims that "experts" in Bible prophecy make, the end doesn't appear to be particularly imminent, so believers might have a tendency to slack off in our preparations. That would be a mistake, not because the end is actually imminent--it probably isn't--but because there is so much to do while we await the end of the world. Whether the world ends with a miraculous divine intervention, a spectacular collision with a meteor, a mysterious disease that destroys all human life, international nuclear war, or even the distant, yet inevitable, supernova of our sun, the world will sooner or later come to an end as we know it. In the meantime, God calls on every generation of believers to build the kingdom, to simulate God's reign on earth through peace and justice, and to share God's love with all the other inhabitants of the planet. I don't know whether it's true that "this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place"--so many generations have already come and gone--but I do know that this generation is responsible for doing what it can to establish God's kingdom in the world.