Saturday Night Theologian
8 July 2007

Isaiah 66:10-14

A popular bumper sticker a few years ago said "Pray for the Peace of JERUSALEM." The implication was clear: the fate of the U.S. is closely tied to the fate of Jerusalem, and if Americans will strongly support the state of Israel, God will bless both nations. Does God really love the city of Jerusalem more than any other city on earth? John Hagee thinks so. So do Pat Robertson, Hal Lindsey, and many others. I think it's ridiculous. Of course God loves Jerusalem, but no more than God loves Paris, Baghdad, Tehran, Islamabad, Beijing, Sao Paulo, Addis Ababa, or New York. That's the clear implication of verse that begins, "For God so loved the world...." God does indeed love Jerusalem, but not in the way that dispensationalists suggest. God loves Jerusalem because it is a city full of people who need to feel God's love and concern, whether they are Jews, Muslims, or Christians; whether they are Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, or Palestinians. The prophet speaks to a people recently returned from exile, a people living under the authority of a foreign power. "Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her." As Christians, God calls us to rejoice when Jerusalem prospers and mourn when Jerusalem suffers. God also wants us to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, as well as for justice for all her inhabitants.

Psalm 66:1-9

When the first atomic bombs were exploded in test sites in the American West, observers marveled at the power of the atom. The hydrogen bombs that were tested during the Cold War were more powerful still. There are many today who believe that the safety and security of the West, and particularly of the U.S., depend on building and maintaining the most powerful arsenal of weapons on the planet. The proof of how widespread this belief is is that the U.S. spends more every year on its military might than the total military spending of the rest of the world combined. If military might could guarantee security, we would be the most secure nation on earth, but we're not. According to the Department of Homeland Security Web site, the threat lever to the nation is currently at an elevated (yellow) level, and our airports are at a high (orange) alert level. Since the five color scheme went into effect following 9/11, I can't remember a time when we were ever below yellow, so effectively for six years our alert level for terrorist attacks has been either elevated, high, or severe. Despite our spending on the military and other defense measures, we have very little security. This week in England terrorist doctors and medical personnel were arrested after they tried to set off car bombs. Fortunately the attacks were averted, but very little can prevent determined people from wreaking havoc pretty much anywhere in the world, no matter how much the nation spends on so-called security measures. Just ask the survivors of the Oklahoma City bombing. The psalmist understood that God's power far surpassed the power that even strong individuals or nations possessed. "Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds among mortals." As people of God, we would do well to put more of our trust in God than in expensive, elaborate security systems. Furthermore, as Christians, we should support efforts to follow the example of Jesus in our treatment of others, for the security that will result will far surpass the poor security that costs us hundreds of billion of dollars per year right now. How can following Jesus' example increase our security as a nation? In many ways. For example, Jesus said to do unto others as we would have others do unto us. If we don't want bombs raining down on our cities, chances are people in Afghanistan and Iraq don't, either. For the cost of a few bombs, which kill indiscriminately but are guaranteed to create new enemies, we could rebuild neighborhoods, schools, and roads in the name of friendship between our nations. Jesus also said to love our enemies. This is not a popular sentiment today--has it ever been popular?--but making the attempt to listen to our enemies' complaints rather than assume we know what's best for our enemies' countries might work wonders. No, complex problems don't always have simple solutions, particularly when long histories of violence and mistrust exist, but we have to start somewhere. Reliance on violence, weapons systems, and elaborate security measures hasn't worked. Isn't it time we tried something that most in our nation claim they believe in and listen to God?

Galatians 6:(1-6), 7-16

In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, a series of short accounts of the words and wisdom of Christians (both men and women, despite the title) from ancient times who lived in the deserts of Egypt and Syria, this story is recorded. A priest in a church publicly turned a young man out because of his sins. Abba Bessarion, who happened to be in the church that day, got up and left along with the young man, saying, "I too am a sinner." It's common in today's world, as in the ancient world, to point out the sins and shortcomings of others to our friends and acquaintances. For some reason, listing the weaknesses of others makes us feel better about ourselves, at least in the short run, presumably because we think we look good by comparison. But do we really? Maybe we don't have the specific problem that the person we're criticizing has, but we do have our own problems. In what way are we any better? There are times when it is important to speak prophetically and powerfully against sin, injustice, and oppression, particularly to those in power, but it's just as important to look past the shortcomings of our peers when they are hurting no one else. Paul says to the churches of Galatia, "My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ." When we remember that we all come from dust and that we will all return to dust, the petty sins of others just don't seem to matter that much. It is incumbent upon us to forgive others, and more than that, to support them in any way we can, because, as the song says, from time to time, we all need someone to lean on.

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Growing up, the sermons I always heard preached on this passage were sermons about evangelism, as we defined it. "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest." Clearly, we were told, what Jesus was talking about here was that we should all be evangelists. And what was an evangelist? Someone who told others about Jesus with the purpose of converting them, that is, of causing them to come to believe the same things about God as we did. A closer look at this passage, however, reveals a different idea. Yes, Jesus told the seventy to tell others that the kingdom of God had come near, but what exactly does that mean? Note that Jesus also tells them to heal the sick, one of the signs that God was at work in the vicinity. Jesus' idea of evangelism had little or nothing to do with getting people to believe the right things about him. Instead, evangelism was all about letting people, especially the poor, know that God loved them and cared about their problems. Healing their illnesses was a concrete way of showing God's love. I've been on many mission trips over the years, but the ones I got the most out of were those where I felt like we had helped people in the name of God in ways that were meaningful. Revival services and block parties and Vacation Bible Schools are well and good, and there's no doubt that lives can be changed through such tools. However, it's been my experience that the majority of people who participate in these activities return to their normal lives the following week without a lot of changes or improvements. On the other hand, when I've been involved in putting a cement floor on top of a dirt floor, I know that those who live in the house will be blessed from that time forward. When I've installed tin chimneys in houses that previously had none, I know that the health of everyone living in the house will improve, and their life expectancy will increase. I know that building a kindergarten in a small village will increase the likelihood that dozens of children will get a good education and thus improve life for themselves, their families, and maybe even their whole village. And if we do these things in Jesus' name, many people will realize that God's kingdom has come near.