Saturday Night Theologian
26 August 2007

Isaiah 58:9b-14

When Americans hear that a Muslim extremist somewhere in the Middle East has driven a car laden with explosives into a crowded marketplace and detonated it, we are shocked and amazed that someone could claim to commit such a brazen act of destruction in the name of God, and we're right to do so. God is not the author of violence, does not advocate murder, and does not condone acts of wanton destruction. All who claim devotion to God through such acts prove by their actions that they are really followers of a false god. It's easy to recognize the illegitimacy of such devotion to God in people whose beliefs differ from ours, but it's not always so easy to recognize those aspects of our own dominant culture, peopled by those who claim allegiance to Christianity, that are contrary to the will of God. We live in a land in which devotion to God is often equated with patriotism, or conservatism, or even outright xenophobia, racism, and sexism. Today's reading from Isaiah can be an eye-opener for those whose idiosyncratic version of Christianity has led them far afield from what God expects from people of faith. "If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted," God will bless. There's nothing here about rounding up all the undocumented people, who came to this country to escape hunger and affliction, and sending them back to Mexico, Haiti, Liberia, China, or whatever their country of origin. There's nothing in this passage about diverting tax dollars from programs to combat rural poverty or educate inner-city preschoolers so that we can wage war on a country whose oil we covet. There's nothing in the passage about spending priorities that benefit big business while condemning the poor to die of treatable conditions because they can't afford medical care. It's time for Christians to turn a critical eye inward, on ourselves and on our own nation, and ask whether we are fulfilling the most basic requirements of God. If we fail to make the necessary changes in our national behavior, we may find that we match the description that the prophet used to describe his own nation, earlier in the same chapter: "Day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness" (Isa 58:2).

Psalm 103:1-8

One version of an evangelism program that I'm familiar with has people ask their neighbors, "If you were to die tonight, where would you spend eternity?" The correct answer is "With God in heaven." If the person says anything like, "I don't know," or "I hope I will go to heaven," that's a clue that the person answering the question hasn't yet fully bought into the questioner's version of theology. According to the theology that informs this sort of evangelism, we can attain absolute certainty about our eternal status here in this life. We can rejoice now because we know that we have been saved from the penalty of hell and will spend the afterlife in heaven. What if there were no certainty of heaven? What if there were not even any possibility of heaven? Would this sort of theology sustain us? Does our own theology, whatever it is, give us the strength to live joyous lives? The psalmist had a worldview that gave little thought to the afterlife. In fact, the common view of the afterlife in that time was rather bleak. The fate of all, good and bad alike, was at best a shadowy existence in the underworld, not a place of torment, but not a place of joy, either. Despite this view of the afterlife, however, the psalmist urges people to rejoice. "Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me!" Why? Because God forgives sin, heals diseases, and delivers the faithful from death time and again. Yes, eventually all will succumb to the common fate of humankind, but that's all the more reason to rejoice now. The life of joy and praise that the psalmist advocates is based not on an assurance of a glorious afterlife but on the conviction that life in the here and now can be something special. If our theology leads us to focus on the afterlife rather than on the present life, it is inadequate. If we so anticipate the glories of heaven that we overlook the glories of God's good creation, we are missing something tremendous. Life can be difficult, and sorrow will come our way, but there's incredible beauty and joy here as well, in this life, if we will just learn to see it.

Hebrews 12:18-29 (first published 22 August 2004)

For decades the U.S. Forest Service had firefighters on standby to fight recurring summer forest fires. A fire would start, perhaps caused by a lightning strike or by an unattended campfire, and firefighters would be called in to squelch the blaze. Over the years, however, Forest Service officials noticed that the fires got worse and worse, and eventually there were too many fires of large magnitude to handle properly, the results of which were serious property damage and often loss of life. Only in the past few years have resource managers realized that not all fires are bad. In fact, some fires are essential to the health of forests. Fires clear away the underbrush and allow certain types of seeds to germinate. They also rid forests of dead trees, clearing space for new growth. The author of Hebrews describes God as "a consuming fire." That's not necessarily the way we like to think of God. We'd rather think of God as a loving parent, a strong rock, or a shelter in a time of storm than a consuming fire, unless we're calling on God to consume our enemies! We don't want the scorching heat of God's fire to get too close to us. Yet, like the overgrown forest, we sometimes require God's cleansing fire in our lives. What habits have you developed over the past few years that are detrimental to your spiritual growth? Do you spend your time in ways that are ultimately counterproductive to your mission in life? Is your faith wavering from lack of use? There are many reasons why we might need God's fire to blaze through our lives from time to time. The hymn writer asks God to send the Pentecostal fire on the people of God, as well as on unbelievers. Evangelistic revival meetings are far less common today than in past days, and that's not necessarily a bad thing, since many of those I personally witnessed focused too much on emotion and guilt and not enough on real change in people's lives, believers as well as unbelievers. However, even if we set aside evangelistic revival meetings, we shouldn't set aside the idea of regular repentance and divine cleansing, because we all need it. Some Christian groups, such as the Catholics with their sacrament of penance, integrate confession and repentance into the fabric of the Christian life in ways that keep the need for God's cleansing ever at the forefront of people's minds. Others weave the need for confession and cleansing into the liturgy of the church, and still others have times of special emphasis on repentance. All of these ecclesiastical attempts to remind believers of the importance of confession and cleansing are good, but none is sufficient in and of itself. As individuals, we must each recognize the need for cleansing and must willingly submit ourselves to the divine fire on a regular basis. Only by doing so will we continue to be effective in our Christian lives.

Luke 13:10-17 (first published 22 August 2004)

God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life!
There are many, many images of the devastation and human suffering that the people of Iraq are suffering because of the war, and in comparison to a lot of them, this one is very reserved. Yet it captures the sense of loss, the feeling of hopelessness, and, one can imagine, the anger and frustration of being in a such a terrible situation. The caption on the picture is an ironic recognition of the fact that wars like the one in Iraq threaten to mute the gospel message almost entirely. WHAT YOU DO SPEAKS SO LOUDLY that I can't hear what you say. In our gospel reading for today, Jesus encounters a woman who has suffered a crippling illness for eighteen years. Jesus has compassion on her and heals her, only to be reprimanded indirectly by the religious authorities. "Don't come for healing on the Sabbath," they said. "Come back another day." Jesus reveals the hypocrisy of their statements: they were more concerned for rules and regulations than they were about real people with real problems. Too many religious leaders supported the unwarranted invasion of Iraq, and too many continue to support the continued atrocities and missteps that America and Britain make. The Iraqi people suffered for twenty-six years under Saddam Hussein, but rather than counsel peace, these leaders advocate the affliction of even more hardship and, in many cases, even worse suffering. In this way, they are similar to the religious leaders who sent the suffering back to their homes to suffer some more. Recent political commercials have featured the Iraqi Olympic soccer/football team, claiming that because of the war on Iraq, the country is free to field a team. On the contrary, according to Ahmed Manajid, Iraqi midfielder on the Olympic team, the war on Iraq has made the situation much more difficult for the players and their families (some of whom have been killed by coalition forces). If he weren't playing soccer, he says, he would join the resistance against American and British forces. When we see suffering, how do we react? Do we berate those who are suffering and inflict further pain and degradation on them, like too many political and religious leaders of both the past and the present? Or do we follow the example of Jesus and offer hope and healing? God does love us and have a wonderful plan for our lives. Are we getting that message across to the people of Iraq?