Saturday Night Theologian
16 December 2007

Isaiah 35:1-10 (first published 12 December 2004)

As we begin the third week of Advent, many churches will light the pink candle of joy during worship. The Christmas season is a joyous time for many people. There are parties, colorful lights, Christmas carols, Christmas bonuses, holidays, family times, feasts, presents, and even snow in some parts of the world (or so I'm told--in the southern hemisphere they have barbecues, or braais in South Africa). For those of us blessed with good health, good jobs, and stable family situations, life is indeed joyous, but what is life like for those who are not so fortunate? Today's reading from the prophet Isaiah speaks to a situation of exile from one's homeland and complete political powerlessness. The prophet is not despondent, depressed, or even downbeat. Amazingly, he proclaims a message of joy: "The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing." What does he know that the people in exile don't? Some might accuse him of a failure to grasp the reality of the situation. However, a careful reading of the chapter demonstrates a clear understanding of what's going on. The people are in exile, but redemption is coming, says the prophet. Others might say that he is a Pollyanna. I have to admit that I've never understood why being a Pollyanna is considered a negative. It's true that there are people who seem oblivious to suffering, particularly the suffering of others, and that's not a good thing, but Pollyanna was neither clueless nor heartless. My exposure to the story of Pollyanna comes from the Haley Mills movie version, not the book (and there's now a new TV version available), and in the movie, Pollyanna was certainly aware of the shortcomings and struggles of others. She just believed that joy was appropriate no matter the situation. The prophet has faith that exile is not the end of the story for his people. He sees beyond the current suffering to a time of renewal, when the oppressed will sing as they travel the road back to their ancestral homeland. While many of us celebrate the Christmas season this year with joy, we need to be on the lookout for those around us who are suffering or sad. Maybe this time of year reminds them of loved ones who are no longer with them. Maybe they are facing personal crises of health, finances, or relationships. When we run across these people, we should certainly be sensitive to their situations, but we should rejoice just the same. The sorrow we face in this life is never the final word, for redemption and joy are around the corner. If people look at you and wonder why you're so happy, if they ask, "What do you know that I don't?" you can answer, "I know that the suffering that we face today pales in comparison with the joy that we'll see tomorrow, when God redeems the people of faith."

Psalm 146:5-10

I don't know for sure what first got me interested in the Ludwig van Beethoven. It might have been the music itself, when I began playing his piano sonatinas and sonatas, first in simplified versions and then in their original forms. On the other hand, my interest might have been generated by my discovery of Peanuts cartoons, in which Beethoven was Schroeder's favorite musician. That's certainly the place that I learned the date of Beethoven's birthday: December 16, 1770. It's entirely appropriate that Beethoven's birthday this year falls on the third Sunday of Advent, the day on which we light the candle of joy. It's debatable whether Beethoven himself was a bastion of joy. The rather dour drawings that contemporaries often made of him reflect a stern countenance, and selected anecdotes of his life suggest that he was a serious man. At any rate, that's the stereotypical picture of Beethoven. However, there are other pictures of Beethoven that emerge when one digs a little deeper. He was a man of the people, a strong supporter of the democracy movements of his day, and thus at first a defender and later a harsh critic of Napoleon, who moved in his mind from a champion of the people to a tyrannical dictator, little different from the monarchs he replaced. He was a man whose passions were, at times, consumed by his love for a woman he called his "immortal beloved," the title of a fairly recent movie about his life. Most importantly for our purposes today, he was the man who wrote the music and put Schiller's poem "Ode to Joy" to music. And what music it was! The final movement of his Ninth Symphony is the zenith of musical works dealing with the subject of joy, and it is one of the most memorable and moving choral works ever written. Whatever else he was, Beethoven was a person who seems to have understood the intense joy that life in this world can bring. Remarkably, he wrote his Ninth Symphony at a time when he had become entirely deaf, the beautiful melodies and haunting harmonies of the symphony playing entirely inside his head. The psalmist calls on God's people to rejoice because of the majesty of creation, God's commitment to uphold justice, and God's compassion toward those in need. Sometimes the world seems to give us little reason for joy, at least on the surface. Pollution and global warming mar the good planet that God created. Supposed champions of justice sometimes let their supporters down, as Napoleon disappointed Beethoven. The needy persist in the world, despite the best intentions of many, because of the greed and selfishness of others. Yet when we examine life closely, we find that there is reason for joy as well. Nations are coming together as never before to combat climate change, despite the obstreperous behavior of the world's two largest greenhouse gas emitters. Steps toward lessening injustice sometimes occur, as when the U.S. sentencing commission this week moved to make the penalties for abuse of crack cocaine and powder cocaine more equitable (the existing law disproportionately penalized African Americans), and the Christmas season abounds with examples of people who share their love and resources with the poor. On a smaller scale, we can all find reasons to rejoice in our circumstances, or sometimes in spite of our circumstances, as well. Maybe we can't always see the beauty of creation, and maybe we can't always hear the chords of harmonious grandeur, but, like Beethoven, our physical deafness doesn't prevent us from "hearing" the strains of beautiful music inside our heads, and responding in joy.

James 5:7-10 (first published 12 December 2004)

When I was in Honduras earlier this year I stopped to talk to a man sitting on the sidewalk selling coins. He had coins from Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Argentina, and other Latin American countries, all of which he was willing to let go for a song (a somewhat overpriced song). However, when he showed me his prize piece, he wouldn't sell it for less than about five dollars, an amount far above its actual purchasing value. It was a small silver Cuban coin with the visage of Che Guevara on the front, and he considered it especially valuable. Or maybe he just knew that Che is currently in vogue in the West. Several new biographies have come out in recent years, and his autobiographical journal of early manhood, The Motorcycle Diaries, is selling like hotcakes, in part because of a new movie with the same title. Che Guevara was a native of Argentina, but he became famous for his role as Fidel Castro's right-hand man during the Cuban Revolution. Che saw injustice in his world, and he decided to act. He was not a patient man, and his impetuosity ended up costing him his life when he tried to export the Cuban Revolution to Bolivia. James speaks to a people who are similarly suffering at the hands of rich, unjust landowners. After urging the latter to repent, he encourages the oppressed to be patient and await the intervention of the Lord, which he assumes will be in the near future. "Patience is a virtue" the adage says, but "strike while the iron is hot" is a saying that encourages people to act. How do we know when to act and when to exercise patience? In the context of the epistle of James, it is clear that the Christian community expected the imminent return of Christ, so James undoubtedly considered his advice concerning patience to be sound in view of the coming Parousia. He was undoubtedly aware of the slave revolt led by Spartacus some 150 years earlier, and he knew its disastrous resolution (at least in the short term). He wouldn't want the band of Christians to whom he was writing to engage in a foolish, futile attempt to right the many wrongs that they faced, especially since literal redemption was right around the corner. When Christ didn't return during that generation, how did the Christian community react? How should people who are facing injustice today react? It turns out that patience and action are not mutually exclusive, as long as action does not take the form of violence. The world has seen several examples of revolutions that were characterized by little or no violence on the part of the revolutionaries: Gandhi's movement for the independence of India, the American Civil Rights movement, the Velvet Revolution in Eastern Europe, and the overthrow of apartheid in South Africa, to name just a few of the more prominent ones. The recent protests in Ukraine demanding new, fair elections is another example. Patience doesn't mean sitting around doing nothing, and Christians who want a world characterized by justice and peace will achieve nothing by mere wishful thinking. Now is the time to act. The Internet has given us the ability to communicate with likeminded people around the world, and it has made it possible to organize in ways that were never before possible. For the first time in years, the Democratic party in the U.S. raised more money in the 2004 election cycle than the Republicans, and they did it primarily by means of small donations solicited over the Web. Their candidate didn't win, but it is entirely possible that the groundwork was laid for major positive changes in the not too distant future. It's not just political parties that have the opportunity to organize for change by means of the Web. Environmental groups, civil rights groups, religious liberty groups, peace groups, anti-death penalty groups, and many others are all beginning to communicate with one another and take action together via the Internet. Because of the Net, likeminded people who live in the same city are able to meet face to face to discuss issues of common interest. People are able to solicit signatures on petitions that deal with matters of extreme urgency. It's a whole new world of activism. Yes, we need to be patient, and we certainly need to be circumspect in the actions that we do take--we must shun violence in order to maintain our Christian witness--but we don't need to just sit on our hands. Note what James says: "The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains." There is a time for patience and quiet contemplation of the situation, but there is also a time for action, when the rains come. It looks cloudy outside. . . .

Matthew 11:2-11 (first published 12 December 2004)

When U.S. Treasury agents want to learn to identify counterfeit $100 bills, they spend their time looking at legitimate currency. They take $100 bills and study them carefully, looking at them with magnifying glasses, finding the magnetic strips that are in the new bills, looking for the watermarks, checking the color of the ink, observing what happens when the bill is marked with a marker. There's only one true $100 bill, all the rest are counterfeits. Why don't they bother studying the different types of counterfeits? Because they're so familiar with the real thing, they know it when they see it. John the Baptist was in prison, facing the end of his ministry as well as the end of his life. He had devoted himself to preaching a message of repentance, and he had had great success. He had told his followers to be on the lookout for one who would be greater than he was. He had baptized Jesus and had witnessed a miraculous event, as though God were speaking from a cloud. Surely Jesus was the long-awaited messiah. But now he wasn't so sure. Jesus' message was somewhat different from his, less fiery and more irenic, less prophetic and more didactic. His lifestyle was different, too. Whereas John led a Spartan life in the wilderness, a latter-day Elijah, Jesus ate and drank--wine!--and he hobnobbed with tax collectors and other people of questionable character. It was even rumored that prostitutes were among his followers. Discouraged that the messiah had not yet made himself known, John sent his disciples to ask Jesus point blank, "Are you the messiah?" Jesus' response is both humorous and poignant. Rather than answering the question directly, he invited John's disciples to spend time with him. Afterwards he told them, "Go and tell John what you are hearing and seeing: the blind are receiving their sight, the lame are walking, the lepers are being cleansed, the deaf are hearing, the dead are being raised, and the poor are having the good news preached to them" (I've translated all these phrases as continual present tenses, as the Greek allows and as the context requires). Jesus' response is humorous, because he suggests that if the blind can see and the deaf can hear, surely John's disciples ought to be able to "see and hear," that is, to discern the truth of who Jesus is. His response is poignant, because it provides John with a sense of accomplishment and closure to his ministry. The messiah he had announced had arrived, so his work was complete. John wondered whether Jesus was the messiah, and Jesus answered, in effect, "If you'll observe what I'm doing, you'll get your answer." Or, "You'll know it when you see it." Many in the world today are looking for the messiah, or a messenger from God, who has a message of hope in a troubled world. There are lots of people out there who are saying, "Look at me! Pick me! Follow my religion! Join my church!" Some churches even see themselves as "seeker-friendly" churches, purposely designed for those who are seeking God, or truth, or meaning in life. These churches have the right idea, for all churches should be seeker-friendly. The question is, what message do they offer to seekers? Some churches offer a friendly atmosphere, where people are welcomed into a family of faith. Other churches offer a well-defined set of doctrines, hoping to attract people who are seeking intellectual rigor in their lives. A welcoming atmosphere and a feeling of family is good. So is a church that offers intellectual challenges (but not one that offers only one set of "right" beliefs for almost every issue). However, neither of these responses to seekers is sufficient. Those who are seeking meaning in their lives need to see a church that is actually involved in direct ministry to the poor, the blind, the deaf, the lame, the oppressed, the refugees, the illegal immigrants. Seekers don't always know exactly what they're seeking, but they will know it when they see it. Our churches should be places where seekers see the people of God at work and are encouraged to join that work.