Saturday Night Theologian
23 December 2007

Isaiah 7:10-16 (first published 19 December 2004)

As a nation born out of revolution, Americans historically have had a tendency to root for revolutionary movements that attempt to overthrow dictators or other autocratic systems of government. We celebrated when the Soviet grip on Eastern Europe loosened and disappeared. We applauded the overthrow of apartheid in South Africa. We supported the rise of democracy in Latin America (with some exceptions, but that's a different story). However, for every falling Berlin Wall, there's a Tiananmen Square massacre. For every overthrow of a Ceausescu, there's a brutal repression by a Saddam Hussein of the Shiites and Kurds. To broaden our historical perspective a bit, for every Martin Luther, there's a Jan Hus. Shakespeare's Caesar says, "Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once," but this sentiment is countered by the saying "discretion is the better part of valor." In the ongoing struggle between idealism (revolution) and realism (playing it safe), the historical circumstances dictate which is the more prudent course--unfortunately, usually after the fact. King Ahaz of Judah faced a historical scenario in which he was king of a small client state of the massive Assyrian Empire, when two bordering states proposed a revolt against their overlord. Like other Jews of his day, Ahaz did not like the fact that his nation was subservient to the Assyrians, but what were his options? His neighbors Israel (a.k.a. Ephraim) and Aram (a.k.a. Syria) thought that if they cooperated with one another, they could throw off the Assyrian yoke. They undoubtedly reminded Ahaz of a similar coalition's victory more than a hundred years earlier at the Battle of Qarqar, where a contingency of local states led by King Ahab of Israel turned back the Assyrian army. The Israelite King Pekah may have called on Ahaz to remember the victories that Yahweh had wrought for the nation during the exodus experience and urged him to have faith. After surveying the situation, Ahaz chose another course. He refused to join the anti-Assyrian coalition, whereupon Israel and Aram attacked Judah in an attempt to put a new king on the throne who would join their revolution. It is in this context that Isaiah came to Ahaz with the promise of deliverance, not from Assyria, the larger long-term threat, but from the Israel-Aram coalition, the more immediate threat. Considering the threat to his place on the throne, Ahaz was understandably worried, and he considered the prudence of calling on Assyria itself for assistance in his struggle. Isaiah warned against this course of action, promising that God would deliver Judah without the aid of Assyria. "The Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted." We will consider Matthew's use of this passage in our discussion of today's Gospel reading, but in the eight-century B.C.E. context, the meaning is clear. A pregnant woman (Isaiah's wife, according to chapter 8) will bear a son, and before his second or third birthday both Israel and Aram will be destroyed by the Assyrians. The heart of the promise, and the link to its New Testament application, is the symbolic name that is given to the child: Immanuel, God with us. In the midst of revolution against an oppressive overlord, God is with the people of faith, but God is also with those who choose to endure oppression, believing that the time for revolt has not yet arrived. It is in this latter circumstance that it is possibly the hardest to sense God's presence. Those who are on top of the world believe that God put them there, and idealists who are fighting (literally or metaphorically) for a cause also find it easy to believe that God is on their side in their struggle for justice, but what about those who endure hardship with little hope of even long-term relief? Isaiah's Immanuel message is to a nation in just such a situation. Now is not the time for revolt, the prophet says, and you will have to continue to endure the bonds of Assyria for a long time, but in the midst of it, God is with you. Are you suffering from a chronic medical condition? God is with you. Has a loved one recently died? God is with you. Do you live in a situation of oppression with little immediate hope for relief? God is with you. Revolution is dangerous, exciting, and often exhilarating. It is easy to sense God's presence when you're fighting for a cause you believe in. But for those who have no strength to fight, or those who believe that now is not the time to take a stand, God has a message of hope: I am with you.

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

This week Time magazine named Russian president Vladimir Putin its Person of the Year for 2007. The cover of Time shows a dour-looking Putin staring at the reader, resolute in his determination to rebuild his nation to its former state of greatness in the world. Meanwhile, his American counterpart, George W. Bush, is beginning the last year of his presidency, a period during which American prestige worldwide has diminished steadily, along with the purchasing power of dollar. Both Russia and the U.S. are still great countries, but can they regain their former greatness in the eyes of the rest of the world? Psalm 80 is a prayer for God to restore the former greatness of the northern kingdom of Israel. For two centuries the dominant small nation in the Levant, Israel was swallowed up by a resurgent Assyrian Empire, and Israelites fervently sought God's intervention. "Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved," the psalmist prays three times over the course of the psalm. "Restore our nation to its former greatness!" Any study of history shows that nations rise and fall, and even great empires endure only for a time. The greatest empire in history, the Roman Empire, lasted in one form or another for about 1500 years, though for the last 500 years of so it was an empire in name only. Other great empires and nations--Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, the Ottoman Empire, the Japanese Empire, China, Maya, Aztec, Inca--have had their day in the sun (sometimes more than once), then receded again into the shadows of the latest world power. Will Russia be able to regain its status as a superpower, a claim once held by the Soviet Union? Will the U.S. be able to reverse its losses in the areas of moral and economic leadership? God only knows, but this much is clear: nations rise and fall, and great nations lose their prestige, but God's people in every nation can always rely on the God who transcends international boundaries to care for them, love them, and stand with them through good times and bad.

Romans 1:1-7 (first published 19 December 2004)

When you go for a job interview, especially with a company that you've never worked for before, chances are that one of the first things you'll do is prepare a resume. You'll list your educational background, your work experience, and your references. You'll send it, along with a cover letter explaining why you're well-suited for the job, to your prospective employer. The book of Romans is a bit like Paul's resume and cover letter rolled into one. Although he's not applying for a job with the Roman church, he is introducing himself in what he hopes will be a positive way. One of his long-term plans is to visit the imperial capital, become acquainted with the members of the church there, and use Rome as a springboard to further journeys, even as far as Spain. First, though, he wants to tell the Roman church who he is and what he teaches. In today's reading from Romans, Paul describes himself and his mission. He is an apostle of Jesus Christ, and his mission is to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. That might not sound like a particularly radical notion today, but at the beginning of the Christian movement, when the majority of Christians were Jews, like Jesus and his earliest followers, the notion that the gospel was wide open to Gentile participation was nothing short of revolutionary. We can see how radical the notion of full Gentile inclusion in the church was by reading Paul's own description of his run-in with Peter in Galatians. Even the leader of Jesus' disciples, one of the "pillars of the church," and the one who saw the miracle of Cornelius' acceptance into the kingdom, didn't seem to be too sure about the extent to which Gentiles should be accepted into the church. Should they become Jews first? If something short of a full conversion to Judaism was contemplated, what Jewish customs were nonnegotiable? Circumcision? Kosher dietary restrictions? Observance of the Sabbath? Paul had a different vision for the Gentiles. For Paul, there was no difference between Jew and Gentile; both could come to God through Jesus Christ without qualification. The bottom line is that there was no important distinction between Jews and Gentiles. The word "Gentile" itself reveals a way of thinking that is dangerous but all too common. A Gentile is anyone who isn't a Jew, and the word implies a world divided into Jews and everyone else. The Greeks had a similar division between Greeks and "barbarians" (i.e., anyone who didn't speak their language). Some white people in the West today continue to divide the world into Whites and everyone else. Many Americans see only Americans and foreigners. Christians often divide the world into believers (Christians) and unbelievers (Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, agnostics, etc.). Some Christians even reserve the term "Christian" itself for referring to Christians of their own particular sect, while others (e.g., Catholics or mainstream Protestant groups) are not really Christians. Why do we want to divide the world into us and them? What drives us to see ourselves and those like us as especially loved by God? Is such short-sightedness innate, or do we learn it? How is it that some, like Paul, are able to overcome it, while many others aren't? There are undoubtedly psychological and sociological reasons that could be offered based on group identity and nurture. It also seems to be true that higher levels of education tend to make people more aware of the fact that the world contains a diverse and wonderful variety of human inhabitants. Unfortunately, plenty of educated people continue to divide the world into us and them. From a theological perspective, when believers divide the world into two groups--the in-group and the out-group--they imply that God, too, makes such distinctions. Like Paul, we must reject this point of view. There is no in-group and no out-group, no us and them. There is only humanity, one common mass of people with different appearances, different beliefs, and different customs. God loves us all, and the gospel of Jesus Christ is equally applicable to everyone.

Matthew 1:18-25 (first published 19 December 2004)

An unmarried teenage girl at a former church got pregnant, and, as often happens in such situations, all hell broke loose. Most of it was directed at the girl. Her parents were very upset and disappointed with her, and, because they were leaders in the church, other members in the church were upset at the "witness" that she bore. So egregious was her sin that she was forced to stand in the front of the church and apologize to the church for it. In fact, of course, her sin wasn't egregious so much as it was obvious. Furthermore, because it fell into a special category--sexual sins--it was treated as worse than other categories of sin. I never saw anyone in the church stand up and ask forgiveness for being a gossip, or for failing to love their neighbor, or for lying. Apparently these were considered lesser sins. Come to think of it, I never saw any adults confess before the church their sins of cheating on their spouses, though it undoubtedly happened, nor was there any suggestion that any of these confess their sins publicly. Being found pregnant without being married is a great embarrassment in today's culture, and it was in the Jewish culture of the early Roman Empire as well. When Mary turned up pregnant, Joseph was unsure how to handle the situation. One thing he didn't contemplate, however, was making a public example of her. Why not? He was understandably hurt and upset, but his love and compassion for Mary trumped his anger and embarrassment. Why didn't my church's love and compassion for the teenaged girl win out over a need to punish her? Why is our first reaction often to condemn rather than comfort? Did it not occur to anyone that she needed support and love and advice more than condemnation? In such situations, why is most or all of the indignation directed at the mother-to-be rather than the prospective father? Despite Joseph's kind reaction toward her, Mary must have felt alone and scared. Who would be on her side? Joseph received an answer to her question in a dream: God would be with her. Jesus, the angel said, would save his people from their sins. Salvation doesn't mean a "Get Out of Hell Free" card. Salvation is something much more, beginning with forgiveness of sins and restoration of fellowship with God and other people in the here and now. Mary wasn't looking for a reserved seat in heaven. What she needed was the assurance that someone would care enough about her situation, would care enough about her, to show her love and assist her in her greatest time of need. Joseph came through like a champion. He took Mary into his house and made her his wife, covering the shame that would otherwise attach to an unmarried woman in that community, and offering her his support for the future. Joseph is a hero in this story, but he wouldn't have acted as he did without prompting from God. Sometimes we want to do the right thing and show compassion for people, but we're worried about what others might say. When I think back about the situation involving the teenage girl, I did say something, but I don't think I said enough. I wish I had taken a more forceful stand against her public humiliation. She told me personally that she knew she had sinned and that she was willing to ask for forgiveness from the church, and the church as a whole welcomed her and loved her. It was only a few in power who forced the issue in the first place, and they are the ones with whom I think I might have been able to make a difference had I argued more forcefully. Why didn't I? Maybe I was a little scared, too, about what people would think. Maybe they would think I was condoning premarital sex. Maybe they would accuse me of failing to support church authorities. It shouldn't have mattered--I didn't do all I could have done. We can't relive our lives and make different decisions, but we can learn from our mistakes. One thing I learned from that situation, and from meditating about it for many years, is that God gives us the strength we need to face tough situations. God was with the teenage girl, and she gave birth to a beautiful baby, who was fully accepted and loved by the girl, her parents, and the church. Other girls in a similar situation aren't as fortunate as she turned out to be, but God is still with them, whether they know it or not. It's our job to let them know.