Saturday Night Theologian
15 June 2008

Exodus 19:2-8a

In The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins finds himself up a tall pine tree with a wizard and a dozen dwarves, evil wolves howling furiously at the base of the tree, and goblins on the way to either climb or cut down the tree. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the Lord of the Eagles and his companions swoop down from the heavens, grab Bilbo and his friends, and whisk them off to safety. Of course, that's only the beginning of the story (actually, it's the middle). Bilbo and his friends still have many challenges before them, not least of which is confronting a dragon. In today's reading from Exodus, the Israelites have encamped at the foot of Mt. Sinai, after God had borne them "on eagles' wings" through the Sea and the wilderness. It was a time of rejoicing, to be sure. Already they had accomplished much under God's leadership. At the foot of the holy mountain they now awaited guidance for the future, which would come in the form of the Law. If it was a time of rest, that rest was only temporary. As it turned out, God's deliverance of Israel through the Sea was only the first of many great acts of deliverance. The people would face many challenges ahead, and only by remembering where they had been, and how God had led and delivered them, would they have the strength to face the tough days ahead. When we face challenges in life, it's easy to get discouraged. We'd all much rather be borne up on eagles' wings than have to face the wrath of wolves or goblins or enemy armies. Sometimes God does deliver us in miraculous ways from seemingly overwhelming odds. At other times God delivers us through the midst of mighty waters that threaten to wash us away. Either way, when we trust in God, we know that God will always be faithful to stand by us, go before us, and lead us on to the next stage in our life's journey.

Psalm 100 (first published 20 November 2005)

The Rise of Silas Lapham, the best known work of late 19th/early 20th century author William Dean Howells (the "father of realism"), tells the story of the title character, a "self-made man." Lapham rises from nothing and makes a fortune in the paint business, only to overextend himself and end his life where he began, with nothing. Howells, Henry James, Mark Twain, and other American realists wrote about characters who aspired to greatness but who usually succumbed to their own weakness of character or lack of perception. Unlike the earlier romantic authors or the later objectivists (especially Ayn Rand), the realists saw humans as beings of substantial, but limited, potential. They were capable of achievement, but few were capable of sustained success. Despite the popularity of realism for a time in literary circles, it never really caught on in the mind of the general public. The average American wants to believe that he can achieve anything if he puts his mind to it and works hard enough. The fact that the vast majority of people have to settle for something less than their ideal doesn't seem to phase us. We believe we can accomplish anything, we believe we can realize our dreams--we even believe we can win the lottery! That can-do attitude is beneficial when it encourages us to continue striving toward our goals in spite of setbacks, but it is detrimental when it drives us pursue goals that are unrealistic or unattainable. It is even more hazardous when it instills in us a feeling that, when we succeed, we really are self-made men and women. The Masoretic Text of Psalm 100:3 says, in part, "Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and not we ourselves." The psalm probably originally said, "It is he that made us, and we are his," as an alternative Hebrew reading has it. The difference between the two readings is one letter in Hebrew, and the two words are pronounced identically. Since the verse continues, "We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture," the reading "we are his" certainly makes better sense in the context. God is our creator, and because of that, God has first claim on us. We belong to God, and God cares for us, as a shepherd cares for his flock. The standard (kethib) reading of the Masoretic Text may not be the preferred reading of textual critics and translators, but it too has a powerful message for people today. God made us, and not we ourselves. None of us is a self-made individual. Perhaps a better way to put it is this: to the extent that we are self-made, we are in danger of falling apart. However, to the extent that we are God-made, our lives are incorruptible. It is good to set high goals and strive for them, but only if we do so with the knowledge that we belong to God and that every good and perfect gift comes from God. Have you achieved great things in life? Praise God for them. Have you encountered obstacles on your way to success? Ask God to help you overcome them. Have you reached a roadblock in life, and you're unsure which way to turn? Don't feel like a failure because you're unable to achieve all your dreams. God has a dream for you, and God is ready to put you on the road to achieving that dream for your life, if only you will acknowledge that it is God who has made us, and not we ourselves.

Romans 5:1-8 (first published 12 June 2005)

In the 1980s Twilight Zone episode called "Button, Button," a couple in serious financial straits are visited by a man who offers them the deal of a lifetime. He leaves a box with a button on it with them for one day, and he tells them that if they will just push the button, someone they don't know will die, and he will give them $200,000. The couple discusses the offer after the man leaves, and they argue back and forth over the merits and ethics of the offer. Finally they push the button. The stranger appears at their door shortly thereafter with the money and asks for the box back. After the wife gives him the box, she asks what he intends to do with it. "Don't worry," he says, "I'll give it to someone who doesn't know you." In today's reading from Romans, Paul says that although it might be possible to find someone who was willing to die for a righteous person, it's unlikely that anyone could be found who would die for someone who had little redeeming value. But that's exactly what Christ did, and that demonstrates God's love for us, Paul says. "God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us." Jesus' willingness to die for the human race has inspired Christians through the centuries to suffer martyrdom and to die in order to save others. The fact that our society honors those who give their lives to save others shows that the Christian message has made an impact on our society. Unfortunately, that impact hasn't been big enough. If being willing to die to save a stranger is an example of emulating Christ, then being willing to kill a stranger is just the opposite. It is a repudiation of the example of Jesus, and it flies in the face of the Christian message. Somehow, however, many Christians fail to realize that their support for wars, for arms deals with other countries, and for political intrigues to oust properly elected leaders of nations who don't share our ideological bent supports those who drove the nails into the hands and feet of Jesus on the cross. The Roman soldiers who crucified Jesus were killing someone they didn't know, and they didn't care. When we drop a bomb on our enemies, whether they are soldiers or civilians, we are siding with the Romans. We have just passed Memorial Day in the U.S., and Flag Day and Independence Day are quickly approaching. As Christians who are serious about following the example of Christ, we must remind our brothers and sisters that there is a difference between praying for the safety of our loved ones and supporting war and other policies that are contrary to the spirit of Christ. When we pray for our soldiers serving in dangerous places around the world, let's also pray for the inhabitants of those countries in which they are stationed, that God would protect them and their families as well. Let's pray that our leaders will put as much money and effort into making peace as they do into making war. Let's pray that the flow of arms to both our allies and our enemies alike will stop. Most of all, let's pray that God will help our fellow believers see that while dying for strangers is a way of following Jesus' example, killing strangers is not.

Matthew 9:35-10:8, (9-23) (first published 12 June 2005)

The churches I grew up in put a premium on "soul winning," the practice of convincing someone without a church home (or with only a nominal connection to a church) to repent of their sins and accept Christ as savior. One of the passages most often used to encourage people to "evangelize" their friends and neighbors is taken from today's reading: "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest." The question I never heard anybody ask, though, was this: what are the laborers supposed to do? If I had asked, I'm sure someone would have answered, "We're supposed to win souls for Christ." The manner in which this was to be accomplished was also clear: sharing personal testimonies, Bible verses, or evangelistic tracts. Looking at the larger context of the passage, however, I think our evaluation of what the laborers were called to do was incorrect, or at least incomplete. When Jesus sent out laborers, he gave them specific instructions. They were to cast out demons, heal the sick, tell people about the kingdom of God, and raise the dead. In other words, they were to address people's greatest needs: mental and emotional stability, physical health, hopelessness, and fear of death. A theory of evangelism that focuses exclusively on the spoken word might provide hope, but it doesn't meet any of the other real needs that people have (and the list here is hardly exhaustive). If we are to be laborers in God's field, we had better be prepared to do more than just talk. We need to be sensitive to the health needs--both physical and mental--of those around us. We need to be able to help them address their financial or employment needs. We need to provide food and shelter if they need it. God is looking for laborers who are willing to roll up their sleeves and work hard to demonstrate what the kingdom of God is all about. God is looking for workers, not a debating society.