Saturday Night Theologian
30 November 2008

Isaiah 64:1-9

The economic crisis facing Americans, and most of the world as well, has thrown the recent election of Barack Obama into sharp focus. Obama has already put together his economic team, and reports indicate that he will fill out his cabinet in its entirety by the end of December. If he is moving at record pace to prepare his administration to take over on January 20, it is because so much weight already rests on his shoulders. People around the world have incredibly high expectations of him. In a way, that's good, because it means that people will be more willing to follow his leadership, to try new things, to work together in a nonpartisan way. However, the incredibly high expectations also have a down side. Obama will inevitably falter along the way, as all leaders do, even the greatest, and when he does, some may lose heart. As Christians, regardless of whom we supported in the presidential race, we are reminded that it's good to offer support to those who serve their country and are eager to do their best, but our ultimate confidence can never rest on an individual, a political party, or a movement. Only God can "tear open the heavens and come down," as the prophet fervently prays. If ever our nation and our world needed to sense God's presence, it is now. In addition to the economic furor that is putting so many out of work and endangering the lives and livelihoods of so many, many other challenges face us, some of them daunting. The terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India this week remind us that there is true evil in the world and that it often masks itself with the veil of religion--and not just Islam, but Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and other religions, too. The ongoing wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Congo, and the trouble brewing in Pakistan and in many other places around the globe demonstrate the persistent evil of war. Climate change threatens both humans and all of nature. Continued population growth puts more strains on the world's food supply. The threat of AIDS, malaria, SARS, and new strains of bird flu--not to mention whatever new diseases are just around the corner--threaten world health. No single individual, not even a single generation, can effectively confront all these challenges, but Christians can draw strength from the knowledge that God is poised on the edge of eternity, ready to tear open the heavens and come down. Advent is the signal of God's radically innovative intervention in the world. May we see God begin a new work in us and in our world this Advent season!

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 (first published 27 November 2005)

Recent advances in cloning technology, coupled with new techniques for extracting DNA from specimens thousands or even millions of years old, may one day call into question the permanency of extinction, as least in the case of some species. We probably won't be seeing quaggas, dodos, passenger pigeons, thylacines, or other recently exterminated animals in zoos or in the wild anytime soon, however, and it is very unlikely that we'll ever see mastodons, giant ground sloths, or brachiosauruses. One of the main problems is that DNA degrades over time, even when it is stored in circumstances that are most favorable for preservation. I hope some day to see a living dodo or quagga, but if scientists are able to reproduce them, they'll just be the exception that proves the rule: extinction is forever. When the northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians in 722 B.C.E., faithful worshipers of Yahweh asked themselves whether the nation could endure. As years gave way to decades, lasting more than a century, the descendants of those who remained behind in Israel despaired of ever seeing their relatives who had been taken into exile. Furthermore, the likelihood of ever being reconstituted as a state grew ever more remote, until finally the hope died, and the Northern Kingdom really did become extinct. That's not to say that many descendants of the northern tribes didn't survive in the land. Still others survived by fleeing south to Judah, taking along their history, their songs, their theology, and their hopes. Psalm 80 is a psalm that was probably written about the time of Israel's fall to the Assyrians. The psalmist's references to the nation as Israel and Joseph and to the tribes of Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh clearly indicate the northern origin of this psalm, one of a few such psalms preserved in the Psalter. The cry of the psalmist is poignant: "Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved." This refrain is repeated three times in the psalm, each time with a slightly more elaborate attribution to God. Assuming that many of the references to "God" originally said "Yahweh" (as is true of the other psalms in the "Elohistic Psalter," Psalms 42-83), the progression is as follows: "Yahweh" (v. 3), "Yahweh of hosts" (v. 7), "Yahweh God of hosts" (v. 19). The progression in titles may have been introduced for purely stylistic reasons, or it may indicate an increasingly desperate tone in the psalmist's plea, particularly as the final refrain is delayed by so much intervening material. The psalm's final cry is for God to recognize the vine that God transplanted from Egypt and for God to have special regard for "the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself." "The one at your right hand" is undoubtedly a reference to the king (cf. Psalm 110:1), but it is also a play on the name Benjamin, which means "the son of the right hand." Perhaps this reference is a wistful reminder of Saul, Israel's first king, who was regarded with much greater affection in the north than in the south. If God will only restore the nation, the psalmist says, "Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name." This is the same promise that we make God today: give us life, and we will call on your name. We don't always live up to our promise, not by a long shot, but it's good to remember that we have made the promise. Advent is the commencement of the church year, a time of new beginnings, new promises, new commitments to God and to our fellow human beings. Let's commit ourselves to lives of calling on God's name, of speaking God's name, and especially of living God's name, not waiting until calamity strikes and we find ourselves, our nation, and our way of life on the verge of extinction.

1 Corinthians 1:3-9 (first published 27 November 2005)

I've belonged to several different churches over the years, and I'm familiar with many others. Each church has a different set of talents and gifts, and each is involved in a different set of ministries. Interestingly, the churches that have the most potential to draw on are not necessarily the ones that have the largest number and variety of ministries. I've seen small churches that reached out to their communities in many different ways, and I've seen large churches that did very little to reach their communities. I've seen churches whose ministry portfolio was varied and healthy, and I've seen churches whose ministry focus was quite narrow and, to my mind, unhealthy. When Paul writes to the church in Corinth, he tells them that they are not lacking in any spiritual gift. Later in the letter he discusses various spiritual gifts and their use and abuse. Some people take Paul's list of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians--sometimes augmented by similar lists in Romans and Ephesians--as exhaustive, but I think the lists were meant to be representative rather than exhaustive. For example, the gift of using music in ministry is not mentioned in any of them, and I have definitely known people who used music to minister to others. The same goes for gifts that involve drama and other artistic expressions, construction, and counseling, just to name a few. When Paul says that the Corinthian church is not lacking any spiritual gifts, I think what he means is that they have sufficient quantity and variety to minister effectively in their city. I think the same can be said of every church that wants to make a difference in their community and in the world as a whole. God will bring the people and the gifts to any church that is willing to put the gospel into practice. Too many churches use lack of financial resources as an excuse not to do ministry, but many ministries require little or no money. I was once a member of a church that had the opportunity to start a new ministry, but they had just paid off their mortgage, and a majority of members were unwilling to commit themselves financially to a new venture. Perhaps not surprisingly, the church died not too many years later, only to be revived by a new group of people who actually had a vision for their community. Whether your church is large or small; urban, suburban, or rural; rich or poor; God has called you to live out the gospel among your neighbors, in your city, and in the world. God has also gifted your people to minister effectively, and more people with additional gifts will come to be involved in your church as you start new ministries and improve the ministries you already have. Your building, finances, and history may be great resources for ministry, but your greatest asset, the source of your ability to minister, is your people. Use them wisely.

Mark 13:24-37 (first published 27 November 2005)

I've always been amused by those Christians who claim to have special insight into end time prophecy. It's not just professional eschatologists, either. A friend of mine a couple of weeks ago told a story about teaching the book of Revelation in his church. As he introduced the subject, he informed his congregation that several different approaches to the subject of eschatology in general and to the book of Revelation in particular were possible and that a wide variety of opinions existed concerning the sequence of events leading up to the end of the world, according to biblical prophecy. After the session, a man approached him and said, "Preacher, if you have trouble understanding the end times, just let me know, and I'll explain the subject to you. It's all here in my Scofield Reference Bible, with charts and everything." What this person didn't know is that the Premillennial Dispensationalism that the Scofield Reference Bible advocates is a fairly modern invention, originating with John Darby in the early 19th century. It was popularized by Scofield, whose introduction and especially footnotes in his edition of the King James Version proved immensely influential among many Christians who made little or no distinction between the authority of the text of scripture and the notes. Dispensationalism became a mainstream phenomenon with Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth in 1970 and, more recently, with Tim LaHaye's Left Behind book series. Despite the current popularity of this eschatological system, it has made little headway among non-evangelical scholars (many evangelicals reject it as well). One problem relates to its idiosyncratic reading of today's gospel reading from Mark. Jesus tells his followers, "Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place." Since the Second Coming obviously didn't occur in the first century, dispensationalists, contorting the passage to fit their eschatological scheme, interpret "this generation" as referring to some future generation during whose lifetime all the events described in Mark 13 will occur. This reading ignores the clear meaning of the passage, that the generation contemporary with Jesus would observe these events. The fact that the three Synoptic Gospels all include a version of this verse suggests that the evangelists--or at least Matthew and Luke, whose gospels were written toward the end of the first century (Mark is variously dated between 65 and 75)--saw the fulfillment of Jesus' words in the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 C.E. and the chaos surrounding that event (Jewish ostracism of Christians and the First Jewish Revolt against Rome). If this interpretation of "this generation" was good enough for the evangelists, it should be good enough for contemporary Christians as well. I find particularly amusing the attempts of various modern interpreters to locate the Second Coming definitively within the present generation, if not to a specific date. Although I'm amused that these interpreters think they understand the future better than Jesus did (cf. v. 32), I'm alarmed that so many laypeople buy into it. Clearly scholars and churches are doing a poor job of producing biblically literate congregants. The primary application of this passage for the present generation is not the arbitrary linking of current events with biblical prophecy but the final words of Jesus in this section: "Keep awake." Be aware of world events and their root causes. Don't rejoice in wars and rumors of wars because you think it signals the beginning of the end, but work toward making peace between enemies. Above all, look for ways in which God is working in the modern world, and get involved in that work.