Saturday Night Theologian
7 December 2008

Isaiah 40:1-11 (first published 4 December 2005)

It has long been observed that the Christmas holidays are perhaps the most difficult time of the year for many people. From a physiological perspective, the shortness of the daylight hours reduces the amount of sunlight that people experience, in some cases resulting in a syndrome called seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is tied to increased melatonin levels. For people who live in areas where the winter months are also associated with increased cloud cover, the reduced sunlight caused by the clouds can also contribute to seasonal depression. From a psychological perspective, this season of the year can also be trying for people who have lost loved ones (especially recently), who are away from home, and who are not socially integrated with their neighbors, co-workers, or other groups. The Jews living in exile in Babylonia had been away from home as a group for about 50 years. Though some undoubtedly adapted to their new surroundings well, others longed to return to the land of their ancestors. It is to these that the prophet speaks his words of comfort, words of hope for a shattered people: "Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins." The Jews in Babylonia looked back on their history and recognized many instances of rebellion and disobedience to God, and they interpreted their exile as God's punishment for their sins. It was not sufficient, then, for them to hear that they might have the opportunity to return to their homes. They needed to believe that God had forgiven them for their sins. Many people who are suffering today, rightly or wrongly, also interpret their troubles to be the result of their own sins. The joy that many people experience during the holidays only exacerbates their own feelings of sadness, magnified by guilt. For these people especially the words of the prophet continue to provide comfort and forgiveness, if they will just listen, and if the church will proclaim it faithfully. God is not in the business of holding people accountable for the sins of their ancestors (see especially the messages of Jeremiah and Ezekiel), nor does God want people to wallow in guilt for their own sins. Yes, sin is real, and people understandably feel guilty when they sin, but God wants to forgive our sins, not punish us forever. The message of the prophet for this season of Advent is that God has forgiven us and wants to welcome us back into the family of God. All we have to do is accept that forgiveness.

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13 (first published 4 December 2005)

What is God like? How can we recognize the presence of God in the world? To those whose primary thought of God is as one who punishes sin, wars and natural disasters are fertile ground for finding God. Pat Robertson thinks that God is behind many natural disasters, and even behind terrorist attacks, and he's not the only one. Many of the people who actually experienced the tsunami last year in Southeast Asia, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast, and the recent earthquake in Pakistan have also interpreted these disasters as signs of God's punishment for sin, usually those of their own social or religious group (i.e., lack of faithfulness), but sometimes those of their neighbors (usually the nonreligious or at least nonobservant). The Bible also frequently interprets history as God's manipulation of events in order to punish one group or another. But is this really how God works, or is it the primary way? Another way to envision God working in the world is to follow positive developments: peace talks, cessation of war, rising standards of living, rains that end periods of drought. The psalmist, while perpetuating the idea that God uses adversity to punish people, also sees God at work in more positive ways. In verse 12, he says, "The Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase." The "good" here is probably rain in its proper season, an absolute necessity in a society built on agriculture. The next verse follows this thought more abstractly: "Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps." The word translated "righteousness" could also be rendered as "justice," and that rendering is probably more appropriate when we think about God's dealings with large groups of people, such as churches, nations, or the entire world. Justice is what prepares the way for God to enter. Another way to say this is that where God is present, so is justice. Some scholars suggest that a slight modification be made to the second half of verse 13 to improve the parallelism. If their suggestion is correct, then the insertion of one letter in Hebrew (assumed to have fallen out at some point in the transmission of the text) changes this part of the verse to read, "And peace will be a path for his steps." The association between justice and peace has already been made in verse 10, so this emendation of the text may be justified. In any case, the last two verses of the psalm challenge us to seek God in the positive. Rather than seeing God in the flood waters of Katrina, we should look for God in the boats and helicopters that rescued people from their rooftops. Instead of seeing God's punishment in terrorist attacks, we should look for God providing comfort to victims of hatred and violence. In place of envisioning a God who uses armies to fight divine battles to impose justice through the force of arms, we should imagine a God who uses courageous opponents of war to stand up and say No, who sends peacemakers into harm's way to do all they can do to minister to the victims of war, who works through negotiators and diplomats to avoid war in the first place, and who inspires people to work together to alleviate poverty and hunger. The way in which we see God at work in the world directly affects how we live our lives as followers of God. For myself, I choose to follow a God of justice and peace, a God who has a special concern for the outcast and marginalized, a God who suffers alongside people who suffer, and offers them comfort. That's how I see God, and that's the God to whom I dedicate my life and my passion.

2 Peter 3:8-15a (first published 4 December 2005)

Astronomers tell us that in a few billion years the sun will begin to expend its nuclear fuel and will grow to such a size that it will engulf all the inner planets, including the earth, before it explodes in a violent supernova and eventually dissipates into the void of space. Whether any humans, or our descendants, will be around to observe this phenomenon is unknown, though perhaps unlikely, since according to the fossil record few species persist for more than a few million years, at the most. On the other hand, no species that has ever lived on the earth has had the potential both to adapt and to modify its environment to meet new challenges. When the planet grew cold during the last ice age, humans didn't retreat into the warmth of the tropics. Instead, many of them used fire and animal skins to combat the cold, indeed, to conquer its hold over their lives. When the great ice sheets retreated, many animals that had been adapted to extreme cold became extinct (some perhaps with human help), but people simply shed their winter clothes and adapted to the new situation. Today people live everywhere from the polar regions to the equator, from the shores of the sea to more than two miles above sea level in the Himalayas, Andes, and Rocky mountains. We have even developed the capacity to survive for extended periods of time under the oceans and in space. The threat of global annihilation seems remote to many people, but is it really? Several times in the history of our planet major extinction events have occurred. Scientists have identified five major events which destroyed at least 65% of existing species, all of which occur at the boundaries between two recognized geological periods: (1) Ordovician/Silurian, (2) Devonian/Carboniferous, (3) Permian/Triassic, (4) Triassic/Jurassic, (5) Cretaceous/Tertiary. The most disastrous such event, at the end of the Permian period, destroyed approximately 95% of marine life. The most recent event, at the end of the Cretaceous period, killed off most dinosaurs (with the exception of birds) and heralded the beginning of the Age of Mammals. Scientists have associated large meteors crashing into the earth with several of these devastating events, and similar extraterrestrial encounters may in fact be responsible for all five of these incidents, as well as other smaller extinction events. In his book The Sixth Extinction, paleontologist Richard Leakey argues that the earth is currently undergoing a sixth major extinction event, but one that is different from the earlier five, because it is being caused not by natural events, like encounters with meteors, but by human activity, such as hunting, poaching, global warming, and habitat destruction. Today's reading from 2 Peter describes the end of the world as coming with a great conflagration: "the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire." A meteor certainly has the capacity to do this, but, for the first time in history, so do humans. Will our species destroy the earth with nuclear bombs? Will we slowly poison and contaminate our planet so that it dies a slow death instead? Or will we realize and correct the errors of our ways, both political and environmental? If none of these things happen, will we be able to predict and avoid, or at least decrease the effects of, an impact with a large meteor? As much as we humans like to think that we are in control, the fact of the matter is that we are not, and it is absolutely conceivable that human life could be annihilated in a matter of hours as a consequence of circumstances entirely beyond our control (read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy for a similar, albeit somewhat more fanciful, scenario of the earth's destruction). In the light of this uncertainty, how should we live our lives? The author of 2 Peter advises us to lead lives of holiness and godliness, behaviors that will not only bring us closer to God but which also have the potential to bring us closer to our fellow human beings, thus reducing the likelihood of either nuclear war or environmental catastrophe.

Mark 1:1-8

What's so good about the good news? While the other two Synoptic gospels, Matthew and Luke, begin their accounts of Jesus' life with stories about his birth, Mark starts with the story of Jesus' baptism at the hands of John the Baptist. All three evangelists agree, however, that the stories they are telling qualify as "good news." Although the Gospel of John never uses the term in either its noun or verb forms, Christians from the earliest days have agreed in describing the Jesus story, as reported by the four evangelists and others, as gospel, or "good news." A detailed look at church history, however, sometimes seems to tell a different story. Early Christians were often persecuted, and sometimes killed, for maintaining their faith before the time of Constantine. After Constantine the situation changed, and Christians came to power, in turn persecuting those with whom they disagreed, including Jews and frequently other Christians as well. The Protestant Reformation led to a series of wars between Catholics and Protestants, though both groups could find common ground in their joint persecution of Anabaptists. The signing of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 signaled an end to the wars among different Christian states, but it didn't stop Christian rulers within a state from persecuting minority Christians, whoever they might be. Real religious tolerance began in the British colony of Rhode Island, and it spread--somewhat jerkily--to many nations that were either officially or predominantly Christian. Today, with peace in Northern Ireland, there are no remaining officially sanctioned conflicts among Christians based on religious differences. That is not to say, though, that Christians are not engaged in persecuting other Christians, not to mention people of other faiths. On the contrary, all Christians who support war on other countries advocate, at least implicitly, for the persecution of fellow human beings, some Christian and some not. As another example, Christians who support the use of torture on prisoners are advocating a form of Christianity that would have been foreign to the earliest Christians. Similarly, those who support continued discrimination against homosexuals or other oppressed minorities exemplify a form of Christianity that is good news only for some, not others. With this track record, can we really say that Christianity is good news for everyone? In actuality, no we can't. When people in a small village in Afghanistan or Iraq or Somalia hear the news, "the Christians are coming," do you think they rejoice? Hardly. But it doesn't have to be this way. If those of us who view Christianity as good news for all will stand up against aberrant forms of our religion, those versions of Christianity that permit violence, discrimination, and hate to be used in the name of Jesus, we might just make a difference. If it seems like long odds today, if it seems like we're going against the grain of almost two millennia of traditions of officially sanctioned Christian violence, just remember what Jesus and the earliest Christians were up against. The peaceful message of Christianity that says we should love our enemies as well as our brothers and sisters really is good news, if only a few of us will put it into practice.