Saturday Night Theologian
14 December 2008

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 (first published 11 December 2005)

Thirty years ago this week Pope Paul VI issued an Apostolic Exhortation entitled Evangelii Nuntiandi, or On Evangelization in the Modern World. The church, he said, "has had the single aim of fulfilling her duty of being the messenger of the Good News of Jesus Christ." What is the content of the message of the gospel, and how does the church go about proclaiming the gospel? In a partial answer to the first question, the pope identified two fundamental commands in which the gospel consists: "Put on the new self" and "Be reconciled to God." He goes on to speak of the gospel as a transforming message, a powerful message, a divine message. It speaks of God's reign, and its kernel is salvation, which the pope defines as "liberation from everything that oppresses man but which is above all liberation from sin and the Evil One." Evangelization is not simply preaching a message to which people may choose to assent. Rather, "evangelizing means bringing the Good News into all the strata of humanity, and through its influence transforming humanity from within and making it new. . . . For the church it is a question not only of preaching the Gospel in ever wider geographical areas or to ever greater numbers of people, but also of affecting and as it were upsetting, through the power of the Gospel, mankind's criteria of judgment, determining values, points of interest, lines of thought, sources of inspiration and models of life." The good news that the church proclaims, then, is something eminently relevant to all those who hear it. The prophet known as Third Isaiah lived among people who had returned to the land of their ancestors years before, full of hope and expectation. As the decades rolled by and the glorious kingdom they were expecting failed to materialize, many became jaded and discouraged. The prophet offered a message from God that was designed to hit people where they were, at the deepest point of their need. "The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn." The good news the prophet had for the people was not about pie in the sky bye and bye. His message addressed the real needs of real people in the real world: the oppressed, the brokenhearted, captives, prisoners, those who mourn. Too often the gospel that today's church preaches is diluted, or even perverted, and has little to offer people in the here and now. When the prophet speaks of God as saying, "For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing," he is describing a God who is intimately concerned with the way people treat other people in this world. This God wants to see justice prevail and robbery and wrongdoing cease. A world of justice and peace, where everyone has access to food, shelter, and health care, where people are free to speak and write and read and worship according to the dictates of their own consciences, that's good news for everyone.

Psalm 126

What was the happiest moment in your life? Maybe it was the day of your wedding, the day a child was born, the day you graduated from college, or the day you accomplished a long-held dream. These types of moments are anticipated, and most involve some effort on an individual's part to achieve. Other joyous moments are wholly unexpected: making a significant discovery, receiving an unexpected honor, sudden deliverance from a difficult situation. Ancient Greek playwrights used a literary device called deus ex machina, a sudden, unexpected appearance of a god or goddess to save the day or resolve a problematic situation. These deus ex machina moments of joy are different from the anticipated moments, precisely because they are both unexpected and require no effort on the part of the recipient. The Jews living in the Babylonian exile experienced such a moment when Cyrus the Great, king of Persia, defeated the Babylonians and allowed those who wanted to return to their ancestral homeland. Years later, their descendants, now back in Judah, longed for another divine intervention. Life in Judah was not what many had anticipated. The Jews did not rule themselves but were subject to Persian overlords. Drought and locust plagues were not uncommon. Prosperity was nowhere to be found. The author of Psalm 126 cries out to God, asking for a divine outpouring of blessing on their harvests and on their lives. Many people today find themselves in such a situation, and I count myself among them. Although I am currently experiencing difficulties of one sort or another, I can remember God's intervention in my life in the past, and I long for it in the present. Will a sudden outpouring of divine providence wash over me, offering me relief from my current struggles, or will God's steady presence simply continue to comfort me as I work to solve my own problems? It's impossible to say at this point. However, like the psalmist, I know this: God has been faithful in the past, and God will be faithful in the future. One day, maybe very soon, maybe in the more distant future, I will hear the sounds of joy again, and they will be coming from my own lips.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 (first published 11 December 2005)

I have a cousin who always seems to be happy. She's always smiling, always has a joke to tell, never seems down. She's had her share of ups and downs in life, and her life hasn't always been easy--in fact, I don't know if I'd say it's ever been particularly easy--but that doesn't seem to matter. She's just a person who seems to be filled with joy. That's not my nature. I would describe my typical mood as content rather than joyful. I think of myself as pretty happy most of the time, but I doubt that other people would think of me as an especially joyful person, but neither would they think of me as generally down or depressed. In fact, maybe the best description of me is even-keeled. I've known several people who sometimes seemed full of joy but were also prone to melancholia or even depression. All things considered, I guess I'll stick with being even-keeled, but is it possible for even someone with my personality type to experience joy? And what does Paul mean when he urges the Thessalonian Christians to rejoice always? With a few possible exceptions, people aren't always going to be happy. Financial, family, and work setbacks tend to take their toll on our joy. So do medical problems. Even the Christmas season can send many people into a kind of funk. This week we will light the third Advent candle, the Joy candle, and we will have to ask ourselves, what do we have to be joyful about? It's so easy to see the problems in the world and the problems in our own lives, but can we see the joy as well? Sometime we need to be reminded that, in the grand scheme of things, we have much to rejoice about. We have family and friends. We have food on our tables and clothes on our backs. We have time for work and rest and recreation, if we will just take it. Even those who do not have all these things--and many of us have been there--can identify things that bring us joy. Maybe we're currently without a job, but we have friends and family who support us. Maybe our health is not so good, but we can enjoy the warm fire and a quiet talk or a good book. Maybe we've lost a loved one, but we have others who are still around who love us. In the final analysis, I don't think being joyful requires us to always appear happy to others. Some of us are able to experience a deep feeling of joy that is rooted in a profound satisfaction with God's presence and providence in our lives. How will you express your joy this holiday season? Some find it in Christmas parties, others in family gatherings, and still others in still moments of contemplation and quiet. However you are best able to experience joy, I hope you do so this Christmas season.

John 1:6-8, 19-28 (first published 11 December 2005)

John the Baptist was a great man, a prophet, a visionary, yet he is portrayed in the Gospel of John as one unwilling to accept the praise of the multitude, rejecting it as though it were simple flattery. "Are you the Messiah?" No. "Are you Elijah?" No. "Are you the Prophet?" No. "Who are you then?" I am simply the voice of one crying in the wilderness, "Prepare the way of the Lord!" The following is a poem I wrote several years ago that touches on the same theme.

"The voice of a god and not a man!"
The cry ascends from the multitude.
Words of praise and adulation echo in my ears.

Surely I am their savior,
Come to deliver them from darkness,
And set them firmly on their own feet.

The words are flattering, and hard to believe,
But in all modesty, they must be true,
For all join in the chorus.

From somewhere a discordant voice shrieks,
"Lies!  All lies!  There is no truth in him!"
The multitude parts, and I am faced with my accuser.

How can I stand before men,
My image shattered, my mortality bared?
What justification can I give for my words?

Falling to my knees, I cry out,
"But I am a man, and not God--I desire nothing else!"
My accuser vanishes, the crowd disperses,
And I am alone with my Maker.