Saturday Night Theologian
21 December 2008

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 (first published 18 December 2005)

When Bill Gates and Paul Allen were in high school, they liked playing around with computers. After they graduated, they saw that microcomputers were starting to become accessible to the average consumer, so they wrote to MITS, the developers of a microcomputer called the Altair, and told them that they had developed a BASIC language interpreter for the Altair, and they wanted to license MITS to sell it, in exchange for royalties. MITS agreed, and after eight frantic weeks of writing the code that they claimed already to have, they delivered their product. Realizing that they were onto something that had great potential, they decided to form a corporation, and the next month, April 1974, Microsoft was born. The biggest computer company on earth began with a small idea, that flexible, multipurpose software was the engine that would drive the microcomputer revolution. Today's reading from 2 Samuel 7 describes the small idea that ultimately led to the founding of the world's largest religion. After David had become king in Jerusalem, he decided that he wanted to build a great temple for the worship of God. The prophet Nathan, however, brought the news that God did not want David to build a great house for worshiping God. Instead, God would build a house for David--not a physical house, but a dynasty that would last forever. "Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me," God said through Nathan. The royal line of David continued in Judah for the next 400 years, but it came to an abrupt end when Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem, knocked down its walls, and burned the temple to the ground. After the return from exile, the Jews waited expectantly for God to restore the Davidic kingdom, but it never transpired. What had happened to God's promise? The Jews were faced with two theological options. Either they could acknowledge the reality of the situation and admit that a Davidic king would never reign again over Israel, or they could read in the passage a promise that God would someday send an anointed king, or messiah, to reign again over God's people. This messianic hope sustained generations of Jews through the most difficult of circumstances, and even today, some 3000 years after the promise to David, many Jews continue to find hope in the promised return of the messiah. About 2000 years ago one group of Jews re-read the re-reading of Nathan's prophecy, and they stopped looking for a literal king to rule over a literal kingdom, because they saw in Jesus of Nazareth a greater fulfillment of God's prophecy. Jesus' kingdom was not limited to the geographic region of Judea or Galilee, but it encompassed the whole world. Jesus was not a temporal king who would reign for awhile and then die, but he was an eternal king who would reign from heaven over the earth forever. Jesus' subjects were not just the descendants of the original twelve tribes of Israel, but they included people from every continent and every nation, anyone who saw in Jesus the way to be united with God. Christianity has achieved great things over the centuries, and it has committed horrible atrocities, but through both good and bad, it has one great redeeming feature that continues to sustain it: the example of its founder, who taught his followers to love God with all their heart, soul, strength, and mind, and to love their neighbors as themselves. From such a small beginning has emerged a great world religion, a light in a world that is all too often filled with darkness.

Luke 1:46b-55 (first published 12 December 2004)

Wangari Maathai was in Oslo on Friday to accept a prestigious award, the first African woman to win it. Maathai is no stranger to firsts. She was the first woman from east or central Africa to earn a Ph.D. and the first woman to head a university department in Kenya. A veterinarian by training, she led Kenya's environmental movement for years. She was beaten and thrown in jail on several occasions during the autocratic rule of President Daniel arap Moi, but she persisted in her efforts to preserve the environment from the encroachment of corporate interests. When arap Moi was defeated in December 2002 by Mwai Kibabi, Maathai also won a seat in parliament at the same time. She is an outspoken advocate not only for the environment but also for women's rights, democracy, and peace. When she was born in a rural area of Kenya in 1940, few if any would have predicted what she has been able to accomplish, but 64 years later, her name is forever associated with what is quite possibly the world's highest honor, the Nobel Peace Prize. Mary of Nazareth was also a woman of humble origins. Born in an obscure village in a backwater province of the Roman Empire, she is the kind of person who could have been easily overlooked. Despite her inauspicious beginning, she became perhaps the most revered woman in the history of the world by virtue of becoming the mother of Jesus Christ. Mary gives voice to the upheaval that God has wrought in her life in a song the church calls the Magnificat, based on the first word of the song in Latin, which begins, "Magnificat anima mea Dominum," "My soul magnifies the Lord." Mary's sings a song of change, a song in which the social order of the world is reversed. The rich are overthrown, and the poor are filled with good things. Mary herself was living proof that such a reversal of fortune was possible. Even within her lifetime, according to church tradition, she was honored for her role in the nurture of Jesus, and she died in Ephesus an old and happy woman (or, according to Catholic doctrine, she was taken up bodily into heaven!). The Magnificat is not just a song about Mary, however. It is a song that can be sung by all of God's people who long for a world of justice and equity. There are many good people who are rich, and there are many wicked or amoral people who are rich, but there are many more who live their lives with little awareness that their wealth negatively impacts many, many people. Money that is hoarded in banks, securities, stocks, and real estate is money that is not being used to feed, heal, or employ the poor. There is no magic formula that tells people how much money is enough. There is no set amount of money that is OK to keep in a retirement account, beyond which it is hoarding. God expects all of us to examine our own lifestyles to determine what we should do with the riches with which God has blessed us. Before we take too much comfort in that, however, we should remember these words of Mary: "He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly." We have seen God raise up the lowly to great heights, both in the distant past and in the present day. We can be sure that God is just as ready to bring down the proud and mighty today as God has been in the past.

Romans 16:25-27 (first published 18 December 2005)

One of the innovations of the Protestant Reformation was to move the pulpit from the side of the clergy's portion of the sanctuary to the center. This move symbolized that the proclamation of the gospel had become the central feature of the worship service. Twentieth century theologians, particularly those of a neo-Orthodox bent, emphasized the two-fold message of the church, which consisted of the didache, or teaching, and the kerygma, or preaching. The term that is translated "proclamation" in Romans 16:25 is the word kerygma. It signifies the totality of Paul's message about Jesus Christ. For Paul, the message about Christ was a source of power for the church, not only in the sense of providing direction and encouragement but, even more, of providing a direct link to the being of God. Paul uses two other words in this short blessing to refer to the overall message of the church. The first is the word "gospel," which is the translation of a Greek word meaning "good news." The Greek word is also the root found in words like "evangelist" and "evangelism." The other word that Paul uses to describe the Christian message is the word "mystery." Paul says that the gospel that he proclaims was formerly a mystery, even though it was present in the prophets, but now it has been revealed, so it is a mystery no longer. This comment doesn't mean that the Christian message contains no enduring mystery. On the contrary, God's divine dealings with humanity are shrouded with mystery. What Paul is saying is that, in Christ, a major portion of God's divine plan has been revealed. This plan is particularly significant for the Gentiles, for it reveals that the God of the Jews is the God of the Gentiles as well. Unlike religions that focus either exclusively or primarily on one ethnic or national group, Christianity is a religion that is open to all. Early Christian leaders from Europe, Asia, and Africa intermingled with one another freely and without prejudice. It is unfortunately true that large numbers of Christians have frequently slipped into one form of prejudice or another--against blacks, against Native Americans, against Aboriginal Australians, and especially against Jews--but at the same time it is true that the overarching Christian message, the kerygma, continually calls Christians out of their narrow-minded bigotry into a grand and glorious inclusivity, one that encompasses all the people of the world in the love of God. This is a mystery that is still unfolding.

Luke 1:26-38 (first published 18 December 2005)

How do Christians treat unwed mothers, especially unwed teenaged mothers? Although our gospels don't indicate Mary's age explicitly, Jewish custom in the first century suggests that Mary was probably a teenager when she was betrothed to Joseph. (The apocryphal Infancy Gospel of James, which dates to the late second century, says that Mary was sixteen at the time.) In some churches unwed teenaged mothers are ostracized, having committed the "unpardonable sin" of having sex. Rarely, however, are the teenaged boys who got them pregnant similarly ostracized. In other churches the girls are comforted and supported through a difficult, life-changing experience. Clearly the latter is the proper Christian model, and it reflects the experience of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Today's Gospel reading tells of the angel Gabriel visiting Mary and announcing to her that she had been chosen to bear the Son of God. The gospel of Luke shows only the positive side of Mary's situation: her divine selection is announced by an angel, she is blessed by her aunt Elizabeth, she is accompanied to Bethlehem by her husband Joseph (with no mention of his considering divorcing her), and so forth. The whole experience is profound and awe-inspiring. The same cannot be said for most unwed teenagers today. Since almost none of the pregnancies are either planned or desired, the prospective mother's first conflict is with herself. She often feels guilty, used, stupid, or unlucky. The next conflict is normally with the father of the baby, who all too often is unwilling to take responsibility or commit to support the girl and their baby. Even when the boy is willing to take responsibility, rarely is he able to provide much financial support, and emotional support is often lacking as well. The next conflict is with the girl's parents. Pregnant girls are usually afraid to tell their parents, for fear of anger, rejection, or worse. In many cases, perhaps most, after the initial shock wears off, the parents prove to be the most supportive people in the young mother's life. If not the parents, then grandparents, aunts, or close friends can sometimes fill the role. At least two other conflicts await many pregnant teenagers: school and church. The problem with school is primarily one of embarrassment, which is relatively quickly overcome, as most teachers and school administrators are trained to deal with such situations, and besides, they have probably dealt with pregnant teens before. The conflict with the church is often not so easily overcome, particularly in churches whose view of the church's position in the world is of an island of piety in a sea of sin. In churches like these, a pregnant teen often encounters people who are far more ready to condemn than to comfort and encourage. How welcoming are our churches for unwed mothers? Do we allow them entry, only to lay a guilt trip on them, or do we sincerely welcome them to seek the face of God with us. Do we piously judge them as sinners, or do we stand beside them as fellow sinner in need of God's grace? Do unwed mothers feel welcome in our churches today? Would Mary feel welcome?