Saturday Night Theologian
28 December 2008

Isaiah 61:10-62:3 (first published 1 January 2006)

What is it about the New Year that fills people with hope? Winter has just begun, and the nights are still long, but they're getting a little bit shorter. In many places, at least in the northern hemisphere, there's a chill in the air, and in some places it's downright frigid, but when the sun shines, the cool, bright days speak of cleansing and renewal. There is also something profoundly symbolic about taking down our old calendars and putting up new ones. The whole year lies before us like a blank canvas, full of promise, just waiting for us to make our mark on it. What will I accomplish this year? Will I finally read that book that I've been meaning to read for some time? Will I complete the project that I've been working on (or perhaps, putting off working on)? Will I start that exercise and diet regimen that I've been thinking about? Will I get a promotion at work, or become a better parent, or take a step toward putting my faith into practice to a greater extent? New Year's is a time to set aside past failures and disappointments and look with excitement toward the future. The prophet known as Third Isaiah spoke words of hope and encouragement to a people who desperately needed to hear them. After returning from Babylonian exile, the life of the nation had not prospered as the people had hoped it would. Although they were back in their homeland, they were still under Persian rule. Was God still angry with Israel? Not at all, says the prophet. Better days are ahead, great days, days so full of promise that surrounding nations will praise God when they see what has become of God's people. The prophet sees a day of vindication and salvation. The wrongs that have been perpetrated upon Israel will be righted, and deliverance will come. Who are the people who most need to hear this message of hope as a new year dawns? To the survivors of the tsunami in Indonesia and Sri Lanka, God says, "A new day is coming." To those who fled New Orleans from the fury of Hurricane Katrina, the Lord says, "I am with you as you rebuild your lives." To those who suffered through the devastating earthquake in Pakistan, God says, "I love you, and I will not forsake you." To the poor, the hungry, and the refugees across the globe, the Lord says, "I offer you salvation, not just in heaven, but in the present as well." God is a God of hope, so God's people must be people of hope as well. What does it mean to be a people of hope? First, people of hope are those who trust God to meet their needs, in whatever way God deems fit to meet them. Second, people of hope are those who share God's hope with those around them who need to hear the message. Third, people of hope are those who envision a world in which the most basic needs of every person are met, and they strive with God's power to create that world. As we think about the great potential of the new year, as we make our resolutions, and as we step forth into this new year to conquer, let us do so as people of hope.

Psalm 148 (first published 1 January 2006)

The Hebrew name for the book of Psalms is tehillim, which means "praises." Although not every psalm in the Psalter is a praise psalm, or hymn, the book certainly earns its name in Psalm 148. Unlike many psalms of praise, this one says little about the reasons for praising God: the psalmist assumes that the worshiper already knows reasons to praise God. Instead, what he focuses on is the matter of who should praise God. Praise begins in the heavens with the angelic beings, and it moves to the sun, moon, and stars. Even the waters above the heavens are called to praise God. From there, the psalmist moves to the earth, calling on the powers of fire, hail, snow, and frost to praise God, alongside the sea monsters of the deep. Then it is the turn of the mountains and hills, fruit trees and cedars, wild and domesticated animals, creeping things (reptiles and amphibians) and birds. Finally, after all the inanimate and all other animate beings have had their chance to praise God, the psalmist turns to humans beings. Both rulers and ordinary people are called on to praise God, men and women, old and young. I find this psalm fascinating, because, like several others, it calls upon physical objects and all kinds of animals to praise God. It raises the question, how can the stars, or snow, or a whale, or a cedar tree, or a horse, or a Komodo dragon praise God? This is not an idle question, for it is central to our understanding of a theology of creation. Although it is a question that is much too big to answer in this forum, let me suggest some ways in which we might think about the meaning of creation's praise of the Creator. Before we can proceed with examining how different types of animate and inanimate beings can praise God, we first have to define praise in this context. If praise in a human context means attributing value to a worthy God, then we can think of non-human praise as ways in which creation points to the goodness and wisdom of God. For example, if we believe that God's will lies behind the organizational structure of the universe (or is it a multiverse?), then objects like the sun, moon, and stars "praise" God by revealing to both casual observers and dedicated astronomers the intricacies of the created order, from the universe itself--or what we can observe of it or theorize about it--to the tiniest subatomic particle, and from the Big Bang to the end of the universe as we project it. Snow and hail and rain praise God by revealing the divine goodness in providing the fresh water that humans, animals, and plants alike need for survival. Even such destructive forces as hurricanes and earthquakes praise God in the sense that they remind us that the world has mechanisms that are designed to renew and recycle the resources that God has given us. Ecologists know that periodic hurricanes, in an era before human encroachment on the sea coasts, renewed coastlands and wetlands, just as naturally occurring forest fires are part of the natural cycle of life in the woodlands. Similarly, earthquakes are part of the natural movement of tectonic plates, which results in mountain building, continental drift, long-term climate change, and ultimately in recycling the earth's crust. Plants and animals praise God by being exactly what they are: organisms that rely on the sun and each other for energy to survive and multiply. Their complexity of internal structure and external interaction with other species in the web of life reveals the brilliant mind of God. A corollary of this observation is that when humans exterminate a species, either directly, as in the hunting to extinction of the thylacine, or indirectly, as in the habitat destruction that has driven wild tigers, California condors, and ivory-billed woodpeckers to the brink of extinction, we are diminishing the chorus of living beings that give praise to God. Although we started with a definition of praise derived from human interaction with the divine and moved into a discussion of non-human praise, we can now move the other direction and ask ourselves what we humans can learn about praise from the rest of God's creation. Probably we can learn many things, but one lesson stands out for me. We tend to view praise as something that is exclusively verbal--whether spoken, sung, or thought--but our inquiry into non-human praise has shown us that created beings without the capability of language are able to praise God without any problem. Therefore, I would suggest that human praise, like non-human praise, should be defined primarily as ways in which we humans can point to the goodness and wisdom of God. We can do so by caring for God's creation, by loving our neighbors, and by leaving the world a better place than we found it. In short, we should live lives of praise to God, and in that endeavor, we should remember that our words of praise are merely icing on the cake.

Galatians 4:4-7 (first published 1 January 2006)

Converts who leave one religion in favor of another are often among the most vocal critics of their former religion. Regardless of what it was about the religion that they left behind that failed to meet their needs, they frequently see the totality of that religion as a sinkhole, a trap, an unfortunate experience from which they and their former co-religionists must escape. Perhaps the most vivid historical example of this tendency is Augustine. In his Confessions, Augustine describes his life as a young man searching for God. Along the way, he spent a number of years following the Manichean religion, a way of life that emphasized a sharp distinction between good (light) and evil (darkness) and that insisted that the only way to escape the natural human predicament was through adoption of Manichean beliefs (or knowledge) and lifestyle. After Augustine left the group, he had harsh words to say about it, and he was unable to bring himself to admit any positive values that the religion might have had to offer (e.g., a lifestyle of nonviolence and community). Although Paul is perhaps not as extreme as Augustine in his rejection of his former religion (though some might debate this point), he does see Judaism as a religious system that keeps people from a true understanding of and relationship with God. Something about Judaism didn't work for Paul, perhaps its insistence (as he understood it) that he persecute the Christian "heretics." Paul also felt stifled by the obligation to observe the law, and he longed for freedom that he found only in Christ. Thus, when he describes the redemption that Christ has wrought for humankind, he contrasts the freedom of Christ with the slavery that he felt as a Jew, "under the law." The fact that many Jews experience their religion as a source of great strength (e.g., those Jews for whom their faith sustained them in German concentration camps during World War II) does not invalidate Paul's own personal experience of Judaism as constraining rather than liberating. For Paul, true freedom to worship God came only through Christ, whose redemptive work on the cross allowed all people, Jews and Gentiles alike, to cry out to a God who was more interested in maintaining a relationship with a child than with insisting that certain rules be followed, as though we were slaves. Christianity is liberating, Paul says, because in Christ we realize that we are not slaves at all but rather children of God. Sometimes I wonder if that's really true. It's not that I doubt that people can find freedom in Christ, because I've found it myself. The problem is that I've known people, both personally and through historical study, for whom Christianity itself was an oppressive system of rules and regulations rather than a source of liberation. Many Christians live as though Christianity were a series of "Thou shalt nots." Don't eat this. Don't drink that. Don't go here. Don't do that. Certainly there are restrictions that we will want to put on our lives when we become serious about our Christian faith, but the restrictions that I feel called upon to observe may not be the same as those that you may feel obligated to observe. For those of us who see Christianity as a liberating experience, however, these differences of interpretation will not divide us from one another. We may want to discuss our interpretation of Christian doctrine, or debate what we might deem proper and improper expressions of Christian freedom, but we can never deny that freedom, either to ourselves or to others. I'm not exactly like either my brother or my sister, yet we're all members of the same family, and we share the love and fellowship of our parents regardless of our differences. In a similar, though more profound, way, children of God are not identified by a particular set of beliefs or by a particular interpretation of what it means to live honorable lives, worthy of God. We are children of God because we love God, we want to know God and God's will for our own lives better, and we are part of a larger family.

Luke 2:22-40 (first published 1 January 2006)

The movie Searching for Bobby Fisher is a true story about a man who tutors children in the game of chess, hoping that he will happen across the next great natural chess player, the next Bobby Fisher. When a Tibetan lama, or holy man, dies, Buddhist monks set out to find the young child in whom the spirit of the previous lama has been reincarnated. Basketball scouts scour the inner-city courts, high schools, and, increasingly, the international leagues to find the young player who might be the next Michael Jordan. These quests are quite different from one another, but they share one commonality. All of the people who are searching are absolutely certain that the person for whom they're looking is out there. Like those modern people looking for the next Bobby Fisher, Tibetan lama, or Michael Jordan, Simeon was a man who was looking for someone special: he was looking for the messiah. We don't know exactly what it was about the baby Jesus that caught his attention when the boy's parents brought him to the temple to present him to the Lord. Luke only says that Simeon was "guided by the Spirit," a term that Luke uses to indicate God's special impartation of power or wisdom. How God revealed that the baby Jesus was a special child is unclear, but after seeing Jesus, Simeon felt that his quest had been accomplished, and he pronounced himself ready to depart the present life. "Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation." This salvation, Simeon observed, was not just for Jews but for Gentiles as well, and of course his predictions about the child proved true. Many people today are on a quest, not to find a great chess or basketball player, but to find a way to know and serve God. They don't have the opportunity to see the baby Jesus in the same way that Simeon did. If they do see the baby Jesus, it is at Christmas time in a nativity scene, with a stand-in--sometimes live, usually artificial--for the baby. Do our Christmas displays and presentations and behavior show those who are seeking a Jesus who meets their expectations? Can they see that the Jesus whom we talk about at Christmas really makes a difference in our daily lives throughout the year? Can they see in our portrayal of Jesus a message of hope for everyone in the world, privileged and underprivileged alike? Can they see in the Jesus whose birth we celebrate a light for a dark world? Whether we know it or not, people are out there searching for a savior, a deliverer, a comforter, a friend, a guru, a guide, a source of hope and strength. It is our job as Christians to live our lives in such a way that they will see in Jesus someone who will successfully complete their search.