Saturday Night Theologian
25 January 2009

Jonah 3:1-5, 10 (first published 22 January 2006)

Have you ever been assigned a task and worked hard on it, only to find at the end that you'd done your job too well? A member of one of my former churches found himself in such a predicament a few years ago. He worked for a particular denomination, and his boss asked him to investigate a well-known organization in order to see whether membership in the group was compatible with Christian principles. He did thorough research, interviewed many people, and wrote his report. He concluded that the group was not incompatible with Christian principles. Unfortunately, that was the wrong answer, from his employer's point of view. His superiors had already decided that the organization was bad; they had just wanted the man to write a report stating as much. When he began to take heat for his report, he had the integrity to stand by his research, and as a result he was forced to resign. If only he had had the good sense to play by the rules, he could have kept his job as long as he could stomach it, but no, he insisted on standing by his research. (Scientists with expertise on global warming who work for the Bush administration might know how he felt.) Jonah was a prophet who was assigned a task to do, but unlike my friend, he didn't want to succeed. In fact, he hoped that he would fail spectacularly. After his plan to avoid preaching to the Ninevites landed him in the belly of a whale, he embarked on Plan B. Since he couldn't avoid actually going to Nineveh to preach, he thought, maybe he could just do a lousy job and no one would listen. This was the centerpiece of his stump speech: "Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" It was short and simple, it sounded prophetic, and he hoped the message would be received with scorn and derision. It was not. Everyone believed God, from the king on his throne to the shoe-shine boy on the street corner. Even the animals fasted and went around in sack-cloth! Jonah had done his job too well, and now, contrary to his hopes, God was going to spare Nineveh. One thing that Jonah had in common with my friend was that neither one really understood the nature of his employer. On the occasions when I've had a boss who, in obeisance to the latest management fad, directed me to "redesign the organization from scratch" (who really believes that upper management cares what peons think?), I've had enough sense to make sure that my current position featured prominently in the new world order I was imagining. I just didn't trust the organization to have my best interests at heart. That's exactly the problem that many of us have with God. God, in fact, does not have our best interests at heart, at least if we are the ones who define our own best interests. Our natural inclination is to seek more money, more recognition, more power, more prestige, or at least smoother sailing. God's inclination is to share divine love with everyone. The reason Jonah was afraid that Nineveh might repent and be spared was that Assyria was Israel's mortal enemy, and Jonah was more concerned with his own nation than with the fate of a bunch of foreigners. When we support our government's bombing of innocent civilians in an effort to get at terrorists, we've stepped into Jonah's shoes. When we advocate building a wall to keep economic refugees out of our country, we're walking in Jonah's path. When we allow our representatives to spend more on weapons of mass destruction than on our own crumbling schools, blighted inner cities, and poverty-stricken rural areas, we are endorsing Jonah's approach to being a prophet. If, on the other hand, we are willing to speak against injustice, call for budget priorities that reflect our Christian principles, and stand up for all the poor and marginalized of the world as brothers and sisters in the eyes of God, we can rightly claim to be true prophets.

Editor's note: I recently had a similar experience to the friend I mentioned above. After complying with a request to design a new curriculum to attract new students to my school, I found myself out of a job when money was shifted from my department to the new ones I had designed. Where this betrayal of loyalty will ultimately lead, for both me and the school, remains to be seen. Like Jonah, I guess I'll have to sit on a hill (hopefully with a better attitude than Jonah had) and wait to find out.

Psalm 62:5-12 (first published 22 January 2006)

The traditional Protestant, and especially Evangelical, view of salvation focuses almost exclusively on the question, "Where will you spend eternity?" From this point of view, salvation involves living in heaven with God after we die. A common corollary of this approach to soteriology is that Christians must figure out the rules for catching the last train to glory. For some, all that's needed is faith in Christ as savior. For others, correct doctrine is also required. For still others, faith must be accompanied by works that demonstrate one's faith in God. Although I was raised in a tradition that viewed salvation largely in post mortem terms, my reading of the Bible and my own theological reflection has led me to believe that the primary biblical focus of salvation, while it includes an eternal aspect, is this world. That's exactly the point that the psalmist makes: "For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him." The psalmist's hope is in the present life, not the afterlife. One of the biggest problems I have with the theology I grew up with is that it offers so little hope for the present world. The faith of the psalmist is not like that at all. "On God rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge is in God." The psalmist expects deliverance in this life, not the next. Too many Christians today seem to think that God is impotent in the present and can only right the wrongs of the world in the next life. I disagree. When I look around at the world and see all the poverty, war, and suffering, I believe that God not only can do something about it, I believe God wants to do something about it. The only thing that keeps God from alleviating poverty, ending war, and ameliorating unnecessary suffering is our lack of faith. Although we might not admit it, deep down we seem to think that the problems of this world are too great for God to handle. Only in an orderly place like heaven can God make things right again. We see God as a structural engineer running hither and thither, shoring up a piling here, driving in a nail there, trying to keep the superstructure of the world in place long enough to set the demolition charges. This is the apocalyptic mindset of those Christians who want Armageddon, not because they are in the midst of great suffering like those communities from whom apocalypses originally arose, but because they worship a God who is too weak to solve the problems of this world. I reject that pessimistic view of life, and I reject the God who is too feeble to right the wrongs of this world. It's time we put aside the weak God of those who long for Armageddon and begin to serve the strong God of Abraham, David, the prophets, the psalmists, and Jesus himself. God is capable of meeting the most intractable problems of the world, and God is capable of meeting the most difficult problems in our personal lives as well. "Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us."

1 Corinthians 7:29-31

Like many of the first generation of Christians, Paul believed that Christ would soon return to earth to bring human history to a decisive close. He was wrong, but can we learn anything from his view of time? I think so. First, Paul's misapprehension of the course of human history provides clear proof that the authors of the Bible had no special, inerrant understanding of the ways of God but were ordinary believers just like we are today. I would argue that they were inspired, in the sense that they were sensitive to God's activity in the world, but they hardly had a perfect knowledge of either God's will or the future. The biblical authors' imperfect knowledge leads to a second point, which is that we can't allow believers of an earlier generation to do our thinking for us. Certainly we can learn a lot from Paul and other biblical authors, but we also need to learn to think theologically for ourselves. Like Paul, Christians living today did not have the good fortune of knowing Jesus personally, but we can learn from the past--including the testimony of faithful followers of Christ--and from observing the world around us as we strive to be the people of God we believe God wants us to be. Third, the fact that the world will probably not end in the immediate future leads us to plan for that future. Since we have an imperfect knowledge of what lies ahead, there is no doubt that some of our plans will fail, but if we make no plans for the future, we will not be effective witnesses for God. Fourth, the fact that we do not know exactly how or when human life on this planet will end, or even when our own lives will be over, should give us a certain urgency to accomplish all we can of what God has given us to do. Fifth and finally, Paul's comments about how people should behave in the end times reminds us that, in the end, we are all equal before God. Married or single, male or female, gay or straight, young or old, rich or poor, regardless of our ethnic background or country of origin, God has made us as we are, just as God has made everyone else, and we can accomplish great things for God during our lives.

Mark 1:14-20 (first published 22 January 2006)

Several years ago I preached a series of sermons in the Gospel of Mark that I called "A Walk with Jesus." What I encouraged my congregation to do was to set aside everything they thought they knew about Jesus and walk with him through Mark as though it were their first encounter. There's a good theological reason for doing this. Mark is the oldest of our canonical gospels, and all too often we read Mark through the lens of Matthew or Luke, or even John: later, expanded gospels that speak to different audiences and have different points of view. If we can set aside the other gospels and look just at Mark, as we walk through the gospel together over much of the rest of this liturgical year (with extended forays in the Gospel of John, especially during the Easter season, since Mark contains no post-resurrection appearances), we will meet in it a lively, forceful Jesus, given more to actions that to words, in contrast with the other gospels. This week's lesson begins with Jesus' return to Galilee after John's arrest. He begins by carrying on John's message of the need for repentance, but with one significant addition. "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near," Jesus says. The long, dark night of Advent, waiting for God to intervene in history is now over, and God is once again working among his people. And with what people does God choose to work most closely? It's not who you might think. The first people Jesus calls to work with him in proclaiming the good news of God's reign are a group of fishermen. Why fisherman rather than, say, religious scholars, or wealthy merchants, or even other rabbis? Apparently Jesus saw potential in these men that others didn't see. First, they were not privileged but were common members of society, so they would both believe and communicate to others that the good news was meant for them and people like them. Second, they were hard workers, and discipleship is not for the faint of heart. Jesus wasn't inviting people to join a country club, a round-table discussion, or a sewing circle. He was inviting them to join him out in the real world, where people hurt and love and struggle to find God. Third, Jesus knew that, as fishermen, they understood the value of patience. Fish don't bite every time you throw a hook into the water, nor do they graciously swim into the net at the fisherman's convenience. On the contrary, they do all they can to avoid capture. However, with patience, coupled with perseverance, fishermen succeed in catching enough fish to make a living. If they didn't, they'd be in another profession. Fourth, the fishermen had a couple of tools that would prove to be useful as they traveled Galilee spreading the gospel: a boat and sailing skills. Jesus saw these fishermen, and he summoned them to follow him. There is no indication in Mark that Jesus had any prior relationship with these men, yet when he called, they immediately left their nets and followed Jesus. The call of Jesus to Christians today is just as urgent as it was when Jesus first issued it along the shores of the Sea of Galilee two thousand years ago, and it is just as urgent that we answer that call without reservations, no questions asked. Today's gospel reading ends with the disciples' decision to follow Jesus and become "fishers of men," but there is much more to come in this gospel of action. I want to close with the reminder that Jesus' call extends down through the centuries, and it still applies today. Maybe the most beautiful expression of this call is found in the closing paragraph of Albert Schweitzer's The Quest of the Historical Jesus:

He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: "Follow thou me!" and sets us to the tasks which he has to fulfil for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.
A few years after Schweitzer wrote these words, he left behind the comforts of Germany and traveled to sub-Saharan Africa, where he spent the rest of his life, a doctor establishing clinics and caring for the poor. Schweitzer heard the voice of Jesus saying "Follow me," and he left all he had to follow him. Have we done the same?