Saturday Night Theologian
22 February 2009

2 Kings 2:1-12 (first published 26 February 2006)

I have on the wall by my computer a black light poster from the 1970s called "Lost Horizon." In a world of psychedelic colors it portrays six people hiking along a mountainous trail toward the setting sun. The surrealism of the poster is made much plainer when I turn off the lights and view it with a black light. Colors become more vivid, the poster takes on a 3-D feel, and hidden dangers and marvels suddenly appear. I wonder if Elisha felt like he was moving through a surreal world on his final journey with his mentor, the prophet Elijah. At every stop along the way--at Bethel, at Jericho, and at the banks of the Jordan--the two travelers met groups of prophets, "the sons of the prophets," who warned Elisha that God was about to remove Elijah from his presence. "Yeah, I know," Elisha replied. "Shut up about it!" The words of the prophetic guilds, perhaps meant as a warning for Elisha to prepare himself for a great personal loss, had the opposite effect. Rather than preparing Elisha for his impending loss, the warnings seem to have agitated him. How weird is it to take a journey that you know will be your last with another person on this earth? Many who have experienced the death of a loved one know something about a trip of this sort. It begins with a doctor's warning that time is short. Well-meaning friends try to prepare you for what's to come, but their words don't always help. Finally as you walk the final leg of the journey with your friend or family member, memories become confused, and the world become an exotic, terrifying, or perhaps even oddly comforting place in which to spend the last few hours of life. The fact that Elijah went to heaven in a fiery chariot didn't lessen Elisha's loss. What did help was the promise that he would receive a double portion of Elijah's spirit. We can often claim the same blessing, though we're usually not able to recognize it at the moment of parting, because the pain is just too great. Those who have gone before us do not leave us empty-handed. In time, their memory in our hearts will remind us of the friendship and love we shared, will encourage us when we feel down, and will inspire us to greater things. The loss of a loved one is difficult, but it is a path almost all of us will have to take over the course of our lives, perhaps several times, until eventually we play the role of the one who departs, and we begin a new journey. When we're on one or the other of these tracks, the story of Elijah and Elisha offers comfort, for we see that all such journeys are encompassed within the mind of God, and we see that neither the one who leaves nor the one who stays behind is alone.

Psalm 50:1-6

Jerusalem and the regions of Israel and Palestine are often referred to as the Holy Land. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim pilgrims from all over the world flock to its holy sites to celebrate the lives and deeds of prophets and kings. Many people, Jews especially, but at least a few Christians as well, immigrate to the Holy Land every year, believing that somehow life will be better for them in the shadow of the walls of Jerusalem. But while tourists and immigrants flock to Jerusalem, the political situation there seems to go from bad to worse. Right-wing extremists are in control of Gaza, and the right-wing Likud party is poised to recycle Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister in a matter of weeks. While it is not impossible that pragmatic heads will prevail in both governments, the history of Hamas and Likud doesn't offer a lot of hope for peace and a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. The psalmist speaks of God as a righteous judge who summons all those who are part of the covenant community to God's side. Although the psalmist portrays that location as Zion, it is dangerous to think of Zion-Jerusalem as the literal place where people should look for God. Yes, God can be found in Jerusalem, but God can be found equally well in Mumbai, Harare, Caracas, Karachi, or New Orleans. Identifying God too closely with a particular geographic location can be hazardous, even deadly, as inhabitants of Jerusalem, Mecca, and Karbala can attest. Rather than looking for God in all the wrong places (i.e., in any specific place), people of faith should look for God within themselves and in the world surrounding them, wherever they happen to be. God is a God of justice, and God is at work wherever people are working in God's name to right the wrongs of the world. Where justice prevails is the place where God reigns, not some arbitrary spot on the globe.

2 Corinthians 4:3-6 (first published 26 February 2006)

From at least the time of Constantine, and perhaps before in certain locales, some people have seen Christianity as a power trip, a chance to gain influence over others and exercise authority. To be sure this hasn't been the predominant view of Christianity, but over the centuries many Christians have accepted without question their leaders' claims to power. The situation continues unabated today. Ordinary, intelligent people who wouldn't for a minute allow a king or dictator to tell them what to believe or how to live surrender themselves to often self-appointed rulers in the church. Sometimes these autocrats of the mind and conscience operate at the level of the local church, priests or pastors who enjoy their position of authority more than they should. At other times these rulers lord it over larger numbers of people, over whom they hold sway either by means of a hierarchical church structure or through persuasive rhetoric. Of course, the phenomenon is not limited to the Christian church, for it applies to other faiths as well. I would like to think that the number of modern religious leaders who are on this divine power trip is relatively small, but I'm not so sure about that. I still remember the seminary student who told me several years ago that he wouldn't allow the people of his church to read a particular book. "What kind of a leader are you," I wondered, "who exercises power over his congregation's reading habits?" On another occasion, I had a young lady who was about to get married tell me that her pastor wouldn't allow her to have a particular love song played in her wedding, because he didn't approve of it. Here was a young couple that was old enough to take on the responsibility of marriage, but they couldn't be trusted to choose appropriate wedding music? Then there are those who exercise their power over the minds of others by threatening them with hellfire if they adopt the wrong set of beliefs. How much more effective the church would be if all Christian leaders would follow the example of Paul, who said, "We do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus' sake." Note that Paul did not say that he was merely Jesus' slave (he makes this claim on many other occasions); he said that he was also the voluntary slave of the Corinthian church. In other words, he saw it as his duty to the church to serve them in whatever way he could. What a refreshing view of ministry! Christians need to get away from the perspective that pastors are there to rule over them and tell them what to believe. Pastors who abuse their authority by exercising it in arbitrary ways need to repent, but so do Christian laypeople who are too lazy to exert their own God-given right to use their brains. God calls us all to be servants, and if we find ourselves in positions of authority, that too is an opportunity to serve other people in the name of Christ.

Mark 9:2-9 (first published 26 February 2006)

Have you ever wondered why it was that Jesus chose to take only Peter, James, and John with him when he climbed the Mount of Transfiguration? Maybe if he had chosen to be transfigured before all the disciples, Judas Iscariot would never have betrayed him. Maybe if he had been transfigured before not only the disciples but also the many other people who traveled with him, the message that he was the unique Son of God would have spread more rapidly. Maybe if he had picked the temple in Jerusalem as the place to be transfigured, a mass conversion of the Jewish leadership to his cause would have transpired, and he would have been acclaimed as Messiah not only by his followers but by his former opponents as well. Why did Jesus choose only Peter, James, and John? I don't know the answer for sure, but I suspect it's similar to the reason why God chose to be revealed to Elijah in a gentle breeze (or a still, small voice, or perhaps even silence) rather than in a windstorm, a blazing fire, or an earthquake. God doesn't proclaim the divine will on billboards along the highway, nor does God take out an ad in the New York Times when God wants to do something. God only reveals God's own person and will to people who are ready to listen and, after they've heard, are willing to act. The good news is that God, like the Marines, is always looking for a few good women and men, people who are listening intently to hear God's voice, people who have the courage to act on what they understand God wants them to do. Are we the kind of people that Jesus would choose to invite to climb a mountain with him so that we could witness the glory of God being revealed?