Saturday Night Theologian
14 June 2009

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13

Prophets in ancient Israel played many different roles: preachers, prognosticators of the future, military advisors, social critics, reformers, etc. One role that the prophets sometimes played is little noticed in many circles, but it is an extremely important one. Prophets were sometimes political activists. God had previously sent Samuel to anoint Saul as king, but after an uncertain period of time, probably several years, God directed Samuel to anoint a new king, David. Despite the prestige that Samuel enjoyed among his peers, he recognized the danger entailed in anointing a new king while one still sat on the throne. So Samuel came up with a good cover story. He was traveling to Bethlehem in his role as circuit-riding priest in order to perform sacrifices. He came to Jesse's home, and after looking over his sons, he anointed David as the new king. As we know from the rest of the story, David did go on to become king after a lengthy struggle with King Saul. Although we live in democracies rather than kingdoms today, Samuel's actions continue to resonate to all today who would be prophets. First, prophets must be willing to admit when candidates whom they previously supported fail to live up to their potential. It is dangerous for a prophet to be tied too closely to any individual political leader, not because of the harm that leader might do to the prophet should the prophet turn on him or her (although this possibility may be a real danger) but because of the harm that too closely identifying with a single individual, or even a single political party, can do to a prophet's reputation. Second, prophets should be aware that speaking out on issues may be harmful to one's health or reputation. It's easy to speak in favor of popular subjects, but it's often difficult to oppose popular people or policies on principle. Nevertheless, standing on principle is something prophets must do to justify the appellation prophet. Third, prophets should not assume that the obvious banner-carrier is the best. Several of David's brothers appeared to be more logical candidates to lead the nation, but as it turned out, David was the best qualified of the bunch. Finally, and most importantly, prophets should not be afraid to speak out on controversial political matters. Voices from all sides of the political spectrum are heard in today's marketplace of ideas, and those who believe that they hear God's call to speak out have no reason to hold back from contributing to the conversation. However, when they do speak out, today's prophets must always do so with an attitude of humility, recognizing that the people and policies they support, because they are most in accord with their own principles, may in fact not be the best, since their judgment or reading of God's will is not inerrant.

Psalm 20 (first published 8 June 2003)

Psalm 20 may be classified as a blessing before battle. The priest offers his prayer for the king that God will grant him victory in battle because of his faithfulness and piety. The psalm assures the king and his army of success in their endeavors because of God's presence with them. If taken literally, this psalm is dangerous, even pernicious, since it views God as a tribal deity ready to wage war on behalf of God's people. Too often this is exactly how many Christians see God acting on the global stage. They assume that their nation is favored by God and that their nation's policies are right, without exception. This type of provincial thinking contrasts sharply with the message of Jesus, who proclaimed God's love for all people and commanded love for one's neighbor. On the other hand, if we take the psalm figuratively rather than literally, its message is valuable. Battles need not be armed conflicts. They can be differences of opinion over important issues. They can be one's personal struggles with obstacles in the path to faithfulness. They can be interpersonal conflicts that need resolution. In these cases, the psalm's reminder of God's divine guidance and comfort is valuable. It strengthens us in difficult times and reminds us that we too, like the kings of ancient days, have the potential of being anointed by God's spirit.

2 Corinthians 5:6-17 (first published 18 June 2006)

Although I'm not a scientist, I hold science in the highest regard. I am a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and I read widely in a variety of scientific disciplines, including evolutionary biology, paleoanthropology, genetics, and subatomic particle physics, as well as the odd book or article on mathematical topics. This is not to say that I'm an expert in any of these areas--I'm not--but I am an interested amateur. In a book I'm currently reading, a critique of the Intelligent Design movement, the author, a scientist, admits that as important as science is, it does not answer all of life's questions. "Science cannot tell us what we ought to do or what should be, only what we can do and what is. Religion thrives because it addresses our deepest emotional yearnings and society's foundation moral needs." Paul puts it like this: "We walk by faith and not by sight." Now sight is a valuable sense, and no one who has it would willingly give it up in order to be blind. It is not that sight is an inferior sense, it is that it has limitations. If we have sight, we should certainly take advantage of it, and that's why attempts to negate the findings of science on the basis of religion are foolish and ultimately doomed to fail. However, sight--or science--is not all there is. People of faith recognize that beauty, value, and meaning are real but not susceptible to scientific probing. Sight tells us many important things; faith tells us the most important things.

Mark 4:26-34 (first published 18 June 2006)

Mark was the first of our canonical gospels to be written, and both Matthew's and Luke's gospels use it as a basic framework. Most of Mark's content is repeated in either one or both of these gospels, but the first parable of the kingdom in today's reading is unique to Mark. Jesus tells of a farmer who sows his seed on the ground, then waits expectantly until the earth yields its harvest. When the harvest comes in, he takes his sickle and reaps the grain. Why was this story omitted from Matthew and Luke? There is nothing obviously troubling about the story, but a closer look reveals that if God is too closely identified with the farmer (after all, God is the one who reaps the harvest), the statement that the farmer doesn't know how the seed sprouts and grows would seem to contradict the concept of an omniscient God. This might be the reason that the later gospels omit this parable, or there might be another reason. Nevertheless, the important point of the parable is that the kingdom of God is mysterious, particularly in its growth patterns. Why does a church planted in one area grow while another does not? The pastors of growing churches often like to imagine that they are doing something better than the churches that are struggling, but is that really true? Does a church planted using one set of strategies grow because of those strategies? If so, then why doesn't the same set of strategies work universally? The answer is that it is not the strategies and it is not the pastor. The kingdom grows in sometimes unusual ways and under rather odd circumstances. Sometimes the kingdom merely holds its own, or even shrinks, in a particular geographical area. If the kingdom could be bottled, someone could make a fortune selling churches a "church growth kit" that really works. But the kingdom can't be bottled, and God can't be predicted. Maybe we'd prefer a God who's a little more like we are. Fortunately, God knows better. Rather than focusing too much on how to get our portion of the kingdom to grow like the big megachurches (which may or may not represent true growth of the kingdom of God), it might be better if we looked around to see where God is already growing the kingdom, and join in. There's a caution, however. Growth of the kingdom doesn't necessarily equate to numerical growth. The biggest church in town might not be the strongest representative of the kingdom. In fact, it might just be that the most profound kingdom growth isn't even in a church. It could be in an educational ministry, a feeding program, or a medical ministry. God works in mysterious ways, and the growth of the kingdom really is like the seed that the farmer put on the ground in the parable. It grows, and we don't know exactly what caused the growth. All we can do is rejoice in it.