Saturday Night Theologian
13 December 2009

Zephaniah 3:14-20 (first published 14 December 2003)

Special Counsel to the President Chuck Colson has been described as the evil genius of an evil administration. In addition to his involvement in the Watergate scandal in the Nixon White House, Colson allegedly tried to hire people to beat up anti-war demonstrators and plotted an assault on the Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank. He eventually served seven months in prison for defaming Daniel Ellsberg and interfering with his trial for publishing the Pentagon Papers. Contrite and chastened by his prison experience, Colson emerged as a born-again Christian with a heart for sharing God's love with inmates. Though not all will agree with his theology (but whose theology does everyone agree with?), even his most strident critics agree that Colson's life changed completely after his release from prison. Although prison was the low point in his life, Colson says that he thanks God for Watergate, because it forced him to confront his former ways and turn his life around. After the shipwreck of his earlier life, Colson was given a second chance. The prophet Zephaniah's message to Judah was primarily one of judgment, but in our reading for today, the prophet delivers a word of forgiveness, a proclamation that will bring joy to the people after their impending punishment. "Rejoice and exult," the people are told, for "the Lord has taken away the judgments against you!" When we fail God or others, we often have a tendency to feel worthless. While we are suffering for our own wrongdoing, it is hard to envision being reconciled to God or to his people. It is difficult to think that we'll ever be able to rejoice again. The Advent and Christmas seasons are often difficult for people for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the most difficult candle for people to light during Advent is the candle of joy. Those who are feel they are suffering because they have wronged God, as the people of Judah had done, may believe that there is no reason to light the candle of joy, but today's reading teaches otherwise. No matter we've done, no matter how low we've sunk, God is ready and willing to forgive and restore our joy. Yes, we may have to suffer the consequence of our actions, but God anxiously awaits the opportunity to restore us as soon as we turn to God in repentance and humility.

Isaiah 12:2-6 (first published 14 December 2003)

What is the worst situation you've ever found yourself in? Did you think you'd ever be able to extricate yourself from it? About four thousand years ago, a Babylonian gardener named Enlil-Bani found himself elevated to the throne of Babylon. It was not a promotion he wanted. It was an annual custom for the real king to abandon the throne on New Year's Day, because that day was considered especially inauspicious for the ruler of the people. A slave or prisoner would take his place on the throne, clad in royal garb, and the populace would mockingly bow down before him, honoring him as king. When the day ended, the "substitute king" would be removed from the throne and executed. When Enlil-Bani began his reign as king-for-a-day, he must have wondered what he had done to anger the gods. Surely his sins were not so great as to justify the humiliation and death he faced! As he sat on his mock throne, a servant of the real king Erra-Imitti suddenly came running into the courtyard where the substitute king was seated, and he shouted the dreadful news that the king was dead. Seizing on this unexpected twist of fate, Enlil-Bani proclaimed that it was the will of the gods for him to remain on the throne permanently, and he proceeded to rule Babylonia for twenty-four years. Undoubtedly he rejoiced in his salvation on that day and on many subsequent days, too. Isaiah foretold a time in which the people of Judah would rejoice in their salvation as well: "With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation." The visual imagery is graphic. A well in the ancient Near East was a source of life, without which the inhabitants of an arid land would die of thirst. A well was a source of cool, pure water. Unlike a cistern, which filled when the rains came, but whose water quickly became lukewarm and a haven for mold and algae, a well offered refreshing, healthy water to quench the thirst and revive the spirit. A well was a source of abundance. If a cistern cracked, it would lose its water, and in any case, during a drought the water would not be replenished. A well provided water in abundance, typically enough for an entire village, year in and year out. A well was a source of power. People argued over wells (cf. Genesis 36:17-33) and even fought over them. To control a well or an oasis gave one power over one's neighbors. When the prophet spoke of drawing water from the wells of salvation (or wells that provide salvation), his listeners would have understood the importance of wells in their culture and the consequent value of the salvation. God's salvation provides life, it refreshes, it is abundant, and it offers power for living. God's salvation has eternal aspects to be sure, but it is also temporal. God wants believers to experience joy in this life as well as the next. Certainly the salvation that the prophet proclaimed involved deliverance from the harsh circumstances of life, not just pie in the sky by and by. God's followers today still have access to the well of salvation. For Christians, it is interesting to note that in Hebrew the word "salvation" is "yeshua," which is also the Hebrew form of the name Jesus. For us, salvation comes in the person of Jesus, but it is not intended for us alone. Just as a well supplies salvific, life-giving water in abundance, so our spiritual well, Jesus, provides us with life-giving living water, which we are to share with a thirsty world, so that they, too, may rejoice.

Philippians 4:4-7 (first published 14 December 2003)

O! somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout,
But there is no joy in Mudville--mighty Casey has struck out. 
The final stanza of Ernest Lawrence Thayer's poem "Casey at the Bat" hits home (so to speak) with all of us from time to time. Sometimes we feel no joy. Paul urges the church in Philippi: "Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus." But sometimes we just can't rejoice. This week has been a hard one for my family. We had to put our family dog, Dusty, to sleep. He was just two weeks short of his fifth birthday--he was born on Christmas Day, 1998. Somehow he came down with a serious liver infection. Nothing the vets did made any difference, and he was suffering terribly. To some people a dog is just a dog, but to us, Dusty was family. His death hit us hard, and we're still trying to adjust to life without him. The backyard seems empty, the nights are too quiet, and our other dog doesn't understand why her "son" isn't there. Will we be able to light the candle of joy this Sunday and mean it? Was Paul being excessively idealistic when he told people to rejoice in every circumstance? Maybe he was, but then again, maybe he understood something about joy that most of us don't, or at least we don't always remember it. Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians from prison. He faced an uncertain future, with death a real possibility. Despite his circumstances, Paul encouraged his readers to rejoice. Paul knew that life was sometimes hard, and elsewhere he exhorts Christians to weep with those who weep. But Paul knew how to find the good even in the most difficult of situations. It was in the city of Philippi itself where Paul and Silas were imprisoned, after having been whipped by the guards, simply for preaching the gospel. Paul could have wrung his hands in misery, wondering why fate had dealt him such a bad hand, but he didn't. Instead, Paul and Silas rejoiced--rejoiced!--that they were considered worthy to suffer on Christ's behalf, and they sang songs of praise to God. Paul was someone who understood hardship and suffering, danger and death, yet he found the strength to rejoice. Clearly Paul wasn't joyful because of his circumstances; he was joyful in spite of his circumstances. Somehow, Paul was able to see the big picture. Being in jail was just a temporary circumstance, but freedom in Christ is forever. Suffering the loss of a loved one hurts now, but only because we have experienced years of happiness beforehand. Being without a job during the holidays is painful, but it enables us to see more clearly the sacrifices that our spiritual forebears underwent, giving up careers, family, comfort, and often even their very lives for the sake of the gospel. True joy comes from within, from the conviction that all of life is not tied up in our current circumstances. Joy comes from hope, the confident expectation that God remains in control. The poet Kahlil Gibran captures the relationship between joy and sorrow beautifully, in a section from The Prophet:
Then a woman said, Speak to us of Joy and Sorrow.
And he answered:
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter's oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
Some of you say, "Joy is greater than sorrow," and others say, "Nay, sorrow is the greater."
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.
Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.
Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced.
When the treasure-keeper lifts you to weigh his gold and his silver, needs must your joy or your sorrow rise or fall.

Luke 3:7-18 (first published 14 December 2003)

It is no security to wicked men for one moment, that there are no visible means of death at hand! . . . The unseen, unthought-of-ways and means of persons going suddenly out of the world are innumerable and inconceivable. Unconverted men walk over the pit of hell on a rotten covering, and there are innumerable places in this covering so weak that they will not bear their weight, and these places are not seen. The arrows of death fly unseen at noon-day; the sharpest sight cannot discern them. God has so many different unsearchable ways of taking wicked men out of the world and sending them to hell, that there is nothing to make it appear that God had need to be at the expense of a miracle, or to go out of the ordinary course of His providence to destroy any wicked man, at any moment. All the means that there are of sinners going out of the world, are so in God's hands, and so universally and absolutely subject to his power and determination, that it does not depend at all the less on the mere will of God, whether sinners shall at any moment go to hell, than if means were never made use of, or at all concerned in the case.
Jonathan Edwards' sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" is hard reading, and it must have been hard listening in its day. In his oft-repeated message, Edwards laid out the necessity of conversion in the face of the wrath of God, which he likened to a deadly thunderstorm, a great flood, an arrow aimed at the heart of the sinner. Edwards was by no means the only preacher in his day to play upon the fears of his hearers in order to exhort them to turn from their wicked ways, nor was he the first. John the Baptist was the prototypical hellfire and damnation preacher, delivering his message relentlessly to all who came to hear him. Amazingly, for our sensitivities today, multitudes traveled to the desert to listen to him, and many lives were changed, just as they were by the sermons of Jonathan Edwards and his ilk. After describing the message of John--in which he painted his audience as a brood of vipers fleeing a grass fire and as trees bearing rotten fruit, all in danger of God's impending judgment--Luke calls John's proclamation "the good news." What was so good about John's message of "turn or burn"? For one thing, he directed his harshest critique at those who abused their positions of power: the rich, tax collectors, and soldiers. John was a prophet of social justice (what other kind is there?), and the establishment of justice is good news, especially for those who suffer most from the inequalities of social systems that are too often designed by those in power to keep themselves in power. He was loved by the common people, who came to him in droves, and many people of influence also repented and pledged to follow the ways of God more closely than before. Another positive aspect of John's message was the fact that he equated repentance with a change in lifestyle, not just a change of allegiance from one of the other Jewish teachers of his day. Following God meant doing the will of God, which included treating everyone with equal dignity and with equal rights. Yet another positive of John's preaching was that he recognized that he did not have the final word. Unlike too many famous preachers throughout the centuries, John realized that his message could be superseded. He preached God's word as he understood it, but he had the humility to admit that his word wasn't final. "I baptize you in water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire." Although he imagined that the coming messiah would preach a message similar to his--indeed, Jesus' earliest sermons seem to have been based on John's--he acknowledged his own limitations, deferring to the one who would come after him. John the Baptist's overall message seems harsh today, much as "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," but we must remember that preachers preach to their contemporaries, not the generations following. God raises up new messengers with the divine message for each generation. God has called women and men to speak today in various ways--in the pulpit, in the classroom, on the job, in the home, in the community, through the media, and on the Web. Those of us who speak must tailor our words to our hearers, without compromising the message. We are called to bring words of comfort and conviction, hope and warning to those who hear us today.