Saturday Night Theologian
10 January 2010

Isaiah 43:1-7 (first published 11 January 2004)

So Poseidon gathered his clouds together, grasped his trident, stirred it around in the sea, and roused the rage of every wind that blows till earth, sea, and sky were hidden in cloud, and night sprang forth out of the heavens. Winds from east, south, north, and west fell upon Odysseus all at the same time, and the welling of the sea was tremendous, so that Odysseus' heart began to fail him. "Alas," he said to himself in his dismay, "what will become of me?" . . . But Athena resolved to help Odysseus, so she bound the ways of all the winds except one, and made them lie quite still; but she roused a good, stiff breeze from the north that should smooth the waters until Odysseus reached the land.
Throughout Odysseus' long journey home, he can always count on the protecting presence of the goddess Athena, who has taken a special interest in him and his fate. He suffers great loss along the way, but in the end, he returns to his home in Ithaca and is united with his family. The affinity of Athena for Odysseus, however, pales in comparison with the love of God for his exiled people in today's reading. Many from the nation of Judah had been taken into exile in Babylonia, and two generations later, with the advent of Cyrus the Great of Persia, they had the opportunity to return to their homeland. Those who had lived in Judah prior to exile had experienced tremendous loss. The temple had been destroyed, the walls of Jerusalem had been torn down, and thousands had lost their lives. They and their descendants were understandably wary of leaving what had become a fairly comfortable situation for them. What if they met danger along the way? What if there were bandits on the road? What if the inhabitants of the land rejected them? What if the land itself refused to yield its fruit? In the face of these "what ifs," the prophet (traditionally called Deutero-Isaiah, or Second Isaiah) speaks words of great comfort to his people, which are from God:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
   I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
   and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
   and the flame shall not consume you.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Because you are precious in my sight,
   and honored, and I love you.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Do not fear, for I am with you;
   I will bring your offspring from the east,
   and from the west I will gather you;
I will say to the north, "Give them up,"
   and to the south, "Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
   and my daughters from the end of the earth--
everyone who is called by my name,
   whom I created for my glory,
   whom I formed and made."
The world is a scary place, and often a dangerous place. It is tempting to give into fear and complacency, but when God calls us to try something new, to move into the unknown, God also promises to be with us, not because God finds us worthy and brave, as Athena saw Odysseus, but because God created us and loves us.

Psalm 29 (first published 11 January 2004)

Many cultures have creation myths that center on the taming of chaos and the introduction of order. The Babylonian version of the Akkadian creation story Enuma elish describes how the god Marduk battled the goddess Tiamat, who represented chaos, and defeated her, fashioning heaven and earth from her body. The Canaanites told stories about the slaying of a great dragon, who represented chaos. Even the modern Big Bang Theory begins with a chaotic universe in which clumps of matter gradually coalesce into galaxy clusters, galaxies, solar systems, stars, and planets. Psalm 29 portrays God seated as a king enthroned over "the flood," that is, over chaos. God brings order to an otherwise chaotic world. Order is necessary for life to have meaning, purpose, and hope. If all events occurred randomly, there would be no cause and effect; life would be devoid of meaning, because no matter what actions people took, the consequences of their actions would be unrelated to what they had done. In a world of chaos, all activity would be without purpose. Without meaning or purpose, there could be no hope. A universe without order would have no stars, planets, or life. A country without order would be anarchy. A life without order would be hopeless. However, because God is seated on the throne, bringing order to the world, we do have hope, and we can share our hope with those who view the world as meaningless. In the midst of a world of poverty, war, terror, AIDS, unemployment, and hunger, followers of God must bring a message of hope to those who are suffering. Though things look chaotic now, and life seems to have no meaning, God is in control. In the name of God, let us proclaim a message of hope and make it our purpose in life to demonstrate that life has meaning for every inhabitant of the planet.

Acts 8:14-17 (first published 11 January 2004)

In the movie The Mission, priests are sent into the jungles of South America to convert the native people. After initial rejection, eventually many do respond to the gospel message. Before long, however, the greed of the colonial powers takes precedence over the spiritual state of the Guarani, and hundreds are slaughtered in order to confiscate their land. The justification which even many church leaders give is that the Guarani are not fully human. At best they are like human children, so their rights and concerns are of no importance. Throughout history groups of people have looked down their noses at their neighbors who were different in some way. The Greeks described those who couldn't speak their language as "barbarians" (from the onomatopoetic "bar-bar," an imitation of the sounds the non-Greeks made when they spoke). The descendants of Europeans who settled North America considered the Native Americans "savages." The white Australians considered their Aboriginal predecessors to be unintelligent and sub-human. Over the years in many countries, but especially in so-called "Christian" Europe, many of those who called themselves Christians despised the Jews in their midst. The early church was not immune to prejudice, either. The Jews looked down on the Samaritans as half-breeds and heterodox. When Samaritans began converting to Christianity, rather than welcome the new converts with open arms, the first thing the Christian leaders in Jerusalem did was to send two of their most authoritative figures, Peter and John, to check on the veracity of their conversion experiences (the Jerusalem church treats the Gentiles converted under Paul's preaching similarly at a later date). Perhaps that is the significance of the interesting aspect of this story that the Holy Spirit did not come upon the Samaritans until the arrival of Peter and John. I don't think that the delayed advent of the Spirit was so that the Samaritans could see the incredible power that Peter and John had, much less that Peter and John, as official representatives of the Jerusalem church, were the official bearers of the power of the gospel (contrast the story of Cornelius and his household in Acts 10, where Gentiles received the Spirit without any laying on of hands). On the contrary, I think the event described shows that Peter and John--and by implication the Jerusalem church--needed to witness firsthand that God had chosen the Samaritans as equals. Those of us in the industrialized world have much to learn from our brothers and sisters in the developing world concerning faith, love, and praxis. We need to build bridges to those who are different from us, whether those differences are in the areas of ethnicity, nationality, language, skin color, or doctrine. Blessed are the bridge-builders, for they shall be blessed, and learn, and grow stronger in their faith.

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

The first Sunday after Epiphany is the day on which the church celebrates the baptism of Jesus. It is one of the few events of Jesus' life that is reported in all four gospels, and each gospel has a different spin on the story. For Mark, it is the inauguration of Jesus' public ministry. For Matthew, it is Jesus' first act of obedience in fulfillment of prophecy. For John, it is the first public revelation of Jesus' hidden, divine glory. For Luke, from which today's reading comes, Jesus' baptism marks the beginning of a new era in divine-human history. John the Baptist, the greatest figure of the previous era in Luke's historical scheme, is not even mentioned in connection with Jesus' baptism. On the contrary, Luke narrates John's arrest in verses 19 and 20, taking him out of the picture before Jesus even arrives to be baptized. Does that mean that Luke imagined that Jesus was baptized by someone else, perhaps one of John's disciples? Probably not, but he certainly shapes the story in such a way as to indicate that Jesus and John belonged to separate periods of history. In Luke, Jesus is the prophet of a new era, announcing God's judgment against the rich and powerful and God's message of hope for the poor and oppressed. What is new about Jesus' prophetic work for Luke is that it would soon be offered to the Gentiles as well as the Jews. Not yet, though. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus only takes the gospel message to the Jews, because he is first and foremost the Jewish messiah. Only after Jesus' ascension into heaven, and particularly the Day of Pentecost described in the book of Acts, does the gospel message extend beyond the Jewish fold. Nevertheless, it is Jesus' baptism that announces to the world that the good news of God's concern for all the peoples of the world would soon come, with the power of the Holy Spirit. Too many Christians today fail to recognize the advent of Jesus as the profound, transformative experience that Luke (and the other evangelists, in somewhat different ways) thought that it was. They plod along with their lives, accepting sanitized, watered down, and even perverted images of Jesus--Jesus the warrior, Jesus the corporate mogul, Jesus the giver of wealth, Jesus the despiser of Jews or Muslims, Jesus the protector of the American dream. Luke would be aghast to see how Christians have perverted the prophetic nature of Jesus' mission over the centuries. As we start a new year and a new decade, let us commit ourselves to read the gospels again, as though for the first time, setting aside the distortions and prejudices that we've learned. Let us start our walk with Jesus afresh.