Saturday Night Theologian
2 December 2012

Jeremiah 33:14-16 (first published 30 November 2003)

It is true that when with folded arms we weigh the pros and cons we are no less a credit to our species. The tiger bounds to the help of his congeners without the least reflexion, or else he slinks away into the depths of the thickets. But that is not the question. And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come [Samuel Becket, Waiting for Godot].
Becket's play Waiting for Godot is a masterpiece of existentialist angst whose characters struggle against nihilism. The characters await the arrival of their leader, all the while debating whether their lives have any meaning at all. They finally conclude that whatever meaning their lives may have is intricately related to the coming of Godot. Many people today struggle with the meaning of existence. Some conclude that pleasure, wealth, or popularity will provide them with a sense of personal worth. Others seek meaning in accomplishment, service, or self-sacrifice. Still others come to believe that life has no ultimate meaning. Today's reading from Jeremiah, which is missing in the Greek version of Jeremiah (33:14-26 is lacking in the LXX), is based on an earlier passage, 23:5-6. Whereas the latter passage dates to the time of Jeremiah, the former probably comes from the postexilic period. Subtle changes are evident when comparing the later version with its earlier antecedent. One obvious change is that whereas the earlier version emphasizes the role of a future king, who will rule wisely and be called "Yahweh our righteousness" (i.e., a Zedekiah who lives up to his name), the later version downplays the role of the king, assigning the name "Yahweh our righteousness" to the city of Jerusalem. Another change is the shift in hope from a united Israel and Judah to a promise targeted specifically at the remnant of Judah, with its capital in Jerusalem. The expectations of believers change as history rolls forward. The postexilic Jews had a different hope than Jews living before the exile had. Christians today have different expectations than Christians living at the end of the first century had. That's as it should be. If believers don't adapt to the changing situation in the world, their faith becomes ossified and ceases to be relevant. On the other hand, if believers abandon their hope in the God who inhabits the future, their faith becomes passé and ceases to exist. As we enter the season of Advent, today's Christians must express our hope in terms that reach back to the first-century foundations of our faith--and even further back to our Jewish roots--but we must also express our hope in the language and ideas of today's postmodern world, a world fully engaged with the scientific discoveries of the past few centuries but aware of the ambiguities that are so prevalent in contemporary discussions of philosophy, politics, and religion. Such a world desperately needs hope that God will execute righteousness and justice in its midst, and the Advent season gives us the opportunity to proclaim it.

Psalm 25:1-10 (first published 30 November 2003, updated for 2012)

The movie Quills is a fictional account of the Marquis de Sade's imprisonment in the Charenton Asylum for the Insane in Paris. He has been incarcerated for his shocking sexual deviancy and his graphic, explicitly sexual writings. The abbe in charge of the asylum pities him and tries (without success) to reform him. A psychologist famous for his harsh "treatments" of patients, Dr. Royer-Collard, is assigned by the state to deal with de Sade by whatever means necessary. In particular, the doctor is determined to stop the Marquis' literary output (de Sade has been smuggling manuscripts out of the hospital to his publisher). Despite de Sade's blatantly perverse behavior, that of the doctor in particular and French society in general--the story is set against the backdrop of the Reign of Terror--is even worse. Dr. Royer-Collard self-righteously condemns the Marquis, the chambermaid who smuggles out de Sade's writings, and even the abbe, while at the same time engaging in legal sexual battery against his child (literally) bride, who is apparently some forty years his junior. The doctor's inability to see his own sins while mercilessly condemning the sins of those around him is a central theme of the movie. The psalmist asks God to be merciful to him, to overlook the sins of his youth and his transgressions, in accordance with God's steadfast love. He also asks God for deliverance from his enemies. So far so good. The psalms speak in generic language, and that is one of the reasons for their power through the ages. One of the common themes of the psalms is victory over one's enemies. To the extent that believers today are treated unjustly or are persecuted, prayers for deliverance are appropriate. However, we must interpret psalms such as this in the light of Jesus' instruction to love our enemies. As we enter the Advent season, U.S. troops are deployed overseas among people whom we might consider enemies, especially in Afghanistan, but also in Cuba (Guantánamo Bay) and in the Korean DMZ. Before we pray for God to forgive our sins, we should first pray that God will reveal to us both the fullness and the enormity of our own sins. How many of our actions, which may have seemed justified at the time, were in fact affronts to God and his children? How many people have we killed? How many civilians? How many children? How have our sins impacted the lives of those who are still alive? After we pray for God to forgive our sins, we should also pray for God to forgive the sins of our enemies. The greatest threat to the church is not Islam, nor is it atheism, nor is it libertinism. The greatest threat to the church is self-righteousness, and our greatest enemy is ourselves. When we self-righteously condemn others without recognizing our own sins, the rest of the world justly condemns us as hypocrites. How can we affirm our beliefs while avoiding the trap of self-righteousness? By following the psalmist's example and praying, "Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths," and by adopting a spirit of humility.

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 (first published 30 November 2003, updated for 2012)

In the context of talking about raising children, one of my seminary professors spoke of the need, as they grow older, gradually to let them go and to let them assume more responsibility for themselves, because it is our job as parents to prepare them to be productive, well-balanced adults. We should encourage our children to follow their dreams, even if it means that they will move far away from us. When they visit us at Christmas or on vacation, we realize that our relationship has changed. We are still their parents, but they are now adults like we are. We can give advice, but we can't insist that they follow it. Moreover, we have to admit that sometimes their understanding of God's will is better than ours, particularly when it comes to their own lives. When they leave to return home, we might like to go with them, to instruct them directly the way we did when they were younger, but of course we can't do that. They have their own lives to lead, and if we've raised them well, they'll succeed at least as often as we ourselves did when we were their age. So we let them go, but not without a prayer for their safety and for their wisdom to know God's will. "We can do no more," my professor said, "and we certainly would do no less." For Paul, the members of the church in Thessalonica were like his children. He founded the church on his second missionary journey, and after he departed under threat of persecution, he longed to know how the church was progressing. Was it still a vital, growing congregation, or had it withered on the vine? Unable to visit himself, he sent his colleague Timothy to see how the church fared and to encourage the people. When Timothy returned with the news that the church was thriving, Paul was overjoyed, and he sat down to write the letter to the church that has been passed down to us as 1 Thessalonians. Telephones, e-mail, texts, and Skype are great technological advances that allow us to stay in contact with our loved ones who live across the country or on the other side of the world from us, but they are no substitute for face to face meetings. The Christmas holidays are traditionally a time of family get-togethers where we can spend time with friends and family whom we don't see every day. Many, however, are unable to spend the holidays with their loved ones. Perhaps they are deployed overseas on military assignment, or maybe their job has taken them far away and time or financial constraints prevent gathering together this year. If so, it is important to keep them in our prayers, asking God to protect and guide them. The Advent season is one of hope, and as we pray for God to intervene in global affairs, we can also ask God to put merciful hands on those we love. We can do no more, and we certainly would do no less.

Luke 21:25-36 (first published 30 November 2003)

For thirteen days in October 1962, the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war, an incident known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. The end of the Cold War in 1989 brought revived hope for a peaceful, non-nuclear future for the planet, and this optimism pervaded the world for the next dozen years or so. When the second Bush administration took control of the White House in 2001, government officials immediately signaled dangerous changes in policy that threatened to reignite the possibility of nuclear annihilation once again. The administration unilaterally withdrew from the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty with Russia, and it announced that it was seriously considering adding "small," tactical nuclear devices to its battlefield arsenal of weapons. There was even talk about putting nuclear weapons in space! The only nation ever to inflict nuclear holocaust on another nation was threatening to do so again, with impunity. World reaction was swift and united. These policies threaten the peace of the world, the nations of the world said. Even though nuclear weapons have not yet been used since the end of World War II, the nuclear threat, real or imagined, has already led to war in Iraq and heightened tensions in North Korea and Iran, and India and Pakistan have come close once again to nuclear war. In Luke's version of Jesus' Apocalyptic Discourse, Jesus warns his disciples to watch the signs of the times. In a verse that is unique to Luke, Jesus says, "People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world." Fear and foreboding is an apt description of what many people around the world feel as the planet slides back toward the uncertainties of the darkest days of the Cold War. Mutually Assured Destruction (with its appropriate acronym!) has been replaced in the minds of some government officials with Unilaterally Assured Destruction, a policy that is even more mad than its predecessor. In a world where mad leaders propose mad policies that threaten human existence, what hope can prophetic Christians have in this time of Advent? The answer lies in the fact that the flip side of hope is expectation. In fact, the Greek word elpis can be translated either "hope" or "expectation," depending on the context, and sometimes it means both at the same time. Christians should not sit back passively and hope for God's intervention. Rather, we should act out our convictions in the expectation that God will intervene on our behalf, and on behalf of the six billion inhabitants of the earth, to prevent our annihilation. It is easy to get distracted by the routines of life, to be worried by the anxieties of life, to become numbed by the doldrums of life, or to be distraught at the inanities of life. However, by the power of God we must overcome these obstacles and live our lives awake and alert to the dangers of the world. We can pray for God to stop the madness, and we can work to bring hope to a desperate world.