Saturday Night Theologian
23 December 2012

Micah 2:2-5a (first published 21 December 2003)

Imagine that you live in a place and time where you and your neighbors struggle to make ends meet day after day, year after year. Your political leaders over the past several years have varied from bad to worse. It is certain that they have been more concerned with their own wellbeing than with that of their subjects. On top of your struggles for existence on the economic level, a great, ferocious empire is threatening to overrun your country, bringing devastation, suffering, and humiliation. You care little about politics; you just want to live a normal, quiet life. In addition to everything else, the army that is threatening to invade will do its best to change your understanding of God and religion. Many of your neighbors will undoubtedly go along with the shifting religious winds, on the theory of "go along to get along," but your understanding of God is important to you and your family. You have no wish to change religions, and you long for deliverance. Where will you turn? The prophet Micah was from the village of Moresheth-Gath, southwest of Jerusalem. The invading Assyrian army had forced him and many of his neighbors to abandon their homes and flee for safety to the walled city of Jerusalem. Micah was quickly disillusioned about the prospect of Jerusalem providing a lasting defense against the enemy. He saw the sins of the people, and especially the rulers, and he encouraged the people to look elsewhere for their deliverance. He believed that the kings were weak, corrupt rulers, concerned about the city of Jerusalem, to be sure, but oblivious to the fate of those from rural areas like Moresheth. Micah saw hope only in a return to the faith of their ancestors, and in particular he envisioned a time when a new Davidic king would arise to deliver the people. This king would "feed his flock in the strength of the Lord," that is, he would care about the common people and about the proper worship of God. His reign would bring security and peace to the nation. The evangelist Matthew and many other early Christians saw Jesus as the fulfillment of this prophecy, albeit in a spiritual rather than a literal sense. As I ponder this scripture, I wonder whether people in a situation similar to that of Micah would think of Jesus as their deliverer. I suspect that the typical Iraqi civilian who had suffered at the hands of both Saddam Hussein and U.N. sanctions, only to have their nation invaded by a "Christian" nation, might have a hard time thinking of Jesus as the answer to their prayers for deliverance. Christians in the West have co-opted the Jesus of the scriptures so that he is now a conquering hero, leading his faithful troops into battle against the unbelievers. This isn't the Jesus that I know, and it's not the Jesus who can bring hope to the oppressed around the world. The Jesus we preach should be a Jesus that inspires respect even among those who do not choose to follow him, not one who calls down God's judgment on people of other faiths. Much of the world--industrialized or economically underdeveloped, North or South, Christian or Muslim--has a dangerous, unbiblical, even satanic concept of Jesus. A Jesus who advocates war and violence is the devil wearing a God-mask. We need to reform the image of Jesus that we portray to the world, and we can start by remembering the last line of today's reading from Micah: "he shall be the one of peace."

Psalm 80:1-7 (first published 21 December 2003)

Is your faith strong enough to endure the unendurable? In 1492, the "Christian" rulers of united Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella, expelled the Jews who wouldn't convert to Christianity from their territory. Many Jews left their homeland, their possessions, and their friends, journeying throughout Europe, northern Africa, and the Middle East. Other Jews abandoned their religious moorings and converted to Christianity. Still others pretended to convert, adopting the external trappings of Christianity while maintaining their core Jewish beliefs and customs in secret. These Secret Jews, also called Marranos, continued to observe those aspects of Judaism that they could, and they passed down their faith for hundreds of years to succeeding generations. Psalm 80 describes a time of crisis similar to Spain in 1492. References to Joseph, Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin in the first two verses of the psalm indicate that the historical context centered in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The reference to Yahweh enthroned on the cherubim alludes to the presence of God that was thought to dwell over the ark of the covenant, which at one time resided in the northern sanctuary of Shiloh. Israel was threatened with annihilation by the Assyrian Empire; what would become of the people and their religion? Would it endure? The psalm is punctuated with a thrice-repeated refrain: "Restore us, O (Yahweh) God (of hosts); let your face shine, that we may be saved." Did God answer the prayers of his worshipers? After the Assyrians invaded, the leaders of the people were deported to other Assyrian territories, and people from other lands were resettled in Israel. Some Israelites fled south to Judah, and others simply became assimilated into the Assyrian empire. A small group, however, appears to have survived with their understanding of God intact, and their descendants had a confrontation about 200 years later with the descendants of Judah who had returned from Babylonian exile: "[The inhabitants of Northern Israel] approached Zerubbabel and the heads of families and said to them, 'Let us build with you, for we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him ever since the days of King Esarhaddon of Assyria who brought us here.' But Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the rest of the heads of families in Israel said to them, 'You shall have no part with us in building a house to our God; but we alone will build to the Lord, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus of Persia has commanded us'" (Ezra 4:2-3). What a tragic state of affairs! A community of faith had continued in existence for generations, remaining as faithful as they could to their religious practices and their God, only to be told that their faith wasn't good enough. Many of the Marranos have experienced similar rejection in modern times, as have the Secret Christians of Japan (the Kakure), and other religious minorities throughout history. Interestingly, the remnant of the Israelite community, rejected by their southern brothers and sisters, continued through the ages, and today the Samaritans still number about 600 in and around the city of Nablus in the West Bank. The examples of the Samaritan community in Israel/Palestine, the Marranos in Spain (and their descendants around the world), and the Kakure Christians in Japan show us that God remains faithful to those who have the courage to worship him to the best of their understanding. By relying on the powerful presence of God, persecuted believers have the strength to endure the unendurable.

Hebrews 10:5-10 (first published 21 December 2003

In the movie Life is Beautiful, Guido, played by Roberto Benigni, and his wife and son are taken to a concentration camp in Italy. Guido has to hide his son, Giosué so that the Nazis won't kill him, so he tells him that they are playing a giant game of hide and seek, and that the team that wins will get a tank. By taking a terrible situation and transforming it into a game, he is able to protect his son, both physically and emotionally, from the tragedy of the concentration camp. Have you ever "made a virtue of necessity"? When confronted with a situation in which you had no option but to do something unpalatable, or something that under normal circumstances you'd rather not have done, have you managed to make the best of it? If the book of Hebrews was written after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, as many scholars believe, then the author has transformed a difficult situation--the destruction of the temple and the demise of the sacrificial system so central to Second Temple Judaism--into a statement of hope. God has not brought an end to an important religious rite without replacing it with something much more profound. In the place of actual sacrifice, which was no longer possible, God has substituted the sacrificial death of Jesus, and Jesus' followers have a new relationship with God because of "the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all." Sometimes it takes a tragedy to make us reexamine our understanding of God, and sometimes believers gradually realize, because of changed worldview, that they need to reevaluate their understanding of God and religion. Almost 500 years ago Martin Luther launched a Reformation of the church that brought about profound changes throughout Christianity, and not only among Protestants. The printing press was perhaps the most important invention of the second Christian millennium, because it allowed new ideas to spread far and wide, effectively bringing an end to the established church's control of information. The European "discovery" of the New World and the fall of Byzantium to the Muslims changed the way Europeans thought about themselves and the world, so Luther was the right person in the right place at the right time to proclaim new ideas. We find ourselves today in a similar situation. A new medium of communication--the Internet, and especially the Web--offers individuals unprecedented opportunities to communicate with one another. The dangers of living in a nuclear age have made the peace movement more vital than at any previous time in history, if only because it is now a matter of life of death for the planet. Advances in science have given us a greater understanding of our universe and ourselves. The time is ripe for a new Reformation. Following the example of the author of Hebrews, we need to recognize that the world has changed. We no longer live in the nineteenth century, nor can we return to the 1950s--and we shouldn't want to! We live in a brave new world of opportunities and dangers, and Christians need to set positive examples for people of other faiths and people of no faith. We need to offer our generation and subsequent generations a picture of God that is compatible with science while remaining connected to our historical faith. We need to offer forms of worship that are meaningful to people living in a postmodern world. We need to offer analyses of both the Bible and current events that are consistent with our new understanding of how God works in the world. The author of Hebrews boldly states that Christ abolished the sacrificial system in order to do God's will in a new way. What aspects of our current understanding of Christianity do we need to abolish in order to do God's will in the third millennium?

Luke 1:39-45, (46-55) (first published 21 December 2003)

In the trailer to the movie American Beauty, the audience is shown what appears on the surface to be a normal, suburban, American family: husband, wife, daughter, neighbors, job. But everything is not right. There's conflict, betrayal, love, hate, obsession, rebellion, violence. Still that's not all there is. Look closer, the trailer urges, and find the beauty in all of it. Christianity is based on the teachings of a man executed as a common criminal, who was born to a woman who got pregnant out of wedlock. Who could find anything of beauty in a story like that? Elizabeth did. When Mary visited her relative in the final days of Elizabeth's pregnancy, Elizabeth greeted her with the strange words, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb." Despite the circumstances, Elizabeth saw the beauty of Mary's situation. Are we able to see beauty in difficult circumstances today? How does the church react to an unwed, pregnant teenager? Do we pile our reprobation on top of her already well-developed guilt? Or do we offer our support and love through a difficult time? Can we see the good that can come out of the situation? And how do we deal with those in our midst who have been convicted of crimes? Do we shun them and hope they'll go to another church, or just drop out? Do we condemn the criminal to a life of perpetual ostracism? Do we think of prison as a place of punishment or rehabilitation? I heard Jimmy Carter speak once about the prison system. He said that when he was governor of Georgia, he and his fellow southern governors would compete with one another to see who could develop the most enlightened, effective prisons, where convicts were rehabilitated and recidivism was minimized. Now, he said, governors compete with one another to see which state can have the harshest laws. Rehabilitation is hardly discussed, and recidivism is expected. Christians need to remember our roots and show love to those in difficult circumstances, even if the circumstances are of their own making. In Mary's beautiful song, the Magnificat, she speaks of God looking with favor on the lowly, not only herself, but others like her. If we truly believe in the God Mary spoke of, we would do well to consider the poor and lowly, the unwed mothers and convict fathers, the homeless and the undocumented, with the compassion that God has for them. Maybe then we'll see the beauty that's in all of them.