Saturday Night Theologian
20 January 2013

Isaiah 62:1-5 first published 18 January 2004, updated for 2013

When the nation of Israel was established in 1948, many people around the world saw the events as the fulfillment of prophecy. Others believed that the Jewish people had been recompensed in some measure for the horrors they suffered under Adolf Hitler, and indeed under many other oppressors through the centuries. For the Palestinians whose land was confiscated and whose villages were destroyed, however, the state of Israel was an unmitigated disaster. Thus, the establishment of Israel as a nation was at best a mixed bag, with some positives (arguably) but even more negatives (indisputably). How, then, can one interpret a passage such as today's reading from Isaiah, which begins, "For Zion's sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest"? The prophet (often called Trito-Isaiah, or Third Isaiah) speaks to Jewish returnees who are living in their traditional homeland, which continues to suffer neglect and poverty. He voices God's promise to restore the fortunes of God's people so that the other nations will see Israel's renewal as a sign of divine blessing. I would argue that this prophecy was in fact fulfilled in large measure in the years that followed the Jews' return from Babylonian exile. They rebuilt the temple and eventually the city of Jerusalem itself. Yes, they continued to be under Persian hegemony until the time of the Maccabees, but their lot was generally good during this period. More important than determining whether or not this prophecy was literally fulfilled--I think such a question is a hermeneutical distraction from examining the meaning of the prophecy in its historical context and in its present application--we must examine the issue of how (or whether) it can be applied in our current situation. To attempt to apply this prophecy, or any other, to the present state of Israel is a mistake. Today's nation of Israel is not the Israel of the Bible, any more than the modern nation of Italy is the Roman Empire of the New Testament. Instead, we should ask the question, of whom is God speaking? God is speaking of God's chosen people, and God has promised not to rest "until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch." The people whom God loves, who are called by God's name (cf. Isaiah 43:7), are the entire community of humankind. Thinking of "God's people" in narrow religious terms, or (even worse) in modern nationalistic terms, has led to wars, injustice, and acts of atrocity over the millennia that we who live in the nuclear age must cast aside before it is too late. In an episode of Star Trek: Enterprise called "Chosen Realm," the Enterprise is captured by a group of people intent on taking the ship back to their home planet and annihilating their enemies, to whom they refer as heretics. The point of theological dissent? Whether "the makers" created the universe in nine or ten days! Over this point of difference, the factions had been fighting for centuries, and when the Enterprise finally reaches the planet, it has been destroyed in the interim by the two factions (die-hard Trekkies will recognize this as a remake of "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" from the original series, which focused on racism rather than religion). Before maniacs with access to nuclear arsenals begin to use nuclear weapons again on their enemies in the name of "preemption," let us strive to make the world a place that can honestly be called "My Delight Is in Her" and replace those who would lead us down the path of Desolation with those who have a keener insight into God's nature and will.

Psalm 36:5-10 first published 18 January 2004

What is God like? What are God's attributes? The great nineteenth century systematic theologian Augustus Strong knew: God has life, personality, and self-existence; God embodies immutability, unity, truth, love, holiness, eternity, and immensity; God is omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, faithful, merciful, and just. I wouldn't disagree with any of these descriptions of God, with one proviso: I don't think any of these descriptions of God should be taken literally. These words should be understood as symbols that point to God rather than specific attributes of God. Take immutability, for example. The Bible says that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, yet it also says that in the days of Noah God was sorry for having created humanity. Or consider love. God is love, 1 John teaches us, yet this omnipotent God allows children to suffer from cancer, AIDS, and other terrible diseases that we wouldn't wish on our worst enemies. If love is a literal description of God, we need to look again at the definition of the word. The problem we face in trying to describe God is that words are inadequate repositories of meaning to describe the ultimate ground of being, a more modern description of God ("Words are nets through which all truth passes"--Paula Fox, "News from the World"). The psalmist knew that mere description was incapable of capturing the magnificence of God's steadfast love for God's people, so he resorted to metaphor to describe God. "All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings"; God is compared to a mother bird protecting her chicks from potential predators. God is sometimes a shield from danger. "They feast on the abundance of your house"; God is compared to a wealthy host feting his many guests. God is the source of our abundance. "You give them drink from the river of your delights"; God is compared to a stream of sweet, pure water. God provides for the necessities of life. "For with you is the fountain of life"; God is compared to a life-giving fountain of water. God provides refreshment in times of spiritual aridity. "In your light we see light"; God is the ultimate source of light, beside which all other light is inconsequential. God gives us the ability to view God and the world through God's own eyes. Definitions of God are stale and generally uninspiring if taken literally, but if viewed as symbol, they offer endless potential for contemplation and reinterpretation. We worship a God who transcends any weak, pitiful descriptions humans can devise, but we also worship a God who has given us the creativity, sensitivity, and imagination necessary for seeing in symbolic language, music, and art pointers to the divine glory.

1 Corinthians 12:1-11 first published 18 January 2004

April comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers" (Edna St. Vincent Millay, "Spring").
Henry Ford is purported to have said that the customer could have any color of car, as long as it was black. During Pablo Picasso's Blue Period, he created several paintings whose predominant color was blue. Communist architects in East Berlin created huge buildings full of utility and devoid of beauty. Aren't the roadways more interesting with cars in many different colors populating their lanes? Although Picasso's blue paintings are interesting and even possess a certain amount of beauty, aren't we glad he didn't spend his entire career using blue paint almost exclusively? Aren't many buildings that are not strictly utilitarian beautiful? Variety is a good thing in the world around us, and it is exemplified in nature. As Edna St. Vincent Millay notes, spring is sometimes messy and verbose in its splashes of color, but it is deviation from uniformity that makes it beautiful. The church should be a place where variety is embraced. "There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone." None of the catalogs of spiritual gifts in the New Testament, including today's reading in 1 Corinthians 12, is exhaustive; rather, they are representative. God gives unique gifts to each of God's children. Even when we use the same description, they are not the same gifts. My gift of prophecy is not the same as yours, because our approaches, methods, and experiences are different. Your gift of discernment is not the same as your spouse's, because you have different personalities. Variety of gifts, variety of services, variety of activities, even variety of opinions should be seen as a good thing in the church, but not everyone sees it that way. Some people would rather see uniformity than variety. They refuse to associate with people with whom they disagree on even the smallest detail of theology. They won't worship with those whose liturgy is different (remember the Filioque controversy in the Middle Ages?). They separate themselves from people who believe almost exactly the same things but are open-minded enough to embrace those with different points of view. The Southern Baptist Convention recently announced plans to withdraw from its 99-year affiliation with the Baptist World Alliance, a group it helped to form, because Baptists in other nations entertained ideas that were slightly different from their own hierarchically mandated dogma. They announced their intention of creating a new group of Baptists (which they will control, of course) that will emphasize more doctrinal uniformity--until members of that group start to think for themselves, . . . . It is typical of the fundamentalist mindset to insist on the highest degree of uniformity, particularly, though not exclusively, on doctrinal matters. The value of variety is a foreign concept to fundamentalists, but progressive Christians accept variety and even encourage it. What a strange notion! Why didn't God, or at least the Apostle Paul, think of it?

John 2:1-11 first published 18 January 2004

I grew up in tee-totaling Baptist circles, so I've heard all sorts of explanations about how when Jesus turned the water into wine, it wasn't really wine at all. One preacher claimed that the water in the jars wasn't transformed into wine, only the water in the ladle that was taken to the steward (if drinking wine is a sin, I'm not sure that having Jesus create a smaller amount of it shields him from the charge of sinning). Another said that the term "best wine" refers to grape juice, not the fermented beverage (apparently he didn't share the opinion of Joy Davidman, wife of C. S. Lewis, who called grape juice "that abominable fluid"). A simple reading of the Old Testament reveals that, while abuse of wine was discouraged in the book of Proverbs and elsewhere, wine was considered a drink for festive occasions and a blessing of God (cf. Gen 14:18; 27:28; Deut 14:23; 16:13; Ps 104:15; Prov 3:10; Isa 25:6; Amos 9:13). Seeing wine as a blessing of God is central to understanding Jesus' actions in the story of the Wedding in Cana. Unlike the authors of the Synoptic Gospels, who have Jesus perform a variety of miracles in different situations, John has Jesus perform exactly seven miracles, which he calls "signs." These "signs" are calculated to reveal who Jesus really is, the Incarnate Son of God. By means of these signs, the divine glory that was within Jesus was briefly revealed to those who paid attention. God broke forth in the lives of people through Jesus' life and activities among them. Jesus' transformation of the water into wine is not a call for Christians to become moonshiners. Instead, it is a symbol that, like God, Jesus was blessing people with wine at an appropriate occasion: a wedding. Too often Christianity has been a religion of "Thou shalt nots." Thou shalt not drink. Thou shalt not dance. Thou shalt not smoke. Thou shalt not eat meat on Friday. Thou shalt not swear. Thou shalt not enjoy sex. Thou shalt not be too enthusiastic in your religious expression. Thou shalt not associate too closely with those outside your faith. We draw lines around ourselves, and we draw lines around God. God cannot be found at a wedding party that includes champagne and dancing, some say. God is not present at birthday parties, or office Christmas parties, or Cinco de Mayo celebrations, some think. However, Jesus' actions at the wedding in Cana suggest that God wants us to enjoy life, to celebrate with family and friends, to embrace community. Yes, there are excesses of all sorts to be avoided, but while we're avoiding excess, we shouldn't at the same time avoid life. Life is good, love is good, celebrating our joy together is good. And where life, love, and celebration are present, it is likely that God is present as well.