Monday, December 5, 2016

Who's Gonna Fix This?

Do animals envision a better world? Do they speculate at all? Or are we humans the only ones who can imagine the world being different than it is? Scientists debate this. But it leads to an even deeper question: why are we able to do this? Where do these images of things that never were, that we have no actual experience of, come from? I can see where we get the concept of things being somewhat better. That's merely tweaking our experience. But where do we get the concept of perfection? We have never been in a situation where absolutely everything goes right. And yet we tend to judge everything against a standard of the ideal way of things working. Humans everywhere have a deep-seating feeling that such a thing as perfection exists, either in the distant past, or in the far future, or on some other plane of existence.

The Bible affirms all three. We were created to live in a paradise. God will recreate the world as a paradise sometime in the future. And heaven, where God dwells, is a paradise. But our present experience is not just of things not quite working right but of actual harm being done. We live in a world with injustice and pain, where people are violently in conflict with each other and with nature.

One way of dealing with this truth is to deny or ignore it. We try to create a bubble of comfort for ourselves and those we love. Our country makes a pretty good bubble. We only represent 7% of the earth's population. Most of us can read and write. You probably don't know any of the 14% in the world who can't. Oh, and 66% of the world's illiterate are women. We have clean water. 13% of the world's people don't. We have homes. 23% of the world's population doesn't have some sort of shelter. We are properly nourished and 36.5% of us are actually overweight. 15% of the world is malnourished and 1% is starving. Most of us have internet. 56% of the world's population doesn't. Most of us have cell phones. A quarter of the world's people do not. If you attended college, you are part of the mere 7% in the world who have. And if you make more than $90 a day, you are among the 1% in the world who do. 56% of the people in the world make between $2 and $10 a day and and additional 15% make less than $2 a day. So 71% of the world have to live on less than a moderate lunch in America costs. In consequence, 1% of the world's population controls 50% of the money.

If you live in certain places of this country, it is easy to think the way you live is the norm and that those who lack what you have must live far away in tiny pockets of the third world. But 14% of people in the US can't read, including 19% of our high school graduates. And 70% of our prison inmates can't read, which may have something to do with where they ended up. There are 643,000 homeless in our country and 44% of them are employed. 14.6% of Americans can't count on having food on any particular day. The most recent census data shows that half the US population either qualifies as poor or low income. 1 in 5 Millennials live in poverty as do 14% of seniors and 18% of children. 1½ million American households live on less than $2 a day before government benefits, which includes 2.8 million children. UNICEF ranks the US as having the 2nd highest child relative poverty rates in the developed world. Even in this country you have to live in a very tiny bubble to deny or ignore the fact that a lot of people suffer from deprivation and injustice.

Another way to deal with the injustice and pain in this world is to acknowledge it but to say that's just the way things are. Things are bad for some people and they will stay bad. Some will get enough to live on and some will get more than enough and some won't get either. It's always been that way and it always will be. Just give up on solving those inequities. The problem with thinking this way is that it goes against our sense of justice. So some people act as if the world is by and large a meritocracy. Oh, sure, some innocent people suffer but most of the time people get what they deserve.

We know that's not true. Remember how 44% of the homeless are employed? If this world were just, they would be able to afford a place to live. If this were a just world, then 2.8 million children in the richest country in the world wouldn't be trying to live on less than $2 a day. If this were a just world, 1% of the population wouldn't control 50% of the money. 

Now what caused those problems? Are they result of happenstance or are they intentional? Are they more like the weather or are they more like the situation when you have a bunch of kids over to play and they rush to the toy box and each grabs what they want, some more than they can actually play with, even if it means those who come last get little or nothing? In other words, do you think that the fact that a lot of people are lacking the basics is totally beyond our control, caused largely by, say, disasters, or primarily within our control, that is, caused by some people grabbing more than they need or deserve and others missing out because they weren't as powerful and aggressive as others?

The other way to deal with the injustice and pain in this world is to try to fix it. That's what God wants us to do. And a lot of people do try to fix the world's problems. But obviously not enough. Nonprofit organizations account for just 10.3% of all private sector jobs in the US. That's 11½ million people out of a nation of 325 million, or just over 3 people out of 100. And only 25.4% of the US population volunteer, a 10 year low. And of course, not all nonprofits do as much good as others. The Tampa Bay Times once compiled a list of the 50 worst charities, primarily those who use less than 4% of the money raised to actually aid the cause they espouse. The rest goes to salaries and fund raising. They say they do things like grant dying kid's wishes, or help disabled police officers, or veterans, or cancer patients. But they are merely taking advantage of donors' generosity to enrich themselves. They are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

We flawed human beings need to be fixed as well. As John the Baptist says in our gospel (Matthew 3: 1-12) we need to be baptized, immersed in the Holy Spirit. We need to be changed. And we can't do it ourselves. We need outside help. We need leadership. We need someone who not only knows how to fix the problems of this world but who knows how it is supposed to work. And that's what we get in our passage from Isaiah 11:1-10.

A shoot will come out from the stump of Jesse...” Jesse was the father of David. The royal line was left a stump after the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and took the Jews into exile. Descendants of David existed but they never took the throne again when the people were allowed to return to Judea. God will remedy that.

But this Davidic ruler will be different. Roughly half of the kings of Judea were bad. But the “spirit of the Lord shall rest on” this anointed king. And then Isaiah enumerates the properties of this spirit. “The spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” Notice that 4 out of those 6 attributes are cognitive: wisdom, understanding, counsel, and knowledge. This precludes someone who acts on impulse; you want a ruler who thinks first and then acts.

Wisdom is mentioned first because it is primary. Mere intelligence is not enough. For instance, knowledge is important—you need to have the facts at your command—but you need wisdom in order to correctly use that knowledge. As they say, knowledge is knowing that a tomato is actually a fruit; wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad. Wisdom is a deeper knowledge of how things really work, as well as what really matters. In contrast, it is said that a cynic knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. Wisdom is giving the proper weight to all factors.

Understanding is key as well. You want a ruler who has insight into people and processes. Studies have shown that psychopaths often rise to positions of leadership because of their superficial charm, ruthless manipulation of others, lack of empathy and lack of fear. In Jesus, we get someone who understands our pain and suffering. Jesus said, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) He is the model of the servant-leader, the person who leads not for his own benefit but for the benefit of those he governs.

Counsel is another characteristic of God's ruler. In other contexts the Hebrew word means advice. Again this flows from wisdom. Being able to take advice and give advice is something you want to see in a leader. But would the Messiah, God Incarnate, take our advice? We see that God does listen to and modify the execution of his plans when, for instance, Abraham bargains for mercy for Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:16-33) and when Moses asks God to be merciful to the Israelites when they worship the golden calf (Exodus 32:1-14). Why should we pray if God is absolutely implacable? God is responsive to our input and so is his Messiah.

The remaining attributes are an attitude and power. Fear of the Lord, a proper respect and reverence for God, is the beginning of wisdom, says Proverbs 9:10. There are a lot of factors that a ruler must take into account, like his supporters and what's popular. But often those considerations have led rulers into doing things that ignore God's standards. For instance, the high feelings that people had after 9/11 led our government to resort to methods of torture, called enhanced interrogation techniques, which the laws of the world and our country prohibited. Fear of the Lord would make a leader consider what Christ said—that we must love our enemies, that we must treat others the way we wish to be treated, that what we do to others we do to Jesus—and decide not to do something that failed to meet the standards by which our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ commands us to live.

And that leads us to the subject of power. Power can be used for good or for evil. Electricity can be used to electrocute a person or to get his heart rhythm back to normal. God promises that his ruler will not use power for evil but use knowledge, wisdom, counsel, understanding and respect for God in deciding how to use the power granted to him.

One way in which we see this in practice is how he uses his authority to judge. “He shall not judge by what his eyes see or decide by what his ears hear...” We all know how unreliable hearsay evidence is and science has confirmed that even eyewitness testimony can be flawed and manipulated. Look no further than the videotaped interrogation of Brenden Dassey, found in the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer. Without a lawyer present, this minor is pushed by detectives to change his testimony to saying he was a participant in a horrific crime, though he is clearly unaware of the details of the crime, like what weapon was used. He also doesn't understand the consequences of signing a confession. After saying what the officers want him to say—that he raped and murdered a woman—he asks if he can return to class. By which he means his special education classes. Which he takes because his IQ is in the borderline deficiency range. He is now serving life in prison. 

In contrast, Isaiah writes about God's ruler, “...but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth...” And why, you may ask, are the poor and meek addressed specifically? Because the powerful are rarely in real jeopardy. They have resources. We have seen where a corporation, like T-Mobile or Wells Fargo or Comcast or Humana (and I could go on), is fined millions of dollars and yet the company has billions and can write it off as the cost of doing business. Whereas the poor (the Hebrew word has overtones of “weak”) and the meek (the word here has overtones of the “browbeat” and the “oppressed”) are relatively powerless and need help. On NPR's interview series Here's the Thing defense attorney Dean Strang tells of one trial in which the case for including certain evidence and the case for excluding it were equally strong. The judge said that US law presumes the innocence of the defendant and so he felt he must find for the defendant. The burden to prove a crime falls on the prosecution. The judge decided for the weak.

Which leads to verse 5. I like how the Today's English Version renders it: “He will rule his people with justice and integrity.” And that's what we want.

Verses 6 through 8 give us a poetic picture of the reconciliation of nature and humanity. Predation will end not only among humans but even among animals. The vulnerable will be protected. “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, “ says the Lord. Contrast that with today where the Leatherback Turtle, the Black Rhinoceros, the Chinese Crocodile, the Seychelles Sheath-tail Bat, the Dama Gazelle, the Wild Bactrian Camel and the Sumarian Orangutan are all expected to go extinct in the next 10 years.

Finally and significantly for a Jewish prophet, Isaiah says “...the nations shall inquire of him...” meaning the non-Jewish people will ask for the Messiah's counsel. Our passage from Romans 15:10 quotes Deuteronomy 32:43. “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.” God has not forgotten his people nor will he neglect the other nations. Under the Messiah, the Gentiles and the Jews will come together.

That is the way we want things to work, right? We want someone, and we know it can't be a mere human, who will restore justice and peace to this world. We long to see things run with knowledge, good advice, wisdom and understanding. We want power used to right wrongs and not to perpetuate them. We want nature to thrive and not wither. We want a world safe for children and the vulnerable. We want all people to come together.

That's what God initiated when he came to us in Christ Jesus. That's the work he wants us to continue till Jesus comes again. That what will be completed when Christ returns.

Or is it? When I was researching for our Bible study that commenced last Wednesday I was reading the Greek version of the annunciation in Luke. And in Luke 1:33 Gabriel tells Mary about her son: “...and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” The Greek verb for "end" also means "conclude" or "complete." So this means his kingdom will never be completed?

And then I realized, of course. When you build something you don't say, “Well, I'll never have to clean it or repair it or work on it ever again.” You need to maintain it or it will fall apart. God's kingdom isn't going into stasis; it won't be frozen, never to change. The work of maintaining justice and equity goes on. The work of maintaining peace continues. The work of learning and understanding God and those made in his image is ongoing. Our life in the new creation won't be sitting around on our fat behinds like the people on the spaceship in Wall-E. We will be doing our part in keeping the kingdom working properly.

I recently read about the difference between merely liking something and really loving it. If you like a flower, you pluck it and put it in water but eventually you have to throw the withered, dead thing out. If you love a flower, you don't pick it. You plant it and water it and fertilize it and nurture its growth. God doesn't just like us; he loves us. He's not going to press us in a book. He wants us to live and flourish and blossom. And as people who are following his son, that what's we are to do and what we will be doing ever after: loving and nurturing others, so we all grow and become ever more like our limitless, wise and loving God.

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