October 27, 2019
Joel 2:23-32, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18, Luke 18:9-14
Keep your faith
I recently read an article that was thought provoking: “Robotic priests are emerging worldwide, some powered by artificial intelligence. Mindar, made of aluminum and silicone, can preach sermons and interact with the devout at a 400year-old temple in Japan.
BlessU-2 gave an automated blessing to more than 10,000 people during Germany’s celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. SanTO (Sanctified Theomorfic Operator) is a 17-inch Catholic robot that quotes from Matthew’s Gospel if someone says to it they’re worried: “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.”
I am not underestimating the power of artificial intelligence or the almost unlimited potential of computers and robots. I am sure we have not even touched the surface of what machines are able to do and even more so what they will be able to do in the future. So, I can imagine that AI can identify problems in our world and can provide incredible solutions. I am sure that robots can find and quote Bible verses and citations of great theologians in a fraction of the time that a good theologian would need to look them it up.
However, I find it hard that a machine can do what Martin Luther did just over 500 years ago when he posted his 95 theses on the Church door in Wittenberg, Germany that started the Reformation. Even if they had robots back in Luther’s time that were able to formulate those 95 theses and somehow managed to hammer them on the door, it would have been much easier to ignore a robot than a stubborn monk who refused to go away.
Yes, Robots and Artificial Intelligence are able to do wonderful things – but can they really fulfill a prophetic role? I know that one should always be careful to say never, but I cannot see how machines can replace human beings answering God’s call to have a prophetic voice to point out the injustices in our world. I cannot see how the cold, clinical reliability of machines can replace the fragile and brittle faith of people. I cannot see how AI can replace people who are moved by God’s Spirit to respond faithfully to God’s calling.
And while we are thinking of God’s calling of prophets, like Jeremiah and Joel and Martin Luther, allow me to share with you an interesting take in an Editorial in The Christian Century, called “A Prophet’s Speech”. This is what it said: “The 16 year old activist, Greta Thunberg, spoke at the United Nations Climate Action Summit last month. She was angry and her indictment of those in power was withering- just like a biblical prophet. She said: “People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth.” The authors continue: “Like a true prophet, she offered no false hope. Her words, were designed to disturb us, shake us out of the illusion that someone else will fix the problem, and make us see ourselves as we are.”
to mock her and her passion, and even those who affirmed her message may end up
returning to their ordinary lives with no idea how to respond to the demands.
The similarities between a 16 year old girl and the prophets in the past are striking: angry, direct, and none of them provided false hope. They spoke truth to power. The responses to their words were similar: they were ridiculed and mocked, sometimes threatened and viewed as reactionary.
This, I am convinced, machines, in spite of how powerful they are, cannot do. It is a given that machines will take away many of the jobs human beings are doing. And both workers and leaders need to prepare for this.
However when it comes to pointing out God’s will, it is people, and not machines, who respond to the Spirit of God whispering in their ears and hearts. It is human beings, touched by God’s grace and responding in faith, who with passion, courage and determination speak with a prophetic voice.
On this Reformation Sunday, we are reminded that God has not ceased to call people to declare to the world, with justice and might, led by the Spirit of God, their sins and transgressions. God still calls people to speak and act on behalf of God. On October 31, 1517 Marten Luther with all his flaws, challenged the church and those in power. And his work paid off.
Martin Luther King Jr. was called by God to point out injustices and transgressions and on Aug 28 1963 he delivered his “I have a dream” speech. And since then our country has made significant progress in this regard. We still have a long way to go of course, but this modern day prophet pointed out what was wrong, he paid the price and the country benefitted from his precious ministry.
God still uses as human beings as instruments in God’s hands to show us God’s path and God’s will for this world. God is calling each one of us to be part of God’s plan! Just like God called the prophet Joel.
The obscure prophet Joel’s name literally means “Yahweh is God”, or “the Lord is God”. This well-educated Prophet lived in Jerusalem after the Babylonian Exile. The Temple has now been rebuilt. During his time there were natural disasters: a locust plague and drought.
The prophet connected the natural disasters with the Day of the Lord that is coming. It would be a day of Judgment. The day is described in terms of blood, fire, smoke and darkness.
But this day will also witness an unprecedented outpouring of God’s grace. The prophetic spirit will be rekindled! And then he says: “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams and your young men shall see vision. Even on the male and female slaves in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”
These were radical words at the time for the belief was that God’s Spirit rested only on a handful of individuals: The king, priests, prophets and a few people with extraordinary skills. Furthermore, the Spirit of God would not be poured out permanently on individuals. For example in 1 Sam 16:14 we read that the Spirit of God departed from king Saul.
The prophet Joel is thus saying that there will be a time when the Spirit of God will guide people to proclaim and do God’s will. The NT of course sees this promise fulfilled on Pentecost!
The implication of Joel’s words and the event at Pentecost is far – reaching: God enables all people to know God’s will, proclaim God’s will and do God’s will. There should be no excuses anymore. Denial or pretending that we don’t know or cannot know God’s is not convincing anymore.
God’s will is summarized in the Words: “You shall love the Lord you God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind. And a second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love of God and love of neighbor! Two sides of one coin! You cannot and should never pretend that you can do one, without the other! They belong together!
And yet, from many Biblical accounts, it seems that people often find excuses not to implement this summary. People somehow can’t resist to elevate one of them and downplay the other. Not one but both aspects belong to the essence of God’s will.
Let me explain: During the time of Jesus some people considered themselves righteous and at the same time regarded others with contempt. As a matter of whenever you consider yourself righteous, you regard others with contempt. You then think you are better than others.
Whenever you consider yourself righteous you immediately view yourself as not as sinful as others. The bottom line thus is that you don’t love the one you regard with contempt as yourself.
In the parable we see a differentiation that is revealed in the two prayers: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people”. So even though the Pharisee starts his prayer with addressing God, the rest of his prayer of course is all about himself: “I am better than thieves, and rogues and I am better than this man here the Tax collector. I fast, I tithe. My religious activities testify that I love God! And therefor I am better than others. His words of course reveal that he does not really love his neighbor as himself. And the bottom-line is this: if you say that you love God and you don’t love your neighbor you are deceiving yourself and the truth is not in you.
The despicable tax-collector on the other hand is painfully aware of his brokenness: He stands far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his chess saying: “God be merciful to me, a sinner!”
The outcome is that the despised one is justified and the arrogant one is not. “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
In God’s kingdom things are turned upside down: Those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted. God looks at the world and at people in a different way. And prophets were able to see the world and people from God’s perspective. People with faith see, not as the world see!
But let’s be honest: it is neither easy nor convenient to see people and the world from God’s perspective. It is challenging to look at people and the world the way God looks at people. There are times when it is outright dangerous. This why some people may lose their faith or compromise. It is simply to hard. But the Bible urges us not to lose our faith.
Our third and last reading gives us a glimpse in the life of the Apostle Paul who, by the grace of God, learned to see people and the world through God’s eyes. As he is writing this letter he is most likely in prison and he is close to the end of his life. He looks back on his life and he concludes: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” He is not arrogant about his perseverance. No, he says: “The Lord stood by me and gave me strength so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed.” And he ends by saying: “The Lord will save me for his heavenly kingdom.”
The Apostle Paul, in spite of all the challenges he faced kept the faith! After his conversion looked at the world in a different way and he brought hope, compassion and good news to all. He answered God’s call. He answered to God’s call just like some people before him, for example Joel, Jeremiah, Isaiah and others who came after him lkke Martin Luther and Martin Luther King Junior. All of them responded to God’s call by pointing out what was wrong in the world. God still calls us to show the world the love of God and love of neighbor are two sides of one coin. When we pretend that we love God but we don’t love our neighbor or we consider ourselves better than others it is questionable if we truly understand what it means to love God. We are called to have faith in God. The question then is: “Will we keep the faith?” For we know it is not easy to stand up and point out what is wrong in our world. Amen