The Adventurous Lectionary – The Third Sunday of Advent – December 11, 2016

The Adventurous Lectionary – Healing the World – Third Sunday in Advent – December 11. 2016
Isaiah 35:1-10
Luke 1:46b-55
James 5:7-10
Matthew 2:1-11

Advent is a time for hopeful transformation. Creation and humankind lean toward wholeness; creation groans and so do we. We imagine a new age – an age of Shalom – despite the realities of war, racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, sexism, and polarization. God is at work in all things, restoring the broken, healing the sick, and welcoming the outcast. The dream of Shalom seems impossible, but we must live in hope and know that it won’t happen without our efforts.

Isaiah sings the glad songs of restoration. “The wilderness and dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom,” the blind shall see, the deaf hear, the lame dance, and the speechless sing. The whole world, which once groaned in pain and desolation, is now bursting forth in liberation. What happens to humankind shapes the non-human world, and God’s salvation includes the non-human as well as the human. All things are joined in a fabric of interdependence: as one part is healed, all share in healing. As Paul was to note in Romans 8, the whole creation groans, and the groaning of creation reflects our own inner quest for healing. Global climate change, species destruction, and humanity’s oppression and injustice mirror each other. When we mistreat the non-human world, we discover that this same violence spills over into our human relationships. Harming other humans leads to the destruction of the environment. Conversely, the healing of nations and nature are intertwined. Isaiah describes a healing incarnation, embodied in Mary’s womb and Jesus’ birth.

With reports of unheard of warm temperatures at the polar caps and the threat of global climate change, this passage tells us to love the Earth, our mother, and live simply and encourage our political leaders to do so as well. We must not abandon the quest to save our planet – it is in our hands – God has called and we must respond, and our response enhances or limits what God can do in our planet, personal lives, and community. Advent isn’t for the passive; it is a call to prophetic healing actions.

Mary’s song of praise expresses the interplay of her unexpected pregnancy and the liberation of humankind. God’s movement in Mary’s womb and God’s transformation of governments and economic systems are of one piece. Inspiring the message and mission of today’s liberation theologians, Mary shouts out God’s preferential option for the poor and dispossessed. God hears the cries of the poor and responds with liberating intentionality. God’s joy and our well-being are interconnected. The divine pathos, as Abraham Joshua Heschel asserts, reflects God’s care for the smallest details of life; our pain is God’s pain, our joy is God’s joy. But, given the increasing gap between rich and poor in the USA and throughout the globe and the new administration’s apparent preferential option for the rich in terms of tax policy, Mary’s words leave us speechless and impatient. When will the mighty let go of their largesse for the simple survival of millions? When will those who have sacrifice for the half-nots? When will our nation place the health and welfare of the multitudes above a preferential tax and legal option for the wealthy and powerful? When will we focus more on the entitlements given to wealthy corporations and individuals than modest entitlements given to unemployed single parents?

The Letter of James counsels patience. Yet, in light of the whole message of James, patience does not imply passivity. James is an epistle of ethical activism and care for the downtrodden. Faith without works is worthless. We must be patient with the movements of God’s moral arc of history; we must not give up hope nor should we polarize in times of challenge. God’s nearness challenges us to justice-seeking, grounded in care for those whose power we confront. Pray for the president-elect and president even when you may be inclined to protest their policies. They too are God’s children, and as they seek to gain the world, their souls may be in jeopardy.

Jesus’ response to John the Baptist echoes the hopeful vision of Isaiah 35. The Messiah is known by the appearance of good news at every level of life. Good news is lived as well as spoken. Bodies are healed, outcasts welcomed, and impoverished given hope. Jesus’ gospel is holistic and life-changing, and gives preferential care for those at the fringes of life.

Jesus’ apparent dig at John – “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” – is, in fact, a word of affirmation and call to agency. John’s prophetic ministry and call to repentance invites us to do great things ourselves. John prepares the way for Jesus and for us as well. We have a calling to bring good news to our world – to heal, welcome, and restore. We are to be prophets in our own circles – living toward a vision of wholeness and equity.

Advent reminds us that another world is possible. New life can emerge from the ruins; the dessert can bloom; and lives restored. This is the result of patient partnership. God takes the initiative and invites us to be innovative as well. Our agency enhances the incarnation of God’s vision of Shalom in our world. We can’t wait passively for a Second Coming, God is coming to us now and wants us to act with grace and persistence for the well-being of the planet and its peoples.

The adventurous preacher challenges us to be God’s partners in planetary and personal healing. Where does our church need to embody spiritual horticulture? Where do we need claim our vocation as healers? What great things do we need to embody God’s realm in our community’s work in the world? What will it mean for us to have an adventurous Advent?

About Bruce Epperly

Rev. Bruce Epperly, Ph.D., serves as Pastor at South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Centerville, MA. Prior to coming to Cape Cod in 2013, he served on the faculties and often in administrative and chaplaincy roles at Georgetown University, Claremont School of Theology, Wesley Theological Seminary, and Lancaster Theological Seminary. Bruce is currently a professor in spirituality, ministry, and theology in the doctoral program at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington D.C. He has served as pastor or interim pastor of congregations in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. He is the author or co-author of over 35 books in the areas of theology, spirituality, ministerial excellence and spiritual formation, scripture, and healing and wholeness, including Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God; Finding God in Suffering: A Journey with Job; From Here to Eternity: Preparing for the Next Adventure; and A Center in the Cyclone: Clergy Self-care in the 21st Century.