The Adventurous Lectionary – The Third Sunday of Advent – December 17, 2017
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
I Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28
On this Advent Sunday of joy, we proclaim that despite appearances to the contrary, good news is coming! After death comes resurrection; after destruction, rebuilding; after war peace. The world is being transformed by God’s “impossible possibilities.” God’s way is emerging in a troubled world. God’s Spirit is upon all people and the vulnerable, outcast, and lost will experience healing and hospitality, while miscreants in high places will recognize the error of their ways. Such are the words of the prophet Isaiah and our Advent hope. Slightly different from Jesus’ own inaugural speech in Luke 4, Isaiah’s original version suggests that God may have to exercise force to achieve God’s realm of Shalom, “God’s day of vengeance.” Despite the presence of God’s Spirit, some may still turn away and suffer the consequences of their intentional alienation from God’s way. This begs the question: Can the securing of justice come solely through pacifistic action that avoids the messiness of power politics? Does God’s justice mean letting people get off scot-free? Or, must certain sacrifices be enforced, against the will of others, to achieve God’s goals? Will there be a day of reckoning for those whose decisions privilege power over justice and wealth over communal well-being?
Transformation may mean the death of one order and the birth of a new age. Death of the familiar, including familiar practices of injustice built into the social order, may be painful. The birth pangs accompanying the birth of a new age may also be painful. This is the message of Mary’s hymn – the social order will be turned upside down so it can once again be right side up. We see the quest for justice in the “me too” movement: the powerful have fallen. It remains to be seen whether the harassed and vulnerable will be exalted! Balancing the scales of justice may be painful, especially to those who have benefited from power politics, economic privilege, and institutional injustice. They must sacrifice so that the tears of the vulnerable be dried and healing occur. At the very least, Isaiah’s and Mary’s words remind us that justice-seeking can be messy and involve pain for some to uplift others. Perhaps, Reinhold Niebuhr’s insight that implicit violence is always present in the quest for social transformation is helpful in our own quests for social change. Can we love those we perceive to be the perpetrators of injustice while, at the same time, letting justice take its course? Can we forgive yet require sacrifice of those who have harmed the powerless and innocent?
The words of Psalm 126 celebrate the restoration of the nation. The dream of a new era in the national life is becoming a reality. Such a realm is unexpected, and elicits joy and laughter, as well as relief. May it be so for us, too.
The words of I Thessalonians provide good counsel for those awaiting Christ’s return. They also provide good counsel for those who assume that the historical process will continue for years to come. We must persist, and not lose hope or allow our spirits to be broken by the struggle that lies ahead. Paul believes that there is joy in the journey toward justice. Despite the destructive ways of powers and principalities, the perpetrators of injustice through tax reform that benefits the wealthy at the expense of the poor, ecological destruction, and corporate greed, the arc of history tends toward justice. God’s way of Shalom will outlast the machinations of moguls and demagogues. Rejoice, give thanks, and pray always. These attitudes transform our lives, opening us to the joyous present and a hopeful future. There is no need for a divine rescue operation if we are already living heavenly lives right here. God is with us, calling us to be the change we seek in the world, and to embody the dream we’ve been waiting for. These practices of grace make each moment holy and wholly present to God. The omnipresent God is experienced as our companion in the here and now and this is heavenly. The counsels of I Thessalonians awaken us to the wonder of each present moment as divine revelation incarnate in the midst of struggle.
John the Baptist testifies to the light. He is, to quote the Buddhist saying, the finger pointing to the moon, not the moon itself. He knows who he is and his role in the divine drama of salvation. He is content with his vocation as way maker, the one whose message prepares the way for the fullness of revelation in Jesus of Nazareth. Like John, our vocation is to be witnesses to the light. But, our witness is not directed to an alien or supernatural reality. The context of today’s reading, John 1:1-5, 9, speaks of God’s creative wisdom bringing forth all things and God’s light enlightening all humanity. John is testifying to the deeper truths evident in daily life and that is our witness, too. Our witness is to that deeper reality that is both beyond us and within us. Like John, we are on the road, but the road itself is holy and revelatory of divine wisdom. Making the path straight enables us to reach our destination, but each step shares in the goal. Right now, on the path, but not yet to the goal, we are guided and permeated by divine creative wisdom.
In all the seasons of life, especially in seasons of struggle, our lives are intended to be spirit-centered, and animated by God’s Spirit. God’s Spirit moves freely and is unrestrained by humanity’s religious systems, seeking justice and healing. Still, as I Thessalonians asserts, we can sail with the winds of the Spirit through by practices of prayer, gratitude, and joy. Indeed, these spiritual practices enable us to persist against the odds, as we embody our dream of Shalom in acts of protest and healing.
Bruce Epperly is the Pastor and Teacher at South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Centerville, MA, and professor in the D.Min. Program at Wesley Theological Seminary. He is the author of 45 books, including “The Work of Christmas: The Twelve Days of Christmas with Howard Thurman,” “Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God,” “Process Spirituality: Practicing Holy Adventure,” and the soon-to-be-released “The Mystic in You: Discovering a God-filled Universe.” He can be reached at email@example.com