The Adventurous Lectionary – The Third Sunday of Advent – December 13, 2020
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; Luke 1:46b-55; I Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28
On this Third Sunday of Advent Joy is the mood. We proclaim that despite appearances to the contrary, good news is coming! In fact, the voices of coming good news already are changing our lives. In the midst of the trauma of pandemic, we live in hope for a vaccine. But, we need greater hope beyond pandemic. Death is all around us. Fear surrounds us. After death comes resurrection; after destruction, rebuilding; after war peace; after pandemic new possibilities. 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? Can the pandemic be solved solely by vaccines and masks? 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? Just as we are experiencing a reckoning from the pandemic as a result of rugged individualism, irresponsible behavior, and presidential misconduct.
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. Changing of habits and having Christmas Eve services on Zoom rather than in person rankle us and stretch our pension. But, changed habits can create new possibilities. (For more on hope, see Bruce Epperly “Hope Beyond Pandemic.”)
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 and black lives matter: the powerful have fallen. It remains to be seen whether the harassed and vulnerable will be exalted or our nation embrace justice for all! Balancing the scales of justice may be painful, especially to those who have benefited from power politics, economic privilege, white privilege, and institutional injustice. They must sacrifice so that the tears of the vulnerable be dried and healing occur. So justice roll down like waters! 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? We need to be strong in our critique and yet see the possibility of healing – prophetic healing – for those whose practices we oppose? (For more on prophetic healing, see Bruce Epperly, “Prophetic Healing: Howard Thurman’s Vision of Contemplative Activism.”)
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 and we have no expectation of a historical return of Jesus. 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. It will outlast dishonest and bloviating politicians. 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 a 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. This was true last Advent, it is also true in our time of pandemic, protest, and prevarication. 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 over 60 books, including the recently released MYSTICS IN ACTION: TWELVE SAINTS FOR TODAY; THE WORK OF CHRISTMAS: THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS WITH HOWARD THURMAN; THE JUBILEE YEARS: EMBRACING CLERGY RETIREMENT; 101 SOUL SEEDS FOR GRANDPARENTS WORKING FOR A BETTER WORLD; and PROCESS THEOLOGY AND POLITICS. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.