December 05, 2016
Author: Scott Hoezee
Last year it was the cups at Starbucks. But every year somebody finds something by which to allege that a coordinated war is being waged on Christmas. Last year since Starbucks stopped putting Merry Christmas on its red holiday paper coffee cups, some customers did a coy end-run on it all by giving their names as “Christmas” so as to force an employee to say “Coffee for Christmas” when letting the customer know her drink was ready. Those folks were going to say “Christmas” one way or another!
It’s all fairly silly to most people. But not to others. Each year we are assured we need to keep the “Christ” in “Christmas” and those who don’t or who settle for a generic “Happy Holidays” are doing so out of an anti-Jesus agenda. This is a time of the year to be certain, to be firm, to stand up for the truth lest our whole celebration be watered down or flat out taken away from us.
Well, maybe. (By the way, the first few minutes of a sermon by William Willimon have a very humorous but then poignant take on some of this. You can hear it here: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/audio-sermons/incarnation-a-sermon-for-advent-by-william-willimon/ )
Some think we must be vigilant lest we lose the whole thing to the anti-Christmas powers. Yet in this Third Sunday in Advent reading from Matthew 11, we actually encounter a text that casts something of a doubt-filled pall and sense of uncertainty over the season after all.
A straightforward, commonsense reading of Matthew 11 would tell us that John the Baptist—unhappily rotting away in prison—has been getting reports about the work of Jesus, reports that struck him as being not nearly as interesting or dramatic as what he had hoped for. Having flagged Jesus as the Coming One, as the Messiah, John (who has way too much time on his hands now) begins to wonder if he had made one of the biggest mistakes in history. And so he dispatches a delegation of his own followers who had visited him one day to ask Jesus an explosive question borne of doubt: “Are you the one who was to come or should we expect someone else? You know, someone better?”
But for some, this kind of high-level doubt will never do. And so recently I was assured by a well-meaning person that of course God’s chosen servant of John had no doubts. That could never be. No, no, no, John sent his disciples to Jesus to shore up their faith or perhaps to address the questions they may have expressed in John’s presence there in prison.
Plastic saints, in other words, need to remain beatific-looking at all times or they cannot be saints. John the Baptist has to appear steely-eyed in his faith at all times. His face can never look any different than how we’d depict it on a stained-glass window. So in an effort to protect John’s character, we need to come up with another way to approach this and so we’ll throw John’s disciples under the proverbial bus in order to keep John himself cocooned safely inside of all that keeps faith ‘safe and secure from all alarms.’
But that will never do. Not in Matthew 11. It is eminently clear that John is the one asking the question and that John is the one to whom Jesus directs his answer. Something about Jesus’ ministry disappointed John sufficiently as to make him doubt the very identity of Jesus as the Christ of God. (I actually love the way Matthew frames this: in verse 2 he says “When John heard what Christ was doing . . .” This is the first time in this gospel that Matthew as narrator refers to Jesus as “Christ” in the course of a story—it’s Matthew’s little hint of saying that Jesus is the Christ despite John’s doubts. Good one, Matthew!)
But how and why does this count as an Advent text in the Year A Lectionary? Surely there are other possibilities. Who needs a story of doubt as to who Jesus is a scant two weeks before we again celebrate the birth of Jesus precisely on the belief that he is the Messiah? It’s like trying to get ready for the Fourth of July by spending some time pondering whether the colonists were right to break away from England in the first place. It’s like getting ready to celebrate your wedding anniversary by spending a week recalling the times when you had your doubts as to whether you should have married this person to begin with (and should you get a divorce after all and then see where that other girl, Linda, might be these days . . .?!).
No, doubts about Jesus don’t fit Advent. This is a time of the year to be sure. This is a time of the year to speak in the indicative and imperative moods, not the interrogative. No one wants to approach the Third Sunday in Advent (by which time the church is all decked out in Christmas decorations) only to have someone say, “Are we right to celebrate this holiday or could we even now just possibly have the wrong Savior?”
Still . . . I like this passage. I like having it as part of Advent. I wish we in the church wondered more not so much about whether Jesus is the One but whether or to what extent we succeed in acting like and following the One we hail to be both Lord and Christ.
You see, when Jesus answered John’s doubtful query, he pointed to what he had already been doing. True, it was not quite the razzle-dazzle John has expected (what with all that fire-and-brimstone and axe to the root of the tree talk John had engaged in) but at the deepest levels of all that is important in life and in the world, Jesus was doing kingdom work.
Maybe preaching hope to poor and marginalized people did not seem like much, especially if anyone had been hoping that what the Messiah would be mostly all about would be speaking truth to power and slamming his fist into the face of Pontius Pilate or Herod. But who needs hope in this world more than the ignored, the invisible, the “little ones” Jesus will talk about in Matthew 18? And if not every blind person in Palestine could now see, some could as a sign of what was yet to come. Not every disease had been cured, but some had and the kingdom that would come would bring more of the same.
As an Advent text two weeks out from celebrating Christmas again, Matthew 11 can remind the church of what we are really to be all about, and sometimes it is not the things that we in the church try to be all about. Too often today even the church wants to make a splash, shake up Washington, engage in power politics and headline-grabbing behavior. We’d just as soon leave NO doubt as to who is who and what is what.
But Jesus leads us another way. He leads to a cross first and then calls us to sacrificial living in a discipleship that needs to anticipate (and not be shocked by) resistance and even outright persecution.
There is a lot of fear in North American churches these days. We fear that the rise in agnosticism and atheism and the growing number of mosques and other religious expressions are chasing out and threatening the hegemony of the Christian church (and of this allegedly “Christian nation”). We want more John the Baptist and a little less Jesus, at least in terms of how we’d like our public ministry described.
But here in mid-Advent, Jesus uses John’s doubts as a teaching moment to remind us of what is truly important, and that is simple faithfulness to the kingdom in which our true citizenship lies. We may not join John in doubting whether Jesus is the One or not. But if we believe Jesus is the One, we can properly wonder how well we’re following him and if even the way we are celebrating and promoting Advent and Christmas in the church is reaching out to the poor and the marginalized and the disease-ridden in ways that may be quiet but that are nonetheless the business of grace that we are called to be preoccupied with at all times and in all places.
Matthew in chapter 11:2 was quite clever. In that second verse Matthew referred to Jesus not by name but simply as “Christ.” Within the narrative section of Matthew’s gospel this is only the second place where you find the word “Christ.” The first came in chapter 2 when the Magi prompt King Herod to ask his Bible experts where “the Christ” was supposed to be born. But Matthew has not called Jesus the Christ. Until now. Now he throws in the very loaded title of Christ, Messiah. Everything Jesus is doing is happening only because he is the Christ. By inserting this into the text, Matthew is pre-answering the question John the Baptist is about to raise. Is Jesus the Christ? Yes!
Have you ever felt really let down by something? Maybe it was a meal at some well-known restaurant. You’d looked forward to tasting this particular chef’s cuisine for so long but then when you actually got to try the food, it was strikingly . . . ordinary. Or perhaps it was some long-anticipated movie: maybe it was the sequel to another film you had really enjoyed and so you had waited for years for the next installment of the series to come out. You eagerly went to the theater on opening day only to discover the new movie turned out to be . . . really boring.
And so you feel let down, disappointed, deflated.
Well, if this has ever happened to you, then you perhaps also know that it’s finally a little difficult to admit that the food or the film in question really wasn’t all that good. You maybe hedge a bit , do some hemming and hawing, when someone later asks you how it was. “Was it everything you thought it would be?” to which you reply, “Yeah, it was good. I, uh, I, um, I pretty well liked it. Sure. It was fine, OK, not bad—well, not too bad anyways.”
But deep down you know the truth: all your waiting looks to have been in vain. Somebody in the kitchen or behind the camera let you down, leaving your high-flying expectations in tatters.
John the Baptist was disappointed. He had “talked Jesus up” and was a kind of divine warm-up act for the star attraction of the salvation show.
Years ago I attended a taping of “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” in Burbank, California. Before the taping began, the show’s announcer and second banana, Ed McMahon, came out and talked to the audience. He cracked jokes and humorously reminded us to laugh at Johnny’s jokes when he came out so that we’d all be nice to the show’s star. Ed warmed us up, got us ready. We never saw Johnny himself, of course, until that moment when the band was fully cranked up and Ed said his famous intro “Heeeeeeere’s Johnny,” at which point the curtains parted and out stepped Mr. Carson.
John the Baptist was the warm-up. He had spent years getting people ready to hear him say, “Heeeeeeere’s Messiah!” but in this case when the curtain parted, the man who stepped forward ended up being camera shy. He ducked the spotlight. He muffed his lines. He fled to out-of-the-way places. John sensed that the audience was let down, and so was he.
No doubt it took a while before John could even admit this to himself and dispatch some followers to check this out with Jesus himself. The open question never answered in the New Testament was whether the answer Jesus gave provided John once more with hope.
Author: Doug Bratt
With the words, “This text shouldn’t be here,” my colleague Barbara Lundblad begins a thoughtful presentation on Isaiah 35. After all, as she points out, it’s not just that this text doesn’t address anyone by name. It’s also that it almost immediately follows a poem that’s full of images of creational disaster: “Edom’s streams will be turned into pitch, her dust into burning sulfur, her land will become blazing pitch … Thorns will overrun her citadels, nettles and brambles her strongholds” (Isaiah 34:9, 13).
Into that promise of environmental devastation, Isaiah says, “The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy” (Isaiah 35:1-2a).
This text shouldn’t be here. After all, it’s not just that climate change and human meddling have damaged parts of God’s creation. It’s also that perhaps no American presidential election and its aftermath in recent history has provoked more fear than 2016’s. A number of Americans are fearful of what their new president and his advisors will do to them and those they love. On top of that, people in war-raved parts of the Middle East and refugees throughout the world must constantly live with even deeper-seated anxieties.
Into that, the poet speaks: “Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong and do not fear’” (Isaiah 35:3-4a).
Lundblad notes, “Isaiah dares to speak a word out of place. A word that refuses to wait until things improved.” Walter Brueggemann says something similar when he points out, “Israel’s doxologies are characteristically against the data.”
So what’s the 21st century data? The data on the creation isn’t encouraging. The data on interactions between countries, and among tribes and socio-economic groups is pretty grim. The data on the lives of some of us isn’t much better: waiting for test results from the doctor, grieving a loved one’s death, waiting for the next round of lay-offs.
The Old Testament lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday seems hopelessly out of place in the contexts of both Isaiah’s Israel and today’s world. It’s precisely for those reasons, however, that it comes as such gospel. It speaks of a new reality that not only God will someday usher in, but also that shapes the current realities of God’s people of every place and age.
However, before Isaiah 35’s preachers and teachers lunge into breaking down its gorgeous poetry verse-by-verse, word-by-word, image-by-image, a word of caution is in order from my colleague Scott Hoezee. He shared it in his fine December 3, 2013 Center for Excellence in Preaching introduction to this text.
Hoezee notes that since Isaiah 35 contains some of the most beautiful, lyrical, inspired poetry in all of the Scriptures, we can’t improve on its imagery. We can’t stretch this text’s energy or zest. In fact, as Hoezee notes, perhaps preachers ought to “worry pretty seriously that” we “will get in the way, that” we’ll “take those lyric words and somehow make them plain, that” we’ll “transform the poetry into everyday prose.”
On top of that, frustrated English profs-turned preachers and teachers may want to analyze and explain Isaiah 35’s poetic structure like we’d break down a Shakespearean sonnet. We may want to flex our theological-literary muscles by pointing out its A-B-C-B1-C1 structure.
I’d suggest we resist that temptation — unless it’s to use a structure analysis to point hearers to the beating heart of Isaiah 35’s poetry. After all, at the heart of not just this lyrical poetry but also in some ways of the gospel is verse 4’s “Your God will come …”
If we dawdle along the way of getting to this throbbing heart of Isaiah 35, we may get lost in its lovely images. Or in the weeds of its particular verses. Or, perhaps more dangerously, in assuming that this work of recreation Isaiah 35 describes is somehow first of all human responsibility.
Of course, we recognize that God calls us to help God care for everything God creates. God challenges us to care for our own wildernesses, as well as Lebanon’s, Carmel’s and Sharon’s. God calls us to help care for people with physical and mental disabilities like those the prophet describes in verse 5 and 6.
Yet we do those things only under the leadership of the God who “comes” to “save” us (4). In fact, our only hope for the renewal about which Isaiah so beautifully writes is found in our God’s coming. After all, human history is littered with as many failures as efforts to renew the creation. Were it up to us, the wildernesses would remain barren, those with disabilities would receive no real help and refugees would remain isolated from their homelands.
That’s why it’s such gospel that God, as the prophet insists, comes to make all things new with naqam and gamul. Our world is in so many ways characterized by evil and injustice. While the New International translation of the Bible renders what God comes into that world with as, “vengeance” and “divine retribution,” some scholars suggest there’s a stronger sense of the justice with which God comes to do what is right and good, including redeeming God’s people.
Of course, Christians see fulfillment of Isaiah’s words in Jesus Christ. We believe that God came in Jesus Christ to begin to fulfill its promises in his ministry, life and even saving death. Christians also believe that God will come again at Jesus’ second return to completely fulfill Isaiah 35’s beautiful promises.
However, faithful preachers and teachers of Isaiah 35 will want to look for ways to lyrically and poetically describe what God comes to do even now. To describe the affects of God’s coming on a creation that’s groaning in pain and anticipation of that coming. To describe the affects of God’s coming on the bodies and spirits of those who groan in pain and misery. To describe the affects of God’s coming on God’s scattered and alienated people everywhere.
Yet perhaps no vision is either lovelier or more startling than that with which the prophet closes Isaiah 35. “Gladness and joy will overtake” God’s people, he promises in verse 10b. “Sorrow and sighing will flee away.”
At least some of us will experience some gladness and joy during the Christmas season. Our hearts will fill and our throats will tighten just a bit as we gather with some of our family members and friends to celebrate God’s coming to us in Jesus Christ.
But, of course, that joy and gladness is fleeting. It lasts about as long as a snowfall in Miami, Florida. Sorrow and sighing sometimes seem to gobble it up nearly as quickly as it appears.
On top of that, those who preach and teach Isaiah 35 remember that the holiday season that brings joy and gladness to some also brings sorrow and sighing to others.
Sorrow will be an all too faithful companion of people who will have an empty chair at their Christmas dinner table. Sighing will be all too real for those for whom others’ holiday celebrations only heighten their sense of loneliness and longing. Gladness will be for some muted by unidentified serious illness, job unhappiness and financial uncertainty.
Isaiah 35 sings about a coming day when gladness and joy will chase away all sorrow and sighing. For the time being, however, sorrow and sighing seem to rule the day in all too many darkened corners of our homes, communities and world. For now countless hands remain feeble, knees remain weak and bodies and minds just don’t work the way God created them to.
So among the things our coming God calls us to do is to come alongside those for whom weakness is very real. For whom physical and intellectual disability is sometimes nearly crippling. For whom God’s redemption seems even farther away than the most distant planet or galaxy. Our presence with hurt people is a sign to them that God is present among and with them. Our presence is also a sign that God is already preparing a new and better day for all of us.
However, perhaps Isaiah 35’s lovely vision of that new day can shape how we behave on these days. Might it challenge us to renew our commitment to caring for the creation that God will someday renew? Might Isaiah 35 invite us to be advocates for those whose various disabilities limit their ability to advocate for themselves? Might it stimulate us to let the Spirit equip us to be more holy along our own Way to the glories of the new earth and heavens?
Gary Schmidt’s Orbiting Jupiter is the poignant story of Jack and his foster brother Joseph. In one especially lovely scene Jack describes the end of a particularly vicious cold snap’s affect on the family’s herd of cows. Jack’s description of scene’s conclusion sounds a bit like the longing God’s people feel for the fulfillment of Isaiah 35’s promises:
“The sun was out and the sky too bright a blue to look at as the snow melted off the yews and came clumping down. The cows were as restless as spring, thinking there might be new grass out in the fields, even though the snow was still pretty deep.
And Quintus Sertorius would not stay in his stall, so after school Joseph and I took him out of the paddock to let him walk around … Quintus Sertieus snorted and snickered and swished his tail high and did everything he could to tell us how happy he was that spring was coming, even though it was still a long way off.
Sometimes it’s like that. You know something good is coming, and even though it’s not there yet, still, just knowing its coming is enough to make you snort and nicker. Sort of [italics added].”
Author: Stan Mast
Our news media are full of stories about invasions: invasive species, invading armies, invasive procedures, and, on the entertainment page, invasions of aliens or zombies. Since it is about real life, the Bible is also full of stories about invasions of one sort or another. More importantly, its central story is about God’s invasion of the earth in a most unusual way. As C.S. Lewis put it in Mere Christianity, “Enemy occupied territory—that is what the world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say in disguise, and is calling us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.”
Mary’s Magnificat is a particularly fitting text for this Third Sunday of Advent, because it sings the Good News of the King’s disguised invasion. We could have used the alternative lectionary reading in Psalm 146:5-10 for our text. Mary certainly seemed to know those verses; she virtually quotes them in her song. But let’s focus on the Magnificat, because Mary takes Psalm 146 a step further by telling us how God has reversed reality by his “Inverted Invasion.”
Mary had learned of that invasion through a surprise visit from a secret agent, the angel Gabriel, earlier in Luke 1. After years of preparation, said the angel, God was going to invade the evil kingdom that had dominated the world for thousands of years, not with a powerful armada of angels, but with a single human baby who would be the Son of God.
In this part of Luke 1 we focus on Mary’s extended response to that shocking announcement, her acceptance of the Inverted Invasion. Her acceptance was no small thing, because Gabriel’s words turned Mary’s world upside down. It would never be the same again. That often happens when God invades our lives. Perhaps it has happened to some of your parishioners. God has invaded our lives and everything has changed. How do we respond? We could get bitter, or we could get better. We could experience God’s sudden presence as a curse or as a blessing. Mary shows us the way to blessing.
Dr. Luke tells us how she responded to the announcement of the Virgin Birth and conception by the Holy Spirit. She calmly accepted God’s will with these words, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said (Luke 1:38).” Have you ever wondered what would have happened to Mary and to the world if she had just said, “No?” What if Mary had listened to Gabriel announcing the invasion and she had said, “Are you crazy? Listen, mister, I don’t know who you are, but that is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. I want you to get out of my house right this instant.” Or if she had said, “Well, I’d like to help you out, but my fiancée won’t understand. My parents will be furious. My friends will talk about me behind my back. I’m just not ready for such a thing at this point in my life. So thanks for asking, but no thank you.” Could she have stopped the invasion?
I have Christian friends who might say “Yes,” because they say that God is a gentleman. He never forces himself on anyone. God always waits for us to open the door and invite him into our lives. With that kind of theology, we might conclude that if Mary had just said, “No,” God would have cancelled the invasion designed to liberate the world from the kingdom of evil.
Of course, that theology ignores the announcement of the angel. Before Mary knew anything about the invasion, Gabriel said to her, “You will give birth to a son.” It’s going to happen, regardless. “He will be great; he will called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of this father David.” Those are facts about the future. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you; the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” The angel announces what will happen by the grace and power of God, no “ifs, ands, or buts.” This is not a tentative offer that depends on her acceptance; it is an announcement of what God had planned to do from all eternity. A divine fiat, a done deal.
But Mary’s acceptance of the plan was an important part of the plan. That’s always the case with God’s plan of salvation. There is always this mysterious conjunction of God’s sovereign grace and our human response. God is always the initiator; we must always respond. In his sovereign grace, God sent Jesus while we were all part of the evil kingdom. But we must surrender, lay down our arms, and accept that Invader as our Savior and Lord. And if we accept the inverted invasion in our own lives as Mary did, we will be blessed as she was.
Mary’s acceptance of God’s gracious plan for her life began with these words, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” But her acceptance didn’t end there. Luke tells us that she immediately got ready and hurried to see Elizabeth, whose Spirit-inspired response to Mary’s greeting moved Mary to sing the Magnificat in verses 46-55. In those magnificent words, we discover what was in Mary’s heart when she accepted God’s inverted invasion of her life.
The fact is that we can respond to God’s invasion with two very different kinds of acceptance. At the heart of Mary’s acceptance are the words, “My soul magnifies (or, as our translation says, glorifies) the Lord….” At the heart of the other kind of acceptance are the words, “My soul is miserable.” Sometimes we accept God’s intrusion into our lives with a mournful resignation because we are miserable. With a spirit of hopelessness and helplessness, we say, “I’ll just have to accept what has happened. It feels as though the Lord has ruined my life. There’s nothing anyone can do about it. It’s the Lord’s will.” With limp folded hands and bowed head, we unwillingly give in to the Lord’s awful power, like ISIS insurgents surrendering to United States soldiers.
Mary accepts God’s disturbing will with a very different spirit. Instead of focusing on the misery that makes her feel smaller, she magnifies the Lord. Instead of resignation, she rejoices in God her Savior. Instead of hopelessness because God has turned her life upside down, she shouts hallelujah because God has been mindful of her humble state. With eager outstretched hands, she willingly surrenders to the Lord’s awesome love, like a bride embracing her husband on their wedding night. Even though the coming invasion is going to turn her world upside down and bring her great pain and sorrow, she accepts it with a Magnificat and is blessed beyond her wildest dreams. “From now on all generations will call me blessed.”
In the rest of the Magnificat, Mary describes what happens when God invades the world. Verses 52 and 53 summarize it. The Invader will bring down rulers but lift up the humble, fill the hungry with good things but send the rich away empty. These are revolutionary words that might make some of us very uncomfortable. What do they mean? Was Mary proclaiming that all rulers and all the rich will be brought low, and all the poor and hungry will be lifted up?
No. If we listen carefully to this revolutionary song, we will hear Mary singing not first of all about people’s social position, but about their spiritual condition. Listen to verse 50. “His mercy extends to those who fear him.” And verse 51 says, “He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.” There are basically two kinds of people in the world: those who fear God, who have him on the throne in their lives, and those are proud in their inmost thoughts, who have self on the throne in their lives. Those who acknowledge the Invader as King are part of his kingdom, and those who think that the “I” is king are part of the evil kingdom.
When Mary talks about the rulers and the rich who will be humbled, she is talking first of all about those who worship the great “I.” And when she sings about those who are poor and hungry, she means primarily those who are poor in spirit and hungry for God and who worship the great Invader. With the coming of Christ, God was beginning to turn the world right side up, so that those who worship the King receive mercy and those who worship themselves will be scattered in their pride. Of course, when that happens, the social order will be reversed, too. The kingdom of Christ will invade the kingdom of evil that worships money and power, and gradually he will lift up the downtrodden and feed the hungry.
That is going to happen. No “ifs, ands, or buts” about it. The angel announced it, Mary sang it, and nine months later it began. The invader came and his first public words were “the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Jesus is turning the world right side up, and sometimes the upheaval hits our own lives. Sometimes we are lifted up, and sometimes we are brought down. Sometimes we are filled, and sometimes we are sent away hungry. We should encourage our people to think deeply about their own lives. Where has Jesus invaded your life? Where have you been lifted up or brought low?
Jesus is invading our lives with his grace all the time. The question is, will we let it make us bitter or better? Will we accept the working of God in our lives? And how– with a mournful resignation that focuses on our misery or with a joy that magnifies the Lord because he is mindful of us and is doing great things to save us even in the turmoil of the life?
Let’s press that question a bit more, because we want all of God’s people to be blessed. Here’s how I would put it in a sermon. The fact is that there are three levels of acceptance. First, on the most fundamental level, on the intellectual level, have you accepted the historical fact of the Inverted Invasion? Have you accepted the bare fact that, in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, God was invading the world, was thinking of you, extending mercy to you, doing a great thing for you, saving you?
Second, on a more personal level, the level of your heart, if you have accepted that historical fact, have you accepted that invader himself into your life? Have you actually said to him, “Come into my heart, Lord Jesus, come into my heart today?” Before you will be blessed like Mary, Jesus must be in you spiritually as he was in her physically.
And third, on the level of your daily life, of your finances and your health and your relationships, are you accepting his ongoing invasion of your life? This may be the hardest issue for some of us. When God reverses your fortunes, lifting you up or bringing you down, filling you or emptying you, do you accept his mercy even when it is severe? If you accept the unexpected invasion of grace as Mary did, you will be blessed.
Those who are hurting deeply today because God has inverted their lives through seeming disasters may well respond to the Good News of our text by saying, “How can I accept God’s will when it turns my life upside down.” The answer is, look at Mary. Her acceptance began with these words, “I am the Lord’s servant.” I am not the Lord; I am just his servant. I am not in control of my life, not of my health or my wealth, not of my birth or my death. I am simply the Lord’s servant. I surrender.
Mary could say that because she believed those first words of the angel. “Greetings, you who are highly favored!” That is the good news, God’s good word to all who accept the invasion of his love in Jesus. “You are highly favored, the object of God’s amazing grace.” God says to you, “I am especially fond of you. You are special to me. I love you so much that I would do anything to bless you. Do not fear, for you have found favor with God.” If we believe that good news and accept the inverted invasion in our lives, we will be blessed.
Early in this piece, I quoted C.S. Lewis where he describes the Incarnation and the Atonement as an invasion by the rightful king in disguise. In Advent we not only look back at that first stage of the invasion, but also ahead to the second and final stage. C.S. Lewis helps us think about why God in Christ came the way he did and why he has waited so long to come again and finish the job of liberating the world from enemy occupation.
“God will invade. But I wonder whether people who ask God to interfere openly and directly in our world quite realize what it will be like when he does. When that happens, it is the end of the world. When the author walks on to the stage the play is over. God is going to invade, all right: but what is the good of saying you are on his side then, when you see the whole natural universe melting away like a dream and something else—something it has never entered your head to conceive—comes crashing in; something so beautiful to some of us and so terrible to others that none of us will have any choice left? For this time it will be God without disguise; something so overwhelming that it will strike either irresistible love or irresistible horror into every creature. It will be too late then to choose your side. There is no use saying you choose to lie down when it has become impossible to stand up. That will not be the time for choosing; it will be the time when we discover which side we have really chosen, whether we realized it or not. Now, today, at this moment, is our chance to choose the right side. God is holding back to give us that chance. It will not last forever. We must take it or leave it.” (Mere Christianity)
Accept it like Mary and be blessed, or reject it and discover that we have placed a curse on ourselves.
Author: Scott Hoezee
You can parachute right down onto James 5:7 if you want to and pretend nothing else is going on here but . . . good luck. Truth is, starting a reading at verse 7 here is like walking into a room where, unbeknownst to you, a horrible fight had just been taking place between two people and in front of a dozen others. By the time you get there, someone has taken to talking in more measured tones but there is no denying that the air is still fairly crackling with electricity from the fight that had just happened even as the stunned and scared looks in the eyes of the others in the room confirm for you that something big—something bad—had just gone down.
In the case of James 5, the something big that had just gone down are the first 6 verses of the chapter in which James—no shrinking violet he—had just given rich folks a tongue lashing and moral thrashing designed to leave these wealthy folks a smoldering ruin. Remember the “Shock and Awe” bombing campaign against Baghdad in 2003? James has a nice rhetorical version of that right here.
Yet, as often happens, the Lectionary would prefer you not notice that, not sense the taut acoustics and tense atmosphere of the room you bumble into starting at verse 7. But the truth is, the patience and hope James urges on his readers starting in verse 7 make no sense without a context, and in this case that context is brutal.
It is a curious thing that the Year A Lectionary on this Third Sunday in Advent gives us a Gospel text from Matthew that is all about doubting the validity of Jesus as the Christ and now an Epistle reading that tears into the wealthy smack in the middle of a holiday shopping season that has become more and more about capitalist avarice as the decades and centuries have rolled on. Cheery texts for Advent III these are not!
Yet in an odd way they may be the texts we need. The only way to move past John the Baptist’s doubts about Jesus in Matthew 11 is to take a longer, deeper look at the words and the work of Jesus. Don’t look for the razzle or the dazzle, the fireworks lighting up the skies or a political movement with clout and bare-knuckled power. Look for hope’s embers glowing in the heart of the poor person who had Good News preached to her. Look for how the power of love could not be unmade by the power of a vicious Roman cross. Notice that some roads that had once been very crooked are now getting just a little straighter thanks to the ministry of Christ’s followers.
Or in James 5: as I write this it’s Cyber Monday and that follows on the post-Thanksgiving Black Friday in which it was all about money, money, and more money. The incoming President is a multi-billionaire and has already hired so many other uber-wealthy people that someone recently estimated the new President’s Cabinet might have a net worth of $35 billion. (Look it up—I did not make that up.) It’s nothing new, though. It was this way in the Roman Empire of James’s day too. Money rules. The rich get richer. The rich can buy their way into anything.
And the poor cry out over the inequity, over the unfairness, over how those who don’t need more money even so cheat and sue and ride over top of the poor anyway just to eke out a little more. And if ever there were a season that highlights those who can afford the luxury gifts for friends and family and those who cannot, it is (sadly enough) the Advent and Christmas season that does this in spades now.
When in verse 7 James begins to counsel his fellow believers with patience and with the reassurance that God is really on their side and is really bringing a better day, this does not come from out of nowhere. James is giving this counsel in the face of a society—and from the looks of the wider letter of James in the face of also a CHURCH—that was giving way too much deference to the rich. James is telling people to have Advent hope—the hope of Christ’s second Advent in this case—as a way to say that the way things are is no indication of the way things will always be.
Jesus Christ has come to level out these mountainous economic inequities, to smooth out the wrinkles in the social fabric, to adjudicate the inherent unfairness of who gets what in life. Those who condemn and murder the innocent—the content of verse 6—are not going to get away with it. Not finally. Not at the end of the cosmic day. Have hope! Chin up!
Does this lead to a quietism for now? Is it wrong to speak up about injustices? Obviously not or else James could not have written this very epistle! But what James desperately wants is for Christian believers to deal with all this AS Christian believers. Grumbling about it all, attacking one another out of frustration over it all, trying to get ahead of God by taking matters into our own hands or, worse yet, adopting the strong-armed tactics of the wider world will never do.
As Jesus does for John the Baptist in Matthew 11, so here Jesus’ brother James does for his readers—and now for all of us—in James: we are called to have quiet hope. We are called to believe that when it comes to all this, God’s got it covered. That confident and quiet hope does not make everything “all better” for now or heal every bump we experience along the way. But it does keep us from lashing out in ways that undercut the Gospel and the witness of the Church to that Gospel.
In Advent or at any time, we can shout and scream and cuss about the way things are. But we need to do all that with what a document called “The Contemporary Testimony” calls “tempered impatience.” We are impatient with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer and ignored but we temper this with hope. Christ has come, Christ will come again. This is our Advent hope. That hope animates how we act but also becomes the lens through which we view this often harsh and unfair world. This hope doesn’t solve everything in one fell swoop but . . . it is so very much better than having no hope at all.
Even so, Maranatha, Come, Lord Jesus.
Most of the non-biblical stories, songs, and dramas that have clustered around Christmas would likely not meet with much approval by the Apostles if they could see and hear such things. Lots of it is saccharine sentimentality, fairy tales, and goofiness. But you have the funny feeling that if James could have known about one such Christmas-related story, he would have liked it at least a little. I am thinking of Charles Dickens and his A Christmas Carol in which old Scrooge wakes up Christmas morning a changed man. Gone will be his days of parsimony and cruel avarice and in its place would be a new generosity toward all, with a special eye for the poorest and the most vulnerable.
One version I particularly like is the one starring Patrick Stewart. The scene where he wakes up to discover he has another chance concludes with a joyful laughter that emerges like a roar from deep within the old miser. At first you think he’s choking to death or on the verge of a major coronary event but no: it’s just that Scrooge had not laughed for joy for so long that he had to remember how a good belly laugh goes. (Watch this scene here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vviOGFiGrHc )
The hope and the patience James urges on his readers is for a day when weeping will turn to laughter, when avarice will give way to generosity, and when there will be good reason for the whole creation to sing and, yes, also to laugh for joy.