Sunday, December 2, 2012
Think back to September 11, 2001, and the previous decade. In this 10-20 year period, the perceived threat to American safety has been terrorist attacks. When I was growing up, we worried about threats from Communist Soviet Union. But, if you were born after 1980, you really have never known life under the specter of communism. You have lived in a time where the American fear is fear of an attack by a radical terrorist group – usually a Muslim group. This fear has made it hard for Christ-followers to love our Muslim neighbors. Jesus said the greatest command is to love God and neighbor. We have trouble loving our Muslim neighbors; we struggle in even knowing how to relate to them at all.
Watch TV or listen to the radio or go on the internet or go to your mailbox. Or read a magazine. All year we are bombarded with advertisements for cars, cell phones, clothing, and numerous other products. That’s yearlong. The advertising explodes around Christmas. It seems the American way is to buy stuff, and often on credit. We have trouble with delayed gratification. We don’t know how to be happy without stuff. We struggle with saving our money and thinking of our money as a tool for advancing God’s kingdom. Ironically, after the purchases, many of which are very expensive, we forget about what we bought. The importance of the item was much higher when we did not have it. Now, in our possession, it certainly does not seem to be worth as much as we spent.
Recall this past election. We have a two-party system that demands that we support one candidate blindly and demonize the other. Americans seem incapable of saying, “I agree with Bill Republican on these issues and disagree on these others. I am with Sandy Democrat here, but not on this other issue.” Our two-party system has demolished critical thinking when it comes to voting. We cannot conceive of a third party gaining traction. We refuse to listen to one another in political conversations. We struggle with creativity. We do not make space for new ideas in the political realm.
I love our country, but we have some problems. Of these, I have identified three that I think are uniquely American and in the readings from the prophets for this season of Advent, we have a word from God that speaks directly to these problems and to us as God’s people.
Walter Brueggeman says “The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us” (The Prophetic Imagination, 1970, p.13). Put more simply, it is the prophet’s job to show how God’s way is different than the world’s way. It is the prophet’s job to use whatever means necessary to direct God’s people away from the path of the world and to the path of God.
The phrase “the world” refers to many places. It is a different set of problems depending on where in the world you live. If we dealt with the scriptures from the prophets during the Christmas season and we were in China, we would have one set of issues to talk about. If we were in Greece, a place of tremendous economic struggle, the conversation would be different than in Syria, a nation racked by war. We will deal with what we face daily in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Christmas 2012.
We struggle with loving our neighbors; especially, our Muslim neighbors.
We struggle with greed. We don’t know how to live without excessive luxuries and we don’t know how to find satisfaction without buying stuff.
We struggle with an utter lack of creativity in our politics. This leads to a divided nation with a self-serving government that does not serve the people even though we are in many ways the greatest democracy. Our democracy is in danger of replacing our greatness with destructive conflict.
The prophets we read in the Bible have something to say to each struggle.
With an eye on Christmas, rejoicing in the birth of Jesus, God in the flesh, and anticipating his coming at the end of time, we look to the prophets of the Old Testament. Jeremiah lived in the 6th century BC. Jeremiah’s thought was inspired by God to such an extent that his writings contained layers of meaning. He spoke truth to the Kings of Judah. At the same time his words anticipated the coming of Jesus even if Jeremiah didn’t know that was how fulfillment would come.
Jeremiah’s speech, appropriate in the 6th century BC and in the life of Jesus in the 1st century AD, still speaks because his words are word of God. Even though Jesus lived, died, rose again, and ascended to be bodily with God, he is still here, still speaking. When we read the prophets in the light of Christmas, and our reading is Holy Spirit-inspired, then the Spirit-filled church is the incarnation of God in the world. The church which reads scripture and walks with the Holy Spirit is the presence of God, pointing the way to God’s activity today. Here and now!
In Advent we will read the prophets prayerfully. We will see God at work among us. We look back at ancient words to learn what God is doing right now.
Advent 1, December 2 – Jeremiah 33:14-16, “God Fulfills His Promises”
Advent 2, December 9 – Malachi 3:1-4, “God Comes in Glory and Judgment”
Advent 3, December 16 – Zephaniah 3:14-20, “God Wins”
Advent 4, December 23 – Micah 5:2-5a, “God Provides”
Christmas Eve, December 24, – Luke 2:11, “God Saves”
In Jeremiah’s day, the problems were syncretistic religion. The priests and kings of Judah thought they could be God’s people, but worship other gods, false gods in order to curry favor with powerful neighboring nations and empires. It would be as if, knowing Jesus is God, we denied his divinity in writings published by our church so that we could have credibility in certain academic circles. We would be denying what we know to be true and claiming as truth what we know is false. We’d be doing God a disservice just so we could be found acceptable in the eyes of humans and human institutions.
The king of Judah, a descendant of King David, practiced idolatry for political reasons. Jeremiah called him on it. The king and his priests, trusted in political alliances instead of trusting in God. Jeremiah called them on it. In fact, Jeremiah was past the point of warning. These sins had persisted for generations. Jeremiah did not say, “You better stop, or else?” The “or else” was at hand. Judah would cease to be a nation and fall into exile. It was inevitable. Nothing could stop it.
However, the story of Jeremiah is not just one of a man announcing doom. That was a job of the prophets. But Jeremiah also was given a message of hope. The story of Judah and of Israel would not end with the Jews being lost in history. In fact, hope for all peoples would come from the Jews.
Jeremiah, speaking God’s words, said, “The days are surely coming when I will fulfill the promise I made. … At that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall extend justice and righteousness in the land. In those days, Judah will be saved. … And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘the Lord is our righteousness.’”
Three times, righteousness – a righteous branch … he shall extend righteousness in the land … the Lord is our righteousness. What does this mean? How does this show God working in our world here and now?
Righteousness is a very churchy, preachy-sounding word. In terms of morals, it indicates the right thing to do. Our American slant on this involves hard work, honesty, and fairness. Everyone should have a chance and when given the chance, we work hard. We do things the right way.
This ethic of hard work and honesty is a part of Biblical righteousness. So too is how we relate. We want to be in relationships of peace and harmony and cooperation with family – parents, spouses, siblings. We want good relationships with friends in church, people in our neighborhoods, and people we meet in business and the marketplace.
Finally, in addition to morals and relationships, righteousness involves our standards. How do we determine if we are doing things the way we should, living the way we should? What is the standard by which we evaluate ourselves? In righteousness, as Jeremiah means the term, we measure ourselves by the word of God. For Christ followers, his life and teaching, especially in Matthew 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount, is our standard. Morals and work ethic, relationship, and self-evaluation based on Biblical teaching – this is our understanding of righteousness or God’s way.
Jeremiah promises that one will come who brings this righteousness. Christians believe that one is Jesus – the baby born in Bethlehem. He is God in flesh and when we put our trust in him, receive complete forgiveness from him, and give our lives to Him, we become his church. In our gathering in His name us the word is read, God is worshiped, and people are empowered by the Holy Spirit that begins the work and presence of God in the world today.
In greed, in conflict, and in politically-motivated division, righteousness is not possible. Conflict is not going away. Fear of terrorism replaced fear of communism; if somehow terrorism was eliminated, some other fear would rise up. Greed is not going away. Our system of capitalism provides an expression of greed, but we know greed has threatened humanity’s safety and peace long before capitalism became a prominent economic possibility. And political division is not going away. In my own assessment of American culture, political division appears to be more damaging than ever.
It is at this depressing point that we remember the prophet’s task. Jeremiah and Micah and the rest speak today to evoke an alternative reality – a different way than the way of the world around us. We Christ followers participate in our culture, but the American way in its damaged form is not our way. Our way is God’s way. Jeremiah assured us God’s way, the way of righteousness, will be present in the world and will be available.
He didn’t know it, but the perfect enactment of his promise was seen in Jesus. Jesus demonstrated the perfect balance of honesty and compassion; of work and Sabbath rest. Jesus showed unfiltered, unconditional love. His relationships were pure. Jesus brought people together instead of dividing.
He did all these things; He is also doing these things when his church spreads his love in the world. When we are filled by the word and the Spirit, we refuse to objectify our Muslim neighbors or any others. Instead, we love them. Whether they ever turn to Jesus or not, we love sacrificially and generously. Jesus is at work when his church does his bidding in the world.
We reject greed and materialism knowing that lasting joy does not come from buying stuff but from living in the love of God. Sure, we participate in the tradition of gift-giving. But even in that, we find creative ways of turning the holidays so that they are opportunities for love and generosity instead of reasons to be greedy and self-indulgent.
Finally we shout a firm “No!” to politics of division. We refuse to self-identify as ‘republican,’ or ‘democrat.’ We are identified by our relationship with Jesus. We will not allow the damning, soul-crushing methods of our two-party system to entice us into entering the fray. Some of us may have vote Democrat and always will. Others vote Republican. But, because Jesus is acting in us, we refuse to speak evil of the other party and we honestly pray for their well-being.
God is in the world when we show radical neighbor love, work for peace, and rely on God for our happiness instead of the acquisition of stuff. In this incarnational reality, the world sees Jesus active today, and knows that God indeed, as Jeremiah said, will full all his promises. His justice will prevail. Righteousness is possible because God has come.
This is the prophetic word. God can be trusted.