Advent III, Year B
Ps 126 or Lk 1:47-55
1 Thes 5:16-24
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion– to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
For I the LORD love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the LORD has blessed. I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever."
(1 Thessalonians 5:16-24)
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil. May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?" He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, "I am not the Messiah." And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the prophet?" He answered, "No." Then they said to him, "Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?" He said, "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’" as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, "Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?" John answered them, "I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal." This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Once again, the theme which has formed the backdrop for the last two Sundays, namely persecution, is also to be found in the foreground and background of our text. A “reading from below” is possible only when we “learn that personal suffering is a more effective key, a more rewarding principle for exploring the world in thought and action than personal good fortune” (Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison). Suffering as a hermeneutical principle is as important as any grammatical or historical tool brought to textual exegesis. In both the Markan and the Johannine traditions, the Spirit is bound up with a theology of the cross.
This is an absolutely essential element to grasp for it is the hermeneutic that alone unlocks Scripture. The Spirit, God as self interpreted to us, each of us and all of us, and the death of Jesus of Nazareth, are inseparable. It is God in Christ we see ‘reconciling the declared enemy, the world to God’s self.” When we approach Scripture from this perspective, we can agree with Bonhoeffer that “personal suffering” or “a hermeneutic from below” is the way we are to read God’s story in Scripture. The theme of Holy Scripture is the suffering God, suffering Love.
The early church interpreted their Canon this way and they articulated this way of rendering Scripture. Iso Lesbaupin reminds us that virtually every document collected in the New Testament was written from the perspective of the persecuted, from the perspective of the community of, not simply the victim, else Nietzsche would be right, but they knew themselves to be the community of the Victim Vindicated! Thus forgiveness of enemies, as practiced by Jesus became their hallmark (for the most part). They had received the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Crucified.
The promised coming of the Spirit creates a link between the Synoptics and the Johannine Gospels. A hermeneutical perspective is given: the Cross is both revelation and reconciliation, the revelation is reconciliatory, the reconciliation is revelatory (as Barth would say). In effect, the text gives its own hermeneutic, the one by which it can most effectively be read. This perspective is aptly called “the view from below” (Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison).
This view from below is of no little consequence, because it immediately identifies the revelation of violence, and this revelation is that a conquering is occurring in the cross, a conquering of sin, death and the devil. Again, as the hermeneutical key when reading the texts, it is important to remember that the sporadic and localized persecutions of Christians have left their memory in these documents. In the case of the 4G, to bear witness, marturein, is a legal term. The modern connotation of “martyr” may not have been a part of the evangelist’s semantic sphere. However, by the end of the first century, those legally charged as ‘threats to the State’ were often given a trial before the thundering crowds of the Roman (and other) coliseums. Their witness for Jesus would cost them their lives.
[ Michael Grant Gladiators
D.S. Potter & D.J. Mattingly Life, Death, and Entertainment in the Roman Empire
Donald G. Kyle Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome]
The singularity of the death of Jesus, its cause and consequences permeate the 4G, in its metaphors, its allusions and its double meanings. Beginning with the ‘rejection’ by his own, through the death plots and narrow escapes, to the prophecy of the High Priest, and the betrayal of one of his own, this gospel winds it way around the cross. Good Friday is Pentecost in the 4G in that the Spirit is poured out in the death of Jesus (7:37-39). If Jesus does not ‘go away’, he cannot come to us or send the Spirit of his Father. The baptism of the Cross and the baptism of the Spirit are one.
As we pointed out last week, the 4G’s (John’s Gospel, the “Fourth Gospel) portrait of John the Baptist (JTB) is quite different than that of the Synoptics. Where the Synoptics portray JTB as an apocalyptic preacher and baptizer, The 4G highlights the witness of JTB.
In both the Synoptics and the 4G, the quotation from the prophet Isaiah is used to place John in relation to Jesus. The Synoptic (= Petrine) slant on JTB places him in a salvation-historical framework, that is, John is the penultimate in a series of prophets who have been sent to Israel. JTB’s ministry was so successful that he is not only placed at the beginning of the ‘gospel tradition,’ he also merits admiration from Josephus. It is also possible that JTB’s disciples formed small communities, one of which apparently migrated to Asia Minor (as reflected in Acts 19). If so, those who see an undermining of the Baptist’s popularity in the 4G might well be correct. However, it is important in this regard to observe that John and Jesus are not portrayed as rivals. The Baptist is never denigrated in the Gospel tradition.
In fact, Jesus’ execution is foreshadowed by JTB’s execution and thus links Jesus to the Baptist and the other Hebrew Prophets. This is the witness of the Baptist. The use of the title ‘Lamb of God’ has several potential antecedents: sacrificial lambs, the Passover Lamb, the eschatological Lamb (Rev. 5). Whatever the case, sacrifice is involved. Jesus’ appearance is the distinctive (not unique) revelation of this sacrificial system and its origins in mimetic violence.
The eschatological warning of human-generated violence and the eschatological promise of the Spirit culminate in the Third Sunday in Advent. But the promise triumphs the warning. Here in week 3, JTB stands as a witness. He himself is not the reality, but the witness that his ministry and message would diminish and pale by comparison with “the One mightier than I.”
In the 4G there is no clear indication of JTB’s message. It is strictly his function as God’s witness to point to God’s emissary, Jesus. Unlike the Synoptics, in the 4G Jesus baptizes at the same time as JTB, and in fact Jesus creates quite a stir when he develops a greater following.
The Synoptic tradition has even identified John with Elijah in the chronological scheme of apocalyptic Judaism. The 4G knows no such framework. It is possible, as suggested earlier, that the community that produced this gospel had some contacts with groups who esteemed the Baptist. But it may be preferable to suggest that this community is intentionally undermining the potentially misleading apocalyptic framework placed on the gospel narrative in the Synoptic tradition.
The verses selected for the lectionary reading reflect a text embedded in one of the most beautiful Christian pieces of poetry or hymnody. The Introductory Poem to the 4G, 1:1-18, is an extraordinarily textured combination of, as it were, a midrash on Genesis 1, a reflection on Logos theory, Wisdom/Logos/Torah personification, all woven in an elegantly balanced structure and style. If we read verses 6-8, followed by verse 15, then verse 19, we can see a connected narrative opening around which the Poem has been placed. We can also see better the internal connections in the Poem. The lectionary reading of verses 6-8 and 19-28 parallels this observation.
This third Sunday in Advent we draw closer to……What? Or better yet, Who is it that is coming? We have been warned that time is short, we have seen the human origin and character of the eschatological conflict. We have seen that bringing the message of God means rejection and suffering. And we have seen that we do not listen to those who are rejected and suffering. As Dorothee Solle has so wisely observed, “Suffering with rejection is the worst form of suffering.”
We have also seen the need for a repentant reading of the biblical text, so that we may find ears to hear and eyes to see, this ‘view from below’ borne witness to by John the Baptist, and to see the extraordinary social consequences that are developed from within this interpretive approach.
If we are waiting for the one "mightier" than John, it’s tempting to want to make of Jesus the "triumpalist" savior that the Gospels so clearly reject. The challenge for us as preachers, then, is to find a way to read "mightier" from below. Can we seriously preach that weakness and vulnerability are the strength that is stronger than human strength? We wonder if we can preach anything else.
I will put it bluntly, as far as American Christianity is concerned, I would say that liberalism lacks the Spirit, conservatives lack the cross. The split between Jesus and the Cross is the hallmark of Gnosticism. The Christ Spirit hovers above the suffering human Jesus…and laughs! Why? Because suffering, material reality, is not real. Real reality is spirit and cannot suffer or change. A lot is missed when we fail to see that we preach a suffering God, who has suffered and still suffers with us, as with Jesus. He suffers in every little one. He suffers in everyone who bears the brunt of another’s anger. Holy Scripture teaches that God suffers.
If you have Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison, you might wish to read his poem “Christians and Pagans.” Bonhoeffer says that “Christians stand by God in God’s time of grieving.” Christianity, if it wishes to preach gospel, good news, will point out that the One who comes, Emmanuel, comes from below, from what Tony Bartlett would call the abyss of love. Jesus’ descent into the abyss of the cross was also a descent into the abyss of the love and forgiveness of God.
For us today, the issue is whether or not we are forgiving victims. “The poor we will always have with us.” There will always be victims. Christianity is not about victims, per se, but about what happens to a victim who is wholly taken with the Lord; about what happens to Jesus, but what also happens to us, when we forgive our enemies. The Christian choice for nonviolence and peacemaking is only possible when it is understood beforehand that one forgives as one has been forgiven. When victims forgive, the reality is spoken, there can be no more war, there is no more enemy. You might say that the church is engaged in teaching people how to forgive as Jesus forgave. In your opinion, is the church succeeding?
John the Baptist is the first witness, we are the contemporary witnesses. Is it Jesus we are witnessing to? Or do we witness to an ideology? Do we follow Jesus to the Cross, where forgiveness lies, or do we run from the Cross into the arms of another Logos, a violent Logos? And can we not see, even in our hermeneutic unfaithfulness, that we are still embraced, still embraced by arms wide open? To whom do you bear witness in your proclamation?
“Not one sparrow falls to the ground apart the awareness of the Father.”
In a recent essay I wrote (“Mimetic Theory & Christian Theology in the 21st Century” in Essays in Friendship and Truth forthcoming Michigan University Press 2009):
“Evil arises from within, not without, the human species. Evil does not exist prior to the generative power of imitated desire. Thus there is no transcendental dualism that has to be posited prior to the advent of humanity’s mythmaking.
Questions of theodicy become unnecessary from this perspective. History is seen to be less of a battle between good and evil than it is to be seen as full of the promise of redemption. This redemption does not take place as the false redemption of myth, but it does take place within myth, at its very center. In becoming the center of myth as the persecuted victim, Jesus transforms that center by seeking forgiveness for us and thus brings about not only the transformation of desire but also the transformation of myth and its structures and systems, and our history as well.”
With the coming of the gospel, the good news, there is a dark side. God’s Yes! in the Gospel contains God’s No! to the world we humans have created. Human culture, our highest aspiration and dream as a species is roundly negated for culture needs perpetual victims for its survival. The coming of the gospel turns us from ‘idolatry to serve the true and living God” (1:9). Our idolatry as a species manifests itself as self-determination, a perspective Paul warns against in many of his letters.
The message of the Gospel during Advent is not to bring us comfort that the systems we have become comfortable in will endure; indeed it is the announcement that all human institutions shall ultimately collapse back into chaos (this is what is meant by the term ‘wrath’ in Paul – the dissolution of society into anarchy and mutual destruction). Our ‘kosmos’, the world of our making cannot endure for it has been infected with the virus of the gospel and has been in the process of deconstruction for almost 2,000 years. It is this dissolution that creates the scenario in the Thessalonian letters that leads us to call them apocalyptic. But, and this is a big BUT, followers of Jesus are not to be fearful but to exhibit three characteristics at all times: joy, prayer, thanksgiving (5:16-18). These never cease from us even in the worst of circumstances. Why? Because we know that what appears to be the end is not really the end, but the hope for a new beginning in God.
During these times of tribulation, God, by the Spirit in Jesus, speaks to the church. The church is encouraged not to throw water on the Spirit’s fire that burns through the community and purifies it, but they are also not to blindly accept any and every prophecy that comes their way, in particular regarding dates (5:1-2). There has always been an apocalyptic expectation in the church. Many Christians in the first three centuries thought they lived in the last days; some Anabaptists and Luther himself thought they lived in the last days. The 19th and 20th centuries have seen all kinds of date setting. Over and over the Lord has failed to appear.
So we too may feel like we are an apocalyptic edge in our world today, but it may well be the case that the human project has another hundred or thousand or ten thousand years to go. It is not for us to say. We are simply called to be alert to the fact that it might be or could be soon, but is not necessarily so. We are called to live joyfully, prayerfully and thankfully in these times. That is what will make our witness distinct from those preoccupied with questions of theodicy.
Finally, peace is holistic. Paul uses the tripartite scheme of body, soul and spirit in vs 23, but surrounds it with adverbs that indicate a unity of the whole person. More so, it is God who calls and keeps followers of Jesus.
The Thessalonians’ letters are the earliest extant writings we posses from the early church. Evidently this nascent community had experienced persecution for the faith (2:14-15).
The final instructions’ of 5:16-28 are not unrelated to persecution although they are not called forth by it. One can find a series of unrelated exhortations in Romans 12. Yet, here as in all the Pauline letters, they are a call to non-violent resistance. The admonition to not ‘pay back wrong for wrong’ hearkens to the early Christian catechetical tradition found in the Sermon on the Mount and the Didache.
The root of the word grace (charis) is also the stem for the words joy (chara) and thanksgiving (eucharistia). Cf vs 28 with vvs, 16, 18.
This text calls us to determine our standard of measure; will it mirror God’s or not? As people scramble to prepare for Christmas in trappings of red and green, we preachers are called to reset the stage for a very different drama. The temptation in this brief epistle text for many folks is to hear an admonition to be thankful and joyful with no basis in reality, and to pray- that is, to beg God for whatever they currently desire 24/7- an equally frustrating endeavor. Clearly the church in Thessalonica knew the realities of evil and temptation, so analogies between then and now work pretty well with this text, enabling us to address the larger reality of Paul’s words. This close to Christmas- this year we’re about half-way through December at this reading- folks may well be feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of celebrating a highly commercial holiday in a difficult economy, thus making the temptation to find Paul’s encouragement unrealistic even more seductive. Preaching the peace of God in the midst of chaos is rooted in the opening passages of Genesis; it may be helpful to ground ourselves there to access the eternal time span that’s involved in living the truth of this text.
God created order (and relationship) without sacrificial violence- humanity took that on. Reviewing an encapsulated version of the origin of evil (no small task, but Michael’s anthropological insights are invaluable here) as being separate from God- part of the humanly created order of culture instead of divinely authored act of original creation- helps get us in touch with the real possibility of joy, prayer, and thanksgiving in all circumstances. Naming the temptation for what it is, and the veneer of culture as the false reality clears the way for the church to focus on the Spirit and the prophets. The text facilitates a focus on prophets as a current event, not as “the” prophets of biblical text only- which gives us an opportunity to identify/affirm the prophets in our midst, both in our local congregation and in the larger world around us. Focusing on the nations economic crisis as a crisis of greed over need (culture over compassion) and identifying the voices proclaiming this (Suze Orman has been eloquent without being vindictive, suzeorman.com ) can facilitate discernment about cultural distortion and its effect on our perception of the reality at the core, successfully unveiling the effect of God in our midst- which returns us to a focus on Emmanuel. Once again, we are pregnant- the child is within us, therefore here, yet not yet born, so not here- the choice as to how to proceed is ours. Listening to the voices of those who thought they were living in the end times throughout history- who nonetheless bore faithful witness- generates the hope of being part of the only crowd worth belonging to- the throng worshipping the Lamb. Validating the perception of chaos in the world has the simultaneous effect of validating hope; the hope of Jesus advent into each of our personal lives in turbulent times. Rejoicing, prayer (as constant communication not whining/demanding) and thanksgiving then become logical, not irrational, responses on the part of the church to the presence of the Spirit. While the Spirit is not limited to the rational, she surely is not irrational either, and neither are we in our joy- no matter how real the worldly distress we live in.