~ Isaiah 61:1-4/John 1:6-8, 19-28 ~
So, here comes John preaching the coming Messiah. He comes preaching the light. He comes, echoing the words of the prophet Isaiah as one crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord.” So, the gospel, as portrayed by this gospel writer, introduces the One whom the Baptizer says he is unworthy to untie his shoelaces. In other words, when Jesus comes upon the scene, look out, things are gonna happen!
Indeed, in this season of Advent and Christmas, we invoke grand language to describe this happening, this coming of the Messiah who is born a little baby in a manger: Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Our carols are filled with royal imagery, the coming of a king.
Yet the gospel story turns all royal imagery on its head. The word ‘king’ no longer describes a royal personage living in a palace. Now it means a little baby born in the humblest of settings. No royal lineage here; no political power. No; instead, he is born to a young girl from nowhere and in a potentially scandalous way. This is not a king who is crowned with gold in an elaborate and spectacular setting of potentates and fanfares. No; this is a guy who goes down to the riverbank out in the wilderness and has a scruffy character pour water over him. This is his coronation. This is not the stuff of kingly kings.
Of course, as the story goes, he didn’t become a king. He did not wield any political power; he sat on no gilded throne. Indeed, he died an ignoble death, executed by the state for sedition with the blessing of the religious establishment. As a result, we Christians, through the centuries, decided to completely spiritualize the whole thing. The salvation he brought was otherworldly, a focus on the afterlife, getting to heaven. The Christmas story turned into a story of personal salvation that gets me to heaven with only a tangential effect on life this side of heaven.
But that is not the Jesus of the Christmas story; that is not the story of the gospels, even the Gospel of John with its typical understanding of personal salvation. The story of Christmas is about the concrete reality of this world. The gospel stories are meant to be a subversive story of liberating salvation from the oppression of the here and now.
We need to read and understand this story in its cultural/historical context. That context is about the concrete liberation for oppressed Jewish people in the here and now. The Christmas story were meant to intensely subvert the political theologies of their day. Thus, we are called to rediscover the subversive, concrete liberating story of this Advent/Christmas season. If we are going to rescue this Christmas story from centuries of purely religious and otherworldly interpretations, we must discover, anew, their historical context. We must read this story through the eyes and ears of 1st century Galilee and Judean folk, with their hopes and yearnings, people who daily faced dehumanizing and economically crushing oppression. The common folk of Palestine were promised peace by Rome through terror and violence.
The 1st century Jewish historian, Josephus, documents the ceremonial celebration at which the Roman Senate made Herod the client king of the Jewish region:
The meeting was dissolved and Antony and Caesar left the senate-house with Herod between them…as they went to offer sacrifice and lay up the decree in the Capitol. On this, the first day of his reign, Herod was given a banquet by Antony.
Herod would go back to Jerusalem to economically crush the Jewish common folk, piling on the already oppressive Roman tax burden and threatening violence with a heavily armed militia. Herod was intensely efficient at crushing uprisings and rebellions against his oppressive policies, often resulting in the slaughter of people in the villages and countryside. Indeed, this was a time when life under Herod looked most hopeless. It was a time characterized by exploitation and tyranny for the Jewish peasants. As a result, Herod had reduced the entire population to helpless and hopeless poverty. And the people cried out, day and night, for relief from Herod’s tyranny.
This was the concrete political, economic, and real-life context into which the birth of Jesus is inserted. The Christmas story, far from being about how Jesus would make a way to the afterlife and leave the oppressive systems and structures of the world passively untouched, speaks to the hearers of this story of liberation from the soul-crushing realities of their lives, here and now.
So, when we read of John the Baptizer out in the wilderness preaching repentance, it is a subversive message meant to challenge the prevailing political/cultural reality of the day. The Old Testament prophets, like Elijah, are invoked because of their prophetic messages of justice. When John says, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” it is a very intentional reference to Isaiah’s prophetic pronouncements of God’s promise of justice restored. The people who heard the Baptizer knew quite well those promises of justice, yearning for them in the midst of their oppression.
Can you feel the intense yearning of these prophetic promises? Good news for the oppressed, broken hearts bound up, captives liberated, prisoners set free. To all who mourn, God will provide comfort. Instead of distress and oppression and heavy burdens these people will experience God’s pleasure – festive garlands instead of ash heaps, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, honored with praise instead of a faint spirit. Indeed, these formerly oppressed and broken victims will now be called ‘oaks of righteousness’ Yes, the cynic might dismiss such verbiage as mere hyperbole, meaningless clap-trap. But for those 1st century folk the words of the prophet were written on the subway walls, I mean, written on their hearts.
Our hymns today speak of such yearnings. “We hail you God’s anointed, the long-awaited One.” “The mountains and hills shall break forth into song, the peoples be led forth in peace.” We will sing, “O come, Dayspring, come and cheer our spirits by our advent here.” And “with love the poor will be received; the proud will turn aside.”
And what happens to these folk who, out of their misery and oppression, are restored and redeemed and become, of all things, mighty oak trees? Well, they go to work! They become builders, raising up the former devastations, repairing ruined cities and ancient ruins. Now, I used to read these words to mean that we who are capable, we who are, let’s say, privileged, we who are the good Christians, are the rebuilders the prophet speaks of. But notice who the prophet addresses here. The ‘they’ who do the work of restoration are those who were formerly the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captives and the prisoners. I don’t know what all the implications are here, but it seems, at the very least, that we who consider ourselves the ‘helpers’ or the ‘rescuers’ or the ‘privileged’ might need to step aside, listen well to the stories, and find a way to join the work alongside with deference to those who have gone through the struggle. I believe this is one of the important lessons of our antiracism work.
However, the work is not drudgery, the restoration efforts are not to be onerous. No; the work is to be a joyful work. This third Sunday of Advent is called the Joy Sunday, as we heard in the Advent candle lighting at the beginning of the service. It is the Sunday of Joy because this message of Advent, of the coming of the Christ, is a joyful message. Indeed, our scriptures today are replete with joy. John comes to testify to the coming light. The prophet proclaims, ‘good news’ and the ‘year of God’s favor’. The rebuilders engage in their work with the joy of having been restored themselves, so to ‘display God’s glory’. The ‘oaks of righteousness’ doing their joyful work. And we sing, “rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come.”
Again, the cynic might say, “this is just a bunch of hooey!” The devastations that Herod and Rome have wrought are just too much. The work is way too hard. There can be no joy in that!
But that is not the message of Advent; that is not the message of this Christmas story. As we trust in God’s provision of grace and love, as we lean into God’s restorative forgiveness, as we champion God’s peace and justice, there is much joy. Yes, hard work but joyful work, all the same.
We find ourselves in the midst of a life-crushing concrete reality. Our country is teetering on the brink of ruin, our democracy has some serious cracks, our economy continues to favor the rich and powerful even while essential workers and people of color are disproportionately laid off, politicians are refusing to do even the most minimal of stimulus spending, and many, way too many, of our fellow citizens are more than willing to let it all fall apart as they continue to believe the lies of the outgoing president who refuses to concede his election loss.
And COVID continues to wreak havoc, getting worse day by day. Thousands of people dying daily. We’ve had to contend with an administration that evilly downplayed the pandemic, ignoring the science, listening to quack theories such as ‘herd immunity’, creating confusion and denial and death. We have those politicians who refuse to pass the much-need relief bill. And city and state leaders are forced to issue even more draconian lockdown orders causing economic and psychological hardships It is, indeed, a crushing reality.
This year, 2020, we, all of us, are facing harsh realities. We all might wish 2020 would just end right now. But it is Advent, a time for renewed hope, a time for a reassessment of our situation. It is a time to re-up, if you will, to get back to the work of rebuilding the ruins that we see all around us. Indeed, there may have never been a more appropriate time to consider the concrete liberation of this Christmas story, especially in these times. Advent has begun. Let us get on with the joyful work of rebuilding.