Advent 2(B): A Wierdo Appears in the Desert

A Weirdo Appears in the Desert

Mark 1:1-8

By: Jerrod McCormack

I was a pastor in the United Methodist Church for many years. In all of those years I can’t begin to tell you how many times this passage or one very similar to it popped up in the lectionary. Suffice it to say that I have preached this text so many times that the first question that came to my mind was, “how in the world will I find some new word to share from this?” One of the things that stood out to me while I was reflecting on this passage is the ring of the prophetic voice in the midst of God’s people.

There’s no time for pleasantries or background in Mark’s characteristic style. He just jumps right in with a simple one sentence introduction: “This is the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1) Mark admits that the purpose of his relating these stories is so that we too might know the good news of Jesus Christ whom Mark is convinced is the Son of God… But then the first story Mark tells us isn’t specifically about Jesus. It’s about a John the Baptist, the messenger who prepares the way for the messiah.

John the Baptist is a very interesting character in the narrative of Jesus’s ministry. Mostly because John is a total weirdo. We meet John in the wilderness wearing clothes made of camels hair and eating locusts and wild honey. He is an ascetic. That means that he practices a radical level of self-discipline and denial. That has led some scholars to wonder whether he belonged to an ancient community of religious, i.e. monastics. His practice of monk-like rigor makes him even more of a weirdo in our day and culture. Self-discipline and denial are not popular Google searches. The rigorous and devout life that John leads also brings this gospel into connection with the ancient prophets of Israel.

Like those prophets of old, John calls the people to return to the Lord by receiving a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:4) And we are told that people came from all around the surrounding region to be baptized and to confess their sins. The prophetic role has often been associated with calling people to return to God. I am reminded of the many voices that called Israel back from idolatry and waywardness to return to the God their ancestors knew. The prophet Isaiah speaks to the wayward Israelites saying,

“Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth;

for the Lord has spoken:

I reared children and brought them up,

but they have rebelled against me.

The ox knows its owner,

and the donkey its master’s crib;

but Israel does not know,

my people do not understand.” (Isaiah 1:2-3)

Moses, Elijah, and Isaiah have all lived into the prophetic role and have called God’s people back to relationship with God. The prophetic role is one that speaks truth to a people who have strayed from the ways of God or from their responsibilities in the world. It is almost impossible to separate the prophetic call to repentance from the call to a more just, caring, and whole society because our inner spiritual lives shape the way we interact with the world and the way we interact with the world shapes our inner spiritual lives. Jesus says, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” (Mark 7:14-15) It is from the overflow of God’s goodness in our hearts that we construct this new kingdom of Jesus in the world.

John appears in the desert calling the people of the day and us as well to receive the baptism of repentance that we might live into a new vision of what God is doing in the present age. John takes a remarkably humble position as he describes the one who is coming. He says, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” John points us towards Jesus as the one who comes after who will baptize his followers not with water but with the Holy Spirit and it points us towards the second role of the prophet and that is to proclaim a truth that the world has yet to realize.

Walter Brueggemann calls this the Prophetic Imagination. In his book bearing the same title he says, “The alternative consciousness is to be nurtured on the one hand, [and] serves to criticize in dismantling the dominant consciousness…[and] to live in fervent anticipation of the newness that God has promised and will surely give.” Brueggemann further acknowledges that the role of the prophetic imagination is to energize the community with the promise of a new vision and a new place to which God’s people can move.[1]  Moving towards a new vision is exactly what Advent is all about. It is about acknowledging all that God has done before, accepting our waywardness, and yearning to move boldly into the new kingdom that comes to light in Jesus’s life, death, resurrection, and his coming again.

Jesus gives us a common vision into which both liberal and conservative can move together. Our tendency to sometimes forget that for the sake of our own ideology. We are all working towards that day when, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24) We are invited to be the prophetic voice to the world decrying that which is wrong, acknowledging and uplifting that which is good and right and true. Just as John prepared the way of the Lord we too get to participate in preparing the world to receive the messiah once again. We do it every day in our interactions with each other and the world. Advent invites us to participate in the prophetic task and speak truth to power.

[1] Walter Brueggemann. Prophetic Imagination: Revised Edition (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001).

IMG_20160614_101448
Jerrod McCormack

Jerrod McCormack is the Youth Leader at St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is also a Spiritual Care Provider for the Alberta Health Services. He earned an A.Sc. in Pre-Medical Studies from Hiwassee College in Madisonville, Tennessee, a B.Sc. in Biology from Tennessee Wesleyan College, Athens, Tennessee, and a Master of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky. He is married to Ali and in their spare time they love to drive through the rockies and stop for random photo opportunities.

Advent 1(B): Waking Up to Those Around Us

Advent 1(B): Waking Up to Those Around Us

Mark 13:24-37

By: The Rev. Andrew J. Hege

 

Confession: I really like my sleep.

It’s true. I am an early to bed kind of person and can even appreciate a short nap in the afternoon, every now and then. I really like my sleep. So, this passage from Mark’s Gospel appointed for the First Sunday of Advent is difficult for me.

“Keep awake,” Jesus says. Not once, but twice. Keep awake! Stay alert! For you do not know when the master of the house will come and you do not want to be found asleep.

Events surrounding sleep figure prominently in the Jesus story. In Matthew’s telling of the gospel, Joseph experiences an angelic visitation in his sleep, foretelling the birth of the one with whom his wife to be was pregnant and by what name the child should be called.

When a man named Jairus approaches Jesus to tell him of his daughter who is ill and at the point of death, Jesus is delayed in arriving at the home by the woman who touched the fringe of his cloak. When Jesus does arrive, the girl is reported to be dead; but he responds to the cries of lament, “The child is not dead but sleeping.” And she is raised to life.

In the garden of agony, on the night of betrayal, Jesus found his disciples drifting off to sleep, not once, not twice, but three times, while he prayed in distress over what lay ahead.  To Simon Peter and the others he says, “Could you not keep awake one hour?” No, they could not.

Wakefulness and sleepiness, dozing off and remaining alert—these themes appear over and over again in the Gospel story, in each of the four accounts.

On this first Sunday of Advent, the first day of the Church year, we read this passage from Mark’s Gospel that takes place near an end, not at the beginning. We begin at the end.  Before Jesus is betrayed, handed over to suffering and death, he is in Jerusalem, around the Temple. No doubt, Jesus is teaching his disciples those most important truths, that which he wishes them to know most when he is longer with them.

In teaching about the hope of a hope-filled and glorious coming, with angels sent out to gather the faithful from every corner of creation, to the ends of the earth, Jesus issues a firm admonition: remain attentive. One does not know when this immense moment will arrive and does not want to be caught unaware, unprepared. So, keep awake, stay alert, remain vigilant.

So often I have heard this passage offered as a call to repentance and prayer, lest the hour of such a return arrive and one be found with unconfessed sin or an unprepared heart.  Seeking forgiveness and drawing nearer to God in petition and praise are rooted in the Christian tradition, to be sure. But, I wonder if there might be more for us to consider in this passage?

What might remaining awake and staying alert look like in our various contexts?

A few weeks ago, I sat in a circle of colleagues and pondered this question. There are a group of clergy in Lexington, Kentucky whose congregations band together to organize for just solutions to problems in our community.

Together we talked about the propensity toward dozing off as the people of God, not in our prayers or in our devotion to God, but in our concern for all God’s people. Keeping awake and remaining alert requires us, each as individuals and collectively as a community of faith, to see the needs of the world around us. And, even more, these needs, varied and great, call us as a people to not doze off.

In each of our communities, wherever we live, there are enormous challenges: inadequate access to direly needed healthcare, students who are not receiving the education they need because the myth of scarcity has proclaimed there are not enough resources, and lives ripped apart by epidemic of opioid addiction. There is hunger and homelessness.

At every turn, there is a world wondering, is anyone awake? Individuals cry aloud. Can anyone feel the burden that weighs me down? Does anyone see? Will anyone respond?

On this first Sunday in the season of Advent, as the church turns the page on a new year, as our eyes begin to turn toward the Christmas miracle, the invitation on this day, in this Gospel reading, is to wake up. When we, as the people of God, are awake, we are reminded that this Jesus whose coming we anticipate at Christmas and in the culmination of time is the One who entered into the fullness of our humanity, who knows the suffering of the human condition, and the weight of its pain.

He is the One who calls us to wake up, to be alert, not only in our hearts and souls, but in the world around us, where the cries for healing and wholeness have not quieted. Rather, they are often overlooked, cast aside, too easily forgotten.

This new season of Advent invites us into days of preparation, for Christ who comes as the Bethlehem baby and as great Redeemer of all creation. Might these days stir us to wake up from sleep and remain alert to the needs of the world around us?

ajh
The Rev. Andrew J. Hege

The Reverend Andrew J. Hege serves as the Assistant to the Rector at The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Lexington, Kentucky.   Born and raised in Thomasville, North Carolina, he is a graduate of Montreat College, Wake Forest University School of Divinity, and Virginia Theological Seminary. Andrew is an ardent golfer, occasional runner, and an avid reader of historical fiction. Ordained a priest in January 2015, Andrew is married to Amanda Schroeder Hege.

 

Advent 4A: Remembering God’s Promise

Advent 4A: Remembering God’s Promise

Matthew 1:18-25

By: The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff

The circumstances of his impending marriage were significantly less than ideal. The year they got betrothed, Joseph discovered that she was pregnant. How? By whom? Who could possibly believe Mary’s preposterous claim that the “Holy Spirit” impregnated her? How dumb did she think he was?

How devastated Joseph must have been as he wrestled with his hurt and anger over what he assumed was her unfaithfulness, and the betrayal of all his hopes and dreams for marriage. And yet, he attempts to do “the honorable thing.” He plans to end the engagement quietly, so as not to draw negative attention to her, but certainly also not to his own embarrassment. How to tell to family and friends why the engagement was suddenly off? How does one explain, after all, that he has been cheated on by God?

What do we do when our dream for the future suddenly ends, with no satisfactory explanation?

I remember the hurt and pain I felt when a dating relationship came to an end, whether I was on the receiving or initiating side of the breakup. Gone were the golden hopes for a future of shared companionship, dashed were the dreams of fulfillment from my loneliness, rent asunder were the mental photographs of a joy-filled future. Over and over again, it seemed that I would meet the “right” person only to experience hurt, anger, and betrayal when the relationship didn’t develop to meet my expectations. I often felt “cheated on” by God—why wasn’t God providing the wonderful person, the wonderful future, I dreamed of? Perhaps Joseph felt the same.

What do we do when our dream for the future suddenly ends? What do we do when the perfect job doesn’t materialize, when all the time and energy and study we’ve invested into that particular career path is wasted? What do we do when a marriage doesn’t work out the way we hoped it would, and we are suddenly facing a divorce? What do we do when our child falls prey to addiction, and we are made to face questions about our failures as parents? What do we do when we develop cancer and our very life is under the threat of death? In these difficult, painful moments of life we may feel, like Joseph, that we have been cheated on by God. If we are doing what we are supposed to, if we are following God the way we believe we are called to, life just shouldn’t work this way, right?

And yet… in the very moment of his despair, God sends Joseph The Dream. Not just any dream. Not just a dream of explanation. God overshadows Joseph with God’s own hopes for a glorious future, God’s own Great Dream for humanity. God’s dream of a future when humanity is reconciled with a God who desperately loves God’s own creation. Through Jesus, God will transform the world itself. Through Jesus, God will save God’s people from their sins. This is the message, promise, dream that God gives each one of us: Jesus is Emmanuel. God is with us.

In his book, God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time, Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes that “we all experience sadness, we all come at times to despair, and we all lose hope that the suffering in our lives and in the world will ever end” but, he continues,

…there is no such thing as a totally hopeless case. Our God is an expert at dealing with chaos, with brokenness, with all the worst that we can imagine. God created order out of disorder, cosmos out of chaos, and God can do so always, can do so now—in our personal lives and in our lives as nations, globally… Indeed, God is transforming the world now—through us—because God loves us.

Joseph’s life certainly didn’t work out the way he expected it would. Joseph’s own life was transformed; he played a key role as father to God’s own Son. Joseph and Mary were given the monumental task of raising Jesus into the man he would become. In order to live into God’s dream, in order to play his role in God’s story, Joseph had to be willing to give up some of his own dreams. Small as they were in comparison to God’s, that had to be a painful process, full of uncertainty and unknowns. But in the midst of the uncertainty, Joseph clung to the memory of the message God gave him, the promise of the glorious future which Joseph would help birth into being.

God doesn’t come to save our dreams; God comes to save us. When facing life’s heartbreaking moments of loss and grief, what we do is remember. We remember God’s promise that God is with us. We remember God’s promise of redemption.

Remembering God’s promise is not a passive acceptance of whatever happens to us. Remembering God’s promise is an active choice to trust that God will never abandon us, even in the moment of our greatest need. Remembering allows us to let go of the illusion of control we have over our lives, and it gives us the strength to let go of our dreams and expectations in favor of God’s great dream. Remembering God’s presence with us allows us to move forward without fear—even into an unknown future.

 

Profile
The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff

The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff is rector at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Winchester, Kentucky and is part of the Network for Pastoral Leadership and Congregational Development. Her greatest joy as a priest is walking with people who seek and follow Christ in deep relationship with each other. Chana believes that God’s grace is extended to all, and that nothing is impossible when we truly seek and attend to God’s call to us! In her spare time, Chana can be found dancing Lindy Hop and teaching basic swing, enjoying conversation and caffeine at a coffee house, or exploring local attractions and foodie hangouts in the Kentucky countryside. Chana lives in Winchester with her husband, TJ, and their two dogs, Molly and Momo, and their hedgehog, Jacob.

 

Advent 3(A): The Arc of Justice

Advent 3(A): The Arc of Justice

Matthew 11:2-11

By: Kristen Leigh Mitchell

“Are you the one who is to come? Or are we to wait for another?”

It was a time of tension, uncertainty, and fear in Jerusalem. The people of Israel had been living under Herod’s cruel governance, and were struggling to maintain their Jewish identity and dignity under the occupation of the Roman Empire.

Along came a wild-eyed, rag-wearing, bug-eating homeless man named John, an itinerant preacher and former Essene who had become a prophet in his own right, calling the Israelites out of their occupied city of Jerusalem and down to the banks of the Jordan River, the place where their ancestors had first crossed over into the Promised Land. There, he immersed them in a baptism of repentance—a new initiation into their identity as the children of Israel.

John also baptized Jesus in this way, though he protested: “Don’t I need to be baptized by you?” John seemed to think Jesus was the one he described in Matthew 3:11-12 who would baptize “with the Holy Spirit and fire,” the one who had come to gather up the wheat from the threshing floor and burn the chaff in the fire. Since the prophet Malachi had foretold, “Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes,” many of the Israelites were waiting for the one who would come to herald the end days of the Roman occupation and inaugurate a time of peace, prosperity, and liberation for the Jews. John had been preaching that “the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand,” and seemed to be convinced that Jesus was the one who had come to inaugurate it.

But then John found himself in prison for sedition after publicly criticizing Herod for cheating on his wife and sleeping with his sister-in-law. Perhaps at this point he was feeling a little less confident. Or perhaps he was just getting a bit impatient. He had heard about the things Jesus was doing.  He knew that Jesus was still preaching the message that “the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand.” But when was the long-awaited revolution going to start?  When would “the great and terrible day of the Lord” begin?  When was he going to set the captives free?

I’m sure John was thinking that sooner rather than later would be great, given the circumstances.

Unfortunately, the story did not pan out the way that John and the other Israelites had hoped. The road was much harder than any of them could have imagined. In spite of the fact that Jesus designated John as “the Elijah who was to come,” implying that he himself was indeed the Messiah, by all earthly standards it would seem that they were wrong. John got beheaded, Jesus was crucified, the zealots lost their revolt against Rome, and the temple was destroyed. Those who believed that “the one who was to come” would be a triumphant and glorious king that would overthrow the existing regime and set things right through a new system of governance were in for a pretty disillusioning paradigm shift.

“What did you expect?” Jesus asked the crowds. “Someone dressed in soft robes? People who dress in soft robes are in royal palaces.”

If we measure triumph and success by the standards of the world—by the standards of empire—we will almost certainly miss Jesus’ meaning when he declares that the Kingdom of God is at hand. And we may find ourselves succumbing all too easily to despair whenever those who rise up into positions political power and domination threaten our identity, our safety, and our livelihood. Unfortunately, our faith in Jesus Christ never promised to save us from suffering in the face of this kind of evil. Looking at the saints and martyrs throughout history, we know that sometimes we are called right to the front lines of resistance, armed only with the promise that love does ultimately win, and that there will be life on the other side of the suffering, even if it is a life that we only get to experience beyond death.

But as Martin Luther King, Jr. pointed out in The Gospel Messenger in 1958,

Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross, but that same Christ arose and split history into A.D. and B.C., so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name. Yes, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

The Kingdom of God that Jesus describes is not spread through domination and the top-down tactics of political leaders, but through the slow transformation the world from the ground up, through acts of love and healing that spread across space and time like a yeast that eventually permeates the whole of humanity. When we lose our faith in this subtle revolution, and begin to doubt the efficacy of this kind of love in the face of the powers that be, it can be important to take stock in how far we have already come. Just as Jesus reminded John of the deeds that were being done—the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, and the dead are raised—we must remember to tell our stories of hope and triumph in the midst of fear and despair. Though despots may rise, the inauguration of the Kingdom of God has begun. The arc is bending toward justice, and nothing can stop that now.

 

kristenlsouthworth
Kristen Leigh Southworth

Kristen Leigh Mitchell is a freelance writer, theologian, and indie folk singer-songwriter with a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where she focused her studies in theological aesthetics, theology of culture, Biblical interpretation, and ecumenical worship. She is currently living in Greensboro, North Carolina, where she offers workshops, performs music, practices archery, grows vegetables, roller skates, writes, and serves as Assistant to the Director of The Servant Leadership School at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church.

Advent 2A: Liturgical Whiplash

Advent 2A: Liturgical Whiplash

Matthew 3:1-12

By: The Rev. Lee Curtis

Every year, in the second week of Advent I get liturgical whiplash.

Like a sixteen year-old learning how to drive a stick, the lectionary committee throws us John the Baptist after starting strong on Advent 1 with the pressing imminence of the Kingdom of God. Of something beautiful and terrifying out on the horizon. Something we can’t predict, yet must prepare for.

That’s something I can get behind in the midst of the crush of the holiday season. I can ready myself for Christ’s incarnation and his coming again in power and great glory. The Gospel from Advent 1 sets the tone so exquisitely that I have no problem queuing up “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” lighting the wreath, and settling in to a season of preparation for the Incarnation.

Week one sets us up for the infant Jesus and the triumphant Christ.

Week two gives us a man in a hair shirt, and Jesus nowhere to be found.

More and more I’m convinced this is because I don’t quite know what to do with John the Baptist outside of the pericope that appears on the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. John makes sense in Epiphany, once we’re in the liturgical mindset of Christ being with and among us. But in Advent, the text, even John himself, feels like an imposition, like something we have to wade through (or use as an excuse to punt to preaching on the Old Testament) until we get to pick ourselves back up on Gaudete Sunday.

Our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters have the key here. While the Western Church focuses on John’s ministry of Baptism, the Orthodox refer to John almost exclusively as “John the Forerunner.” It may seem like a small distinction, but our respective titles signify quite a bit. While the Western title focuses on the actions of John himself, the Eastern title pivots on John’s relationship to Jesus. John is the one who is before the one who is to come. The signpost. The way-maker.

This vital emphasis on relationship over action bears out in the text itself. It’s easy to gloss over the fact that the Pharisees and Sadducees were coming to be baptized. They were coming to do what we can’t help but read as the right thing and yet, John tells them to re-orient themselves. Don’t count on your status; God can and is raising up a new people for Godseslf. Turn around. Metanoeite. See yourself, your community, and your place in it differently. Don’t walk out of this water the same way you came in.

If we see what John is exhorting the Pharisees and Sadducees to as an call to conversion rather than a call to do penance (which is how the Vulgate, and most of the history of Western Christianity renders this passage) then drawing the connection from that Metanoia in baptism to the eschatological moment becomes clearer, and locating this passage within the narrative arc of Advent breaks open.

John’s ministry is what it is because of its relation to the coming of Christ. Repentance, conversion, only matters in light of the coming of the Kingdom.

John only is who he is because he is the one who comes before, and we are only who we are because we are in Christ.

Admittedly, I am terrible at remembering this anytime I open my calendar in December. The horrible contemporary irony of the Holiday Season is that in a time when the liturgical year is begging us to just be, we have so much to do. Combine that with our preoccupation of repentance-as-action and it’s easy to see why it’s so difficult for us not to eisegete ourselves into wondering how this text helps us foster an Advent spirituality.

Taking the simple step of embracing John the Baptist as John the Forerunner, even if only until The Baptism of Our Lord, may be enough to spark our imaginations, and allow us to get playful with what’s happening in the text. Softening the transition from the eschatological fever-pitch of Advent 1 to a historical moment that includes only an allusion to Jesus.

It’s one thing to ask Jesus to come and change the world. It is a much more difficult thing to ask Jesus to come and change us. To see ourselves differently. To frame our relationship with God and neighbor in new ways, and then to bear fruit worthy of conversion. My liturgical whiplash is a product of that difficulty, a difficulty that isn’t helped by the particularities of my tradition, or the frenetic pace of the secular season. To see what this text is doing we have to stop. We have to take stock of our relationship to the text, to its protagonist, and to where they both are pointing.

And there’s nothing more quintessentially Advent than that.

 

curtis-headshot
The Rev. Lee Curtis

The Rev. Lee Curtis is a twenty-something Episcopal Priest serving as Urban Missioner at Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis, Indiana, where he works on building community for those flocking back into the city’s booming downtown. He received his Master of Divinity from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in 2013, and currently lives in Indy with his wife and two sons.

 

 

Advent 1(A): Surprised by the Son of Man

Advent 1A

Matthew 24:36-44

By: The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron

In college I took a class about religion in American literature. Along with Moby DickBless Me, Ultima, and other literary classics wrestling with momentous spiritual questions, we read Left Behind.  (Thus began a head-scratching fondness for the evangelical apocalyptic imagination that has led me to watch far too many Kirk Cameron movies.)

On the last day of discussing the book in class, we arrived early to arrange extra sets of clothes on our chairs and place our books as though we were about to turn a page; we then snuck down the hall far enough to be out of sight but within listening distance when our professor walked in to realize we had been raptured while he had been—alas—left behind.

Our practical joke was meant all in good fun, as no one in the class actually subscribed to the spiritual body-snatching depicted in the book. But reading the lectionary passage for the first Sunday in Advent reminded me that this imagery, however absurd to mainline Christians, comes straight from Jesus’ mouth—or at least straight from Matthew’s pen.

It’s an odd choice, in some ways, for an Advent passage. We use it to look toward the coming of the Christ Child, yet it primarily speaks to a second coming when the Son of Man will return to judge humanity by our behavior towards one another. The passage is followed by several parables about staying awake, and then the infamous separation of the sheep and the goats according to their treatment of Jesus disguised as “the least of these:” “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matthew 25:35-36)

In other words, contrary to the way that Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins have depicted it, whether we’re raptured won’t depend on whether we believed a particular doctrine or dogma about Jesus, but on how faithful we are in responding with compassion and justice to our fellow human beings in today’s version of Jesus in disguise: those dealing with food insecurity and poisoned water, those vilified and rejected as immigrants or refugees in a strange land, those enduring inhumane working conditions that we might buy cheap clothing, those stigmatized and secluded by mental or chronic illness, those incarcerated by a system increasingly marred by racism and the criminalization of the poor.

Although we may fail to live up to this ideal as regularly as we might like, we do know that part of celebrating Christ’s coming is about giving to others. It’s no coincidence that Advent has been translated into the secular Christmas season during which we’re all encouraged to follow Scrooge’s example of “keep[ing] Christmas well”[1] by spreading goodwill and showering generosity on our families, friends, coworkers, and even strangers. As a country we make 30% of our charitable gifts in December[2], while other months average just over 6%; and 38% of Americans who donate to charity said that they are more likely to do so during the holiday season.[3]

But this passage reminds us that such concentrated kindness is missing the point. It makes it seem like we’ve managed to figure out when Jesus is really coming so we can look especially good—despite the fact that “the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour,” unknown even to him (verse 44). Perhaps, thanks in part to this lectionary passage, we’ve all conflated Jesus’ nativity with his second coming. It’s easier, after all, to mark off a season or a date like Giving Tuesday[4] (or the last day your donations will count towards 2016 tax deductions) than to live at a heightened level of generosity and kindness all year long.

One clue we might be doing it wrong is the rather violent images Jesus uses to describe the unexpected advent of the Messiah. The one to judge the nations will appear like the flood in Noah’s days, and those of us busy with the mundane activities of life will know “nothing” until we are “swept away” by the raging waters (verses 38-39). Or he will show up as the terrifying sound of glass shattering when a burglar attempts to invade our homes while we sleep. The contrast with the Jesus we know and love as the Prince of Peace seems absurd.

I think these disturbing illustrations of being caught unawares are meant to shock us into realizing that what we’ve come to see as the status quo—spending extravagantly on material gifts instead of causes that promote justice and mercy, or restricting the majority of our do-gooding to one twelfth of the year—is not the status kindom. Eating, drinking, sleeping, and certainly celebrating marriages aren’t by themselves moral evils—they are necessary and even joyous parts of life. But as Scrooge learned, if we cannot do them with an eye (and an action) towards those who cannot eat, drink, sleep, or celebrate due to ostracism, poverty, or oppression, we’re in for a rude awakening when God calls us to account.

No one should have better cause to protest such a rude awakening than the Bishop of Digne from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Despite his position of power and influence, the bishop lives a life of simplicity and generosity towards those in need. As a matter of course he shelters Jean Valjean, a convict newly freed after an outrageous 19 years’ imprisonment for stealing bread to feed his sister’s children. When Valjean becomes a literal thief in the night and makes off with the rectory silver, the bishop has every right to demand justice with righteous indignation. Instead, confronted by the gendarmes who have collared the scruffy Valjean in possession of expensive cutlery, he chides Valjean for not having taken the silver candlesticks too, as part of his gift. The bishop explains his version of justice to his flabbergasted housekeeper: “I have for a long time detained that silver wrongfully. It belonged to the poor. Who was that man? A poor man, evidently.”[5] Being taken advantage of in this way would shock and infuriate most of us to our core. Even further from our repertoire would be the impulse to exonerate the thief and show him or her additional kindness.

(Valjean, it should be noted, was astounded by the bishop’s love for a complete stranger who has wronged him; this unexpected compassion is the beginning of his conversion to a life of caring for those on the margins.)

The bishop’s response may seem absurd, yet it is entirely consistent with Jesus’ admonition to “keep awake:” to live at all times as though Jesus was serious about the way we treat those society deems unstable, worthless, or even morally bankrupt; to live so that when Jesus comes—in December or at any time—we are ready.

Beginning in this Advent season, may we keep Christmas in such a way that we are never surprised by the coming of the Son of Man.

[1] http://www.gutenberg.org/files/46/46-h/46-h.htm#link13

[2] https://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=content.view&cpid=1360

[3] https://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=content.view&cpid=519

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giving_Tuesday

[5] http://www.gutenberg.org/files/135/135-h/135-h.htm#link2HCH0026

24
The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron

A Midwest transplant to the South, The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron is ordained in the United Church of Christ (UCC) and serves as a preaching pastor at Decatur UCC in Atlanta. She works bi-vocationally as an administrator for a PC(USA) church; if one day she serves a church with its own administrator, she plans to treat that person like royalty. She’s also a mama, pastor’s wife, and Head Thriftvangelist over at www.thriftshopchic.com.