Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8,19-28
The Rev. Rachel G. Hackenberg
I am anxious, excited, terrified, wildly hopeful
a complete turmoil of nerves,
unsettled to the point that my stomach feels queasy.
I am tongue-tied with anticipation
as if speaking might burst the bubble of a dream,
yet if I don’t speak, I might explode with all that overwhelms me.
Tense in between the bliss and chaos of waiting,
I just might collapse into tears.
Something has been promised!
Something has been promised
that is so keenly desired,
so desperately needed,
so longingly dreamed of,
so impossibly out of reach
yet hauntingly within sight
and I tell myself to be cool, for heaven’s sake,
to not look as eager and anxious as I feel
just act like it’s no big deal
whether the promise is fulfilled,
whether the dream is realized.
Be smooth, I tell myself – non-anxious,
so that no one sees your delight
if the impossible becomes possible
(perhaps as soon as tomorrow), but also
so that no one will know your disappointment
if the dream remains elusive for years or forever.
Just breathe and no one will know your disappointment
if the gladness never replaces the mourning,
if the harvest never springs from the earth,
if the ruins are never restored.
Pretend like it doesn’t matter
if the wilderness never blooms,
if good news never manifests for the poor,
if broken hearts remain unmended,
if release is never granted to the prisoners,
if injustice is never repaid or made right.
Swallow that knot in your throat
that moments ago was your heart
leaping ecstatically at the glimpse of a possibility.
Feel the knot settle into the pit of your stomach
like it’s a lost friendship or a loved one’s death,
like it’s the daily gasp of work’s overload,
like it’s an unexpected medical bill,
like it’s another tweet that compromises your life,
like it’s a wave of depression that comes as surely as the tide,
like it’s the fatigue of wondering whether we can make a difference.
It’s hard to linger for very long
in a state of genuine anticipation.
It’s hard to sustain an Advent spirit
that waits on the edge of its seat
without secretly fearing disappointment.
Because after a while of watching the pot
that is the promises of God and wondering
when exactly those promises will come to a boil,
we can be tempted to adopt the perspective of those who
heard John the Baptist’s prophecy of a coming Messiah:
the priests and the teachers who were curious to come to the river
but – after generations upon generations
of living in anticipation of a messiah
without a messiah showing up –
they couldn’t get excited or find any hope within themselves
because the hope that once unsettled their stomachs
and caught their breaths had hardened
So many years they had waited:
charged with watching,
charged with praying,
charged with holding onto hope,
charged with leading in the meantime,
charged with patience and faithfulness
while the world around them crumbled and rebuilt
and crumbled again, surviving governments and wars,
waiting for the relief promised through Isaiah,
waiting for the joy promised even before that
to the ones wandering in the wilderness.
Along comes yet another prophet
“Make straight the way of the LORD,
the Messiah is coming!”
and the hope that has become a pit
of cynicism and depression
cannot even wonder
whether this time it might be so.
“Who are you?
Why is your prophecy
any different from all the others?
If all you have is water,
why should we believe you?”
Their mouths had forgotten
how to laugh at impossible possibilities,
like Sarah laughed
at the news that she would
give birth to a long-awaited son.
Their tongues had forgotten
how to rejoice and shout and sing,
like Miriam sang
after the people crossed the Red Sea
even though a wilderness still lay before them.
Their stomachs had forgotten
the delicious nervousness
of a promise on the verge of fulfillment
like a Christmas present waiting to be opened.
Their hearts had forgotten the quick pound of love,
the sudden wild racing of a burden relieved,
the heat & blush of tears overflowing with joy.
Their dreams had forgotten imagination,
too convinced by the harsh realities of the world
to fantasize about a harvest in the desert
or equality for the disenfranchised
or peace for the nations.
But if their dreams had forgotten it
or if our hearts have become hardened to it
or if our spirits have resigned themselves
to settle for less in order to avoid disappointment,
then we very likely need John the Baptist
to splash a little cold water on our spiritual weariness;
we need Isaiah to shout without ceasing until
the ears of our hearts hear again what just might be possible:
freedom for prisoners,
healing for the brokenhearted,
good news for the poor and the oppressed,
a garland of gladness instead of ashes of lament,
a song of praise instead of a faint spirit.
God is about nothing less
than the full realization of justice
and the healed embodiment of love –
and this does matter, terribly so.
I try to play it off, to be non-anxious in hope.
We try to abide one day at a time,
try to work hard while we wait
– without minding the pins and needles –
but our wariness and weariness in waiting
can easily harden in our efforts
to be practical and non-anxious about God’s promises.
These promises have come slowly before,
they are coming slowly now,
but we can’t be cool about it, we can’t be calm
because truly it matters
to see justice realized and love healed;
desperately it matters and
not just to us but to who God is.
And if we only ever glimpse
the faintest shadow of such a vision;
if we only ever hear whispers
of a few faint syllables of such a possibility;
it would be enough
to set our pulses racing,
to make our palms sweaty with nervousness,
to make our stomachs anxious and our hearts tender,
to well up our spirits with laughter and tears of joy,
to get us shouting about the beauties of heaven
and to send us compulsively, obsessively
into the world with love that knows no limits.
At the risk of open-heartedness
and even broken-heartedness,
we must be unsettled with hope:
nervously eager in anticipation and
blushed with the burning joy
of an impossible possibility.
Not because God’s vision has arrived yet,
not because the Good News is fulfilled yet
but simply and entirely because it’s possible.
Bible Followers or Jesus Followers?
Rev. Peter Faass
A church in the area has a front lawn sign proclaiming they are a “Bible following church.” My travels take me by it frequently. Each time I read the sign, I ponder what that statement means to their congregation and what it’s supposed to mean to me.
Exactly what are they trying to convey to travelers as they pass by that sign? What I understand is this: If you are proclaiming that theirs is a Bible following church, it means there are churches that are not Bible following.
Since the Bible is the foundational text for Christians who believe it conveys God’s word to them, this is a derogatory and judgmental proclamation. It means this Bible following congregation believes that those non-Bible following churches are either ignoring God’s word in scripture or are not taking it very seriously. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra, the subtext of the message is if you’re one of those churches “You got it bad and that ain’t good.”
The differentiation between Bible following and alleged non-Bible following churches is a conflict that arose in Christianity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with the development of the historical-critical method of Biblical scholarship, which examined, among other things, the contextual, cultural and literary components of scripture. It discerned to hear the word of God through these lens. To approach the Bible in this manner is to believe that the scriptures are a living text and have something important and new to say to us in each age and in every human circumstance we find ourselves. The Episcopal Church studies the Bible through this methodology.
At its inception, this approach to the Bible was not welcomed by all believers and resulted in the fundamentalist response, which believed that the Bible was the literal word of God in its entirety and could not be understood any other way. This belief is summarized in the bumper sticker that says, “God said it, and I believe it.” Fundamentalists see the Bible as being complete as received and is to be apprehended at face value. This literal interpretation of the Bible often reduces the text to legalism and can err on the side of lacking in compassion.
Our friends in the United Church of Christ have a slogan that captures the historical-critical approach perfectly: God is still speaking. If God is still speaking, we must listen and be attentive to hearing the word of the “still-speaking God” in our lives.
It’s hardly a new concept to listen for the word of the still-speaking God. In today’s story about Joseph, we have a wonderful example where someone is confronted with choosing the literal, legalistic understanding of the Bible or hearing the still-speaking voice of God. We know the story: Joseph is engaged to Mary and they are to be married.
Before she has had marital relations with Joseph, Mary discovers that she is with child by the power of the Holy Spirit. Note the sequential order of who knows what and when. At first, Joseph only becomes aware of Mary’s pregnancy but not its origins. Mary (but not Joseph) knows her pregnancy is by the Holy Spirit.
Subsequently, the angel of the Lord reveals the pregnancy’s divine source to Joseph in a dream. Initially all Joseph knows is that Mary is pregnant. Naturally, he assumed she had sexual relations with another man. I mean in the first century was there any other way?
We do not know if Joseph believed the liaison to be consensual or not, but considering how young and vulnerable Mary was, the latter was highly possible. Regardless her pregnancy’s circumstances, Mary was no longer seen as suitable for marriage, and Biblical law was clear about what should happen to her.
Deuteronomy 22:23-24 states, “If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death, the young woman because she did not cry for help in the town and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.”
That was the law. To take it literally meant that Mary would need to be stoned to death for this breach of the law – but Joseph didn’t do that. The text states that “being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, [Joseph] planned to dismiss [Mary] quietly.”
Joseph decides to spare Mary public humiliation and death. He decides to let her go quietly, possibly to the protection of friends or family, slipping into anonymity and delivering her child privately. While the future prospects for Mary as an un-wed mother were not great, they were certainly better than death.
Confronted with a challenging – if not impossible – situation, Joseph lets his conscience hear the compassionate, still speaking word of God to guide his decision. Joseph didn’t follow the literal letter of Torah law.
Because he ignored the law’s direction, some people wouldn’t have considered Joseph a Bible follower. Matthew’s Jewish audience, whose literal belief in the Bible was fundamental to their faith, were Bible followers. To them, Joseph’s compassionate option didn’t adhere to law and would have been see as out of favor with God.
And yet… Joseph is described as “being a righteous man” even as he decides to not follow the literal law.
This nativity story about Joseph established the pattern of what Jesus’ life and ministry would role model: every time he was confronted with a choice between the literal law and compassion, rigidity or love, Jesus always chose compassion and love. Jesus’ acts of compassion and love show the still-speaking God who guides us to lead a righteous way of life.
Joseph is a glimpse of what Jesus will epitomize and teach about acts of justice – even when these acts violated the law and predominant culture’s expectations. This was especially true when following such laws would harm society’s weakest, neediest and most vulnerable, like unwed mothers.
This teaching reaches its apex in Matthew’s Gospel in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus challenges the law and all those self-proclaimed Bible followers. He says to his listeners, “you have heard that it was said, but I say to you.”
Jesus’ sermon turns their literal, legalistic world upside down and inside out as he introduces God’s reign, which is built upon compassion, justice and love.
My sisters and brothers, we Christians are always called to respond as God’s righteous people when confronted with difficult decisions and challenging times. There will be occasions when we will be compelled to choose between being Bible followers or Jesus followers.
I predict for the foreseeable future that we will be put to the test – and in fact are being tested. We will increasingly have more Joseph moments as we see the weak, needy and most vulnerable assaulted by many quarters. Laws will be challenged or changed to further harm the already disadvantaged among us. As we encounter these challenging circumstances our choice to follow the legal manipulators or the still-speaking God we hear in Jesus will be a stark one. We must do this in deed and action – not just in prayer or social media posts.
Will we be Bible followers or Jesus followers? Like Joseph, I hope we will opt to hear God’s still-speaking voice and respond with justice, compassion and love in all we do, and all that we are. Our salvation lies in that choice.
Rise Up to Joy
Isaiah 35:1-10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11
Dr. Carol S. Franklin
The last month has been tough. Seeing the writing on the wall, I took to my bed the evening of November 8th and might still be there if the boys hadn’t finally insisted it was going to get ugly if I did not get up and see to them. My distress was not just about politics or about the fact that my candidate lost. That’s happened before without this deep sense of malaise. More than any other time in recent memory, we seem to be at a turning point. Change is coming, and I don’t just mean politically. As a people, our story is more than a political saga. It is a story of our countless generations, those who have passed to glory, those we journey with now, and those yet unborn. This is the story of a country and a people of every hue and persuasion who toiled and cried, celebrated and worshiped and in the process built a great nation.
My malaise is rooted in the realization that the national narrative once grounded in limitless possibility has changed, becoming one of fear and hopelessness, of a deep distrust of the other. It is a sense that the glass is not only half empty, but the odds of it ever being filled are seen as stacked against a broad spectrum of the population. In the face of all that, my next gambit was to declare that Christmas was cancelled. If Christmas never came, then neither would the new year and all the changes it would bring. Then I realized I’d be preaching during advent on Rose Sunday, what Pope Francis calls the Sunday of Joy.
Who can feel joyful when our nation has become an alien landscape in which language and action against those who are different is seemingly more acceptable? Though I have no illusions that matters of race, or gender, or orientation were issues of the past, the current social climate seems to have given license to speak what was once at least politically incorrect and publicly unspeakable. Then I remembered what Ghandi said:
“When I despair, I remember that throughout history the ways of truth and love have always won.”
I acknowledge the reality that I can’t stop time and really don’t want to. At a time like this, the upsurge of hope and joy that Advent heralds is as needful to me, to all of us, as breath.
In trying times, when all seems lost, we need to remember that God has not brought us this far to drop us on our heads. The theologian Henri Nouwen defined joy “…as the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing – sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war or even death – can take that love away. Thus joy can be present in the midst of sadness. …” Instead of despair or that malaise I was feeling, we are called to rise up into that joy. As I read Isaiah, it was like a prayer and a promise offered for those of fearful heart to be strong and not dread.
Isaiah reminded a captive people that they were God’s chosen people, being given strength for the journey ahead. In Matthew, John wants to know if we have to wait longer or if Jesus is the one who will lift those who are bowed down. Jesus rephrases Isaiah, affirming that the wait is over. The eyes of the blind are being opened, the lame leap like dear, the ears of the deaf are unstopped, and sorrow and sighing flee away. Advent reminds us that we too are exiles who, living in hopes of God’s liberation, are called to rise with joy and lift our voices with strength, proclaiming the glad tidings – “Here is your God!” and He will save you.
In this season of expectation and preparedness, our lessons remind us that Advent isn’t about gift buying and gift giving – it’s about letting go of anxiety and fear. It’s about being cleansed and reborn, awakened to the saving grace of God. It’s about change and transformation, it’s about being refined, perfected and made ready to engage with God in the work of kingdom-building. As a people in community and a people of God, we are at a crossroads. What we say and do in the coming months and years will matter. Advent reminds us that we are on this journey together. We must also be awake and ready to let God work through us to transform the future we all share.
Perhaps my great grandfather said it best in a speech at the Cotton States and International Exposition of 1895 “…Here our dead are buried. Here we are bound by the most sacred ties that ever touched or stirred or thrilled a human soul. …”
In the face of hate, God wills us to acknowledge that common bond and to love all of his children enough to make the uneven ground level and the rough places plain. This is the good that God desires us to do.
Like John the Baptist, we must move beyond this liturgy of worship to a liturgy of living. Though we may feel that we are crying out in the wilderness, we are the voices that must witness God’s grace in the world. As we await patiently for his coming, we are called to sing a new song, one of hope and redemption, like Andra Day’s Rise Up.
To paraphrase, “we must rise up in spite of the ache. Rise like the day, rise unafraid and together move mountains.”** Rise up and speak truth to power. Rise up to joy and give voice to the hope and promise of God’s love and care for all of his children and all of his creation. On this Sunday of Joy, let us rise up and embrace a liturgy of living. This is a liturgy which we will carry the anticipation, hope and promise of that child for whom we await – and the man that he will become into this needful world. Rise up to joy!
**Written by Cassandra Monique Batie, Jenifer Decilveo. Copyright Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.
Zwarte Piet and Chief Wahoo
Rev. Peter Faass
“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near . . . Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey . . . But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
Whew! Clearly John the Baptist was not an Episcopalian. You brood of vipers! Even in our worst internecine disputes we Episcopalians cloak our anger and disdain for one another in polite language. Bless your heart; did you really think you would be cleansed of sin with your hypocritical life-style?
What about John’s diet? What place-setting fork do you eat locusts with anyway? I wonder what we would do if John showed up in church some Sunday morning?
John the Baptist did not mince his words and he did not cut a proper figure. What he did do was preach the truth in love, which is the point of a prophet’s whole mission. John was fearless. His faith was strong and his trust in God resolute. Whenever John saw evil – in the state, in the established religion, in the crowds that gathered around him - he rebuked it.
When King Herod married his brother’s wife – his brother was not divorced by the way – John railed against the king’s immoral behavior. When the leaders of institutional religion feigned repentance of sins to receive John’s baptism, he called them out on it. Let’ face it being called a viper is not a compliment in any age. If people were living lives that ignored God, John upbraided them.
John’s message can be distilled down to one simple phrase; clean up your act. The Messiah is coming and we have serious work to do to prepare for him.
That work is this: You need to repent of your sins, which means facing the chasm between who you believe you are and who you actually are. It means bringing light to the dark places of your life by asking hard questions of yourself and engaging in the challenging work of amending your life.
John was a light that lit up the dark places, preparing people for the greater light that was coming into the world, so that they could repent and be light themselves. There is no better way to prepare the way of the Lord than that.
In our Collect today we prayed that God “give us grace to heed [the prophet’s] warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer;”
How might we heed the prophet’s warnings, repenting of our own sins and preparing ourselves for the coming of Christ?”
Today, the second Sunday of Advent, is St. Nicholas Sunday. St. Nicholas is the predecessor of our American Santa Claus, whose origins are rooted in the New Netherland’s colony and the Dutch celebration of St. Nicholas, known as Sinterklaas.
Sinterklaas in the Netherlands is a delightful celebration of gift giving, limerick writing, music, great pastries and conviviality. Yet Sinterklaas is a celebration in need of redemption because it is marred by one very disturbing component that undermines its joyfulness. What mares the celebration is St. Nicholas’ helper Zwarte Piet or Black Pieter. In the Dutch legend of St. Nicholas, the saint comes from Spain and is accompanied by Moorish servants who give out gifts and sweet treats to good children and apply a switch to the bottoms of those who are not good and take them back to Spain. These servants are the Zwarte Piets. This finds its origins in the days when Spain occupied the Netherlands in the 15th and 16th centuries. On the face of Zwarte Piet seems harmless enough, at least to many people.
The problem with the Piets is that they are white people in black face, whose lips are exaggerated with bright red lipstick. The Piets also don frizzy haired wigs, gold earrings and harlequin outfits and they act like simpletons. In other words the Piets are white, colonialist era, caricatures of Africans.
We are familiar with this depiction of Blacks in American history, which is rife with similar imagery. I am reminded of this watching the 1940’s film Holiday Inn where the white actors perform the Lincoln’s Birthday skit in black face. Watching this scene makes me cringe. How could Whites have been so callous, I think? Yes, it was a different era, but still.
In some ways, Americans have made progress with our racism. And clearly, as we have poignantly discovered over the past several years, we have made very little progress indeed. The Dutch find themselves in the same predicament. Some folks understand that this racist caricature is wrong, while others are adamant that it is not, claiming that Piet is an integral part of Dutch culture.
This camp insists Piet is not a racist depiction. He is black from the soot he acquires when he comes down the chimney, they protest. This is a disingenuous argument as the Piets are already black when they arrive in the country with St. Nicholas three weeks before the holiday. This argument is also undermined by the fact that the Piets clothes are immaculate; only their face and hands are black. Let me ask you; who goes down a chimney without getting their clothes dirty?
Many protest – sometimes violently - the racism charge, saying Zwarte Piet is an innocent part of a children’s holiday. They believe no harm is done; that’s it just plain fun. They accuse those who make that claim of racism as are being politically correct.
I will observe that it is almost to a person only White people who defend Piet. The large Black Surinamese population in the Netherlands have protested Zwarte Piet as have a growing number of Whites. But many Blacks have also been cowed into not being too outspoken for fear of retribution.
A New York Times Op-Ed piece several years ago, prominent Dutch writer Arnon Grunberg, said this: “Until recently, Black Pete was uncontroversial. Not because the Dutch are particularly racist, but because Sinterklaas, like the royal family, is sacred in the Netherlands, perhaps because of a dearth of other, specifically Dutch traditions. A matter, in other words, of conservatism . . . [but the Sinterklass tradition is] even more important [to the Dutch] today, given the view that, in order to safeguard the Dutch national identity, homegrown culture and folklore must not be tampered with — a view expressed primarily, though not exclusively, by the extreme right wing [and I would observe xenophobic] Party for Freedom . . .
As the defense of traditions has grown stronger, so has the criticism that Black Peter is a racist holdover from the Netherlands’s colonial past. In January 2013, the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights sent a letter to the Dutch government stating that Black Peter perpetuated the image of people of African descent as second-class citizens and constituted a “living trace of past slavery.” This year, many municipalities are banning the black face, opting instead for either rainbow Piets or White Piets with a simple smudge or two of soot.
The irony imbedded in this controversy is that the Netherlands is a nation with enormous pride in its rich history of tolerance and acceptance for the marginalized and persecuted peoples of the world. According to the historian Russell Shorto, the country is arguably the birthplace of Western liberalism. Yet the Netherlands is clearly a place where there is a chasm between what much of the population believe they are and who they actually are. There is a dark, blind spot – one of profound Pharisaic hypocrisy – that needs a prophet’s refining fire to redeem it.
Why do I tell you about this controversy in another country 4,000 miles away? You might think it is because of my own Dutch ethnicity. That certainly drives me. I am ashamed by this obdurate refusal to see the unrepentant sinfulness of the continued defense of Zwarte Piet.
But more importantly I relay this issue to you because the Zwarte Piet issue has undeniable parallels to the use of the Chief Wahoo symbol by the Cleveland Indians; an issue we continue to struggle with here in this city.
Defenders of the Chief Wahoo emblem use many of the same arguments made by those Dutch defending Zwarte Piet. It is innocent and harmless fun, they say. There is no racist intent it’s just a caricature. It is an integral part of our history, our culture, and our identity. Those who think otherwise are just being politically correct.
As in the Netherlands, Clevelanders supporting Chief Wahoo are mostly White. My sisters and brothers, the attitudes of those who defend Zwarte Piet and Chief Wahoo are dark places that need the light of the Gospel shone on them to illumine them for what they are: institutional racism.
Preserving an emblem that causes pain, discomfort and offense to people who are Black or Native American is wrong. If protecting one's cultural heritage requires offending and thereby diminishing the inherent value of another group of people, it is not worth conserving. Because of that, Zwarte Piet and Chief Wahoo need to be tossed into the dustbin of bad history. To say that is not to engage in political correctness, it is to follow the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is take the Gospel seriously.
We are called to be voices in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord. Today, in our own culture that call to prophetic action becomes increasingly urgent as the diminishment and hatred for others rears its ugly head and threatens the wellbeing and human rights of many. As in the times of John the Baptist, God calls us to speak the truth in love about sinful, dark behaviors that threaten this nation- even if it means offending people, even if it means literally putting ourselves on the line - especially with those who refuse to confront their own sinfulness. This may mean we need to start with ourselves.
Advent is about preparing our lives for God who, taking human form, became one of us, to help us recognize and repent of our sins, and to learn to care for each other – particularly the most vulnerable and despised among us.
May we as followers of the One we prepare to receive into our hearts this Christmas, do just that, beginning here and now.
Living in the Exile of Denial
Luke 3: 1-6
Rev. Peter Faass
What would Advent be without John the Baptist and his heralding the coming of the Messiah, the one who would free humanity from all those bondages that enslave us?
John was not a politically correct kind of guy. He wasn’t concerned about the filters that civilized society uses to keep our most abrasive comments at bay. John told it like it was, often getting himself in trouble and ultimately costing his life. Today’s gospel passage from Luke ends just short of those outrageous unfiltered comments.
In verse seven, when the high mucky-muck Jerusalem elites came to the wilderness where John was preaching and baptizing to check him out, he rails at them saying, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
Nothing endears one more to people than calling them a brood of snakes! John spoke truth to power, boldly confronting those systems that abused and harmed people, regardless of the personal cost.
In reading the Bible, matrix (or context) matters for a deeper understanding of what is taking place. In describing John’s proclamation of the baptism of repentance, Luke quotes the prophet Isaiah who lived six centuries earlier:
The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'
The matrix that Isaiah was operating in when this passage was written refers to the Babylonian exile of the Hebrew people. In the year 598 BCE, the Babylonian Empire ravaged the Kingdom of Judah. The Temple, which was the center of Jewish life, was destroyed and the political, religious and economic elite of Judah was sent into exile in Babylon. Everything of importance was eradicated by Babylon to eliminate Jewish culture, a cataclysmic event for the remaining peasantry left in this desolate land.
Sixty years later, a Messiah figure in the guise of Cyrus of Persia, conquered the Babylonian Empire. Cyrus freed the exiled Hebrews, allowing them to return to Judah. He also supported rebuilding the temple, and returned the precious temple vessels the Babylonians had looted sixty years earlier.
Isaiah regards Cyrus as the Lord for whom people will make the paths straight, the valleys filled, the mountains low and the rough places plain. They will do this because it is by Cyrus’ actions that they will be freed from the bondage of a brutal oppressive empire and realize justice in their lives. Therefore, they are to do everything possible for redemption.
Luke uses the Isaiah matrix in his gospel, yet he refers to the Roman Empire as the brutal oppressive regime keeping the people in bondage. For Luke, Isaiah, the Babylonian exile and Cyrus’s redemption are the prototypes for John the Baptist, who called the people under similar duress to prepare for the Messiah who would free them from the bondage of the Roman Empire. This time, Jesus would be the redemptive Messiah.
In the case of both Isaiah and John the Baptist, preparing the way of the Lord is not a literal one, in the sense that it’s not an excavation of topography and the building of roads. Preparing the way is a call to do the interior preparation of the soul, which leads to amendment of life. It smooths the rough places of sinful behavior we engage in.
Both Isaiah and John the Baptist believed that brutal empires could only subject people to bondage when they turned away from their relationship with God, which is sin. Isaiah and John call us to repent from the sinful life of violence and injustice that empires call us to, and urge us to turn toward God’s way of life – the way of nonviolence and equal justice for all people.
We are living in a new matrix in 2015, yet it is rooted in those of Isaiah and Babylon, and Luke and Rome. The new matrix we live in is dominated by the empire of wanton gun violence; an empire that has put us as a nation in bondage to a way of life that is steeped in violence and injustice. With each passing day, we feel the increasing brutal heel of gun violence’s oppression in our lives, as more people are mowed down in cold blood.
Instead of a Babylonian king or Roman emperor, the ruler of this empire of gun violence is the National Rifle Association. It is also the feckless political leaders in our federal and state governments who enable the NRA in its rule of violence and injustice; leaders whom it has financially co-opted, if not outright blackmailed, to do its beck and call.
Meanwhile, the American public sits immobilized, shackled like conquered peoples, fearful of the brutality but lacking the will and determination to address our own enslavement. Our current circumstances are no less cataclysmic than the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the Hebrews.
How many times do we need to hear distorted interpretations of the right to bear arms by “a well-regulated Militia,” provided for in the Second Amendment, to rationalize 300 million guns including assault weapons, in private hands? How often will co-opted judiciaries and legislative bodies misconstrue the Second Amendment – so deep is the pernicious influence of the NRA - that they will not even allow for a cursory background check to ensure that a gun buyer is not a criminal, a terrorist, or a person with a history of mental illness? How many cheap, empty platitudes do we have to hear cross the lips of political leaders after yet another shooting, offering their thoughts and prayers for the victims of mass gun violence, as they simultaneously vote down even moderate laws for gun control with the one hand and take NRA campaign contributions with the other?
As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff wrote in his New York Times op-ed piece, On Guns, We're Not Even Trying, “It’s not clear what policy, if any, could have prevented the killings in San Bernardino. Not every shooting is preventable. But we’re not even trying.”
We’re not even trying. We live in the exile of denial. The NRA, our new Babylon, has put us there and paralyzed us with fear. And like all empires, it does this so it may wantonly engage in its ongoing reign of terror through subterfuge, intimidation, manipulation, dishonesty and the threat of even more violence.
We are complicit in this. Our exile of denial allows our elected leaders to speciously deny the reality and pernicious effects of the violence and suffering that results from gun violence. In that denial, we endanger a frank and authentic response to this social crisis.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The Biblical tradition, with its ongoing dialogue with God and trust in God’s justice, can and does overcome the maliciousness of human behavior exhibited in the ways of empire. Out of each of the two matrixes I mentioned comes a messiah, a savior figure, who offers the way to redemption.
In his book, How to Read the Bible & Still Be a Christian, John Dominic Crossan writes that the world’s empires work to convince us to believe that violence is an inevitability in human life. But Crossan says this is not the way of God, who asserts repeatedly in the Bible that we humans can and must overcome violence. Crossan writes, The normalcy of human civilization (which is escalatory violence and retributive justice) is not the inevitability of human nature. Because non-violence and distributive justice are the character of God, as creatures made in the image of God, they are to be our nature as well.
This is the message of God’s truth that needs to be proclaimed to the power of the gun violence empire. We – you and I - are called to be Isaiah and John the Baptist: the voices crying in the wilderness of the gun violence empire. Like John, we must speak truth to power, boldly confronting this empire of gun violence that abuses, harms and kills people. And we must do this regardless of the personal cost.
We can do this. We can make the rough places plain and the crooked paths straight. We can achieve God’s reign of nonviolence and justice, freeing ourselves from the bondage of fear and the exile of our denial.
But we must act. We must say no more:
No more wonton death.
No more distortions of the Second Amendment.
No more co-opted leaders.
No more innocent blood flowing in the streets.
No more cheap platitudes.
We must do this for ourselves and for our children, like Lauren, Lilah and Grayson. We must do it for one another and for our nation. We must do it because it is what God calls us to do.
Babylon and Rome fell. So too will the empire of gun violence fall, if we stop being shackled to our fears. Freedom is ours if we want it. And when we do, “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” and nonviolence and justice will prevail.