[To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast click here.]
Herb Montgomery | December 3, 2021
“The gospel message here, and one of my favorite Advent themes, is that salvation, change, and liberation don’t come from the center of our societies, but from the margins. . . . Advent tells a liberation story that 2,000 years ago inspired hope in those who were being forced to live on their own society’s margins. Can it for us today?”
Our reading this week is from the Gospel of Luke:
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene—during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
And all people will see God’s salvation.’ ” (Luke 3:1-6)
I love this week’s Advent reading for so many reasons.
The narrative has the “word of God” coming to John in an unusual location. John was a son of Zechariah the priest (Luke 1:5) and therefore, by lineage, he should not be in the wilderness acting like an ancient Hebrew prophet. He should have been occupying his place in the temple services, being a priest like his father. Instead, John rejected the path of working in the system or changing the system from the inside. I can imagine the struggle John might have gone through when he told his father that he wasn’t going to follow the family expectations and abandon a path toward priesthood for the margins of his society, the edges, and the wilderness.
The narrative’s contrast between the temple versus the wilderness resurrects a tension repeated by the Hebrew prophets: the centralized temple state and its priesthood versus those on the margins or edges of their society. The Hebrew prophets in the wilderness called for justice, for liberation, and for all violence against society’s vulnerable to cease.
This contrast takes on even more meaning when one realizes that one national myth of the Judean Temple-state was that Jerusalem and the Temple would eventually become the center of the world and all nations would flow to it. Consider these passages. All emphasis is added:
Psalms 2:6 “I have installed my king
on Zion, my holy mountain [the temple in Jerusalem].”
Psalms 14:7 Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion! [Jerusalem and the Temple]
When the LORD restores his people,
let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad! (emphasis added)
Psalms 69:35-46- for God will save Zion [Jerusalem and the Temple]
and rebuild the cities of Judah.
Then people will settle there and possess it; the children of his servants will inherit it,
and those who love his name will dwell there.
Psalms 102:15-16 The nations will fear the name of the LORD,
all the kings of the earth will revere your glory.
For the LORD will rebuild Zion [Jerusalem and the Temple]
and appear in his glory.
He will respond to the prayer of the destitute;
he will not despise their plea.
Let this be written for a future generation,
that a people not yet created may praise the LORD:
“The LORD looked down from his sanctuary on high,
from heaven he viewed the earth,
to hear the groans of the prisoners
and release those condemned to death.”
So the name of the LORD will be declared in Zion [Jerusalem and the Temple]
and his praise in Jerusalem
when the peoples and the kingdoms
assemble to worship the LORD.
Isaiah 4:5- Then the LORD will create over all of Mount Zion [Jerusalem and the Temple] and over those who assemble there a cloud of smoke by day and a glow of flaming fire by night; over everything the glory will be a canopy.
Isaiah 18:7 At that time gifts will be brought to the LORD Almighty
from a people tall and smooth-skinned,
from a people feared far and wide,
an aggressive nation of strange speech,
whose land is divided by rivers—
the gifts will be brought to Mount Zion [Jerusalem and the Temple], the place of the Name of the LORD Almighty.
Isaiah 60:10-14 “Foreigners will rebuild your walls,
and their kings will serve you.
Though in anger I struck you,
in favor I will show you compassion.
Your gates will always stand open,
they will never be shut, day or night,
so that people may bring you the wealth of the nations—
their kings led in triumphal procession.
For the nation or kingdom that will not serve you will perish;
it will be utterly ruined.
“The glory of Lebanon will come to you,
the juniper, the fir and the cypress together,
to adorn my sanctuary;
and I will glorify the place for my feet.
The children of your oppressors will come bowing before you;
all who despise you will bow down at your feet
and will call you the City of the LORD,
Zion of the Holy One of Israel. [Jerusalem and the Temple] (emphasis added)
In the gospels, John rejects all of this. He turns his back on the city and its temple and takes up residence along the margins or the wilderness of his own society. The gospel message here, and one of my favorite Advent themes, is that salvation, change, and liberation don’t come from the center of our societies, but from the margins.
In Say to This Mountain by Ched Myers, Marie Dennis, Joseph Nangle, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, and Stuart Taylor, the authors write,
“The experience of wilderness is common to the vast majority of people in the world. Their reality is at the margins of almost everything that is defined by the modern Western world as ‘the good life.’ This wilderness has not been created by accident. It is the result of a system stacked against many people and their communities, whose lives and resources are exploited to benefit a very small minority at the centers of power and privilege. It is created by lifestyles that deplete and pollute natural resources . . . Wilderness is the residue of war and greed and injustice.” (Say to This Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, p. 11)
Advent begins by birthing hope within people who live in the wildernesses of their society: it tells them that their lived experience on the margins of any society is not the result of divine will but the result of social, political, economic and religious forces wielded by the privileged and the powerful in our communities.
Our reading from Luke this week also corrects a conflation of passages we first read in Mark’s gospel:
The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way” —
“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’ ” (Mark 1:1-3)
These words were not from the same source but from Exodus, Malachi, and Isaiah.
“See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared.” (Exodus 23:20)
I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty. (Malachi 3:1)
These words from Exodus speak of the liberation of Hebrew slaves and those from other groups who left Egypt with them. I question what the indigenous peoples of Canaan thought about this, given the history of how this same narrative was used against indigenous people here in America. We must be careful to remember that the liberation of one community should not mean the genocide of another.
The context of the passage from Malachi is God coming to God’s temple opposing “those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice” (Malachi 3:5). Because of this passage, I think of those today who must work more than 40 hours each week for less pay than they need to on .
Luke’s gospel drops these references to Exodus and Malachi and keep only the passage from Isaiah, though Luke will use the passage from Exodus and Malachi later in the Jesus story to refer to John:
“This is the one about whom it is written: ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.” (Luke 7:27)
The passage in Isaiah reads, “A voice of one calling: In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.”
Both John and Jesus emerge from the margins of their society and come to liberate oppressed people and restore justice to them. The gospels describe John as the forerunner for the reign of God that Jesus taught. Jesus came calling for change. But change doesn’t just happen.
Before any social change has ever taken place, years of groundwork has been laid. Many of those who did that initial ground work never lived long enough to see the fruit of their labor. They worked for a generation yet to come. Change doesn’t always take that long either: we can always choose change today.
But I think of changes taking place presently in the state of Georgia as just one example. The political changes we are witnessing in Georgia result from years of ground work by so many people including Stacey Abrams.
Changes today also depend on the work of generations who have gone before us. People chose to do the work they did not knowing for sure that change would come. They chose to live the kind of lives they lived because that was the type of people either they were and they refused to let the system shape them. They lived their life in a way that, even if they didn’t change the system, at least the system wouldn’t change them. Others did their work simply because it was the right thing to do. And still others labored because they hoped that one day, society would “reach the promised land” whether they were there to witness it or not.
This week’s reading includes two highly charged religious words: repentance and forgiveness.
If it helps, think of repentance as “thinking about things differently.” It’s much more about experiencing a paradigm shift than it is about the negative connotations religious abuse usually attaches to the term. Remember, too, that although contemporary Christianity often discusses forgiveness in the context of personal, individual morality, for the Hebrew prophets forgiveness and repentance sat in the context of calls for systemic justice and liberating a nation from injustice’s harmful effects. The Hebrew prophetic tradition speaks of sin as social injustice, repentance as turning away from that social injustice, and forgiveness as social restoration from that social injustice.
This is the context of John’s message that his listeners change their unjust ways for God’s reign. God’s just future was near.
I think of our society now. I think of LGBTQ justice work, racial justice work, and justice work for women. I think of economic justice for those our system pushes into poverty. I think of indigenous justice, and climate justice. So many justice movements are presently engaging our world, seeking to make it a safer, compassionate, just home for everyone.
During this Advent season, I also think of the Jesus story, not as only a Christian story to celebrate at Christmas time, but as a liberation story that 2,000 years ago inspired hope in those who were being forced to live on their own society’s margins.
What does Advent have to say to those living on the margins in our world today?
1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.
2. How does Advent speak of liberation for you? Discuss with your group.
3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?
Thanks for checking in with us, today.
Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.
I love each of you dearly,
I’ll see you next week
End of Year Matching Donations!
2021 has been a year of big challenges. Doing ministry during an ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has brought its share of change along with moments of heartwarming providence and blessings.
As this year is coming to a close, I’m deeply humbled and thankful for all of you who read, listen to, and share RHM’s work. I’m also grateful for the actions you have taken to make our world a safer, compassionate, just home for all. Thank you for being such an important part of our community, and for your continued support.
Thanks to a kind donor, who also believes in our work, we are able to extend matching donations through the end of month of December. All donation this month will be matched, dollar for dollar, making your support of Renewed Heart Ministries, and the work we do, go twice as far.
Your support enables RHM to continue providing much needed resources to help Jesus-followers find the intersection between their faith and labors of love, compassion, and justice in our world today.
As 2021 ends, we invite you to consider making a donation to Renewed Heart Ministries to make the most of this very kind offer.
Or you can make a donation by mail at:
Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901
Thank you in advance for your continued support.
This coming year, together, we will continue being a voice for change.