The Beginning of Advent

advent

Herb Montgomery | November 25, 2022

To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast episode click here.


“We can desire a future characterized not by some being left and many being destroyed but by change and reclaiming the humanity for all whether they be oppressed or oppressor. And we can anticipate a world that represents the social truth that if there is such a thing as salvation for any of us, none of us are saved until all of us are saved.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Matthew:

But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.

Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” (Matthew 24:36-44)

This weekend marks the beginning of the season of Advent. As most Western Christians celebrate it, Advent season commemorates both expectation and preparation: the approaching season of Christmas and Christians looking forward to the Second Coming. Advent also marks the beginning of the Western Christian liturgical year and the beginning of our winter holiday season. The word advent refers to a “coming” or “arrival” of some looked-for event. It refers to the birth of Jesus long ago, the coming of the Christmas season this year, and the Christian expectation of Jesus’ future return.

This week’s reading begins with a passage from Matthew about the coming of the “Son of Man.” This “Son of Man” figure is from the Jewish apocalyptic book of Daniel. In Daniel 7, the world’s empires are represented as violent beasts bringing destruction and harm to the vulnerable. In Daniel’s narrative, all violence, injustice, and imperial oppression is finally answered for when God’s just future breaks in for the people through this “Son of Man” (see Daniel 7).

Daniels’ imagery would have meant a lot to Matthew’s Jewish audience who were followers of Jesus and people negatively impacted by Roman imperialism. They longed for liberation.

So our reading in Matthew begins with the timing of this liberation being unknown to all but God, even though it will begin within the lifetimes of Matthew’s audience (see Matthew 24:34). Matthew references the ancient folktale of Noah and the flood: Those “taken” are destroyed and those “left” are those who remain after the destruction. This image represented a great reversal of fortune and social location. Those who are marginalized and exploited are left while those responsible for oppression, violence, and injustice are taken away.

Many Christians today interpret these passages in ways that point forward to the second coming of Jesus. The original audience would have also heard this passage as a way to make sense of the world-upending events of Rome’s destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. Reading these passages in the 21st Century, few of us can fathom the lostness that many Jewish folk including Jewish followers of Jesus must have felt as they were “left” after Rome’s devastating destruction and with the Temple being no more. They were the one’s not taken but left to pick up the pieces. For these people, a passage about Rome being taken away instead of conquering yet again would have resonated with the hope that they could piece together their own worldview and place of belonging after their loss.

This passage ends with the admonition to not lose hope but to remain watchful. I understand why that encouragement would have been included in Matthew’s version of the Jesus story given what many in Matthew’s intended audience experienced. Today, I think we need even more life-giving stories or imagery.

History has proven time and again that simply reversing social locations is not good enough. Reversals that result in today’s oppressed people becoming tomorrow’s oppressors still leave the hegemonic system in place: only the actors in that system have traded places.

What if we instead desire an egalitarian future that looks more like a shared table, one where oppressors are transformed through restitution and restoration for the harm done, and the oppressed’s humanity is recognized resulting in liberation. We can desire a future characterized not by some being left and many being destroyed but by change and reclaiming the humanity for all whether they be oppressed or oppressor. And we can anticipate a world that represents the social truth that if there is such a thing as salvation for any of us, none of us are saved until all of us are saved (see Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis’ Fierce Love, p. 14).

Again, I understand why a reversal would have resonated with the original audience of our passage, and today, we can do better.

For the past decade, I and so many others have been trying to understand and interpret the Jesus story in a more life-giving way. If you are interested in leaning more into this way of interpreting our Jesus story this Advent season, Renewed Heart Ministries is proud to announce the release of my new book, Finding Jesus: The Story of a Fundamentalist Preacher who Unexpectedly Discovered the Social, Political, and Economic Teachings of the Gospels.

We’ll release it exclusively through our website at renewedheartministries.com beginning December 1.

Here is a sample of what folks are saying about the book:

Herb has spent the last decade reading scripture closely. He also reads the world around us, thinks carefully with theologians and sociologists, and wonders how the most meaningful stories of his faith can inspire us to live with more heart, attention, and care for others in our time. For those who’ve ever felt alone in the process of applying the wisdom of Jesus to the world in which we live, Herb offers signposts for the journey and the reminder that this is not a journey we take alone. Read Finding Jesus with others, and be transformed together.” —Dr. Keisha McKenzie, Auburn Theological Seminary

In Finding Jesus, Herb Montgomery unleashes the revolutionary Jesus and his kin-dom manifesto from the shackles of the domesticated religion of empire. Within these pages we discover that rather than being a fire insurance policy to keep good boys and girls out of hell, Jesus often becomes the fiery enemy of good boys and girls who refuse to bring economic justice to the poor, quality healthcare to the underserved, and equal employment to people of color or same-sex orientation. Because what the biblical narratives of Jesus reveal is that any future human society—heavenly or otherwise—will only be as good as the one that were making right here and now. There is no future tranquil city with streets of gold when there is suffering on the asphalt right outside our front door today. Finding Jesus invites us to pray thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ on our feet as we follow our liberator into the magnificent struggle of bringing the love and justice of God to all—right here, right now.” —Todd Leonard, pastor of Glendale City Church, Glendale CA

Herb Montgomerys teachings have been deeply influential to me. This book shares the story of how he came to view the teachings of Jesus through the lens of nonviolence, liberation for all, and a call to a shared table. Its an important read, especially for those of us who come from backgrounds where the myth of redemptive violence and individual (rather than collective) salvation was the focus.” —Daneen Akers, author of Holy Troublemakers & Unconventional Saints and co-director/producer of Seventh-Gay Adventists: A Film about Faith, Identity & Belonging

“So often Christians think about Jesus through the lens of Paul’s theology and don’t focus on the actual person and teachings of Jesus. This book is different. Here you find a challenging present-day application of Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of God and the Gospel. Rediscover why this Rabbi incited fear in the hearts of religious and political leaders two millennia ago. Herb’s book calls forth a moral vision based on the principles of Jesus’ vision of liberation. Finding Jesus helps us see that these teachings are just as disruptive today as they were when Jesus first articulated them.” —Alicia Johnston, author of The Bible & LGBTQ Adventists

Herb Montgomery is a pastor for pastors, a teacher for teachers, and a scholar for scholars. Part memoir and part theological reflection, Finding Jesus is a helpful and hope-filled guide to a deeper understanding of who Jesus is. Herbs tone is accessible and welcoming while also challenging and fresh. This book is helpful for anyone who wants a new and fresh perspective on following Jesus.” —Traci Smith, author of Faithful Families

This week’s passage reminds us once again that elements in the Jesus story that were once life-giving for certain of Jesus followers in their context must evolve and become more life-giving so they can have non-destructive meaning for us today as we seek to follow Jesus in our own society. These new ways of reading will be in perfect harmony with the overall spirit of the message and teachings of Jesus. Reading this way often involves hard work as we wrestle with understanding its application to our time’s social needs, but this work is well worth it for those of us who believe the Jesus story still has much to offer us today.

As we begin this Advent season, may Advent this year be not only about the arrival of Jesus in Bethlehem, nor only the arrival or coming of our holiday season or the future coming of Jesus, but also the coming of more life-giving ways to follow Jesus today. That’s the kind of Advent I can get behind!

May this blessed season of Advent bring peace, joy, love, and justice to each of you.

Heart Group Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. What does the season of Advent mean for you? Share 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.

You can find Renewed Heart Ministries on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. If you haven’t done so already, please follow us on your chosen social media platforms for our daily posts. Also, if you enjoy listening to the Jesus for Everyone podcast, please like and subscribe to the JFE podcast through the podcast platform you use and consider taking some time to give us a review. This helps others find our podcast as well.

And if you’d like to reach out to us through email, you can reach us at info@renewedheartministries.com.

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.


Begin each day being inspired toward love, compassion, action, and justice.

Go to renewedheartministries.com and click “sign up.”

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https://renewedheartministries.com/Contact-forms?form=EmailSignUp

or Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Christmas Means Centering the Voices of Women

woman looking into the sun

Herb Montgomery | December 24, 2021


“We, too, can choose to listen when a woman has the courage to tell her story, even if it seems “impossible” to patriarchal men . . . If we are to take these Christmas narratives seriously, then we must center the voices of women in our society. We can choose to listen when they tell their stories . . . we, too, can follow the example of Luke’s Christmas narratives by centering women’s voices and pushing back against present-day expressions of Christianity that are patriarchal, that seek to silence women, or that still refuse to allow women to teach, be ordained, or hold positions of leadership.”


(To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast episode click here.)

Merry Christmas to each and every one of you! Thanks for taking a moment to check in during this busy holiday weekend. I’ll be brief.

Our reading this week is from Luke 2:

Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a days journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” He said to them, Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Fathers house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor. (Luke 2:41-52)

There’s a lot to unpack in this week’s reading.

First, I want to address the history of antisemitism in some interpretations of this week’s reading. Many of them imagine Jesus as a child instructing Jewish elders and scholars, and so demote Jewish wisdom and knowledge to a status or quality beneath Jesus. This is not only harmful but also unnecessary.

And the passage doesn’t support such a picture. The text does say that Jesus was, first, “listening” to the scholars, and, second, “asking them questions.” They were amazed at his understanding (including of the explanations he was listening to) and his answers (implying they were questioning whether he grasped the depth of their teaching). The story reminds me of college students who impress their teachers with their understanding and their answers to questions. That in no way implies that those students know more or have greater experience than their teachers. At most, the gospel writer is characterizing Jesus as a gifted student, perhaps even a prodigy, but still very much a child. We don’t have to disparage Judaism or Jewish knowledge to listen to and value Jesus in the gospels.

Second, the Christmas and childhood narratives of Jesus in the gospels are following the format of Hellenistic hero biographies. True to that form, Luke includes a story from his hero’s childhood. These stories were typically included as predictions or prophecies of the nature of the hero’s life work and future accomplishments. Followers of Jesus, especially those for whom the gospel of Luke was originally written, were keenly devoted in proclaiming the value of Jesus’ teachings to others. For those others to take Jesus seriously, he had to be placed at least on the same level as other Hellenistic heroes. This is what we are witnessing in this week’s story. Luke’s hero, Jesus, is a precocious child, possibly a prodigy in understanding Torah, increasing in wisdom, learning, understanding, and respect, and so the narrative predicts that Jesus would grow up to become a great teacher.

In keeping with the Hellenistic hero form, in an almost ominous fashion, the story ends with “His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.”

In Luke, Jesus’ wisdom and learning grows and evolves. Readers soon encounter a Jesus who breaks into his society as a man with wisdom, learning, understanding and good news to share. And of all the passages in the Hebrew scriptures this Jesus could use to sum up his own purpose and passion, he chooses a passage from Isaiah.

“He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lords favor.” (Luke 4:16-19)

This great teacher’s wisdom is characterized in the story as good news to the poor. It proclaims liberty to the subjugated, including the imprisoned and oppressed. It also announces a return to Torah faithfulness (“the year of the Lord’s favor”), specifically in the context of economic restructuring that eliminates poverty (cf. Deuteronomy 15).

These are the elements of the Torah that the child in this week’s story will grow up to teach.

Lastly, I want to draw our attention to how Joseph is neither centered nor given any voice at all in this story. The only dialogue is between Mary and Jesus, and Joseph is in the periphery or background. Luke doesn’t ever center Joseph in any of the Christmas narratives.

I was recently contacted by a friend who had been tasked with speaking about Joseph during a church-related Christmas event, and they asked if I could offer some resources. But the more I thought about Joseph in the Christmas narratives, the more this point became clear. Luke’s Christmas narratives center women’s voices like Elizabeth’s and Mary’s. Even Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband, has his literal voice taken away till John’s birth. And we never hear from Joseph in Luke: he isn’t centered in Luke’s birth or childhood narratives of Jesus at all.  This most likely was because Hellenistic heroes were typically assigned divine parentage in some form. Today, we can hear these narratives, though, as centering the voices of women.

And maybe that’s our point that we can take away from these stories in our context.

Even in Matthew’s gospel, Joseph gets a little more stage time than he does in Luke, but not much. An angel tells him to believe Mary no matter how impossible her story might seem, and Joseph chooses to listen and believe her. We, too, can choose to listen when a woman has the courage to tell her story, even if it seems “impossible” to patriarchal men.

I think of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford who told her story during the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to be a Supreme Court Justice. So many disbelieved her testimony. During his nomination hearing, Kavanaugh assured Senator Susan Collins that he respected the precedents around Roe vs. Wade, yet now that he is a Supreme Court justice, he has expressed complete disregard for that precedent in hearings about abortion restrictions in Mississippi. How many times must our society look back with regret and say “we should have listened to ‘her’”?

Social location matters. If we are to take these Christmas narratives seriously, then we must center the voices of women in our society. We can choose to listen when they tell their stories. And we must especially be about this business within our faith communities as well. As people of faith, we, too, can follow the example of Lukes Christmas narratives by centering womens voices and pushing back against present-day expressions of Christianity that are patriarchal, that seek to silence women, or that still refuse to allow women to teach, be ordained, or hold positions of leadership. We must do better. And we can.

As this year comes to a close and we prepare to embark on a new year, may we take these narratives to heart. May we listen to their lessons. And may we spend this coming year more deeply engaging the necessary work of making our world a safer, more compassionate, just home for everyone.

Merry Christmas to each of you!

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. With your group, share some things you are thankful for from 2021, something you wish had been different, and some hopes you may have for 2022.

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.

You can donate online by clicking online at renewedheartministries.com and clicking “Donate.”

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.

The Feminist Liberation of Advent

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.

You can donate online by clicking online at renewedheartministries.com and clicking “Donate.”

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.


The Feminist Liberation of Advent

Herb Montgomery | December 17, 2021

“In this week’s reading from the gospel of Luke, we read of two more women: Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist and Mary the mother of Jesus. Both Elizabeth and Mary would, for Luke’s listeners, call to mind ancient stories of courageous, scandalous, feminine liberation on behalf of oppressed people, the stories of Jael and Judith.”

Our reading this week is from the gospel of Luke, Luke 1:39-55.

I’ve chosen to quote Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney’s translation in her wonderful contribution to the church, A Woman’s Lectionary for the Whole Church; Year W.

Mary set out in those days and went to the hill country with haste, to a Judean town. There she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. Now when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Elizabeth exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. From where does the [visit] come to me? That the mother of my Sovereign comes to me? Look! As soon as I heard the sound of your greeting in my ear, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Now blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of those things spoken to her by the Holy One.” (p. 6)

And Mary replies,

My soul magnifies the Holy One,

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s own womb-slave,

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

for the Mighty One has done great things for me,

and holy is God’s name.

God’s loving-kindness is for those who fear God

from generation to generation.

God has shown the strength of God’s own arm;

God has scattered the arrogant in the intent of their hearts.

God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly;

God has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty.

God has helped God’s own child, Israel,

a memorial to God’s mercy,

just as God said to our mothers and fathers,

to [Hagar and] Sarah and Abraham, to their descendants forever. (pp. 8-9)

Those who heard Luke’s narrative and were familiar with the stories of the Hebrew scriptures would have recognized Elizabeth’s greeting as an echo of earlier Jewish narratives:

Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, most blessed of tent-dwelling women. (Judges 5:24)

Then Uzziah said to her, “Blessed are you, daughter, by the Most High God, above all the women on earth; and blessed be the Lord God, the creator of heaven and earth, who guided your blow at the head of the leader of our enemies. Your deed of hope will never be forgotten by those who recall the might of God.” (Judith 13:18)

The first quote about Jael is from the story of Deborah, a prophetess and judge. In the book of Judges, Deborah tells Barak, a military commander, to assemble forces and battle Sisera, commander of the army of King Jabin of Canaan. Jabin “had cruelly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years” and “they [Israelites] cried to the LORD for help.” (Judges 4:3)

Barak tells Deborah that he will only go if she goes with him. She agrees, but replies, “because of the course you are taking, the honor will not be yours, for the LORD will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.” (Judges 4:9)

When Sisera escapes the battle, he flees on foot and hides in the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber. He mistakes Jael as a neutral party in the battle. Jael then seduces Sisera only to drive a stake through his temple while he sleeps. Jael ushers Barak in to behold the gruesome scene.

The song of Deborah memorializes this story:

  Most blessed of women be Jael,

the wife of Heber the Kenite,

most blessed of tent-dwelling women.

He asked for water, and she gave him milk;

in a bowl fit for nobles she brought him curdled milk.

  Her hand reached for the tent peg,

her right hand for the workmans hammer.

She struck Sisera, she crushed his head,

she shattered and pierced his temple.

  At her feet he sank,

he fell; there he lay.

At her feet he sank, he fell;

where he sank, there he fell—dead. (Judges 5:24-27)

This is a violent and bloody story of liberation from oppression by the hands of a woman. Medieval images of Jael often depict her as a prefiguration of Mary the mother of Jesus.

The second reference, from the deuterocanonical book of Judith, is found in the Septuagint. It tells the story of Judith, a courageous and beautiful Jewish widow. Judith uses her beauty and power of seduction to destroy the Assyrian general Holofernes and to liberate her people from oppression.

In Judith 10 we read:

“She removed the sackcloth she had been wearing, took off her widows garments, bathed her body with water, and anointed herself with precious ointment. She combed her hair, put on a tiara, and dressed herself in the festive attire that she used to wear while her husband Manasseh was living. She put sandals on her feet, and put on her anklets, bracelets, rings, earrings, and all her other jewelry. Thus she made herself very beautiful, to entice the eyes of all the men who might see her.” (Judith 10:3-4)

When Judith is captured by Holofernes’ patrol, she tells them, I am a daughter of the Hebrews, but I am fleeing from them, for they are about to be handed over to you to be devoured. I am on my way to see Holofernes the commander of your army, to give him a true report; I will show him a way by which he can go and capture all the hill country without losing one of his men, captured or slain.” (10:12-13)

Her beauty distracts them, and they take her to Holofernes who hears her tale and welcomes her.

Her words pleased Holofernes and all his servants. They marveled at her wisdom and said, “No other woman from one end of the earth to the other looks so beautiful or speaks so wisely! . . . You are not only beautiful in appearance, but wise in speech.” (11:20-23)

Holofernes holds a private banquet and intends to have sex with Judith afterwards. She gets him so drunk that late in the night, while he’s passed out and she’s alone with him, Judith stands beside Holofernes’ bed and prays: “O Lord God of all might, look in this hour on the work of my hands for the exaltation of Jerusalem” (13:4). She then takes down Holofornes’ sword, which hung from his bed post, and decapitates him in two blows.

This is another violent, bloody story of liberation from oppression by the hands of a woman.

In this week’s reading from the gospel of Luke, we read of two more women: Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist and Mary the mother of Jesus. Both Elizabeth and Mary would, for Luke’s listeners, call to mind ancient stories of courageous, scandalous, feminine liberation on behalf of oppressed people.

Elizabeth’s story is of a life miraculously conceived in her though she is past childbearing years. This is a common theme in Hebrew liberation narratives of liberation, including Hannah with Samuel, and Samson’s mother with Samson. Elizabeth’s miracle will prepare the way of liberation for people in hopeless oppression. Hers is a child who will proclaim hope in the face of impossibilities.

Mary’s story, on the other hand, is not one of life being created where it was impossible. Her story, like Jael’s and Judith’s, is much more sexually scandalous. The life growing in her was conceived before she and Joseph were joined in marriage. And that life will not prepare for liberation, like John’s will. No, this life will tell the story of the way of liberation itself. The scandal of Jesus’ conception, with all its surrounding questions, will climax in the scandal of women some thirty years later testifying to the scandal of an empty tomb.

These narratives aren’t perfect. In the ancient stories, it is the women who liberate. In the Christmas narratives women now give birth to sons who are the conduits of liberation. The ancient stories may have been written at a much less patriarchal time than the stories in our gospels; I don’t know. Still, this week’s reading is not about John or Jesus. The reading is about Elizabeth and Mary, who shaped them.

With all of this in mind, go back and read Mary’s Magnificat as translated by Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D:

My soul magnifies the Holy One,

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s own womb-slave,

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

for the Mighty One has done great things for me,

and holy is God’s name.

God’s loving-kindness is for those who fear God

from generation to generation.

God has shown the strength of God’s own arm;

God has scattered the arrogant in the intent of their hearts.

God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly;

God has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty.

God has helped God’s own child, Israel,

a memorial to God’s mercy,

just as God said to our mothers and fathers,

to [Hagar and] Sarah and Abraham, to their descendants forever.

One of Advent’s loudest themes is that liberation, salvation, change come from the bottom up and from the outside edges in; from those in more marginalized social locations. In the economy or reign of the God of this gospel, it is the hungry who are filled with good things. It is the lowly who are lifted up. The arrogant are scattered, the powerful and privileged are brought down, and the rich are sent away empty.

As we look around us at our world, societies, and communities today, this way may seem as impossible as Elizabeth’s story. Dare we choose to be people of hope in the face of apparent impossibilities? Some may also deem this way as scandalous as Mary—scandalous in its inclusion, scandalous in its outspokenness, and scandalous in its brazenness.

During this time of Advent and always, this is the kind of life and work we are called to be about. Dare we choose to be people of the scandalous gospel of Jesus?

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. On this last weekend of Advent, how are our stories speaking of liberation, change, and societal justice alongside of and in harmony with these ancient stories? 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



Begin each day being inspired toward love, compassion, action, and justice.

Go to renewedheartministries.com and click “sign up.”

Free Sign-Up at:

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Advent as Too Political

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.

You can donate online by clicking online at renewedheartministries.com and clicking “Donate.”

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.


 

Advent as Too Political

Star in the night sky

by Herb Montgomery | December 10, 2021


“If Jesus really did begin as a disciple of John, what was it about John’s preaching that resonated so deeply? Was it concern for what people were unjustly suffering within a system structured to benefit others at their expense? . . . How can we, as Jesus-followers during Advent season, continue John’s and Jesus’ work in our own settings today?”


This weekend is the third weekend of Advent. Our reading is:

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” What should we do then?” the crowd asked. John answered, Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized. Teacher,” they asked, what should we do?” “Dont collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, And what should we do?” He replied, Dont extort money and dont accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. John answered them all, I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them. (Luke 3:7-18)

The followers of John the Baptist comprised a movement that preexisted the Jesus moment and co-existed alongside it for a time. They were quite a broad Jewish community (see Mark 1:5; 11:32; and Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 18:118-119). Most Jesus scholars today see Jesus’ and John’s movements as separate but related, perhaps with Jesus following John before launching out on his own (see Mark 1:14).

The gospel of John, the canonical gospel written last, goes to great lengths to portray Jesus and his movement as being superior to John’s, however, and there are differences between John’s movement and Jesus’, including differences on fasting and baptisms (see Mark 2:18; John 4:1-2).

This week, in the context of Advent, I’ll focus on the themes that John’s teachings and Jesus’ held in common.

To the crowds, John taught:

Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

To tax collectors:

Dont collect any more than you are required to.”

To soldiers:

Dont extort money and dont accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

In each of these instances, John reminds us of his own location: he’s not within the system of the temple-state we covered last week but a voice in the wilderness calling for social justice from outside. He’s standing within the Hebrew Prophetic tradition here. His concern is for justice to be practiced within his society because deeds prove social repentance is more than lip service. John demands that those who are exploiting others stop making them vulnerable.

Jesus made similar demands: “Sell your possessions and give to the poor.” (Luke 12.33; cf. Luke 4:18; 6:20; 11:41; 18:22; 19:8)

John and Jesus were not itinerant preachers traveling the countryside, handing out tickets to a post mortem heaven as an escape from this world’s problems or a reward for religious purity. They were both itinerant prophets of the poor, deeply concerned not about a life hereafter but about the concrete realities of those suffering in the here and now.

In this light, and especially during the season of Advent, a Christianity that focuses on achieving entrance into heaven without regard for injustices being committed right now is out of harmony with the teachings of both John and Jesus.

For many Christians, it’s rare to speak out against real world injustice. I’ve bumped up against this disconnect myself. As I’ve spoken out against racism and White supremacy, patriarchy and misogyny, classism and predatory capitalism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, and exclusion, for many years now, too often it’s my Christian friends who’ve told me that we are to be “not of this world” and that I was reading the Jesus story too “politically.”

By “too political,” my friends don’t mean that I was endorsing and promoting a certain political party or specific candidate. But in our highly charged environment, speaking out against harm being done to vulnerable communities is political. Jesus was also political in that he taught that the reign of God belonged to those the present system makes poor.

Both Jesus and John are religious in the sense that they both interpreted their religious commitment to the God of the Torah, but their teachings were also political, economic, and social as well. You can’t separate Jesus’ and John’s teachings along these hard lines or categories. If you begin with an understanding that God loves everyone, then any harm being done in the present to the objects of that love should be opposed. This is what we see happening in the lives and ministries of both John and Jesus. Speaking out got John beheaded. It got Jesus crucified.

I’m reminded of the words of the late Dr. James H. Cone in this regard:

“What has the gospel to do with the oppressed of the land and their struggle for liberation? Any theologian who fails to place that question at the center of his or her work has ignored the essence of the gospel.” (James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed, p. 9)

Whether speaking out against harm to vulnerable communities is political all depends on which communities you claim are being harmed. If, for example, I were saying that Christian religious freedoms are being limited by recognition of same-sex marriage, or that men are at risk because of the accusations of the Me Too movement, or that White folks were being harmed by the teaching of critical race theory, or, especially at this time of year, that Christmas itself was under attack, then I would probably be applauded. I wouldn’t be accused of being “too political.” I’m guessing I wouldn’t hear that as Christians “we are not of this world.”

The problem, then, isn’t that I’ve taken a side, but which side I’ve have taken. Have I taken the side of those who are losing their positions of privilege and power in a changing society, or have I, reading the Jesus story through the lens of oppressed people, chosen to speak out alongside communities that for too long have been crying out for justice and change? Social location matters. Which communities in which social locations have we chosen to speak out alongside?

This Advent season, may we stand in the spirit of John and Jesus, and carve out time to listen to those calling for justice and change in our day. May we make time to listen to Indigenous communities and immigrants; to trans, lesbian, gay and bisexual people; let’s listen to Black and Brown people; to women and religious minorities in our communities; and let’s listen to those who, economically, daily scratch and scrape to survive on the losing side of our economic games.

If Jesus really did begin as a disciple of John, what was it about John’s preaching that resonated so deeply? Was it concern for what people were unjustly suffering within a system structured to benefit others at their expense? Jesus repeated and enlarged these themes in his own life and teachings.

How can we, as Jesus-followers during Advent season, continue John’s and Jesus’ work in our own settings today?

 

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. How does Advent call you to focus on concrete forms of justice work in our society today? 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


 


 

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Advent, Hope, and Living on the Margins

[To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast click here.]

ornament with a church in it's reflection

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 Gods 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 2:6I 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 60:10-14Foreigners 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?

HeartGroup Application

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.

You can donate online by clicking online at renewedheartministries.com and clicking “Donate.”

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.

Advent and a Different Iteration of Our World

advent candles

by Herb Montgomery | November 29, 2021

(To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast, click here.)

 


“As we enter this Advent season this weekend, we are called again to build a better world. Hope can give way to despair if instead of change, we witness unjust systems evolving to perpetuate harm in new ways. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can choose something different. We have the power to begin the world over again.”


 

Happy Advent!

As we enter the Advent season this weekend, our reading is from the gospel of Luke,

There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” He told them this parable: Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap. For it will come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth. Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.” (Luke 21:25-36)

As I wrote about our reading from Mark’s gospel two weeks ago, by the time this week’s reading was written, the Jesus movement was living in the wake of several destructive events including the Jewish-Roman war. The followers of Jesus are trying to make sense of all these events in both Luke and Mark.

In Mark we read a similar passage:

But in those days, following that distress,

  the sun will be darkened,

and the moon will not give its light;

  the stars will fall from the sky,

and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.

At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.” (Mark 13:24-27)

I like how the early Jesus community, even in the chaos of their changing world, could perceive an opportunity to make the world a just, more compassionate place. Let me explain this idea.

The phrase “son of man” in Mark and Luke has a deeply Jewish, apocalyptic, liberation context. It’s from the late book of Daniel, and when that portion of Daniel was written, it was written in the context of deep “world change” for the Jewish community reading it. It was meant to inspire hope in the place of fear and anxiety.

Let’s look at a section of Daniel to understand this context. I’ve bolded the key words we’ll be focusing on in Daniel chapter 7:

“In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon, Daniel had a dream, and visions passed through his mind as he was lying in bed. He wrote down the substance of his dream. Daniel said: In my vision at night I looked, and there before me were the four winds of heaven churning up the great sea. Four great beasts, each different from the others, came up out of the sea. The first was like a lion, and it had the wings of an eagle. I watched until its wings were torn off and it was lifted from the ground so that it stood on two feet like a human being, and the mind of a human was given to it. And there before me was a second beast, which looked like a bear. It was raised up on one of its sides, and it had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth. It was told, Get up and eat your fill of flesh! After that, I looked, and there before me was another beast, one that looked like a leopard. And on its back it had four wings like those of a bird. This beast had four heads, and it was given authority to rule. After that, in my vision at night I looked, and there before me was a fourth beastterrifying and frightening and very powerful. It had large iron teeth; it crushed and devoured its victims and trampled underfoot whatever was left. It was different from all the former beasts, and it had ten horns. While I was thinking about the horns, there before me was another horn, a little one, which came up among them; and three of the first horns were uprooted before it. This horn had eyes like the eyes of a human being and a mouth that spoke boastfully.

As I looked,

  thrones were set in place,

and the Ancient of Days took his seat.

His clothing was as white as snow;

the hair of his head was white like wool.

His throne was flaming with fire,

and its wheels were all ablaze.

  A river of fire was flowing,

coming out from before him.

Thousands upon thousands attended him;

ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him.

The court was seated,

and the books were opened.

Then I continued to watch because of the boastful words the horn was speaking. I kept looking until the beast was slain and its body destroyed and thrown into the blazing fire. The other beasts had been stripped of their authority, but were allowed to live for a period of time.

In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”

As with all of the Bible’s prophetic passages, people have spent endless hours arguing over possible interpretations from the themes to the most minute details—so much so that these arguments can cause us to miss the forest for the trees.

What is the overall narrative theme here? World empires that oppressed the Jewish people are likened to violent beasts of prey who dominate and destroy. The scene has tension from the beginning: the first beast-empire is both beast or monster and human. From there, the text speaks of a divine intervention where each empire meets the end of its unsustainable exploitation and is consumed. Then we meet a fifth being, not a beast but a human or human-like one. This being is “one like the son of humanity,” a person who replaces all the empires of this world and represents both the Jewish people’s triumph over their oppressors and a just future where all the violence, injustice, and oppression of our world is put right. This very apocalyptic narrative therefore repeats the Hebrew prophetic hope of God’s just future in our world. Consider how the narrative in Daniel 7 ends:

But the court will sit, and his [little horn’s] power will be taken away and completely destroyed forever. Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of all the kingdoms under heaven will be handed over to the holy people of the Most High. His [the son of man’s] kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him.(Daniel 7:26)

Following this model, a Hebrew way of interpreting the end of violent empires and the chaos such transitions create is that they could be the end of something beastly making way for the creation of a more humane world.

The fact that beasts and humans symbolize the contrast between societies that are destructive and those that are life-giving brings to mind the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. regarding power, love, and justice.

“What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.” (Martin Luther King Jr., Where Do We Go from Here, p. 38)

The son of man is not the only image borrowed from the Hebrew scriptures in this week’s reading: it also includes the fig tree. This reference also hints to its hearers that we may look through the chaos to the hope of God’s just future.

“All the stars in the sky will be dissolved

and the heavens rolled up like a scroll;

all the starry host will fall

like withered leaves from the vine,

like shriveled figs from the fig tree.” (Isaiah 34:4)

For the scriptures’ first audiences, a leafy fig tree meant that summer and the time of harvest was near. For both Isaiah and the gospel writers, “the time of harvest” was the time when societies would finally reap what the powerful had sown.

Mark and Luke also both use the phrase “being on guard,” but they use it differently.

In Mark, being on guard means being wary of false messiahs and being handed over to local councils. It is connected to the watchfulness Jesus implored his closest disciples to join him in in the garden of Gethsemane as he was about to face state execution for standing up in the Temple courtyard to an unjust status quo.

By the time of Luke’s writing, though, being on guard has expanded to include carousing, and this shift may reflect struggles within the Jesus community at the time Luke was written.

Luke’s gospel also shifts our vision of God’s just future as a time of reversal that “traps” some kinds of people. Mark used this idea of entrapment to refer to those who were powerful and using their power in unjust ways, but in Luke the trap captures those who are distracted:

Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap.” (Luke 21:34)

Lastly, where Mark’s gospel focuses on the Jewish community, Luke’s gospel expands the focus to the entire world: “For it will come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth.”

How can we as Jesus followers read the above passage in Luke today?

Today I think of the beast of Daniel 7 when I think of our era. We are living in what some observers see as the final stages of predatory capitalism, and we are also transitioning to a post-pandemic world too. In the U.S.’s consumerist culture, we are experiencing rising prices in the cost of living, supply chain breakdowns, increased demand for services and goods, labor shortages, and people who still can’t return to their workplace and/or are feeling strained by working 40 hours weekly for pay they can’t survive on. Over the last two years, many of us have experience personal losses while witnessing others’ gains, especially the wealthy whose net worth increased exponentially during the pandemic. This week we once again see our legal system’s disparities on display via the Rittenhouse trial, the trial of those who killed Ahmaud Arbery, and the trial of those who orchestrated the racist violence in Charlottesvile.

Dare we see in these moments an opportunity to build a better world? If we can, it would be characteristic of the Jesus story itself.

As we enter this Advent season this weekend, we are called again to build a better world. Hope can give way to despair if instead of change, we witness unjust systems evolving to perpetuate harm in new ways. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can choose something different. We have the power to begin the world over again.

The lectionary texts our Advent season begins with this year are interpreted by certain Christians to point not to the first advent that many celebrate at Christmas but to a second advent, or God’s reign, or God’s just future in some form at some point in the future. Certain Christians see these as two advents. I want to challenge us to move past surface distinctions.  I want to encourage us to see not two advent events (first with baby Jesus and a future second with an adult returning Jesus), but instead as one entire process of transforming our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone; a process that is distributed over time. The events of our text this week, and the narratives of a baby in a manger, are both parts of the same whole. As we move into Advent, remember, the hope and belief that a new iteration of our world is possible, and that the creation of that new iteration has begun, is what Advent is genuinely all about.

 

HeartGroup Application

 

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. As Advent begins this year, what does Advent in our social context mean for you today? 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

 


#GivingTuesday 2021

 

Tomorrow is #GivingTuesday!

This year we are asking you to support the work of Renewed Heart Ministries on this special day.

All contributions this #GivingTuesday 2021 to RHM will be matched, dollar for dollar, thanks to a generous and kind pledge to from a few of our supporters.

On this special day, November 30th, go to renewedheartministries.com and click “Donate.”

 

#GivingTuesday is a global day of giving that harnesses the collective power of individuals, communities and organizations to encourage philanthropy and to celebrate generosity worldwide.

#GivingTuesday is held annually on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving (in the US) and the widely recognized shopping events Black Friday and Cyber Monday to kick off the holiday giving season and inspire people to collaborate in improving our communities and to give back in impactful ways to the charities and causes they support.

#GivingTuesday is a global giving movement that began in 2012 that has been built by individuals, families, organizations, businesses and communities in all 50 states, and in countries around the world.

#GivingTuesday is endeavoring to transform how people think about, talk about, and participate in the giving season. It inspires people to take collective action to improve their communities, give back in better, smarter ways to the charities and causes they believe in, and help create a better world.

#GivingTuesday demonstrates how every act of generosity counts, and that they mean even more when we give together.

Every year millions of people come together on this special day to give back and to support the causes they believe in.

This November 30th, consider making a donation to support the ongoing work of Renewed Heart Ministries as one of your chosen nonprofits and help make this #Giving Tuesday the best one yet.

Again, on this special day, tomorrow, go to renewedheartministries.com and click “Donate.”

We can’t thank you enough for your support!

The Concrete Liberation Narratives of Advent (Part 3)

Herb Montgomery | December 24, 2020

nativity


“So many are suffering hardship right now in the U.S. These stories of the birth of Jesus aren’t distractions from that suffering. They don’t turn our focus to postmortem bliss or internalized private and personal piety. Instead, they speak to hope and deliverance from the very tangible economic, social, and political realities that people are suffering through today. This is the focus of the Jesus stories. How much more should this be our focus if we claim these stories at the core of our religious tradition? The liberation in these stories applies to what people are going through right now, here, in the present unjust system.”


“This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:12)

This Christmas, many are enduring hardship because the political elite have mishandled the COVID-19 pandemic. The economic recovery some have touted is a “K” shaped recovery: the wealthy have gotten even wealthier whereas both the working class and those who live below the poverty line have seen their lives get worse.

In this context, Mary’s Magnificat in Luke’s birth narratives gives me much to ponder: “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty.”

As we said in part 2, these narratives in Matthew and Luke are not filled with the theme of another world or an afterlife. Instead, they present another iteration of this world. They are concerned with the concrete experience of those being exploited and fighting for their economic survival in this life, here and now. They are not about salvation as individual or spiritual but as concrete liberation from the social, political, and economic realities that seek to crush the people.

Luke’s entire gospel repeatedly contrasts the common people or peasantry with the ruling elite in the society of Luke’s intended audience (cf. Luke 6:20-26; Luke 4:18-19). Our communities today are divided along social, political, and economic lines too. During this pandemic, many of the haves have gained even more while the little bit that those without had, has either been taken away or been barely enough. What do these stories say for our lives, today? Can they still speak to us of another kind of world, possible here and now?

In Matthew, the Magi are key characters. Luke gives us the shepherds (see Luke 2:8). Interpreting these shepherds in Luke’s story, Horsley writes in The Liberation of Christmas: The Infancy Narratives in Social Context: “The shepherds of Luke 2 should not be over-interpreted, whether in the older fashion as symbols of some idyllic pastoral life or in the more recent mode as representatives of the despised and ostracized in Jewish society. Shepherds were simply part of the peasantry in ancient Palestinian society. Peasants, almost by definition, were poor, and dwellers were lowly in status. Shepherds while not despised by the people, were apparently some of the lowliest of the lowly.” (p.106)

Luke’s birth narratives are centered in the social location of the common people rather than that of the elite of the day. Even John the Baptist’s parents are common priests living in Judea and associated with the common people, not high-priests connected to other rulers in Jerusalem. Luke’s birth narrative places Jesus among and in solidarity with the hopes of the common peasantry of that time.

This association of Jesus with the hopes of those scratching and clawing for their survival helps us better understand the focus of three poems included in Luke: The Magnificat (Mary, Luke 1:46-55), the Benedictus (Zechariah, Luke 1:68-79), and the Nunc Dimittis (Simeon, Luke 2:29-32).

Let’s take a very brief look at each.

The Magnificat

And Mary said:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.” (Luke 1:46-55)

This is not the pious prayer of a saint, but a revolutionary song of concrete liberation. It stands in the tradition of sociopolitical, Hebrew victory songs. Songs like Mary’s were sung by Miriam (Exodus 15), Deborah (Judges 5), and Judith (Judges 6), and their form is very close to other Jewish hymns from the late-second-Temple era, like the psalms in 1 Maccabees, Judith, 2 Baruch, 4 Ezra, the Psalms of Solomon and the Qumran Hodayoth and War Scroll (The Liberation of Christmas, p. 108).

The themes of Mary’s song are also not solely spiritual: they are deeply and subversively social, economic, and political. The Magnificat is about God’s revolutionary overthrow of the established governing authorities on behalf of the peasantry of Israel.

Consider these examples of concrete, political usage of Mary’s same language:

“The LORD your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves.” (Zephaniah 3:17)

“Your arm is endowed with power; your hand is strong, your right hand exalted.” (Psalm 89:13)

“You crushed Rahab like one of the slain, with your strong arm you scattered your enemies.” (Psalm 89:10)

“He is the one you praise; he is your God, who performed for you those great and awesome wonders you saw with your own eyes.” (Deuteronomy 10:21, cf. Psalm 105)

See also the entire 111th psalm.

Mary’s song evokes the ancient memory of God’s great acts of liberation, the exodus from Egypt, and the Hebrew prophets’ promises of liberation, renewal, and restoration. “The humble state of his servant” does not refer solely to Mary but to the entire community of peasants in Israel. This language is used in Deuteronomy and the Psalms to describe a condition of being dominated, oppressed, and afflicted. It does not refer to an individual’s spiritual humility but to the concrete social, economic, and political conditions of all the people:

“Then we cried out to the LORD, the God of our ancestors, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our misery, toil, and oppression.” (Deuteronomy 26:7)

“He remembered us in our low estate, His love endures forever.” (Psalms 136:23)

The proud, who God scatters, could have referred to the oppressive domestic rulers (Herod/High Priestly class) or to foreign oppressors (Romans). (See Psalm of Solomon 2:1-2, 25, 28-31; 17:8, 15, 26).

This is a song about the political liberation of a people with actual political enemies, just as the same kinds of liberation songs in previous generations referred to bondage in Egypt, rescue from Canaanite kings, and deliverance from the Philistines. The lowly in each instance means those who have suffered exploitation, oppression, and subjugation from the wealthy and powerful ruling groups and the systems of injustice they were responsible for.

Luke’s songs of social, political, and economic deliverance for the poor, marginalized, peasants announce that a new social order of justice and abundance as well as surviving and thriving is possible.

Read through the other two songs used in Luke’s birth narratives. I’ll share references showing examples of how the political language used in Luke had been politically used in other passages of the Hebrew scriptures, as well.

The Benedictus

“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has visited his people and redeemed them.

[See Exodus 4:31; Ruth 1:6; Psalms 80:14; 106:4; 111:5-6,9]

He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David

[See Psalms 18:2; Ezekiel 29:21; 1 Samuel 2:10; Psalms 132:17; Judges 2:16, 18; 3:9,15]

(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us—
to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,

[Jeremiah 31:34; 33:8]

because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,

[Isaiah 9:2; Psalms 107:9-10]

to guide our feet into the path of peace.” (Luke 1:68-79)

The Nunc Dimittis

“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,

[Isaiah 52:13-53:12]

and the glory of your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32)

Right after this last poem, Simeon blesses Mary and Joseph, saying that their child is for the “falling and rising of many in Israel.” This statement harks back to Mary’s song of some being lifted up and others pulled down, and it looks forward to the economic teachings of Jesus where the poor will be blessed, but the well-fed will go hungry (see Luke 6).

So many are suffering hardship right now in the U.S. These stories of the birth of Jesus aren’t distractions from that suffering. They don’t turn our focus to postmortem bliss or internalized private and personal piety. Instead, they speak to hope and deliverance from the very tangible economic, social, and political realities that people are suffering through today.

This is the focus of the Jesus stories. How much more should this be our focus if we claim these stories at the core of our religious tradition? The liberation in these stories applies to what people are going through right now, here, in the present unjust system. And this pandemic continues to reveal how disproportionately unjust our systems are for so many.

The songs of liberation speak of political, economic, social, and even religious conflict, and of deliverance—God’s just future—breaking into our suffering today. That just future is rooted in the teachings of this “baby” found by shepherds “wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Will we choose it?

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. Share something from Matthew’s or Luke’s birth narratives that speak to you of concrete liberation, today.

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

The Concrete Liberation Narratives of Advent (Part 2 of 3)

Herb Montgomery | December 18, 2020

wisemen


“Notice that, for their first audiences, the stories of Jesus were not Christian stories about getting to heaven. These were stories deeply rooted in the concrete liberation hopes and realities people were facing . . . These stories are political. They are rooted in the hunger of an oppressed people for social justice. They are about concrete liberation from injustice, both systemic and private, in the here and now, and that is to be our focus as Jesus followers, too.”


Matthew’s version of the Advent narratives begins with this note:

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem.” (Matthew 2:1)

This month’s recommended reading from Renewed Heart Ministries is The Liberation of Christmas: The Infancy Narratives in Social Context by Richard A. Horsley. Horsley identifies the Magi as the highest-ranking political and religious advisers of the Medean emperor and the Persian imperial court. Their religious role was meant to maintain what was believed to be a divinely given imperial order: even their religious purpose was for political ends. The Magi were priestly assistants to the Great King of the Persian Empire—the King of Kings, who was believed to be the divine ruler on earth. Tertullian tells us that “the East considers the Magi almost as kings” themselves (Against Marcion, 3:13).

One of their royal roles would have been to cultivate knowledge of the cosmos and cosmic events, including observing any unusual occurrences in the heavens, and interpreting the divine will or order of things to the king.

That the Magi are in Matthew’s advent story at all is significant. It’s about much more than the inclusion of Gentiles in salvation, salvation that the child they came to see would bring.

What are the implications including the Magi here?

Persia was Rome’s enemy at this time, and the Magi advised the Eastern kings. The Magi, therefore, represented the East in the East-West conflict between Rome and Persia. The Magi were also present at the birth of the Persian King Cyrus who had liberated the Jewish people in the 6th Century BCE (see Isaiah 45) So Matthew including the Magi in his story about Jesus had both international political and religious implications for Rome.

Remember, one of the purposes of Matthew’s advent narrative was to subvert the Roman imperialism subjugating the Jewish people. His story includes Rome’s international enemies, and they, as they were for Cyrus, are present at this little liberator’s birth. Matthew’s audience would have recognized their presence as a sign that this baby was allied with Rome’s enemies. The baby’s overthrow of Roman oppression would have been good news (gospel) to Rome’s enemies as well. Matthew’s story takes political sides against Rome by including the Magi.

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’ When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.” (Matthew 2:1-4)

Three elements of this section will help us understand Matthew’s story more clearly.

  1. Herod
  2. The phrase, “King of the Jews”; and
  3. The disturbance of “all Jerusalem”

As we discussed last week, Herod was Rome’s client king for the Jewish people. Herod economically crushed the Jewish common people, piling on to the already oppressive Roman tax burden people faced in his area and threatening violence from a large, heavily armed militia if they resisted. Herod extracted heavy tributes for extensive building projects aimed to pay homage to Caesar. And he was intensely efficient at crushing uprisings and rebellions against his oppressive policies. He slaughtered people extensively, and life under him meant exploitation and tyranny for the Jewish peasantry: Herod economically bled his people and country dry, and the peasantry cried out day and night for relief from helpless and hopeless poverty. For many, Herod was synonymous with Roman oppression.

The phrase King of the Jews, used in reference to Jesus, has had a long and very harmful anti-Semitic history in Christianity, just as the term Messiah has.

Originally, Jewish liberation movements used the phrase “king of the Jews.” Jewish people didn’t then have a standardized or generally held expectation of a “messiah,” as the term is understood by Christians today. Messiah means “the one who is anointed.” Just like David was anointed by Samuel the prophet, “the anointed one” was anointed to become a king. At the time of Matthew’s story, a common hope among the many and varied Jewish liberation movements was that a king, like David of old, would rise up and liberate the Jewish people from their suffering under Rome. It was simply an expression of the broader hope of the people to be liberated from foreign rule.

This is the only context I believe helpful for understanding why the gospels use the phrase “king of the Jews” in reference to Jesus in the gospels. The community of the gospels was yet another oppressed Jewish community hoping for concrete liberation. For the gospels to call Jesus Messiah, king of the Jews, or anointed one is to simply refer to their Jesus as a liberator from oppression just as every other liberation movement of this time had their king, anointed one, or liberator. But we must leave these phrases in their own social context if we are to avoid Christianizing them into the harmful antisemitic beliefs and practices of supersessionism, the belief that the Christian church has replaced Jewish people and Judaism.

Why might “all Jerusalem” have been disturbed by the Magi’s declaration?

Judea was an agrarian society. Agrarian societies could be headed politically and economically by a fortified city where the rulers lived. This kind of agrarian society benefited and privileged the city rulers with a privileged, secure lifestyle with attendants yet at the expense of the peasant farm workers outside the city. The rulers typically owned the farmland outside the city, too.

That was the situation in ancient Judea. Judean society took the form of a Temple-state centered in Jerusalem and headed by a priestly aristocracy and their retainers such as the scribes. To the best of our knowledge today, this priestly aristocracy was comprised of four families who were appointed to their powerful positions by Herod and therefore Rome. The priestly aristocracy was the elite and powerful who were politically tied to Herod’s success.

When Matthew’s narrative says “all Jerusalem” was disturbed, I don’t believe he was saying all the Jewish population of Jerusalem. That interpretation blames Jews for Jesus’ later execution. No. “All Jerusalem” is more similar to what we here in the U.S. might say: that all D.C. was disturbed. We wouldn’t be talking about the taxi drivers but we’d be talking about those in political positions of power and privilege and their attendants who would have much to lose from a change in the status quo. Horsely again states, “‘All Jerusalem’ would have been the ruling city that politically dominated and economically exploited the rest of the people” (Ibid. p. 50). The elite in power because of Herod’s position would have been deeply disturbed by any threat of change to Herod’s situation and thus their own.

What does this have to do with us today?

Notice that, for their first audiences, the stories of Jesus were not Christian stories about getting to heaven. These were stories deeply rooted in the concrete liberation hopes and realities people were facing. Matthew borrows from the original Exodus narratives at certain places in his advent story because, just like the Exodus story, Matthew’s story is about our concrete real world, oppression in this life, here and now, and tangible hopes of liberation.

How do the ethics, values, and teachings that we find in the Jesus stories guide us to impact our real world in concrete ways as agents of action? How do they inspire us to shape our world into a safer, just, compassionate home for everyone? Are we, unlike these advent stories, just focused on an afterlife, post-mortem heaven, or escaping to bliss beyond? Or are we, like these stories, engaging the real harm being committed against vulnerable populations and communities in our society today? How much does our following Jesus align with these stories? How aligned is our Christianity with the this-life focus and liberation of Jesus?

These stories are political. They are rooted in the hunger of an oppressed people for social justice. They are about concrete liberation from injustice, both systemic and private, in the here and now, and that is to be our focus as Jesus followers, too.

This focus becomes even more pointed when we get to Luke’s advent narratives.

We’ll take a look at those next week.

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. This year’s Christmas holiday is filled with harsh realities for many in the U.S.  Discuss with your HeartGroup what you can do, together, to mitigate some portion of that harm for someone this holiday season. Pick something from the discussion for your group to do together in this final week leading up to Christmas.

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


The Concrete Liberation Narratives of Advent (Part 1 of 3)

Herb Montgomery | December 11, 2020

nativity carving


“This Christmas story, far from being about how Jesus would make a way to the afterlife and leave the oppressive systems and structures of this world passively untouched, speaks to its audience of liberation from soul-crushing realities affecting its listeners in the here and now . . . This year, as many of us are facing our own harsh realities, there may have never been a more appropriate time to consider the concrete liberation in the birth narratives of the Advent season: they were written for people who were facing harsh realities.”


“This is how the birth of Jesus the anointed came about.” (Matthew 1.18)

Advent season has begun!

Over the next few weeks, we’ll look at the birth narratives of Jesus from 1st Century perspectives. In their cultural context, both Matthew’s and Luke’s birth narratives are about concrete liberation for oppressed Jewish people in the here and now. Matthew and Luke differ greatly on the details of the birth of Jesus but both speak of concrete liberation. We will read each story in the religious and political contexts they were written in. They intensely subvert the political theologies of their day.

Today, we have access to information that helps us rediscover the stories’ meaning to the first-century followers of Jesus and also to us today as well.

A Preliminary Word about Both Narratives

Something to note before we begin: these narratives are primarily concerned with this world, not with heaven. They are focused on liberation in this life, much like the Exodus liberation narratives of the Torah are. Too often, the birth narratives of Jesus are read through the lens of salvation defined as an entrance into post-mortem heaven. But that is not how the original Jewish Jesus community would have heard these stories.

That community was concerned with the whole of life, not merely with an afterlife. A spiritual, afterlife application of these narratives became the dominant interpretation through the cultural influence of the Christianizing and expanding Roman Empire. Reading the gospel narratives with an otherworldly focus has born an intensely destructive fruit ever since then. Before imperial Christianity, people understood these narratives to be about the liberation and transformation of our communities and this world. They were not solely religious stories; they were also political, economic, and social, with distributively just imaginings of an end of violence, injustice, and oppression.

The Importance of Context

If we are going to wrest these two narratives from centuries of purely religious and otherworldly interpretations, we must discover their historical context. Once we see that context, we cannot unsee it. Once we know it, we cannot unknow it. Learning this context for myself has forever changed how I read the birth narratives of Jesus, so I want to share that journey with you.

This week, we’ll begin with Matthew’s narrative. We will consider why Herod is the focus and why the Magi are included. Next time, we will explore Luke’s birth narrative. My hope is the information in this series will enable you to read the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke anew. And I hope that these narratives, seen in their own contexts, will renew your heart and hope, and inspire you as a Jesus follower to more deeply embody their focus on transforming this world.

Though the early Jesus birth narratives were originally intended for 1st Century listeners, I believe they’re also significant for us today. In our era, these narratives are being eclipsed for Christians by consumerism that uses the gift of Jesus to affirm our holiday economic machine.

Richard Horsley describes this in the introduction to The Liberation of Christmas: The Infancy Narratives in Social Context. He writes:

“Indirectly at least, the giving, hence the buying, of gifts is rooted in the paradigms of God’s gift of the Christ-child and the costly gifts of the Magi. The Christmas story has clearly come to have a material significance: it helps to legitimate the festival of retailing and consumption of goods. The Christmas story has thus also become subservient to the contemporary economic ends as well as subjected to modern cultural presuppositions.” (p. ix)

Today the subversive political and economic themes of the Christmas story are lost even to Christians who are most familiar with them. Systemic racism continues to thrive, xenophobia toward immigrants and Muslim Americans flourishes, LGBTQ exclusion is still practiced by a large number of Christian congregations, and, much like the Rome of these birth narratives, the U.S. still seeks, to achieve peace through military violence—all while we adorn our American lawns with nativities of the babe from Bethlehem.

If we are to rediscover the original subversive power of the birth narratives of Jesus and rightly apply those stories to our lives today, we must read them in the context of the lives and hopes of people in 1st Century Galilee and Judea who daily faced dehumanizing and economically crushing oppression.

Matthew’s ‘King of the Jews’ uses a title reserved for Herod the Great. And Luke’s “Son of God”, Savior of the world, the One who brings peace on earth also uses titles and accomplishments normally applied to Caesar alone. We’ll explore what difference the reassigning of these titles to Jesus made for the oppressed communities of early Jesus followers throughout this series.

For now, the Gospel of Rome promised peace through terror and violence. The Gospels envisioned peace on the other hand through an establishment of distributive justice for all.

The historian Josephus wrote about the ceremonial celebration at which the Roman Senate made Herod the client king of the Jewish region. He said:

“The meeting was dissolved and Antony and Caesar (Augustus) left the senate-house with Herod between them, preceded by the consuls and the other officials, as they went to offer sacrifice and to lay up the decree in the Capitol. On this, the first day of his reign, Herod was given a banquet by Antony.” (War 1.285)

Herod would later economically crush the Jewish common people, piling on the already oppressive Roman tax burden of the inhabitants of the area under his control and threatening violent redress by a large and heavily armed militia. Not only was the Jerusalem Temple-state responsible for collecting the temple tax and the tribute due to Rome, but Herod would also extract heavy tributes for an extensive building project aimed at paying homage to Caesar and thus securing his position within the Roman empire. Herod was intensely efficient at crushing uprisings and rebellions against his oppressive policies, and his slaughter of the people in villages and towns was extensive at certain times. This was a time when life in this region under Herod looked most hopeless. It was a time characterized by exploitation and tyranny for the Jewish peasantry: Herod was economically bleeding his people and country dry.

Josephus again writes that, at one point, Herod’s economic tributes became so heavy that, Herod had to remit “to the people of his kingdom a third part of their taxes, under the pretext of letting them recover from a period of lack crops” (Antiquities 15.365). Because Herod himself was involved in projects whose expenses were greater than his means, “he was compelled to be harsh toward his subjects, for the great number of things on which he spent money as gifts to some, caused him to be the source of harm to those from whom he took his revenues.” (Antiquities 16.154)

The situation for many under Herod’s reign that the peasantry cried out day and night for relief from Herod’s tyranny. Herod had reduced the entire people to helpless and hopeless poverty. Herod had become a conduit for the transfer of the economic lifeblood of Jewish people to other peoples and thus deeply harmed the towns in his own realm as people, once of means, daily passed into poverty.

This is the concrete political, economic, and real-life situation Matthew’s birth narrative centers as it tells the story of a threat to Herod’s reign. This Christmas story, far from being about how Jesus would make a way to the afterlife and leave the oppressive systems and structures of this world passively untouched, speaks to its audience of liberation from soul-crushing realities affecting its listeners in the here and now.

We’ll take a deeper look at Matthew’s version of the story of the birth of Jesus next time.

What economically life-crushing realities are impacting you this week?

How has the COVID pandemic impacted your life? How has the government downplaying it, some leaders’ apparent choice to choose the do-nothing, mass-murder-policy of natural herd immunity, the U.S. Senate’s choice to recess early before the Thanksgiving holiday instead of passing on much-needed relief—how have these and more failed approaches to the pandemic impacted you?

This year, as many of us are facing our own harsh realities, there may have never been a more appropriate time to consider the concrete liberation in the birth narratives of the Advent season: they were written for people who were facing harsh and crushing realities themselves and found hope in the person and teachings of Jesus.

Advent has now begun.

What do its stories have to share with us today?

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. In what ways do you see the Advent narratives being much more concerned with our concrete lives, here and now, rather than being otherworld or afterlife focused?

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

 

Immanuel: God in Solidarity with an Oppressed People by Herb Montgomery

carouselesight

“All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’” (Matthew 1.22–23).

This week I’d like to continue our liberation theme during this Advent season with one of the most controverted elements of the Jesus story. But before you put on your post-modern, naturalist worldview glasses, I’m asking you to put on your liberation from the pyramid of oppression and privilege spectacles instead. In other words, I’m asking you not to look first at what has come to be called “the virgin birth” scientifically, but to look at the “virgin birth” sociologically, first within the context in which the original audience of Matthew would have read it. What is the story truth here?

Matthew, writing largely for a Galilean audience, with a Galilean apologetic flavor, is here referring to a passage in accord with the Jewish culture of that time. Matthew reaches back into the Advocacy/Liberation God of the book of Isaiah, and here draws our attention to the words of Isaiah when Assyria was about to lay waste to Israel.

Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7.13).

The name “Immanuel,” within this context, communicated that even though Israel was headed into a time of being deeply oppressed, they were not to lose hope. A God who would liberate them (much like the God of the Exodus narrative) was “with them.” Immanuel is a name given to a people within the context of the oppression/oppressor dynamic. Oppressors who conquer others always tout that the gods are on their side offering their victory over the oppressed as evidence. I offer the lie of Manifest Destiny as just one example. History (as well as the Civic religion) is written by the conquerors, not the conquered. It is within this context that Isaiah offers a people who are about to be oppressed, not to believe the Assyrian narrative that would justify their oppression, but to hold on tightly to the belief that God was actually “with us”—the oppressed—and deliverance would come. A modern day example would be those involved in the Black Lives Matter movement taking place in America as I write this. In times of longing for deep social change, it becomes imperative for those being oppressed to hold close in their heart the belief that God is standing in solidarity with them in their cause, not their oppressors.

This is what Immanuel means for an oppressed people within its original context. Even though we are victims of oppression, injustice, and violence, God is standing in solidarity with us, and the glory of liberation and what Dr. Martin Luther King called the “double victory” must not be lost sight of.

Read Isaiah’s words just a few chapters later through the lens of a Liberator God who is standing in solidarity with the oppressed, Immanuel. I’ll offer some brief commentary within brackets.

“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

[This is a king that will arise from the bloodline of the kings of a conquered and oppressed people.]

The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding,  the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.

[He will govern with justice and equity, in other words, as opposed to corruption, greed, and exploitative discrimination.]

 He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear;

[He won’t govern according to the spin doctors who work for the oppressors.]

but with justice he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;

[It would be well to remember this passage as Jesus quotes from it in the Sermon on the Mount when he assures us that in the new world he had come to found, the “meek will inherit the earth.”]

he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.”

[At this stage of Israel’s understanding, justice would come through killing Israel’s enemies. Jesus would turn this methodology on its head by teaching enemy love expressed through a restorative justice even for Israel’s oppressors. This is why many in Jesus’ day were looking for a messiah that would lead them in militaristic violence against the Romans. Jesus came with the problematic teaching of loving your enemies, saying God’s liberation from injustice, oppression, and violence was for the oppressors too. Jesus called the oppressed to see their oppressors as victims as well of a much larger systemic evil, in need also of being liberated from their participation. This is what makes Jesus’ teaching on nonviolent resistance so powerful. Jesus’ nonviolence has too often been coopted by oppressors, such as that which happened under King James VI in the King’s Authorized 1611 King James Version where Jesus’ words in Matthew 5.39 are grossly mistranslated as nonresistance. Too often Jesus’ words have been hijacked by the privileged to the keep the disadvantaged in their place. Jesus wasn’t teaching passive nonresistance. No, no! In Jesus’ sermon on the mount, Jesus gives three examples of nonviolent RESISTANCE as a powerful means of awakening the conscience of one’s oppressors calling upon them to abandon their participation in systemic injustice and to choose to stand in solidarity with those they once oppressed. It’s what King referred to in his sermon delivered at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, at Christmas, 1957. Martin Luther King wrote it while in jail for committing nonviolent civil disobedience during the Montgomery bus boycott:

“To our most bitter opponents we say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.’”

Notice Isaiah’s description, which envisions this world with no more oppressor/oppressed.]

Justice shall be the belt around his [this one who would come through Jesse’s bloodline] waist, and faithfulness [to the covenant promises] the belt around his loins.

The wolf shall live with the lamb,

the leopard shall lie down with the kid,

the calf and the lion and the fatling together,

and a little child shall lead them.

The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together;

and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,

and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11.1–9)

No more injustice, no more violence, no more oppression.

John the revelator takes this passage from Isaiah and turns it on its head as well.

From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will shepherd them with a staff of iron (Revelation 19.15.; notice that the sword is a verbal one, and that the striking of the nations with those words results in the nations becoming the sheep of this shepherd).

We miss so much when we only read the Jesus narrative through the conventional, domesticated lens of a Christianity that has been (with the exception of its first three hundred years) coopted and used by the oppressors (the Constantinian shift) and stolen from the oppressed. The Jesus Narrative was originally good news to the oppressed and seen as a threat to those at the top of sociological, privileged pyramids, a threat that from the very beginning must be removed (Luke 19.47).

Let’s take one more example from the Jesus narrative so we can contrast the two. We’ll be looking at Luke’s version of the Jesus story in Luke 12.

“Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly’” (Luke 12.13–16).

There are two ways of reading this story. One is through the lens of the oppressors. Let’s look at this first.

Many in positions of privilege interpret this story in a way that presents a Jesus that refused to intervene in “temporal matters.” “Jesus was about saving mankind’s soul,” they say. They misinterpret Jesus’ kingdom to be “not of this world.” And by this they mean to dualistically divide matters of systemic deliverance from the sins of injustice, oppression, and violence in the here and now from the work of “the gospel.” Their focus is purely on personal, private salvation, which typically is concerned solely with post-mortem destinations. Nothing is to be changed in this life. Injustice and oppression are interpreted as part of God’s purpose for this world. People aren’t to be treated with equality. Inequity is God’s way of developing character. Equity is not part of God’s purpose for this world. God’s focus is on saving your soul for heaven.

That’s one way this passage is interpreted. Strange how it just so happens to leave the world of the oppressors unchanged. Jesus’ revelation that the last shall be first and the first shall be last, in the here and now, is grossly missed.

The other interpretation of this story finds its source in looking through the lens of those who are oppressed. Jesus was not excusing himself from temporal matters. Far from it. His entire Sermon on the Mount is about the message that Jesus’ kingdom, although from/of heaven, has arrived here on earth and is about to restructure, redistribute, and restore. Jesus didn’t go around getting people to say a special prayer so they can go to heaven when they died. He sought to bring healing into people’s lives today. The story we have before us is of two wealthy brothers with a large inheritance that is being fought over. Jesus says, “I’ve not come to be the advocate of the wealthy against others who are wealthy.” He asks, “Who made me a judge between YOU?” i.e. an advocate for the rich. It’s as if Jesus is using the contemporary phrase today, “First World Problem.” Jesus had come as a liberator of the oppressed; he marked the return of the Advocate God to Israel. He, according to Isaiah, was to be an arbitrator. But Jesus was not to be an arbitrator for the rich between others who were rich. Jesus had come to be an arbitrator for the poor against the greed of the wealthy. Jesus came to be, not an arbitrator between those at the top of society’s privilege pyramids, but an arbitrator for those at the bottom of those pyramids between those at the top, standing in solidarity with those at the bottom. This is why Jesus tells the brother a story about a wealthy man (like himself) who was seeking to only acquire more and more, adding to his already existing wealth, rather than taking care of those who were hungry, poor, blind, and naked. Jesus is not rejecting being an arbitrator in temporal affairs. Jesus came to turn our temporal affairs on their heads (see Acts 17.6). Jesus is rejecting being an advocate between the greedy privileged against other who are privileged, saying I’ve not come to be YOUR arbitrator. I’ve come to be the arbitrator for the oppressed. I’ve come as Immanuel to those who are being marginalized, disadvantaged, the needy, the impoverished, the downtrodden, the abused, maltreated, ill-treated, subjugated, tyrannized, repressed, and crushed. I’ve come to reveal a God who is standing in solidarity with these. I have come to give these the hope of Immanuel. I’ve come to give them the ability to say with all hope and confidence, “God” is “with us.”

What is the Advent narrative saying to us?

Whether this week you are marching, holding a sign that says, “Black Lives Matter,” whether you are being disfellowshipped this week from your spiritual community because of an orientation you did not choose and cannot change, whether you are continuously never taken seriously because you do not have the correct anatomical appendage, or you are facing an over-commercialized holiday season wondering how you are going to feed your children this Christmas much less give them the Christmas your heart longs to give them, too, you can gather around the manger and dare to believe that the babe who lies there really belongs to you. The baby lying there is Immanuel, the Liberator, the Advocate God, who has come to set the oppressed free, here, now. He is Immanuel, God with you.

HeartGroup Application

In James Cone’s book, God of the Oppressed, James tells of how Jesus was “the subject of Black Theology because he is the content of the hopes and dreams of black people. He was chosen by our grandparents, who saw in his liberating presence that he had chosen them and thus became the foundation of their struggle for freedom. He was their Truth, enabling them to know that white definitions of black humanity were lies.” James goes on to tell of traditions and practices among the slaves that, rooted in the Jesus story, kept them from losing themselves to the white dehumanization and degradation they were continually immersed in.

1. This week I want you to pick up the story of Jesus’ birth found in both Matthew and Luke. I want you to sit with Jesus asking him to change your lens. In matters of gender, race, orientation, and economic injustice, I want you to, in whatever areas of your life that you may experience some level of privilege, try reading this story while placing yourself in the shoes of someone less privileged than yourself. Do your best to read the story from their vantage place.

2. Journal what Jesus shows you.

3. Share what you discover with your upcoming HeartGroup.

This Advent, may you come to know that in whatever way you are “seeking first” the justice of Jesus’ new world, where things are “on earth” as they are “in heaven,” may the liberating, advocating, solidarity standing “Immanuel” give you strength, courage, and hope.

Till the only world that remains, is a world where Christ’s love reigns, may all those things out of harmony with love give way to a shoot of Jesse’s healing, transformative “equity” and “justice.”

The wolf will lay down with the lamb.

Immanuel, God with us.

I love each of you, see you next week.