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:

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PO Box 1211

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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!