The Common Good
January 2008

Voices of Truth

by Laurel A. Dykstra | January 2008

In the Northern Hemisphere, the short days and long nights of winter come with lectionary readings full of references to dark and light.

In the Northern Hemisphere, the short days and long nights of winter come with lectionary readings full of references to dark and light. Each Isaiah reading speaks of darkness and light: “Arise, shine; for your light has come” (Isaiah 60:1); “I will give you as a light to the nations” (Isaiah 49:6); “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:2). Psalm 27 begins, “The Lord is my light and my salvation,” and Matthew 4:15-16 quotes Isaiah 9:1-2. In each passage, darkness indicates danger, fear, and occupation; light is associated with God, Israel, joy, and salvation.

Christians living in a racist world need to acknowledge this scriptural pattern and be aware of the harm it has caused, the ways it has been exaggerated and distorted in Christian theology and hymnody to say that white is good and black is bad. We need to reclaim and proclaim the many positive biblical references to Africa and Africans and the positive references to darkness. In the same passage where Israel is a light to the nations (Isaiah 49:6), we find the beautiful dark images of a mother’s womb (Isaiah 49:1) and the shadow of God’s hand (Isaiah 49:2).

If, as the title of this magazine section implies, we are not simply to read but to live the ambiguous and contradictory word that is our sacred story, we must be challenged and struggle, and we must act and speak against racism when we encounter it.

Laurel A. Dykstra is a scripture and justice educator living in Vancouver, British Columbia. She is author of Set Them Free: The Other Side of Exodus.

January 6

A Disturbing Gift

Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

There weren’t three of them, they weren’t kings, they didn’t have camels, and we don’t know they were men. When we hear the stories of Jesus’ early life, it is almost impossible to look at a text apart from what we think we know about it. For most of us, the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke are entwined with one another and their Hebrew scripture roots. In Matthew, the Magi come to a house in Bethlehem; there is no manger, no shepherds, and no heavenly host. Three gifts are named: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In Isaiah 60, gold, frankincense, and camels are listed among the tribute of nations and kings. In Psalm 72, kings bring gifts to Israel’s king and fall down before him.

While we retain the details of wealth and power described in these passages—kings, camels, gold, ho­nor—we often lose the theme of justice that pervades Isaiah and is explicit in the psalm: “May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service. For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper” (Psalm 72:11-12).

When we peel away the surplus meaning and focus on justice and power, the real gift of the mysterious and exotic visitors of greeting cards and Christmas pageants is a warning. Alerted by a star to his birth, the Magi seek the prince of peace in Jerusalem, the center of power. They are summoned and go to Herod the king, alerting him to the birth of a potential rival. While the Magi return, oblivious and unscathed, to their own country by another route, the family they honored flees as refugees, and their neighbors’ children are slaughtered. When the privileged seek salvation in the places of power, the consequences for the vulnerable and oppressed are brutal, but often unseen.

January 13

Voice

Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17

“Voice” is a theme that links this week’s readings. The servant of Isaiah 42:2 “does not cry or lift up his voice or make it heard in the street” but is steadfast in the cause of justice. Several verses later God cries out like a warrior and like a woman in labor. Psalm 29 describes God as a storm god with a voice of thunder: The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars, flashes forth flames of fire, shakes the wilderness, causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare. In Acts, Peter emphasizes the role of preachers, witnesses, and prophets who give voice by testifying and preaching. The Matthew passage recounts John’s baptism of Jesus and a voice speaks from heaven.

The voice of God, the voice of the justice-seeking servant, the voices of prophets, preachers, and witnesses all cause me to think of the transformative power of human voice. These passages invite us to listen to the voices around us and attend to privilege and power. Notice who speaks and how often, and whose speech is acted upon. Which voices are amplified? Do we talk in ways that connect deeply to the heart of our experience or that merely reinforce our assumptions?

Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Audre Lorde, who called herself a black lesbian warrior
poet, called us to transform
our silence into language and action, asking, “What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?” Historical, systemic, family, and individual silences surround us. What are we afraid to speak of—rape, child abuse, lynching, mental illness, suicide, prostitution, prison, torture? What voices today, with the power of their truth, shake the wilderness and flash forth flames of fire? Do we listen? Do we hear? Do we turn our silence into action?

January 20

The Servant’s Song

Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42

This week’s readings echo last week’s. The Isaiah passage is another of the four “servant songs” that appear in Deutero-Isaiah, the second and newer part of the book. The theme of voice continues with the servant whose mouth is like a sharp sword (Isaiah 49:2) and the psalmist, who has a new song of praise and unrestrained lips (Psalm 40:3, 9). John’s gospel includes almost all the elements found in Matthew: John, Jesus, baptism, the son of God, and the spirit like a dove. The differences tell at least as much as the similarities, and the gift of reading these texts in juxtaposition is that they make clear our scriptural tradition of vigorous and divergent conversation.

The servant songs, which comprise fewer than three of Isaiah’s 60 chapters, have—through Christian scripture and theology—become a cornerstone of the theology of atonement. The servant, identified in Isaiah as Israel, is read as Jesus. When today’s Isaiah passage is paired with the words from the gospel of John, “Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), the implication that God desires sacrifice and requires suffering is reinforced. Readings that focus on suffering, sin, and substitution neglect other aspects of the servant songs: the justice theme of the first song is lost entirely. Longtime activist Elizabeth McAlister of Jonah House points out that the strong message of nonviolence is underplayed or distorted.

Yet, the lectionary selections both reinforce the focus on sacrifice and challenge it. The psalmist writes, “Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required” (Psalm 40:6).

When we are tempted to beat our scriptures into swords and use the words “the Bible says” as a weapon, we can look to these passages and be assured that we are inheritors not of certainty but a continuing struggle to know God, to follow Jesus, and to understand what those things might mean.

January 27

Portraits of Jesus

Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1, 4-9; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23

Each year the lectionary follows one of the synoptic gospels, Mark, Matthew, or Luke. This month the progression through Matthew is interrupted by a passage from John (John 1:29-42), which provides an opportunity to look at the gospels side by side and see how each writer has constructed a distinct portrait of Jesus.

In today’s gospel reading, Isaiah 9:1-2 is quoted to explain Jesus’ presence in Galilee. The writer of Matthew asserts that Jesus is the Messiah, but what does this mean if he is not a warrior king? Why is he among peasant villages and fishing communities, far from the center of social and religious power?

Matthew also grapples with the relationship between Jesus and John the baptizer. Mark, the earliest gospel, describes John baptizing Jesus without apology or qualification. In Matthew, John baptizes Jesus with much protest and explanation: “John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’” (Matthew 3:14). In John, the latest gospel, Jesus is powerful, poetic, and other-worldly. The text contains all the elements of the Matthew baptism, but Jesus is not baptized at all. Instead John testifies about Jesus and directs his own disciples to him (John 1:36). In today’s reading Matthew also connects the call of the first disciples with John, marking the beginning of Jesus’ active work with the imprisonment of John. Each gospel writer carefully acknowledges and subordinates John in order to represent Jesus in a particular way.

As we see the gospel writers shape their portraits of Jesus to fit the stories they are telling, we need to ask ourselves and each other how we do the same. Struggling with questions as old as our tradition, we must ask, Who do we want Jesus to be and why? How do we try to make him fit our story? And who, in real-world practical and economic terms, do our portraits serve?

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