The Common Good
December 2010

Have You Heard the Good News?

by Walter Brueggemann | December 2010

Advent and Christmas are seasons for mismatches.

Advent and Christmas are seasons for mismatches. There are mismatches between assumed entitlement and the summons to bear fruit appropriate to the purposes of God, between our dysfunctional world and Jesus' readiness to rehabilitate. There are mismatches between our sense that the world is abandoned and the declaration that "God is with us," and between the establishment claims of Jerusalem (and many other citadels of power) and the lean claim of the vulnerable village of Bethlehem that shatters all such establishment claims.

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These readings make clear that the truth being enacted and celebrated in these seasons fits none of our expectations and refuses our conventional domestications. We are invited to linger over these mismatches. We are invited to notice that the conventional ways of the world are incongruous with the good news, the new revolutionary gifts of God.

Walter Brueggemann, a Sojourners contributing editor, is professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia.

[ December 5 ]
Are We the "Special Ones"?
Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

The baptism of Jesus by John the Baptizer culminates with the endorsement of heaven: "This is my son, the Beloved." The sentence, from Psalm 2:7, offers approval of a king of the Davidic line. The quote in Matthew affirms God's blessing for the coming rule of Jesus.

The Hebrew Bible texts focus on the nature of proper kingship and anticipate the way in which Jesus will be king. Psalm 72 gives a mandate to the Davidic king to practice economic justice toward the poor and needy, a practice that will ensure the longevity of the dynasty. The poetic reading of Isaiah 11 expresses a longing for the true king who will come -- eventually -- and will be characterized by wisdom and devotion to God's purposes (verses 2-3), with a resolve to practice equity and faithfulness to the poor. Isaiah's poem anticipates that good governance will extend to the well-being of all creation (verses 6-9).The practice of justice has immediate impact on the environment and its health and wholeness.

The reading from Romans connects the rule of Jesus to the old promises made to father Abraham in the book of Genesis (Genesis 12:3). The series of quotes from the Hebrew Bible in Romans 15 all focus on the Gentiles, that is, on welcome to "the other" amid the people of God. Paul’s theology is an alternative to narrow exclusivism that fears and rejects "the other."

Jesus is about the mobilization of public power for the common good, as these readings attest. John warns his listeners that their sense of entitlement as God’s special people counts for nothing, as a new beginning has come into the world. What counts is the "good fruit" of a viable society (Matthew 3:10). Any other claim is phony and can only end badly.

[ December 12 ]
The Jesus Revolution
Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:5-10; Luke 1:47-55; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

The news is that big change is coming. Mary sings (in Luke) her revolutionary song about the reversal of social arrangements and Isaiah offers a poem about homecoming for the alienated. Advent is about pondering the big changes that are set in motion by Christmas. There is a match between the psalm and the gospel reading from Matthew. The transformative action in the psalm concerns the prisoners, the blind, the bowed down, strangers, orphans, and widows; all those rendered marginal in conventional society. The final doxology affirms that God's eternal rule is precisely exhibited in these kinds of social transformations (verse 10).

The narrative about Jesus in Matthew 11 echoes that of the psalm. John the Baptizer wonders whether Jesus is the long-expected Messiah. Jesus urges John to consider the "facts on the ground," which are the consequences of Jesus’ effective ministry. The list of beneficiaries of that ministry is not unlike that in Psalm 146. The list includes the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the dead, and the poor (Matthew 11:5), that is, all the devalued and marginalized. The lists are in principle synonymous. In the psalm, "the Lord" does the work. In the narrative, Jesus does the work. Ergo ... yes, Jesus is the Messiah. Yes, Jesus is the one expected and welcomed. It is no wonder that Mary sang her revolutionary song: The birth and ministry of Jesus constitute a social revolution that keeps reverberating through every time and place.

Advent is about readiness to acknowledge, receive, and participate in the revolution that clusters around Jesus. The word from the epistle of James is to have patience. That is not passivity, but it is resolve to stay with it, to watch for the possibility, and not to settle for fatigue, resignation, or cynicism. The "patience" in James means to continue in "joy and gladness," with no "sorrow or sighing" (Isaiah 35:10).

[ December 19 ]
Receiving the Christ Child
Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19;
Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

In ancient Israel, God characteristically answers petitionary prayers with powerful intervention. In Psalm 80, three times Israel prays that Yahweh should be present in its time of need, that Yahweh will restore and save (verses 3, 7, 19). Israel relies completely on the life-giving, life-restoring capacity of Yahweh.

These readings affirm that the urgent petition of Israel is answered by the birth of the baby whose name is "save" (Matthew 1:21). In Hebrew, the proper name "Jesus" is derived from the verb "to save." The birth of Jesus enacts God's power to "save" in the world, the embodiment of God’s transformative energy and resolve.

The accent in the gospel narrative is on the poetic verse 23 (a quote from Isaiah 7:14), that his name will be "Emmanuel." The oracle of Isaiah affirmed that Jerusalem would not be abandoned to its enemies because Yahweh was with the city to defend it. In Matthew's use of that declaration, Jesus is "God with us." Long before any doctrinal formulations in the church, the earliest witnesses recognized in Jesus God’s own power to save, from sin, from evil, from death, from disease, from hunger, from despair, from all that works against the full shalom that God wills for the world.

The early church was overwhelmed by what it sensed of God’s power for life in the person of Jesus. It struggled and stammered to find ways to say it. Paul identifies Jesus as "descended from David" (Romans 1:3); Matthew makes the birth more dramatically awesome and special. All of that, however, is secondary. What counts for these witnesses is the power of God whereby we receive "grace" and "apostleship" (Romans 1:5): grace to live freely in joy and apostleship to be sent on a mission beyond ourselves. Israel's prayer for restoration -- eventually the prayer of the world -- has been abundantly answered. Those who receive the Christ child are sent to tell the news of God’s transformative presence in the world.

[ December 26 ]
Let Heaven and Nature Sing
Isaiah 63:7-9; Psalm 148; Hebrews 2:10-18; Matthew 2:13-23

The gospel narrative transports the baby Jesus from Bethlehem in Judea, where he was born, to Nazareth in Galilee, where he will grow up. The route is through Egypt in order that Matthew can tell the story of Jesus as a retelling of the story of Israel. It is, again, a story of emancipation from Pharaoh's Egypt; now King Herod is cast as the pharaoh who will slaughter the innocents.

Jesus is presented as the carrier of Israel's faith that must make its way in an imperial world of hostility. The gospels show that the empire will execute Jesus in its fear, but that in the end Jesus will be God’s triumph over a failed world of evil. The reading from Hebrews looks, even during Christmastime, toward the end of Jesus' life when, in his death, he will emancipate all from the slavery of the fear of death. Taken together, these two readings show faith joining issue with the culture of death that has Herod as its point person. That culture of death, of course, is powerful among us today. Christmas is an invitation to take a stand for this new power for life in the face of a death-culture that is so compelling among us.

The verses from Isaiah celebrate God's "gracious deeds" that focus on "mercy" (verse 7). It is no wonder, moreover, that Psalm 148 can imagine that “heaven and nature sing” because "he rules the world," to the chagrin of the ruling clique in Jerusalem. The birth of Jesus dissolves the world into exuberant doxology sung by sea monsters and fruit trees and cedars and Gentiles, by all of creation and by God's own people Israel. By appropriating the psalm for the new baby, the readings make outrageous claims for the baby that are commensurate with the transformative power that God will enact through him. It is a glad song about a new beginning that we are invited to join.

The birth of Jesus is a new birth of mercy in the world. The fearful world of pharaoh/Herod dreads mercy. But, says the story, mercy will have its way. Neither Herod of the empire nor the raw power of death will stop the future given in God's good mercy. No wonder the "creeping things" dance and sing.

"Preaching the Word," Sojourners' online resource for sermon preparation and Bible study, is available at www.sojo.net/ptw.

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