Getting Ready for the Unexpected

Elizabeth (mother of John) and Mary (mother of Jesus) are kinswomen, a linkage that makes their sons cousins. The readings this month feature both cousins. It is important to see them commonly in their work of witnessing to God; it is equally crucial to see each of them at distinctive work.

In the first two Sundays we get cousin John (Luke 3:1-6, 7-18). John has a sense of demanding urgency, because the new rule of God is very close at hand. That new rule is not to be received casually; there must be intentional readiness for it. The texts may tremble us out of our narcotized consumerism into a practice of hope and obedience. Conversely, we get cousin Jesus in the last two Sundays, plus, of course, Christmas. Mary’s song is about the revolution Jesus will lead. The Christmas reading is about the “touch down” of the revolution in the region of the shepherds. And the final Sunday voices the large vocation of Jesus that he will act out in the gospel narrative.

We are summoned by both cousins. John issues a call to disciplined readiness; Jesus is an agent of deep newness. Readiness and newness are counterintuitive in a weary society like ours. We are invited to embrace that which is deeply inexplicable among us. When we do, we may be amazed like those who heard the shepherds’ testimony (Luke 2:18) and exuberant like the singing church (Colossians 3:12-16).

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

[ December 6 ]
Back to Basics
Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:68-79; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

John the Baptizer, in these readings, is sandwiched between a Hebrew Testament expectation of a refiner who purifies (Malachi) and a community of Christians whom Paul expects to be “pure and blameless” in the day of Christ (Philippians). The run-up to John (Malachi) and the spin-off from John (Philippians) together identify John as a “purifier” who purges the community of the faithful of all that has distorted them and cheapened their capacity to live faithfully and to witness well in the world.

The interpreter working with the sequence of expected refiner/John of Advent/purified community will reflect on the way in which the church in our culture has been compromised, and the way in which it may be brought to a readiness for the Christ-child. One may conclude that loss of critical edge, a softening of gospel identity, an excessive accommodation to consumerism, a tacit embrace of U.S. military imperialism, a cynical acceptance of social violence, a casual indifference to the suffering of the poor altogether have led to a dulled faith that cannot well receive the Christmas gift of newness. John, the carrier of costly readiness, is a wake-up call to Christians to get back to basics in faith, to recover initial resolve, and to be in a mode of hungry receptiveness. John’s accent is on active, concrete intentionality: “share … collect no more ... do not extort” (Luke 3:10-14). Readiness for Christmas entails new neighborly resolve.

[ December 13 ]
Refusing Violent Greed
Zephaniah 3:14-20; Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

Advent is rooted in Israel’s deep hope, here voiced by Zephaniah. In time to come, God will be allied with the lame, and the outcasts will be gathered home to well-being. The prophet anticipates a time to come that will be completely contrasted to the present, wherein the disabled are rejected and the outcasts are forever displaced persons, and oppression is the normal order of the day—so routine we do not notice.

The folk who heard John the Baptizer had a tough decision to make. They could easily collude with the dominant system of exploitation that features Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanius, Annas, and Caiaphus (Luke 3:1-2). The narrative names the entire power structure of the military-industrial-financial-ecclesial system of exploitation that was impressive and all-powerful. The news from John, then and now, is that we do not need to collude, need not count on pedigree or entitlements. What counts is deliberate, concrete, countercultural action. John offers three examples of such actions that are against collusion; they concern coats, taxation, and extortion. Such actions refuse the world of violent greed defined by subprime loans, foreclosures, and “market reform.”

Paul, echoing the “do not fear” of Zephaniah, knows that those driven by anxiety will collude. Those without fear and worry are free for the alternative (Philippians 4:6). Imagine—in Christmas “the Lord is near.” The Christ-child is the God-given antidote to colluding anxiety.

[ December 20 ]
Good News among the Lowly
Micah 5:2-5; Luke 1:46-55; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45

The prophet Micah sings and hopes for little Bethlehem. That tiny village, located in the small clan territory of Ephrathah, was a vulnerable territory, exposed to many army forays. But that vulnerable village and clan territory, says Micah, will “live secure” in time to come, because a new ruler/shepherd will feed, guard, protect, and sustain them. The Bible is relentless in its conviction that God will side, eventually, with the little ones.

Out of that faith, Mary sings! Empire must have told Micah (and then Mary) that such hope is absurd in the world of real power. But Mary, trusting the angel, believes that nothing will be impossible for God (Luke 1:37). And so she sings! She sings about “the hungry,” the ones cut out of the food chain and denied access to the world’s great granaries. Mary knew what Micah knew, what Israel always knew, and what the church knows in Advent. The weak and vulnerable will be “lifted up.” The poetry and the song invite us to move out beyond the world given us by “the hard men,” and into a new, different world. We may, in anticipation, already act in and for that new age. Already now in such anticipation folk in Bethlehem can lean back in confidence. Folk around Mary can hope and sing. And the rest of us, while we wait, may be alongside the hungry and lowly who will be honored by the new reality of the Christ-child.

[ December 25 ]
A New Song for a New Rule
Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1:1-12; John 1:1-14

Christmas is a day for singing. This day of singing and receiving pushes us beyond all of our old convictions, possessions, fears, habits, and ideologies. The singing invites us into recognition of a new world given us in remembering and imagining.

The song is as old as Psalm 98 in Solomon’s temple, as daring as the angels who quote the psalms to sing of the new ruler (Hebrews 1), as urgent as the one in Isaiah 52, sung to the exiles in Babylon who were hopeless in their displacement. All of these songs—in temple, by angels, to exiles—have a recurring theme. A new governance is alive and well. All that is required now is active, intentional acknowledgement of that new reality.

The song that tops all songs is in John 1, that majestic lyric that traces the “reason of God” (logos) from creation down to “grace and truth” in Jesus: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” The song invites us to witness in him the secret of the world. All these songs are subversive because they attest that the world is made for fidelity and not betrayal, for truth and not denial, for praise and not self-importance. When we sing at Christmas, we join the angels who spread their “oil of gladness” over all the earth.

[ December 27 ]
A Large, Subversive Vocation
1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26; Psalm 148; Colossians 3:12-17; Luke 2:41-52

Like the gospel of Luke, the lectionary moves quickly from the birth and circumcision of Jesus to his rite of passage, as he goes to the temple at 12 years of age. There he exhibits his precociousness; when reprimanded by his mother, he answers enigmatically, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” In this utterance Jesus offers a clue to his self-understanding as Son of the Father, and to his vocational horizon that stretches well beyond that of his parents. Though he returned home to be obedient to them, he clearly has a larger obedience in purview.

In the exhortation to the church in the epistle reading, we are given a glimpse of the vocation of the church that replicates the large vocation of Jesus. The church is to act out, embody, and exhibit practices of human care, healing, and reconciliation, all of which are countercultural, now as in the time of Jesus. The church community that can practice genuine forgiveness will be a peaceable church after the manner of Jesus. That peaceableness is based in “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,” for which Psalm 148 is a credible model. At bottom the church is empowered to this daring vocation by a grounding in gratitude for the goodness of God. The world no more understands the church’s subversive vocation than his parents understood his.

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