December 16

Sisters and Brothers, Grace and Peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. 

Or, if you prefer John’s way of greeting the congregation as he begins his sermon, “You brood of vipers!” 

It certainly grabs the audience’s attention!

These poor people have just come 20 miles, walked all day, dropped from 3000 feet above sea level to 1000 feet below sea level, and they will have to walk back. And this is how they are greeted. “You brood of vipers! Who told you to flee from the wrath to come?!” 

And before they can formulate their answer, before the can form their justification, which was about to be “But what wrath? We’re children of Abraham!” He cuts them off. Before the words have even formed on their lips. “Do not even begin to say, don’t come at me with, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor.’” 

To be very clear, this is not just an off-hand comment. This is a game-changer. Regardless of who you are in ancient Israel, Abraham is the basis of your identity. Whether you are a Pharisee, committed to perfect adherence to the law of Moses, or whether you are just an everyday schmo, tending the fields and only going to the Temple when it’s required, Abraham is everything. The covenant with Abraham is everything. Through Abraham, God was determined to make a great nation, and if you are a Jew, you are that nation. If you are a Jew, you are an heir to God’s promise of blessing. 

And here is John, calling that into question. Wrath is coming, he says. Judgement is coming, he claims. The ax is lying at the root of the tree, and being a child of Abraham is not going to be enough.

Which is going to be shocking news to the crowds gathered there to hear John. No wonder he wound up in prison and then beheaded. His message is not a popular one. But the people of Israel are not the only ones to believe that their ancestry was enough to save them, enough to make them special, enough to set them apart as God’s only beloved people.

180 years ago today, another people who believed they had been set apart as God’s beloved people won a major victory.

In the 1830s, 5000 Afrikaners, descendants of Dutch settlers in the South African Cape, left the Cape Colony, taking with them the people they called their “clients.” These were, in fact, slaves, the descendants of the local KhoiKhoi and San tribes that had lived in the Cape for thousands of years. The British had recently taken control of the Cape Colony, about the same time they had abolished slavery throughout the British empire. These Afrikaners were determined to keep their slaves, and so they set out in wagons that looked very much like the ones that left here for Oregon during the American Westward Expansion. These Voortrekkers, as they are now known, were intent on establishing their own colonies in the African interior, and they eventually spread throughout Southern Africa into Namibia and Rhodesia. But it started with about 5000 people, men, women, and children, straggling out into the vast empty wilderness. 

Except that it wasn’t empty wilderness. It was settled land. It was home to bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers, KhoiKhoi and San, but more than that, it was the settled land of tribes of Bantu-speaking peoples, including the Zulu kingdom, a nation that had been founded by Shaka Zulu and was now run by his heir, Dingaan. And Dingaan and his people were not interested in sharing their land with these outsiders.

Over the next several years, amid skirmishes, attempted peace treaties, and perceived betrayals on both sides, many of the white families were killed and their cattle and sheep taken.History has not seen fit to report how many Africans died in these years.

Finally, in December of 1838, an Afrikaner commando militia of 500 men, along with 2 cannons and at least 500 guns, trekked toward the heart of the Zulu Kingdom, on the southeast coast of South Africa, near present-day Durban. About 300 miles from the coast, they created a laager, lashing their wagons together in a circle to form a strong defensive position on the banks of the Ncome River. 

The next day, December 16, 1838169539-050-dfe23e42, a huge Zulu force of over 10,000 attacked. They were armed only with spears. They were met by cannon and rifle fire. When they finally retreated, they left over 3000 dead behind. The Afrikaners lost not a single man of their 500. The Battle of Blood River, so-named for the waters that ran red that day, was the beginning of the end for the Zulu Kingdom, which soon split and disintegrated under further pressure from Afrikaner settlers.

The Afrikaners took their victory as evidence, not of the superiority of rifles over spears or cannons over barefoot warriors; rather, they took it as evidence of God’s favor for their cause. They took it as confirmation that God approved of their actions, that God had destined this land for them, that God had chosen them to subdue and civilize the savages. This story became their foundational story, and the retelling of it was used to justify and reinforce Apartheid over 100 years later. 

December 16 was a national holiday for the ruling Afrikaners, and was called Dingaan’s Day, just to remind the defeated African people of their disgraced king. Later it became known as the Day of the Covenant. Because they believed that they had a new covenant, a mandate from God to slaughter the Zulu people and their neighbors, to steal their land, and to establish their own White African nation.

I would not want to equate the deeds of white South Africans before and during Apartheid with the crowds that stand in front of John the Baptist in the wilderness of the Jordan. The Jewish people have been, through most of their history, the victims of the kind of bigotry and hatred that led to Apartheid and the Holocaust and the Atlantic Slave Trade and a long list of other atrocities. But John’s message to them is the same message that was lost on so many down through the years: 

God is in the business of bringing blessing, yes. Of claiming God’s children, absolutely. Of making covenants, even. But God’s blessing of Abraham was not for Abraham. It was for all nations. Abraham was blessed so that all nations of the world would be blessed through him. 

Blessed to be a blessing.

This is what we so often miss in God’s blessings. And in missing this, we create for ourselves mythologies of being blessed-er than thou.We stake our righteousness, our identity, on our own sense of who we are, and we forget who we have been made by God to be. Afrikaners in South Africa, Aryan nationalists in Nazi Germany, white slavers in the American South, the Ottomans in Armenia, Hutus in Rwanda, the settlers of the American West, it has happened over and over again throughout history. We buy in to a belief that God has favored us, our people, over and above others, and we claim those blessings for ourselves. We read wealth and worldly success as signs of God’s favor, and we forget what God’s first covenant stipulated. “In you, all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” 

This is what John calls the crowds back to, there in the wilderness. Blessed to be a blessing. 

God’s promise does not depend on our actions. We are not blessed because we do anything. We are blessed, simply because God loves us. But being blessed, our question becomes, along with the crowds, “What then should we do?” 

The fact is, we who sit in this room are among the most blessed people in the world, if we use the measures of wealth, power, access, and privilege. But none of that is proof of anything other than an accident of our birth. 

What then should we do? 

John’s answer is clear. The terms of God’s covenant are clear. Having been so blessed, we are to use our blessings to bless others. Our wealth, our power, our privilege is to be used to alleviate the suffering of others. We are to share our comfort, and to use our access to advocate for those who do not have access. 

Last week, John proclaimed, in the words of Isaiah, that “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low.” God has promised to make smooth paths through our wilderness. Yet we humans insist on building mountains, and setting ourselves on top of them, building fortresses in which to horde our blessings, our privilege, our sense of self-importance, while outside our neighbors suffer and beg for the scraps from our tables. We focus on human community, defined in human terms, by the blessings we most value: Race, ethnicity, nationality, class, denomination, politics; we build walls of every stripe, determined to be right, to be proven worthy, to earn God’s blessing, for our community.

But this week, John reminds us what God’s community looks like. What God’s covenant looks like. Whether it is the covenant with Abraham or with Moses, or with David, or the New Covenant that was established through Christ. 

God’s covenant always points us toward one another. 

God’s covenant always leads us to ask, what then should we do? 

How should we be with one another?

Since 1990, Apartheid has been history in South Africa. But the mythologies, the stories and beliefs that made Apartheid possible, those endure. And in the early days of their new nation, the people had to decide what to do with December 16. Abolish it completely? Or transform it? Finally it was decided that it would be kept as a public holiday, “with the purpose of fostering reconciliation and national unity.” 

The first meeting of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission took place on December 16, 1995. Since then, December 16 has become the Day of Reconciliation, and it has been used to celebrate the many minorities of South Africa, as well as promote equality between all, regardless of ethnicity, race, religion, or gender.

What then should we do? The story of December 16 is a good start. Reconciliation. Turning toward one another. If you have more than you need, build a longer table, not a higher wall. John challenges the crowds to return to the path that God is building for us through the wilderness, the path of right relationship with God and with one another.

The problem is, we will always want to believe that this path is the prerequisite. We always re-tell the story as an if-then. What then should we do, we ask, so that God will love us? What then should we do, we wonder, in order to win God’s favor, in order to be considered a child of God, in order to be raised up as God’s child. 

But our story, the story that matters more than any story about where we came from, our story is the story of the God who comes to us, regardless of where we are from. The Word of God that came to John in the wilderness was a game-changer. John dismissed human stories claiming that God would only, could only, work through the children of Abraham. Instead, John told us God’s story. God can raise up children of Abraham from the stones. 

And God has. 

From the stones of our hearts, the stones of our fortress walls, God has raised up children of Abraham, children of God’s covenant, children of God’s story, those who seek relationship and reconciliation, rather than privilege and separation. 

God has chosen us, raised us up, named us and claimed us as God’s own, while we were yet sinners, while we were yet placing our trust in stories of our own superiority, while we were yet shutting ourselves off, God has come to us, in the prophets, in the wilderness, in the Word made flesh, in a baby in a manger, in our baptisms, in the body and blood of Christ,and claimed us for a different story,for God’s story. The story of those blessed to be a blessing.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

I am fortunate enough to have a complete family tree for both sides of my family that takes me back to the first immigrants to have arrived here from the Old World. On my mother’s side, my family have lived in the Piedmont of North Carolina since around the Revolutionary War, having arrived on these shores in 1727, lived in indentured servitude, and then settled there on being released. I was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, in the same hospital that my mother was born in, and lived for my first 5 years in Mecklenberg County, the same county that my McLain ancestors have lived in for almost 3 centuries. My father’s people were Moravians who settled in the Ohio river valley with a land grant for their service in the Revolutionary War. They lived there through the Civil War, were abolitionists, and fought on the side of the North. In the generation after the Civil War, they moved south, into Alabama, where they lived for two and a half generations. My great-grandfather was a carpetbagger who married a local Alabama girl, converted to her Presbyterian tradition, and settled. His son, my grandfather, married an orphan girl from Mobile, my grandmother, and they settled in Prattville, just north of Montgomery, where they raised 6 children, all of whom left Alabama, settling from Minnesota to Mississippi. None of them have ever thought to return to Alabama, much less Ohio. Two and a half generations, and they were dyed-in-the-wool southerners. They were still abolitionist at heart, and fought for civil rights when the time came, but they all have southern accents, a southern sense of time and propriety, and a southern cookbook for comfort foods. Most of them still live south of the Mason-Dixon line, and not one of them has ever returned to Ohio, as far as I know, not even to visit. Two and a half generations is a long time.

That’s how long it’s been for the Israelites. Two and a half generations, more or less. Seventy years. About the same amount of time between my carpetbagging great-grandfather, and the birth of my aunt Sarah. It’s more than enough time to settle in, to become comfortable, to establish yourself. Jeremiah told the exiles when they first arrived, “take wives and have sons and daughters and take wives for your sons and husbands for your daughter, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply and do not decrease.” And they did. They married, they had children, they set up homesteads, they found themselves work, they became a part of Babylonian society. And they were actually pretty comfortable by the second generation. The Babylonians were not cruel. They didn’t force the Israelites to abandon their God, though certainly there were pressures in that direction. But for the most part, the Jews continued to worship as Jews even as they began to look and act like Babylonians. Who knows how many intermarriages there were? Certainly a few, as the story of Esther tells us; the story where the main characters, Esther and her cousin Mordecai, have names derived from the names of Ishtar and Marduk, the chief gods of Babylon. And it’s hard to think of more Jewish names than Esther and Mordecai. So you see how assimilation happens. How it doesn’t take long. Two and a half generations is all you need, and bam, you’re more Babylonian than anything, except that you worship the Hebrew God.

And then the Babylonian empire is defeated by the Persians, and king Cyrus, the new ruler, comes along and says, hey, why don’t you guys head on back to Canaan now. Off you toddle, back to the promised land. G’bye now! But the people aren’t so sure they want to go. Going will be work. The city of Jerusalem has to be rebuilt. The fields have not been used for 70 years, so there will be olive groves and vineyards to restore and replant, fences to rebuild, wells to redig, houses to build, roads to clear. Work. Why would you sign up for that when you have a perfectly comfortable living where you are? Friends and family you know, fields and workshops and houses already established.

And yet. You have heard about this promised land all your life. This is the land of your ancestors, the land of your God. This is where Mt. Zion is, where God spoke to Abraham and spared Isaac. This is where Bethel is, where Samuel heard God speak in the watches of the night; where Bethlehem is, the City of David and Ruth and Boaz. This is where the River Jordan flows, where Elijah was fed by raven and brought down the fires of God from heaven. How could you not go?

This is the tension that Isaiah 55 sits in. The tension between practical considerations like the life that stands in front of us, the debts we owe, the land we own, the life we lead, and the promises of God, promises for abundance and relationship. The tension between what we see and what could be. It’s a tension familiar to us. In big ways and small. The tension between shoring up our sense of security, and trusting in God for comfort. The tension between filling our lives with things, money, power, stuff, and trusting that God will fill us with purpose, with meaning, with mission. The tension between what our eyes tell us is fact, and what God tells us is true. And so the prophet tries to entice them. He offers promises of feasts and abundance. Nelson’s family arrived in the United states from Sweden in the late 1800s. It was his grandmother’s grandfather who immigrated, and they still have a strong sense of being Swedish. But I don’t think they’d be quick to run back to Sweden to live. Unless you told them that Swedish meatballs roll down like waters and rice pudding like an ever-flowing stream. The promise of a feast makes sense. It draws us in, and encourages us to break the tension in favor of God’s promises. But we do have that stubborn practical streak, and we are more inclined to believe the evidence of our eyes than the promise of things we’ve never seen.

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters!

But we live in a desert, reply the people of exile. There are no waters.

But we live in a world of scarcity, reply the people of today. There is not enough water. We have to buy our water. It costs money to clean it and reclaim it and bottle it and shop it and sell it. The World Health Organization recommends 100 liters of water per day per person for the basic needs of consumption and hygiene. The average person in the city of Bethlehem has access to only 73 liters per day, and less in the summer. Other parts of the West Bank have as little as 37 liters per day. Average daily access just a few miles away in Israel is over 200 liters per day.

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters!

You that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come buy wine and milk without money and without price!

But we live in a world where you have to have money, you cannot buy and eat if you don’t have money! It takes money to make money, we’re taught. Our world is one where you have to work to earn, and we have convinced ourselves that if there are people who do not have, if there are people who are poor, or who are outcast, or who are marginalized, it is because they deserve it. They have not worked hard enough, they have not behaved properly, they have not earned their way to wealth, to health, to respect. This is not a world where people without money come, buy and eat.

But my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways, says the Lord.

It is time to come to the feast. It is time to return to the promised land. It is time to leave behind the false promises of the world. Promises of abundance in the form of things. Promises of love that dehumanize individuals and reduce them to objects to be desired. Promises of joy that come from a bottle. Promises of satisfaction that ultimately ring hollow, as the immediate payoff dwindles and the emptiness returns and we are left looking for another hit, another jolt, another titillation, another new toy.

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?

My ways are not your ways, says the Lord.

God does not promise as the world promises. in God, the promises seem small. Minuscule, even. They don’t make sense in a world where maximum flash, maximum effect, are expected. Who would believe that God would come into the world? Much less as a baby, born to a homeless, unwed, teenage mother, in the most backwater powerless corner of the Empire? We look for our gods in megamalls and on red carpets, not in mangers and among shepherds. Who would believe that God would provide all we need for free? We look for our satisfaction in the priciest places, in the aisles of abundance, in the gorging feasts of decadence. Who would believe that God would die a criminal’s death in order to defeat the powers of sin and the grave? We look for our heroes in spandex and spangles, in weapons and wizardry, in violence and victory.

Yet here is our God. Born as a child, born to a simple peasant woman.

Here is our God, living a life for others, dying a death for others, a death of humiliation and defeat.

Here is our God, in the simple bread and wine of a shared table. A tiny little wafer, a tiny little sip. And it’s no wonder we don’t believe it. It’s so very little, compared with the beckoning plenty of the world. It’s such a drop in the bucket, next to the vats and barrels and reservoirs that the world promises us.

And yet this tiny little bit is enough and more. This tiny little drop is enough to overwhelm the tides of the world, and to shift us into a new future. Into a new worldview. Into a new way of being. Would you feel it any more if I gave you a bigger piece? If I placed a roll in your hand, or a loaf, and said, “This is the body of Christ, this is the very body of God, sitting in your hand, and you are invited to take that whole thing into your own self and make God a part of your life, to consume this loaf, and to allow this body of Christ to satisfy and fill that hole inside you that nothing else can”? Would you believe it any more then?

With God, even the tiniest bit is enough. The tiniest spark of light overcomes the darkness. The tiniest bit of hope overwhelms despair. God’s word does not come back empty. Like the rain and snow waters the earth, God’s Word nourishes us and brings forth new growth. A new way of being. God’s Word draws us into a future that relies on God. So that whether we stay here in Babylon or go back to the promised land, our future is in God’s hands.

Proclaiming Joy from Under the Desk

We’ve been working our way through the Narrative Lectionary since September. In those three months, we have read from Genesis through Exodus, the history of Israel in Samuel and Kings, and the words of several prophets: Jonah, Jeremiah, Joel, Daniel, and now Isaiah. All Old Testament texts. In other words, for the last three months, we have not read a single scriptural passage about Jesus. I’ve talked about Jesus in my sermons, but everything that we’ve read in Scripture has been Old Testament texts, all from the years B.C. A colleague of mine talked about using the Narrative Lectionary last year. And long about December, a member of her congregation came up to her and said, “Pastor, I miss Jesus! When are we going to hear about Jesus?” And her pastor said, “Welcome to Advent.”

The book of Isaiah is an Advent book. It is a book that we Christians read Jesus back into when we read it. Written over the course of several hundred years, the various prophets who contributed to what we call Isaiah preached to the people of Israel through their darkest days. The first 39 chapters, including the portion we read together as our psalm today, were written in the years leading up to the Babylonian exile. Invading armies threatened, the people suffered, and kings and leaders filled their own coffers at the expense of the widow and orphan. The prophet called on them to change their ways, and warned of the days to come. And was ignored. The Babylonians invaded. The Israelites suffered. The Temple was destroyed. The land and the people were ravaged. Innocents were killed. And thousands upon thousands were driven from their homes.

The second portion of Isaiah was written during this time of exile. Generations were forced to live in another country, away from the land that God had given them, away from their holy Jerusalem. One of the most famous passages from Isaiah, a passage we hear in Handel’s Messiah, comes from this time period. “Comfort, O comfort, my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term.” We will sing these words as one of our Communion hymns today. These are words of encouragement, words of longing, words of hope. Delivered into the darkest days of exile.

The third portion of Isaiah includes the main reading that we heard today, Isaiah 61. This was written in the period just after the return from exile. The people of Israel returned from Babylon, and tried to start over. Only to find that things in Zion were not as good as they had expected. They had pinned all their hopes on this return – had expected that just getting back to Jerusalem would solve all their problems. And when they arrived, it turned out that there was work to be done, and that they were still not happy. They were still grieving. They were still broken. They were still in need of God. What they thought they needed was the land, the place. But Isaiah reminds them, in the words of today’s reading, that it is not the land that will heal them. It is not the land that gives them hope. It is not the land that will bind their wounds and mend their broken hearts. It is only God who can do that.

We do not need Isaiah to remind us of how dark the world is. We do not even need the early setting of the winter sun, the bare branches scraping the sky, the cold, frozen ground greeting us with frost on late lighting mornings. We know that this is a dark place, and that the darkness is within as well as without. We know that darkness so well that it becomes5958847-bare-tree-branches-against-glowing-sky almost a comfort to us, something that we draw around us to block out the world, something that we dwell in, an excuse that we use, that we blame for the state of things. The world is broken, we say, it is a dark place. I can’t change that. We breathe the darkness in and it becomes our own, and we are tempted by despair. We are tempted by nihilism. We are tempted by the belief that this darkness is God’s doing, is God’s will for us, for the world. We make darkness our god.

Believe me, I was tempted by this darkness on Friday. One article on the satire website The Onion that got at what I felt: “sources confirmed it is totally fine to spend the rest of today curled up in the fetal position underneath your desk.” That is what I felt like. As I sat there trying to contemplate writing a sermon, a sermon that would be appropriate for the third Sunday in Advent, a Sunday traditionally dedicated to Joy, I wanted nothing more than to chuck it. To crawl under my desk, preferably with my kids, and just stay there. To embrace the darkness. So I turned to the web, and looked for help. adv-3And I saw the same impulse there. Aside from the recriminations and the already-begun blame game, I came across the following suggestion: leave the third candle unlit. Don’t light the third candle on the Advent wreath, because Joy is not to be celebrated today.

But here’s the thing. The world did not become a darker place on Friday. We just noticed it. The world was already that dark, and we just had the darkness brought home to us. But there are people in the world, people in our community, people in this room, for whom the world was already that dark. People who have lost loved ones, who have lost children, who are despairing. There are people who are waiting, for a diagnosis, for a job, for a reunion, for forgiveness. Would we have left the Joy candle dark for them in their darkness? For the darkness of war? Of poverty? Of domestic abuse? Of depression?

No. No. That is not us. We are a community in Christ, we are the Body of Christ, and Christ is the light of all nations. If we leave that candle blank, then the darkness wins. If we leave any candles unlit, then the darkness wins. And we know better. We may be an Advent people, living in the darkness, and waiting for the light, but we are also a people who walk in darkness and have seen the great light, we are a people who have been delivered from the exile, and seen the promise that God has given, the Word made flesh, the light that shines in the darkness. And the darkness. Will. Not. Overcome. It.

This passage from Isaiah 61 is the passage that Jesus spoke to the people in the synagogue in Nazareth, a story that we will hear in just a few weeks. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. 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 Lord’s favor.” It is the passage that President Obama quoted as he addressed the nation on Friday. “Heal the brokenhearted, and bind up their wounds.” It is God’s promise to be with us. In the deepest moment of our darkness. God is with us. God seeks us out in the moments that we are tempted to despair. In the moments when the darkness threatens to overwhelm us. In the moments when we cannot imagine lighting a candle for ourselves. We speak the words each week as we recite the Apostles’ Creed. He descended into hell. What else do we mean but that? God comes to us in the darkest moments that we humans can create, even into the depths of the hells that we create here on earth.

Our job is to proclaim it. Isaiah reminds the people of Israel, and Isaiah reminds us, “you shall be called priests of the Lord, you shall be named ministers of God.” Our job is to proclaim. To proclaim joy, even when we are surrounded by despair. To shout praises, and to sing songs, and to light candles, and to remind all the world that the light is coming! That Christ will be here, soon! That God has recognized the darkness of the world, the darkness that we have made, and God has decided that what we need is light. What we need is life. What we need is reconciliation, and redemption, and renewal. What we need is hope. A reminder that death cannot win, that despair is not an option, that God shows up. What we need is God’s own Son, God’s Word made flesh, born into the darkness, coming into the world at the darkest time of the year, in the darkest moments of our lives, and shining God’s warmth and love and light. What we need is Christmas. And Christmas is coming. That is what we are called and sent to proclaim. That is why we are empowered, and not only empowered, but compelled, to light the candles. To speak the words. To sing the songs. We, like Isaiah, are called to sing light into the darkness. To sing “Joy.” To proclaim God with us. Emmanuel.