Turn on the Light!
We continue our Advent journey toward Christmas and the revealing of the one who brings God’s light into the world. We do so with great anticipation and expectation. We’ve heard the call to prepare ourselves for this moment, seeking to be cleansed and made holy by the Spirit of God. We’ve heard the message that the dawning of God’s reign on earth and the invitation to join with God in the work of this realm.
In most of our churches we’ve been lighting candles as signs that the light of God is beginning to shine in the darkness that is present in our world. In doing this we confess that there is darkness present in the world. Even if we’re not adherents of the doctrine of “total depravity” -- however that doctrine is defined -- we recognize that all is not well in the world. There is injustice and there is war, there is hatred and racism, there is inequality and inequity. Yes, evil is present in our midst. This is true even here in the United States, the country in which I dwell and have my citizenship, the land that I love. Indeed, there are signs present all around us that darkness has invaded our lands. Although we might wish to sweep this under the rug or hide it in a dark corner, when the Spirit shines the light of God into our midst we see things we’d rather not see and hear calls to change this reality.
While we would rather not know that injustice and corruption and inequality are present in the land, wishing to believe the myth that every man, woman, and child, if they choose to work hard, can succeed in life, the light in the darkness reveals otherwise. We may want to believe in the perfectibility of humanity and wish to trust corporations to police themselves when it comes to environmental concerns or employment practices, but reality suggests that they are as corruptible as are we. The prophets of old and of today will not let us ignore these realities, for they are determined to shine the light into the darkness revealing to us the realities of our day.
As we attend to this word about light and darkness, we must be aware that there is an inherent danger to our conversation. We may succumb to a dualism that defines the world too starkly in terms of good/evil and light/darkness. The problem stems from assuming that what I believe or what I do is right and if what you believe or do is different then it’s bad or evil, and thus perhaps you are evil. We find this all to present in our politics and our religious discourse. And often the question then is – what should we do with such darkness in our midst? How might we eliminate it? And when we get to this question, some may suggest coercion and violence as a proper response, even defending such a response on scriptural grounds.
If we can steer clear of dualism and the assumption that we are fully righteous and untainted by darkness, and if we believe that God is at work in the world seeking to reconcile the world to God’s self, and that we have been entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18), then what would this calling require of us? With these questions in mind we turn to our texts. In Isaiah we hear familiar words, words that Jesus himself embraced as his mantle – to proclaim justice in the land. From Paul we hear a call to hold fast to that which is good and to rejoice in God’s work and presence, while avoiding all evil. And finally in the Gospel of John, we hear again the story of Johns’ calling to bear witness to the light, which is Christ. He makes clear that he is not the light, but “merely” the witness, and as he does this, he invites us to join him in bearing witness to the light.
In Isaiah 61 we have a word offered to a people who have returned home from exile. They are in the midst of rebuilding their lives and their nation. The question then is – what will this nation look like? What will its guiding principles be? Will justice and mercy be its defining principles? As I read this text, which Jesus claimed as his own mantle and call to ministry (Luke 4:14-20), I’m drawn to these words: “They will rebuild ancient cities, restore deserted places, renew ruined cities, places deserted in ages past” (Is. 61:4 CEB). Living as I do in a metropolitan area, in which the urban core (Detroit) has suffered from decades of neglect and decline, I hear a word of hope and justice in this text. For our urban areas, which have suffered greatly as those who could moved out to the suburbs, leaving behind ruins, do we hear the prophet speaking? Do we hear a word that God is at work, seeking to lead those who will hear and respond to act with justice, while ending robbery, dishonesty, paying just and faithful wages, even as God makes with them an enduring covenant? The prophet rejoices because God has clothed him in victory and the robe of righteousness.
The prophet speaks of the good news that is to be proclaimed to the poor, the brokenhearted, the captives, and the prisoners – that they will experience the year of Jubilee, the year of the Lord’s favor, when God will be vindicated and those who mourn will receive a crown rather than ashes. The word here is one of hope and joy, but this hope and joy is tempered by the Advent message, which reminds us that we are in a season of preparation and expectation. Such work of restoration will not come overnight. And as I was reminded in my reading of Joerg Rieger’s book Traveling [Fortress, 2011], those of us who hear the call to the city, including those who choose to enter the city on mission trips, need to understand that we do not go there to “bring back God to the city,” for God has not left or abandoned the city. We go to observe where God is already at work.
Isaiah lays before us a mantle, a calling, and Paul picks this up in his first Thessalonian letter, calling on his readers to hold fast to what is good and avoid every form of evil. In this brief text Paul speaks to the inner life of the person of God who has heard the call to be present with God in the world. There is here a reminder that as we engage in this work of justice, we must rely on the Spirit of God. Thus, the word here is to “rejoice always. Pray continually. Give thanks in every situation because this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus In context” (1 Thess. 5:16-18 CEB). He goes on to encourage them to listen carefully to Spirit-inspired messages. Rather than try to suppress them, they should listen with discernment, weighing carefully what they hear, and then embrace that which is good. So, with this calling to undergird the work of justice by devoting ourselves to the inner spiritual resources of prayer and thanksgiving – and may I suggest that since the Greek word for giving thanks is eucharisto, that we include in this spiritual preparation the spiritual resources of the Lord’s Table? The table fellowship of Jesus surely has implications for our work of justice, and Paul speaks clearly about the implications of the Table for our spiritual lives and the work of ministry. In 1 Corinthians 10 we are reminded that the Table is a place of unity, where the one cup and one loaf symbolize the one body of Christ for us.
In John 1 we again here a word about John’s calling to bear witness to Jesus. Here the word is that John has been sent into the world to bear witness to the “Light” so that all might believe in the “Light.” When asked, John says pointedly – I’m not the Light. I’m not the Christ. I’m not the prophet. I’m the witness to the Light. I’m the voice crying in the wilderness, calling for the pathways of the Lord to be made straight. He baptizes those who come to him because this is the manner in which he prepares the people to hear and receive and to recognize the one who is coming – indeed, the one who is already standing in their midst, but they can’t recognize him.
In clarifying his role, John offers us an example for our own ministries, especially as it comes to speaking prophetically to the situations of our day. If we believe that our words and our ministries are inspired by God then we need to discern as to where our own egos and self-interests are present. Monica Coleman writes of this:
This passage reminds them that they are not the point in and of themselves; their work, like that of John is to point to the work of God. This passage is also instructive for the church as we contemplate contemporary prophets. It is easy for the church to focus on charismatic leaders who are able to rally the masses, navigate the politics, alter structures toward equity, and secure measures of justice for the underclass, rather than to focus on the message and mission of the prophet. This passage guards against idolatrous focus on the prophet. Our work for justice is a testimony of God’s goad for justice. [In Preaching God's Transforming Justice, Year B, (WJK, 2011), p. 25].
John understands his role. He understands that he’s not worthy to tie the straps of the sandals of the one coming into the world.
As we hear our call to embrace God’s work of justice and mercy in the world by shining on the world the light that is God, we’re reminded that this is the work of God and that we are invited to participate, but it is not primarily our work. It is not a call to impose our agendas through coercion. It is not a call to place ourselves above the rest of the world in self-righteousness, but following the example of John, we take up the mantle that Jesus shares with us, a mantle described by Isaiah, with humility, and undergirded by spiritual practices that keep us grounded in union with God.