You see the thing that’s so amazing to me about this passage isn’t that the powerful want to kill a prophet, the one who’s sent to turn a stable world upside down—that’s what the powerful always seem to want to do.
No, what I find so amazing is that … knowing the danger ahead of him, Jesus goes to Jerusalem anyway to challenge the old kingdoms with a word about a new reign—all because he can’t keep quiet about the world God wants to create to replace the old one.
Now if you begin your history with the exploits of the privileged and the powerful, it’s easy to justify organizing your political and economic life around the people born on third base—because those are the very people history is meant to recall, and their lives, therefore, are enshrined as the purpose and meaning of true life.
But if you begin the telling of your history by being reminded that you literally came from nowhere and that your ancestors were nobodies from nowhere ("A wandering Aramean was my ancestor"), that makes a difference in what and who you should value, doesn’t it?
You get to choose how you’ll view the world, to whom and what kind of attention you’ll give. Nobody is the boss of how you choose to act but you. No one can tell you what to do about the kind of love you offer to others.
The whole “you’re-not-the-boss-of-me” thing is always about power. You just don’t have to give yours away."
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Notice what Jesus doesn’t say as he unveils the vision statement of the reign of God. He doesn’t say, 'I’m announcing a kingdom where everybody who gets their theology right, who demonstrates a sufficient level of personal piety, and who manages to muster up the appropriate level of faith in me … will get a comfy split-level with walk-in closets and an in-ground pool in the hereafter.'
He says 'The word I’m envisioning, the shape of the kingdom I’m announcing is going to feel like bizarro world—a world where the hungry will finally be filled, where the poor will no longer be left to fight over the scraps left by those who want for nothing, where the dispirited and the broken-hearted will not have to languish on the margins. A world where the last shall be first and the first shall be last.'
What if Jesus showed up around here and said, 'Let down your nets, things are fixin’ to get interesting?' Would we hear that as good news?
What if Jesus said, 'I’ve got something for you to do, but it’s not anything like you were expecting?'
Would we find ourselves rolling around on the bottom of the boat, telling Jesus to go someplace else?
Or would we look at who shows up as a gift? The people nobody else has any time and space for? Are those the people God wants to put in our path because they’re just the kind people Jesus was notorious for hanging out with?"”
Coming to terms with our own privilege is a tricky thing. In my experience, most people resent the idea that they’ve somehow been given a leg up. But the problem with our privilege has less to do with what we’ve been given than with what we’re willing to sacrifice so that others can have the same advantages we do.
From God’s perspective, from the perspective of the new world Jesus is painting as he begins his ministry, the walls have been torn down so there’s no 'us' and 'them,' no 'insider' and no 'outsider,' no 'hometown folks' and no 'aliens.' There are only God’s children and the joy of the responsibility of announcing liberation from the tyranny of our own sense of entitlement.
The need to cry out on behalf of people who feel like their world is about to chew them up didn’t die with Isaiah and the children of Israel. There are still people—many who live here among us—who urgently want someone to take their side, to refuse to remain silent in the face of despair and injustice—not so much as a white knight coming in to save the day, but often just as a reminder that they’re not the ones always left holding the bag by themselves.
Part of what it means to follow Jesus is to take our place upon the walls with Isaiah, refusing to remain silent, giving God no rest until God establishes the reign God promised and makes it renowned throughout the earth.
The question for those of us committed to following in the steps of the magi, and ultimately in the steps of Jesus is: When we spot the old world trying to stamp out the new, the powerful trying to subdue the powerless, will we take the easy way and acquiesce to the whims of a tyrant, or will we resist?
Bethlehem—and the gospel toward which it points—is the focal point of the politics of empire. Don't kid yourself.
We were important enough to God that God had it figured out from the beginning how to bring us home. We, therefore, if we are to be like God, must devote ourselves to the prospect of making a home for one another—both the kind we live in, as well as the kind that lives in us.
The question posed by Advent is: How do we who live at the front of the line make Mary's song our song?
Ironic that we, whom most of the rest of the world envies, might have to sit at the feet of Mary and Elizabeth to learn how to sing the song God gave all of us to sing about the reign of the coming messiah, a song for the humiliated and disposable people sung in anticipation of Emmanuel—God with us.
Following Jesus isn’t about securing our own piece of the heavenly pie, it’s about living with and loving those about whom John the Baptist speaks, and those whom Jesus loved.
Living under the reign of God isn’t about escaping this world; it’s about offering God’s welcome to those whom the world has marginalized and forgotten. It’s about God pitching a tent in the muck and the mire of our sometimes godforsaken lives and living with us in the midst of the madness and horror.
Luke’s quoting of Isaiah isn’t meant to help us visualize a flatter, smoother world, or to help us to feel better about the hilly, bumpy world we live in. In this context John the Baptist’s call to repentance isn’t about trying to be more sincere about our remorse. It’s about shaking up the world as it’s currently situated, so that something new can be born.
In Luke’s hands these words are about tearing things up, about unsettling the way things are currently arranged. But this time around, what’s going to be disrupted, what’s going to be toppled aren’t hills and valleys in the wilderness that stand between Israel and home, but the powers and principalities that stand between God’s people and the future God has planned—between the way things are and the reign of God, the way things ought to be.
Apocalyptic is always a difficult word for those used to a world that serves them. People at the top of the food chain, people satisfied just fine with the way things are, don’t want to hear that things are about to be shaken up.
But there are other people for whom such news is a long awaited word of redemption, a bit of hope in a dark place. Those on the bottom, the small and the forgotten, those who have little to gain from the preservation of the present arrangements, get all kinds of hopeful upon hearing Jesus talk about a new world designed with them first in mind.
Not only does God not respond to us with violence—God, in Jesus, has a front row seat to the very systems of domination that deal in the kind of death Jesus suffers—the kinds of death people continue to suffer at the hands of the wealthy and the powerful—the very people Jesus announces from the beginning that his new reign will lift up: the poor, the prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed.
It’s hard to imagine Luke getting any further away from our established understandings of what constitutes a viable kingdom in our world. After all, crosses don’t make good political mascots."
Editors note: Please forgive a few techincal difficulties.
"Look at popular Christianity and you’ll find that what many people want out of faith is not a way to relinquish control. Many Christians don’t live as though they believe God is in charge even when they don’t understand how it’s all going to work out. Instead, people often look to faith for a way to order their existences…a way that will inoculate them against pain.
"But we trivialize the gospel when we convince ourselves that it’s possible to be a disciple of Jesus without it ever costing us anything."
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We need to advocate for a just economic system that looks out for the needs of those on the margins, that refuses to devour widows houses—that refuses to make the poor feel like they’re not full participants until they cough up their last five bucks until payday.
But in the meantime, we need to work like crazy to be a church worthy of the kind of financial sacrifices people make.
And the fact that Jesus links love for neighbor and love for God together suggests that the way we love God is through our love for our neighbors. Jesus doesn’t offer up some vague notion of love that centers first on our ability to muster up the correct emotional responses.
In fact, if we’re ever going to feel love, then, in all likelihood, we’re going to have to act lovingly first.
The secret of love that our culture seems not to know is that the feelings of love generally follow loving action; they don’t necessarily precede them. It is easier, as the saying goes, to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.