Posts Tagged ‘Advent’

(The following meditation was shared at the Bluegrass Christmas service in Rocheport, Missouri on Saturday, December 2, 2017)

I have some good news and some bad news
Timothy L. Carson      Luke 1:46-55

Tonight we teeter on the edge of Advent, the First Sunday in Advent being tomorrow. Advent is the rich season of expectation, longing and hope for the coming of Christ into our midst. Of course, Christ is already here, but in terms of re-experiencing the Christian story this is the early chapter in which we prepare for the arrival of Christ into the world and our hearts. What better way to do that than to focus on the song of Mary, the Magnificat?

Once upon a time there was a peasant girl who lived in the corner of nowhere, an unremarkable Palestinian village where the citizens lived hand-to-mouth under the boot of a foreign occupation. In fact, an Imperial city was not too far from their town, a city that displayed elaborate public buildings and ostentatious wealth. That only reinforced just how unimportant her village was in the scheme of things. And how relatively unimportant she was.

As you can imagine, she attracted another peasant to whom she would be betrothed, a man who worked with his hands. He didn’t have any land so he was lower on the social ladder. But he had a trade as a craftsman. Somewhere in the middle of their engagement she had a mysterious visitor in the midst of – what could you call it – a dream, a vision, an apparition? And the voice said she was to carry a most special child in her womb. What would she make of this?

Just recently I was invited to conduct devotional services at the St. Francis House in Columbia, a residential house for the homeless.

There were about ten of us gathered in the living room of this modest older house, some guests and some volunteers. I asked them to imagine what I am asking you to imagine, a young peasant girl living in a small and very simple Palestinian village. And then I asked them to imagine what it would be like for that nobody from the sticks to be informed that she would carry the Messiah, the savior for the world.

Some in our group said that she would have been shocked. “Maybe you have the wrong house. Maybe you called the wrong number.”

Others noted the sense of humility that God would be working through someone like her, the weak and powerless, the marginalized, the underclass.

But then we took time to read Mary’s song, the Magnificat, a song of praise modeled after the song of another woman who lived centuries before her whose story is told in First Samuel: Hannah, the barren woman who prayed for the blessing of a child and promised God that she would give him to the temple if she was so blessed. Hannah sang a song that sounds very much like Mary’s, which is more or less a parallel of it:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has toppled the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

(Luke 1:46-55)

This is the dramatic prophesy of God’s downward mobility and the divine trickle-up economy, a whole different kind of repeal and replace. Here is the advent of God’s upside-down kingdom, where the playing field is leveled, the rich and powerful are swept down from their thrones and the poor and powerless are given justice.

I will never forget the look of astonishment on the face of a heavily tatted young man as he listened to Mary’s song and heard that this is how and where God’s work begins, at the margins. I think his attentive expression was some cross between disbelief and hope.

We closed our evening slowly reading these astounding words of Mary, words that turn this world upside down, liberating words that are good news for some and not so good for others.

One thing we know for sure and that is this: Mary’s song does not often show up on Hallmark Christmas cards. You don’t often see a little nativity scene and under it, “He has toppled the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Not too often do you see that.

Why then, at a moment like that, does Mary sound like a revolutionary? Let me set the stage for you and maybe that will help.

In first century Palestine the Jewish population was predominantly the peasant class, and they were far and away very poor. They were also in an occupied land and Roman oligarchs and military built elaborate Imperial cities and lived lavish lives. There really was no middle class to speak of, the merchant class being the closest to that. And the people were double taxed – by their Jewish ruling elites and also by the Romans.

So the situation of the ordinary working family – and they were all working families – is that their taxes supported their own leaders and the Roman Imperial machine – its elite ruling class, the public works projects and the military. All of the wealth was generated by the workers, trickling up to support everything else. All of this was rewarded with more taxes and more restriction.

This is the way that power and wealth works; it seldom trickles down, and rather trickles up and pools at the top.

Those peasants in Palestine never saw anything for their work and taxes; it was all consumed by those up the ladder. They were in effect supporting the machine that kept them oppressed. The language from the Temple cult and its high paid priests was that God loved them for supporting the temple. The language from the Roman government was that Caesar would be pleased with their loyalty and devotion; when the Empire wins everybody wins.

And so, here is Mary, a peasant girl with nothing, engaged to a man who had little to nothing, surrounded by power structures beyond their control, and she sings a song: “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has toppled the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

If God can work through me, the humblest delivery system imaginable, then God can reform and transform the whole world from the bottom up. This upside down kingdom of God will see the tyrants fall from their proud thrones and justice will roll down like mighty waters.

It’s not a new theme that Mary’s song contains. We hear it all through the prophets who preceded her. Take Isaiah 10:1-4, for example:

“Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.”

Again, not the popular choice for a Hallmark card or a Christmas carol, but it carries the tone of Mary’s song: God is awesome and wondrous; God’s using even me; if God can do that, heads will roll and justice will come. Maybe we’ve simply mischaracterized Mary, created her into someone and something she wasn’t, the mild and meek Mary.

After all, the nut didn’t fall from that tree; Jesus sounds a lot like his mother. It was with those peasants that he spent most of his time – preaching, healing, teaching, having meal fellowship with the outcasts, gathering a no-star cast of disciples to follow him.

It wasn’t until he made his way to the halls of power in Jerusalem, the city that stones the prophets, and challenged the temple elites and Roman elites that he was nailed to the tree.

Mary brought forth a son such as that. And we love her and him for it. In the story of God’s big reversal Mary’s song is just a preview of coming attractions.

Since the St. Francis house is run by the Catholic Worker community, some of them were in the room during my meditation. And as I was preparing to leave one of them spoke up and he said, “I’m amazed that a Protestant minister would come to us and actually talk about Mary!”

Hey, Mary belongs to all of us. Granted, I’m not praying through Mary. But she is our lady. Don’t you know that when her son came off the cross and she bathed his wounds with her tears she knew the real cost of God’s work in the world.

Following is the message offered by Tim Carson at the Bluegrass Sabbath Service, Saturday, December 7, 2013, at the old meeting house of the Christian Church in Rocheport, Missouri:

The Stump of Jesse           Timothy L. Carson
Isaiah 11:1-10               December 7, 2013

This prophetic text from Isaiah presents the hope and expectation for the arrival of the Davidic Messiah and a kind of utopian messianic age of peace and harmony. The Davidic king would reign with righteousness and pursue justice for all, especially the weak and downtrodden. And the result of love and justice would be the peaceable kingdom, exemplified in the lion lying down with the lamb. It is a beautiful vision and hope.

Of course, this future vision from Isaiah is often read during Advent as a way to describe the rising hope leading to the birth of Jesus. Could there be such a messiah that would fulfill the hope for a new Davidic king who would usher in an era of peace? As we later discovered, Jesus would both fulfill and not fulfill that expectation. He would usher in a new era of the Spirit, but it would not resemble that expected reign of the earthly king and messiah.

In fact, his kingdom was not of this world, not like that expected. It would transform it differently, unexpectedly.

Whether you are talking about the Messianic expectation in Isaiah or the unique way that Jesus fulfilled it, two things remain constant: justice and reconciliation. The messianic leader combines those two in a remarkable way. On the one hand there is an insistence on justice for the oppressed. On the other hand there is an equal insistence that peace and reconciliation will reign. That is not an easy balance, not one often achieved.

This week we all received the news of the passing of Nelson Mandela.  He is, in my mind, one of the best contemporary examples of the righteous leader who combined an insistence on justice with an expectation for peace and harmony.

I remember during college when Mandela and South Africa started becoming a common matter of discussion. We became acquainted with apartheid – the policy of racial separation – and how the Afrikaners, the Dutch Colonists, had dominated the native Africans. It was parallel to North American Apartheid in that we, too, followed a policy racial separation. In both instances it was separate but unequal. The difference was that North American apartheid originated in slave trade that brought and dominated an African minority in the states, while in South Africa a minority group of colonizers dominated the majority of Africans in their own land (like the British in India or Spanish in Mexico).

The United States preceded South Africa in its revolution equal rights, but South Africa was close behind. Like in the United States there was violent repression and reprisal to silence demonstrators. Incarceration and imprisonments were common. Torture and summary executions were the way of the day. Those who spoke for justice were routinely vilified and accused of being communists or worse. Nelson Mandela was one of those voices of protest.

In the winter of 1964, Nelson Mandela arrived on Robben Island where he would spend 18 of his 27 prison years. Confined to a small cell, the floor his bed, a bucket for a toilet, he was forced to do hard labor in a quarry. He was allowed one visitor a year for 30 minutes and could write and receive one letter every six months. Through his intelligence and irenic spirit, Mandela eventually won over even the most brutal captors. He emerged from this experience as the mature leader who would would create a new democratic South Africa. He would become its first democratically elected president. And the way that he brought about change made the difference between a peaceful transition and a bloodbath.

Nelson Mandela somehow fulfilled the expectation of the peaceable kingdom in Isaiah 11 that drew together those not-so-cozy principles, justice and peace. He never wavered in denouncing all structures that would dehumanize anyone.

At the same time – and this is where he parted ways with so many other bloody revolutions – he insisted that the future of South Africa would be secure and peaceful only if it included peace for all, even and especially for the whites who had oppressed the blacks for so long. When the society heated up and it seemed that the pain and rage of the past would boil over, Mandela showed up and told them to turn their swords into plowshares. And they did. Because of his moral leadership a future together became possible and the lion would literally lie down with the lamb. Justice and peace would co-exist.

Violent revolutions litter the pages of history. We certainly have had our own in the United States. We have participated in them around the world. But there are those high examples of movements led by extraordinary people (shall we call them Peaceable Kingdom people, Isaiah 11, people?) like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mandela, who hold justice in one hand and the future of peace in the other at the same time. Theirs is the harder way. And the outcomes they created were the product of how they went about it.

I remember in the 1980s having an exchange student from South Africa in our community. When we talked to him about South Africa he said that his parents – who had been in South Africa their whole lifetimes, the descendants of the Dutch Colonists – were afraid that they would lose everything and even be killed. For this young man and his family, happily, none of that came to pass. South Africa was transformed, but not with more blood.

That is why the aftermath of apartheid was addressed by a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and not a war crimes tribunal with hangings at the end. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission brought together those who were violated with those who did the violating. The stories of both were heard by each. And though forgiveness can never be demanded of anyone before they are ready to forgive, this set the stage for the lion to lie down with the lamb.

I remember when Desmund Tutu, Archbishop of South Africa at the time, chaired those Truth and Reconciliation sessions. Hearing the incredible stories of violence and murder, he sometimes put his forehead on the table and wept. What else is appropriate in the face of such inhumanity? Only grief can cleanse the heart of the indescribable pain.

And this is something for all of us to ponder on this second Sabbath of Advent, one traditionally called peace Sabbath. It may seem faster and easier to take up arms and find what seems to be an easy solution by force. We often default to this in our approach to world problems. But the way that we go about negotiating conflict and injustice actually shapes the way that the future shall appear. The ends do not justify the means; rather the means shape the kind of ends we realize.

The gift of Nelson Mandela to history is to serve as a great exemplar of the possible. When people say that peacemaking is impractical and ineffective they are refusing to consider what may be the very best response to injustice and war. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers” for a reason. It’s because it works.

You have to be the peace you desire on the way to creating the peaceable kingdom. In fact, it is the only thing that makes that kingdom peaceable.

A shoot shall indeed come out the stump of Jesse and every stump where the Spirit of God broods and transforms and grows. And when it does, here and there in the torn world, in cradle and on the cross, in Birmingham and Johannesburg, a new creation is at work. Even the seemingly impossible comes to pass, things like lions taking their places beside lambs. And when you see it, you will say, “I lived in the time when the lion and lamb co-existed together, when the impossible came to pass. This I have seen with my own eyes.”

And on that day we will give thanks to the God who was and is and is to be, and his son Jesus Christ, and the Spirit of Life. Amen.