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ADVENT: DAY 23

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For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant.  I will lay waste mountains and hills, and dry up all their herbage; I will turn the rivers into islands, and dry up the pools.  I will lead the blind by a road they do not know, by paths they have not known I will guide them.  I will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground.  These are the things I will do, and I will not forsake them.  They shall be turned back and utterly put to shame—those who trust in carved images, who say to cast images, ‘You are our gods’.  Listen, you that are deaf; and you that are blind, look up and see!  Who is blind but my servant, or deaf like my messenger whom I send?  Who is blind like my dedicated one, or blind like the servant of the LORD?  He sees many things, but does not observe them; his ears are open, but he does not hear.  The LORD was pleased, for the sake of his righteousness, to magnify his teaching and make it glorious.”—Isaiah 42:14-21

 

 

This passage is part of a broader narrative describing the “servant” of the LORD—a covenant to the people, a light to the nations.  This is one of those messianic visions that we Christians believe Jesus of Nazareth to have fulfilled.  His role as Prince of Peace is explained to the extent that “he will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice” (42:2-3).  He is the paragon of the nonviolent actor.

 

And yet, in the very same chapter we have today’s passage.  “For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant.  I will lay waste mountains and hills, and dry up all their herbage; I will turn the rivers into islands, and dry up the pools.”  YHWH is lifting up a nonviolent Messiah but then talks about laying waste to the very earth itself.  How does this juxtaposition work?

 

It makes me think of the Prince of Peace taking up a whip and flipping the tables of the moneychangers and business people in a burst of violent fury. 

 

His methods up to the point and after that point are clearly documented as nonviolent.  His greatest challenges to the Empire were examples of strategic nonviolent action.  His healings, his exorcisms, his teachings, his choice of friends, his titles, his civil disobedience, and even his acquiescence to martyrdom were strategic nonviolent actions in defiance of the earthly powers.

 

When he saw the devotees of Mammon, the forces of capitalism, the agents of the Empire exploiting and perpetrating injustice upon the people at the temple, though, he cried out and began to lay waste to their booths.  He reached his breaking point when he finally understood the magnitude of injustice his people were facing.

 

History is full of powerful people preaching the nonviolence of Christ to those without structural power.  We have told slaves to obey their ‘masters’ and to live peacefully like Jesus.  We have told workers not to strike or picket because doing so enacts violence against the system.  We have told protestors that they can only be effective if they are peaceful.  We have preached this while waging wars that destroy human lives and the very fabric of creation.  We have preached this while maintaining systems of mass oppression.  

 

We must never forget, though, that our God is a God of righteous fury.  We must never forget that our Messiah exhibited this righteous fury.  When righteous fury bursts forth, it is not “rioting,” “insurgence,” or un-Christian.  When fury is truly righteous, it is one of the most Christian of expressions.  

 

BLACK LIVES MATTER!

 

I know that the savior I wait upon this season would be shouting this, marching in the streets, and laying waste to the system. 

 

Posted December 21, 2015

 

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ADVENT: DAY 22

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Now you are walled around with a wall; siege is laid against us; with a rod they strike the ruler of Israel upon the cheek.  But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.  Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel.  And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.  And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace.”—Micah 5:1-5a

 

 

I will never forget Christmas in Kerala.  The reasons are too numerous to list here.  One that stands out, though, is hearing Binu, John Thomas, play on his guitar and sing They’ve Cancelled Christmas in Bethlehem.  It goes like this:

 

They’ve cancelled Christmas in Bethlehem

They’ve cancelled peace in Bethlehem

In a land once known as holy the gun is in control

They’ve cancelled Christmas in Bethlehem

 

They’ve cancelled freedom in Bethlehem

They’ve cancelled hope in Bethlehem

They’ve locked the little town behind a ghetto wall

They’ve cancelled Christmas in Bethlehem

 

Though angels are singing—they’re trapped behind the wall

Yet angels keep singing down in Beit Sahour

And if our Christmas songs and prayers are not to be in vain

We must pull down that prison wall that’s strangling Bethlehem.

 

The wall must fall!  The wall must fall!

If peace on earth is to come

The wall must fall!

 

They’ve cancelled wise men in Bethlehem

They’ve cancelled shepherds in Bethlehem

They’ve stopped the wise men at the checkpoint and the shepherds can’t leave home

They’re under curfew in Bethlehem

 

Though angels are singing—they’re trapped behind the wall

Yet angels keep singing down in Beit Sahour

And if our Christmas songs and prayers are not to be in vain

We must pull down that prison wall that’s strangling Bethlehem.

 

The wall must fall!  The wall must fall!

If peace on earth is to come

The wall must fall!

 

—Words and music by Garth Hewitt

 

 

The placement of Micah’s words in his prophecy are remarkable.  He writes about the people of Israel being trapped behind a wall and attacked behind that wall.  Then in the very next breath he prophecies that out of Bethlehem will come a leader who will be a shepherd feeding the flock, who will be great to the ends of earth, who will be the One of peace.  

 

The Israelites were being assaulted by mightier powers.  It seems that a wall had even been constructed to keep the people ‘in their place’ and out of the places that the powerful wanted.  From that very place behind the wall would come a savior, a messiah to lead the people, the One of peace.  I am becoming more and more convinced that prophecies are not one and done deals.  I think that God speaks through them to new generations and different contexts, that the words can validly carry meaning anew in various situations.  For, the hope shouted forth in this passage applies fully to Bethlehem today.  The most highly weaponized nation state in the Middle East has constructed a wall to separate the town of Bethlehem from the rest of Israel.  The Israeli government has enacted marshall law while occupying Palestinian land, with the full military and monetary backing of the United States.  If the person prophesied were to be born in Bethlehem today, the Messiah never would have made it to Jerusalem to live into that Passion we many of us believe to be the central salvific act.

 

Now, the Israeli nation state should never be thought of as the same as the Israel of old.  As with so many other nation states, it is a political entity built upon religio-cultural narratives that point towards divine origins.  The Jewish people can and should claim this heritage, as should the Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and Druze in the region.  The government and many of its supporters (including the U.S. government), though, have forgotten the legacy of ancient Israel—a people who were claimed by God, liberated from slavery, and sustained through the wilderness.  Though they had their own problems with unjust warrior kings, they were often the ones under siege and attack, exile and colonization.  Indeed, it was while being held under the mighty Roman Empire that Bethlehem saw Jesus being born to Mary.

 

As we approach the celebration of this birth, let us focus on the reality of a walled-in Bethlehem today.  Let us participate in action to bring down that wall and any wall that dispossesses the poor for the sake of the powerful.  The wall must fall!  The wall must fall!

Posted December 20, 2015

 

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Being planted in the rich soils of Zambia to inspire regrowth at home. “Other seed fell on good soil and bore fruit” -Matthew 13:8