This part one of a sermon I preached for Advent at Church of the Sojourners on December 11th, 2020. You can also watch the video or listen to the audio.
Act I: The Prophecy
The Isaiah and Luke scripture readings for today are two of my favorite passages in the whole Bible. They speak to God’s justice and form the center of Jesus’ Gospel truth: we all receive good news and favor for the hungry and oppressed. Many of our cultural prophets today get paid when they prophesy wealth and privilege, but these Advent prophets came from a different source, through an oppressed people, right as they struggled to breathe, right when someone’s knee was on their neck. Their bodies longed for the day when righteousness would prevail and justice would sing. They wanted to enter that song for themselves in “garments of salvation” and a “mantle of praise.” These prophetic witnesses shared their reason to rejoice. As Mary proclaimed, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…” (Luke 1:46b). But what happens when hope is a luxury you cannot seem to afford? What happens when the promises of justice do not seem real or when evil continues without any recourse? How do we actively wait?
I recently re-read a journal entry where I recorded a dream Gaby told me about in late October 2017. This is what she said her dream was about: “There was a volcano right next to the White House and it burned Donald Trump and he died, but it didn’t burn the White House and nobody else got burned.” Now I’m not sure if she would qualify as a biblical prophet, but her dream has that same wild and giddy-eyed tone that I feel in Mary’s song: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
I’m also re-reading Revelations with new eyes right now, the big prophecy at the end of the New Testament. I finally see it in a different light. Instead of it being a triumphant story about an all-powerful God torturing and crushing weak and disobedient humans, I now see that while it indeed tells the story of a war, the actors and violence are mainly between humans. On the one side, you have the most weak and vulnerable: the poor, the enslaved, and the faithful minority who saw their powerlessness as integral to their faith. On the other side, you have the most powerful and violent: the rich merchants, the kings, the generals who saw their destruction and oppression as integral to their supremacy.
On the surface, without the vision of this prophetic story, the weak and vulnerable cannot win. They will lose every time, no questions asked. They always have. But with the prophetic story, the faithful minority (who would be called atheists by the Roman governmental powers) has the spiritual vision to rise up and fearlessly face the storm that is coming, and to be witnesses against all who do not believe that God is (and has been) drawing a line around them, claiming them, and also placing them in the midst of a war. They catch The Revelator’s vision. They see those self-legitimizing powers give way and self-destruct within their own promises of freedom. The propaganda falls, along with Babylon. When the seals and woes are released everything from agriculture to entertainment to Wall Street to congress must indeed change. These realities will not and cannot be ignored.
And yet only the faithful few who see the prophetic story will recognize that the war against mighty heavenly powers is being fought on their behalf. That God has not abandoned them and will take them all the way through. That they are now an integral part of his mission to save and rescue. That they will be protected, even as some of them will die. That they will execute a new story from within the ruins of a destroyed community.
This is because they have a source of power that is hidden in their forgotten, discarded, nobody, poorest of the poor, discredited status. Indeed, instead of shame, God has given them garments of praise, beauty for ashes. The masses may not repent of their dependencies on exploitation, racism, exclusion, homophobia, greed, global capitalism, violence by the sword and smart bomb and drone attack. They may not turn away from sexual idolatry or ruination of this world. But the ones who know the story are seeing God’s universe being set right again. And this is a cause for celebration, even while action is taken under duress, for their salvation is closer every day.
This fight is happening without them becoming another oppressor. This is also a cause to rejoice. They choose a new way. They announce that the cycle of violence is over, it stops with them. Because they will not fight back, but instead entrust themselves into the hands of a Creator who has not left their children or their children’s children defenseless. His action on their behalf “is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” to address the injustice, the failures, the perpetual violence, the slavery, and to bring about the freedom and shalom we all need right here in this moment. God herself will answer and it won’t be a disappointment, no matter how desperately long we must wait.