Both our Hebrew and Greek scriptures hold a vision of the kingdom of God where the rich and powerful are knocked down off their pedestals of arrogance and pride, and the poor and marginalized are lifted up out of the pits of despair, and all people are called to live in harmony and at least “relative” equity.
Our country’s own Declaration of Independence from British tyranny proclaims: “all men (sic.) are created equal.” Unfortunately, at that time “all men” did not include black people (deemed only 3/5 of a “man”) or the Native Americans that inhabited the land upon which our European-descended founders proclaimed their freedom. We’ve grown a bit in our understanding of that term since those days, though we still have a long way to go toward true Mandela-like reconciliation (and even Mandela’s beloved South Africa is still enduring the growing pains of a post-apartheid culture).
In our weekly Wendesday morning lectio divina bible study (though we often stray far from the lectio divina style of reading) we could not help but notice “the great reversal” theme in the lectionary texts for this Sunday, Dec. 15th:
Isaiah 35.1-10: As the people of Israel, now under control of the Assyrian empire, make their way back to Jerusalem after generations in exile under the now defeated Babylonian empire. The text is a song of joy (appropriate for the third Sunday in Advent, the “Joy” Sunday) on the road, painting a vision of what it will be like to return. Of course, what they find is not what they envision. But in v. 5-6, the prophet proclaims a vision of cultural and communal healing as “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy” (NRSV).
Luke 1.46b-55: Mary has received the news that she is to give birth to the long-hoped-for messiah, and now visits with her relative Elizabeth, who is also pregnant with one who will become known as John the Baptist. When Elizabeth hears Mary coming, the baby within her leaps (or kicks pretty strong). Mary is moved by the whole of her experience thus far, and Luke puts on her lips a song of joy and praise that foreshadows the vision of the promised messiah within her, a messiah that will soon be revealed as not the messiah of former days (a military hero who will reign with equity and justice, and, more importantly, fend off enemies who would destroy Israel), but a messiah who will do the reconciling work of God, who “scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. [Who] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; [who] has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (1.51b-53, NRSV). Jesus is to be the messiah who embodies the great reversal.
James 5.7-10: A book known for its evangelistic push toward action, the author tempers his readers to be patient, not only with the world, but with each other. Again, this is not a push for a strong and forceful position, but a way of life that values patience, humility, and belovedness, all in the midst of suffering: “Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. . . . As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord” (5.9-10, NRSV)—the same prophets who spoke on behalf of the poor and who railed against the rich and powerful for their ignorance of the love and compassion of God as well as the suffering all around them.
Matthew 11.2-11: Here John the Baptist, now in prison for performing his baptisms of repentance and challenging the establishment by echoing the prophets of old, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” wonders if Jesus really is the one people say he is. Jesus is not the kind of messiah people expected or wanted. He is not the military hero, like King David who slew the giant Philistine despite being the underdog. Instead, Jesus shares a vision with John’s questioning followers of the blind, lame, diseased, deaf, dead, and the poor all being healed and filled with good news and hope. He challenges John and his followers to reconsider their expectations, and focus less on who the messiah is and more on what God has been inviting the people into.
The parallels to our age are uncanny—the rich and powerful continue to run things at the expense of the poor; the value of human dignity or that “all people are created equal” seems to be lost, even among the most “religious”; community organizers and people fighting for freedom and dignity are labeled as Marxists, tree huggers, bleeding hearts, and other such intended-to-be derogatory names. Yet, that is exactly what Jesus did: he gave hope to the hopeless, and called out the rich and powerful on their arrogant ways. God’s great reversal continues to take our values and flips them upside down, showing us the narrowness of our culture’s “I want more” attitude and the dangers of our “Greed is good” value—it ultimately, and ironically, leads to loneliness and despair. It is the great reversal.
The Christmas story today is not about celebrating the gift of God, so much as coming to terms with our own greed and ignorant stubbornness to claim self-reliance, when in reality none of us is truly self-reliant—where do you buy your groceries?; who grew and harvested the food you’re buying?; who transported it to where you’re buying it?; who stocked that shelf, staffs that register, and runs that grocery store? But even deeper than that, it is the immigrant (documented or undocumented) and our “neighbor” who harvested those fruits and vegetables, who butchered that meat, who loaded those trucks. It is the great reversal as we consider the value of each of those individuals and their contribution to our meals and our communities. We are only as good or as healthy as the poorest and least healthy among us.
In the words of John F. Kennedy: “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”
Or in the words of the immortal-in-his-own-mind-prophet Stephen Colbert (pronounced kol-bear ‘cuz that sounds classier):
If this [the U.S.] is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.
I think that’s a good place to rest and reflect, especially in this season of Adventing.