What’s Coming?

I have come to learn that I am one of those people who loves to travel. One of the most memorable trips I ever took was a cross-country train trip: west to east and then south to north, when I was seventeen and all by myself, even with a broken foot. One of the things that struck me during that trip was the great cross-section I saw of America—the well-to-do; the black, browns, and whites; the poor; the drunk; the unruly. There is a great diversity that we live in, a diversity that becomes pronounced in some ways and blurred in others over the holiday season. This blurring of the diversity of this season is similar to what I saw on that great monthlong train trip, and Advent is about that long as well. But on that trip, I also learned that despite all our diversities we have much in common. We are all travelers. Despite our station in life we all have to show our tickets when asked, and if we get too unruly we may get put off the car at the next stop.

I think there is a part of the Christmas narrative that gets rushed over. It’s the journey to Bethlehem. All the people, no matter their station, had to return to the land of their fathers to be counted. This Christmas account is an odd and troubling requirement really since it deviates from the Levitical code that required a similar return to homeland, albeit for a very different reason. On the one hand, all the people had to return to the home land of their forefathers—the family land—which was a periodic requirement of the Levitical codes. However, unlike the required Levitical return in which the land and debts would be resettled at this return to the family land so as to reestablish national life in accordance with the provision and justice of God, the Christmas narrative relates that the people are merely counted for Caesar. This is not settling of debts and return of land but an ancient form colonization and subjugation of the people of ancient Israel to the largest empire of the time, Rome.

The reason and consequences of the journey to Rome are not the only thing that gets glossed over in the pageantry telling. There is also a poor and young Mary who is very, very, very pregnant making the journey of several days to the temple city. They were traveling many, many, many miles on foot—if they were lucky they had a pack animal Mary might have ridden. One can imagine this journey would have been very uncomfortable for the mother-to-be. It was no baby shower for sure! What an exhausting physical trip before giving birth! (I consider the experience of Mary’s physical journey fresh and anew this year as I await the news of a friend who is expecting a child, a boy, this very week!) But Mary’s experience was not only a physical one. It was a spiritual and emotional one as well. Mary was a young woman at a precipice: a young woman about to give birth for the first time. A young woman about to give birth as her people enter into a new form of subjugation under a new emperor. A young woman about to give birth to a son come to pronounce a new way of relating, a new way of justice and peace at the end of an empire. And I wonder what it was like for Mary to give birth in such times. Mary, having been told this was the Child of God. Mary, wondering if this was the Messiah for whom they had been waiting. Was she ready to give birth? Was she ready for what was to come?

Let us dedicate this day in prayer to the women waiting to give birth, to pray for their preparation and safety in this transition of life to life.

And let us wonder, if we are ready.

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Hope for Justice to Come

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’
—Jeremiah 33: 14-16

Does it ever seem to you that the world is just not right? It does to me. Does it seem that injustices abound and individuals can not always do too much to get  ‘ahead’ in the world? Maybe it’s not just the individual, maybe there is a more systematic force preventing justice.

If this is true, it is not the first time in human history it has been experienced. The Bible is full of examples of when the world was unjust and details some of the lives of the greatest freedom fighters in the cause of justice to ever walk the planet. It’s one reason to open the Bible and the find the juicy stuff.

The devotional passage of this first day of Advent speaks to one of the times in history of great injustice, but it is also one that looks back at a plan for living in justice and a future in which people will live with the hope of justice restored. Jeremiah may have been a strange character walking through the town streets with a yoke and eating items we would consider unsuitable for consumption—read your Bible, the disgusting extremes of injustice are detailed there alongside the juicy audacious doings of the prophets. In today’s passage, Jeremiah has gone to purchase the future crops of a field belonging to his family which had been sold to pay the debts of his family members. Yet Jeremiah is prevented from doing this, and that is the problem. That Jeremiah is prevented or delayed in reclaiming the land of his ancestors, is in some sense the straw that breaks the whole world apart and not only sets the prophet into motion but sets God to speaking through the prophet. To understand the significance of this we need to understand that Jeremiah is attempting to act in accordance with the laws laid out in the book of Leviticus (Marvin Sweeney, The Prophetic Literature, 112). These laws require him to redeem his family’s land in an effort to maintain the balance of power within the community that God ordained as a part of creation. The very balance of power that allows for justice. If Jeremiah cannot do this then the whole of creation, particularly human society within creation, is at risk of falling back into chaos. Thus God must intervene to reestablish justice.

And thus this passage looks to the future, a future of justice. Traditional Christianity, and scripture, has held that the coming Christ child is the shoot of David. I tend to think it is near irresponsible to impose elements of the New Testament on the Hebrew Bible to get such a reading. The beauty is, however, that we do not have to do so. The ministry of Jesus is one that challenges the Levitical codes pertaining to individuals so individuals may be embraced by community (experience justice), and a calling the community to the responsibilities of  humane society (to be just) as called for in the Levitical codes. In some sense, both Jeremiah and Jesus call our attention to the role of the Levitical code in ordering human relationships within society and human society as whole as a guest within God’s creation. Jeremiah and Jesus remind that we are guests welcomed to experience God’s justice but also, as members of human society, quite a way from the Justice of God’s Kindom.

It’s the same old struggle that humanity must face only in a new age. As we enter into this season of Advent, particularly this week of Hope, Let us reflect on how we can be instruments of God’s justice allowing others to feel that the are welcomed alongside us in God’s Kindom. Let us pray that God would empower us each to move into a future of liberation, a future in which all peoples and all creation can live together in justice. It is the after all part of our most famous prayer, Your kindom come, Your will be done.