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Monday, December 8, 2014

Social Justice, John the Baptist, and Advent

Preparing a sermon for this Sunday, I alternated back and forth between worrying I was saying too much and thinking I was saying too little.  Was I putting people on defensive?  Was I not being bold enough, not speaking clearly enough?   I ended up speaking the words I thought I would find helpful if I were in the pews.  I also said some things my heart needed to say.  I thought I would say them here in this space as well.  The scripture read was Mark 1:1-8 about John the Baptist.  Advent is the season in the church year preceding Christmas when we anticipate the celebration of baby Jesus and anticipate the second coming of Jesus.  Here is what I said:

Advent this year has been overshadowed, for me, by other events:   conversations, studying, and sorrowing over social justice issues both those brought to attention by recent events and the ongoing injustice of poverty around the world.  These have been my focus due to a variety of circumstance.  Advent and Christmas, I have given little thought.  I suspect this is the case for many of us, whether news events are on our minds or tragedies and heartbreaks closer to home.  But as we hear today from a wild prophet called John the Baptist perhaps this is not an overshadowing of Advent but rather an embodiment of it. 

In talking of John the Baptist, Jesus says, “But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and one who is more than a prophet (Luke 7:26).”  “Prophet” means one who proclaims the will of God.  Throughout the history of Israel, one of the main duties of a prophet is to call the community back to justice, to call attention to injustice, to remind the people of God’s love and concern for the most vulnerable.  The book of the prophet Isaiah begins with a plea addressed to a “people laden with iniquity…(1:4) calling them to “…learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. (1:17)”   The prophet Micah laments oppression and injustice and then calls out “ … and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?” 
We do not have an itemized list of the sins which motivated John the Baptist’s call for repentance.  However, in his position as prophet and considering the wide broadcast nature of his cry to repent, it seems likely he was addressing communal sin which was often a call to justice on behalf of the outcast, the stranger, the poor, and the widowed.

Amidst the bells of Christmas this year are voices ringing out a call to justice.  Banners of protest hang amongst the wreaths and garlands.   Our televisions, our computers and our conversations bring cries such as “Black lives matter.”  We hear warnings of increasing iniquities as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.  Creation groans under the weight of environmental degradation.   Cries, shouts, and tears for justice abound. 

Yet there is static which hampers our hearing.  The static sounds different for each of us and for each justice issue.  Sometimes our pride blocks our ears as we protest not all men are sexist, not all white people racist, not all police officers are bad.  Sometimes our hesitancy masquerades as uncertainty as we fixate on a particular incident and proclaim our ignorance of all the facts saying, “ We don’t know what really happened.”  Sometimes we complain of our neighbors’ methods of expressing their pain, decrying  riots and disruption of communities.  These grains of truth are thrown in the face of the larger picture and we fail to see our neighbors hurting, we fail to hear the voices of the oppressed, the voices of the poor, the voices of those harmed by the iniquities of our community. 

And so the voice of John the Baptist cracks through the static “Repent!”  Preparing the way of the Lord by calling us to see injustice. 

There are hurts and tragedies in our communities and our families which will never be on the news.  This time of year can make these hurts all the more poignant.  Yet as the call of John the Baptist washes over these hurts they become a reminder of our common humanity and become part of the stream which flows toward justice, flowing toward the one in whom the hopes and fears of all the years are met.

Advent is a season of waiting with anticipation.  Waiting with anticipation often means listening intently for the first sound, the first clue the one awaited approaches. Throughout scriptures Jesus repeatedly draws a connection between himself and those who are outcast, poor, and oppressed.   As we listen for the sound of Jesus’ approach, we can hear it best in cries for justice. Those voices ringing out a plea for equity, those banners waving in protest, and the aching of our own hearts mix appropriately amongst the twinkling lights and festive music for in them we hear the booming voice of John’s call to repentance and the gentle whisper of hope in the coming of the one who makes all things new, God’s love made flesh, Jesus.  Thanks be to God.  Amen. 

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