Living a Prophetic Advent

Living a Prophetic Advent in Times Hungry for Prophets
Advent has come again: the season of prophets and promises, longing and hope. Living after Pentecost, we people of Jesus are always in a season of Advent, in a way. On the other hand, the promises and hope that we remember in the prophets and the story of Advent are fulfilled already. The Rule of God has come in the person of Jesus and is the lived reality of his church. (Or it is supposed to be.)

This year we in the United States have been starkly reminded of the “not yet” of our hope. In many ways the reminders around the world have been pretty stark: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, ISIL, Hong Kong, Ferguson, New York, Berkeley. We live in a moment that is hungry for a word from God. We live in a time hungry for God’s salvation and justice.

It is easy as a Christian to want to wrap a blanket of nostalgic theology and pageantry around our faith and settle in to watch the snow outside the window and maybe a little Charlie Brown or Jimmy Stewart. But this is a season of prophets: of holy wilderness rather than comfortable living rooms, of robes of righteousness rather than snuggies.

But I am not in Ferguson or New York. I am not in Syria or Bethlehem. How do I live into this season of prophets in my comfortable living room and the gentle snows of my northern Michigan home?

The Christian life, every Christian life, is a witness to reality, either God’s or the world’s reality. We bear witness with the choices we make wherever we are. I have to choose to bear witness to God’s Rule. It may not be great because my situation does not demand greatness, but it is essential nonetheless if the people here are to hear God’s Word spoken and have their world transformed.

I have a choice at the grocery store and in the library, in my practices of Advent and my driving as to what I bear witness to. In the Bible Jesus never demands that we believe in the virgin birth, rather he tells us how to live. We are to be humble and just, merciful and forgiving, loving and endlessly reaching out to others in grace.

This must be the essence of our Advent; to live this way must be at the heart of our worship and our practices. I am to tell the truth and love others. I am to speak wholesome words and build up those who are torn down. I am to be just and merciful in my business.

Imagine an Advent when black and Hispanic people were treated fairly and justly by white people in the United States, not just because of laws but out of real love and faith. Imagine being a police officer who tried to do his job and had people forgive them when they overreacted or failed, who was loved even as they administered justice. Imagine being forgiven at work and encouraged at home. Imagine being treated as a human being.

We have come such a long way in the last four hundred years as a nation, but it is very clear this year that we have a long way to go. What role can the church play in helping the United States move toward justice and mercy? I am not sure that the answer is going to be offered by our political parties or our political binaries? We may have to dream again, but I know that it will begin where Jesus did, in the hearts, souls, and minds of those of us who follow him being changed.

We have to bear witness to a God of grace and mercy and justice and provision in our everyday decisions and actions. This witness may be costly. We will probably get taken advantage of and ridiculed and challenged, but not much. Keep it in perspective. I bear witness in a really safe place. I have angered people and been called names, but I do not fear for my life or even my job.

One of our witness points for the church in my town, made up of all our different denominations and congregations, is in housing the homeless during the harsh winter months in our buildings. It costs us convenience and building maintenance, odors and space. Sometimes it costs us comfort and safety. It has cost us very rarely in theft and harassment. But every time we face some change in costs, we get anxious. Someone will question whether it is worth the costs, but it always comes back to a simple expectation. “I was hungry and you fed me.”

We house and serve the homeless and poor, the drunks and the hungry, the rich and the well off, Republicans and Democrats, the calm and the angry, the yogi and the banker, the believer and the wanderer. We are all of those things in our little church, and in our church we are none of them. We are the witnesses of a different world where God is calling us all to the table, to serve and love each other in worship to him who comes to us again in Bethlehem and Ferguson, and even in Traverse City. In our faithfulness we bear witness by living humbly and justly, mercifully and forgiving, loving, and endlessly reaching out to others in grace whether they can pay us back or not, whether they join us in this new world or not.

We are prophets of promises already fulfilled and still not yet.

None of this seems like enough when our neighbors are being shot or choked in the streets, when our incarceration rates and arms productions surpass every other nation, when extremists are taking over nations and our media, when we face wars and rumors of wars, famines, earthquakes and signs throughout the world. But this is the way of Jesus, to live a new reality as we hope for it, to risk the small costs and the large ones, to love our neighbor and bear witness as we pursue justice and mercy.

In our love we become bearers of the Word of God, like Mary on her donkey following Joseph to Bethlehem without a room waiting for them, displaced by an unjust act of government, and yet singing the song of God in the wilderness between dangers, pregnant with hope and a new reality.

We begin where we are, living bold lives of love and service, like candles against the night.  It may be your place to take to the streets and protest, but it is surely all of our time to reach out to our neighbors and have dinner with them, to stop and thank a police officer for their service in these hard days and offer mercy to those who don’t seem to get it just right, knowing how much forgiveness we have required of others and of God.  We all have to choose a prophetic Advent.

May our parties and our dinners and our worship services and our letters and presents and ministries this Advent be prophetic, declaring God’s wild and unmerited love in a world that is suffering again.

There are No Inalienable Rights

We don’t have inalienable rights endowed by our birth.  We don’t.  I love Thomas Jefferson more than you do, and I think he was right about a lot of things, including this one.  We have rights “endowed by our Creator“.  They are not inalienable rights, either.  We make them alien when we fail to live as God’s people.

Jefferson was smart enough to see that we have rights because there is a social covenant*, a covenant that binds you and me in a common life.  Any rights we have are given by our living into our covenant.

Test it out: take a baby of any race out into the woods and let him (or her) vote.  They have no right to vote given by the Creator.  Instead they will die slowly and probably horribly unless us or one of God’s other creatures steps forward to care for them, love them, and raise them up.

I am not arguing for social Darwinism.  Too often Christians have completely given up moral philosophy to biological impulse, or as Paul called it “the flesh.”  We are endowed with Spirit, and the Spirit teaches us, and what it teaches is law and life.

We have rights because we have a covenant.  That covenant is spelled out in the Bible as the Torah and then the New Covenant “Law of Love,” that Jesus teaches.  Both of those laws are versions of covenant, and they command us not to hold on to our own “rights” but rather to a set of social responsibilities that teach us what the Creator made us to be.  Our “rights” derive from all of us living rightly, or in Biblical language “righteously” that is to God’s approval.

We have to work at knowing who God is in order to get our social responsibilities straightened out.  We don’t serve a god of violence and retribution that we often create in our own worst image.  We don’t serve the god of our tribe, though that god is still very popular even in our day, even in our churches.  We serve a God who made the world for pleasure and called it good, who set us to keep it as stewards with dominion.  We serve a God who is about our redemption when we fall, but who lets consequences pay out unless we repent, and sometimes by grace, even when we don’t.

As Christians, we serve God who is known as Father, who sets our boundaries and defines our relationships, rules and provides, and we serve God as Abba, who has given us new birth and holds us, calls us by name and sets us free, who loves us and forgives us.  And we are supposed to become God’s children who do those same things, as Jesus our Lord did.  And the Spirit teaches us how, moving and dancing, reminding and teaching and making us new.

When we live into our covenants and the laws of God our Creator, we create rights for everyone around us that extend beyond the abuse-boundaries of the laws of our land.  A lawyer friend always reminds me that “the law is not made for the righteous man.”  The thing is that the righteous human being lives the law into irrelevance.

As we grow up from people who need to learn the rules, to people who can keep the law, we become people who don’t have rights so much as give others rights by our righteousness.  We supersede law in love, moving from protecting rights to providing life, and from defending against injustice to defining what justice means, the human being in right relation to God, creation, and other human beings.

When we find a baby in the woods, the law tells us many things, but love tells us to take it up, love that baby, give her a name, feed her, care for her, teach her, raise her up, so that she can take her place in the stewardship of the world and live up to the covenants of the children of God.

And that is why the people of Ferguson or wherever else violence defined by race or gender or nation raise their heads feel more than grief.   Their anger is righteous due to the expectation at the very level of  being that the covenants that make us human are being violated by the ones who are supposed to protect them.

We understand that sometimes protecting the people who live according to the covenant means a violent justice, but it should not and only as the last of last resorts.  But if our understanding of our basic human responsibilities under the covenant are out of line with our cultural norms, we are in real trouble.  Our cultural norms collapse from a call to mutual covenant to self protection, Darwinism at its 18th century worst.

When we are just protecting our own “rights” we miss the point. We have to protect each other. There is no other way to have a covenant based life of togetherness.

The alternative is violent coercion.  The alternative is violent freedom that belies our best intentions, which are called “best” because we are usually at some lesser place.

I am not arguing for theism.  I am arguing from theism.  I am a Christian.  I follow Jesus and have promised to live by his teachings embodied in the New Covenant and based, rooted, and understood from the Original Covenant of the Hebrew Scriptures.  I cannot leave a baby in the woods, and I cannot watch idly by while my neighbor gets destroyed by those who are supposed to protect them.

We have police to keep us safe, to defend the version of the covenant that we have enshrined in our country’s Constitution.  We should be a people of law and law evenly and fairly applied.  We should support the police while living in a way that makes their job as unnecessary as possible.  We should grieve when their job demands violence, but we should also ask our selves how much violence they actually should expect, and not be prepared for more without reason.  We should fire and prosecute them when they violate their oaths, but they should be able to expect us to keep ours as well.

Christians, we must live as we were created to live.  We have stewardship of the creation and should protect it.  We are called to love each other and protect and help each other, and we should, we must.  My favorite verse in Leviticus is “If your neighbor’s ox falls down in the road, you should lift it up; you shall not refuse your help.”

The news, this month from Ferguson, reminds us that we have work in front of us if we are to steward the world with the compassion of God.  We cannot ignore the stranger in the marketplace because of his skin color, language, or clothes; nor can we ignore our responsibilities toward him.  Not if we claim to love God.

 

 

 

*Covenant is preferable to contract or construct or other similar words because a contract’s obligations are dependent on parties keeping the contract.  A covenant is a binding statement that changes the realities and identities of the parties involved.