November 28, 2010
Commentary by Jeanyne B. Slettom
Romans 13: 11-14
Advent is often presented as a season of waiting. We prepare our churches and our hearts for the birth of Jesus the Christ. But as the Year A lectionary readings make clear, if we emphasize waiting, we may miss the point. Waiting is a passive practice. It leads to expectation that something will simply happen, in a church service or in our spiritual lives, and like baby birds being fed, all we have to do is make sure our mouths are open.
But the readings are clear: this isn’t about waiting; it’s about carefully examining two ways of being in the world and then making a choice, a commitment to act according to one of those ways. And, as the readings also make clear, there’s an urgency driving the decision. If, as process theologians believe, God is present in every decision, then the “day of the Lord” is always at hand.
Since Christians find in Jesus’ teaching exceptional clarification about the distinction between these two ways, we look to Jesus to help us make decisions that incarnate God more fully in the world. Jesus was very clear about God’s vision for creation as expressed in the Hebrew Bible, and his life and teaching were a constant effort to both restore and clarify that vision. Thus when we welcome Christ into our churches and our hearts this Advent Season, we literally restore and clarify that vision in our worship, mission, and innermost selves. If we really “get it,” there is no other way to be than to “act it” In other words, this season is not about passive waiting. It is a call to action.
This passage is a brilliant example of indictment by omission. In announcing what will happen in the “days to come,” the prophet immediately signifies that this is not the way things are now. Thus from the opening verse the intent is to make the distinction between the way of the world and the way of God. We have two houses, so to speak: the house of God and the houses of the nations, or of kings. In explaining how things are with God, the prophet makes the point that this is not way things are with kings. God’s path, God’s instructions, are contrasted with that of kings. The way of kings is swords and spears (tools used kill); the way of God is ploughshares and pruning hooks (tools used to grow food to sustain life). Kings instruct us in war; God instructs us in peace. There are two ways to walk this Earth: choose to walk with God!
There is an appeal in this psalm to the historic symbols of Judaism: the house of the Lord, the city of Jerusalem and its gates, the tribes of Israel, the house of David. And although it is a complex symbol and I do not wish to reduce it in any way, I think that Jerusalem here signifies the way things are supposed to be, according to God’s decree. It signifies God’s original vision for creation, which is goodness and peace—and it places this vision at the heart of Judaism.
The important message for Christians, especially during this Advent/Christmas season, is that this vision is God’s; Jesus didn’t make up something new. Jesus was speaking to the power structures of his day—the Roman Empire and local collaborators—challenging them to repent (turn from) the peace enforced by imperial oppression and live again by God’s vision of justice and peace. This is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God of David and of Jesus. The power structures of the world, based in violence, greed, and corruption, are always at odds with God’s vision for creation, and prophets are always needed to call us to repentance and transformation. There is a scurrilous notion among some Christians that Jesus was needed to “correct” the errors of Judaism. The truth is that we are all capable of choosing Empire over Creation; Caesar over God.
This passage intensifies the urgency of decision. The moment is coming, the moment of opportunity and/or necessity to choose between the two ways. Paul uses contrasting metaphors of sleeping and waking, of darkness and light, to emphasize the distinction, which, as a preacher, I find more useful than the complicated image of the “flesh.” Scholarly papers are probably better than the pulpit to do the exegesis necessary for this image.
The image of “putting on Christ,” however, is a helpful way to talk about what happens once a person does choose, once one wakes up. When we are asleep we are usually not aware of danger or temptation, but awake, we are. Jesus was a God-infused being. We call him Immanuel, or God-with-us. In other words, when we put on Christ, we also become God-infused beings. We walk not simply in the light, but—more poetically—we put on the armor of light. Does it help us choose the path of God if we know it comes with its own kind of protection?
The text here invokes “the days of Noah” as a time before disaster strikes, before a change comes that is so irrevocable that we are never again the same. It doesn’t have to be the end of the world—just the end of the world as we know it. In recent times, we might use a phrase like “September 10th” to signify a time when we were all blissfully unaware a plot was underway that would change our world forever.
Although many read this text in eschatological terms, process theologians are more likely to keep the focus on the present. We all know our choices have consequences. What we don’t know is when or how or where those consequences will strike. This text implies that it is foolhardy to assume, just because some consequences aren’t immediate, that there won’t be any. So, too, is it foolish to think we can set a date for our comeuppance, and continue in our same old ways right up to the final hour, then suddenly repent and expect everything to be all right.
In Romans, Paul explains the “wrath” of God as what happens when the God who gives us freedom to choose does not interfere with the consequences that result from those free choices. Freedom is freedom. If we are truly free to choose, then our freedom doesn’t end when the consequences of those choices come around. In a process understanding, that freedom is exercised in every decision we make—always relative to our circumstances, of course—in every moment of our lives. Thus the “wrath,” or the “judgment,” or the “Day of the Lord”—to use classic language—is also always present. Two can be standing in a field when the consequences of a poor diet and bad genes strike one with a heart attack, and in this way, “one will be taken and one will be left.”
This very freedom is what’s behind the urgency of the Advent texts: to choose. There are two ways to live in the world; the shorthand language refers to God and Caesar. Writ large, to chose God is to choose justice and equality, to desire the well-being of all creation. To choose Caesar is to choose violence, greed, power, and corruption. Writ smaller, to choose God is to stand up to bullies, to recycle, to let the other guy merge in front of you on the freeway. To choose Caesar is to buy something when you don’t need it, to steal from the office supply closet, to spread slanderous rumors.
Of course, God is not limited to words of judgment. God also speaks words of forgiveness, love, and especially—as shown so dramatically in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—of transformation. But the emphasis on hope and transformation comes further in the story. In a narrative sense, the weeks of Advent are like “the days of Noah”—the dove, the ark, even, come later.
The emphasis at this point in the story is: get ready. Prepare. How do you want God to find you? Study the two ways. Observe each one in action. Choose—and recognize that just as we walk a path one step at a time, we follow the path of God one choice at a time, from one moment to the next, and the next, over and over again.
Process theology and the texts
In the always already world of process theology, God is always coming into the world, into each and every one of our lives, in each and every moment. God enters every moment with a vision, a notion, an idea, of what that moment can be: value in and of itself and value for all the moments that come after it. Thus each moment also presents a choice to let more or less of God into the world. Advent, in some ways, turns this moment into a whole season—a season to feel the creative presence of God, contrast it with the status quo, and decide how to go forward, whether to repeat the past or realize a piece of God’s vision for the world.
Incarnation is not limited to a historical event but is an ongoing occurrence. What the season of Advent does, then, is challenge us to ponder this strange idea of incarnation. God present, in a living sense, in the world? In this Galilean peasant? In me? What happens if I resist it? What kind of life will I have? What happens if I embrace it? What kind of life will I live? Well, how did it work for him?
The story of Jesus is never told just because he was an interesting person. It’s told to effect a change in us. The story is not just about what God did in the life of this one man; it’s meant to show us what can happen when we let God into our lives. Advent, in other words, is not something that happens to us, it’s something that we make happen. It is an invitation to incarnation to a guest who is always and already coming, and never empty-handed.
Jeanyne B. Slettom is the director of Process & Faith and co-pastor of Brea Congregational United Church of Christ. She is the editor of The Process Perspective (Chalice Press), by John B. Cobb, Jr., and the forthcoming Process Perspective II.
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