December 12, 2010
Commentary by Jeanyne B. Slettom
Psalm 146:5-10, Luke 1:47-55
The metaphor of a highway through a desert that is in bloom is an exuberant way to describe the heart-lifting experience of opening oneself fully to God’s creative, transforming power. A desert is usually thought of as trackless, or with barely discernible routes. A highway is a broad thoroughfare that invites travel, incites curiosity about what lies ahead, and implies companions along the way. A desert in bloom is a landscape of beauty and wonder that welcomes travelers. With words like gladness, rejoicing, joy, abundance, and singing, the prophet declares the pathway of God—the “Holy Way”—as endorsed by Creation itself.
Although this passage is a poem of return of the exiles, is it any surprise that early Jesus followers would associate these verses, with the advent of Jesus? In a world famous for the mastery of Roman roads, one can almost imagine these early followers picturing Jesus as striding down this highway, a living link from the prophetic vision of the past to the pressing need for its renewal in the present. They would see this “Holy Way” of God, in contrast to the Appian Way of Rome, as a declaration of the right road to take. They found in Jesus a way to affirm the peace of God (achieved by justice) over the peace of Rome (achieved by violence).
Of course, there are also intensely personal ways to appropriate this text. These days many of us are experiencing hardships that dull our senses, slow our steps, and render us mute with anxiety. The image of a wilderness is a fitting description for the daily lives of many of our parishioners. Just as these verses would offer hope to the exiled Jews, they can be a source of comfort and hope to present folk in financial exile. When the world is beset by lions, and ravenous beasts can and do come upon us (as creditors), then a place free from them, where the redeemed shall walk, is a powerful image, even if it is only the place in our hearts where we feel closest to God. Especially for those who relate intimately to a personal Jesus, the equation of the twin promises—life-giving waters in the desert and a Savior “born in our hearts”—is the very promise of Christmas.
The psalmist is explicit about behaviors associated with the “Holy Way” of God: to execute justice for the poor and to give food to the hungry, to lift those who are bowed down and to watch over society’s marginalized—the widow, the orphan, the stranger (immigrant). These are the standards by which we judge government and business leaders, corporations and nations. They are the standards by which Jesus judged the Roman Empire, and they are the standards to which he would have us hold ourselves.
The Magnificat of Mary, which is rightly one of the most beloved passages of the New Testament, continues directly in this vein. Mary’s song praises the God who lifts up the lowly and feeds the hungry. It is also perhaps one of the most subversive passages in the whole Bible. Think of it: these are the words of a young girl whose family has no wealth or position. Everything about the speaker argues against taking her seriously, and in many ways that is what has happened: we focus on the piety and miss the politics. But the words are explicit: God is going to do something that will bring down the powerful from their thrones. In any other context—say, 18th-century France—these would be revolutionary words.
But before we storm the Bastille, let’s consider some of the other points that leap out of these verses. For one, they express remarkable trust in God—a trust that touches us across the centuries and inspires us to the same. For another, they are extraordinarily empowering of ordinary people, the “lowly servants” of the world. Mary exalts God, we exalt Mary, but God, well, God exalts all the ordinary people without fame or fortune who nevertheless do great things by offering themselves to God’s creative power. Not everyone gives birth to Christ, of course, but all of us are capable of bringing a little more of God into the world.
There is also a subtle suggestion that maybe the best new ideas don’t come from kings on their thrones, however we interpret the “kings” of our day. After all, these are usually the folks who have a vested interest in things remaining the way they are. The God who is about to do a new thing often chooses “new” people—people not already known by their success or notoriety. At the communal level, creative solutions to social problems may already be quietly emerging from underfunded, grassroots sources, sources to which we should pay attention. At the personal level, creative energy may be quietly accumulating in nagging thoughts and emotions that we try to push away rather than investigate. If God was present in a Galilean backwater of the Roman Empire, then surely God is also active in unforeseen places in our social and personal lives today.
Oh, patience, patience! If I can understand that my tomato seeds take a long time to sprout, and even longer to produce ripe, red fruit, why do I expect the seeds of my decisions to swiftly bear results in my life? The Lord is indeed always near, present in every moment, but change is often slow and incremental. Choices need their own version of rain and sun and soil to take root and then unfold within us, and not the least of these is patient trust in God.
But whatever we are waiting for, be it tomatoes or life changes or the coming of Christ, there is a deeper message that lies beneath, and it is this: patience is the proper response to having set something in motion. Patience is meaningless in a void. We wait for something to grow after having first planted a seed. We wait for the incarnation of Christ after having first—in response to the always present God—invited that reality into our hearts. In the same sense, Advent is a meaningless season if we give no thought to what it means really—really—to open ourselves to these teachings: love your neighbor as yourself, feed the hungry, heal the sick, visit the prisoner, clothe the naked, love one another as I have loved you.
The message of both John and Jesus is a call to live according to the way of God and not the way of empire. The way of God is described over and over again by the prophets: take care of society’s most vulnerable (the widow, the orphan, the immigrant); limit the gap between rich and poor (the Year of Jubilee), do not use power to further the narrow self-interest of yourself and your friends; do not accumulate wealth at the expense of the poor. So when John’s disciples question Jesus, he answers in language they both understand: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed. This is the way of God—definitely not the way of empire. Nor is this news as reported by political shills; it is the good news that can be seen and heard by anyone who is paying attention.
The question put to Jesus is this: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” By implication, the question is also put to us: is this the one we are to follow—which would require us to change—or can we prolong business as usual for a while longer while we wait for someone else to come? If Jesus reveals God by his unswerving fidelity to God’s way of being in the world, then do we not reveal the same when we act in fidelity to Jesus? The incarnation of God in the world is always already happening, but we can act in ways that bring more light to the strangers in our midst, to our neighbors, our friends and family members, and—as so many devoutly desire at this time of year—to ourselves.
When Jesus turns back to the crowd, he uses the exchange with John’s disciples to sharpen the distinction between the God-John-Jesus way and the way of Rome. To whom do you grant authority when you’re deciding how to live? A paraphrase might go something like this:
“Where do you place your hope? In those dressed in soft robes? In those living in palaces? John is the one who prepared you for my message; clearly not Rome. You didn’t find John in soft robes and yet you invested him with the authority of a prophet of God. You won’t find me in soft robes, either. So think it through: what kind of authority do I have? Not the authority of Rome, of Caesar. Mine is a different authority, the authority of God.”
And then after all this talk of authority, after lifting John the Baptist above all others, he does a startling reversal and places in a position higher than John anyone who acts in such a way as to bring about the kingdom. In other words, Jesus is not overturning one social hierarchy only to set up another. The kingdom of God—the Holy Way—is a covenant of equals; equal in that the light of God shines equally in all. The opportunity to heal, to teach, to comfort, to feed, to clothe, to befriend; that is, to walk along the Holy Highway, is offered without prejudice to all.
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.
If you found this lectionary helpful, please consider contributing to Process & Faith by making a donation or becoming a member.