December 19, 2010
Commentary by Jeanyne B. Slettom
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
These Advent texts have focused a lot on what I’ve been calling—borrowing from Isaiah—the Holy Way of God. This is the way of economic and social justice, where goods are distributed in such a way that everyone has enough to sustain life, where power is not used to oppress, where compassion and respect guide all interpersonal (and interspecies) relationships. It is the message that Jesus will preach in parables and the beatitudes and such powerful examples as Matthew 25:40, where he asks us to evaluate ourselves by the criterion of how well we treat the “least of these” among us. It is also clearly distinct from Roman imperial rule.
In delineating the two ways, the texts are clear about which one to take, but this assumes the texts are addressing themselves to people who have at least the minimum power to choose. And that calls the question: who is the implied reader in this story? More to the point, where do we find ourselves in this story? The question is pertinent, especially given the Advent/Christmas message of hope and good will.
As I see it, there are at least three potential audiences for these texts: the rich and powerful, the poor and oppressed, and everyone in between. One can always hope to persuade the rich and powerful to adopt egalitarian ways, of course, but the record of history is dismal for this. They are fairly well locked into the Imperial Way. One can hope, however, to persuade all the in-betweens—those rank and file, so to speak, who don’t wield a lot of power, but whose quiescence supports those in power. These folks—a good example would be the North American middle class—typically don’t rock the boat because they want to get on board some day and enjoy the advantages they are now denied. This is a group that faces the two ways every day, and every day, in countless ways, must choose. God or Caesar? These folks are open to persuasion.
And then there are the marginalized and oppressed, and here I must pause, because it is to these people that the good news is given. How do the marginalized hear a message of good will in a world where the power structure is designed to work against them?
Sticking just to the North American context, there are many people who are losing their homes, their jobs, their dignity, and they think it’s their fault. With so many frightened and angry and despondent people, where is the message of good cheer this Christmas season? Surely these are the ones who need it the most and will be listening the hardest to hear it from the pulpit.
We can’t preach an ATM God—put your prayer in and out comes the money to pay your mortgage, to keep your Cobra insurance, to buy enough gas to make it to and from work five or six or seven days a week. But we can use the two ways to preach about the other side of sin—the sinned against. Without tipping over into victimology, we can call out the dominant powers, name the injustices, unmask the hypocrisy. We can declare, unequivocally, where God stands. And then we can preach hope and trust in this God of justice and transformation, of indwelling presence—literally, incarnation.
This passage comes in the chapter immediately following Isaiah’s throne vision and call. It is his first act as a prophet of God. Two kings have joined forces and are marching on Jerusalem with the intent to invade and “break her spirit.” God’s message to Ahaz, king of Judah, is to have faith and stand firm, because these invading kings will not prevail. The message is both an assurance and a warning—trust in God, not armies; rely on faith, not fear.
The Christian appropriation of this text is not surprising, given the reference to the woman who will give birth to a son whom she will name “God-With-Us.” In the Jewish context, the woman has been interpreted historically, for example, as the mother of Hezekiah, or metaphorically, as a sign act for Israel. However it is understood, from either the Jewish or Christian traditions, the sign can be broadly interpreted as God’s promise of life, of survival; specifically, new life in and through God.
Continuing in this broad vein, anyone who lives in and through God can be described as one who knows “how to refuse the evil and choose the good.” This applies to prophets and kings (Hezekiah was indeed one such king), as well as to Jesus whom we call the Christ. The challenge, as well as the lure, is for us to consider what new life we can experience if we truly open ourselves to this indwelling God. To choose God’s transforming “power-with,” over the world’s dominating “power over”; to trust in God rather than riches or goods; to rely on faith, not fear, is to choose the good and reject evil; it is to live in and with God.
This passage comes right after God (through Isaiah) has told Ahaz to have faith and stand firm. It continues immediately with God telling Ahaz to ask for a sign—an extravagant sign, as deep as Sheol or as high as heaven. It is when Ahaz backs off that God responds with an even more extravagant promise—the promise of life itself, and God’s presence in the midst of that life, no matter what the threat is at the gate. Expect that, Isaiah tells Ahaz: have faith, stand firm, and know that God is with you. This is a hopeful message for any age.
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
In the introduction to this commentary I noted the three potential audiences for the Advent message. This text makes clear that the good news is promised to those living under the yoke of oppression, and that message is salvation. Not incidentally, salvation comes from the light of God, not the might of weapons or riches or fame.
Beneath this deceptively simple summation of Jesus Christ lies an extraordinary challenge. Among other things, the “good news” is the proclamation of the Holy Way of God—a decidedly different way to be in the world and wield power than the Imperial Way of Rome. And Paul is certainly greeting “God’s beloved” in Rome, but he is also bringing the Holy Way right into the heart of the empire. Again the differences between the two ways can be inferred from the text: Paul comes in the peace of God; when Rome sets forth, it is in the form of Caesar’s invading armies. By taking his message to the Gentiles, Paul makes it clear that God’s vision of justice and peace is a global one. Even as the Babylonian exiles made the shift from a tribal to a universal God, Paul declares the shift from an ethic of justice required of one nation and one people to an ethic of justice required of all nations and all people.
There is a threefold imperative that flows through this passage: “You are to name him Jesus”; “they shall name him Immanuel”; “and he named him Jesus.” It calls to mind another verse later in the gospel (Mt 16:15), when Jesus asks the question that, in many ways, is the defining question for Christian faith: “who do you say that I am?”
The command has echoed through the centuries from generation to generation, right up to and including our present generations: name him, name him, name him. What do we name him? Simple, we name him Jesus. But Jews and Muslims name him Jesus, too. However we understand incarnation—as a once-for-all event in Jesus or as descriptive of the way God is always present in the world—it is how we name Jesus that either makes him determinative in our lives, or not. So . . . do we name him Immanuel? Do we say that God was so present in Jesus that Jesus re-presents God to us in a unique way? To name Jesus “God-With-Us” is, after all, to say something of that nature—that, in Jesus, God is with us in a specific way. The question, then, is how to respond. If a God-infused Jesus means that Jesus relates to people and power a certain way, then surely that is a way we are to follow.
The Advent/Christmas season is a natural time to reflect on these things, because although Jesus was specific to a particular time and place, Jesus Christ is always coming into the world. The practice of enough, the path of justice, inclusion, compassion, and peace is always open to us, and the birth narrative is an open invitation to choose this path and experience rebirth.
The Christmas story is at heart a promise: that with God there is always a new beginning. No matter how bleak the situation is—an occupying Roman army, opulent lives for the rich and starvation for the poor, dunning calls from creditors—whatever the situation is, God is always ready to do a new thing, to offer another way . . . and usually in a completely surprising way. This promise is especially compelling in these hard times, when so many are re-evaluating how they live and what they truly value. Christmas itself is undergoing a rebirth, as folks of necessity switch the focus of their celebrations away from gift binges to more meaningful activities. In the midst of all this, we are again confronted with this Galilean peasant and once again given the opportunity to name him, that is, to name his significance for our lives, to make him the determinative factor in how we choose to behave, and to claim the promise of new life, new being in and with God, rebirth.
You are to name, they shall name, he named. What about you? Who do you say that I am?
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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