This post is an excerpt from a sermon I preached Dec. 4. Find the full text here.
This Advent, I’ve heard many Christians saying how excited they are for the season of hope and comfort. After the stress of the election and the beating 2016 has given us, they ask to avoid the dark things and focus on the hope.
When I hear this, I wonder if these Christians are really want comfort or if they want stability. If they are asking to hear peace, peace when there is no peace. I wonder if these Christians are searching not for hope, but for the opiate of the masses. When spoken by the privileged, pleas of hope can sound like pleas for ignorant bliss. Let’s speak of hope, they say, because we have the luxury of choosing when we have to confront oppression.
When the people asking for hope live in middle- and upper-class comfort, it sounds like they are asking for permission to bury their heads in the sand.
I’m tired of the church asking for hope. As a single woman taking an inventory of the harassment I’ve experienced and estimating how much it will grow, I’m not interested in hope for 2017. I’m interested in risk. Solidarity. Deliberate, communal social action Jesus led the disciples into again and again, confronting Jewish and Roman systems of oppression.
The Peaceable Kingdom of Isaiah is a gorgeous image, the wolf lying with the lamb and the goat and the leopard and the child leading them. But it’s also a troubling one. As I reflected on the text, I realized I could not avoid telling a troubling truth: by all accounts, you will have to be vegetarian in the kingdom of God. If the bear is not allowed to eat the cow, if the lion is eating straw—best believe there will be no hamburgers in heaven.
This is the key distinction about Advent hope: Jesus did not come to offer hope that you can eat bacon regardless of your cholesterol; Jesus came to offer hope that vegetarian food is not that bad.
Isaiah 11 is not as tame or comfortable as we’ve made it the Christian church. A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse—and “he will not judge by what he sees with his eyes or decide by what he hears with his ears, but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.”
This is a very polite way of saying wealth redistribution. In the Hebrew text, this word righteousness, tzedeqah, has a deeply nuanced meaning. One Rabbi calls it “distributive justice,” in opposition to the word mishpat, which is retributive justice, or justice to correct individual action. Tzedeqah and mishpat go hand-in-hand. It is blind justice accompanied by justice who is peaking, correcting the failings of blind justice. It is social justice.
The shoot of Jesse doesn’t judge by what he sees—he doesn’t separate out the “deserving poor” from the “undeserving poor.” He across the board develops a sense of justice that has a distinct bias for the poor.
Make no mistake, Isaiah is the prophet who said, in chapter 1:
I hate your new moon festivals and your appointed feasts,
They have become a burden to Me;
I am weary of bearing them.
So when you spread out your hands in prayer,
I will hide My eyes from you;
Yes, even though you multiply prayers,
I will not listen.
Your hands are covered with blood.
Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean;
Remove the evil of your deeds from My sight.
Cease to do evil,
Learn to do good;
Reprove the ruthless,
Defend the orphan,
Plead for the widow.”
Everything in Isaiah (and the prophets generally) prioritizes the disenfranchised. Everything is correcting social injustice, we say this in the subversive Magnificat: “to the hungry he gives food, turns the rich away empty.” “He uplifts the lowly and scatters the proud-hearted.”
This is, on the one hand, hopeful. But it also means we will be asked to give deeply. And not just asked to give, compelled to give. Our lives will be shaken to the core.
One pastor I spoke with this week put it this way: “God could have just destroyed the wolf and the lion and the snake. But God chose to reintegrate them with the vulnerable creatures.”
Isaiah prophesied in Judah under the reign of several kings. He grew up watching the current superpower, the Assyrian Empire, conquer all the states surrounding Judah. He counseled King Ahaz about how to respond to Assyrian aggression, and in all cases, Isaiah counseled a domestic social policy that preserved the rights and livelihood of the poor. Isaiah’s hope centered on a political policy of responding to the disenfranchised. And, as the book goes on and the kings cut social services and minimize the poor, Isaiah’s laments become more profound. He sees the destruction of the kingdom, the disintegration of the whole social fabric. Paradoxically, Isaiah argues, no international power can destroy the country if their domestic policy is sound. With a claim like that, surely, Isaiah would be a recipient of Donald Trump’s hateful and impulsive tweets.
Jesus’ birth does not bring an easy hope.
The first thing the Savior of the World does is threaten his parents so severely that they leave in the night without a word to their relatives. Joseph and Mary wake in the night and flee to Egypt, leaving their house and property in Nazareth and slipping for several years from the working poor into deep poverty. They become refugees.
The hope of Jesus invites those insulated from oppression–however thinly–to take risks.
If you are looking for comfort this Advent, I’m sure you can find a room at the inn. But if you are looking for Jesus, you’ll have to get out of that fancy hotel room and walk to the parking lot and have a metaphorical cigarette with the homeless family in the ally. That’s where Jesus is.
The hope that Jesus brings is less comfort than resilience. Less complacency than persistence. The hope Jesus brings is tenacity and love and grit.
Hope is itinerant poverty in a tent community in Nazareth.
Hope is that we, Christians and kingdom builders, have more imagination and art and song and resilience than King Herod who clings to the status quo.
Hope is that our emotional intelligence far outstrips that of the politicians who legislate us.
Hope is in downsizing.
There’s nothing glossy in our Advent hope. It is gritty. Hope is remaining committed to lament, for the next four years, every time Donald Trump gets on Twitter or, even more, proposes absurd and unconstitutional legislation. Hope is repeated calls to elected officials even when we know they will not listen. Hope is faithful, nonviolent rebellion.
Hope is participation in a community of resistance. Hope is the depth of our resistance.