Third Sunday of Advent – December 11, 2011

Reading 1: Reading 2: Reading 3: Reading 4: 
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11Psalm 1261 Thessalonians 5:16-24John 1:6-8, 19-28

By Bruce G. Epperly

Today’s scriptures join mysticism and mission, and celebration and challenge. Holistic spirituality transforms our souls, but it also expands our level of concern such that the well-being of others and ourselves is one dynamic reality. The prophetic soul is lively, inclusive, and relational. It embraces otherness as part of our deepest reality. The prophetic soul sees the futures of others as connected with our own futures. Our present commitments to justice and shalom bring health to the futures of others as well as ourselves. This is what it means to love others as we love ourselves, that is, to see ourselves in an intricate fabric of relatedness in which we cannot distinguish between the authentic wellbeing of ourselves and others.

Isaiah speaks from a sense of mystical calling. God’s dramatic calling in the Temple (Isaiah 6:1-8) awakened Isaiah to God’s constant and concrete calling in every moment. He can claim that “God’s spirit is upon me” because he has discovered – and is now shaping – his life mission as God’s messenger to the people. The whole earth is full of God’s glory; reality is revelational and that includes moment and each person. Isaiah sees God moving in his own life and dedicates himself to promoting God-awareness and justice-seeking in his fellow citizens.

God calls everyone – I Corinthians 12 proclaims – but God may, in the intricate interdependence of community, call, and response, prepare unique vocations of spiritual leadership and prophetic challenge for certain women and men. This is not Rick Warren’s “purpose driven” call in which God has chosen all the important details of our lives without our consent, but rather a “vision inspired” call in which divine creativity encourages human freedom and innovation. Our call is forward toward an adventurous future rather backward to some primordial divine decision. God encourages activity, not passivity, in claiming our vocations. (For more on my challenges to Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life, see my Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Upper Room Books).

Isaiah’s words, echoed by Jesus in Luke 4:18-19, connect mysticism and mission. Isaiah’s authority is grounded in life-changing encounters with God; this authority is directed toward the healing of the nation, individually and communally. Good news emerges in our lives when the oppressed are freed, the grieving soothed, and the captives healed and sent home as new persons. God’s jubilee year is for everyone, not just the wealthy.

God’s jubilee year leads to the restoration and the transformation of the nation. Celebration is our response to God’s ever-present energies of justice. We are called on God’s behalf to “occupy the earth” with acts of kindness, reconciliation, and justice-seeking. If we are among the poor, we are called to advocate for others as well as ourselves. If we are among the comfortable – including the 1% or 25% – we are called to sacrifice some our opulence so that others may simply live.

As we consider Isaiah’s witness, we must take a moment to ponder his image of God’s day of vengeance. Jesus omits these words in his inaugural sermon. Did Jesus believe that these worlds would deter his followers from their mission as healers and justice-seekers? Did Jesus see these words as unworthy of his Parent, whose light shines on the unrighteous and righteous alike? We can challenge divine vengeance, while recognizing that the wealthy and powerful may experience pain and loss in letting go of their greed and possessiveness. Transformation may involve committing ourselves to venturing through God’s crucible of change. God does not want to harm the wealthy, but God’s call to transformation may be perceived as painful, nevertheless.

Psalm 126 continues the theme of restoration. In God’s day of national and personal restoration, sorrow will turn to laughter and mourning to joy. Justice-seeking leads to joyful celebration. The Hebraic/Old Testament readings pointedly ask: Are we on the side of restoration and transformation or preservation of our prerogatives? What needs to be restored and transformed in our lives and communities? Where do we see signs of restoration, re-orientation, and healing in our nation? What will we give up for the healing of the nation and the nations?

The words of I Thessalonians 5:16-24 connect communal and personal transformation with spiritual practices. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances….do not quench the Spirit…listen to the prophets…but ask questions and be discerning…seek good and not evil.” We are to act as citizens of God’s realm even before our world has been transformed. We are to be harbingers of spiritual transformation. An eschatological ethic, living moment by moment with hope of God’s coming realm, joins the journey inward and the journey outward. Our contemplations lead to actions, and our actions enable us to see the world through Christ’s eyes.

Jesus’ relative and good friend John the Baptist lived out his vocation as God’s way-maker for the healer and teacher Jesus. John creates a spiritual and ethical environment in preparation for Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation and healing. John is “sent” by God; that is, God uniquely moved in his life, as God did in the life of Isaiah, calling him for a particular mission in his concrete historical setting. John’s mission is not for the ages in some generic and impersonal way but for the here in now. He is speaking to his nation, to the affluent whose hearts are opening to a new way of life and to those who recognize the need for turning their lives around. But, his concrete first-century Galilean mission still transforms lives today. It invites to consider where we need to change course as individuals and citizens.

John knew Jesus long before both began their ministries. I suspect that in the years between twelve and thirty, Jesus and John played together, studied together, prayed together, and discerned God’s will together. I imagine that they were spiritual friends – anam cara, as the Celts say – to one another, testing each others’ callings and holding each other accountable to God’s vision for their lives. Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and so did John. John was not competitive. It was enough for him to be himself – a way-maker and a prophetic challenger. It was enough for him to be the advance man for his spiritual companion Jesus. Indeed, John exemplifies the kenotic theology – the theology of letting go – of Philippians 2:5-11.

John’s own ministry of transformation calls us to ask: What pathways are we called to prepare? For whom are we called to advocate and support? Whose greatness depends on our advance work? Can we let go so others might grow? Where are you called to make way for God’s Light in the world?

We are part of this first-century story. As we nurture our encounters with God, we prepare for God’s light in our midst. We become messengers of restoration and transformation rather than destruction and privilege. We come to see the well-being of others connected with our own well-being, and this vision inspires us to justice-seeking in our families, communities, national life, and planetary environment.

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty one books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the PerplexedHoly Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. He is available for lectures, workshops, and retreats.