The Second Sunday of Advent –(December 4, 2016)

November 18, 2016 | by Bruce Epperly

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Isaiah 11:1-10 Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19 Romans 15:4-13 Matthew 3:1-12

Watch out political leaders, be careful evangelists who claim to know God’s anointed president, take care those who identify tax cuts and repealing health care as God’s will. That’s certainly not what today’s scriptures suggest. While neither liberal nor conservative can claim fully to know God’s will for our social order, this week’s Advent readings challenge our complacency with unjust situations and our willingness to neglect the poor to balance the budget or increase defense spending.

The prophet Isaiah imagines a future political leader who will inspire the nation to embody God’s values and God’s values might be very different than the values of those who identify Christian faith with rugged individualism and free market capitalism. God, according to Isaiah, is the champion of the social safety net. Moreover, God has a “preferential option for the poor.” God’s chosen leader will put the needs of the poor ahead of the wealthy and the vulnerable ahead of the secure.

Isaiah proposes a “green” spirituality and politics. Out of dryness and death will come growth. Peace will abound and enemies will become friends. While we can’t chart the specifics of economics, politics, or foreign policy on these verses, they are a polestar for the human adventure. We cannot be content with injustice, poverty, violence, economic inequality, or war. We must place the quest for Shalom at the heart of our personal and political agenda. Such hopes seem unrealistic in our current national or global context, but without the polestar of Shalom, we will settle for injustice and greed as the norm. We will forget that we are created for just and healthy relationships at every level of existence.

Psalm 72 also presents an agenda for the ideal political leader. Would that Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr. share this passage with the President-elect? Would that they spoke as if the Bible had good counsel in our pluralistic culture? The ideal political leader, according to the Psalmist, will experience blessing if he or she follows God’s vision: “May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.” While we may not like the word “crush” as it refers to those who oppress the poor, we need to remember that God feels the pain of those who suffer injustice. God cares for the forgotten, marginalized, and maligned. Today, we need not look for a theocracy, but we would do well to listen and respond to the cries of the poor whether in the inner city, Appalachia, rural America, or in the shadows of suburbia. Economics matters to God, because economics is a matter of joy and sorrow, and life and death, for children and families. God is, as Alfred North Whitehead claims, “the fellow sufferer who understands” and God’s understanding reflects God’s experience of sorrow and joy alike, from the inside out and not as an impartial and apathetic observer.

The passage from Romans imagines followers of Jesus then and now abounding in hope. This seems a challenge to many in light of the apparent disregard of the environment, not to mention the marginalized, by the incoming administration. Still, hope can abound. It emerges out of loving and healthy relationships, first, within the community of faith and then in the larger world. According to Paul, Jesus becomes a servant not just to uplift his own Jewish people but also the Gentiles, the others, and the outsiders. Jesus has a servant’s heart that embraces all people, especially those whom we might ostracize, look down upon, or persecute. There are no outsiders in God’s realm. Even enemies bear the image of God and deserve our care, even when we must restrain their attempts to harm us.

The story of John the Baptist is challenging to decent Christian folk. What would we do – the pastor and her or his congregants – if John the Baptist showed up, shouting “Repent, the realm of God is near?” Would we consider his behavior and counterculture attire inappropriate? Would we think him impolite, a rabble rouser, worthy of a 911 call? John is certainly a prophetic troubler, and I feel convicted as a pastor to even invoke John the Baptist during the pre-Christmas rush. John challenges everything we see as normal, especially the normality of “good people” like us. He challenges our complacency – even the complacency of progressives and Trump despisers – as leading us down the path to destruction. We are all, as Thomas Merton confessed, guilty bystanders.

I have often imagined what would happen if a pastor – this pastor – said “Beware, you brood of vipers” to her or his well-mannered congregation. Would a congregational meeting be immediately called asking for her or his resignation? Or, would we look in the mirror and say that’s us – we are good folks but also vipers when it comes to our impact on the environment, our complacency about poverty, inequality, racism, sexism, and addiction? I’m not even sure how I would respond to such a call to repentance. But, I do know that I need to repent, to turn around, to change course, to get rid of all the “cumber” that stands between me and God’s vision. We would do well when we smugly denounce the new administration for its hard-heartedness to also look at our own ways of death. We are part of the problem as well as the solution. We need a change of heart and direction in our personal and corporate lives.

John is not expecting a divine rescue operation. Still, his words, hard as they are, are words of grace. Despite the past and our complicity in injustice and destruction, we can turn around. We can begin again. We can bear good, life-giving fruit. We need an alternative reality to guide our path, a reality that embraces all of us, and uplifts the least of us, as it challenges us to repent, turn around, and become champions of God’s new age in a world of conflict and complacency.

Bruce Epperly is Pastor and Teacher at South Congregational Church, United Church of Centerville, MA.( and member of the doctoral faculty of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington DC. An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), he is the author of forty books, including Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God; Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed;and A Center in the Cyclone: Twenty-first Century Clergy Self-care. He may be contacted for conversation and speaking engagements and retreats at