The Advent Insurgency (Isaiah 61:1-4)

Christmas is easy to find.  It’s everywhere.  Despite the protestations of the culture warriors who see attacks on nativity scenes and holiday displays at every turn, I feel inundated by Christmas.  There’s so much Christmas on display it is hard to see the world beyond the lights.  Christmas, in one form or another is everywhere.

Let’s take that premise at face value:  Christmas is all around.  Santa knows when we’re asleep and awake.  Holiday lights stay on all day and night.  The advertisements for holiday product have been on radio, television, and the internet since late September.  Christmas, whether for economic, religious, or social reasons dominates a third of our calendar year. We know Christmas is coming.  Holidays stress management and planning experts tell us each year:  do you shopping early.   Yet unique to the Christian tradition is a message, deep from the middle of Advent as Christmas is quickly approaching:  prepare!

The message is to prepare for whom and what’s coming next.  This preparation goes hand in hand with Advent (and the subsequent arrival of Christmas).   Preparation defines Advent.  Without preparing, there is no Advent and there will be no Christmas.  What we see as Christmas and define as indispensible holiday traditions are just imported cultural practices from central Europe.  That kind of Christmas takes no real effort.  It’s what we do each year on autopilot.  That’s why the Hallmark channel makes it look so simple.

Scripture says the preparatory work of Advent isn’t as shiny, glamorous, or predictable as we’ve come to expect.  There is little rote re-telling of stories and few reenactments of Jesus’ birth.

So how do we anticipate the arrival of something that’s already here?  What does one do to prepare for the reality we are currently encountering?

We begin by realizing where we are.  We are in the wilderness.  Our preparations begin in the least Christmas-like place one can imagine.  No one wants to picture the wilderness at Christmas, unless you’re listening to a collection of instrumental holiday favorites and you happen notice the snow covered peaks on the album cover.  The Advent story, which culminates on Christmas, begins and ends in the wilderness.  Whether it is the Judean desert, on a sand dune miles off shore, or a wilderness inside your soul; the geography doesn’t matter.  It is the detachment which defines the wilderness experience.

Amid the isolation, it is possible to hear a voice.  We don’t see a person or persons.  There is no manger with a cast of seven to nine people.  We hear a single voice, as both John and Isaiah say, “crying” in the wilderness.  Our preparation begins by listening.  Are we listening to the voice?  What does the voice say?

We make a path.  Advent, or Christmas for that matter, isn’t something that happens to us.  First, Christmas is something that arrives on our doorstep, whether in the form of a package, relatives, or a yearly church service.  Once Christmas comes, for all the busyness we manufacture this time of year, it’s becomes a very passive experience.  We listen to others sing.  We see the lights on someone else’s house.  We drive by the nativity scenes.  We receive cards from family and friends.  After an initial flurry, for the most part, Christmas happens to us.  We sit there and watch the Advent calendar open one day at a time.

Isaiah, John, and ultimately Jesus say something unique about listening and preparation.  Advent is a season of active engagement with God.  We prepare with God, in the wilderness; well before the world sees Bethlehem, wise men, or a star in the east.  The truth is that it’s hard to get to Bethlehem because of the spiritual and material clutter confusing family celebrations, gift giving, the winter solstice, and the incarnation of Christ into one grand cultural celebration.

We clear the clutter and prepare a path by listening to what Isaiah says about how God wants us to engage with the world.  Remember, Jesus preached these same words from the Isaiah when they ran him out of his home synagogue in Nazareth and tried to kill him.  Listening is hard in the wilderness.  This kind of listening makes us uncomfortable because we’re asked to change something that’s more important to us that gold, frankincense, or myrrh:  our perspective.

What exactly does Isaiah say?  He tells us that path-clearers are sent to do many things:

  • To bring good news to the poor,
  • To bind up the broken hearted,
  • To proclaim release for the captives
  • And liberation for the prisoners
  • To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
  • To comfort all who mourn
  • To provide for all of Zion’s mourners
  • To give them a crown instead of ashes
  • To give them joy instead of mourning

Listen one more time:  bring, bind, proclaim, liberate, comfort, provide, and give.  Bringers, binders, providers and givers are using the path to make Advent come alive.  There is nothing passive about those verbs.

Advent is about how we prepare to meet the physical and spiritual needs of vulnerable people.  We prepare for this in Advent, because as Jesus preaches in Nazareth, this is what he came to do.  This is his mission statement.

How many times did you see the word all?  This message is for everyone.  No one is excluded.  There are no qualifiers on the poor (at home or around the world), broken hearted, captives, or prisoners.  Isaiah does say, “All who mourn” and “all of Zion’s mourners”.  As we prepare for the coming of the Messiah there is an acknowledgement of the reality of grief, especially in the midst of the holiday season.  God embraces, welcomes, and offers comfort to our sadness.  In the midst of our preparation, no one is told to get over it, take a walk to clear your head; you should be over it by now, or any other tired cliché.  If you are grieving this holiday season, there is a place on the cleared path where God can meet you.  The waiting is over.  You’re not alone.

Last thing I’ll say is this:  it’s hard to bind, bring, prepare, liberate, and comfort if our hands are full of stuff.  We need both hands free to do what Isaiah, John, and Jesus say we should be doing in order to prepare.  The problem is, at Christmas, we’ve got our hands full.  Whether it’s buying things we don’t need or moving clutter from point A to point B; our lives are otherwise engaged.  It’s hard to be actively involved for “all”, especially the most vulnerable, if our hands are full with our concerns.  Perhaps, in order to get ready for Jesus, part of clearing the path means we need to put a few things down.

Richard Lowell Bryant

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Hatchet Job: Take Down the Manger

What do you see when you encounter the Manger scene, a live nativity, or imagine Luke’s description of Jesus’ birth?   Despite the cultural differences and varying artistic influences; the characters never change.  One will always find a dutiful Joseph, a pensive Mary, submissive beasts, amazed shepherds, a cosmic beacon, regal eastern visitors, and a sleeping baby Jesus.  This is how we’ve come to picture Jesus’ birth.  Whether shoved to a stable by a overbooked inn keeper or placed in a guest room by overwhelmed members of his Joseph’s family; the Incarnation is recorded as something other than regal or divine.

Despite countless Sunday School lessons and Christmas Pageants (even a few sermons) on the counter-intuitive nature of a Messiah in a stable; each year we gladly look past the very contradictions God calls on us to embrace.  In truth, it makes us uncomfortable to worship a poor God born to an unwed teenage mother.  It’s awkward to discuss how she and Joseph will feed a child given the endemic poverty in which they live.  It’s painful to think about the world in which this baby will grow up; a world where no matter how hard you work, you’ll never be free or equal to the Romans.

To avoid engaging with the reality at center of the nativity scene, we usually ignore what we don’t want see. It is easier to eschew something making you uncomfortable if you can focus on cute shepherds, baby faced angels, sweet donkeys, and cuddly cows.  Again we invert the contradiction, nothing about the Nativity is supposed to be cute, cuddly, warm, meek, mild, or silent.   The world, the Romans, those who would seek to use the Christ Child to advance certain agendas need to overlook the child, the child’s message, and revise the context of the world in which he entered.  The world, like the manger, is dirty, nasty, smelly, full of shady characters, and people living on the edge of economic survival.  There’s nothing charming about that picture.  If we’re distracted by angels and shepherds, maybe we won’t pay attention to what the Christ Child is saying about injustice, inequality, debt, slavery, and the lack of human kindness so much so that babies are being born in stables.

Like avoiding an annoying relative at Christmas lunch, we hope by talking to the shepherds or hearing a fascinating tale of Persian adventures, the sleeping baby will stay quiet.  The last thing we want to do is engage with the Christ Child.  Far from the demands of child rearing, diaper changing and nighttime feeding; the child will make claims on our lives that we (as Nativity) observers are not prepared to make.  The Christ Child will want to us to stop looking at the manger and stand inside the world he has come to inhabit.

The incarnation is an invitation to join with Jesus in the Good News.  The Good News begins in the poorest of circumstances, a place where the poor are sheltered from a Roman Census.  The Good News begins in a place where people are treated like animals.  Where people are dehumanized, this is where the Good News goes first.  The uncomfortable truth about the Gospel is that it has very little do with the trappings what we call “Christmas”.  Our mission is to take people out of the dehumanizing mangers they call home and bring them to places of safety and security.  We are still called to do this.

A manger isn’t something to idolize.  It’s something to tear down and abandon.  It’s a symbol of a broken economic, social, and religious system.  Let’s not accept mangers scenes as the status quo for anyone.  Let’s stop building mangers scenes.

Richard Lowell Bryant

What Is the Reason for the Season?

What is the “reason” for the season?  I ask because I’m wary of simplistic answers to questions which easily rhyme.  Does the one word answer “Jesus” serve as an adequate response to a query fraught with theological, social, and emotional baggage?  I am not certain it does.  Simply stating “Jesus”, pointing at the manger, and expecting the contextual blanks to be filled in as one would complete a holiday Mad-Lib raises more questions. Jesus who? How does this event, captured in manger scenes, live nativities, and Christmas pageants define anything about daily life in post-truth, post-fact, 50% off at Wal-Mart, 21st century America?

In order to answer the question, “what is the reason for the season?” I return to John the Baptizer.  John’s dramatic calls for preparation give clear reasons why the Messiah is coming.  In his explication of these ideas, we also see John laying the groundwork for our engagement with “the one who is coming”.  In short, the Messiah’s reasons become our motivations.   If we listen to John carefully, we will hear that there’s never one reason which defines Jesus’ arrival, mission, or ministry. The Good News is more than just a headline.  It’s everything.  When you find the farthest star you can see, go back further.  The Good News and the God who brings this message is everything between you and the infinite.  The baby in the manger makes the vastness of God comprehensible to a species who only uses about ten percent of their brains.

John’s loved Isaiah.  You can hear him quoting Isaiah in the passages quoted in the Gospel readings which form our Advent lectionary.  Isaiah was John’s lectionary.  He lived and breathed Isaiah’s words of liberation.  While Mark tells us John preached from Isaiah 40, I’m sure John was also reading Isaiah 58.  In fact, I can’t read through Isaiah 58-60 without hearing (what I imagine to be) John’s voice preaching these words.

It’s here, in Isaiah 58, that I find in John the Baptizer’s lectionary, the reasons for the season.  Isaiah puts it this way:

9Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 10if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. 11The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. 12Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

Isaiah’s message, which I’m certain John preached, and then became the core of Jesus’ teachings is this:  stop pointing fingers, speaking evil, be light, reject darkness, be a repairer of broken things, give food to the hungry, and satisfy the needs of the afflicted.  Help remove suffering from others.  Do these things as a way of life, not one month or six weeks out of the year (when TV stations or charities hold coat/toy drives), but every day.

Mark says the “beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ” began in the Judean wilderness with John the Baptizer preaching the gospel from Isaiah when Jesus came to be baptized.  Jesus allowed the two dimensional reasons of Isaiah to take life and become a three dimensional incarnate reality.

Are we content with single word explanations and quaint depictions of a sleeping child? Or, do we want to know the reasons God became human?  Oh, and notice this, neither Isaiah, John, or Jesus asks anyone why they are naked, hungry, thirsty, or needy.  God takes care of them.  No questions asked. God doesn’t need a reason.  That’s our thing.    We’re the “reason” people.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Forget the Inn, Is there Room at the Table?

“Is there a seat for me at this table?” Perhaps no other question defines the essence of Christian hospitality.  We are a people whose worship services are defined by the remembrance and reenactment of a Jewish Passover meal.  This meal, according to tradition and custom, was celebrated around a table.  The parameters of the Eucharist, while cosmic and ultimately indefinable, are shaped by the idea of the table.  Whether the altar rail functions as our table or we gather around a physical table, we want to know that when the bread is broken and the cup is shared there will be enough space for everyone.  No one, even the Judas’ among us, should be excluded from this unique, all-encompassing communal experience.  This is what we learn from Jesus.

What is the sound you hear on this first Wednesday in Advent?  It is the blacksmith’s anvil forging swords into plowshares?  Yes, we pray for the peace of Jerusalem.  I also pray it is the sound of your neighbor scooting over and making a little room at a table that isn’t theirs.  Christmas isn’t our party.  We are all like John McClain (Bruce Willis) in the Die Hard movies.  Barefoot and unprepared for anything; we arrive ready to serve others.  We’re all working guests, halfwit bridesmaids, hedgerow dwellers, and someone’s last minute choice pulled in from the darkness and ushered into the Kingdom.  Welcome to Bethlehem, pal!

There are no saved seats in the kingdom of God.  We cannot reserve that which is not ours to claim. This baby we’re all waiting on, the one we call “Emmanuel”, is the place saver.  Our world, which thrives on the daily cycles of scarcity and abundance, demands we know what is ours, places to be reserved, deposits made, and the future secured.  The baby, the infant, the child, the one we call “God with us”, saves a single place for each of us, our family,  our friends, and the world.  This place is insecure and puts us far beyond our comfort zones, conversational norms, familial bonds, and how we define love.  The Good News is this: despite these insecurities and challenges, God is with us.  Spoiler alert: That’s the meaning of Christmas.

My question is this: are we with God?  Are we “Emmanuel” people? Are we prepared to have God challenge who we love, how we love, who we talk to, how we relate to friends and families, and who gets a seat at the table?  If not prepared for the baby’s challenge, you’re not ready for Christmas.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Don’t Just Stand There, Take Your Drum and Go Tell Someone About Jesus

The Nativity scene isn’t a worship service. It’s a temporary staging ground for bringing love into the world.

Put your drum down or take it with you, I don’t care.  What matters is what you do when you leave the Nativity Scene.

Nobody wants to be the last person standing at the manger. Take the love, the message, the joy and go tell someone else.

Society alienates. Advents re-orientates our lives so we might see how alienated we’ve become.

Advent is about the message preceding the moment. Moments fade. The Message endures.

What are we preparing for? Is it the image of a baby in a manger? Or the absolutely cosmos shifting idea that God becomes frail, vulnerable and human?

Preparing for Jesus’ return is a multi-sensory experience. Are we watching? Are we listening? Do we see the people we try to imitate by wearing bathrobes who are walking among us? Are we listening to their needs? Mary and Joseph are on our doorstep.

No, I don’t hear or see what you hear or see.  Our experiences are different.  You be you.  I’ll be me.  We’ve made Advent a Norman Rockwell print and called it Christmas.  Conformity is killing Advent in the name of Christmas.  We bring different gifts to discipleship.  Use your gifts when you leave the Nativity.

“Speak, voice is crying out, comfort O my people, call out!” Isaiah wants someone to listen.  I have a feeling he’s not talking about Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, or any other beloved Christmas songs.  Isaiah listening is Advent listening.  Advent listening is hard.

All I Really Need To Know About Advent I Learned from John the Baptist

Most of what I really need to know about Advent (and Christmas for that matter), I didn’t learn from gazing at Nativity scenes. The Baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, shepherds, and the three wise men taught me very little about how to live, what to do, and how to be the best Christmas version of me. No, any Advent wisdom I learned didn’t come from Bethlehem or Nazareth. The truth is you don’t stand a chance to learn about Christmas by standing in an overcrowded stable. All I really needed to know about Advent I learned from a homeless man living by the Jordan River. His name was John.

• Everyone is on the naughty list
• Christmas is never the clean, antiseptic, well-mannered holiday you expect
• Jesus’ arrival ought to make everyone uncomfortable
• Holy People and Nativity Scene Aficionados should be the most nervous
• If the baby in the manger doesn’t challenge you, you’re in the wrong stable
• Water can only make you so clean
• If you’re constantly listening to Andy Williams or Mariah Carey you’re not hearing the Holy Spirit
• The system is rigged
• Truth telling will get you killed
• Advent and Christmas aren’t about conveying some magic formula of words
• It’s ok to wander around in the wilderness. Everything starts in the middle of nowhere.
• The Jesus story starts with crying out in the wilderness and ends with crying on the cross
• As such, happiness is overrated

Hatchet Job: Mark 13

I am astonished by the presumption of the creators of the lectionary.  The shortsighted conspiracy of hype leading those who select Biblical texts to decide the 13th chapter of Mark holds any redeeming spiritual value as text to be read in Christian churches on the first Sunday of Advent is beyond comprehension.  Using Mark’s gospel as an Advent text may be the worst religious decision since Franklin Graham was invited to pray at the most recent Presidential inauguration.  Like Graham’s prayer; it pretends to be timely, it is tone deaf, and it alienates more people in the long run.

By now, United Methodists are well into the “Christmas” spirit, Advent is an afterthought (even for most Christians), and the church is about to begin the four Sunday layup announcing the arrival of the Son of God. We do this by giving one week to Mark’s apocalyptic vision of black holes, lunar chaos, a cloud surfing Jesus, and a withered fig tree.  Is it any wonder people think churches are out of touch?  Through our expert homiletic skill and Emersonian like word play, preachers will attempt to tie Mark’s clear references to the end of the world back to the non-threatening, life affirming coming of the Christ child which, as we know, isn’t intended to scare the hell out of anyone.

Mark’s story of a withered fig tree has nothing to do with Jesus coming as an infant.  There is no connection.   It’s a weird, off the wall point with no larger meaning or value.  It, along with Mark’s celestial references, is the round peg we try to make fit the square hole called “Christmas”.  We manufacture the connection and call it Advent 1.

There is no relationship between the events Mark’s Jesus understood to be imminent signs of the apocalypse and the birth of Jesus.  While Mark 13 can be read to indicate the second coming of Jesus, an event which largely lacks the friendly undertones of Hallmark movies, shopping trips, and large family gatherings; Mark’s words do not point to a Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays.  If anything, they orient us toward the certainty of death, the absurdity of pinning Jesus’ return to a particular date and time, and the impossibility of being fully prepared for Jesus’ actual arrival.

We can never be ready.  It is a lie to pretend otherwise.  We fall for the hype of Mark’s unreal expectations.  “Yeah, we’re going to be awake, we’re going to get Christmas right and never miss a thing this year.”  (Remember the Aerosmith song, “Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”.  Even they missed things.)  In an hour, with full stomachs and self-satisfied egos, we’re asleep around our new flat screen televisions.  We will fall asleep, down on the job, and miss the critical moment.  This is who we are and it is unavoidable.  Mark misses the mark.  He leaves out the possibility that we don’t need to stay awake because grace, in the form of angels, shepherds, or a homeless man named John the Baptizer will wake us up.  The smell of the rotting fig tree is pretty powerful.

We will be dragged kicking and screaming to the manger.  Mark, the moody end of the world obsessed teenager, sitting at the back of the manger needs to be ignored.  We’re going to get there and no one will be asleep.  Mark should get over his dark obsessions and find some conspiracy website to post his musings.  I’m sure he’ll find plenty of takers who’ll love his end of the world nonsense.  Get over yourself Mark!  If we’re asleep, we will wake up!  We always do.  The stuff about the moon going dark and the black hole you’re predicting; it is just weird.  Your data is rooted in first century astrology and has no basis in science. On top of everything else, your depressing end of the world crap turns people off.  Please shut up.  The joy train is coming to town.  The shepherds, angels, and John the Baptist are rolling up on Bethlehem in due course.  Check your weirdness, your emotional baggage, and the stupid fig tree at the door.

Peace Out,

Hatchet Man