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Note from the Editors
Though Advent is a season chock-full of worship and devotional resources, few Advent devotionals are designed specifically through the lens of social justice. This is our attempt to fill that niche at Unbound.
The story of Jesus’ birth includes great hope for peace, joy, and love–but woven throughout the narrative are systems of empire and oppression that are threatened by one tiny infant with claim to a higher kin-dom.
Like the shepherds who spread the Good News and the wise ones who refused to betray Jesus to Herod, we too are called not just to witness the birth for ourselves, but to bear witness to its display of power-subverting love and to stand against a status quo of incomplete justice.
Recognizing that pastors and laypeople alike may have their own favorite devotionals to use each year, we limit this to a brief supplement, selecting weekly verses (NRSV) that are already included in the Revised Common Lectionary (Year C). We accompany each verse with a reflection that can serve as an introduction to the scripture verse or as the spark for a sermon idea. We also include a prayer for each week that can be read either in worship or at the dinner table. For weeks 1, 3, and 4 we base our reflection on the Gospel reading from Luke. In week 2, we highlight instead an optional lectionary reading from the book of Malachi.
These reflections extend the message of the Christmas story to touch on climate change, global conflict, economic justice, and the abuse of power. If Advent truly is a time of for hope, for peace, for joy, and for love, then it has to intersect with these challenging issues. So, this Advent we wish you all a thought-provoking season as we wait, not only for Christ, but for justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
May our waiting be accompanied by proactivity and commitment, modeled after the Christ which God sends to us.
Henry Koenig Stone, Managing Editor
Chris Iosso, General Editor
November 30, 2018
Week 1: Hope takes the form of action.
Scriptural Selection—Luke 21:25-36
25 “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.
26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
27 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.
28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
29 Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees;
30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.
31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.
32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.
33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
34 “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly,
35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.
36 Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
Jesus’ words of warning in Luke 21 are general enough to be applied to many situations—and the use of a parable opens up layers of metaphorical interpretation. Right now the phrase “on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves” can even be read fairly literally as a warning about climate change. Regardless of Jesus’ possible reference to specific events, however, there is a broader principle at work in his words.
The passage highlights a fascinating relationship between hope and inevitability. The call Jesus makes is not to avert world-changing events; these are taken as a given. But, in the face even of “heaven and earth passing away,” there is room for individual actions to matter. In this particular verse Jesus does not preach that purity or degree of belief are magical solutions to avert calamity without struggle. He says instead to be alert, preaching proactivity even in the face of “fear and foreboding” toward what is coming.
Whether the calamity being faced at any given time is a natural disaster, a war, or some other human-made calamity, Jesus does not give us the luxury of ignoring the problem for God to solve. He tells us to preach for strength to endure.
Jesus’ kind of faith in God, not as Deus ex machina but as a source of hope and strength, is more robust to catastrophe than a faith which assumes sunshine and roses are our due for all time. Jesus allows for realism, instead of fantasy. He motivates action, rather than apathy. He allows for hope even when things are scary.
It will always take a lot of realism, a lot of action, and a lot of hope to continue to engage the calamities which are to come.
Help us to avoid being so caught up in fear and desolation that we give up on doing your justice.
Open our eyes that we may see the warning signs of conflict, of environmental degradation, and of all other cases where humans are sowing catastrophe.
Give us the strength of conviction that it takes to acknowledge that the things we know will pass away and may well be forgotten—and that we are called to do your work nevertheless.
Help us to be empowered by the hope you give at Christmas, and to turn that hope into action.
In the name of Jesus, whose commitment went beyond the life we know,
Week 2: Peace demands justice.
Scriptural Selection—Malachi 3:1-6
1 See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight–indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.
2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap;
3 he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness.
4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.
5 Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.
6 For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished. 7 Ever since the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts. But you say, “How shall we return?”
The text from Malachi is an optional reading in the lectionary, which omits verses 5 and 6. A justice-oriented reading of the text benefits from their inclusion, however.
The Malachi text may seem like as strange choice for the week often devoted to peace—but it fits more clearly once we think about what it would take to really achieve a peace with justice for all of God’s children. The list starting with “sorcerers” may at first seem antiquated, and yet may resonate when we think of the inscrutable forces at work in our amazing technology—forces that seem godlike and yet sow misinformation and fear in order to gain power.
The remainder of the list is right on the money: today as in Jesus’ time, power is abused over workers, over women and children, and over immigrants. In fact, the list is far more progressive than our society in recognizing and condemning widespread abuses of power. Imagine the transformation in our land and our world, were we to pay fair wages to all, support widows and orphans, welcome the alien, and fear God more than we fear the rulers of our day.
In a way, the text is backwards, with the question at the end and the answer at the beginning. We know that we are to return to God, yet we feign ignorance of what is required. Malachi calls us to embrace the refiner’s fire, confident that God can find what is true and good in us and use it for God’s purposes.
Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts. It is time to desist from our coveted forms of institutionalized oppression.
We treasure your Peace, given to us through Christ and through the love and support of one another. Help us to remember that peace without justice is no peace. Help us to remember that peace for only some is peace for none. Help us to remember that your peace comes not just as a tiny child, but also as an equally vulnerable adult critic of society, whose truth-telling and self-sacrificing are ever intertwined.
Help us to keep the stakes of your justice in mind—not just the risk of your judgement, but the very real stakes for those who suffer when peace is replaced by apathy.
And help us to put your justice into action by resisting trickery and deception, protecting those at the margins of society, and providing welcome to the stranger.
In the name of Jesus, who did all these things in pursuit of your Just Peace,
Week 3: The Good News exposes the fake.
Scriptural Selection—Luke 3:7-18
7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.
9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?”
11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”
12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?”
13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”
14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,
16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
Good old John the Baptist. Where is the joy in this text? Rare is the person who can call others a “brood of vipers” and still have them come to you for advice. It’s important to remember how radical John’s message was and is—because it is radical to expect a society in which the powerful do not abuse the weak.
The stakes may seem rather harsh. To John’s mind, folks not on board with the agenda of justice are like trees that will be chopped down for firewood, or chaff to be burned “with unquenchable fire.” And this is supposed to be good news to the people?
Yes, actually. But not because people who abuse power are to get their comeuppance. John’s vision is good news because it reimagines the social order to avoid problems which are often considered endemic to the human condition.
It is easy to get stuck on one side or the other of John’s language; it is polarizing. Is the verdict too harsh for a purportedly New Testament-style, loving God? Or does John rightly justify skepticism toward all human authority, and condemnation toward those whom we know have power to abuse? Probably the truth is somewhere in the middle, with condemnation and redemption both available to the world.
John’s fiery language is reminiscent of political speech that is thrown about a lot these days, though, and in both cases it is prudent to look at where the language leads. For all the apparent rabble-rousing of John’s words, he does not in fact motivate violence against the powers that be. Instead, he is imprisoned and eventually killed.
As we think about justice in our own nation, and about abuses of power, we need to be able to parse the language of accusation on both sides of every debate and identify the people who are really being hurt. Words of violence backed by power have the potential to do incredible harm, but words of dramatic change backed by moral authority have the potential to do great good as well. It’s not always easy to tell them apart, unless you note the power dynamics. Thus we must start by being justice-seekers, rather than tone police.
There is joy yet to come; it will be complete when John’s vision of justice and equity is realized.
Help us remember that we are not so righteous as to be immune from your calls for justice or exempt from needing your purification of spirit.
Help us to stay disciplined in not abusing our power over other people and in not hoarding wealth where others have nothing…and impel us to speak truth to power wherever we see great need or great cruelty.
Help us to hear challenging messages from prophets like John the Baptist and to pay attention to the substance behind them, instead of getting distracted by the words. Help us also to see through those who are not committed to justice, and who point fingers of condemnation only to distract from their own wanton extraction of resources from those who have less.
Help us to see the Good News and not confuse it with fake news.
In the name of Jesus, who pointed out hypocrisy and injustice wherever he saw it,
Week 4: Love empowers our struggle.
Scriptural Selection—Luke 1:46b-55
46b “My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Mary’s reaction to her part in the Christmas story is remarkable. Here is a young girl who suddenly faces social condemnation for premarital pregnancy, the political danger of a nervous king, and all the normal burdens of bearing a child—yet sees in all of it: God’s love. Mary takes up the challenge given to her with grace and thanksgiving, and recognizes its place in the broader plan of a God who does justice. If this narrative is in part a Midrash, drawing on other Hebrew scripture to illustrate Jesus’ mother tongue, we note that it is a language of justice and vindication.
Right before she speaks the Magnificat, Mary is greeted in wonder by her cousin Elizabeth. In the other birth narrative, a point is made of the fact that Joseph decides to stay with Mary despite her pregnancy after hearing the angel speak to him as well. These are important pieces of context! We do not know whether Mary would have been as receptive to God’s plan without the support of Elizabeth, and then of Joseph. But then again, perhaps that’s why they were there in the first place.
More recent history is full of stories of people who could not have done their work without the support of others. Frederick Douglass relied on help from his wife Anna to escape slavery, and she and their children supported his work on his newspaper, The North Star. Susan B Anthony’s suffragette work would have been impossible without her sister (another Mary). Douglass and Anthony relied on each other, at least before their famous falling-out over the 15th Amendment.
Although Mary alone bore Christ in her womb, Mary’s journey to Bethlehem, flight to Egypt, and eventual raising of Jesus were all team efforts with her partner Joseph. In reading the Magnificat, we are reminded that Mary also felt supported by the work of God directly: the same God who lifts up the lowly and fills the hungry with good things.
In contemplating the remarkable faith of a young pregnant Mary, we can imagine that the picture is more complicated than one person struggling alone. The struggle is for all people, and everyone around her has a part in that struggle.
Help us to be like Mary, who heard your call and took it, not as a burden, but as an opportunity and a blessing.
Help us to be like Elizabeth, who saw God at work in Mary and affirmed and supported that work, and like Joseph, who stood beside her as God did a new and unexpected thing.
Help us, in our moments of personal struggle, to find grace—to find our connection with your broader work and to note the people struggling along with us.
In the name of Jesus, whose love enabled him to struggle against great mortal powers, visible and invisible,