I spent one Advent a few years ago in Guatemala with a mission team from Aldersgate, in a poor community near the mountains called Chicutama. I was working at my last home for the week, building my last wood-stove for my final family before making the journey home for Christmas.
Weʼd just begun working. The husband and wife of the house were busy mixing mortar. And even though here in Northern Virginia at their age theyʼd be snap-chatting and visiting colleges, in their part of the world they were married and busy surviving and making sure their three children did too.
While they mixed the mortar, I stepped into the doorway of their mud-block home, looking for their three little children, thinking Iʼd play with them or get them to smile or giggle or run away in pretend fear.
It was a one-room home, paid for by a relative who worked illegally here in the states. Tacked on the far wall was a cracked, laminated poster of multiplication tables. In the righthand corner was a long branch from a pine tree, propped up in a pink plastic beach bucket and decorated with pieces of colored foil and plastic. Thick smoke from a fire wafted into the room through the tin roof. Scavenged and saved bits of trash were stacked neatly on the dusty floor.
The bed was a mattress laid on top of cinder blocks just to the left of the door. The three children- a three year old named Jason, a girl a year or two older named Veronica and their baby sister- were sitting on the bed.
Jason didnʼt have any shoes and his feet were black with dirt and they looked cold. He had a rash on his cheeks and mites in his hair and his eyes were red and his nose was running black snot from the smoke.
They were sitting on the bed and Veronica was feeding them breakfast with a toy dollʼs spoon. She was feeding them Tortrix, lime-flavored corn chips like Fritos, and soda in a baby bottle.
Because that was the only thing they had to eat.
Because junk food is cheap.
And clean water is not and thatʼs all they could afford.
Above the bed hung a calendar. It was flipped to December. The top half had a picture of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. At the bottom of the picture, in Christmas gold-leaf, was a scripture verse in Spanish:
“The Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
I stepped into the doorway and saw them there, the two little girls and the boy with my name, looking dirty and sick and shoeless, eating the only food they had while their mother and father worked with the kind of speed that comes from being sentenced to a lifetime of hard labor.
I looked at them there with the baby Jesus hanging above them on the wall along with the prophet Isaiah’s words in gilded italics as though to say to someone like me that Jesus Christ had come for them.
And them only.
Somehow it never really gut punched me until I found myself staring at Jasonʼs dirty bare feet and bloodshot eyes and black runny nose whilst I wondered what altruistic-Instagram picture I’d post of myself when I retuned home.
Somehow only there in Jason’s ramshackle home did it finally strike me:
When I read the Christmas story, itʼs not fair for me to read myself into the place of Mary or Joseph or the shepherds or even the wise men.
I donʼt know what itʼs like to live under the heel of an empire. I donʼt know what itʼs like to have my life jerked around by the rich and the powerful.
What I realized that Advent, what I realized at Jasonʼs house- is that if I have a place in this story- let’s be honest- my place is in Rome with Caesar Augustus.
Or maybe in the gated communities of Jerusalem, rubbing elbows with King Herod, Caesarʼs lackey.
I mean, Iʼd rather count myself among Mary and Josephʼs family (I think).
Or at least among their friends (if they had any), waiting outside the manger with a balloon for the baby and a cigar for the father. Iʼd even settle for being one of the shepherds, whose dirty work disqualified them from religious life, but to whom the heavens nonetheless break open with angels and good news. Iʼd even take being one of the magi, unbelieving strangers from Iraq, who bring to the promised child gifts they probably couldnʼt afford.
But what I realized that Advent years ago is thatʼs not my place in the story.
My place in the story is as a member of the empire.
Iʼm well-off. Iʼm not as sophisticated as Caesar Augustus, but Iʼm the beneficiary of an expensive Ivy League education. I donʼt live in a castle but I do live in a home that plenty would call a palace. Iʼm not a king or an emperor but I have more control over my life than probably even King Herod did back in the day.
In other words, I’m not the poor who hungers for good news.
I’m not the captive who cries for liberty. I’m not the oppressed who yearns for exodus. I’m not blind; I can see just fine. I’m not lowly; I don’t need to be lifted up (thank you very much, Mary).
That Advent in Guatemala-
That’s when the truth stung me:
Iʼm not sure I like my place in the Christmas story.
According to the prophet Isaiah-
Not only is the promised Messiah not for someone like me, the Messiah is promised by God exactly in order to be against someone like me.
As the Messiah’s mother sings:
“He will scatter the proud and bring down the powerful and send the rich empty away…”
I hate to put a crimp in your Christmas cheer, but in 22308 that’s you and me.
Just listen again to today’s text:
The coming of Christ isn’t jolly, glad tidings for everyone.
According to Isaiah, arrival of the Lord’s favor coincides with the day of the Lord’s vengeance. Today’s text actually begins in chapter 59 where the prophet Isaiah says:
“It displeased the Lord that there was no justice among the people. The Lord was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so the Lord [will] put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrap himself in fury as in a mantle. And according to their deeds, so will he repay; wrath”
I mean you have to give Herod credit. He wasnʼt stupid. He knew bad news when he heard it. Herod knew that joy coming to Maryʼs world meant an attack upon his world. Herod knew that the prophet Isaiah promised that when God takes flesh in the Messiah, God would take sides:
With those on margins.
With the people working the night shift and with those working out in the fields.
With the oppressed and the lowly and the refugee.
For Herod, for the white-collared and the well-off and the people at the top of the ladder, for the movers and shakers of the empire- Christmas was bad news not good news.
And they were smart enough to know it. Christmas, Herod knew, didn’t signal jolliness or joy. It signaled judgement.
Far be it from me to be cynical (thatʼs a joke), but I wonder if thatʼs why we spike the eggnog and drape Christmas with so much cheap sentimentality.
I wonder if in our heart of hearts we know that if we braced ourselves and told the story of Christ’s coming straight up as the Gospels tell it, then, like King Herod, we might have a reason to fear.
I wonder if deep down, underneath all our Christmas kitsch and phony nostalgia and self-medicating day drinking, we’re afraid.
I wonder if we’re afraid that if Christ’s coming wasn’t primarily for people like us, then…
when he comes again…
he’ll be against people like us.
If he didn’t come for us at the first Advent, then when he comes again at the second Advent will he be against us, bringing not joy but judgement?
Now, I know I’m going to have to repeat this so pay attention:
Advent is not about getting ready for Christmas.
Advent is about getting ready for Christ’s coming again.
Advent is not about getting ready for Christmas. Advent is about getting ready for Christ’s coming again.
That’s why the paraments are purple instead white, as they will be on Christmas. Advent is not about getting ready for Christmas. Advent is about getting ready for Christ’s coming again. That’s why the Medieval Church spent the Sundays of Advent on the themes of Heaven, Hell, Death, and Judgement.
Advent is not about his coming long ago in a Galilee far, far away. Advent is about his coming again.
To you and me.
That’s why during Advent the Capital-C Church forces you to listen to Isaiah tell you all your best deeds are no better than fifty rags Forces you to listen even to Jesus predict how his coming again will coincide with the end of the world as we know it. That’s why the ancient Advent hymns and the music of Handel and Bach and Mozart dwell so much on the Dies Irae, the Day of Wrath.
What are we? Masochists?
Listen to Isaiah again:
The coming of Christ and the end of the world as we know it should not leave us, like REM, and feeling fine.
The coming of Christ and the end of the world as we know it- it means God’s favor…for some.
But it means judgement for others: the Lord’s vengeance and wrath.
What are we doing putting the purple paraments up?
Are we insane? Are we really that stupid?
Or are we collectively kidding ourselves that when Isaiah speaks of the poor and the downtrodden and the captive and the oppressed we are somehow included too?
He doesn’t mean poor in spirit. He doesn’t mean spiritually impoverished. He doesn’t mean captive to anxiety or oppressed by low self-esteem.
He means poor. He means captive. He means oppressed.
He doesn’t mean people like us.
For his rookie sermon in Nazareth, Jesus chooses today’s text from Isaiah. Standing up in his hometown church, Jesus quotes the prophet, saying:
“‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
And then Jesus slams shut his Bible and declares: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Did you notice what he did there?
“‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…to proclaim release to the captives ….to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
And then Jesus says: “Check. I’ve fulfilled this one.”
Did you catch it?
Jesus cut it.
Jesus cut out Isaiah’s other line.
Jesus doesn’t say:
“‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me…to let the oppressed go free…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor… and the day of vengeance of our God.”
Jesus takes out Isaiah’s prophesy about God’s vengeance. He cuts it.
Why? Was the prophet Isaiah incorrect?
Does Jesus edit out Isaiah because Isaiah was wrong about who God is or how sinful we are?
When Jesus declares “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing…” does Jesus mean “You’ve heard it said that God is a God of love and wrath, favor and vengeance, but I say to you, nonsense, God is just as nice as Oprah swears by?”
No, when Jesus takes out Isaiah’s words about God’s vengeance and then says that he’s the fulfillment of those words, Jesus is saying that he is the promised one who brings God’s favor to us by bearing God’s vengeance against us.
Isaiah’s line about God’s vengeance- he cuts it out because it’s in him.
It’s in his body, where he’ll carry it to a cross.
The prophet Isaiah was right. The salvation brought by the Messiah goes through wrath not around it. The salvation brought by the Messiah does not avoid God’s wrath; the Messiah saves us by assuming God’s wrath. Christ doesn’t cancel out God’s wrath; he bears it on our behalf.
You see, it’s not just that Christ’s faithfulness is reckoned to you as your own; it’s that your sin- all of it, your every sin- is reckoned to him as his own.
His righteousness is imputed to you, and your every sin is ex-puted to him. In his faithfulness he has fulfilled all righteousness. And in his suffering he he has fulfilled all judgement.
His Mother Mary wasn’t wrong:
The coming of Christ does mean God’s judgement on the unjust.
The coming of Christ does mean the comeuppance for the rich and the proud and the powerful but that comeuppance comes on the cross.
As the the Apostle Paul says in Colossians, God in Christ disarmed the powerful and the rich, ruling authorities by making a public spectacle of them and triumphing over them by the cross.
His Mother Mary wasn’t wrong because neither was his cousin John the Baptist wrong:
Mother Mary’s son is the Father’s Lamb who bears the sins of the world.
And if he bore the sins of unjust us, then when he died our sins died with him.
Once. For all.
Once for all our sins: past, present, future.
There is no sin you have committed and, more importantly, there is no sin you have yet to commit that is not already covered by the blood of the lamb
His righteousness has been gifted to you.
It’s yours and it’s free by faith.
And your sin, it belongs to him now.
Such that to worry about your sins, to hold onto the sins done to you- Martin Luther says it’s like stealing from Jesus Christ.
They don’t belong to you anymore. They’re his possessions.
Luther also says the cross frees us not to pretend.
The cross frees us to name things for what they really are.
So let’s call it for what it is-
You’re not the poor. You’re not the oppressed. You’re not the captive on whom God’s favor rests. Yes, you’re proud and, yes, you’re powerful and, yes, you do participate in and you perpetuate injustice.
Yes, you do.
And, yes, you deserve to be punished for your sins. You have been. You have been punished for your sins.
You were punished when God drowned you in your baptism into his death and resurrection so that his favor might be yours too.
The cross frees us to call things as they are so let’s just name it: if Christ had been born not into the 1st but the 21st century then, chances are, we’d be the bad guys in the story not the good guys. Not the ones on whom God’s favor rests.
But, the Lord’s favor rests upon people like us NOT by us doing good works for those on whom his favor rests.
The Lord’s favor rests upon people like us only by trusting that while we were yet enemies Christ the Judge was judged in our place.
Only a conscience free from the fear of judgement is truly free to make the poor and the oppressed the object of compassion instead of the object of your anxiety. We are justified not by our place in this story but by faith in what Christ does at the end of this story at a place called Calvary.
And so, we can put up purple paraments on the altar. We can read about axes and winnowing forks and we can freely admit our good deeds are filthy rags. We can sing joyfully about the Day of Wrath because we know the Day of Wrath is already not not yet.
Jesus didn’t eliminate Isaiah’s Day of Vengeance; he experienced it.
On a Friday afternoon on a hill a few miles outside of town.
And when he comes again we can greet him, naked and unafraid, because we know that whatever sin he finds in us has already been born by his body.
Otherwise, his cross is just a waste of wood.
That Advent in Guatemala, after our weekʼs work was complete, the women of the village cooked a meal for us and thanked us.
These are women who, in their lifetimes, have been victimized by dictators and armed thugs.
These are refugees whose people over generations have been displaced and pushed into mountains as their land was stolen by the rich. These are poor women whose husbands and sons either have been killed by civil war or are living as economic exiles here in the states.
And there I was. Neither poor nor oppressed, already filled with good things.
Jasonʼs 17 year old mother was there. She presented me with a little tapestry sheʼd sewn and she said into my ear: ʻI thank Jesus Christ for you.ʻ
And then she wished me a Merry Christmas and then she embraced me.
Given who I am and where I am in the story, to anyone else her hugging me mightʼve looked like Mother Mary embracing King Herod.
Isaiah’s not wrong- Jesus Christ came for people like her.
But Jesus Christ died for the ungodly like me.
That’s how Mary’s son makes his mother right.