‘by Rev. Elizabeth Rawlings
'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’
I live in the greater Seattle area, at the top of a hill. Every night, on the way home, traffic before the exit to my neighborhood traffic slows to 10-25 miles per hour below the speed limit. For the longest time I couldn’t figure out why. It’s because of the hill. It slows everything down. No matter how many times everyone has been on that stretch of highway, no one seems to remember that you need to push down a little more on the gas pedal in order to keep the same speed. The hill just makes the going a little more difficult. When it snows, forget about it. My neighborhood is impassable. The hills turn from obstacles that slow things down to monoliths that bring the world to a halt. I’ve been stuck in snow before where four inches of snow made the roads so bad I had to park my car and go home (for some video of what it is like to drive in Seattle in a couple inches of show, check this out. It’s no joke).
I grew up in suburban Cleveland. There’s this curve on the East Side that, when initially built, wasn’t graded. It seemed like every morning growing up, the voice on the classical music station (shout out to WCLV!) told us there was either a severe backup or a bad accident on the aptly-named Dead Man’s Curve.
Every place I have ever lived from Cleveland to the mountains of western North Carolina to Chicago to Seattle has had potholes. The joys of having to navigate my way around roads that appear to be the victims of asphalt devouring groundhogs never seems to end.
Curves, hills, valleys, rough roads… these are all obstacles to us getting to our destinations. John, through the words of the prophet Isaiah, calls out that the way to prepare for the Lord is to flatten, straighten, and smooth and *then* the flesh shall see the salvation of God.
For some, this reads as a call to get yourself together. To make yourself perfect inside and out, smooth your rough edges (for some this call to straighten may get way to literal). This is how we are saved, this is how we prepare for the Lord. Get right with God that God might save all flesh.
But our rough spots aren’t obstacles between us and God (for the most part), and my personal rough spots certainly aren’t obstacles between all flesh and God. I’m not that powerful. Neither are you. My theological knowledge tells me this is wrong, and my pastoral experience tells me this is harmful. To continue to spread the message that one must be perfect to be acceptable in God’s eyes leaves them in the shadows. To add on to that the idea that one person’s lack of perfection could keep all flesh from salvation is too much weight to bear. I have watched people struggle to get out from the large shadows cast by this theology and into the illumination of God’s love. It ain’t easy. And many give up on God before they ever work their way into the brightness of the knowledge of God’s grace and love.
In addition, the Micah reading for today (for those of you using Micah), states that it is God who does this to us, it is no work of our own. God is the refiners fire and fullers soap. When we allow God to live fully within us, when we allow God’s love to fill us completely, we are changed, refined, we become like silver and gold. This process is not without difficulty, but it also is not a process of thinking about what is wrong with us (in Jesus eyes) and moving to fix it. It’s more that, when we allow ourselves to be willed with the love and will of God, we cannot help but do and be as God calls us to be in the world.
What John is calling for here is not some kind of personal perfectionism in Christ. John is calling for a great flattening. A flattening of social structures, a flattening of power structures, a flattening of economic structures. A flattening of all things that are obstacles to abundant life. If we keep reading past the days reading, John goes on to tell people to share their wealth and food with those who have none, to not use power to extort people. Through the power of the Holy Spirit and the words of the prophets, John is imagining a world with a radically different social structure than the world in which he lives. By casting this imagination, John calls people to him, gets them caught up in hope for a different kind of world; a world in which those struggling to feed their families can finally rest a bit from toil and worry, those who feel their necks crushed under the weight of Rome’s boot can move and breathe freely, a world in which abundant life is available for all.
Systemic racism is an obstacle to those who are not white, the economic inequality that is currently baked into our system (and some may say capitalism itself) is an obstacle to the poor, patriarchy is an obstacle to women… the list goes on and on. And each of these obstacles is not only an obstacle to the primary people it affects. They are also obstacles to all of us, because these systems of injustice and inequality keep us all from being in full relationship with one another, with oursleves, and, consequently, God Godself.
As we prepare for the return of Christ, we prepare the way. As we prepare for the return of Christ, we flatten all of the things. As we prepare for the way of Christ, we tear down the systems of injustice in our world.
Frequently we think of Advent as a time where we prepare our inner selves for the return of Jesus to this world and the restoration of all things. We meditate, engage in daily prayer, have a nightly candle lighting ritual, get off social media, or any number of things to improve our relationship with God. How often do we consider this call to the great flattening as a way of preparation? Do we talk much about tearing down oppressive power structures as a way to prepare for the coming of the Lord and the salvation of all flesh? In this season of charity, could we talk about part of the preparation being not just giving away material things but giving up power? Could we talk about how preparing the way for Jesus is much more than internal preparation, but involves work in the world to flatten all things? Could we use this vision of John to ignite the imagination of our people into imagining a kingdom -- right here and now -- where there is no poverty, no homelessness, no patriarchy, no racism or racially oppressive structures, no walls, no borders, and then call them into that work as a way of preparation for Christ’s return? What does it look like if we imagine the preparation for Jesus’ return as not limited to inner work, but also to liberation for all creation?
Come, Lord Jesus, Come. And may we prepare the way, tearing down structures of oppression, and flattening the path.
by Dr. Mika Ahuvia
Everyone remakes the apostle Paul in their own image and I, as a scholar of classical Judaism, am no different. Paul describes himself as a “Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless” (Philippians 3:5-6). By his own account, Paul was devoted to the life of the Torah, with the interpretation of his forefathers, the Pharisees, making sense of biblical complexities.
Note: This post was updated to correct the link to the Jeremy Bearimy video. Our apologies for that mistake.
Christ the King Sunday, sometimes known as Reign of Christ Sunday, is a relatively recent holy day in the church calendar, established by Pope Pius XI in 1925 in response to the increasing threat of the rise of fascism. Authoritarian leaders of fascist regimes were being lifted up as all powerful demigods, and the Roman Catholic Church created this holy day in an attempt to reclaim power for the church as opposed to the secular nation-state. Unfortunately, a Christian message of anti-fascism and anti-nationalism continues to be more and more relevant as fascist leaders gain power in many countries around the world. There are government officials within our own country with documented ties to White Nationalist Groups, the number of anti-Semitic hate crimes continue to rise, and President Trump proudly says, “I am a nationalist.”
by Pr. Elizabeth Rawlings
Ruth and Boaz:
A few years ago, I had a student ask me about the story of Ruth and Boaz relating to the story of Cinderella. Was this the perfect match, they asked? Is this how we should do it?
I was taken aback. It had been a while since I had read Ruth and I wasn’t sure if I was remembering incorrectly. After re-reading Ruth, I asked her where that question came from. It turns out that in more evangelical circles, Ruth and Boaz are frequently lifted up as the ultimate relationship. Women are instructed to wait for their Boaz as Ruth did. This is supposed to imply both that women should wait patiently for a suitor and that they should find a man who will protect them and treat them well. Which, well, is not how I read Ruth at all.
by Pr. Jason Chesnut
Note: This commentary was written before news broke of the tragedy at Tree Of Life Synagogue and was updated to address that tragedy.
This post has been updated as the last five paragraphs were missing when originally published.
by Remy Remmers
I want to start this off by saying that I have mixed feelings about this gospel text. This text has been used against those with disabilities. It is as if we should spend every waking moment of our lives being ready to jump up and asked to be healed. Not everyone with a disability wants to be healed. Let me repeat that: not everyone with a disability wants to be healed. I have hearing loss. I was born with this loss, but it was not discovered until middle school. I will preface this commentary by saying I do not know what it is like to have a visual impairment. However, I do know what it is like to be explicitly and implicitly not included in activities because of my hearing impairment.
by Rev. Lenny Duncan
What does it mean to be a servant? I mean really. We have reduced this in the Christian church to a series of actions surrounding worship. But what does it mean really. Our reading from Isaiah points to the servant to come but also speaks a word over the people.
It means to suffer, or to join others in their suffering. So, this week I invite you into suffering.
by Rev. Lura Groen
The way I've always heard this text preached is:
“Jesus says we won't get into heaven if we don't give all our money away. But that can't possibly be true - because grace - so we must have to explain away this story somehow. Maybe it's a metaphor. Maybe it only means *this particular* young man. Maybe it's only because *he* loves his wealth too much, and we could give ours away any time we want! So we don't have to. Or maybe it's all just a trap to remind us we need God's forgiveness, right? Right?”
by Elle Dowd
The texts in this week’s lectionary readings are ones that come with some historical baggage. They are texts that have been frequently used to subjugate women and LGBTQIA+ people as well as non-human nature. With the current news cycle swirling with all kinds of triggering content for members of marginalized populations, these readings can feel more than a little bit overwhelming to the preacher.
prayer and commentary by Rev. Priscilla Paris-Austin
Texts: Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29; Psalm 19:7-14; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50
Disclaimer Note: If you are using the Semi-continuous readings (Esther 7;1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22 and Psalm 124) you are going to be wrestling with the story which is the origins of the Purim festival, a tale of threats, deception and victory claimed in the execution of an enemy. Beyond giving you caution that this tale can stir up feelings around abuse for survivors, especially during our present news cycle, I have no help for you this week. If you have no idea how the story might trigger folx, please don’t touch it. If you have a sense of the dangerous waters into which you are treading, you will be in my prayers as you preach and teach on the text.
Prayer of the Day
Teaching God, you nurture and shape us for life together with you and one another. Open our eyes and hearts to see the wisdom you grant us in elders and prophets from all corners of the community. Open our hearts to the partnerships you have designed for us with strangers and friends. May we always honor and value relationship with all who call upon your name.