by Elle Dowd
The season of Advent echoes with the words of the prophets. From the Hebrew Bible to the Second Testament, to our own streets here and now, there are people who have seen the vision of the world that is breaking in among us and are - despite our resistance - trying to get our attention. Through their poetry, their songs, their megaphones, they turn our heads, forcing us to face the injustice and suffering we often try to avoid staring at head on.
This 3rd Sunday of Advent is practically a buffet of prophets, especially if the preacher chooses to use the option of Luke 1:46-55 as the Psalm of the day. Each prophet’s voice offers something different, because God’s word is incarnate according to each time and place, and because God’s prophets are not cookie cutter versions of one another. Yet there are strands that connect each of these readings; a clear call for justice for the oppressed and an exhortation to live differently in response to what God has done.
Notable, too, is that each one of these prophets has an obvious impact on Jesus, himself. As we are preparing for Jesus’ birth, this Sunday helps us to learn about his influences by studying the voices that formed him.
The words of the prophet Isaiah are notable in and of themselves, but they are particularly notable because they are later used by Jesus himself in Luke 4 as part of his inaugural address to the synagogue in Nazareth. Jesus, quoting Isaiah, uses this text as a kind of mission statement to tell his hometown what his ministry is all about. He declares that the Good News is particularly for the oppressed, that captives will be set free, and that prisoners will be released.
Each petition of this prophecy is powerful. If you spend time meditating on them, you could easily make connections to our modern context. For example, in a year where over 282,000 people have died of COVID in the United States alone, there are plenty of people who are mourning and in need of God’s comfort. As more and more of us know people personally who have suffered because of the virus, or even died, we see so clearly the ashes of mourning we are sitting in. The longing we feel to trade in signs of mourning for a celebratory garland is palpable. As businesses close, people lose their homes because of the pandemic, and Downtown looks more like a Ghost Town, the prophet speaks of ruins being rebuilt and repaired. And in a country where over 2.3 million people are incarcerated, a rate higher than anywhere else in the world, there are many families looking at empty chairs this holiday season, yearning for release for the captives. The words of Isaiah resound in our streets, voices from our own prophets chanting, “Defund the police!” End the prison industrial complex. End the police state. End mass incarceration. Give liberty to the captives. Release the prisoners.
We often strip this prophecy of its power in our own day by acting as if these words are merely a metaphor. But they have not always been read this way. A proclamation of release for captives was radically comforting in Isaiah’s time when heard by a community suffering under exile and displacement. They were radical and challenging to those in positions of power in Jesus’ time. The people in Nazareth didn’t consider these words simply metaphors. They took his words so seriously that they were angry enough to attempt to throw Jesus off a cliff. If our preaching of these words doesn’t comfort captives and challenge the elite to the point that we are worried we might be thrown off a cliff, then maybe we aren’t doing them justice.
Mary, Mother of God, is another prophet present in today’s reading. We so readily tame Mary, praising her for her humbleness or her obedience. But we forget that Mary is as much of a disruptive prophet as she is a gentle mother. So often these things go hand in hand. As a mother, a preacher, and a community organizer, I often tell people that each of these roles “use the same muscle” for me. These identities are not in conflict with one another; they are integrated and related. I am a community organizer BECAUSE I am a mother. I am a pastor BECAUSE of what I have learned from activists in the streets. And I am not the only one. When I think of Mother Mary, I think of Brittany Ferrell, an activist I met during the Ferguson Uprising. My mind flashes back to a familiar image of her; a megaphone in her hand, her daughter, Kenna, on her back, the words of Assata Shakur on her tongue. “It is our duty to fight for our freedom!” A modern Madonna and Child.
Those of us who have children or who care for children are fierce when it comes to advocating for the ones we love. Mary knew that caring for her child was about more than preparing a Pinterest-worthy nursery or putting together a crib. The way Mary prepared for the Christ-child to be born was by building the world that all children deserve; by defiantly proclaiming that God was overturning tyrants, lifting up the poor, feeding the hungry, and starving out the rich. This is how we must prepare, also.
It is important that this protest song escaped Mary’s lips in response to a proclamation from another woman, Elizabeth. This is one of the few powerful moments in scripture which passes the Bechdel test. Two named women (Mary and Elizabeth) are having a conversation together which is about something other than a man. It is about justice. Women and mothers have often spoken bold words to one another. Perhaps after the whirlwind Mary experienced with her visitation by Gabriel she needed the comfort of another woman’s company. It is in response to Elizabeth’s own revolutionary utterances that Mary begins to sing.
Just as Jesus was influenced by his ancestor, Isaiah, he was also very clearly influenced by his mother, Mary, and his aunt, Elizabeth. I imagine Mary singing this rebel song to Jesus as a lullaby. With a prophetic mother like Mary and a radical auntie like Elizabeth, how could John and Jesus turn out any differently?
John the Baptist
Reviewing Jesus’ life, we can see how much of his work was influenced by John the Baptist. After all, their relationship began before birth, when they recognized one another in their mothers’ womb just moments before Mary sang the Magnificat.
John did not conform to social conventions. He made the powerful uncomfortable. A few verses after our reading in John for today ends, John will baptize Jesus into this spiritual renewal movement. And Jesus will go on to follow the transgressive path that John walked. He will be a dissident - like John - and because of this, he will be arrested and killed like John.
John, like Jesus, was also influenced by the prophet Isaiah. When the religious leaders asked John, “Who do you think you are, baptizing and preaching like this?” John quotes Isaiah, calling himself, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness,” borrowing credibility and authority from his ancestor. John’s role in these verses is one of preparation. He was readying the world, like Mary did, for the coming Christ. He takes on the role of an amplifier by pointing to Jesus and telling people to listen to him. He uses his power as an influential (albeit strange) figure in his community, not for his own glory, but to further Jesus’ mission and ministry of love and liberation.
During difficult and polarizing times it is easy to feel like the strong, clear message of the prophets is too much to bear as preachers. When we are anxious we tend to turn inward. We think of our own preservation. We become risk averse. It may feel safer to leave proclamations of toppled tyrants or prison abolition to more comfortable times in our congregations. But it is important to remember that these words were not written for comfortable, easy times. They were first given to people suffering in exile, people suffering under occupation. They were spoken and recorded for times just like these, when people were poor and hungry and anxious and angry and on edge and desperate. They were terse, audacious words spoken when tension was already high and by people low on privilege, with little protection and a lot to lose.
1 Thessalonians admonishes us, “Do not despise the words of the prophets.” Our challenge as preachers is to commit to resisting the urge to water these words down in order to make them more palatable (or our jobs more secure). Our role in this time of preparation for Christ, is to cherish the words that Jesus also cherished and repeat them in a way that is dangerous and liberatory.
This is the Revised Common Lectionary sermonizing archive.