Fourth Sunday of Advent
“A Christian’s authenticity is shown in the difficult hours…. And by difficult hour, I mean those circumstances in which following the gospel supposes a multitude of ruptures with the tranquility of an order that has been set up against or apart from the gospel.”
– Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love
The word “preachy” has never been a complimentary term, even less so these days. The ministers rightly highlighted in the national news who have been doing their vital and admirable work are described as “compassionate, not preachy.” Those of us who not only have to preach but believe we should preach have been faced with how in God’s name do we preach the last two Sundays of Advent 2012, and how to do so in such a way in which compassion and preaching are not pitted against each other.
This week I’ve been driven yet again to a reliable guide that helps me regain my bearings. In his classic study, The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann insists that biblical prophets are neither fortune tellers nor social protestors. Rather, their ministry is the formation and nurture of an alternative community. The first prophetic task is to criticize the dominant culture in such a way as to penetrate numbness and denial. The way prophets pierce through this fog is by the “ministry of articulated grief,” using anguished and impassioned speech to bring to the surface the real death we face.
Certainly these death-drenched days have ruptured the nation’s tranquility, bringing a flood of charges and explanations – from escorting God out of schools (Mike Huckabee) to the worship of Moloch (Gary Wills). The prophetic task is to refuse to hush what one faithful preacher called “the stubborn wail of Rachel weeping for her children” with “explanations” that do not demand us to be a better people, a people who cannot be content with the tranquility of an order that is over against the gospel. Anything less is just another layer of numbness and denial. Compassion is a word with which to sustain the weary, but it is also, in Jonathan Edwards’ graphic image (used with great effect by Martin Luther King, Jr.), like a surgeon who “will not stay his hand, but goes on to thrust it in further, until he comes to the core of the wound.”
There is a second task of the prophetic imagination, says Brueggemann. The prophet not only criticizes the dominant culture but also energizes people with a new vision. Critical and energizing, not one without the other. A tired and weary mindset that believes we live in a world where nothing new ever happens can only be penetrated by “the language of amazement.” Doxology has the power to shatter the “language of managed reality.”
What a gift from God is the Gospel reading for this Sunday! A Jewish peasant girl who says “Yes” to God bursts into a song of praise and wonder because God has chosen the lowliest of handmaidens. The corner of the curtain is lifted to reveal how God performs his revolutionary work through the humble, scattering the proud and the mighty in the process. A song is the only sufficient channel to express the magnitude of what God is doing.
The prophetic task is to stay true to this music-full language of amazement, refusing to reduce the transforming vision of a God who enters the world in human form and of a cross and resurrection that break the backbone of any order that has been set up against the gospel. “It were better to rend our robes with a great cry against blasphemy, like Caiaphas in the judgment…, rather than to stand stupidly debating fine shades of pantheism in the presence of so catastrophic a claim,” G.K. Chesteron roars.
Mario was our mission speaker earlier this month. In our neck of the woods, December has deep ties with Lottie Moon, a 19th century missionary to China. In the Southern Baptist psyche that formed me, Lottie Moon was a combination of Mother Teresa and Billy Graham. Though that Baptist landscape has been forever altered, December and missions still are woven together, and on the first Wednesday night we invite a special guest to inspire us with what God is doing “out there.”
Usually the speaker is a missionary serving in another country, but this year we made an exception. Mario is a native of El Salvador (“The Savior”) and lives in nearby Asheville. When his pastor introduced us this fall, I immediately sensed the depth of the burden he felt on his life to “wake up the church” in his present place of residence.
On that Wednesday night, Mario spoke the language of sheer doxological amazement. He marveled that this call has been placed on his life, his life, since he has only a 3rd grade education and a reading capacity limited to his Spanish/English Bible (from which he quotes even lengthy passages by heart).
As Mario was speaking, I had one of those rare experiences of being drawn into a vortex of wonder. I remembered ten years earlier when another visitor from El Salvador spoke from where Mario was standing, telling us how at age 16 he had made a commitment to help others through the Church. Among those we had invited from an area Latino congregation was a man who had served for ten years in El Salvador’s government-supported army. Our speaker sympathized more with the “other side” of the civil war, reciting atrocities performed by the army, just as the other man recounted atrocities performed by the guerillas. Their intense but not hostile conversation, their embrace and exchange of addresses, looked for the world like the prophet’s vision of a green sprout making its fragile way through an old dry stump.
I remembered some of the turbulence and violence of those civil war years in the 1980’s, of Archbishop Romero’s preaching and martyrdom, of Oliver North testifying in the Iran-Contra hearings where he said, “I was provided with additional input that was radically different from the truth. I assisted in furthering that version.”
Now here was Mario in mid-Magnificat, singing full voice a gospel that exalts those of low degree and puts down the mighty from their thrones. He said salvation was free, but that the cross was costly. After putting into words the agony and hopelessness he had felt as a young child when his mother put him out on the street, he quickly added a never-to-be-forgotten sentence: “If I had been born to Queen Elizabeth, I wouldn’t be sitting here tonight.”
Sitting here, amazed and grateful, among a small circle of folks in Weaverville rather than in Buckingham Palace. Here, because he said “Yes” to God. Here, where the tranquility with the old order was ruptured by song, and where a messenger from The Savior spoke with authenticity as “a witness of the sufferings of Christ as well as a partaker in the glory that is to be revealed” (I Peter 5:1)
(there are two previous reflections on this text)