“Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us,” we pray on this Third Sunday of Advent (Book of Common Prayer, p. 212). But what does God’s power look like framed by today’s scripture readings and our social and political context? The context of the past week. The past year. The past five hundred years since Europeans arrived uninvited here in what they called the Americas – although the lands had other, older names – bringing African slaves with them?
Reading their papers on Wednesday, I found that the students in my class had much to say about God’s power among us. I had invited them to write on what they believe about God most deeply or experience of God most vitally or assume about God most fundamentally in their ministry. One student began his paper quoting Elie Wiesel’s story of the execution of a Jewish boy in a Nazi concentration camp: “‘For God’s sake, where is God?’ ‘Where is God? This is where – hanging here from this gallows’” (from Night). Another quoted Alice Walker: “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it” (from The Color Purple). Or, in their own words: “Believing in God is like falling in love with the universe”; and, “God’s warming light…convicts me to risk being vulnerable and to love.” One student got to her view of God by first calling out the false god that long held the main character in Walker’s The Color Purple enslaved: “Celie’s god is powerful, but in a world where all power belongs to men, and more specifically, white men, her god becomes an oppressive white man. He is near enough to talk to, to write prayers to, but not near enough to care about her plight. Her god is a person, but not her person….The churchgoers in Celie’s pews had the freedom and divine responsibility to show forth the love of God to Celie, by seeing her, by noticing her, by saving her. And they missed it.”
The story of John the Baptist’s interrogation by the religious leaders from Jerusalem reframes the meaning of divine and human power. John’s interrogators represent the old aristocratic establishment of the priests and Levites, as well as the new populism of the Pharisees. The very setting of John’s baptismal activity would have been politically unsettling to all the powers that be. Their expectation was that when god stirred up god’s power, the foreign nations would stream to Jerusalem, to the center, to pay tribute to the victorious god. Instead, the people of Israel have fled in droves to the margins, to the wilderness, to John the Baptist to repent and turn away from the established order. The religious authorities from the center venture out to the margins to find John and try and nail down who he is and what he’s up to.
The interrogators come armed with three boxes into which they might fit John; three long-expected roles a man sent from God might play. And each of these roles would have been upsetting to the powers that be. I am not the Messiah, John confesses. Not a second King David to drive out the Romans and make Israel great again. What then? Are you Elijah? The one who brought a royal dynasty to a violent end because of its collusion with foreign powers? I am not, John says. Are you the prophet-like-Moses sent to purify the people through a strict return to our ancient law? No. John refuses to be boxed in by traditional expectations. So, the authorities ask in exasperation, if you’re not the Messiah and not Elijah and not the prophet, who are you and into what sort of movement are you baptizing all these people? “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,” John replies, “‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” I baptize, yes, but only with water. For “among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal” (John 1:23, 26-27).
How revolutionary. At the height of his celebrity, surrounded by the crowds, with everything trending in his direction, John does not demand that he be the center of attention. John refuses to trumpet his own accomplishments. He refuses to boast that his baptismal activity is bigger and better than all other agendas. Imagine John the Baptist had a press secretary. Surely she would have said: yes, of course you’re Elijah, you look like him and you dress like him; and of course you’re the prophet, you sound like him; and so, while you’re at it, why not, maybe you are the Messiah – yes, claim to be the Messiah and see where that gets you. No. John is vulnerable and courageous enough to use his power to call attention to another. John makes the way straight and then steps aside so another can travel it. What a model for us in our own context, maybe especially for men: power can be shared rather than exploited, directed away from one’s self and offered to others. What a model for us in our context, maybe also for women, especially African American women in Alabama and beyond: voices from the margins can and should cry out against the center that an alternative way needs to be made.
More revolutionary still are John’s words, “Among you stands one whom you do not know” (1:26). As if God’s power does not need to be sought after and cajoled at all; it is already among them, among us, in the wilderness. But we may fail to recognize it, because it looks so little like the power of the established order. No. Here’s what the power of God looks like when stirred up. Here’s what happens when God comes among us with great might. “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” – words from Isaiah (61:1-2) that Jesus will quote in his inaugural sermon.
John is a voice crying out for a time. Jesus is God’s eternal word. John’s “I am NOT” makes straight the way for Jesus the I AM. And with the way made straight, Jesus the anointed one will travel back from the wilderness to our cities and towns, homes and public spaces, to touch and heal and feast with the oppressed, the brokenhearted, and all captives and prisoners.
Things are different on the Third Sunday of Advent. We lit the one pink candle on our wreath. It’s Gaudete Sunday, when we – all of us – are implored to “Rejoice!” If God’s great might among us looks like binding up that which is broken and proclaiming liberty, release, and the jubilee year of God, then that is good news indeed. Well might we then “greatly rejoice in the Lord,” for God has given us “a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning” (Isaiah 61:10, 3). News so unbelievably good that we might make today’s psalm our own: “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream. Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy” (Psalm 126:1-2). Already. Always. Among us. Stands one anointed with God’s Spirit. Don’t quench that Spirit of joy.
Again, one of my students says it well. “As ironic as it may sound as I reflect on the characters and stories in The Color Purple and I think about my own life I believe that the fact that we are able to make it to the other side is a reflection of God’s realness and exemplifies God’s power to renew and make whole again. Through all of the anguish, pain, confusion, and powerlessness it was as if God breathed new life into Celie and revived her from the inside out. What was stolen from her was returned in addition to many other unexpected blessings.” She concludes, my student does: “There is a kind of joy that surfaces in mourning,…that bubbles up as one looks ahead to a long list of daunting tasks, the kind of joy that blocks one from feeling anxiety or anger in the face of hardship and instead lends strength to its recipient.”
Which makes me wonder, framed by today’s scriptures and our social and political context, what do you, what do we, believe most deeply, experience most vitally, assume most fundamentally about God’s power stirred up among us?