Texts: Zephaniah 3:14-20 • Isaiah 12:2-6 • Philippians 4:4-7 • Luke 3:7-18
Happy Hanukah! For those of you keeping track, today is the second of the eight days of Hanukah, which gets clumped together with Christmas and Kwanzaa around this time of year into a general end-of-year festival of lights cheekily called, Christmakwanzakah, which is understandable – each involves families gathering together to share stories and exchange gifts, it all feels like part of the same holiday.
There’s another way that the Jewish Hanukah and the Christian Advent season correspond thematically though, especially on this third Sunday in Advent when we hear from John the Baptist exhortations to “bear fruits worthy of repentance” and to equitably share our resources. I think I might have missed this connection if it hadn’t been for one of the numbers in the Chicago Community Chorus’ annual holiday concert here at St. Luke’s last weekend.
The chorus performed a song called “More Than Enough,” by Michael Isaacson and Doug Thiele, which I found sheet music to online. It’s in the style of a gospel anthem, which immediately perked my ear. I’m not used to hearing Jewish sacred music that sounds like it’s coming out of the Black Church tradition. But it was the words that really grabbed me. A soloist begins the number:
There’s a flame in the window this Chanukah night. Inside we’re gathering, warmed by the light. Each brings a prayer and their share of love, and whatever we bring will be more than enough.
Then the whole choir joins in with:
‘Cause there’s more than enough love, more than enough light, more than enough room at the table tonight. And surely after the blessing and after the song, there’ll be more than enough faith to last all year long…there’s not always plenty, times can be tough, but whatever we have will be more than enough.
The word “Hanukah” comes from the Hebrew word for dedication because it celebrates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after it was desecrated by the Syrians. The story of Hanukah is found in the deuterocanonical books of first and second Maccabees, which means you may or may not have them in your Protestant family bible. In those books the story of the Maccabean revolt is presented as a conflict between the Maccabees, who were fighting for the preservation of Jewish self-rule and religious freedom, and the Seleucid empire, which came out of Alexander the Great’s Greek empire, and required synchronistic polytheism. The Maccabees waged war using guerilla tactics to defeat a larger, more powerful enemy, and were able to reclaim the temple in Jerusalem.
According to the legend, once the Maccabees defeated the Seleucid army, they moved immediately to rededicate the temple – but there was only enough consecrated olive oil to fuel the eternal flame (like the one we have burning on our altar) for one day. It would take eight days to press, prepare and consecrate fresh oil for the lamp. They lit the lamp anyways, and it was sustained by that small bit of oil for eight days until fresh oil was ready to be used, and so the leaders of the Maccabees declared that the rededication should be observed annually for eight days to recognize that what God provides is more than enough.
By the time John was preaching in the wilderness, the Jewish people found themselves in a similar situation. This time, instead of the Seleucid army, it was the Roman army. They were living under occupation, divided amongst themselves. There were the crowds of those who tried to maintain a faithful Jewish life, waiting for God to deliver them from their oppressors. There were those who made their way by moving between the worlds of the Hebrews and the Romans, like the tax collectors who were empowered by the occupying army to collect taxes for Rome. And then there were the occupiers themselves, who used force to take land and resources that they wanted.
During those days there were plenty of people who were remembering the story of the Maccabean revolt, which was now two hundred years in the past. They were hoping that God would once again provide heroes like the Maccabees who would rise up and defeat the occupying army, to restore Jerusalem and re-establish appropriate worship in the Temple. Inside the city walls the Romans were in control. But outside the city, where John the Baptist and plenty of other soapbox prophets preached, there was a little more room for people to dream of a different life, a different reality.
By the banks of the river Jordan, John the Baptist preaches repentance. “Bear fruits worthy of repentance,” he says. “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.’”
The Hebrew verb for “repent” is shuv, “to return,” like when we sing during the season of Lent, another season of repentance, “return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” But the Greek word for “repent” is metanoia, which is a compound word that means “to think differently after.” This is an odd combination of meanings, because the first – to return – seems to imply that repentance is all about returning to the way things were; but the second – to think differently after – seems to imply that we were acting under faulty assumptions, things that we need to rethink. Further complicating the matter is the fact that John the Baptist was Jewish, but the gospel of Luke was written in Greek. So, what kind of repentance was he calling for: a return to the past, or a rethinking of it?
I think we get some clues from the advice he offers to each of the three communities who come to visit him in the wilderness: the crowds, some tax collectors and even some soldiers. That must have been quite a gathering. Going to the river was one way that the crowd of Hebrews could express their hope for a new day, a new world order where the tax collectors and soldiers would not rule them. They couldn’t have been happy then to see those that they hated gathered with them as they assembled for baptism and the word John had to preach.
If the presence of the tax collectors and soldiers was an irritant, John’s words were an outright slap in the face. “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, god is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” In the presence of those who oppressed them, the Hebrew crowds had always been able to hang on to God’s promise to make of Abraham a great nation, to raise up a king like David, heroes like the Maccabees, to lead and to save them. Despite the hard times they were living under, this crowd clung to the idea that they were the chosen people of God, that they had a special relationship with God that guaranteed them victory in the long run. But John the Baptist pulls all that away from them, and they ask, “What then should we do?”
John’s counsel to each of the three communities that come to him in the wilderness is ess
entially the same: stop relating to each other by the rules of the city, where life is defined by who you have power over and who has power over you. Treat one another as if you were family. If you have a surplus of food or clothing, share it with the one who does not. If it falls to you to collect the taxes, do not take more than what is right for you to ask. If it falls to you to keep peace and maintain order, do not abuse your power. Don’t tell me about your family tree, or who you know in places of power and influence, because at this very moment, “the ax is lying at the root of the trees.”
Consider one another family? That sure sounds like the Greek understanding of “repentance.” It sounds like a massive rethinking of the past and rejection of the assumptions that held each of the three communities of people living inside Jerusalem in their place. But I wonder if it’s also a form of the Hebrew shuv, to return, just a deeper return that the Hebrews were expecting. What if, rather than returning to the time of King David, and the family tree of Abraham, John was pushing for a more radical return, to the garden of Eden and the tree of knowledge, to a mythic land before time where all of us were still part of one family?
In this third Sunday of our four Sundays in Advent we’re thinking about the third direction in the Advent Conspiracy. If you missed either or both of the last two weeks you can find all four directions in the back of your bulletin: worship fully, spend less, give more, love all.
In my sermon last week I shared some statistics about the kind of massive consumer debt most Americans are living with, and how the U.S. revolving credit debt ($950 billion), and the average amount we spend as a nation on Christmas annually ($450 billion), dwarfs the cost of what it would take on an annual basis to launch the kinds of programs needed to address global food insecurity, to end world hunger ($30 billion). The Advent Conspiracy is a movement to push us to act on what we say we believe when we gather to worship – to spend less and give more – by buying just one less gift this year, and donating that money to help end world hunger or provide clean drinking water around the globe.
By way of a public service announcement I’ll just say again what I’ve said for the last two weeks. This isn’t a pitch for you to give more money when the plate comes around. This is something you personally can do. If you want to address global hunger, check out our facebook page for the link to the ELCA’s “Good Gifts” program, where you’ll find all sorts of ways to make a difference in the fight against hunger. If you want to be part of the movement to bring clean water to people around the world, go to the Advent Conspiracy website, where you’ll find link to charities who direct 100% of the funds raised to that work.
We are trying to break through the silent, passive messages that live in our hearts and minds that are constantly trying to persuade us that the world as it is has always been like this, and will always be like this. Like John the Baptist, talking to the oppressed, the oppressors and the collaborators, we are gathered for worship because here, when we worship fully, there is a little more room to dream of a different life, a different reality, where we can learn to live and act as though there is already more than enough.
That is the good news that John the Baptist has to offer us, even in the midst of all his name calling, ranting and raving. It is liberation from ourselves, which is why those who were enemies inside the city walls could gather together to receive John’s baptism – because in that act they were destroyed and recreated, they were reconstituted into something new – a new world order – on in which there was enough for everyone: enough food, enough power, enough love for enemies to be reconciled and made into family.
And who, ultimately, doesn’t want to be liberated from themselves? Don’t we all grow tired of the labels and identities that we have come to claim as the final word on who we are? Next week, as we hear Mary’s magnificent, triumphant song, the Magnificat, we will consider the last of the four directions in our Advent Conspiracy: to love all. But this week’s gospel story flows nicely into that one. This week we see three distinct communities gathering outside the city, trying to imagine a new way of relating to each other. Next week we hear God’s promise to overturn the world’s order with a new one where food and wealth and power are shared equally, not along the lines of identities we were born into without any choice in the matter.
But for now, for this week, we will leave it at this. Give more. “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” We are moving toward a world that looks more and more like we have repented, like we have rethought the assumptions we were taught, like we have returned to the original idea God had in mind for us when we shared in the first moment of creation. We are family. It does not fall to any one of us to make things right, but together we can be a part of God’s coming into the world, God’s emerging, which will make that fundamental truth a new reality.
Stir up your power, O God, and come.