Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. 2He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. 3And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. 4What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?
5And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. 6I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. 7For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!
8Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land! 9The Lord of hosts has sworn in my hearing: Surely many houses shall be desolate, large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant.10For ten acres of vineyard shall yield but one bath, and a homer of seed shall yield a mere ephah.
20On that day the remnant of Israel and the survivors of the house of Jacob will no more lean on the one who struck them, but will lean on the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, in truth. 21A remnant will return, the remnant of Jacob, to the mighty God. 22For though your people Israel were like the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will return. Destruction is decreed, overflowing with righteousness. 23For the Lord God of hosts will make a full end, as decreed, in all the earth.
39In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
46And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” 56And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
We spent the six weeks before Advent talking about suffering and how our faith fits into that. Suffering is part of the human condition. It’s part of the darkness that hangs over our lives and makes it harder to see each other and to see God. Related to suffering, there are other forces that make our lives darker than they should be: injustice, oppression, lies, despair, and doubt, to name a few.
The incarnation, the conviction that in Jesus, God became human and lived with us, is all about God stepping into our dark world as a light of hope, love, joy, peace, comfort, and truth. During Advent we wait and prepare for Christ’s light to come. Carl started us on our Advent journey last week by introducing how Christ comes as light in the darkness. In the three weeks to come we’ll look at some of the specific areas of darkness we face, and how Christ brings light to those places. As usual, the areas we’ll cover are not the whole story; there are more dark places in our lives than the three we’ll talk about, but by digging deeply into these, we should gain the insight we need to imagine how Christ can lighten other areas of darkness too.
First: a word on Advent. Advent is a season of preparation. The mystery of the incarnation, the mystery of God becoming flesh is too amazing to take in just at Christmas. The reality of God’s kingdom, which we see in Christ and trust will totally transform the world one day, demands preparation. We have to get ready to embrace the Christ child. We have to get ready to embrace God’s loving kingdom by giving our hearts and lives space to be transformed by grace.
A big part of that is repentance. The forces of darkness are so strong that they have warped all of us. Even though as people of faith we know better, we are still part of the darkness that fills our world. We need to change, we need to repent and let go of that darkness so we can be ready to welcome God’s kingdom in Christ.
This week we’re focusing on preparing for Jesus as the light of justice in a world darkened by injustice and oppression. Justice is one of the most important themes in the whole Bible. It’s closely related to the idea of judgment, and also, maybe surprisingly, related to God’s love. The prophets of the Old Testament were tireless voices for God’s justice in their society, and they often suffered for it.
When we set up communities, whether that community is a church, a city or a nation, there will be people with more power than others. That’s not a problem if the people in power are committed to making sure that everyone is treated fairly, has a voice and has what they need. The trouble comes when the people in power look out for themselves at the expense of others. As a community becomes more unjust, the people in power not only neglect the needs of others as they pursue their own interests, they also take advantage of weaker members of the community to get further and further ahead.
That process means the darkness of injustice is closely tied to the power structure in a system, so it quickly gets imbedded in the status quo. When prophets criticize, the powerful people who benefit from that injustice counter by accusing the prophets of attacking the community’s values and being a threat to society. The prophet Jeremiah was locked up and almost killed for criticizing the leadership in Jerusalem. Amos was told to leave the holy city of Bethel because he spoke against the King of Israel. Protest against injustice is often seen by people in power and by others as unpatriotic.
No matter what the response, true love is honest. Prophets see what a community could and should be and use that vision to challenge where the community falls short so it can become better. Nelson Mandela is a great example of that kind of prophetic love. He imagined a South Africa for all its citizens, where everyone would have the right to vote and the chance to succeed. With that vision he criticized the apartheid state that deprived the black majority of their rights and their voice. For that, he was condemned as a traitor to his nation and jailed for 27 years.
As the world and nation came more in line with Mandela’s vision, he and other political prisoners were released. Not long afterwards, democracy came to South Africa and the “traitor” was elected president, because his criticism was about building a better nation, not tearing the nation down.
Israel and Judah were special nations because they were formed by God’s calling, not just by human political processes. Their constitution was God’s law, which meant that a deep concern for the wellbeing of all, especially the poor and vulnerable, was right at their heart from the beginning. The light of God’s justice was a key part of their guidance system. At the same time, Israel and Judah were like every other nation because the powerful used their power to make life better for them, often at the expense of the poor. The darkness of human selfishness started to spread over the chosen people of God.
Isaiah was one of God’s prophets sent to call Judah back to God’s path. The parable Donna read was one way Isaiah tried to help the people see where they were going wrong. The parable talks about God building up the nation, giving it everything it needed to thrive and produce a just society. Despite all God’s care, the nation produced injustice and oppression instead of righteousness and faithfulness, so God sent Judah into exile.
The good news is that exile isn’t the end. Some of the most profound insights in scripture are the fruit of exile or other times of trouble. Many of the Psalms were written in exile as were many of the most powerful passages of the book we now call Isaiah.
Like Israel and the prophets, the church is called to embody God’s justice and love, which is good news especially for the poor. Mary’s song of praise is a great example of God’s calling for the community of faith. We are called to be part of God turning the world upside down. That’s not going to be comfortable, but it is going to give us a new opportunity to fulfill our calling as God’s people. Like Israel, the church can find great power in losing the power we cling to today. At the end of exile we may be only a remnant, only a small part of what we once were in terms of size, but we will be a faithful remnant.
We can’t come into the light unless we recognize that we’re standing in the darkness. Isaiah’s words, Mary’s words and Advent itself call us to see the dark places in ourselves and our community. We are tempted by the selfishness we see around us. We’re tempted to fit in with a culture that measures people’s value by their possessions. The economic comfort we might have is connected to the injustice that poisons our community. We all need to repent, and Advent is a great opportunity for that.
Even as we repent, while we still struggle with our role in injustice, God calls us to be honest and bold in seeking justice for all. We all have different gifts, different ways to follow God’s calling today.
We saw one example in Nate VanLoon’s campaign for family court judge. Nate saw an opportunity to use his gifts to be a voice for justice for kids and families. Even though the election didn’t turn out the way he had hoped, God can still use the conversations he had to plant seeds of justice. Sally’s work for justice in New Orleans is another good example of using our gifts to bring God’s light in dark places. So is the work we do with UPT on issues of urban poverty, education and gun violence.
Ella, Karen Kingsbury, Bob Hicks, Marino and Joyce have or will have a hand in a grant we’re working on with Cameron to improve church collaboration on hunger in the city. That complements our existing service with Cameron that many of us participate in here. Our ministries in our neighborhood, especially Café and our new clothing ministry: Simple Blessings Boutique, connect us directly with people who are often left in the darkness. As we continue and strengthen those ministries we’ll learn more about how injustice works in our society and how we can follow God’s calling to be the light of justice.
Mary heard God’s call to bear a child, a savior for Israel and the world. She heard that call and knew this new life growing inside her was part of God’s plan to lift up the lowly and bring down the powerful. She saw God’s just kingdom shining like light in the darkness, and she opened herself to all the danger, joy and pain that comes from lining ourselves up with God’s calling.
With Mary, Elizabeth and Isaiah, we hear God’s call to justice. This Advent time of prayer, singing, prayer and candles gives us space to prepare our hearts for God’s kingdom. Take time this moment, this afternoon, this week to seek out the darkness of injustice in yourself. Take time to look for the ways societies warped priorities have gotten your soul out of joint. Ask God to come into your heart, to lighten your darkness and give you strength to repent. With penitent hearts and courageous faith we can be open to the light of God’s justice shining like a star over the barn in Bethlehem.
Thanks be to God.