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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Good News for a Brood of Vipers
distributed 12/7/18 - ©2018

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Reid Detchon, of Bethesda, Maryland. His generous support helps make this publication possible.
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Our culture tells us that we are in the Christmas season, which runs from Black Friday to Christmas Eve. It is a time to be happy, to be busy, and to buy!

The church tells us that we are in the season of Advent, which encompasses the four Sundays before Christmas. It is a time to be reflective, to be quiet, and to repent.

It is an understatement to say that there is some tension between those two approaches to the season. I recommend the path of Advent as a way to spiritual growth, social justice and the nurturing of Earth community.

If we dig into church readings for the coming weeks, we get some insights about why Advent and repentance are so valuable. (And for readers who aren't part of the Christian community, you may find some interesting perspectives here, too.)

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In many churches, the scripture readings for the next two weeks are words of expectation from the beginning of the Gospel of Luke (3:1-18). We meet John the Baptist, calling the people to repent. The passage for this Sunday is familiar enough that it is safe. ("Prepare ye the way of the Lord!" was immortalized by Godspell.) On the next Sunday, though, we move into a far less familiar part of the text that is deeply challenging.

John calls the crowd "a brood of vipers" and warns that they can be cut off from the covenant community. With harvest imagery, he says that the wheat will be gathered in, but the chaff will be burned with unquenchable fire. Yikes! And yet the passage about John ends with the affirmation that "he proclaimed the good news to the people."

John's good news of repentance is categorically different from the good news of Christmas bargains that include free one-day shipping. This is transformational good news. It changes our identity, and gives a different definition of what is good and right.

Lutheran pastor Karl Jacobson stresses that John's proclamation was a "HUGE" challenge to a people who thought they had religious security as ancestors of Abraham. "Claiming the promise of Abraham without the faith of Abraham simply doesn't work." Jacobson continues, "It must also be insisted that John's message is not simply a call to belief or trust. John challenges his hearers to right relationships not just with God, but with their neighbors as well."

The crowds who came out to hear John in the desert seem to have taken him seriously. They ask him, "What then should we do?" The prophet gets practical in his instructions, with a message of distributive justice. "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." That's not a spiritual metaphor. It is a detailed direction to all who have more than the bare minimum, because there are people in the community who don't have the bare minimum. It is a violation of the covenant with God when there are people without coats and without food.

A crowd gathered in the wilderness to hear John. Luke tells us that there were tax collectors and soldiers there, also asking what they should do. Remember that tax collectors and soldiers are agents of the state, acting with institutional power, and with a nasty reputation for abusing that power. What are they to do? Stop their extortion and exploitation. Stop doing the things that make their role profitable and powerful.

If you have more than you need, share it. If you have power, don't abuse it. Those are ethical guidelines that each one of us can take to heart. For most of us, holding ourselves to that standard will lead us to confession and repentance. Living to that standard will change us profoundly.

Commentator Richard D. N. Dickinson reminds us, though, that John's call to prepare the way of the Lord is not an individualistic mandate: "it is a call to the whole community. It is not a call to private righteousness only, but to communal righteousness and wholeness." The call from John "is also ethical and social in the sense that people are being called to repentance as a way of relating positively to the inbreaking reign of God."

To prepare the way of the Lord means to begin to embody what that reign of God demands. To prepare the way of the Lord is to embody God's shalom, God's peace with justice for all creation. To prepare the way of the Lord means an end to stark inequality, and end to exploitation, an end to injustice, and an end to selfishness.

The mandate from John is brief, and it is very hard. It is transformational. And Luke tells us that, with that hard, world-changing message, John "proclaimed the good news to the people."

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Richard Dickinson brings it home to us, especially to us in the United States of the 21st century. "Living among the richest, most powerful, and perhaps most self-satisfied people of the world, it is profoundly unsettling and challenging to take this lectionary truly to heart and mind."

The call to repentance is a challenge to us individually, and it is a challenge to churches. (I imagine that the second part of the passage from Luke seems unfamiliar is because pastors avoid preaching on it. Congregations are quite adept at skipping past this good news of radical transformation.)

In modern secular democracies, repentance is a challenge for citizens to bring the markers of shalom into the public sphere. We must not tolerate poverty and deprivation. We must not accept abusive power and exploitation. And in today's world, we must not condone the devastation of creation -- with climate chaos, and species extinction, and the poisoning of air and water. Our efforts to embody shalom must reach into future generations, to ensure sufficiency and a livable climate for those yet to come.

Advertising in this season tells us to buy and consume. Politics tells us about economic growth, energy dominance, and the exercise of strong political power, whether in the state legislature or internationally. Culturally, we are encouraged to celebrate individualism, wealth and privilege.

The Advent focus on repentance is a refutation of all that. We are called to work for God's justice and peace. And let us remember the message of faith, that such deep transformation is good news to the people.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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