You know that thing where you want to preach about something, but you can’t quite yet so you preach about it by preaching about something else instead? That was me yesterday. Here’s what I said.
Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5.16-24; John 6-8, 19-28
+ In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
As most of you know, I was recently in Palestine for a fortnight with a small group of representatives from the Scottish Churches. We spent most of our time visiting humanitarian and advocacy organisations and meeting some of the people they work with. There is much I could say about that trip and the people I encountered, but today, in light of our readings by and about prophets, I’d like to share just one story.
One morning, we met an old Palestinian farmer who lives on the outskirts of Bethlehem. After days of torrential rain, the sun was shining, so we sat on his porch, drinking Arabic coffee and looking out onto the valley below. His family had lived on that land for 7 generations, raising sheep and growing olive trees, and they originally owned about 2 square kilometres. In 1948, more than three quarters of his family land was confiscated. In the years following, more of his land has been taken piece by piece, for settlement expansion, for road building, for ‘security’, for reasons unknown. Now he has little more than the land his house sits on, and a military road separates him from the family burial ground.
We listened to his story with sadness. Then he paused to light a cigarette, and his voice broke with anger and grief as he looked us each in the eye and said, ‘I want peace. I do not want violence. But when soldiers destroy your house, kill your brother, beat your mother, you can see why suicide bombers do it. To live like this, to die, it is all the same. Your country, America, Europe, you are all complicit,’ he continued. ‘You all stand by while we suffer. You do nothing. Jesus was crucified by empire. Now Europe and the USA and Israel are stabbing us in the belly. They are crucifying us.’
Oscar Romero, the Bishop of San Salvador who was killed while saying Mass in 1980, said in one of his sermons that ‘there are many things which can only be seen through eyes that have cried’.
These words from the Palestinian farmer were hard truths for us — white, well-off, well-educated, western — to hear. Our own position of privilege and power was clear in that moment.
Sitting in the shade of grapevines, looking out over landscape that wasn’t entirely unlike the wilderness John the Baptist himself wandered in, I had no doubt that we were in the presence of a modern-day prophet. His righteous anger challenged us. But his story also blessed us because we caught a glimpse of the world as God must see it.
It is clear to prophets that the world as it is is upside-down. That our priorities and values and actions are skewed. That we privilege those who are already privileged.
The poor pay for the rich to get richer. The dignity and humanity of the occupied are diminished for the sake of the security of the occupier. The innocent die in wars started by other’s desire for power, or land, or oil. In the name of God, women, gay people, people with disabilities, people of other religions and races are declared as less worthy of love or respect or compassion.
These upside-down truths can only be seen through eyes that have cried in grief, eyes that have cried in pain, eyes that have cried in anger. It is these upside-down truths which are the ones prophets speak.
Before meeting the Palestinian farmer, that morning, we had read the same words from the prophet Isaiah that we just heard here, words read aloud by Jesus himself at the start of his ministry: The Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the broken-hearted, proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, comfort all who mourn. These are words we too should take to heart, that we should act upon; because, again to quote Oscar Romero, ‘Everyone baptised has a share in God’s prophetic mission’.
But this prophetic mission is not just participating in the work of proclamation, of piecing together that which is broken, of patching over the gaps created by injustice.
This season of Advent is the season when we wait and watch for the light of Christ to pierce the darkness.
And so the prophetic mission is to walk the lonely paths of the prophets into the wilderness where no one else dares to go, straight into the dark, into the poorest, most desolate corners of our world, of our nation, of our city, to the places most people would rather ignore or pretend don’t exist: the prisons, the refugee camps, the hospital wards, the food banks, the homeless shelters, the war zones, the places affected by Ebola.
The prophetic mission is to witness Christ’s light already breaking through the gloom, in the truths being named by all who, in vision blurred by tears, see clearly the upside-downess of the world and are not afraid to name it.
And the prophetic mission is (Oscar Romero again) to denounce ‘the sins of those who oppose God’s reign, so that they may tear those sins out of their hearts, out of their societies, out of their laws – out of the structures that oppress, that imprison, that violate the rights of God and of humanity’.
‘God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline’, the 2nd letter to Timothy states, and Paul urges in today’s epistle to the Thessalonians: ‘Do not quench the spirit. Do not despise the words of the prophets’.
‘Do you have hope that things will change?’ someone from our group asked the Palestinian farmer we met. ‘You are here,’ he replied. ‘That is my hope. That you will listen. That you will cry. That you will see. And that you will speak.’
This Advent season, that is the prophetic mission of all of us who are baptised: to follow the example of Isaiah, John the Baptist, Paul, the Palestinian farmer; to listen, cry, see, and speak; and to say with John the Baptist, ‘No, I am not the prophet. I am not the Messiah. I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness. There is one who already stands among you whom you do not know. Make straight the way of the Lord’.
Several people asked me after the service: ‘So, what next? What do we do?’ Well, if you’re interested in acting in support of those affected by the occupation in Israel and Palestine, here are a couple of suggestions. But don’t feel you have to focus on these issues if that’s not what you feel passionate about.
How about thinking about giving alternative Christmas presents to friends and family, or what about buying Christmas gifts from your local charity shops?
Or if you want to write for someone else’s rights, check out what Amnesty International are doing. They also have books — more Christmas gifts! Or write to leaders in any sphere to speak out about injustice where you see it.
If politics are your thing, get involved with a political party that supports your values.
Or if you enjoy spending time with people, see if local homeless charities or churches are looking for volunteers wanting to make Christmas special for those who have nowhere else to go this holiday season.
There are so many ways to ‘walk into the wilderness’ and see Christ at work in our world. Even the smallest of acts can make a big difference to someone else.