During November we reach the conclusion of the church year. We remember our dead and ponder the God of life. We begin Advent and the season of alert waiting for the newness that God will give. Between, in American "civil religion," is Thanksgiving. Perhaps thanksgiving is the right segue from old to new. It's appropriate that the great festival of gratitude should provide the transition from old to new. Gratitude is, in the life of faith, for every season.
It is characteristic in American Thanksgiving that we look back and remember the pilgrims and God's providential care for them. Lodged next to Advent, Thanksgiving is not only for remembering; it waits and it expects. Faithful gratitude believes that the God who has given good gifts has more good gifts to give. While God’s gifts are welcome, in fact they do disrupt. God’s gift of truth disrupts our systemic mendacity that denies our lethal social practices. God’s gift of generosity contradicts our parsimonious selfishness. God’s gift of mercy interrupts our hard-hearted indifference. God's gift of justice exposes our systemic injustice. God’s gifts amount to an inconvenient reality among us; they remind us that what we have come to regard as "normal" continues a deep abnormality in which we may have no complacency. The readings invite us to ponder how the world may be when God is reckoned to be at the center of it. As the hymn says, "All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above." And we ... on the receiving end!
Walter Brueggemann, a Sojourners contributing editor, is professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia.
Life in a Lethal Culture
Haggai 1:15b - 2:9; Psalm 17:1-9; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-28
These readings attest to the tenacity of God for us in the face of death. We live in a lethal culture in which our greed, anxiety, and violence turn our political-economic system into a killing field. These texts bring us the God of life who is our abiding, trustworthy advocate in the face of every death.
Haggai, addressing a tiny, bereft community of faith, says three times, "Take courage" (Haggai 1:4). The ground for courage is "I am with you" and "My spirit abides among you" (verse 5). The psalmist prays boldly for God's help (Psalm 17:1-2) and rests easily as "the apple of God’s eye" (verse 8). God dotes on her and she will be safe. Paul, in light of the same confidence, bids his readers to "stand firm and hold fast" (2 Thessalonians 2:15) and not to be misled into false faith.
Jesus’ debate with the Sadducees in Luke is a life-or-death matter. They believe there is no resurrection and death will win. Jesus cuts through their subterfuge by attesting that God "is not God of the dead, but of the living" (Luke 20:38). The question they pose about life after death evaporates in his dictum, "In God all are alive" (verse 38).
Without God, death will win. We, however, are not without God, the God of life. On that basis we may act in daily life for what God wills in the world. God wills life!
How to Gain a Soul
Malachi 4:1-2; Psalm 98;
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19
Either the world is about to crack, according to these texts, or God’s rule reigns. Psalm 98, a celebrative lyric about that rule, evokes great, loud affirmation. Malachi anticipates that the new reign will be like the dawning of the sun "with healing in its wings" (verse 2). All will be well; the faithful, in exuberance, will "leap like calves."
That moment of God’s new rule will require the faithful to run risks. Jesus knows that the church will conflict with "the authorities," will be brought into court, and will give testimony about the power of Easter against the force of death. But, says Jesus, those who run that risk will "gain their souls" and not lose a hair on their heads (Luke 21:18-19).
Paul’s counsel is more mundane. He urges believers to "hang in" with daily contributions to the life of the community. He is hard on slackers and gossips who go along for a free lunch, but do not contribute.
These texts bespeak great expectation along with great danger. Ours is such a time, when the force of market-driven exploitation threatens to undo the human community. In the face of that threat, the church celebrates the rule of God, boldly attests its truth, and daily acts it out. Our time of crisis is indeed "biblical" in urgency and proportion. We are summoned to daring resolve and daily effort for the coming rule of God.
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Luke 1:68-79;
Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43
God contradicts the world’s self-destructiveness. Jeremiah’s poem lays out the coming trouble in verses 1-2. Beyond the trouble, God will gather the remnant home and will raise up shepherds who will make the community safe.
In Luke 1, Zechariah sings of the new rule of God in Jesus. Twice he affirms God’s gift of mercy: "God has shown mercy" (verse 72) and "By the tender mercies of our God" (verse 78). That mercy comes as forgiveness whereby the world is restored to healthy possibility and to life with God. Paul’s lyrical affirmation in Colossians is the news that we are “transferred” to a new governance (verse 13), have forgiveness (verse 14), and "have peace" through the self-giving of God (verse 20).
The gospel narrative in Luke 23 features Jesus on the cross, about to be executed by the empire as an enemy of the state. He is mocked by his executioners; he is derided by one of his fellow inmates. In an extraordinary act of contradiction, Jesus responds with forgiveness. Jesus responds to his fellow inmate by a promise of paradise in time to come. Jesus refuses the rules of the empire. He breaks the vicious cycles of violence, making new life possible. In him we have the new shepherd of Jeremiah, the mercy of Zechariah, and reconciliation of Paul -- all come to effective visibility. The world is now the new venue of tender mercy that nullifies the force of death among us.
Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 100;
Philippians 4:4-9; John 6:25-35
Thanksgiving is a contradiction of the values of a market economy that imagines we are self-made and can be self-sufficient. When we give thanks, we commit an act of defiance against the seductions of our society.
Psalm 100 states the ground for thanks. God is "steadfast and faithful," utterly reliable. The liturgical performance in Deuteronomy is a quintessential act of thanks: It recites with specificity that for which one is thankful. It entails an expensive offering of a commodity that is not kept for self. Thanks is the ceding of a costly part of self over to the giver of all good gifts. Paul, in Philippians, counsels to give thanks "in everything," in every circumstance, because God’s gift of life is everywhere and always present, even in our loss, suffering, and death.
The gospel narrative meditates on "bread," the elemental gift of life sustenance. The exchange between Jesus and the disciples recalls the bread of the manna story and affirms that it is God who gives the bread of life without which we cannot live. That bread from God evokes trust in God, and it is trust in God that gives the capacity to do transformative miracles in the world. We may sing all kinds of patriotic songs and feast to satiation on Thanksgiving Day. Beyond all of that is our acknowledgement that life is a gift that evokes response. We are never self-starters. The drive for self-sufficiency is an unnecessary and futile idolatry.
Light the First Candle
Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44
We know the schedule: four Sundays … the second one for a church tea, the third one for choir concert, and then the pageant for culmination. We may have a schedule -- but in fact the new world is coming at "an unexpected hour" (Matthew 24:44). The rush of God’s rule is impending, and Christians are "on the alert." This is not Orange Alert in fear; it is, rather, glad expectation. These readings ponder both preparation and expectation.
The preparation is delineated in Romans 13. Paul urges the avoidance of "reveling, drunkenness, debauchery, licentiousness, quarreling, and jealousy" (verse 13). The mad rush of "Christmas preparation" drives us to self-indulgence and enough fatigue to make us edgy and quarrelsome. The alternative for Paul is to be unlike the world and not consumed by our "desires."
The preparation may match the expectation. It is expected, with the coming of God’s rule, that there will be disarmament and no "learning of war" (Isaiah 2:4). Along with the big arms race there are many lesser "wars" -- in church, family, and community -- that require disarmament. The psalm invites a yearning for peace: "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem" -- and Baghdad, and Kabul, and Canterbury (for Anglicans), and Geneva (for Presbyterians), and Wittenberg (for Lutherans), and Azusa (for Pentecostals). And Rome, maybe above all for Rome. Waiting for peace means preparation for peaceableness. Advent is a chance to receive a world quite unlike this one. It will be given! n
"Preaching the Word," Sojourners’ online resource for sermon preparation and Bible study, is available at www.sojo.net/ptw .