We’re All Temporary
The Third Sunday in Advent, 2020 — Isaiah 61; 1 Thessalonians 5
One of my favorite parishioners was a great teaser. She could always give as good as she got. When her husband dished out a particularly spicy zinger, we could always count on her stock reply. “You can be replaced, you know,” she’d say with a grin. It was a marvelous retort, in part, because we all knew her absolute and unending devotion to her spouse. But it also always had the function of putting him a little bit back in his place.
You can be replaced, you know. Of course, that’s true. We’re all temporary. Forbes Magazine reminds us that we’re all temporary workers, no matter what we pretend. At our house, we’ve moved enough times to know that at least some of our improvements and repairs will benefit the next owners more than they benefit us. Life has an expiration date, someone else reminds us. That great American philosopher, Hank Williams, puts it best when he sings, “No matter how I struggle and strive, I’ll never get out this world alive.”
We’re all temporary. But we spend most our time and energy pretending to be permanent. We act as if our jobs, our homes, our cars, our relationships, our institutions, our traditions, and practices will all continue without end. It’s a way to deny the reality of decline, decay, and death. But it really is just all play-acting. The Covid crisis makes that abundantly clear.
I can be replaced, you know. And I will be, sooner or later.
In this season of Advent, we’re reminded that we’re all temporary. Last week, the prophet bemoaned the inconstancy of life in this world. “All people are grass,” a voice cried in Isaiah 40, “their constancy is like the flower of the field.” Those summer flowers are in the yard waste bag and the compost pile – here and gone in the blink of an eye. And we are just like them.
It’s good, of course, that some things aren’t permanent. That brings us to the first reading for the third Sunday in Advent. It’s good that oppression, broken-heartedness, captivity, and incarceration are temporary. It’s good that mourning, destruction, and ruin come to an end. It’s good that tyrants and abusers and bullies can be replaced. The prophet proclaims an end to all those who traffic in deceit, domination, and death.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” the prophet announces, “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” This is the Year of Jubilee, first described in Leviticus 25. The Year of Jubilee – when all debts are wiped out, when all ancestral lands go back to their original owners, when wealth is redistributed, and when economic power is rebalanced. Sounds like a damned socialist conspiracy if you ask me! The whole idea seems just un-American.
Well, yes – that’s right. What’s your point? We’re all temporary, and so are all our schemes and systems. Even the “invisible hand of the market” is a human construction.
The purpose of the Jubilee Year was to ensure that there would be no permanent underclass in Israel. “The commission to ‘proclaim liberty’,” writes Elna Solvang in her workingpreacher.org commentary, “is language from the instructions for observing the Jubilee Year. During the Jubilee property and people held as payment for debt were returned to the families to which they originally belonged (Leviticus 25:10). The use of the Leviticus language in Isaiah 61 is a clear indication,” she proposes, “that the liberty proclaimed is intended to be made permanent in new social and economic relationships within the community.”
But the real world of the prophet looks nothing like the vision. Reality was a disappointing parade of just one damned thing after another. It seemed that nothing had changed.
Disappointment with reality on the ground – the first reading once again seems to connect so deeply with events around us in the present moment. We expected The Pandemic (by now I think it deserves capital letters) to be long over by now. We expected, perhaps, that something, please God – anything, would have been concluded on the day after the presidential election – either the pandemic or structural racism or snarky tweets or political ads or pleas for money. In fact, the day has come and gone, and the ruins still surround us. If anything, the mourning deepens as the death tolls mount. The reality of life for many of us is nothing like we had hoped.
But we’re all temporary, and so is our disappointment. Paul knows this when he writes to the Thessalonian Christians, “Rejoice at all times.” Food insecurity grows by the minute. Unemployment payments will cease momentarily. Businesses board up, some never to re-open. Racist, xenophobic, and psychopathic policies still unfold. Climate havoc and disaster continue apace, hardly noticed amid the churn of all the other troubles. Rejoicing in the midst of this seems frivolous at best and criminally cruel at worst.
It would be cruel indeed if we believed that nothing could change. But I can be replaced, you know. So can all the systems and structures that loot and pillage the oppressed, including a president and his cronies who just don’t seem to know how to leave. John points to the first coming of Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. We live after that first coming and point to the second coming in how we live our lives.
Whenever Christ returns, we have time between now and then. So, we are called in positive terms to rejoice, to pray, to give thanks. This is what is best for us in Christ Jesus. And we are called to resist the forces that would threaten us – to not turn down the living presence of Divine Holiness in our hearts, to not disdain new words from the Lord (when subject to appropriate testing), to not be dragged into the multifarious evils on offer from the world.
The Spirit of the Lord Jesus is upon us to proclaim and to live in the year of the Lord’s favor. We may all be temporary, but the Lord’s favor is everlasting. All that sin, death and the devil could dish out was concentrated in the cross of Christ and defeated in his death and resurrection. So, we rejoice in the temporary nature of the world’s brokenness and live into the light of the Lord.
We live in the Year of Jubilee. And we can take our cues from the prophet. After all, Jesus quotes this passage in his inaugural sermon at Nazareth. What does this look like?
The Year of Jubilee sounds to me like abolishing the death penalty and reforming our criminal punishment system (read yesterday’s post for more on that: https://wordpress.com/post/lowellhennigs.com/546).
The Year of Jubilee in our context sounds to me like restoration of land to Native communities. Every Christian congregation should know whose land their buildings occupy and should make concrete efforts to begin to make that theft right.
The Year of Jubilee in our context sounds to me like racial reparations. We don’t know if the Hebrew Jubilee Year actually happened, but it was at least the ideal. And in some cases, it did happen in part. We white Christians think reparations at just too hard for us. But we haven’t really tried. In fact, our history is littered with times when we simply turned down the chance to begin the process. Not trying is quite different from failing.
The Year of Jubilee sounds to me like continuing work to remedy our housing and education segregation. Dominant culture people benefit every day from one hundred fifty years of systematic and legally enforced segregation. We don’t even have to work at it now because it is so intertwined with realities on the ground. We can start by understanding how it happened. And we can begin to disentangle ourselves from a system that continues to build on the ten-fold wealth gap between white and black households in America.
Remember, you can be replaced. I take that seriously. White churches in America are complicit in forming and sustaining systems and structures of organized and ongoing injustice, violence, and hatred. If we are unwilling to replace those systems, then I fear that we will be ones replaced by folks who take the Year of Jubilee seriously.
Fortunately, it’s not up to us by ourselves. We can trust that God will keep us sound, without blemish, and at peace in the midst of this good work. If the good news were simply up to us, something we worked to put together, rejoicing would be foolish and cruel. But the good news comes to us from God as a gift in the midst of the grieving, as light in the midst of the darkness. That gift will keep us whole in the end.
May we be worthy of our calling until our time is done. Remember, we’re all temporary. But God’s Word endures forever. Amen.