Third Sunday of Advent, Year B
13 December 2020
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28
In the debate about racism and colonialism it has been said that the wealth of Western societies is built on slavery, the theft of land, and exploitation of colonies.
A Mennonite acquaintance in Chilliwack once said to me, he wondered about the poverty on the First Nations Reserve close to the farm on which he had grown up, until one day he realized that his parents – good upstanding Christians – were farming the land that had been taken from their First Nations neighbours. This had never occurred to him until that moment.
Some have demanded that restitution must be made for those who aided in the creation of wealth while at the same time were excluded from sharing in it.
In Canada this conversation has significance not only in our Province where no treaties were negotiated but also across our whole land because treaties with the Crown were often disregarded and unilaterally amended by the Canadian government and compensation originally negotiated always favoured the Crown.
This is a conversation that’s probably not getting a lot of traction among us. Where do you start where do you end? What’s reasonable compensation and what does that mean for the rest of us or for the way our society is organized?
We favour benevolent agreements and economic partnerships because the scope of those is easier to estimate and they leave us in control.
Our reading from Isaiah 61 is addressed to a people who have returned from exile in Babylon but are discouraged that rebuilding is harder than they expected and who find that past glory remains in the past. The word the prophet speaks to them is one of hope. “They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.” (v.4)
But in this context the prophet also speaks of the year of Jubilee (Numbers 25), when land shall be returned, when equality shall be restored, when accumulation shall end. This shall be done every 50 years because great disparity will divide a community and a nation, and because all belongs to God anyway.
“The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God.” (v.1-2)
If these verses sound familiar to you it is likely because Jesus reads these verses in the synagogue at the beginning of his ministry. Jesus proclaims the Jubilee, the redistribution of wealth so that everyone would have enough. The church fathers understood this very well. John Chrysostom (347-407) said, The rich are in possession of the goods of the poor, even if they have acquired them honestly or inherited them legally.
When Jesus was done the reading and declared it to be his program, the crowd was ready to push him off a cliff. I might have, too.
Now when we first heard today’s reading we may thought ourselves as the people to whom the prophet brings comfort. It almost is the season of comfort and joy after all, and besides, this has been a tough year and it’s not yet over.
Why shouldn’t we be the people addressed with words of hope and consolation. “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me … to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion – to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.”
And I believe that God is speaking words of comfort to us as much as I believe that God is our life and our salvation.
But I wonder if we could be not one but two audiences for this reading. We are God’s people, holy and beloved while at the same time we are stewards of God’s riches, not our own.
We would then stand with Ambrose of Milan (340-397) who said about charity, You are not making a gift of your possession to the poor person. You are handing over to him what is his. And this brings us back to seeking a justice that runs deeper than charity, that acknowledges not only our responsibility but our calling as followers of Jesus. If people were going to push him off a cliff, who is to say people wouldn’t do this to his followers, too?
In the March issue of The Christian Century Terra Brockman writes about travelling to a First Nations Slow Food event in Denver, CO in a building that looked like an abandoned Lutheran church. She learned that the church had been erected on treaty land in the 1880s. Land that had been given in treaty because European settlers had regarded it as worthless, suddenly became valuable when prospectors discovered gold in the Rocky Mountains.
The church which had been founded by Danish settlers was abandoned in 1973. When the area was gentrifying the Rocky Mountain Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America considered selling the property that at this point was already occupied by the Four Winds First Nations community. To make a long story short, the property was gifted to the First Nations community and thus became “decolonized land.”1
I read about the event and about the conversations between church and First Nations people that finally led to the land transfer months ago. The story is moving because of the injustices committed and the time both communities spent with one another, exploring their relationship, and the church being willing to learn about First Nations and acknowledge its own history.
It is not going to be every church’s or every institution’s story. But it is a beautiful witness to the enactment of the year of Jubilee proclaimed in Numbers 25 and declared by both Isaiah and Jesus.
It is a story of comfort not only for the recipients of land and building but just as much for those who decided to gift it, for it gave them a new self-understanding. They had less but had become richer for being able to let go and for the friends they had made not with the land but with their willingness to be engaged, to listen, and to let go.
Jubilee it seems to me is a blessing not only to the poor but also to the rich. In our Gospel text this morning we learn of John the Baptizer, who a couple of chapters later says about his relationship with Jesus, “He must increase, I must decrease.” It is a beautiful paradox that we increase by decreasing. St Paul writes to the Corinthians, as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: … We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything. (2 Corinthians 6:8-10)
May there be much comfort this year, enough for all.
1The Christian Century, 11 March 2020, pp.22-25. https://www.christiancentury.org/article/features/church-returns-land-american-indians