Naming Jesus (2): Strength of God
By Rev. Dr. Louise Westfall
Bears Stadium. . . . Mile High Stadium. . . .Invesco Field at Mile High. . . . Sports Authority Field at Mile High. . . . fans will recognize these as the names of the two places where the Denver Broncos have galloped into football history. So far, naming rights are still up for grabs after Sports Authority filed for bankruptcy. One letter to the editor writer this week suggested “Colorado Ski Country Stadium” as a way to promote tourism rather than a particular corporation. Well. Names are important, and so is the naming process.
During Advent this year, we’re exploring four names given to the Old Testament prophet Isaiah to announce the coming of One who would restore the fortunes of the tattered nation and inaugurate a new day of peace and justice. While Biblical scholars believe these prophecies pointed to an actual historical figure in that time—a prince or king– the Church has always appropriated them as names for Messiah, the One God was sending to save people from slavery and death, for life—abundant life here and now continuing for eternity. You know the text: For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders: and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Strength of God, Eternal Protector, Champion of Peace. What’s intriguing is that Jesus took on the Messiah role in very different ways than the faithful expected. He didn’t fit the picture of the one on whom they pinned their hopes; all their hopes. The prophecy promises one filled with divine power to do amazing things, and that prompts us to consider power: how Jesus wielded it as the very strength of almighty God; and what that means for us who seek to follow him.
A big clue comes from the mouth not of Jesus, but of his cousin John, known as the Baptizer. His harsh pronouncements intrude on the quiet beauty of the sanctuary and the hopes and fears that fill every single one of us. A reading from Matthew in the third chapter at the first verse. Listen for God’s Word—-a surprising word, but a good one. [Matthew 3:1-12]
#Thingshavegottachange. If John had tweeted his message, that’s how he might have said it. All the fluff must be trimmed away from the truth; the crooked little lies and grand illusions upon which we build our lives must be revealed and straightened out. People who talk a good game must demonstrate truth through actions. Privilege and pedigree don’t make a difference: integrity does, when behavior matches belief. Repent! Despite its cringe-worthy reputation, the word literally means turn around; go in a different direction. . . . aka change!
So I guess it makes sense that John’s message is the one that greets us every Advent, as we prepare again to receive Jesus into our lives. Because it isn’t simply things that have gotta change—people have to. And perhaps there is no better way to see the strength of God than in the lives of people who change.
Jesus spent his earthly ministry wielding the power of God in a particular direction: toward life and wholeness. Sometimes that meant physical healing: the blind could see, the lame could walk, those possessed by demonic powers (maybe today we would call it mental illness, addiction, or despair) were set free. Sometimes Jesus restored a person to the community that had ostracized them—healing lepers, for example, or eating meals with outsiders. Remember how he fed huge crowds with just a little bread and a few fish, and to this day we call it a miracle of sharing. Or think of Zacchaeus—an undersized Israelite who had sold out to the Roman oppressors by collecting taxes and keeping a generous cut for himself: over a meal and conversation with Jesus he came to see the terrible
cost of his wealth, and vowed to make amends by returning the fraudulent money to his neighbors four-fold. Even Jesus’ sermons were different: people contrasted them with the teachings of the religious leaders for their compelling truthfulness and ring of authority. We remember his death as redemptive suffering in a meal of broken bread and poured out cup.
Yet in every case Jesus resisted attempts to wield power in familiar ways. Turn the other cheek he said, and followers ever since have scratched their heads about how to apply that to real life and serious enemies. Oh, but he also said to love your enemies, and do good to those who persecute and hate you. My kingdom is not of this world he said to distinguish his authority from thrones and crowns of the empire who assert power through coercion and violence. Jesus revolutionized …well, revolution. He didn’t call for an uprising against Rome, but a spiritual uprising that looked to a power greater than Rome, a power stronger than an army, a power with more impact than all the wealth of the world. This is the power of the Lord of life, creator of heaven and earth, the God who loves the world and sent Jesus to show how to change it through love.
Yep. Unglamorous, not-headline-making, dopey old life-changing love. Love that sees God in every human being. Love that is moved by need to feed the hungry, establish housing for the homeless, visit the sick and imprisoned, act on behalf of people others deem outcast, create opportunity where there was little before, open doors through education, reunite and reconcile broken families and relationships. Nothing is more important. Nothing is more central to a life of faith than to love God and love one another.
I have never forgotten a billboard I saw along I-90 over the shuttered steel mills and factories of Cleveland. I don’t even remember what was being advertised; just the memorable tagline: The meek may inherit the earth, but they will never own the room. For me, that identifies the heart of the matter: we want to wield power over others—to “own the room”— when Jesus calls us to exercise power with others—on behalf of the life to which God is heaven- bent on bringing the world.
In the days since the presidential election, I’ve heard a lot about the need to “speak truth to power.” I’ve no doubt that will be necessary, just as it has always been necessary. But this is also a time to speak truth to the powerless by demonstrating the strength of God to change ….everything. From scarcity to abundance; from fear to faith; from frenzied non-stop activity to balance and rest; from despair to hope. Often it is easier to love a category than a living, breathing person occupying the same space as you. Maybe we can speak truth to them by being a tad more patient, a little kinder, a little more forgiving. Friends, things have gotta change and we have gotta change, and change is possible through the strength of God here with us.
This I Believe is a radio program started by Edward R. Murrow in 1951 and reintroduced in 2005 in which people from all walks of life write and share essays describing the core values that guide their daily lives.
Recently I read an essay by a woman who had served as an interrogator at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. She had served in the Army, done a tour of duty in Iraq, and then had become a civilian contractor working in prison camps, which brought her to Gitmo. She understood well the crimes of the detainees from the nightmares she still experienced from her time in Iraq. Here are her words:
We were all exhausted. Many of them came back from a war having lost friends, too. I wondered how many of them still heard screaming at night like I did.
My job was to obtain information that would help keep U.S. soldiers safe. We’d meet, play dominoes, I’d bring chocolate and we’d talk a lot. There was one detainee, Mustafa, who joked that I was his favorite interrogator in the world, and I joked back that he was my favorite terrorist — and he was. He’d committed murders and did things we all wished he could take back. He asked me one day, suddenly serious, “You know everything about me, but still you do not hate me. Why?”
His question stopped me cold. I said “Everyone has done things in their past that they’re not proud of. I know I have, but I also know God still expects me to love Him with all my heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love my neighbor as myself. That means you.”
Mustafa started to cry. “That’s what my God says, too,” he said.
Could it be that this is how things change? Us too? May it be so.