Toward the Horizon
by Louise Westfall
They come from every social class. Movie stars. Cleaning women. Middle management office workers. Women and men. Gay and straight. And they’re speaking out about abuse, sexual assault, and harassment at the hands of people who wield power over them: bosses, directors, mentors. Time magazine has named them “the Silence Breakers,” and designated them “Person of the Year.” “The voices that launched a movement” as person after person reported similar incidences on social media under the hashtag MeToo. Millions of people. Sometimes at great cost in terms of employment, career advancement, and even threat of violence.
The Bible has another word for Silence Breakers: prophets. People who speak God’s truth, revealing corruption, brokenness, and systemic roadblocks to God’s rule on earth as it is in heaven. Prophets awaken God’s people from complacency and make us aware of our complicity in the troubles of the day. Prophets alert us to the things that are not right and call us to make them right. Prophets shed light on present reality that may have been hidden or falsified, but they don’t stop there. They also lift a light toward the far horizon, toward a future of peace and justice and human flourishing.
The morning Scripture reading portrays a Silence Breaker named John who strides into the scene calling for change. You’ve heard John’s message before: Repent! — and let us remember that the word literally means to go in a different direction. Act differently. Make different choices. Re-align priorities. John announces the coming of a powerful One whose arrival signals good news. The first hearers of his words were in a tough spot, under the thumb of the Roman Empire, little better than slaves and forced to pay exorbitant taxes. That John drew from ancient words proclaimed during another low point in the nation’s history — when they were in exile — is significant. Along with a declaration of the necessity for change is a promise of comfort, of a future with hope. We may be most familiar with this text from the prophet Isaiah through its stunning setting by Handel, often sung at Christmas. Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended … Get you up to a high mountain … lift up your voice with strength, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say Here is your God! See, the Lord God comes with might … [yet see how dramatically different from today’s power brokers the might of God is wielded: ] God will feed the flock like a shepherd; God will gather the lambs in strong arms, and carry them tenderly and gently lead the mother sheep. [Isaiah 40]
The words of the prophet from so long ago, in a different time, very different from our own. Yet I wonder. Kindness is in such short supply these days. Some of us see mostly clouds on the horizon, threats of war, environmental degradation, and utter erosion of the social contract that casts doubt on our “e pluribus unum.” The startlingly deep divide among us here in the United States, let alone among our global neighbors leaves us with a sense of living in the wilderness, at odds and out of place. The “silence breakers” revealed a problem that is not simply about sex, but about the misuse of power; and so it has always been, when the strong prey upon the weak, when powerful leaders betray the trust of ones who seek their help, when the golden rule is distorted into “those who have the gold, rule.”
What might “good news” look like today? To prepare for the reading from Mark, I invite us into a few moments of silence as we consider the things in our personal lives, in our families and community and nation and world that are not right, that need the transforming touch of Jesus, the Son of God.
[SILENCE FOR A FEW MOMENTS] A reading from Mark, in the first chapter at the first verse. Listen for God’s word to you and me and to all who hunger for good news. [MARK 1:1-8]
It was just a few moments, but I’ll bet your mind was flooded – as was mine — with twenty things, two hundred and twenty things that need fixing or healing or reconciling or hope:
… friends struggling to keep their marriage together … a person who cares for a chronically-ill spouse … the teenager who sends in a prayer card almost every week to have clear skin and a good future … advice and counsel for my son and his fiancée as they marry next summer … concern that the Children’s Health Insurance Program, so vital for health care access for lower-income families be funded … a return to negotiations toward peace and justice in Israel and Palestine … anticipatory grief for my brother and sister-in-law’s move … North Korea … concerns for mental health in Colorado, ranked #9 in the US by number of suicides annually … You have your own list, and together they form the backdrop into which John announces good news.
A powerful One is coming …
… and he’s coming to the wilderness places of heartbreak and hostility to make things right. Be comforted. God has not forgotten us. God will hold us in strong arms and tenderly care for us as a shepherd with the flock. We don’t have to be afraid any longer, not because we deny reality or try to gloss it over with happy thoughts or worse, with nostalgia for a time that never existed in the first place. Friends, breaking the silence is a painful necessity before healing can take place. Speaking up, and also listening to and believing the truth-tellers point the way toward a changed reality, a world in which people treat one another with dignity and kindness, building up rather than tearing down. John, the Silence Breaker, exposed lies and self-deceptions and called for a change of heart, to prepare the way for the Mighty One who can truly save and make all things new.
And that’s why we are able to see the far horizon through something other than present realities. We can look toward the future as the place where God is already at work shaping and reshaping those realities with the power of love. We glimpse the day when wars shall cease, a world in which little children are fed and secure, a time when every wall separating human beings has been brought down, a distant day when the abundance of God’s blessings are shared, broadly and deeply.
At a committee meeting recently I asked the members what gave them hope, and the thing that amazed me was the immediacy of their responses. Participating with children and youth in service projects … recognizing people who care, who are actively working to make things better … in the face of selfishness and greed, experiencing a resurgence of community, the realization that we are in this world together. One woman who has sustained terrible losses through death said she was looking forward to the New Year and the promise of “additions” rather than subtractions. And someone else spoke in a way that sounded like a sigh of relief: I have another chance to get it right. They helped me reclaim hope that gets tattered many days. Hope that things can be different. Hope that you and I can be different. Hope made real in the One whose birth we anticipate by lighting candles that grow in intensity each passing week. Friends, Christian hope is messy, but it can bring light to the messiest lives, light enough to take another step out of the wilderness toward the horizon … and a day when the hashtag MeToo means we got there all together.
After some moments of silence, I invite us to sing a new Advent hymn written by John Bell, our visiting theologian this Fall. Riffing off the reality that Joseph and Mary became refugees after King Herod’s murderous plot against their baby, it reminds us that as we care for the stranger and immigrant among us we welcome Jesus into our world again. Wil will play it through first and then we’ll join in — words and music on the insert.
CHARGE AND BLESSING
The words of Malala Yousafzai, a young Pakistani activist who survived a gunshot wound and persecution to advocate for female education: Let us make our future now, and let us make our dreams tomorrow’s reality. Go out from here in peace to love and serve with invincible hope. And the love of God, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit accompany you on this day’s journey, and forever. Amen.