Truth from the Margins
Dr. Kathy Lopez, Professor of Old Testament, Campbell University:
There is a mental game that I think all people play at some point in their lives: The “if I were god” game. There are different forms of it. Sometimes we play the version that I call, “If I ran the world.” You know, “if I ran the world no one would go hungry,” or “If I ran the world my life would be better somehow.”
There are other versions of this game. There’s the one that goes something like, “I can’t believe God would allow fill in the blank: ‘my child to suffer like that,’ or for this or that person to get away with cheating, stealing, whatever.” Sometimes these are fair questions and I’m not saying here that we can’t question God, not at all, because sometimes questioning is a good thing and can lead us to a deeper and truer faith.
But honestly, it’s a game we all play because on the average day the world that we live in doesn’t look like a benevolent, loving and WISE God is in charge. These kinds of mental games become a problem only when they derive from an implicit critique of God based on the belief that we somehow could do better. When they are born not of genuine humility and a searching for truth but of hubris and an overreaching pride: The belief that we are wiser than God.
There’s still another version of this game that goes something like this, “If I were going to save the world I would do x, or y,” but would any of us have ever come up with the idea of Jesus?
Honestly, the entire message of Christianity is based on a story that just doesn’t make all that much sense. God comes to earth, and takes on human form as a baby? That baby Jesus grows up in an obscure region of the world and becomes an itinerant preacher who died a painful and humiliating death all in order to save us? Don’t you think if we put our heads together we could come up with a more reasonable plan to save the world?
These questions and doubts are as old as our faith. Paul talks about this very thing in his first letter to the Corinthians. Speaking to a church that had badly misunderstood the Christian message he contrasts the wisdom of the world with the wisdom of God. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:25: “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” Whatever we think we know, Paul says, it is nothing compared to God’s wisdom.
Now, we wouldn’t be here in church today if we believed that the cross was foolishness, but we still place human wisdom above divine all the time. One could argue that it’s the sinful, broken part of our humanness, or it’s simply part of our finitude. By definition, we can’t see the whole picture or understand the vastness of God’s creation, which is why we so often end up being surprised by God’s work in the world. And, why we so often end up looking for God in the wrong places. And so we arrive at the second Sunday of Advent preparing ourselves for the celebration of a highly improbable birth that took place over 2000 years ago. Still putting our own wisdom above God’s, forgetting that the biggest surprise of all is that our salvation is found in that stable 2000 years ago and is grounded in an infant, God in human form, helpless. So as we draw near to the Baby Jesus we must remember that the truth of God is not found in the places our own human wisdom would lead us to look. Rather it’s found in the margins. In weakness, not strength; in stables, not in throne rooms.
Today we’re focusing on the person of John the Baptist. We’re all more or less familiar with this figure, but just to review: In the OT there is a clear belief that before the messiah came, there would appear a messenger who would prepare the people for the coming of the messiah, as we all heard in the reading from the book of Malachi. The NT clearly identifies John as the one who fulfills this prophecy.
Who is John? Luke tells us that he is the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth and a relative of Jesus. Both of his parents were descendants of priestly families and his father was a member of one of the 24 orders of priests who took turns serving in the temple. All indications are that John was born into a family that was both rural and very likely poor. As an adult Mark describes him as wearing camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, living in the wilderness near the Jordon River, eating locusts and wild honey. So, in both behavior and in geography, he is a figure who speaks the truth of God from the margins. Further, very much like the prophets of the Old Testament, he speaks a message of repentance to the people of Judea and Jerusalem.
But before we talk about that, let’s go backward a bit to talk about his birth because John isn’t the only person in this story who speaks truth from the margins. The story starts in Luke with 2 very unlikely pregnancies: Elizabeth and Mary. Elizabeth is old and barren, but late in life she is blessed with an unexpected pregnancy. In this regard she stand in line with many other women of the Bible like Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and others. Her husband, Zechariah, however, when told of the pregnancy doubts the angel Gabriel and is struck deaf and mute for his unbelief. In the quiet of her pregnancy, I can imagine both her excitement at the prospect of motherhood so long denied, and her fear, for giving birth is a dangerous enterprise both then and now, and an aging body is always at greater risk.
The other pregnancy is the more famous one, of course. Mary has the assurance of her own vision of the angel Gabriel, but she is young and unmarried, her future and the future of her child is not as stable as that of Elizabeth’s. Mary’s engagement to Joseph has been noted, but she cannot yet know how he will react to the news of her pregnancy. But despite all this, and in direct contrast to Zechariah, she responds to the angel, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Together, these two women are also voices from the margin. Pregnant women at the mercy of men, and yet as they meet together they stand at the center of the God’s truth. Luke tell us that Mary “went with haste” to Elizabeth’s house. And when she enters the house, something extraordinary and often overlooked happens. Let me read it to you:
41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’ **While not one of the more famous stories surrounding Jesus’ birth, I’ve read this story a fair number of times. But it took me awhile to notice how truly significant this story is. We tend to focus on the fact that the as yet unborn John leaps at the sound of Mary’s voice, thereby acknowledging her role as the mother of our savior. Notice, however, that it is Elizabeth who is filled with the Holy Spirit, and is thereby led to speak, and in speaking Elizabeth is the first person to acknowledge Jesus as Lord. Notice verse 43 “43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”
At least according to Luke, the first person in history to acknowledge Jesus as our Lord is Elizabeth: The unexpectedly pregnant wife of an obscure priest from the hill country of Judea. Move over Peter and all the disciples, Elizabeth was first. Truly a voice from the margin!
And the story goes on. As her time to give birth comes, she bears a baby boy whom she names John. It is here that we are reminded how very marginal her voice was, at least in her own time and place. While everyone rejoices with her over her great blessing, they aren’t going to let her get away with naming her own child. Again, let me read from the passage:
59 On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. 60But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’ 61They said to her, ‘None of your relatives has this name.’ 62Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. 63He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. 64Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God.”
This part of the story makes me chuckle a little. Notice that it is only when Zechariah affirms what his wife has said is he able to speak again. It’s almost as if God has to physically make a man mute before we can hear the voice of a woman. Maybe I’m over-reading here a little bit, or maybe not. Either way, as a corollary idea to that of listening to the voices of truth from the margins is that we should be very careful that we ourselves aren’t always talking so loudly that we drown out the voices of those around us!
The idea that God uses voices from the margins to speak truth is not just found in Luke. It’s all over the Bible. The people we elevate as the heroes and heroines of our faith were often from the margins. Abraham became a nomad when he left his home country with nothing but the promise of land to which he could belong. A promise that he himself never sees fulfilled, by the way. Abraham spent his life moving around the margins of other people’s land.
The story of the Exodus is also a story of marginal people. While the Hebrews were in Egypt they were essentially seasonal migrant workers who because of their poverty and lack of status in a country not their own were enslaved by an autocratic ruler afraid they would destabilize his rule. We all know whose side God was on in that particular event!
John himself stands in the long tradition of the Hebrew prophets whose job was to speak truth from the margins and in defense of the marginalized. It is an oft noted phenomenon, for example, that the prophetic movement began when Israel became a monarchy, basically with David, and ended when the monarchy ceased to exist. While a modern phrase, the idea of “speaking truth to power” was invented by the biblical prophets. Amos, for example, a farmer from a faraway obscure little village in Judah traveled across an international border in order to stand in the royal sanctuary at Bethel and speak out against a corrupt king and the wealthy men who supported him. Amos’s accusation against them were very real: stop using the court systems to cheat the poor and create a situation that while protecting your own wealth and power would leave a significant portion of the population in permanent poverty and need.
I could go on and on. Clearly, the biblical message both Old and New Testament is that our wisdom is not God’s and that as Christians we should stop paying attention to what the world says is wise and start listening for the wisdom of God. Further, the biblical message is clear that the truth of God is often found where we would least expect it. And so, if we listen to the voices from the margin, what are we likely to hear? Let’s go back to John the Baptist.
In Luke 3 it says that John proclaimed a baptism for the forgiveness of sins. In calling them to baptism, John says, “bear fruits worthy of repentance.” But what does that mean? Again, reading from Luke. Chapter 3:10-14: “And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’”
What then does being forgiven look like to John? A man who speaks from the margins, his message to us all is that to be forgiven is to take care of those in the margins. Share with others when you have been blessed with abundance. Don’t cheat people. Don’t use your power over someone else to abuse them. And in this he stand in line with Amos and all the other biblical voices from the margins. Don’t be like pharaoh or one of his minions and take advantage of migrant workers. Pay a fair wage. Welcome the modern day Abraham who left his homeland in order to find a better place if not for him then at least for his children. Live in such a way that all people can flourish.
Truly, this is where the wisdom of God and the wisdom of the world part company because to listen to the voices of truth from the margins is to acknowledge not only that those who live in the margins must be heard, it is to acknowledge that their humanity is equal to ours, that their needs are equal to ours, and even more, it is to acknowledge that we are all equal in the eyes of God.
I would love to be able to end here with this truth, but even when we all acknowledge this truth, it does not clear our thinking of the cobwebs, sort to speak, of human wisdom that continue to hinder us from truly living out the truth of God’s wisdom. Because this is not a spiritual truth and an abstract affirmation. We cannot on the one hand acknowledge that all people are equal and on the other hand do nothing to make that real in our world today. Human wisdom would whisper in our ears and say that in heaven we will all share in God’s abundance. God’s wisdom says that it’s our responsibility, as much as we are able, to take what human wisdom would call a “pie in the sky” vision and make it real here in this place today. This is the hard work of faith where we act as God’s hand and feet. Where instead of saying, “Why would God let that happen?” and then turn away, we say “Maybe I should do something about that. Maybe I, to the best of my abilities, should do something to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.” Know that I speak as much to myself as to all of you today.
Please pray with me: Lord, as we anticipate the arrival of your son. Help us to see your truth and to love each other with your love. Help us to treat all babies as if they were Jesus, and all people as equals. In Jesus name.