Reflection for Sunday – December 5, 2021
Readings: Baruch 5: 1-9; Philippians 1:4-6, 8-11; Luke 3: 1-6
Preacher: Susan K. Roll
Close your eyes for a moment and think of the biggest, deepest, most unexpected, heart-pounding O.M.G. pothole you have ever driven over … or around … or into.
My candidate for worst pothole came up unexpectedly on a highway in post-Soviet Lithuania. Fortunately my friend who was driving was able to steer quickly around the massive pit that suddenly appeared in our lane. It could have swallowed the front end of the car.
The Canadian Automobile Association used to run an annual contest for members to submit photos of potholes from which Canada’s Worst Pothole of the Year (or some such title) would be selected.
We tend to assume that potholes will be fixed, or at least patched pending re-paving the road, maybe after a call to the local highway department. The author of the Book of Baruch cited in our First Reading for this Sunday declares that “God has commanded that every lofty mountain be made low, and that the age-old depths and gorges be filled to level ground…”
This was a visionary statement, really an ideal, a utopia. When Luke quotes the prophet Isaiah in our Gospel, “Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight and the rough ways made smooth…” the intention was much the same. But the vision here is not one of improved transportation infrastructure but rather an analogy to what needs to happen before the justice promised by our God can be realized on this earth.
Advent resonates with the promise of justice for whoever is oppressed, discriminated against, or disadvantaged in any way. The hope it engenders rings as true now as it did for our ancestors in faith. Then, as now, God’s promise hinges on human effort, yet does not emerge as a result of that effort. All our efforts might turn out to be in vain. In the end, justice is a gift of God. The promised coming of God in our flesh, on our earth, is the coming of justice.
Did it ever strike you as ironic that precisely in the run-up to Christmas—in which peoples’ schedules are heavy with shopping, decorating, baking, entertaining, traveling, organizing, rehearsing and attending social, religious and artistic events —we are most likely to invest a good deal of time, work and monetary contributions in Christmastime charity projects? Hot holiday meals for the homeless, all-out efforts to amass donations to food banks for food-insecure families, Toys for Tots, warm clothing for schoolchildren, gift cards for indigent veterans, now needed more than ever in the midst of a pandemic that never seems to end. All good work, all necessary work.
And yet there’s something wrong here, or more precisely, there’s something incomplete. Next Christmas the needs will, in all likelihood, still be there. Good-hearted people will plunge into fine charity work once again. Next year, and the year after, and the year after that, if the systemic barriers to making justice are not addressed.
Maybe we’re driving full speed down the road of charity, ignoring the potholes. The potholes will not fix themselves, and neither will the conditions that perpetuate poverty: legislation that favors the wealthy, or social structures that tamp down hope for a better future, or economic circumstances that never seem to improve, for a start.
And this is the difference between charity and social justice. Charity fits beautifully with the spirit of Christmas because the work can result in a warm personal sense of reward, of real needs met for real people. Social justice means we’re in for the long haul, and we may never hear a “thank you” from those who stand to benefit. Both are needed. The question is not either-or, but of complementary work to bring in the kingdom of God, the kingdom of justice. Let’s stop for a moment and take another look at the vision laid out in our readings for this Second Sunday of Advent. Don’t miss the stunning beauty in the first reading: “Jerusalem, take off your robe of mourning and misery; put on the splendor of glory from God forever: wrapped in the cloak of justice from God … For God will show all the earth your splendor… the peace of justice.” This breathtaking promise is made not just to one people, but to all: “The winding roads shall be made straight…and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”