A Level Highway
December 5, 2021
I’ve always loved history books. I know that the joke is always about how boring history is, but to me, it’s the most fascinating story of all of us. And there was, for the longest time, a particular trend in writing history called the “Great Man History.” Basically, all of history could be understood by tracing the actions and lives of the powerful people (who were almost always men) and ordering history around it. It’s why we see the fall of the Roman Republic through the lens of Julius Caesar, or the course of modern history through the lens of Queen Victoria. Basically, any time you read a history where the chapters are based who was in charge at the time, that’s Great Man History.
So it should come as no surprise that Luke’s gospel decided to list off a series of Great Men for us to find the historical setting of today’s gospel reading. Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias, and don’t forget the high priests Anas and Caiaphas. These were the names that shook the world. They ordered the course of world history, so much that whole historical periods could be referenced simply by when they were rulers. But then Luke does what the Bible always seems to do in these cases: he undermines that powerful set.
With Clear Eyes
November 28, 2021
Sometimes it can be hard to pay attention to the world. Knowing what’s going on is one thing, but really paying attention to the world can be exhausting. Paying attention makes it feel like the portents of doom that Jesus predicted seem to be happening all the time. The signs in the heavens speak of a climate in rapid change. The nations in an uproar as the world feels like it’s tottering, war breaking out and regional rivalries threatening to undo peace so carefully crafted. People seem to be going crazy, with a man driving an SUV into a Christmas parade just the latest example. A pandemic that is just too persistent, threatening to cast a cloud over another holiday season. Paying attention to the world can be exhausting.
It makes sense that there are people who are paying attention, who have moved toward despair. I think especially of the youth summit that preceded the COP26 climate talks. These youth leaders seemed convinced that climate change would not be realistically confronted, that they were doomed to reap the interest on their ancestor’s loan from the earth. And that kind of despair can be tempting. It can beckon when the world seems to be shaking, when the stars appear to be falling, when doom seems to be the order of the day.
Over the last few weeks in Advent, we’ve been reading these texts that talk about the coming of the kingdom. Isaiah spoke of a vision for the end when he let God’s imagination show him a world without the evils of war. John the Baptist shouted about bearing good fruit, worthy of repentance, to set the world right. And Jesus reminded us last week to look and listen for the signs of the kingdom: miracles of healing, wholeness, peace, and life. And this week, Joseph has a dream to fulfill Isaiah’s vision of God-with-us.
We’re familiar with the story. Joseph, who is betrothed to Mary, discovers that she is pregnant. That leaves Joseph with really only one logical reason that this could be: Mary has been unfaithful to him. His plan is to dismiss her quietly. I think that’s important to note: the quietly part. Joseph is a genuinely good man. He doesn’t want to disgrace Mary or her family by publicly humiliating them. But he’s also a man of his time, and he doesn’t see bearing the shame of a wife who is already pregnant.
From the Stump of Jesse
Matthew 3:1-12, Isaiah 11:1-10
Back when I was little and we lived in Virginia, our neighbors had a fig tree. It grew right next to the fence, and every summer we would be allowed to pick the fruit whenever we felt like it, because there were way too many figs growing on that tree for the three people next door to eat. I remember, as a kid who grew up in a neighborhood far from farms of any kind, how special that tree was because of how it magically made food.
And then there were these other trees in our backyard. Big, tall pine trees that dropped their own kind of fruit. The fruit they had were these hard, round, spiky balls we called “gumballs”—a name I still am not sure if it was real or just what we called them. They dropped every time a stiff breeze came by, and most of the backyard would be covered in them to the point that running barefoot was like running through a minefield.
Even as a child, I could tell what good fruit looked like.