12/6/2020 From Height to Humility
Preparing Ourselves for Advent
Before you begin reading this message, take this time to pray to God.
We are currently in the season of advent. The word Advent, comes from the Latin word adventus, which means “coming” or “visit.” Advent is a season that Christians observe, where we remember the birth of Jesus. In remembering Jesus Christ, we think about and listen to our current relationship with Jesus Christ. It is not solely about remembering the birth of Jesus Christ, but also embodying an attitude that in a way prepares, expects, and continues to hope for Jesus Christ to come again. When we think of the timeline of a calendar year, December usually marks the end. However, what I enjoy is that the season of advent actually marks the beginning of the liturgical year for Christians. So currently at this time we are actually beginning the Church year.
Reflection Question: What are you mainly doing during these four weeks leading up to Christmas? What does the advent season mean to you?
Every week during Advent, we usually light a candle. One of the candles is meant to symbolize expectation. We are to expect the coming of Jesus Christ. Expectation means, “A strong belief that something will happen or be the case in the future.” I have a little bit of trouble in the call to expect, because (1) it sometimes creates a passive tone in moving through advent, and (2) it begs the question “How are we to expect?” Think about the things you do leading up to Christmas day. Do you your actions reflect that you are “expecting” Jesus Christ? Does expecting Jesus Christ mean placing Christmas lights around your house? Does expecting Jesus Christ mean buying presents for friends and family? Does expecting Jesus Christ mean expecting presents from friends and family? Does it mean doing nothing and just thinking?
Instead of asking the question, “How can we expect the coming of Jesus Christ?” I believe a more appropriate question to ask is, “What do you think Jesus Christ is expecting of me?” Today’s message is not necessarily going to answer that question. However, my hope is that it will provide a perspective that will guide us in answering that question personally.
Bible Passages of Focus
Today’s passage of focus is titled The Widow’s Offering, found in Mark 12:41- 44 (NRSV).
The Widow’s Offering
41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
The Roman Empire
Although the Gospel according to Mark is the second Gospel to show up in the New Testament, biblical scholars believe it to be the earliest written Gospel, at around the upper 60’s, early 70’s A.D. (Anno Domini). This was said to be a difficult time for Jesus followers because they were being persecuted by the Roman Empire. The Gospel of Mark was written to offer comfort, courage, and counsel to Jesus followers suffering violent persecution.
This comfort, courage, and counsel is found in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, pushing up against the Roman Empire, while ushering in a new Kingdom - the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is not only a future hope but something that we are co-creating right now. I believe Jesus is signaling this Kingdom in the story of the Widow’s offerings.
One way that scholars have read Mark, is through what is called a Postcolonial reading. They ask the question, “How does the context of the various writers, characters, and Jesus being under the Roman Empire affect the way we interpret the scripture?” How does the context of an oppressive and violent Empire affect the way we read the story of the poor widow giving her last two copper coins? And from a new interpretation how are we supposed to apply it to the season of advent?
You see when we think of Empires, especially ones that persecute people violently, I think of a top-down perspective. A top-down perspective is when one engages in something for their own benefits and gain. It is exerting power over someone or something, without really listening to the voices of the people. And sometimes we do this in church work, where we donate money to the homeless, but we are never with the homeless. We never get to know the people who we are helping. We also assume we know what is best for various types of people, especially when we do charity, but we never involve those who are affected. This is a top-down approach. We engage with people with a sense of superiority or say a sense of height.
A Personal Story
Last year I was blessed to attend an art gallery, with drawings, paintings and poems made by those who are currently and formerly incarcerated - people who are in prison and just got out of prison. At our time in the gallery, we met Glen, who was formerly incarcerated - he spent years in prison. I’ve had various conversations about how we are to handle people who are fresh out of prison and are transitioning back into society, generating ideas about programs and what we thought would work best for them. But when Glen was telling his story and the experiences he went through, it became a totally different experience from just sitting in a room and talking about people like Glen.
When Glen was sharing his story, it made things more real, it took the power out of my own ideas and made me rethink who the real leaders are that are trying to make change. When hearing about what Glen wanted and what he was feeling and experiencing it allowed me to think of new ideas of how to approach those transitioning back into life from prison. It humbled me, in that I didn’t know everything. It showed me that a top-down perspective is not the best means in creating change. What the experience showed me is that we need to recognize the height, the power, and the privilege that we carry and exchange it for humility. And from that humility it creates a bottom-up perspective.
You see within the story of the widow we get powerful and rich people giving their money in abundance because they had so much. It was so easy for them because of their power and privilege. But when we get to the widow, we would think that the widow would want to keep all the money that she had for food or shelter. But instead, the widow gives her last two coins to the temple treasury.
Traditionally people would interpret this passage in saying that she is giving all to God. But I think there is more to this story. See the currency that they were using was also Roman currency. Where the currency in and of itself is a symbol of the Roman Empire, an Empire founded on conquering, violence, and persecution. Therefore, giving all that the widow had, may not only symbolize giving it all to God, but at the same time it symbolized a rejection and rebuke of the violent Roman Empire that harbored a top-down approach.
She didn’t want anything to do with the Empire. She didn’t want anything to do with an approach that didn’t really benefit her, that didn’t humanize her, that didn’t change the system that was oppressing her. In answering the question, “What does Jesus expect of us?”
I believe the story of the widow is calling on us to reject a top-down approach - to reject an overpowering and individualist perspective that fails to humanize other people. We are to move from height to humility. From the church planning rooms to the actual streets. From an overpowering posture to an empowering perspective.
The grace and love of God isn’t something that we are forced to take in. But in our own free-will we allow it to change us, to change other people, and to ultimately change the world. We are no longer rulers and conquerors, but we serve those who are in need. And we do not serve from a power-over but a power-with. Showing people, the love of Jesus Christ through our kind actions, through our kind conversations, and through our deep listening.
In whatever we do, God is expecting us to move to a place of humility, where we empower and be in relationship with other people. Sometimes our relationships with other people become distorted, because we always try an overpowering approach, where we want things done our way. However, in that moment, we also fail to listen to other people, to that family member, or to that friend.
Reflection Question: Where in your life have you held or continue to hold a top-down perspective - in your work, families, church, and other contexts?
I say all of this to you today in preparation for the rest of advent because (1) sometimes in the midst of planning for Christmas, buying presents, making the house look nice, making sure everything is right, the opportunities to build relationships from the bottom-up are missed. And, (2) we are not expecting a warrior nor are we are not expecting a man to beam down from heaven. Instead, we are expecting a baby, where I believe that tells us something about our God.
It is not all about what we are expecting of God and Jesus Christ, we already know what Jesus Christ did for us and it is good. But now, what is God expecting of us? How can we move through advent in humility, remembering the birth of a baby boy?
Closing Advent Prayer
by the Rev. Jerry Chism
Oh Immanuel, God with us, truly in this Advent season we celebrate that you are not hidden in some faraway cloud, but you chose to be with us in the blur and mystery of our lives.
In the midst of lists and rush, you are with us as a song that echoes in our minds, as the light of a candle, as a card from a friend. They are signs of your presence.
We turn to you this season and pray that you would birth joy and healing, blessing and hope in us.
Let something wonderful begin in us — something surprising and holy.
May your hand be upon us. Let your love fill us. Let your joy overwhelm us.
Let our longing for you be met on a coming holy night. Immanuel with us once again.
[The video above produced by United Methodist Communications in Nashville, TN.]