Advent Hope for All the Poor and Powerless, Especially You and I

I want to start this post with one of the songs that started my morning, All the Poor and Powerless by All Sons and Daughters, which we sang as Mill City Church this morning, ending with Go Tell It On The Mountain as we marked the beginning of Advent. Below is All Sons and Daughters’ version of the song, along with the lyrics. Hit play and give it a listen as you read what I have to say below.

All the poor and powerless
And all the lost and lonely
All the thieves will come confess
And know that You are holy
Will know that You are holy

And all will sing out
Hallelujah
And we will cry out
Hallelujah

And all the hearts that are content
And all who feel unworthy
And all who hurt with nothing left
Will know that You are holy

And all will sing out
Hallelujah
And we will cry out
Hallelujah
[x2]

Shout it
Go on and scream it from the mountains
Go on and tell it to the masses
That He is God
[x5]

We will sing out
Hallelujah
And we will cry out
Hallelujah
We will sing out
Hallelujah

Shout it
Go on and scream it from the mountains
Go on and tell it to the masses
That He is God

This song marked the culmination of worship this morning at Sheridan Elementary School in NE Minneapolis, as Mill City Church gathered to begin the season of Advent. We lit the first of our Advent candles, symbolizing hope, and Pastor Michael Binder spoke about just that- hope. There’s a lot to unpack in what he had to say, but he started by recounting what he had heard in his various conversations throughout the week, including during Thanksgiving, sometimes while talking with folks he fundamentally disagrees with politically. No doubt this happened for many of us over the past week. He said that as he spoke to his friends and loved ones he asked them to say what they hoped for in the wake of the election. Some hoped for a better economy and more and better jobs. Some hoped for better schools and more peace in the world and so on, and so on. He reminded us of the hopes of many of the people alive when Jesus was born. Some were hoping for a Messiah, and so they got one, but he did not come as they expected and certainly didn’t do and live as they thought he would. Many of Jesus’ contemporaries hoped for a political messiah that would overthrow Rome and “make Israel great again.” They wanted a warrior king that would cast off Roman oppression and once again make Israel a power among the nations. Some simply hoped for better lives for themselves and especially their children. Some wanted to be healed, and many, in fact, were.

Perhaps many of us can relate today. Michael spoke of the now accepted idea that many generations of USAmericans grew up believing that their children would have it just a little better than they did, but this is no longer the case. Some of you think Trump will change that. You’ll likely be disappointed, but I digress. Meanwhile, there are whole generations of would-be Jesus followers who think the whole point of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection was to give us a ticket to a blissful life in heaven once we die. Remember that this sermon, the first in Advent, was about hope. Michael reminded us that what we hope for in the future shapes our actions today. If we hope for inexorable progress with just a little more justice perhaps, along with a slightly better standard of living for each successive generation, than events like the Great Recession and the apparent election of Trump can prove devastating because we’ve given them the power to rob us of our hope. If we think there will be less love and justice, not to mention less affluence for “the 99%” under a Trump administration, than we may have been devastated over the past couple of weeks. Similarly, if all we hope for from Jesus is an escape plan, some “fire insurance” for when we die, than we may not care much what happens in the here and now to our neighbors around the world, let alone what happens to the world itself in the meantime. Michael challenged us by reminding us that what Jesus had to say to his disciples then, and continues to say to us now, is that all those hopes are far too small.

 Michael said that some of Jesus’ followers hoped he would bless and restore Israel, failing to realize that Jesus came to bless and restore everyone. Jesus was not the political revolutionary some of his followers hoped for. He was something much bigger, and far more dangerous. By launching his ministry of reconciliation and inviting his followers to join him in it, Jesus set in motion the restoration of the entire world, even the very earth, which itself yearns for its own redemption and restoration. Michael referenced Romans 8:21-23, which tells us that:

“…creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to son(-and daughter-)ship, the redemption of our bodies.”

Jesus didn’t come, live, die, and be resurrected to make Israel great again. He certainly didn’t do so to make USAmerica great again. Neither did he do so merely to give us some heavenly hope while the world goes to hell in a hand-basket in the meantime. Look again at the lyrics to the song above. It’s for “all the poor and powerless” and “all the lost and lonely,” for all the “thieves,” like the one who died next to Jesus, who confess that “he is God.” The “he,” of course, is Jesus.

Jesus is God.

This isn’t some Sunday school slogan, some bumper sticker platitude. It’s a declaration of an inimitable truth. The baby born in the manger as a first century Palestinian commoner, who would soon be forced to flee as a refugee to another land because of a genocide committed to get rid of him, this same Jesus would grow up and would one day read from Isaiah’s scroll the famous passage about “the Spirit of the Lord” being upon him because he was anointed “to proclaim good news to the poor,” “freedom for…prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Astoundingly, he would then proclaim that this scripture was fulfilled in the hearing of those he read it to. 

The story of Jesus, the good news both of and about him, that is, the good news he himself proclaimed and that which has been proclaimed about him for over 2,000 years since he walked the earth among us, is good precisely because it is the news that God himself is among us.

God-is-with-us.

The very one by whom we and all things were made, the one in whom all things still hold together, has chosen not to end us all, all over again, because we can’t seem to stop hurting one another and destroying the good world God made for us. He didn’t come as a conquering king to overthrow us. He doesn’t look at outward appearances, choosing the best and brightest and strongest among us to set up a meritocracy. Haven’t we had enough of meritocracy on our own? No, Jesus came to do for us what we could not do for ourselves. Recognizing that because of the many ways we fall short of the best of what we were made for, the many ways we sin and shame and hurt and oppress ourselves and one another, for all these reasons we could never bring ourselves to face our creator as our full and present and unashamed selves. For all these reasons we are seldom able to even face ourselves, to say nothing of God. For all these reasons, then, Jesus came to rescue us.

Sin is separation, and separation from the one in whom all things hold together is death. So Jesus not only came in the most vulnerable way possible, but while we were yet sinners, while we were separated from God and one another, Jesus not only came but endured the death that our separation from him brings about, thereby robbing it of its power, thereby setting us free. Because Jesus not only came, and not only died, but was also resurrected, we are now free to live into the fullness of who God made us to be. We can be reconciled with God and so reconciled with one another and with God’s good world. Because of this, we can hope for a future in which our own groaning and that of creation itself will come to an end because all has been restored, redeemed, and reconciled.

Jesus didn’t come to save some people. He didn’t come just to save Jews, or Christians, or men, or straight people, or white people. “It is God’s will that none should perish,” scripture declares, and so I declare that he is God.  “Shout it, go on and scream it from the mountains. Go on and tell it to the masses, that he is God.”

 

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As you can see from the mess in the picture above, I’ve been working with Kirsten to get our Christmas decorations out and then to get all the boxes put back away. As I did so, I found some things in some memorabilia boxes I consolidated. I found this, for example:

 

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These are note cards I made years and years ago, as a teenager if not before, of verses I wanted to memorize so that God’s word was not only written implicitly on my heart but also explicitly on my mind. I wanted to remember that a good God, because of Jesus, remembers me not according to my rebellious ways, but according to his love. I wanted to know that trials bring perseverance, and perseverance matures my faith. I wanted to know that I could see hardship as God’s discipline of me, and that by disciplining me God was teaching me, treating me as a son. I wanted to know that I could run this race, this life of faith, with perseverance in no small part because I’m surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses both living and long ago gone to be with Jesus. I also found these:

 

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These were given to me by my Kingdomworks team, which if you read this blog much you’ve heard me talk about before. These are words of encouragement from fellow college students that I spent two months in the hot summer of 1995 living and serving with in an inner-city Philly congregation. It was a tumultuous, life changing summer, and I’ve long remembered and recorded my teammate Holly’s words, part of which you can see above in the second note up from the bottom on the right, but I thought I had lost the rest of them. It was life-giving to find them, to hear how others saw me, to know that maybe they saw a little of Jesus in me as we hung out with and desperately tried to love kids like Nate, Braheem, and Willie:

 

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Then I found this:

 

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This was a note that Rod White, Circle of Hope‘s first pastor, sent Kirsten and I after we showed up for one of their first public meetings in their old space in the upstairs of a storefront in Center City Philadelphia:

 

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Again, if you follow this blog, you know well “Why I Keep Talking About Circle of Hope.” It was with no small measure of wistful sentimentality that I discovered again Rod’s note, which mentioned that Bart Campolo is the one who had recommended Circle of Hope to Kirsten and I as we started our life together in Philly. Bart, of course, was the founder of Kingdomworks and someone I still consider a friend, and his little nudge in Circle of Hope’s direction changed the course of our lives, just as my life had been changed by doing Kingdomworks the summer before.

I mention all this because there is a through-line in all these experiences. From the earliest time that I learned to depend on God in the absence of dependable parents, in part through memorizing scripture, to that momentous summer in Philadelphia when my heart broke again and again and again over the suffering of some of God’s people there- usually people who looked a lot different than I do- to our joyful discovery that the church is a people, not a place, as we were immersed in real Christian community for the first time among Circle of Hope in Philly, through it all I met Jesus over and over again among the poor and powerless, the lost and lonely. My heart broke time and again and breaks still today, but I meet Jesus in that broken place inside of me too, and there too I know that he is God.

I pray this Advent that you will know it too. Jesus is coming. God-with-us will soon be here. Won’t you wait for him with me?


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