Friday of the Third Week of Advent
My daughter's been begging me to read a lot of stories about Jesus lately. These aren't scriptural stories. They're fictional stories, but each one of them is telling something true about who God is for us. There's one about a clown, for example, who juggles; everyone laughs at him, but Jesus does not. In fact, in the story, Jesus delights in this juggler who juggles with all his might. Or, there's a story about a little mouse who plays a little acorn drum for the baby Jesus. In this story, the little mouse is looked down upon by his other animal friends, because he is so tiny, but it turns out that he and his joyful playing of a drum end up being the most captivating for Jesus.
I suspect that part of what my daughter likes about these stories is that they have a common theme: the one who is an outcast is the one who is warmly welcomed by Jesus. Today's scriptures give us this story once again, only in non-fiction tones.
Today's first reading (Isaiah 56:1-3a, 6-8) talks about what it means to be a true disciple of God. At first, the reading seems to suggest that it is the righteous person who follows all the laws that is the true disciple. For the people in Isaiah's time, this would have been Jewish observers of the law in particular, those who "follow the sabbath." And it is true: the ones who follow God's laws are indeed true disciples. But Isaiah throws a wrench into the works: it is not only the Jews who can follow the laws, which was a strong presumption by some in Isaiah's time. "Let not the foreigner say, when he would join himself to the LORD, 'The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.'"
No, says God (through Isaiah): the ones who are outcast, and the ones who seem strangers and truly strange to us can also be my people. What matters is that a person loves God and neighbor, not that a person has the all the right credentials by human standards.
The people listening to Jesus in today's gospel lesson (John 5:33-36) must surely think that Jesus is a strange person too. It is one thing to listen to John the Baptist, who was (let's face it) a bit weird, with his hairy clothes and his practice of eating locusts, but at least John did not call himself God. Jesus does, however. In this gospel, Jesus is calling his followers to become "strange" - to believe that he, who on the face of it,looks merely human, is God. But Jesus exhorts his potential followers, saying to them that just as they were content with John's light, so they should realize that strange as it seems, Jesus's works are exponentially greater.
So the thing is: not only does God welcome the strangers and the strange among us, but God expects that we who are his followers will seem a bit strange, especially to a world that does not know God. Nonetheless, we are called to become God's servants and to rejoice in doing what is right.
In our world, Christians often seem strange, because we believe in God who many think doesn't exist, because we too have laws or ideas that seem strange (like the church's teachings on economic justice, or the teachings that favor mercy for illegal immigrants, or the idea of health care for all, or that abortion shouldn't seem normal, and so on and on). So, this advent, I think we should reflect on whether we have the courage to be strange strangers who nonetheless bear Christ's light to the world. Like that little mouse or that juggler, will our apparent strange ways bring joy and delight to God?
- Jana M. Bennett