A lady who taught Sunday School once told me about how she had been trying to get the kids to think about heaven – ‘If I had a garage sale and sold everything I had and gave the money away to poor people, do you think that would get me into heaven?’, she asked. ‘No’, they assured her with confident shakes of the head. ‘Tough crowd’, she thought to herself. ‘Well, what about if I came to church every day and made cups of tea for everybody and helped out at the Op Shop, would I get into heaven then?’ ‘No way!’ they told her, quick as a flash. ‘Well, what about if I took in lots of stray cats and dogs and was kind to kids?’ ‘Still no!’, they all said, without even thinking about it. ‘Well’, she said, ‘how can I get into heaven?’. ‘Silly!’, a smarty-pants little girl told her condescendingly. ‘You can’t get into heaven unless you’re dead’.
Our Advent lessons lead us to thinking in terms of absolutes. Isaiah especially, the prophet of the grand vision and the big picture. Sin and salvation, judgement and vindication. If we’re not thinking uncomfortably about our own moral shortcomings during the four short weeks of Advent, then we’re obviously not listening. And to be honest, most of us probably hear the message in fairly individualistic terms. If we’re being saved, then what from? God’s punishment, perhaps, the just desserts of our own sinfulness? Or somebody else’s sinfulness, a divine rescue mission to pluck God’s faithful people out of the swamp of contemporary Godlessness and moral relativism? And what does salvation mean for us? Getting to heaven? Of course for many Christians that’s exactly what it’s all about. And the work of evangelists and preachers is about convincing as many people as possible to get with the program, get as many people as possible into heaven before they close the doors. Except that if we stay at that level of the story then - as the kids pointed out to my friend - the one essential prerequisite is to be dead. The problem with the Christian story if we focus on the afterlife is that we end up not thinking seriously about the shape of the world we actually live in.
And so, by week three, we need to start listening carefully to what the prophets are actually saying. Because both Isaiah and John the Baptist – and for the first time this week, also Mary of Nazareth, in the song of praise Luke puts in her mouth as her response to an angel’s good news – all of them are talking this morning about salvation. And guess what? None of them are talking about heaven. All of them are talking about salvation as God’s priority for the world that we live in, salvation as a wake-up call, something that should be galvanising us into action in the here and now. Salvation as nothing less than the in-built bias of God for human freedom – freedom from hunger, freedom from oppression, freedom from injustice. The sort of salvation that, let’s face it, sounds a whole lot more enticing to the final year apprentice whose boss has just told him he’s being laid off because of the recession we didn’t have to have. Or the self-funded retiree who has just seen her retirement savings halve in value because of the global share-market crash. Or the Zimbabwean mother whose daughter is lying in a makeshift hospital with cholera caused by the Mugabe regime’s wilful destruction of the basic protections of an entire population.
Actually, there’s no avoiding it. Isaiah, or to be more precise, the third big chunk of this prophetic text that spans a number of centuries and different episodes in the story of God’s people – the so-called ‘third Isaiah’ – is talking to people who barely remember the heady days of liberation from exile – the return of the captives was celebrated in Isaiah chapter 40, in our reading last week – and this week we’ve swung forward to a later period, a period when God’s people are stagnating, when the excitement of homecoming no longer has the power to sustain the imagination and God’s people are living in the doldrums of a half-finished Temple and the reality of being an economic and geo-political basket-case, and they’re asking, ‘is that all?’ – and in response the prophet starts talking about justice, and the recognition of human need, and that oft-misused word, ‘righteousness’, which means to live within the circle of covenant relationships that give life. ‘My job’, the prophet says – whether speaking of himself or the one who is to come it hardly matters, because later Jesus is going to pick up exactly the same phrase and apply it to himself – my job is about setting people free to really live – and that’s good news for people who are used to being bullied – it’s good news for people crippled by passivity or negative self-image, or by the controlling agendas of those with more power. The priority of God for relationships that give life – the prophet announces – means that we experience God’s blessings in our lives to the extent, and just as soon, as we start living as a blessing for others. The transformation that you yearn for – that happens just as soon as you start living like a transforming community.
And then onto the stage steps Mary of Nazareth. We’re going to hear a little more about Mary over the next few weeks, we know that. And when we get there, to the stable in Bethlehem, there’ll be so many babies and animals and so much hay that we run the risk of overlooking what’s so special about this pregnant peasant girl setting out on an epic journey across Palestine on the back of a donkey. So the lectionary gives us this snippet today, and Mary of Nazareth who, to be sure, starts out praising God for choosing her to be the vessel for bringing God’s salvation into the world, telling a story of meekness and radical dependence on God’s promises – abruptly shifts a gear and starts sounding a whole lot like the Isaiah of chapter 61, also a whole lot like the feisty Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel who anointed King David. And if we read Mary’s song as just a reflection about personal salvation, God’s noticing of Mary despite the poverty of her personal circumstances, then we miss half the message. Because, as feminists used to say back in the fiery 60s, the personal is the political. Mary signs on to the big themes of Isaiah – justice, the radical reversal of the world’s status quo – and the point is that the personal and the political go together, the great work of justice and compassion that Mary of Nazareth tells us is God’s number one priority necessarily involves us in personal transformation if we dare to get on board.
We know it’s the exact same message that Jesus picks up, and the key to understanding Jesus’ whole message and his whole career. Too often, though, the Church has missed the point, selling salvation as the other side of the coin of personal sinfulness. For the people these prophets were talking to, salvation meant somebody being prepared to stick up for the underdog, salvation meant radical fairness, and that’s what it still means today. And in the picture Luke gives us of Mary’s response we see the simple contrast between the truth and a lie – God’s peace, God’s salvation that depends on radial self-giving love, versus the lie that props up Rome and every status quo ever since – peace as the result of power and conformity.
And so to John – the baptiser, that is, not the Gospel writer – who today announces his job to bear witness to the light that enlightens all things. Not for this Gospel the confronting demand for personal repentance but the more nuanced image of light that lights the way for everyone – not the false light of Empire that’s just illuminating for the top end of town, for mining magnates or Telstra executives. And in a direct challenge to the myth of Empire, John claims that this light is made known in a human being, one whose life grows out of God’s own life so intimately that we recognise the light of God shining through him – not the Emperor Augustus who calls himself the Son of God because he has the power to, but Jesus, who is the Son of God because he gives form to the promise of God’s salvation. And perhaps we recognise that that’s the way it has to be – that salvation, which is the lived experience of God’s priorities – can only come to us and be enacted for us in the flesh and blood actuality of a single human life.
Far from needing us to be dead first, as the price of entry, salvation starts to look like a game for the very much alive. A game in which God needs us to provide the hands and the heart, to be God’s daughters and God’s sons, the ones who give shape to the priorities of God in our own church, our own community and our own time. The question is, are we up to it? Is that the good news we actually want to live by?