Isaiah 61:1–4 and 8–12

Are you ready for Christmas?

A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to live and work in
Guatemala for six months. My job was to design and lead educational
trips for church folks and students from the U.S. who came to learn
about the legacy of a 36-year war in that country, and to
better understand the reality of the grinding poverty in which most
Guatemalans live today.

On one trip that I led into the highlands of Guatemala, we visited
with a small group of Mayan women in a village in the western part of
the country. The women were mostly from intact families. Their husbands
worked long hours as migrant laborers who followed the crop cycle from
the sugar cane fields of the hot, humid coastal region, up through the
coffee plantations in the foothills, and finally on into the highlands
where they planted corn and beans and vegetables on the sides of the
steep, volcanic mountains.

The women told us that they had formed a cooperative and taken out a
micro-development loan from a church-based organization that was
encouraging them to grow potatoes for sale in the regional market a few
kilometers away in the town of San Juan Ostuncalco. At the end of their
first season, they had taken their potatoes to the market, where they
sold them at a fair price to other Mayan women. They made enough money
to pay back their loans and accomplish their objective, which was to pay
the fees and expenses to keep their children in school the following
semester.

However, when they repeated the process the following year and took
their potatoes to market, they discovered that someone else was selling
similar potatoes for one half what the women felt they had to charge.
Why? When they did some research, they discovered that the man was
selling potatoes grown in Canada and shipped by boat, duty free, all the
way to the Guatemalan Atlantic coast, and then put on trucks and
delivered sixteen hours away to the town of San Juan Ostuncalco.

Signs of the global economy.

Are you ready for Christmas?

About a three-hour drive southwest of where I live in Tucson, AZ,
there is a small town called “Altar.” The hundred and twenty miles
between the two cities are the brutal borderlands of the Sonoran desert,
the no man’s land of the U.S./Mexico border. Over the last ten years,
Altar has become the hot spot to begin the migrant journey across the
desert. Day after day, bus after bus after bus, carrying well over a
thousand people, pull up to the little plaza and unload their human
cargo—men and women, teenagers and children who stand blinking in the
hot sun and trying to figure out what to do next. They’re looking for
the “coyotes,” the people smugglers representing shadowy cartels that
have discovered it is now far more lucrative to smuggle people than it
is to smuggle drugs.

Within a day or two, they will have found their smuggler and headed
into the desert, a walk of anywhere between 35 and 150 miles through
some of the hottest and most brutal terrain our country has to offer.
Last year, more than 250 people that we know of, didn’t make it. They
lost their lives in that corridor of death as they headed for Maryland
and Virginia to do the work that this region, like almost every other
part of the country I’ve visited as Moderator of the General Assembly of
the Presbyterian Church, is so dependent on. A few weeks ago I was in
Sasabe, the little town right on the border where many begin their hike.
I sat in a restaurant and watched a family—two men, a woman, a small
child, and an infant—carrying a few gallons of water in plastic jugs
and a couple of school knapsacks, as they walked down the street and
headed for the desert.

Could have been Joseph and Mary, headed for Bethlehem in this advent
season.

Are you ready for Christmas?

Be careful how you answer. The question really is, “Are you ready to
celebrate a God determined to respond to those women in the highlands or
to that family on the border?”—because that’s what we’ve been told
we’re going to get with this Jesus.

Our Advent lectionary readings tell the story and we’ve been
forewarned. Last week’s reading came from the first eight verses
of the book of Mark, in which John the Baptist harkens back to Isaiah
and insists that he is God’s promised messenger sent to
“prepare the way of the Lord.” Mark’s gospel insists
that this is the “very beginning” of the Jesus narrative,
and our reading from the gospel of John this morning reconfirms it; John
the Baptist—a wild man in the desert—calling people into a
baptism that will renew God’s covenant with them. This is the
first step on the journey toward advent.

This week, we’re reminded of Isaiah’s understanding of that covenant.
God is unambiguous, Isaiah insists. This God is good news for the poor
and oppressed—binding the brokenhearted and disconsolate, offering
liberty to the captive, and release to the imprisoned. This God is
personally offended by those who would rob and steal from the poorest of
the poor, and this God loves and will insist on justice. Isaiah’s
message is bold, “God’s covenant is clear and God’s promise is good news
for the poor. Those who are taken advantage of and who are pushed to the
margins of society will find that their descendents will be known to all
nations and all who see them will acknowledge that they are a people
whom the Lord has blessed.”

Next week, we’ll move on to Mary’s story. Just so God’s priorities
cannot be missed, God chooses an unwed, teenaged, peasant girl in a
small stable on the side of the hill in Bethlehem to be the mother of
Jesus. This is entirely unexpected. Here we are, expecting the king of
kings, and what we’re given is a poor kid, born to a peasant family and
apprenticed to be a carpenter. This is hardly the kind of God that we
are looking for.

And finally, a few short chapters into Luke’s version of the Jesus
story, Jesus turns to Isaiah, as well, to claim the authority to launch
his own ministry. In a bold step, he stands in the synagogue, reads the
words we heard read this morning from Isaiah 61, announces that Isaiah’s
promise is now fulfilled in him, and sits down again. By the way, then
he is run out of town by the religious leaders and the faithful who are
enraged by his audacity.

The bottom line is clear. This is the road map for the Advent journey
that will carry us to Christmas. The heart of the Jesus story is the
prophetic voice and call of Isaiah sixty-one. This Jesus will stay on
message throughout his ministry, insisting that this God is a wild new
thing: good news for the poorest of the poor, the battered women, the
laborers in the global assembly line, those without documents, the folks
who have no place to call home. My friends, you can’t get to the good
news of Jesus Christ on Christmas morning, without being willing to
embrace this kind of God and without returning over and over again to
the message of Isaiah.

So tell me. Are you ready for Christmas?

Today is Arizona day, and those of us who live in that state would do
well to ask ourselves that hard question. In the world in which we live
today, no one comes closer to being the poor and the downtrodden that
Isaiah describes than the undocumented migrants in our country, the ones
who are excluded from the glitz and glitter of our Christmas season, the
ones who don’t have the basic security and ability to survive that comes
with a passport in the first world.

Our state has been made the focal point for a federal policy of
exclusion and death that is absolutely antithetical to the fundamental
values of the Christmas story. Democratic and Republican administrations
alike have embraced trade and immigration policies that make the migrant
journey to the U.S./Mexico border inevitable, and ensure that the number
of those dying in the desert will climb year after year after year.

We’re a long way from Isaiah’s understanding of who God is and what
God demands of us, aren’t we? We want the God with the bells and
whistles, the God of wealth, affluence, privilege and security, the God
who comes to town in royal gowns, not the one who shows up in a stable
because his mother didn’t have the status or the documents to be offered
a place to stay, even on the night she gave birth.

Are we really ready for Christmas?

In 1995, we did not have a single recorded death of a person without
documents who was trying to get across our border in Arizona. For the
last ten years, the number of deaths has climbed every single year. Good
folks, attempting to come and do jobs that few people dispute we need
them for, dying in the most brutal way imaginable in the desert. People
dying in our deserts is no accident, it is the foreseeable result of an
enforcement strategy designed to push them further and further into
danger and make examples of them to convince others not to come.

So what if our churches articulated a clear set of principles about
the kind of trade, immigration and border policy we believe would
reflect God’s deepest desire for us? What if we spoke to the moral
bankruptcy of our political parties, both Republicans and Democrats, on
this issue? What if we lived as if we really believe this Jesus story,
and the strong Isaiah values in which Jesus grounded the earliest
moments of his ministry? What if we held ourselves and our country to a
remarkably different standard? What if we stood against the
“me-firstism” that depends on the economic marginalization of 75% of the
world’s population? What if we refused to be satisfied with the “that’s
the way it’s always been” rationalities, and the bully-like aggression
carried out in our nation’s immigration and border policies?

Put another way—are we ready for Christmas?

Isaiah makes the standard for the church that will follow this Jesus
crystal clear. Our God insists on a new benchmark for behavior. In order
to be ready for this Christmas, there is to be no kowtowing to the
world’s values nor blind obedience to the values of our nation state.

This Jesus insists that he has been sent to bring good news to the
poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners: to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God. The God whom Jesus will proclaim,
starting just two weeks from now in a stable in Bethlehem, is the God
who loves justice and who hates robbery and wrongdoing. Sisters and
brothers, we have a lot of work to do in order to be ready for the birth
of this Jesus.

Our churches are called to be consistent and clear and timeless with
our message that God offers us a radically different set of rules. We
must continually call our political leaders, whomever they may be, back
to the fundamental values that offer genuine and lasting security—the
kind of security that can happen only when we become the welcoming
“beloved community” of God.

To get ready for this Jesus, we’ll need to be bold in our call for
economic policy that creates space for those Mayan women to provide for
their families in the highlands of western Guatemala.

To get ready for this Jesus, we’ll need an immigration policy that
welcomes the stranger and offers documents and a path toward
legalization for anyone willing to work in order to provide for his or
her family.

To get ready for this Jesus, we must insist that one cannot receive
the benefits of the global economy without taking responsibility for the
global community.

To get ready for this Jesus, we must take death out of the border
equation. If people are dying in the borderlands, church will have to go
to the desert to bring good news to the poor, and to bind up the
brokenhearted.

For five years, Christians and Jews and people of good faith have
been going to the deserts of Arizona to try to save lives. We’ve done
our work openly, nonviolently and in accordance with fundamental
biblical principles. We’ve put water stations in the desert where
migrants are dying. We’ve done search and rescue patrols to find people
in the desert and offer water, food, and emergency first aid. If it’s
necessary in order to save someone’s life, we’ve offered a ride out of
the desert to safety and appropriate medical care.

This summer, two of our volunteers, Daniel Strauss and Shanti Sellz
found a group of nine migrants hiking in an extremely dangerous part of
the desert on one of the hottest days of the year. Six of the men were
doing well, and they were offered food, water, and first aid for their
blistered feet. Three were in serious trouble, with vomiting, and in the
case of one of them, diarrhea laced with blood. Following our published
protocol as they had been trained to do, Daniel and Shanti called a
doctor in Tucson, described the medical situation, and were advised by
the doctor to get the three men out of the desert to good medical care.

They put the men in a vehicle that clearly identified them as
Samaritan volunteers and headed for Tucson. En route, they were stopped
and arrested by the Border Patrol. The migrants were taken into custody,
and Daniel and Shanti are awaiting trial in January on felony charges of
conspiracy to smuggle aliens and transport of aliens.

My friends, Isaiah makes it crystal clear that we must remain solid
in our commitment to the poorest and most desperate among us. If Daniel
and Shanti are found guilty of breaking the law, I also will be guilty,
and so will all of us who would respond to human need without asking for
someone’s documents. Regardless of the outcome of the trial, I can
guarantee that people of faith will continue to work openly and
nonviolently to save human life and protect basic human rights in the
desert.

Perhaps this advent season, churches in Arizona are posing a question
to all of us in our churches in communities across the country:

Will we live the basic convictions of our faith?

Will we welcome the stranger and offer solace to the brokenhearted?

Will we stand, unmovable, with the people of God, the poor, the
disconsolate, the captives and the prisoners?

Are we ready for Christmas?

May God bless our efforts to live faithfully this Advent season.