Advent Week 2: Restoration

James Tissot. The Flight of the Prisoners, c. 1896-1902, Jewish Museum, New York, NY. From Wikimedia Commons

I will deal with all your oppressors at that time.
And I will save the lame and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.
At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you;
for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.

(Zephaniah 3:19-20)

Both John the Baptist and Jesus announced that the “Kingdom of God” was “at hand.” In the minds of their listeners, that meant God would soon kick the Romans out and create a new government, and a reign of justice and peace would begin. For people of Jesus’s day, the Kingdom was not an airy-fairy afterlife. It was about a revolution. The material conditions of people’s lives would change.

Their belief in this promise was based on history. They had seen it happen! Their ancestors had been exiles in Babylon for fifty years, but by a miracle of international politics, they were freed and allowed to return home and rebuild their city and their temple.

But the miracle wasn’t complete. They were still waiting for God to finish. After all, the prophet Zephaniah had said, “I will deal with your oppressors at that time, and I will save the lame and gather the outcast.” They remembered the scripture above (which is one of the Revised Common Lectionary readings for this Sunday).

So when John showed up talking about the coming kingdom, people were ready for a change. They weren’t looking to go to heaven; they were looking for heaven to come to earth.

Prayer: Sovereign God, we are still waiting for your coming kingdom. Hurry to heal us. Amen.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Advent Week 2: “You Brood of Vipers!”

John the Baptist icon, Syria (18th Century) From Wikimedia Commons

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
(Matthew 7-10, NRSV)

I imagine the look on the religious leaders’ faces as they heard John ‘s words: “Vipers? Who… us?”

Many religious leaders are used to handing out verbal abuse, preaching hellfire and damnation, and telling us in sermons who is in and who is out. They are not used to having the tables turned, to hear a prophetic word leveled at their own behavior or institutions. Religious leaders like to imagine themselves as John, and not as John’s audience. They prefer Luke’s version of this story, where John chastises the crowds… not the one where he chastises religious leaders.

I think we see this same story being played out in our world right now. White evangelical leaders are hearing criticism from followers and popular authors (like Kristin Kobes du Mez and Jemar Tisby) who are giving voice to those who are “deconstructing” the version of Christianity they’ve been taught. These preachers resent being called “a brood of vipers.” Who doesn’t? Many have become defensive, arguing that Christian progressives and those who are deconstructing racist, sexist, individualistic, and nationalist versions of Christianity are actually rejecting Jesus.

I believe they are hearing the words of John, which are a necessary correction to toxic religion that privileges its leaders’ identity. In our world, white, male, straight, cisgender religious leaders consider themselves the proper “heirs of Abraham,” and their theology reflects that privilege. When John said, “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham,” he was saying what we heard in Isaiah 54: Membership in God’s family doesn’t depend on human gatekeepers.

That’s the kind of language that makes religious leaders nervous. It should.

Prayer: Mothering, Fathering God, you keep throwing open gates when we try to shut them. Thank you for your generous, inclusive grace. Amen.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Advent Week 2: Dark Places and Angelic Visitors

The Angel Appearing to Zacharias, William Blake, 1799. From The Met Museum

The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”
(Luke 1:20, NRSV)

One of the things that strikes me about the story of Zechariah’s encounter with Gabriel is how closely it mirrors the resurrection story. At one end of the gospel you have Zechariah going into the darkness of the Holy of Holies, carrying the incense offering. He becomes aware that someone is in the darkness with him, and the angel tells him his wife, Elizabeth, will conceive and give birth to John, who will prepare the way for the messiah. But Zechariah leaves mute, unable to talk about this good news.

At the other end of the gospel you have a group of women going into the darkness of the tomb, carrying incense and burial spices. They become aware someone is in the darkness with them, and angels tell them the good news of Jesus’s resurrection. They leave with instructions to spread the good news and they talk freely. But even though they can talk, they are not believed (Luke 24).

These stories bookend Luke’s gospel. They say something about women and men, gender roles and role reversal, authority and the coming kingdom. They both involve visitation from angels, belief and unbelief, speaking and remaining silent. But among many lessons we can draw from these parallel stories, I think they both indicate that we have to be willing to enter into the cloud of thick darkness (Psalm 97:2), where God’s creative power dwells in the Holy of Holies or in the tomb, to encounter life-changing good news.

As a preacher, in this season of Advent, in this bleak time of ecological and political anxiety, I look for the message of angels. I step into the darkness with my incense, and I wonder: will I believe the Christmas message? Will I be able to speak of it with others?

Prayer: You Who Dwell in Cloud and Thick Darkness, when light is scarce, let us walk by faith and not by sight. We know you do your most wonderful works in the darkness. Amen.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Advent Week 2: (In)fertility & God’s Kin-dom

The Babe in the Womb, by Leonardo da Vinci. From Wikimedia Commons

Sing childless woman,
Never-given-birth woman;
Woman, break out a song and rejoice, woman, Never-in-labor woman.
For more are the children of the devastated woman
Than the children of the espoused woman,
Says the Giver of Life.

(Isaiah 54; translation from Wilda C. Gafney’s A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year A)

In worship yesterday, we told the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah, the parents of John the Baptist. It’s one of several stories of infertility in the Bible, all of which can be a bit problematic. The grief of infertility for those who want children is very real, as is the stigma laid upon those who choose not to have children.

In Bible stories, miraculous pregnancies and births are the usual sign that God is still with those who feel abandoned, shamed, and shunned. But Isaiah 54 names a different kind of hope. It’s a collective hope for the people of Israel who are in exile, that their descendants will prosper and honor them. People who are not parents are often aunts and uncles, neighbors, teachers, and coaches, who help raise the next generation. Even if others have nothing to do with raising the next generation, they are valuable members of God’s people. This promise is that nothing and no-one is wasted.

Two chapters later, Isaiah makes sure not to leave anyone out: “Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree” (56:3). The promise is not just for biological fertility, but for generativity, purpose, and a future with hope. The bond of the kin-dom is so much deeper than blood relations.

Prayer: God our Spouse, our Giver of Life, create a new family from our fractured world. Amen.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Advent Week 1: Always Arriving

Lorenz attractor by Wikimol. From Wikimedia Commons (click for source)

So also, when you see all these things, you know that the Son of Woman is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven nor the Son, but only the Most High God.
(Matthew 24:32-33; translation from Wilda C. Gafney’s A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year A)

It’s not often that preachers will tell you that Jesus was wrong, but here’s one of his biggest mistakes: “This generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” Sorry, Jesus— you were way off with this one.

The early church expected Jesus to return and establish his new kingdom at any moment, “before this generation passes away.” But over the years, one by one, his disciples died. The last eyewitness to Jesus’s ministry may have been the storyteller responsible for the Gospel of John. This apostle lived to a ripe old age, and his community began to theorize that he wouldn’t die before Jesus returned.

When he finally kicked off, it must have been devastating. You can hear the author of the postscript to John trying to account for their disappointment: “So the rumor spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” (John 21:23)

Jesus himself created that expectation. “This generation will not pass away.” Even today, 2000 years later, we’re still trying to account for his delay.

But perhaps they did see the kin-dom at hand. Time seems to get suspended in Jesus’s words here: heaven and earth will pass away, but not this generation, nor his words. Yet he still doesn’t know exactly when this will happen.

This is one reason we celebrate Advent—”The Arrival”—because God’s act of creating, bringing about the Kin-dom, and birthing something new is always at hand. It is always arriving. Like tender fig leaves, the signs of a new season are already here for those who pay attention.

Prayer: Creating, birthing, and re-ordering God—we wait for you even as you announce your presence with us. Amen.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Advent Week 1: Fig Trees

First and second figs, 1946. From wikimedia commons

From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates.. (Matthew 24:32-33)

I didn’t really understand a lot of New Testament fig tree references until we owned a fig tree. It was young, and stood about twelve feet tall, with five main trunks about as thick as my arm. We ate the fruit straight from the tree when it was dark brown on the bottom, yellowish-brown on the top with just a tinge of green. At this stage, they are just firm enough to give a little pop when bitten.

The squirrels were less discriminating. They would take figs when they were mostly still hard and green, and leave the discarded skins on the porch railing as if they were taunting me. Mockingbirds got in on the action as well. They would take a triangular plug out of a fig while it was still on the tree with one peck of their beak, so I’d get a rude surprise when I reached up to pluck a beautiful fig only to find the other side filled with ants crowding a hole, slurping up the syrup. Each summer was a race between the humans and the backyard critters to get the best figs.

One year, I thought I’d killed our fig tree. We had a hard frost, and I pruned it too late in the winter. While the trees and garden were greening, there were no leaves on the fig by late spring. The disappointment stung; I didn’t realize how much I would miss it. Some of the thinner branches were dead and brittle. I consulted with my wife about what we might plant in its place.

But one day I saw tiny leaf buds just a few inches above the ground on one of its five trunks. Over the next two weeks as milky white sap rose through the interior of the tree, more buds popped out along the trunks, then the branches. Fig leaves are large and distinctive, so they grow and uncurl dramatically. It’s almost as if they were saying, “Ta-da!” To me, it was a resurrection.

This is the image I recall when I hear Jesus talk about the coming kin-dom. Even when it appears dead, the life-essence of the kin-dom is rising from the ground. There will be plenty of fruit for all of God’s critters.

Prayer: Source of Life, may we all enjoy the fruit of your new world. Amen.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Advent Week 1: Kin-dom and Kingdom

Ernst Nowak, Piggyback, 1919. From wikimedia commons

Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. (Luke 12:32, NIV).

The thing Jesus preached most about was The Kingdom of God. It’s an elusive idea: it’s here, but not here yet. Jesus teaches about it most often with parables: it’s like a mustard seed, or a woman searching for a coin, or like a pearl merchant who loves his product more than profit, so much that he sells all he has and buys a beautiful one—not to resell it, apparently, but just to admire it.

In most of these parables, Jesus seems to be trying to shift his audience away from thinking of kingdoms the way they normally do. This will not be a kingdom of domination, not one maintained by a strong military. Instead, it’s a place where “the first will be last and the last will be first.”

I think it’s worth asking: is it even right to call it a kingdom? Since most of Jesus’s lessons point people away from conventional “kingly” images, might there be a better image or metaphor?

Ada María Isasi-Díaz borrowed and popularized a word coined by Georgene Wilson: kin-dom. In referring to his God as Abba and his disciples as brothers and sisters (Mark 3:33-35), Jesus describes a different set of power dynamics and a different way of relating to each other.

At the same time, Jesus wasn’t idolizing the family the way some religious folks do. Caesar Augustus claimed to be “The Protector of Morals,” and was very vocal about men being the head of the household. The kin-dom Jesus describes is one where prodigal fathers welcome wayward children. God is not “king daddy in the sky,” but a companion who longs for greater intimacy with God’s creatures.

Prayer: Baba God, make for us a new family, one in which all your creatures recognize their kinship. Amen.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Advent Week 1: Womb of Life

Georgia O’Keefe, Series 1, No. 8; Public Domain. From Wikimedia Commons

…Womb of Life, our Sovereign, how exalted is your Name in all the earth! 

(Psalm 8:1, translation from Wilda C. Gafney’s A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year A)

How to you spell the sound of breathing? When God reveals God’s name to Moses, it is spelled “YHWH,” and theologians have speculated that in addition to meaning “I am who I am,” it represents the sound of breath. For ancient Hebrews and modern Jews, the name was considered too sacred to speak out loud. Instead it was whispered, or replaced with the word “Adonai,” Lord.

Of course, if it is the sound of breathing, we are saying God’s name all the time. 

Psalm 8 is usually translated as “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth,” because for centuries, English translators followed the convention of not printing the sacred name YHWH and substituting the word “Lord.” 

But one of the negative consequences of that choice is that over and over, the title “Lord” — patriarchal, authoritarian, dominating — replaces the sound of the breath of God. Lifetimes of repetition shape the way we understand the nature and character of God. It is no wonder American Christians are so reluctant to let go of the image of an authoritarian male God. 

In Dr. Gafney’s translation above, she has reconnected the name of God with the biological process of life. “Womb of Life” is a fitting substitution. Rather than saying “Lord, our Lord,” we affirm that God is not like other lords. Instead of a tough guy who deals in punishment and death, we address the Source of all life. In Psalm 8, the Sovereign we worship is one whose greatest defense comes “out of the mouths of babes,” not from the weapons of warriors. 

It’s an image much more consistent with the babe in the manger. The name of God is already on his lips with his very first breath. 

Womb of Life, gestate for us a new way of being in the world.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Advent Week 1: Chaos and Creation

The Pillars of Creation, NASA, from Wikimedia Commons

When beginning he, God, created the heavens and the earth, the earth was shapeless and formless and bleakness covered the face of the deep, while the Spirit of God, she, fluttered over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; so God separated the light from the bleakness. Then God called the light Day, and the bleakness God called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, day one. 

(Genesis 1:1-5, Translation from Wilda C. Gafney’s A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church)

In the first Genesis creation story, God doesn’t create from nothing. God begins creating from chaos, a “watery deep.” Some scholars speculate that this creation language was influenced by the religious myths of Babylon, which began with a divine battle against Tiamat, a sea goddess/monster. In the ancient worldview, only divine power could tame the sea — that’s one reason why Moses parting the sea and Jesus walking on the water were both such powerful symbols.

In the Genesis story, chaos is not the absence of God. In fact, God’s Spirit, in Dr. Gafney’s translation, is “fluttering over the face of the waters.” Chaos seems to be necessary for the divine act of creation to begin. 

All of the action in Genesis 1 is about separating and naming, setting boundaries and ordering things. Much later, in the book of Job, God describes the act of creation again, and tells a story of how God said to the sea: “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped” (Job 38:11). Drawing boundaries is an act of creation.   

Dr. Gafney’s helpful translation also substitutes “bleakness” for “darkness” in the story, recognizing the way that the word “darkness” has played into white supremacy in our theological language. Even here in the bleakness, I think it’s important to point out that God isn’t absent. God’s spirit is already present and at work, taking the energy of chaos and turning it towards order. 

After a year of environmental, political, economic, and social chaos, I’m grateful for the reminder that chaos is not the absence of God, and that creation arises out of chaotic energy. I’m also grateful for the reminder that the act of creation is, in part, about drawing sacred boundaries. We are in a fertile time in which new boundaries are being drawn against patriarchy and white supremacy. God is doing something new.  


Creator God, we recognize the divine possibility present in our current chaos. Draw sacred boundaries in our personal and corporate lives and unleash your creative power.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Consider the Birds and the Lilies

I posted the following on Facebook last year as we approached the election:

I do not want to dismiss the importance of voting and our political activity AT ALL. But I also want to offer some perspective in light of all the political, social, and climate upheaval that exists right now:

Our ability to make it through this next critical period depends on how we build or find alternatives to business-as-usual. Our power structures make it VERY difficult for us to “opt out” of an economy built on fossil fuels, extractive economies, and oppression of Black, indigenous, people of color, queer folks, disabled folks, immigrants, and religious minorities.

The political and social imagination of the people in power is very limited, but the political and social imagination of THE REST OF US is expansive, creative, and generative. We are literally a force of nature, which is always growing dandelions through sidewalks and making mold grow on Twinkies. “Life finds a way,” as Jeff Goldblum’s character says in Jurassic Park. You are an expression of life itself. Remember that.

The next two weeks is going to be full of imagination-limiting rhetoric and the words of narrow monied interests. Again, without diminishing the importance of voting or doing harm reduction for a society hell-bent on wrecking itself, please hear the invitation to find meaning outside of this binary bullshit. Crazy emperors and petty tyrants have been denying science and believing they can defy gravity or shout at the tide not to come in for millennia. But the earth and her relentless move toward more life and greater diversity are not cowed by our myopic stupidity or our death-dealing policies.

Jesus told us to look at the birds, who do not speculate on stock markets, and at the lilies, who do not follow social media for likes, fashion advice, or social trends. Our value and our meaning are not derived from the dominant culture’s ways of deciding “winners” and “losers.”

Our political and social imagination is very much the realm of what we call “spiritual,” regardless of whether you are a romantic or a materialist, religious or non. There are those who would limit your imagination. But we are the ones who shape culture through our spiritual lives—not the folks who are on our screens. We give these loonies so much power, y’all, because we give them our attention. The first step to removing their power over us is to turn our attention to other things.

Again, I’m not echoing the right-wing blame-the-media-for-our-divisions machine. I’m saying we give power to whatever we give our attention. And if we collectively give more attention to what is immediately around us, the things that we truly value that give life meaning, we can resist the self- and other-destructive forces of this world that do not have our interest—or the interest of our planet—at heart.

In order to make it through the next few weeks, focus on loving yourself. Loving the planet. Loving your people. Practice those things that you know bring more love and light into the world, like prayer and meditation, growing living things, being tender toward what is stretching toward the sun or snuggling down to hibernate for the winter.

Consider the bird that lingers at the feeder on its way south, and think of the mass human migration that is already taking place. How much longer until climate change forces us to move? What can we learn from the birds?

We need the wisdom of the birds and the flowers. Letting go, acting without attachment to the results of our actions, may be the greatest political power we have. Focus on what’s most important and under your control. Don’t sweat the rest of it.

Pink Rain Lily by PK743 from Wikimedia Commons