All of the lectionary readings for Advent were blatantly political. Maybe a better way to put it is they were all anti-establishment. Every text was imbedded within a chapter that begins with a reference to the powerful. Luke 21 begins, “He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury.” Luke 3 begins with a much more specific list of politicians and religious leaders: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius…Pontius Pilate…Herod… Annas and Caiaphas…” Luke 1:5 starts with “In the days of King Herod of Judea”…” And of course, the Christmas story itself starts with, “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus…” Luke is doing more than providing historical context; Luke is showing us the political and religious order that is about to give way, undermined by the baby born to Mary and visited by shepherds. Luke’s Christmas story is about contrasts—the difference between Rome and Bethlehem. For those who want a depoliticized gospel, an otherworldly, hyper-spiritualized savior, you’ll have to find some other text to read.
For the past two years a number of voices have tried to mediate the political rancor not only in our country, but also in the church. So much hand wringing, so many attempts to justify, convince, argue, or even ignore, all the while, giving in to the temptations Jesus rejected. Temptations that were all expressions of power: economic, political, and religious. People on the right baptize a candidate for the sake of Supreme Court justices or economic and religious freedom. If only Jesus had made a pact with the devil, choosing to use what Satan offered him for the good of humanity, transforming what was meant for evil into good–the structures of economic, politics and religion. This is the church’s task, to redeem and transform the three temptations Jesus refused. Similarly, people on the left put their trust in structures and programs sprinkled with a religious faith in celebrity politicians. Again, if only Jesus had used the offer of worldly kingdoms for better purposes, to create programs for the lepers and the poor, a safety net for people beaten and robbed on the way to Jericho.
“What constantly marked the life of Jesus was not nonviolence but in every situation the choice not to use power.” The French – Reformed writer Jacque Ellul sees the rejection of the three temptations as non-participation—an act of renunciation. Jesus refuses to play ball; he will not negotiate with Satan’s request. He rejects them outright because they are abuses of power concerned only with self preservation. “The devil wants a miracle of sheer power: to leap from the pinnacle of the temple and not be injured. Jesus will always refuse to perform miracles in order to prove or convert or to show his power, except when his power is at the service of love.” He goes on to say, “We have not discussed the three fundamental temptations that people can know: the economic temptation, the political temptation, and the ideological-religious temptation. These are the three domains in which humanity wants to assert its power and ensure its autonomy and its greatness.”
Maybe it’s time for the church to consider non-participation and renunciation. Maybe it’s time for us to say no to Satan’s offer of political, economic, and religious power. Maybe it’s time for us to stop trying to justify the allegiances we make, or the institutions we are a part of, for the sake of the “greater good”. Jesus never calls us to sacrifice ourselves for the “greater good”; Jesus calls us to love God and love our neighbor. Not some abstract concept of good, but the incarnate God who came as a baby. Not some abstract neighbor, but the particular people we encounter every day.
There’s a difference between resignation and renunciation. The first flows from a lack of faith and courage, the second refuses to give up but also refuses to give in. The first is the way of cowards happy to take the devil’s bargain. The second is the way of love that becomes a sign of a new way of life promised in Jesus Christ.