The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
   because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
   to bind up the broken-hearted,
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;
   to comfort all who mourn;

[Isaiah 61:1-2 New Revised Standard Version]
The Rev. Terrance Jacob

My dear friend and trusted colleague, the Rev. Terrance Jacob, is from South Africa. In 2016, I was blessed to travel to South Africa with him when he was Director for Evangelical Mission for the Northeastern Ohio Synod, and I was the synod Bishop. It was a memorable trip which gave me valuable insights into the country of his birth. He was the perfect guide.

I thought about our trip on Sunday morning when I heard the news of the death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a champion in the struggle against the evils of Apartheid, and the embodiment of hope for the liberation of the oppressed people of that nation.

As the tributes continue to pour in, I sought out Pastor Jacob for some of his reflections. As a young man, he, too, was active in the struggle for racial justice and spent time in prison for that activism. Tutu was his source of strength and courage.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Two simple memories stood out for him. “When I was twenty-three,” Jacob said, “he advised me to spend personal time in prayer BEFORE my activism!”

Then at age 32, Pastor Jacob sent “the Arch,” as he is fondly known to South Africans, a thank you letter, to which Tutu replied with a thank you letter of his own.

“Thank you, Rev. Terrance Jacob, for your kind ‘thank you’ letter.”

It is that sort of humility that endeared him to millions of his compatriots, although to others, he was regarded as “public enemy number one.”

My closest connection with Archbishop Tutu came in 2002, when he gave a lecture at Mount Union College (now the University of Mount Union) in Alliance, Ohio. I was in the audience for that lecture and hung on to the man’s every word.

He spoke of God’s radical love and acceptance of all humankind, no matter one’s status. We are created in God’s image, and we have infinite value. That is gospel.

While I don’t remember everything he said word for word, in the midst of that speech he made one statement that made me sit up and pay attention.

“Remember that God loves…Saddam Hussein!”

I confess that my finite human brain couldn’t conceive of such an idea that even our worst enemies are God’s beloved children.[1]

Keep in mind, this was a few months after 9/11 and America was seething from that devastating attack. US troops had just invaded Afghanistan and President George W. Bush was beginning to develop the case for an assault against Iraq.

The shock of Archbishop Tutu’s declaration sent me scurrying to read more about this man who, up to that time, was a figure about whom I knew truly little beyond what I’d read in newspapers.

To my surprise, the theme of God’s love is a staple of all his writings. It is his default position. Page after page is a variation of the same refrain.

My Desmond Tutu book collection

I have read four of his books and even now I wish I had read more. Tutu writes for the average reader. The bulk of the content is a collection of his sermons and speeches, so these are not abstract theological treatises, but real-life applications of the Gospel to actually lived experiences. My goal now is to re-read these and immerse myself into the essence of this courageous man of God, who inspired a nation and its people to strive for justice and convicted the conscience of its oppressors.

Over the next several weeks, social media sites will be awash in quotes from those who find it fashionable to do such things, because that is what social media does best.

We quote the liberators because it is trendy. And in our mind, it absolves us of the guilt of our unwillingness to take the risk.

May I suggest that the best way to honor the memory of this sainted servant is to actually attempt to live out the gospel. I can guarantee you it won’t be easy. Living the life of service to one who went to the cross is not meant to be easy.

After the fall of Apartheid, Tutu was instrumental in establishing South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It was an unprecedented attempt at healing the nation by having the oppressors confess to the atrocities they committed against Black people in South Africa, then hearing words of forgiveness from those who were oppressed.

It was a monumental achievement, but one that was not without its detractors.

It was during those hearings that Archbishop Tutu learned that he had prostate cancer, an illness he would battle for a quarter of a century until succumbing to it last week. He reflected on the experience in the final pages of his book, No Future Without Forgiveness:

“It helped me to acknowledge my own mortality, with deep thanksgiving for the extraordinary things that have happened in my life, not least in recent times…Yes, I have been greatly privileged to engage in the work of helping to heal our nation. But it has been a costly privilege for those of us on the commission and I have come to realize that perhaps we were effective only to the extent that we were, in Henri Nouwen’s celebrated phrase, ‘wounded healers.’”[2]

We give thanks to God for the life of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and we pray that his example may be a wellspring of hope for us, inspiring us to live a life that exemplifies God’s goodness.

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[I] Tutu, Desmond and Tutu, Mpho. Made for Goodness. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2010. p. 134

[2] Tutu, Desmond. No Future Without Forgiveness. New York: Doubleday, 1999. p. 287


 “Bless the Lord God of Israel
    because he has come to help and has delivered his people.
 He has raised up a mighty savior for us in his servant David’s house,
     just as he said through the mouths of his holy prophets long ago.
 He has brought salvation from our enemies
    and from the power of all those who hate us.

[Luke 1:67-71 Common English Bible]

Has it ever occurred to you that there is a connection between the homonyms wait and weight?

I believe that none of us – not one – is patient by nature. We don’t like waiting. Therefore, to wait becomes a weight on us.

Some of you will see this as convoluted thinking, or maybe the product of a sleepless, even deranged mind. It was, after all, early in the morning when this idea came to me. I was beginning to feel the pressure of trying to post something this week. Regular readers may have noticed that I have been skipping Tuesdays even though I had pledged to myself to post every Tuesday and Friday.

The selection from Luke (see above) was part of my devotional reading this Friday of the week of Advent 4.

This also happens to be Christmas Eve, and I wanted to stay away from the typical “Christ is born for you” themes which practically everyone who is either reflecting or sermonizing will weigh in on today.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I just didn’t want to merely add to the pile.

But, back to my convoluted thought.

Icon of Zechariah Russian Icon Early 18th Century

This prophecy spoken by the priest Zechariah comes after a nine-month silence which was his punishment for not believing the angel Gabriel, who said that his aged and barren wife, Elizabeth, would give birth to a son.

And this was not just any son but, in the words of Gabriel, “many people will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.”  [Luke 1:14-15 CEB]

Zechariah was incredulous.  He asks the question, “How will I know that this is so?  For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.”  And so for questioning God, Gabriel gave him a sign.

And did he ever?!  He struck Zechariah mute and leaves him to his holy duties in the temple without the power to speak.

And so what we pick up in the story today comes after the birth and the naming of John.  John was an unexpected gift from God, which is what the name John means – “gift of God.”  

When Zechariah agreed that, indeed, this child’s name was “gift,” he could once again speak and bless God. And after nine months of waiting to speak again, Zechariah had plenty to say.

Birth of John the Baptist (Detail) Jacopo Tintoretto, 1518-1594

The gospel writer, Luke, never tells us what was going on in Zechariah’s mind during these nine months of silence. We are left only to wonder. But given the experience we’ve endured these past twenty-or-so months, we can certainly imagine, and even let our imagination run wild.

We, too, have been through a lot.  Zechariah’s wait was only nine months. We have been through nearly two years!

I’m referring, of course, to the havoc the pandemic has wreaked upon us.

To say the weight of waiting has been difficult is the understatement of the century.

It has been painful to recall all the adjustments we’ve had to make in our individual lives.

The weight has been heavy, coming perilously close to tearing apart the fabric of our society.

As faith communities, we have had to endure inconsistencies: the jumbled experience of either worshipping in person, online, or not at all.

I lurk on social media sites. Sometimes I comment, more often I don’t.

I do, however, do a lot of headshaking.

Unlike Zechariah, we haven’t been silent! Sometimes, however, silence might have been the better option.

As we come to the end of this Advent season, we have hopefully been reminded that the weight of waiting is not in vain.

When we celebrate once again the end of waiting, we welcome Christ into our midst.

It is He who is the one who takes the weight of the world on his shoulders. The one who promises that:

“Because of our God’s deep compassion,
     the dawn from heaven will break upon us,
     to give light to those who are sitting in darkness
    and in the shadow of death,
        to guide us on the path of peace.”
                                    [Luke 1:78-79 CEB]

May it ever be so for you and me and all the world this Christmas!

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[God] has shown strength with his arm;
   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty

[Luke 1:51-53 NRSV]

One of the most impactful essays I’ve ever read on the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) was by Robert McAfee Brown, entitled, “Mary’s Song: Whom Do We Hear?”[1]

I have borrowed liberally from it through the years since I first picked up Brown’s book, Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes, more than two decades ago.

Magnificat (Jesus Mafa – Cameroon, Africa)

Like most people in the pews, there was a time in my life that I heard the Magnificat as nothing more than pretty poetry. This talk about “scattering the proud in the thoughts of their hearts,” and “bringing down the powerful from their thrones,” was the stuff of fairy tales, comic books, and action movies. It just doesn’t happen in the real world.

Brown’s essay began the shift in my thought process. Those things do happen. Not all at once, and not everywhere, every time. However, as Brown states, “Political power is never secure, always vulnerable.” (p. 79)

Scripture always takes seriously the human condition and the reality of sin, suffering and death. 

That is where Mary, and more specifically, the Magnificat come into view.

Traditionally, this Sunday’s theme is Love. 

But how do we proclaim the message of God’s love to a world that is caught up in violence, natural disasters, poverty, pandemic, and political polarization?

How do we share the story of Jesus’ birth with a culture that worship and adores…Santa Claus?

And how do we live out this Good News in a society that seems all doom and gloom?

Mary offers an example and an invitation for speaking boldly about God’s activity.

The Visitation – Mary and Elizabeth meet – Luke 1:39-45 (Jesus Mafa – Cameroon, Africa)

The Magnificat is a revolutionary song. So revolutionary that it was banned in several countries in Latin America in the late 20th Century.

And perhaps some of us can understand why. Mary’s words sound outrageous.  Mary’s declaration appears defiant.  Mary’s claim doesn’t seem grounded in reality.

And, truth be told, it isn’t. As Matt Skinner of Luther Seminary puts it, “Mary’s song presents a radical, earth-shattering vision of the world made different. Mary insists that this powerful, merciful God isn’t merely an abstraction. This God is active in her current circumstances.”

No wonder tyrannical regimes would go to great lengths to suppress the song and prevent peasants and workers from singing such subversive words.

Mary interprets her present moment in light of who she understands God to be, in terms of God’s past history, God’s intentions, and God’s promises for the future.

In this way, she shows us how to speak about God in the here and now. She recalls established convictions about God’s character. And she imagines the possibility of God bringing a new future into being – not in a distant time, but beginning now, all around her, in her experience,

We are in a liturgical season of waiting – Advent. We are waiting for rescue.  We are waiting for light in darkness.  We are awaiting Christmas.  We are waiting for Christ.  But we do not lose hope. To the contrary, once again we raise our voices in hope and expectation, waiting once more for the presence and comfort of the Lord.

I recently came across an address by Pope John XXIII, given at the opening of the Second Vatican Council. As I read the speech, I was struck by the hopefulness of the following words:

“We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand. In the present order of things, Divine Providence is leading us to a new order of human relations which, by men’s own efforts and even beyond their very expectations, are directed toward the fulfilment of God’s superior and inscrutable designs.”

Pope John XXIII

The Pontiff echoes the words we hear this coming Sunday in the Magnificat. And in both Mary’s song and the Pope’s words, there is a message for us, both as individuals and as faith communities.

When we magnify the Lord, we embrace the vision of the whole world remade in the image of God.

When our spirit rejoices in God, the world and everything we hold dear is turned upside down and shaken and reshaped to fit a world of justice where people shall live secure, where peace and hope and joy and love will be the models which we follow.

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[1] Brown, Robert McAfee: Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984)

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