What Does It Mean?
Starting a little over one hundred years ago, Bible scholars began
to ask a four word question that still drives Fundamentalists crazy
today. There are similar questions asked in the study of law and the
interpretation of the Constitution as well as in medicine and other
fields. But this scholars' question in faith has led to
countless serious arguments and radical applications of ancient texts
that bring some people to self-mutilation, others to bomb medical
clinics, and still others to organize Christian churches for one
political party in America, although sometimes I wish all parties could
learn this trick. Anyway this four word question divides people in
their opinion of the virgin birth, the ordination of gays and lesbians,
the propriety of slavery, and the understanding of whether Jesus' body
started out in a manger, walked on water, or physically left the tomb
to eat fish and bread. These four words are at the heart of much of
what has divided the many members of the Body of Christ across the
globe and across time.
Do you want to know them? Do you want to know the words that send
fundamentalists beyond the boiling point faster than they could go from
zero to sixty in a Porsche? The words seem so innocuous to me. They
are, "what does it mean?" What does it mean?
Now, in the late 19th century this question about Bible texts was
always paired with another one that came first: "What did
it mean?" It was never the intent of scholars to neglect a look at
what some lawyers call Original Intent. Bible professors always wonder
what something meant to its first readers and hearers, but
starting about one hundred years before I went to divinity school, they
added that second question knowing that when you read certain things
two thousand years after they were penned upon papyrus, you benefit
from having both angles in mind. What did it mean and what does
it mean? Remember that and you can get three advanced placement credits
in divinity school.
Now for three preaching credits, let me reveal that this is also
what I do whenever I sit down to write a sermon. I ask both questions.
Probably they seem logical and obvious to you, but then we don't have
too many clinic bombers in Newton. The truth is that asking the second
question doesn't mean it's more important than the first: sometimes
what a passage once meant is more important than what it means now. But
other times contemporary insights and interpretations bring something
alive that would otherwise be dead.
Whenever you turn to the Advent and Christmas scriptures, you have
to ask both questions to get the whole story. I wouldn't say this on
Christmas Eve, but haven't you noticed that in one gospel Jesus is laid
in a manger and in one he rests in a house? What does that mean? Do you
recall that shepherds were considered scurrilous and deceptive -- bad
witnesses -- but that the ones near Bethlehem probably kept the
spotless sheep for temple sacrifice? What does that mean? Have you
pondered the fact that tradition allowed not only parents but a whole
community to name children back in Mary's time, yet neither John the
Baptist nor Jesus' families were allowed this privilege? How about
that? Oh, and the virgin thing: again, not for Christmas Eve preaching.
Wasn't this a mis-translation of a scripture that had to do with a
prophecy about something entirely different to begin with? Original
intent could really help here, but we ask, "What does this mean to
When you review them, Advent and Christmas have many more scriptures
dealing with poverty and revolution than with innocence and miraculous
angel music. They have much more to do with genealogy than with animal
husbandry. And today's text is no different. I want to say a word about
what it meant, but I have to ask you, what does it mean?
About ten chapters of Isaiah were written at a time when the exiles
from the Holy Land and from Jerusalem were returning from Babylonian
captivity. And they were anxiety-ridden, and since they had been away
from home for so long, there were competing leaders hoping to guide the
new nation, and since their enemies had been in charge of their
original homeland, they were returning to a devastated, ruined place.
As it turned out, there was also a class conflict present, with the
wealthy and powerful folks saying, "Let's rebuild the temple area
to its former glory," which could be good for tourism, and the
spokespeople for the poor saying, "The creation
of an egalitarian community is all that's important to God."
Now let me stop right here for just a moment. Exiles returning to a
destroyed place and suffering from differing views due to a class
conflict. Do you think this material would preach in New Orleans this
year? I think so, but let me tell you a little more.
Isaiah sided with the poor. He wanted people's return and rebuilding
to show God's glory. And while many other prophets used the word
of God to argue their cases, Isaiah was one of perhaps three who said
he had not only the word but the spirit of God, which was a very
big deal. And the spirit of God told him that righteousness is what it
takes to rebuild Zion, not temples, and he went so extraordinarily far
as to say that this is true even if you are a foreigner. No matter who
you are, if your are righteous, you're in. And remember: no one was
more excluded, untouchable, or despised than foreigners, so this meant
something big and means something big, too.
Today we get this half a chapter about the vision for restoration,
and while we read in English, the Hebrew reveals that all five groups
that are about to get good things -- the afflicted, the broken-hearted,
the captives, the mourning, the bound -- all these groups are synonyms
for one group: the righteous poor. The spirit of God has Isaiah saying
five different ways that the judgment of the new society from divine
perspective will be based on how it treats the poor. Or, backwards, God
wants to treat the poor in ways that make them priests and royalty,
which is what all that stuff about oil and mantles and garlands and
jewels meant: that's the stuff that the closest to God and the most
privileged in society all get.
From beginning to end, this Advent scripture used to mean that if we
yearn for what God yearns for then we're yearning to change the way
that the poor in society are treated. If we're honest, what we've had
up until now is falling apart. And God doesn't want us just to gild our
lilies, ever. The original intent of this bit is to require that
readers liberate, comfort, heal, and rebuild the world of the poor. So
that is what an honest fundamentalist would see in this passage. Now,
what does it mean, to us?
I'm almost afraid to ask. But I can say this. We don't know exactly
when or where Jesus was born. We don't know exactly how he was
conceived or named. We don't know if anyone ever really gave him
frankincense or if anyone ever really touched his wounds after he was
executed. But we do know this: Jesus was born poor. He worked the life
of a poor peasant and mostly preached to peasants. We know that his
family was poor and we know that if God was somehow in him, somehow
touching him, God knows the experience of the poor. We know that other
than despotic and misguided rulers of church and state, other than
deceivers and betrayers, almost no one else is mentioned in the
scriptures any more than the poor. So even in the days getting ready
for Christmas, for Emmanuel, it
would be wrong not to talk about the poor. What does that mean?
Well, it means when we have our capital campaign, it is of central
value to share a tithe from our bounty with those in need from other
building projects. It means when we review our church budget this month
and the time that we spend on church volunteer work, it is important to
examine what we've done, each year, to make sure that our work engages
the needs of the poor. It means that when we each make our year-end
donations, the plight of the poor is essential to Christian decision.
It means when we vote in elections, the treatment and concern for the
poor should influence us. It means when we look at ourselves and wonder
whether we are rich or poor, we can compare ourselves to Jesus'
original community and find ways to be in contact, whether that means
reaching up or reaching down.
Now do you see why fundamentalists get worried and avoid this
question of meaning? It's because compassion takes more than
conservatism, or it isn't Biblical. War against the poor isn't
Biblical. Inclusiveness is Biblical. Self-examination is. And building
new communities which by their egalitarian spirit show God's glory is,
I'm not suggesting that anyone I know is perfect at this. Certainly
I am not. But that's what it meant. I think that's still what it means.
When God is with us, that is clearer. When Jesus is born in us, it
brings joy to the whole world.
Copyright © 2005
Kenneth F. Baily. Used by permission.