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Walter Brueggemann

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Reflections for Advent and the Christmas Season

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Reflections for Advent and the Christmas Season


First Sunday of Advent

Being in Jeopardy, Impinged Upon

Scripture Readings: Jeremiah 33:14-16, Luke 21:25-36

We are enmeshed in a kind of technological satisfaction, overly impressed with our achievements, imagining that our affluence and capacity to manage our lives are somehow signs of well-being. We are tempted to conclude, "It doesn't get any better than this." Because we are enmeshed and overly impressed, we hold desperately to the way things are. We resist change. We begrudge intrusion of what is new. We assume a posture of defensiveness to guard our way of life.

Advent is an invitation to see the world differently. Advent invites us not to be so enmeshed with the present, not to be overly impressed with things as they are, not to be so committed to and defensive of all our current arrangements. Advent is an assertion that all our present stands under judgment. The present will end-and we cannot stop it from ending. It will be displaced by another arrangement of life that God will give. We are invited to live precisely at that juncture where the present is jeopardized and God's new future begins to impinge upon us. Our theme is being jeopardized and impinged upon.

Notice how the word "righteous-ness" occurs three times in these verses of Jeremiah as the dominant accent of the passage. God's promise is a new reality, shaped as righteousness and justice, that will impinge upon us. This theme of "justice and righteousness" is central to biblical hope. It is a vision of new relations-between God and the world, between neighbor and neighbor, between human creatures and all of creation. This new way of relating is one in which there is no threat or fear or hurt or exploitation. God will overcome the power of evil, destructiveness, and death. All will "dwell secure" (v. 16) with no one afraid of any other. It is promised! It is coming!

The teaching of Jesus (Luke 21:25-36) speaks with specificity about the new impingement. The newness of Jeremiah-which sounds so great-will not come easily because it is drastic. It will not be welcomed, because it is a threat to our present arrangements. All of us have a stake in old, defensive arrangements. We benefit from our patterns of fear and intimidation. We enjoy advantage due to someone else's disadvantage. We will not easily give up our advantage.

The coming of summer is a way of speaking of the time for judgment which is very, very near (vv. 29-30). Jesus and the early church believed that the kingdom of God, the new power arrangement, the establishment of God's new right relations is very near and will happen soon. This conviction of Jesus is the concern of Advent. We ponder the newness that is near, a newness that threatens us and for which we must be ready.

Readiness for God's new governance is the subject of verses 34-36. Advent is about readiness. The elements of preparation named here concern being weighed down with self-indulgence (dissipation and drunkenness) and with the cares of this life (v. 34). We may consider such self-indulgence as consumerism that reduces all of life and all persons to useful commodities. We may consider the "cares of this life" to refer, among other things, to economic anxiety, our mad pursuit of profit, security, affluence, and control.

Advent is a time for reflection and self assessment. It is a time for taking stock of how enmeshed we are in modes of self-indulgence and how overly impressed we are with our capacity to secure ourselves. We are invited to "take heed" (v. 24). We are invited to "watch and pray" (v. 36), to watch for signs of God's new kingdom which are elusive, and to pray, i.e., to submit to the dangerous newness.

Jeremiah focuses on the new king (Branch). Jesus focuses on the coming "Son of Man." Both motifs of new king and Son of Man are translated in the church's life into the coming of Jesus at Christmas. Jesus is the sign and embodiment of God's new age of righteousness and justice, the gift of right relations, right distribution of power, right attitudes and actions of caring. The rule of Jesus makes new behavior possible.

We could receive a new world, a new set of relations, a fresh possibility. We could start again. But that entails disengaging from the old habits and joining new practices. The spin offs are in politics, economics, and social relations. But the access point is watching and praying for small signs of impingement.


  1. What in my life of self-indulgence and self serving is placed in jeopardy by the promises of God?
  2. What are the dimensions of new justice and new righteousness that are so important to me?
  3. How can I watch faithfully in this season for deep transformative possibilities?


You are the God who shakes up old things and who brings newness. It is your kingdom and your rule that is drawing near. Give us patience and discipline to watch for your coming rule, that we may receive your gift of new relations as that gift comes among us. Amen.

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Second Sunday of Advent

Massive Purification, Deep Yearning

Scripture Readings: Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 3:1-6

The Old Testament ends in Malachi with a push beyond itself into the future. It anticipates that God will send "my messenger" (The word "messenger" in Hebrew is "Malachi.") with preparatory work to do. The Lord will come suddenly (v. 1). The subject here, however, is not the Lord, but the messenger who comes before the Lord. The messenger is like the advance committee who establishes procedures and security before it is appropriate for the great one to come. The work of the messenger is earnest and ominous, because the messenger will take all necessary steps so that the "real One" will be properly received.

The messenger has much work to do. The metaphor is of a refiner's fire (v. 2). The refiner is to melt down the minerals to get rid of all dross and waste material, so that there remains only the pure, precious metal. The work of the messenger is purification, so that when the Lord comes "suddenly to the temple," there are only pure ones to receive. All impurity has been discarded.

The early church found the reference to an advance guard messenger applicable to John the Baptist. John presumably led an important religious movement, perhaps even a movement rival to Jesus. But John is presented in the Gospel as doing the hard, careful, ruthless work of preparation for the coming of Jesus.

In this passage, we are told three things about John. First, John is fully located in the midst of the power brokers of the time, both political (Caesar, Pilate, Herod) and the religious (Anna, Caiaphas) (vv. 1-2). This is real-life, dangerous stuff. The religion of John and Jesus is not spiritual or romantic, but happens at risk in the real world.

Second, John's preparatory message concerns a central human agenda, forgiveness. John assumes that all his listeners live a skewed, distorted, alienated life, in which there is a deep yearning for reconciliation and forgiveness. John considers how anyone can be forgiven. The answer is: Repent! That is, change loyalty, change direction, embrace a new mode of life. In order to be welcomed home, changes must be made.

Third, John quotes Isaiah 40:3-5 as his core text (vv. 4-6). That poetic text concerns the magisterial, massive homecoming of God in triumph, bringing with God all the exiles, permitting them to come home in power, joy, and well-being. By using this text, John asserts that Jesus, who is to come, is God's act of bringing home displaced, lost exiles.

The early church found Malachi useful for understanding John. John is no mere historical accident; he is a necessary forerunner to Jesus. Jesus' coming can never be casual or slip-shod or abrupt. Careful, costly preparation must be made.

Advent is the season of costly, careful preparation for the royal visitation of Jesus at Christmas. We are so careless about Christmas and have largely lost the point of Advent. This collapse of Advent happens, on the one hand, because Advent is too severe; we would rather begin receiving Jesus right away, without preparation. On the other hand, commercialism is responsible for drawing Christmas forward in time to get rid of Advent, for the severity of Advent does not make for exuberant Christmas shopping. But Advent must happen before Christmas. There must be a preliminary messenger before the king comes. There must be John before there can be Jesus. There must be severe discipline before there can be unrestrained exuberance. This means that Christians have a very distinct agenda in Advent, very different from our commercial environment. I suggest three elements in our season of severe preparation.

First, we need to recognize our deep yearning. Preparation makes no sense until we know how glad we are for the visitation that is to come. This requires that we acknowledge how eager we are for forgiveness, how much we want to be reconciled, how deeply we yearn to come home to the presence and rule of God.

Second, we must undertake the preparation of purification and repentance. That means to get free of all that offends the rule of God. In the preaching of John, this refers especially to greed and exploitation (vv. 10-44). In the preaching of Malachi, it refers to the practice of wrong religion, wrong sexuality, wrong economics (Malachi 3:5-6). Christmas is not cheap and Jesus is not easy.

Third, we should ponder who this one is for whom we wait. The quote from Isaiah 40:3-5 suggests we wait for a God who comes with power (Isaiah 40:10) and with compassion (v. 11), who dazzles the nations with glory and power. But this magisterial God turns out to be Jesus who brings a new rule of freedom, mercy, and justice (Luke 7:2).


  1. What dimensions of Jesus' coming do we await with eager longing?
  2. What aspects of our lives are incongruous with Jesus, aspects of which we must repent?
  3. How can we undertake preparation, purification, and repentance that makes us ready?


We wait your royal visitation, O yearned-for Christ child. We are not yet ready. But we are making preparation. Stay by us in this severe preparation, that we may receive in confident joy your new presence. May your presence be our new home. Amen.

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Third Sunday of Advent

Outrageous Hope, Unseemly Preparation

Scripture Readings: Zephaniah 3:14-20, Luke 3:7-18

There is a mighty one who is coming! This is the core conviction of Advent. This powerful coming is sung by Zephaniah as a wondrous deliverance which will cause rejoicing. The same powerful coming is presented by John as awesome judgment, making rigorous demands. But the key is that there is one who comes.

This key conviction violates our reason and our modernism. We imagine our world is closed, and all the pieces are already present. To speak of one who comes is theologically primitive and intellectually embarrassing. In Advent and Christmas, however, we are engaged in a primitive and embarrassing drama that violates our reason. The Bible cannot do without the conviction that God will invade, intrude, and disrupt our settled world. God is not simply a function of our present world or a projection of our self-understanding. God is an agent who acts in sovereign freedom. When God comes in power, it is to reassert God's governance over the world. That reassertion is sometimes judgment, sometimes rescue-depending on our situation.

In Zephaniah we have a staggering poem of promise. It is God's own self who comes in power, and the coming of God is entirely good news. The central motif is that God will "restore our fortunes" (v. 20). God will take situations of oppression, lameness, displacement (v. 19) and transform them into a reality of liberation, full health, and homecoming.

The news-hoped for, witnessed, remembered-is that the power of God has come mightily into situations of wretchedness and made things new. The news is about the newness wrought by the power of God. Notice that the poem does not explain or tell how newness happens. It invites us to reckon with the inscrutable, inexplicable power of God that cannot be harnessed or resisted by us.

Two themes serve the general claim of "restore your fortunes." On the one hand is the power, resolve, and promise of God. This God is "in your midst" (vv. 15,17). God's very presence causes change as the explosive power for new life. On the other hand, Israel is invited to rejoice and, in joy, to fear no more evil (vv. 15,19). God's presence casts out fear, ends threat, lets us be "at home" (v. 20). One account of Advent is the liberated expectation of an inversion that will be worked by the coming one.

While the Old Testament lesson is about a glorious transformation, the narrative of John is a stern warning and a harsh demand. The coming of God's new governance may be terrible threat or wondrous gift. It depends on whether one is ready. Notice the one who comes is now not God's own self (as in Zephaniah) but is God's human agent, whom we know to be Jesus. The lesson concerns getting ready for the coming of Jesus.

After John's general summons, his listeners ask for more specific guidance. Three times John is asked, "What shall we do?" The multitude, tax collectors, and soldiers ask in turn about specific "fruit" expected of them. John is not reticent with concrete counsel. To the crowd he answers, share. Some obviously have too much of clothes or food while others have none. Life goods must be redistributed. To the tax collectors John answers, stop exploiting. Tax collectors are notorious for their exploitative economic practices. We may take this instruction as a mandate not only for our private economics, but for the ways we participate in oppressive policies that work for some to the disadvantage of others. To the soldiers, John answers, end the brutality, violence, intimidation, and deception. Notice how John's inventory concerns public relationships focusing on economic and political relations. John's concluding words concern the one coming who will work a harvest (judgment), one who will baptize, i.e., claim his loyal ones as part of his new governance (vv. 16-17).

The second theme emerging here is decisive preparation for Jesus' coming which entails concrete modification of behavior. Advent is for hoping, Advent is for getting ready. Getting ready has almost nothing to do with popular, commercial culture. It has to do with "amendment of life" in concrete ways. We may make a "Christmas list" of acts of obedience yet to be undertaken, things like sharing, stopping exploitation, ending brutality. It is a tall order-but "good news" (v. 18).


  1. What are the "restorations of fortune" for which we may hope in Advent?
  2. What are "good fruits" of preparation that belong on our Christmas list of "things to do?"


O coming one, we dread your coming because we are not ready. Give us courage and discipline that we may know what to do and have energy to do it. Be present for us in ways that banish fear. Give us the power for new life. Amen.

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Fourth Sunday of Advent

Promises Kept Through the Lowly

Scripture Readings: Micah 5:1-4, Luke 1:39-55

Little people, blessed by the power of God, can make a difference. Both these texts are a celebration of newness wrought by God through the obedience of "little ones. " In both texts, the Bible has noticed that large concentrations of power and authority have caused deep human trouble.

The Micah text is addressed to Jerusalem-that great center of power, wealth, influence, and legitimacy. Clearly Jerusalem cannot save itself. It cannot generate the power of new life. That city-arrogant as it is-is now under serious siege, surrounded by its enemy (v. 1).

The little village of Bethlehem is contrasted with massive Jerusalem (v.2). Jerusalem, embodiment of arrogance, has always looked down upon pitiful Bethlehem with disdain. Of course, every listening Israelite would remember that David had come from Bethlehem. Over a long period of time, Jerusalem had preempted the royal claims of Bethlehem.

But the live hope of besieged Israel will be, says the poem, a new king free of Jerusalem, rooted in and committed to the village perception of reality from Bethlehem. It is this king who will cope with Israel's enemies, who will be the faithful shepherd of Israel, who will be the source of well-being and security.

It is easy to see why the early church made use of this poetry (cf. Matthew 2:6). The contrast between Jerusalem and Bethlehem is now transposed to be a contrast between mighty Herod and modest Jesus. Herod embodies all the might, arrogance, and legitimacy of the ruthless urban elite. Jesus, by contrast, carries the hopes and possibilities of village life which has no imperial ambition, but dreams of a new set of social relations free of exploitation and fear. The wave of Israel's future is not with Jerusalem and all its Herods, but with the new king who is no party to such arrogant ambition. It is this unencumbered king who has power to save.

Our Gospel reading concerns the faith of Mary. She is indeed a nobody from whom no one expected anything. But she is to be the mother of "my lord" (v. 43). The power of Mary's faith is that she believes there will be a fulfillment of the promise (v. 45). She believes God is faithful to God's word and that God has power to keep promises. The promise, in the first instant, is that a son would be born. But in a larger scope, the son would rescue God's people and transform this oppressed community into a people of joy and well-being. So Mary sings (vv. 46-55). She sings the best loved hymn of the church which is also among the most radical and subversive of all our songs. She echoes mother Hannah (I Samuel 2:1-10) in singing about God's powerful inversion.

The radical inversion is articulated in verses 51-53. Life is going to be transformed in astonishing ways. The proud will be brought low (cf. Isaiah 2:12-17). The now established powers (all the Herods, all the Jerusalems) will be delegitimated. In their place will come those of low degree, low estate. Not only will the hungry be filled, but the rich will go away hungry. Now the ones who have been at the trough too long will be banished.

This is extraordinarily good news-if one is among the waiting, watching hungry ones. It is raw bad news for the affluent. In receiving this poem, it matters if we are among the "hungry" or the "rich." There is a restlessness among the hungry, among all the villagers of Bethlehem who resent the rapaciousness of Jerusalem. There will come a reckoning, a reordering. It will be wrought by the power of God-through the little ones.

These two poems from Micah and Mary are an invitation for us to look again at the map of our economic world. We notice the regions of affluence, the concentrations of wealth, and the wide spaces of neediness. We notice the region which we inhabit, whether a region of monopoly or an area of marginality. Advent is a time to ponder the change that needs to happen-and then to imagine how we might participate in that change.

The change to come will be wrought by the presence of God. Both Micah and Mary sing about undefeated promises. Those promises will be wrought through the little ones who have been neglected, by those who are now given a fresh power. These are dangerous and transformative issues. Advent is our resolve not to disregard the urgency of the text or its reality among us.


  1. What promises of God do you think are on the move in our world, promises for well-being and food?
  2. What "little" agents can you identify who carry these promises?
  3. How can we faithfully participate in this coming inversion?


God of Jerusalem and of Bethlehem, God of the rich ones and the empty ones, we thank you for your dangerous life-giving promises. Open us to trust your promises which frighten us and to notice where your promises are being made visible. Amen.

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Christmas Eve

When Heaven's Hope Comes to Earth

Scripture Readings: Isaiah 9:2-7, Luke 2:1-21

Biblical faith is heaven-rooted. The reality of the gospel is grounded in the purpose, power, and presence of God. God resolved matters at the eternal throne. God decided that God's governance will be established in order that all will honor, obey, and glorify God.

But Biblical faith is also earth-focused. Earth is where God wants to rule. God is not content to have quiet harmony in heaven but will have God's own way with people and with nations. God will not quit until a particular governance is wrought on earth, a rule of justice and righteousness, i.e., a rule of humaneness, equity, dignity, respect, and well-being. The glory of God mandates well-being on earth.

But how is this resolve of heaven to be translated into the reality of earth? In the ancient world, the link between heaven and earth, between God and historical reality, is through the king who embodies both the power of God and the possibilities of politics. The poem of Isaiah 9:2-7 is an example of how the king is understood as the connection between God's glory and earth's hope.

The people who sing this song have been in the darkness of oppression and despair (v. 2). They could see no way out of their deep darkness. The occupying army seemed to be present into perpetuity. But in the birth - or coronation-of this new king, the people find fresh hope. With rhetoric similar to that of a newly elected president, the prophet tells of an expected leader who will right all wrongs and make all things new. The joy of Israel at the new king is like happy farmers at harvest who want to dance and drink and sing because they have a new lease on life (v.3). But the newness is more than fresh crops. It is liberation, getting rid of the occupying oppressor - presumably the Assyrians (v. 4). By the power of the new king, all the army boots and military uniforms of the enemy are put in a pile and burned (v. 5). The enemy is defeated. Israel is free.

All of this is expected of the new king. The new king is proclaimed with a long series of royal appellations, "wonderful counselor, mighty god, everlasting father, prince of peace" (v. 6). The titles bespeak the quality of governance. In the end they all come together as "justice and righteousness" (v. 7).

Matters are not different in the familiar Christmas story of Luke 2. The story is time bound. It deals with the reality of the earth. The key characters, at the outset, are Caesar and Quirinius (vv. 1-2). As the Isaiah poem happens in the face of Assyrian power, so here, Rome looms large. In the face of Rome, a power concentration larger than even Jerusalem, there is a defenseless, innocuous Bethlehem. But it is Bethlehem, home of marginality, that is now center stage, overriding the grand claims of Rome and Jerusalem. The great ones are made marginal in this story. The little ones are now the primary actors.

The heavens are flooded with more singing messengers (vv. 13-14). They sing of two things. On the one hand, God is to be glorified. The God of Israel, creator of the world, claims total allegiance. All other pretenders are delegitimated. On the other hand, the heavenly decision is about peace on earth, well-being, harmony, justice, and righteousness.

The angels sing of the two grand themes of glory and peace. Glory is gathered all about God. Peace is possible on earth because glory has been gathered in heaven. The wonder of the event is that the pivot whereby heavenly glory and earthly peace are joined is in this Jesus. The drama places on Jesus all the hopes of Israel. Jesus is linked to David (v. 11). Jesus is identified as Messiah (Christ), the one who comes (v. 11). Jesus is the cause of joy (v. 10). Jesus is the embodiment of "good news" (v.10). Jesus-born in innocuous Bethlehem, the son of a lowly handmaiden-is now set for the rise and fall of many in Israel.

No wonder the shepherds are dazzled and rush in hope (v.16) to see this newborn baby. The shepherds embody social marginality. They no longer had any hope on earth. They did not believe the resolve of heaven could reach into their earth. But in Jesus they sensed a new connection that permitted hope on earth, as well as joy in heaven. They rush to Jesus, filled with praise (v. 20).


  1. What do you think are the resolves of heaven? What is God's will and intention?
  2. What do you think could happen on earth to the human community because of God's resolve?
  3. Do you think Jesus is an adequate connecting point? So what?


Holy God enthroned in splendor, permit us to be dazzled by your glory. Rush to our earth. Intend more for us than we presently perceive. Make us children of your intention, trusting in your intrusion. Deliver us from sentimentality. Give to us the reality of your powerful earthly resolve. Amen.

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About the Reflections'Author

Walter Brueggemann is William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, GA. He is an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ. His recent books include The Psalms and the Life of Faith (Fortress, 1995), The Threat of Life: Sermons on Pain, Power and Weakness (Fortress, 1996), Theology of the Old Testament (Fortress, 1997).

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