What Side Are We On? Third Sunday of Advent

“Who are you? What do you have to say for yourself?”

These are the questions put to John the Baptist, according to today’s Gospel. The authorities sent people to question him. The powerful people of the time, the representatives of the rulers, wanted to know what side he was on. Was he a threat to the powerful, to the authorities? They wanted to know whether he claimed to be the Messiah or Elijah. No, replied John, neither of those. 

John quoted the prophet Isaiah: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.'”

That’s not reassuring. Like Isaiah, John is someone sent by God. His voice is the voice of a prophet, and prophets always threaten the powerful.

Prophets speak truth to power. Pacifist and civil rights leader Bayard Rustin said it in 1942, quoting an even earlier Quaker tradition: “The primary function of a religious society is to ‘speak the truth to power.'” 

The concept is not unique to Jewish prophets or John the Baptist. Mahatma Gandhi spoke of satyagraha or “truth-force.” The prophet Mohammed is quoted as saying, “The most excellent jihad is when one speaks a true word in the presence of a tyrannical ruler.” 

“Who are you? What do you have to say for yourself?”

The questions put to John the Baptist way back then are questions for us, today, as well. Like John, like the prophets, we are called on to speak truth to power. That means speaking for those who are oppressed and abused. In the first reading, Isaiah says: 

“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 afflicted,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives,
release to the prisoners, 
To announce a year of favor from the LORD
and a day of vindication by our God;
To comfort all who mourn;” 

Who are the afflicted and brokenhearted today? They are not hard to find. We need only look at the evening news reports of more deaths and overflowing hospitals, or look around to our neighbors who are out of jobs, out of money, out of time and chances. The Washington Post reports an increase in shoplifting this year: 

“Shoplifting is up markedly since the pandemic began in the spring and at higher levels than in past economic downturns, according to interviews with more than a dozen retailers, security experts and police departments across the country. But what’s distinctive about this trend, experts say, is what’s being taken — more staples like bread, pasta and baby formula….

“Meanwhile, an estimated 54 million Americans will struggle with hunger this year, a 45 percent increase from 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. With food aid programs like SNAP and WIC being reduced, and other federal assistance on the brink of expiration, food banks and pantries are being inundated, reporting hours-long waits and lines that stretch into the thousands.

“Several federal food programs that have provided billions of dollars in fresh produce, dairy and meat to U.S. food banks also are set to expire at the end of the year.”

God takes the side of the oppressed, the afflicted, the brokenhearted, the captives, the prisoners, those who mourn. 

What side are we on? 

How do we bring good news to the afflicted? How do we speak truth to power?

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