And the ransomed of the Lordshall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
Isaiah 35:10 (read Isaiah 35:1-10)
When I think of all the beautiful people in our Wisconsin United Methodist Churches, I realize that the vast majority of us enjoy a freedom and safety that the majority of people in our world may never know. Freedom, and the many entitlements we receive, is too often taken for granted. We truly do not know “how the other half (or two-thirds) lives.” I have a deep wish that every United Methodist could travel to other parts of the world where the day-to-day reality is struggle, strife, subsistence, and survival. It is eye opening. It makes one so thankful for all the blessings we receive.
Many people in areas of Africa, Asia, South America, and even in our United States live in a cultural context closer to first century Palestine than twenty-first century United States of America. Can you imagine not knowing where your next meal is coming from? Can you relate to being cast out or your home, your country, your culture? Can you even begin to empathize with illiteracy, high mortality rates at young ages, poor health care, having to live on the streets? So much of our gospel is aimed at such people, not those who know comfort, security, and abundance. In fact, Jesus offers woe to those who are satisfied, safe, and secure.
The Jewish people living in the intertestamental period were a conquered and oppressed people. Assyria, Persia, Babylon, Greece, Rome all dominated and defeated the Chosen People of God. The children of God lived in a constant state of oppression and despair. The concept of freedom was a foreign, yet appealing dream. The Hebrew people prayed for a liberator, a Savior, a Messiah, and the prayers were answered in the infant son of Mary and Joseph (and the Holy Spirit).
But this Jesus, this Christ, was still not what was expected. In addition to the a reality of political and geographical oppression was a deeper captivity of soul and spirit. When the spirit is free, no imprisonment can contain it. When the soul is liberated, location is not an issue. The liberation and freedom Jesus offered released people from earthly bondage and allowed them to see a whole new reality.
“The kingdom/kin*dom of God is among you.” (Luke 17:21) Do we truly believe this? Not that God’s kingdom is real or that it is coming, but that it is here, now. Advent is a time to reflect on what is coming, and how we will respond when it gets here. The birth of the Christ child marks a liminal transition, a crossing over, where what has been known as true before is suddenly turned on its head. The poor are blessed, those who suffer are honored, and the lost, the last, and the least are given hope, mercy, and an invitation to joy.
What is our part in all of this? We who are blessed have a divine invitation and opportunity to share what we have with those who lack. We who have received a bounty have a sacred trust to be God’s grace to those who struggle, who suffer, and who live in anxiety and fear of the future. We are blessed with the resources we have in order to live out our faith in tangible, meaningful, and transformative ways. As God gives, so we give. As God creates, so we create. As God loves, so we love. Whenever we witness oppression, we serve as agents of liberation. Where there is captivity, we champion freedom. Where there is hate or insult or disrespect or condemnation, we respond with kindness, acceptance, civility, and grace. This is not a choice we make; it is simply the outward and visible sign that Christ is in us, and that the Holy Spirit is producing abundant fruit in our lives. We wait, but we wait actively, preparing our hearts and minds to be fundamentally changed as the Christ child is born again in us this year. Thanks be to God!
Grace and Peace,
Bishop Hee-Soo Jung
Bishop Hee-Soo Jung has served as resident bishop of the Wisconsin Annual Conference since September of 2012. Prior to leading the Wisconsin Conference UMC, Bishop Jung served eight years as bishop of the Northern Illinois Conference (Chicago area).