They will hold your gaze as you look at the page. You may recognize some of their faces: Ashley Judd. Megyn Kelly. Taylor Swift.
When you see Rose McGowan, I wonder if it will look to you, as it does to me, like her eyes are filled with tears.
There are others there, too, people whose names you may not know: Tarana Burke, the activist. Juana Melara, a hotel housekeeper. A state senator named Sarah Geslar. Adama Iwu, a lobbyist.
They are among the silence breakers. Together, they are Time Magazine’s Person of the Year.
The truth of the experiences they witness to stretches from movie set to newsroom to capitol hallway to hotel suite and beyond. Again and again, the stories have their common threads: he had the money, the position, the contacts, the authority. If she talked, he promised to ruin her – to write her out, to make sure she never worked again…even to kill her. He promised to destroy her. And he could. In some manner, for a time, anyway, it seemed that he could.
So, many of them, needing the paycheck or the chance at a shot, took it. They contorted themselves. They avoided the places of opportunity. They told themselves that circumstances were other than they were, in order to be able to live within them. And they kept silent.
They did not want to be defined by their complaint. They did not want to be defined as their complaint.
It is a fearful thing to say the truth out loud, to let those words leave your mouth. Because after they are gone, in the face of risk and threat, your words don’t belong to you anymore. Witnesses open themselves to scrutiny. People find questions about your motives. We’ve all heard the responses in recent weeks, the remarks: “Well, if that’s true…”, or “Why did she decide to come forward now?” We have heard the equivocations and outright denials, the retaliations. Others promised to destroy them, after all. And they could. In some manner, for a time, they could.
“The Spirit of the LORD God is upon me,” Isaiah says in today’s first reading, “The Spirit of the LORD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, 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; to provide…a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.”
The season of Advent is a season of waiting and watching for God right here in our midst. It’s a time when God sends us prophets – never meant as the kind of fortune tellers some would make them out to be; no, the prophets are the witnesses. They are the ones willing to say aloud what they know to be real, in the face of doubt and scrutiny. They are the ones who open themselves to questions of motive, where risk and threat are real. Others will promise to destroy them. And they could, for a time at least.
But the truth that the prophet Isaiah tells in today’s first lesson is that there is more than the contortion, the avoidance, the equivocation that too many have known for too long. There is more to God’s promise than the grief of this present moment. There is more for us than a faint spirit.
The People Israel have been driven from their home, made to live in a land that is not their own. After a generation of loss, Isaiah tells them the greater truth of God’s news to this beloved people: that there is more.
And so they go home, only to find that there is no newly-rebuilt temple, to find that those who never left Jerusalem have worked out their own ways of doing things. The ancient ruins are not built up, the ruined city not restored to what it was, what it could be.
The glory the people Israel had imagined upon their homecoming is not what they encounter.
Still, this promise from the prophet, the witness: “For I the LORD love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.”
They will hold your gaze, those silence breakers. I look again at them, remembering that in order for God’s anointed to reach those whose hearts have been broken, and those who have been held captive, and those who grieve, then God’s own anointed has to confront the powers and principalities that made them so.
They stare back off the page, those breakers of silence, their backs straight, their chins set, their unwavering gaze locked on yours.
John the Baptist comes into our gospel narrative last week and this week as one who defies explanation.
The people in positions of power try to figure him out, asking, “Who are you?” All he can say at first is what he is not: not the messiah, not Elijah, and he says he is not a prophet...
“Well, who are you?” they ask again, probably exasperated at this point, “What do you have to say for yourself?”
“I am the voice crying in the wilderness, ‘prepare the way of the Lord.’ ” he tells them.
The things John the Baptist seems to say most often are “Behold,” and “Repent.” Behold, as in: look – look at what you’re doing. And Repent, which means: turn around. You’re going the wrong way, and you need to find your way back home again.
I wonder what John would say, in this Advent moment. I wonder how he might confront those who contorted power, that they might leverage silence. Where would he say “Behold!” What principalities would he call to turn back?
John’s whole life is about witnessing to Jesus. He is the one always pointing to the Word. Before he is even born, scripture tells us that he leaps in Elizabeth’s womb at realizing that he is in the presence of Christ. He is the one who calls us to prepare for God’s coming. Soon, he will be filled with awe at doing it, but John will be the one who steps into the muddy waters of the Jordan to baptize Jesus. John will see the Spirit descend, will hear a voice from heaven tell him that this is the Son of God.
John proclaims God in our midst, calling people to live as though that is true. And there are those who would destroy him, because of it. With each “Behold” that leaves his mouth, John confronts the powers that would imprison and contort. And if we know nothing else of power, we know that it will seek to protect itself. And so John will find himself in prison. He will find himself constrained. And that will not be the end.
The writers of the Time Magazine article talk about another common thread those silence breakers share. As they put it, “Almost everybody described wrestling with a palpable sense of shame. Had she somehow asked for it? Could she have deflected it? Was she making a big deal out of nothing?”
He promised to destroy her, after all.
Did she avert her eyes?
I want to respond with the words of today’s second reading, from Paul’s first letter to the church at Thessolonika. In it, Paul writes: “May the God of peace sanctify you entirely.”
This letter is probably one of the earliest of all the Christian writings we have. People among the first of the Christian communities were beginning to grow old and die, and Jesus hadn’t returned to them in the way they anticipated. So they didn’t know what it all meant. They didn’t know that it would take this long. They weren’t sure how they were supposed to live, and they weren’t doing a great job of taking care of each other.
Paul, who it seems to me doesn’t usually restrain himself from harshness, responds instead in the words of this letter with a call to charity, to love: rejoice and pray and give thanks, he writes. Hold fast to what is good, and refrain from doing evil.
Too often, our culture presumes that the word of the church will be a word of judgment. And too often, it has been. So what grace might we find, in this Advent moment, for the church to offer blessing, instead: may the God of peace sanctify you entirely – not the part of you that didn’t get twisted by circumstance, not the you before you encountered whatever it was that you wish you could have avoided. But all of you. May you know yourself as whole and holy and sacred by the God who created you. Because the one who created you is the one who calls you; and the one who calls you is faithful.
What healing might that offer, to those who kept silent, for the reasons that they had, for the time that they did? What gift might that be, for them to know themselves as blessed, entirely, by God?
The God whose way we prepare in this Advent season is the God of an everlasting covenant, who promises the good news of liberty and comfort and praise.
The God whose way we make straight is the same God who sanctifies you entirely.
Behold: that is the God to whom we cry out in witness; the God who will not let you be destroyed, in the end.
Level your gaze there. Look there, on our good God.