In front of a local retail store the owner has placed two large, familiar ceramic figures that represent a Dutch boy and girl leaning over to kiss each other, their hands behind their backs. This Advent they remind me of the sensual image in Psalm 85:10 of God’s promise to Israel, of a time when:
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet,
and righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
By “righteousness” the psalmist refers to a relationship between God and the people of God. If they keep the commandments and practice the kind of moral conduct that God requires, they will be forgiven and be provided the gifts of deliverance (salvation), peace and love that are characteristics of the very nature of God. As Jutta Leonhardt-Balzer puts it, “Human beings mirror God by being righteous themselves in their observance of God’s will and their behavior toward one another.” Justice in this sense is not just an individual right or something you expect to find in a court of law, “but correct behavior in social frameworks.” “ … [I]t struggles with human failure to live accordingly and lives in the hope of the strength of God’s promise” (Interpreters’ Dictionary of the Bible, “Righteousness in Early Christian Literature,” v.4.
What the psalmist is so confident can be given to the people through the mercy of God is also envisioned by Luke in his account of Jesus’ birth. Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, for example, prophesies that when we are rescued by God from our sinfulness and enemies, we can serve without fear “in holiness and righteousness … all our days” (Luke 1:75), that the tender mercy of God will break upon us and “guide our feet into the way of peace” (1:79). Somewhat similarly, Mary, the mother of Jesus, before her son’s birth (Luke 1:46-56) sings about a time when the Kingdom will be so real that God will put down the rich, selfish and uncaring elite of society and lift up those of low estate, when the hungry will be filled with good things.
If love and justice can embrace through Jesus Christ where might we see this happening in Advent 2012? No doubt such things have occurred in your church in the past many times, and the period before Christmas is an ideal time to give thanks for the mission programs your congregation has sponsored over the years when you endeavored to make God’s justice a reality.
This Advent, as we prepare for Christ’s coming, let us pray for insight to find new ways for the love and righteousness of God to embrace each other through our service in our personal lives, our churches and our community. This is a gift we can all give in Jesus’ name as we work together “to make a path for his steps” (Ps. 85:13). As church leaders we can concentrate on more than exchanging presents with those we love but promise ourselves that we will give gifts of justice and peace to the communities in which we live and become more active in making the world a less violent and more peaceful place. The words of Carolyn Winfrey Gillette’s hymn (to the tune “God of Grace and God of Glory”) can become our Advent carol and our hope.
Spirit, help us work for justice
In each challenge that we face.
Each one needs to have the other:
Righteousness and peace embrace … .
So we pray and work together
Toward a world of your shalom.
May all people share your bounty,
And all have both feast and home.
Gifts of Love, New Hymns for Today’s Worship
(Geneva Press, 2000)
EARL S. JOHNSON JR. is a retired pastor living in Johnstown, N.Y., and an adjunct professor of religious studies at Siena College.