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December 2010

Predestination v. Liberation

Using Google's new word search database, I wanted to see how often these words appeared in publication in English the last 400 years.  I assumed predestination would dominate until the 20th century.  I was surprised by what I found:

Predestination v. Liberation 

So, I am VERY curious.  Liberation was more commonly written about in the late 17th century revolutionary period than in the 20th century during the heyday of liberation theology and postcolonial liberation movements.  I'd like to see some research into this late 17th century usage.

In French the graph looks more like what I would have expected.

In French 



Matthew 11:2-19; Isaiah 35:1-10

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

12 December 2010



Christmas is not some season for us to toss into the bin of sentimentality but is the arrival of the one who slays the monsters that strive to drag us down into death.


These lines from the commentary upon today's readings by David von Schlichten catch us up short. It's Advent. We are preparing for Christmas. We are singing carols and baking cookies and enjoying watching the children play. We are encouraged to welcome Christ anew this year, to greet the new morn with joy and hope. Monsters might be the furthest thing from our minds. Isn't that more fitting for Halloween?

Yet, Von Schlicthen speaks to our fears during any time of waiting or expectation. Waiting can be scary for us: Waiting for the test results to get back. Waiting for a family member to arrive during a snowstorm. Waiting to see if our hopes and dreams will be fulfilled. Waiting can be most scary when we don't know what's coming or when it will arrive.

Von Schlicthen, in his commentary, was writing about the story of Beowulf and its comparisons and contrasts with the Jesus story. You've probably never considered Beowulf an Advent text before!

I like how Seamus Heaney's translation opens:


So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by

and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.

We have heard of those princes' heroic campaigns.


The "imaginative geography" of the poem, as Heaney calls it, is dark, moody, and frightening. It is filled with anxiety and fear. The people, who otherwise live comfortably and joyously in their halls, are menaced by monsters and invading armies.

Beowulf, the hero, defends the people and destroys the monsters. First Grendel, then his mother, and finally, in old age, a dragon. His destruction of the dragon causes his own death, as he gives his life to defend his people. But even then, his sacrifice is met with fear, as the people wonder who will defend them from their enemies now that this great warrior is gone.

These lines from near the end of the epic, as Beowulf is burned on his funeral pyre, capture the overall mood:


On a height they kindled the hugest of all

funeral fires; fumes of woodsmoke

billowed darkly up, the blaze roared

and drowned out their weeping, wind died down

and flames wrought havoc in the hot bone-house,

burning it to the core. They were disconsolate

and wailed aloud for their lord's decease.

A Geat woman too sang out in grief;

with hair bound up, she unburdened herself

of her worst fears, a wild litany

of nightmare and lament; the nation invaded,

enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles,

slavery and abasement. Heaven swallowed the smoke.


    Fear, insecurity, and anxiety are driving forces in the human psyche. So much that we do and say and think and feel is motivated from fear, insecurity, and anxiety. And we often have much to be afraid of. Our finances, our physical health, crime and terror, even the weather if you live in Nebraska.

    Monster stories speak to our fears.

    John the Baptist, in prison for his preaching, sends to know if Jesus is the one we are expecting and waiting for, or if there is another? Is Jesus the one we should welcome or not?

    Now, it would seem that John would already know this. In the Gospel of Luke, while still in the womb, John recognizes Jesus. In the Gospel of Mark he is witness to the spirit descending on Jesus at the baptism. Even here in Matthew, earlier texts suggest that John has already answered this question.

    But questions have a way of not going away sometimes. John has poured his life into preparing for the Messiah. Maybe he just wants to be sure. Maybe this youngster Jesus isn't doing it the way John thought he should be doing it. Maybe he thinks Jesus needs a little advice, a little gentle prodding. After all, John was an ascetic, living off of locusts and wild honey. And he's heard stories that Jesus is going to parties and drinking wine and stuff like that.

    Could be that he's just depressed being in prison. I'm sure any of us would be. Plus, isn't the Messiah supposed to set the captives free? Yeah, isn't he?

    John's question makes sense then. The Messiah should be slaying these monsters, right? Are you the one?

    Jesus gets the point of the question.

    Back in Isaiah 35, the prophet said that God would come and defeat the evildoers. And creation would break forth in song. The blind would see. The lame would leap. The desert would blossom.

    Jesus quotes this passage and asks John's disciples if they see these things happening, because if they do, then God has come and the enemies are being defeated.

    And it is unmistakable. The healings, signs, and wonders performed by Jesus fit with the messianic expectations of the prophets. Yes, this appears to be the one we have been waiting for, the one we are to welcome and embrace.

    Yet, the enemies are not all destroyed. There are still monsters. John is suffering in prison. The people are weighed down by debt. The kingdom of heaven is under assault from violent persons.

Back in Isaiah, the prophet and poet speaks not only of the coming of God, he also speaks of a way in the wilderness. It is a pilgrims' way kept safe from savage beasts. This is the pathway by which those who are lost can return home again. Those returning shall shout with triumph. "Gladness and joy shall be their escort, and suffering and weariness shall flee away."

Despite the continuing existence of the monsters, is there a way in the wilderness? We would welcome a path through our fear and anxiety and tribulation.


My very first Sunday of full-time, parish ministry as an Associate Pastor there was a Missions Team meeting during lunch after church. I stayed in the kitchen to clean up after the meeting and Herbert Holcomb stayed with me. Herbert had stories to tell. He told about his experiences in the Navy. About the history of the church. About the history of Fayetteville, Arkansas. And about his family. Two hours later, I finally got to go home.

    Despite his quirks, Herbert is one of those people that it was my privilege to know for a short time. Herbert was in his late seventies when I first met him. Not only did he have lots of stories to share, he had opinions, about most things, and he didn't mind sharing them as well. He was curmudgeonly at times.

    Whenever Herbert wanted to tell me something, particularly if he had a question or an issue with something I was doing in my ministry, he and Henrietta would invite me over for lunch. And there, in the privacy of their home, he would raise his question or give his advice or state his disagreement. Yet, whenever Herbert and I had one of these conversations, he'd always follow it up by telling me that if I ever needed someone to speak up in a church business meeting or some other setting and defend me or something I had done, that he would do it. Even if he disagreed with me.

    One of the things that strikes me as humourous when I think about Herbert, is that I know I'm a lot like him. When I'm in my late seventies I'm going to be pretty opinionated and curmudgeonly, and I'm going to have lots of stories to tell. I know that, because I'm like that already.

    Herbert was a pillar of his church. A member there for almost thirty years, he had long been its largest financial contributor. He had been active in attending denominational meetings to represent the church, and had long been an advocate for missions and progressive social causes. He believed firmly in education as well and did much to support it. He was an engineer who loved science and knowledge. His faith was the faith of a passionate, educated man.

    He had a close family. And the Holcombs were even known to adopt people into their family, making them as close as their actual children and grandchildren. Salt of the earth sort of people, you might say.

    Herbert was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Now, if you know anything about pancreatic cancer, you know that it is, generally, a death sentence.

    I had lunch with Herbert and Henrietta shortly after he returned home from the hospital. He told me he was considering his options. The physicians had discussed various treatment options with him. Herbert joked that after one surgery about a decade before, he was told he'd have ten more years. Another surgery on some other problem had given him six or seven more years, and that time was coming up too. He said that it looked as if his warranty was up, no matter which health problem you looked at.

    Herbert decided not to seek treatment. He said he didn't want to spend a few years sick from radiation and chemotherapy. Instead he'd rather enjoy whatever life he had left. Sitting in his living room, he told me, "but don't be surprised if I'm a little depressed now and then."

    I left Fayetteville a few months later, moving on to a new calling in Dallas, Texas. At the time Herbert was still doing well, enjoying family, writing to friends, doing things he wanted to do. Fortunately I got to visit him at home, on a trip back to Fayetteville, two weeks before he died. It was just a little over a year since his diagnosis. When the end finally came, it was quick, as he had hoped it would be. His final words were "I'm hearing . . . ." His daughters imagined he was hearing angelic choruses.

    Herbert's funeral was filled with stories. The way he would have liked it. He was very much missed.


    I want to die like Herbert Holcomb. I want to face death as just another part of the living process. I want to be someone who continues to live, despite dying. Someone who finds hope, peace, and joy even in circumstances like pancreatic cancer.

    The monster of cancer killed Herbert's body. But it did not defeat him. Herbert lived, despite his diagnosis. As such, he bore witness to his faith. A faith that rested in hope and joy.

    It wasn't a hope that he would be healed. That was never part of it. He knew he wouldn't be healed. It was a hope that his life would have meaning, no matter what happened, because his was a life shared.

    Let that kind of hope be what we welcome this Advent season. Everything will not turn out the way we want it to. All of our dreams will not come true. But no matter what happens to us, our lives have meaning.

    And that meaning is revealed in the Christ whom we await to be born anew in us. For it is Christ who reveals the pilgrim way, wherein the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.

    May it be so.