Texts: Zechariah 3:1-5; John 14:15-26
Speaker: Joel Miller
One day, not so long ago, a woman walked into a grocery store. While there, she slipped one of the items under her jacket and tried to walk out with it. It was a frozen chicken, so it was hard to hide. A security guard spotted her, detained her, and called a police officer. The officer searched her and found the chicken. He told her to come with him to the police station.
Lots of people saw this happening. One reacted differently than the others. Standing in line to check out, he told the cashier he wanted to buy that very chicken the woman was holding. The cashier let him do this. He then brought the receipt to the officer, demonstrating that this chicken had clearly been purchased from the store and therefore could not be considered stolen. The officer reluctantly let the woman go.
If this story sounds vaguely familiar, you have a good memory. It appeared in the CMC Lamplighter, our monthly newsletter, several years ago. This story was told by Yasir Makki to Phil Hart, who wrote the article. Yasir lived and studied in Columbus in the late 90’s and early 2000’s before returning to his home in Sudan. He leads a school and church network. Yasir was the guy at the check out counter who saw all this unfolding, bought the chicken, and enabled the woman to go free of charges.
It’s an advocate story. Through his creative actions, Yasir became an advocate for this woman he’d never met.
The idea of an Advocate shows up in John chapter 14. This is part of an extended teaching of Jesus in John chapters 13-17 known as the farewell discourse. It’s addressed to the small group of folks who had accompanied Jesus throughout his ministry. Now Jesus knows that the time is short, and he has a lot he needs to say. In chapter 13 Jesus begins this farewell discourse by giving them a new commandment, which is about as old a commandment there is: the friends of Jesus are to love one another. Jesus demonstrates this love by washing their dusty, dirty feet - an act reserved for oneself, or, if you had one, a house servant.
Here, in chapter 14, Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, (which is Jesus’ intimate name for God), and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever. This is the spirit of truth.”
Jesus’ promise of an Advocate shows up three more times throughout the farewell discourse, each time referring to what we more commonly call the Holy Spirit. John’s is the only gospel to use this term for Holy Spirit. The Advocate.
John’s gospel, very likely the last of the four to be written, is less inclined than the others to promote Jesus’ return in bodily form, the second coming. Instead, John emphasizes this Advocate as bearing the name of Jesus, sent by God as a continuation of Jesus’ presence. The Advocate will “be with you forever’ Jesus says. It’s the ultimate parting gift that keeps on giving, without end.
An Advocate is someone who is for you. They’re on your side. They speak up on your behalf. They use their power for your good.
Here’s more to the frozen chicken story: There was a lot of political unrest in Sudan when this happened. Street protests were common, as were kidnappings. Prices for food and basic goods had spiked. Poor folks were desperate for food.
A couple months before the grocery store incident Yasir had a conversation with a friend, a former police officer. The officer estimated that almost all women taken into police custody are sexually violated while there.
All these factors were in the mix in the grocery store line, when our friend was in a position to be an Advocate by purchasing a $5 frozen chicken.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Yasir these days as Sudan has been engulfed in war and he and his family have fled from village to village to seek safety. His recent communications about their plight are in our most recent Lamplighter which just came out last week. I also wonder how that woman is doing. What she told her family as they feasted on that chicken. How the incident in the grocery store impacted her life, and who she, in turn, has advocated for, perhaps even today.
Shift now from the present to this strange and fascinating scene in the book of the prophet Zechariah. That story seems to be taking place on a spiritual plane, in a divine courtroom of sorts. Zechariah sees, in his mind’s eye, Joshua, the high priest, standing before the angel of Yahweh, wearing filthy clothes. Alongside Joshua and the angel of the Lord there is another character which in Hebrew is Ha-saTAN, the Satan, which means, the accuser, or the adversary. The adversary is standing at the right hand of Joshua, ready to accuse him in the Divine court. Joshua and his people have been through their own ordeal. Wearing filthy clothes to court, as far as I can tell, rarely increases one’s chances for a good verdict. The accuser may have a good case here.
But the angel of the Lord gets the first word. Speaking directly to the Satan, the angel says, “The Lord rebuke you, O Accuser.” The angel then commands that Joshua’s filthy clothes be taken off of him and clean ceremonial clothes be put on – a fine new turban for his head and a priestly robe. The Accuser’s case is not even heard. He gets outmaneuvered by the angel of Yahweh who becomes an Advocate for Joshua and the people he represents.
The story is similar to Job, where this same spirit, the accuser, goes before God to accuse the righteous man Job of being probably-not-so-righteous since he’s had a pretty easy life and anyone can be thankful to God when things have gone well. The adversary, the Satan, comes against Job to accuse him.
In Zechariah and Job, the NRSV doesn’t translate the Hebrew word for Accuser. It leaves it in its Hebrew form of the saTAN, Satan. Whenever the satan gets mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures it is an adversarial spirit that sets itself up against someone or a community. Like an obsessed prosecutor convinced of the guilt of an adversary, bringing up its case against the defendant.
The Satan is never used as a proper name in the Hebrew Scriptures. It’s not a separate being named Satan. That was a later development, and not a good one if you ask me. But it is recognized as something real. There is a certain accusatory and adversarial spirit present in the world that sets itself up against us. We experience this energy within us, in the incessant conversation we have with ourselves in our head. And we experience this energy around us coming from all different sources. The accusatory voice or spirit that is against the well-being of us and our community. It sets itself up in systems of racism and sexism and nationalism which are, in the Hebraic sense, the work of the Satan.
In John 14, Jesus speaks of another voice, another force, another spirit whose continuing presence is his representative after he’s gone. The Advocate, “who will be with you forever.” “The spirit of truth.” And while we’re paying attention to original languages it’s worth noting the Greek word for Advocate, paraclete. It’s a word that had a secular usage at the writing of the New Testament which basically meant “lawyer for the defense.” The paraclete is the one who defends the one being accused and speaks the truth on their behalf. This would have landed especially powerfully for the listeners of Jesus and John’s gospel who would have been viewed with perpetual suspicion by the occupying Roman forces. And it can be especially powerful today for those viewed with suspicion or assumed to be criminal, or out of place, due to skin color or immigration status.
But everyone needs an Advocate. And everyone can be an Advocate. Being an advocate is holy work, Holy Spirit work. When you are an advocate, you are by the very definition of John 14 doing the work of the Spirit, who is doing the work of Jesus, who is doing the work of God.
One of the simplest things we can do in adulthood is to be an advocate for a young person. To be for them. To remind them that no matter what this world throws at them, there is someone who will always be for them, and we are that someone. Maybe we can each think of someone who was an advocate for us when we were young and how changed everything. And adults need advocates too - even those adults who look like they have their lives put together. I’m grateful to still have both parents living, but I imagine one of the impacts of the death of a parent is the grief that we have one less advocate in this world. And when the parent has failed to ever be an advocate, the grief begins all the sooner.
What is remarkable is that even if we fail to be an advocate for others, the Advocate abides with us, is still for us.
And when it comes to our notion of God, this is where things can get really mixed up. Because one of the most common experiences of God actually puts God in the role in of the Satan, the accuser, the one always looking for faults and shortcomings, pointing the finger, highlighting how you don’t measure up. If this is your conception of God, the Advocate is here to offer some good news. The Paraclete, the defense attorney, the Spirit of truth, the continuation of the presence of Jesus among us, is for you. Is for you. Is your Advocate. Is on your team. Is in your corner. Tells the truth on your behalf. How many ways can we says this? Is God among you who has overcome the Satan.
And if you happen to get your clothes dirty or even filthy through the trials of life, rather than saying in an accusatory tone, “How dare you wear those in here,” the Advocate says something more like “Here, it looks like you could use a fresh robe.” Rather than lock people away or deport them because we’re all safer without those people around, the Advocate says “We need your gifts. There’s plenty of room. Let’s find a way for everyone to get what they need.”
There really is no separation here between the psychological and spiritual and social and political realms, what we sometimes think of separately as the inner and the outer. It makes all the difference to have an advocate – inner/outer/all of the above - to know that someone/something is for you. Even if we fail to be that for ourselves, or others.
The Holy Spirit, the Advocate, will be with you forever. Thanks be to God.