Friend of the podcast, fellow Princeton alum, and host of the New Persuasive Words podcast, Scott Jones joined Jason for a quick run down unpacking the stained glass language readers have encountered during our daily devotional series “Advent Begins in the Dark,” which you can subscribed to at http://www.adventbeginsinthedark.com.
Jeremiah [33:14]-16; Luke [21:25]-28
“There will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars, distress among nations, roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear of what is coming upon the world, for the powers will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
On the First Sunday of Advent, Jesus always gets weird, not just because he talks apocalyptic signs in sun, moon, and stars, but because Jesus speaks of redemption — cataclysmic, world-shaking interventionist, God-wrought redemption.
You like it when Jesus talks redemption? The last great Catholic theologian, Flannery O’Connor, had her anti-preacher famously say, “Any man with a good car don’t need redemption.” How expensive was the car that brought you here?
June 1984, my very first Sunday in Duke Chapel. Durham was doing its seasonal nosedive into draught, turning West Campus into the Sahara. So in the Prayer of Intercession, I pray for rain.
“Lord, we beseech thee, send us rain. We promise to be good if you’ll send us rain. Please, make it rain.”
So this professor accosts me after service. “Praying for rain? Duke Chapel is a sophisticated, thoughtful, university church!” Harrumph.
My second Sunday in a sophisticated, thoughtful, university church, the gospel was Jesus feeding the multitudes with a few loaves and fish. Afterward, an earnest Sophomore jumped me, “How can you preach on hunger without once urging us to organize to fix the problem of hunger? That was irresponsible!” A Sophomore calling me irresponsible.
“The gospel was about Jesus, not better food distribution. If you know how to ‘fix world hunger’ why are you wasting time here in church?”
Thus I was unsurprised when, in a survey of what you expect from my sermons you said, “I want a sermon that reminds me of my Christian responsibility and then motivates me to use my talents to respond to the needs of the world.”
OK. You asked for it. Write this down. Get that tiny golf pencil from the pew rack and write this down! Church, this week you must do something about your sexism, racism, classism, ageism, and ethnocentrism. Stop using Styrofoam, go vegan, gluten-free, eat locally, think globally. If you want peace work for justice, fight against gentrification, don’t drink so much, don’t give so little, practice civility, mindfulness, inclusiveness, take precautions on dates! Keep Sabbath, breathe deeply, live simply, practice diversity, perform random acts of kindness. You drink too much!
Don’t you give me that look when I’m in the midst of moralizing! Do a good deed daily, first be sure you’re right, then go ahead, love your neighbor as yourself, it’s up to you to do right or right won’t be done, you are the hope of tomorrow, you can do anything you set your mind to. You drink too much!
Notice anything missing?
Come back next Sunday; I’ll give you another list. You are responsible, sensitive, caring, compassionate, liberal, open-minded, culturally diverse, gluten-free, mindful people who have your Master’s degrees — otherwise you wouldn’t be coming to this church. Christianity is a kind of primitive, Jewish technique for motivating responsible people (like us) to do what we need to do to save ourselves by ourselves.
You think you are a good person who is making progress. Pelagians come to church for moral fine-tuning, not redemption. A bit of a spiritual boost, not the Son of Man rending the heavens and coming down to rip the cozy arrangements we have made with the status quo. We’re looking for gentle confirmation of our better angels, not God-wrought, world-disrupting redemption.
Sorry. It’s the First Sunday of Advent and (did you notice?) none of today’s texts are about you. There’s nothing in any of today’s scriptures for you to think, feel, or do.
I know that makes you uncomfortable.
Advent delights in rubbing our noses in scripture that makes nervous people like us who have advanced degrees and drive Volvos and shop at Whole Foods and eat kale. Relax. Advent doesn’t apply to you. Advent is for other people, people who can’t save themselves, people who don’t even have the boots to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, those who find the political, economic deck stacked against them, people who’ve got no hope… but God.
I trusted you! You told me you were progressive, enlightened people making moral progress, getting your act together, monitoring your gluten intake and your drinking. And then just a couple of Advents ago, you snuck into a dark booth, closed the curtain and, when nobody was looking, you elected a serially adulterous, casino-owning, prevaricating…..!
I don’t think I’ll ever trust you again with the fate of the whole world.
Oh, we have good intentions. We get organized, take action, vote, send troops to the border to protect us from pregnant women….and end up putting more of our fellow citizens in jail than any country in the world.
All we wanted to do was to provide security for our families,… and thereby created the most violent country in the world. We wanted privacy, and got loneliness. Fashioning freedom, we unintentionally enshrined inequity.
Just the sort of people who, one Friday afternoon – democracy in action, the power to the people, church and state cooperating, biblical fidelity, making Judea great again – just happened to torture God’s Son to death on a cross.
A sermon is not about you. A sermon is about God. When we read and then preach scripture, we pray for the guts to ask dangerous, but potentially redemptive questions: Who is God? What’s God up to, now? How can we, hitch on to what God is doing?
You said you sincerely wanted to do better, said that you craved my sanctimonious advice on how you could set yourself, and the world, aright. Then you went and messed everything up by being… human, finite, mortal, sinful, just the sort of reprobates Jesus loves to redeem.
Wherein is our redemption if it’s not in ourselves? All of this morning’s scripture has a theme: God is coming. Or as we say it in churchspeak: Advent.
Though time again we have shown our inability to go toward God, good news: God is moving toward us.
We’ve got a God who loves to redeem the worst of times into God’s good time. Jeremiah says that God has given up waiting for us to reform our politics. God’s going to send us a new King of David President who will “execute judgment and righteousness in the land” since we can’t. Jesus foretells, “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves….[by which we will see] ‘the Son of Man coming… with power and great glory…. your redemption is drawing near.”
I personally believe that we are living in one of the saddest seasons for American democracy. Some of it is not Donald Trump’s fault. But how do I know what time it is? With a 3 redemptive God, you never know if it’s Good Friday or Easter. As Jesus says in today’s gospel, when the sky turns dark and the stars fall (bad news), look up! Your redemption is drawing nigh.
Good news or bad? I guess it depends on how scared you are of the possibility of a living, active, interventionist, judging, creating, destroying, loving ….God.
Or maybe good news/bad news depends on how badly you need a God who does for you what you can’t do for yourself.
The highlight of worship, in my thousand Sundays in Duke Chapel, was not my sermon, of course. It was communion, the Eucharist, when I got to watch you come forward and held out your empty hands, just like little children, to receive the mystery of the Body and the Blood of Christ.
I know you have achieved much, are good at knowing and fixing things. But in that potentially redemptive moment, when you held out your empty hands, needy, unselfconsciously as a little child, like a beggar, like you just couldn’t go on without being given a gift that you couldn’t earn, well, that was as good as it gets in this church. You at your most truthful, God at God’s most redemptive.
It’s Advent. Keep your eye on the sky. Get ready to be redeemed, like it or not.
Malachi 3.1-4, Luke 1.68-79, Philippians 1.3-11, Luke 3.1-6; What does the Enneagram have to do with the church? How does Jesus purify the church? What is the scandal of particularity? These questions and more on this episode of Strangely Warmed with guest Michelle Matthews.
Being a pastor is a lot like having a family member who is constantly in the tabloids.
I mean— here I am with this public relationship with someone who routinely shocks and outrages a reliable percentage of the population. While I can only guess what kinds of questions relatives of Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein are forced to answer, I do know the feeding-frenzy kinds of questions I consistently have to suffer thanks to my relationship with a different sort of celebrity.
A few years ago, I found myself in a conversation with a Unitarian Universalist clergywoman named Janice. Interrogation might better describe our exchange. Her every question to me was like the glare and flash of a paparazzi’s camera.
For those who might not know- Unitarianism began a few hundred years ago during the Enlightenment. As such, it was very much a reflection of its time. The Unitarian movement sought to strip traditional Christianity of its primitive, out-dated and superstitious trappings.
In many ways, Unitarianism is like Christianity but with less vocabulary for you to memorize since words like Trinity and incarnation and atonement and resurrection have all been cast to the wayside.
Janice has long, unnaturally black hair. She was wearing a hippie-sort of linen dress, had tattooed clover wrapped around her arm and, appropriate to her enlightened tradition, she was wearing not one but at least five different religious symbols on her hemp necklace.
She had a notepad on her lap which she wrote in whenever I spoke, as if she were the therapist and I was the delusional, misguided patient. She even kept referring to me as a ‘pre-enlightened’ Christian.
Now I’m sure you all know someone in your family or in your neighborhood who is a Unitarian and I’m sure they’re wonderful people. And I know there’s a Unitarian Church just down the road from us, and I’m sure that it’s filled with wonderful people. So the last thing I want to do is offend anyone when I tell you that I just wanted to dropkick and elbow-slam Janice.
We were sitting around a coffee table: Janice and me and three other clergy from varying denominations. I was the last one to show so I got stuck sitting in a low, awkward butterfly chair with everyone else towering over me. And obviously given my height I’m sensitive to such things.
The chair was narrow across too; it kept me from being able to cross my legs or move my arms and only increased my sense of being trapped and on trial.
Because our meeting had no clear ending, the conversation unraveled quickly with Janice electing herself grand inquisitor. So with me trapped in my butterfly chair, like a reporter from the Enquirer Janice fired question after question at me:
Do you still believe in the Incarnation?
Surely you don’t still believe in Jesus’ miracles do you?
You don’t seriously think Jesus was God-in-the-flesh?
And the second coming…don’t tell me you…?
With her every question and my every yes she grew more incredulous: “How do you still hold to a pre-enlightened faith, she pressed, given everything we now know about the universe?”
As if to teach me a thing or two about the universe, Janice’s next round of questions proved that she could make time stand still.
She kept me on the defensive, wanting me to explain every inconsistency and every troubling passage in scripture, every wicked thing ever done in Christ’s name, every theological claim we make in here that can’t be proven empirically. And the whole time she kept writing in her notebook!
Towards the end of the interrogation, Janice looked up from her pen and paper and she took a sort of cleansing breath and sighed, and, adopting a good-cop tone of voice, she said:
I just don’t see how anyone can reconcile the God of the Old Testament— the God of wrath and judgment—with the God of the New.
I kept my mouth shut. By that point I knew exactly what I wanted to tell her but it wasn’t of a theological nature. Besides, I was afraid I might need her help to get out of the butterfly chair. So I didn’t say anything.
Then she looked at me and she said: “Okay, you tell me. When you read the Old Testament what sort of God do you see?”
It’s a good question this Advent season because, when you read the scriptures assigned by the lectionary for the first Sunday in Advent, you might end up with an answer that troubles you.
You might decide that what you see in the Advent scriptures is a God who is incongruent with the God you know in your heart. You might conclude that the God who speaks a Word to Third Isaiah (“all your good deeds are like dirty rags”) can’t be the same One who said to the Father ‘Forgive them for they know not what they do.‘ You might conclude even that the Jesus who invites himself to Zaccheus’ house for supper must be different than the Jesus who warns approvingly in Luke 21 of impending doom and judgment.
God asks the prophet Amos, another Advent text, what he sees when he surveys God’s People.
What Amos sees is how Israel doesn’t measure up, doesn’t make the grade, doesn’t meet God’s expectations.
God gives Amos a lot to see.
Amos sees God sending locusts to devour Israel’s crops. Amos sees God ordering a shower of fire to eat up the land. He sees God’s anger roaring like a lion. He sees God shipping Israel off into exile. He sees God made nauseous by the worship of his People. Amos sees God vowing never again to pass Israel by, in other words, never again to forgive.
The hard fact is that in the Book of Amos God threatens to kill and destroy, God promises to send fire and pestilence and famine—- indeed as Fleming Rutledge reminds us in her book Advent, in the Book of Exodus the Lord who frees Israel calls himself a God of warfare.
When you come to prophets like Amos, it’s God’s heart that’s hardened not Pharaoh’s.
When you come to the end of the Book of Amos there is no word of hope. There is no good news. That wherever God’s mercy is mentioned it’s done so in the past tense because God’s mercy is all dried up, his patience has run out. God’s no longer willing to wait for us to change.
Some years ago, I spent time in Cambodia, visiting with mission partners there. I think it must be because of the language barrier I experienced there but most of my memories from Cambodia are visual. Most of my memories are of what I saw.
And so I don’t recall many conversations I had there. I don’t remember much of what I or anyone else said, but I do remember seeing.
I remember seeing:
Young men fishing for food in a thickly polluted pond.
Toddlers playing tag barefoot in an alley strewn with broken glass while others their age cried for breakfast.
School children walking home from school and disappearing into the smoke and smog of a garbage dump- because that’s where home was for them.
I remember seeing:
An old woman- a Sunday School teacher- sitting in a dark, hot corner of a decrepit old apartment building.
The hands that reached out for bread as I served the Eucharist- rough hands, broken and worn-down hands, wrinkled hands, dirty hands.
Teenage girls praying frantically and loudly and with tears on their cheeks, leaving no mystery about how hard their lives were.
Shanty towns filled with the poor and the forgotten, displaced from their homes in the city to make room for ‘progress.’
What sticks with me is what I saw.
And I’d like to be able to tell you that my reaction to seeing all of that was a sense of fulfillment that despite all of the challenges there this church is doing so much to help. I’d like to be able to tell you that my reaction to seeing all of that was one of humility- humility that the people I met there had such faith and joy despite having nothing.
And even though those things are all true; they’re not what I felt upon seeing everything I saw.
No, what I felt first, what seeing made me feel:
Anger and Indignation – that so many could be forgotten and so many others refuse to see them.
Impatience and Exasperation – that things are still so far from what God intends and so many assume there’s no other alternative.
I wanted to Judge…someone… anyone.
When you read the Old Testament, what sort of God do you see? Janice asked me.
I knew what she was getting at.
I knew she was hoping to checkmate me into seeing that the God of the Old Testament is angry and vindictive and impatient, that He frequently threatens to punish and to destroy and to call off creation completely and start over, that this God bears little resemblance to the One who, while we were yet sinners, died for us.
And the truth is- If that’s what you’re looking for, then there’s plenty of examples to find. In the Advent texts especially.
But if you read through scripture and see only an angry, arbitrary God, then you’re not seeing all there is to see.
We think of prophets as future-predictors, as fortune-tellers. We think of prophets as people that God empowers to see what God will one day do. And so Amos sees plagues of locusts and famines and showers of fire and punishment and destruction.
But as much as that, prophets are people empowered by God to see the present, to see what God sees right now, to see how things are today, to see the things we refuse and choose not to see.
And so when you read through scripture, when you read through the Old Testament, when you read through the Book of Amos you don’t see a God who is arbitrary or petulant or vindictive.
You instead see a God who is righteously angry.
Angry over the way the Power of Sin has enslaved his people and holds his good creation in captivity.
Such that, as slaves— his people use violence on one another, they value silver and gold more than each other, they refuse to see the poor, refuse to lift up the weak, refuse to remember the forgotten.
When you read the Old Testament, what sort of God do you see? Janice asked. And I didn’t take the bait. I didn’t say anything.
After a moment or two she closed her notebook and, sounding disappointed, she said to everyone around the table: ‘Well, I don’t see how a loving God could ever be angry.’
And struggling to get out of the butterfly chair, I replied: ‘I don’t see how he couldn’t be.’
How could a Loving God not be angry?
Angry at the Pharaoh called Sin that enslaves us.
Angry over the damage we do as move about among our neighbors in chains we cannot see.
Whenever people gripe to me about my insistence that Advent is a season centered on the second coming of Christ not his first and whenever they tell me they want to “hurry up already and get to the Christmas story,” I think to myself:
Have you freaking read it— the Christmas story? I’m not sure you’d like your place in it
Let’s get real— if there was a figure for you in the manger, chances are, dear reader, you’d get placed somewhere offstage, in Rome with Caesar Augustus. Or maybe in the gated communities of Jerusalem, rubbing elbows with King Herod, Caesarʼs lackey.
The analytics tell me most of you are reading this on an IOS device. By default, you’re not the poor who hungers for good news. You’re not the captive who cries for liberty. You’re not the oppressed who yearns for exodus. I’ll bet you’re not blind; you can see just fine.
Nor are you lowly even if you’re in need of some uplift.
Give it some hard, sober thought and I doubt you’ll be hastening to the manger. According to the prophet Isaiah- Not only is the promised Messiah not for someone like you or me, the Messiah is promised by God exactly in order to be against someone like me or you. As the Messiah’s mother sings: “He will scatter the proud and bring down the powerful and send the rich empty away…”
I hate to put a crimp in your Christmas cheer, but it’s likely…that’s you and me. Just listen again to the cute baby Jesus’ momma:
The coming of Christ isn’t jolly, glad tidings for everyone.
You have to give Herod credit. He wasnʼt stupid. He knew bad news when he heard it. Herod knew that joy coming to Maryʼs world meant an attack upon his world. Herod knew that the prophet Isaiah promised that when God takes flesh in the Messiah, God would take sides.
With those on margins.
With the people working the night shift and with those working out in the fields.
With the oppressed and the lowly and the refugee.
For Herod, for the white-collared and the well-off and the people at the top of the ladder, for the movers and shakers of the empire- Christmas was— is— bad news not good news.
Christmas, Herod knew, didn’t signal jolliness.
It signaled judgement not joy.
I wonder if thatʼs why we spike the eggnog and drape Christmas with so much cheap sentimentality. I wonder if in our heart of hearts we know that if we braced ourselves and told the story of Christ’s coming straight up as the Gospels tell it, then, like King Herod, we might have a reason to fear. I wonder if deep down, underneath all our Christmas kitsch and phony nostalgia and self-medicating day drinking, we’re afraid.
Afraid that if Christ’s coming wasn’t primarily for people like us, then that means…when he comes again…he’ll be against people like us. If he didn’t come for us at the first Advent, then when he comes again at the second Advent will he be against us, bringing not joy but judgement?
For his rookie sermon in Nazareth, Jesus chooses a text from Isaiah. Standing up in his hometown church, Jesus quotes the prophet, saying: “‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And then Jesus slams shut his Bible and declares: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Did you notice what he did there?
Jesus says: “‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…to proclaim release to the captives ….to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
And then Jesus says: “Check. I’ve fulfilled this one.” Jesus cut out Isaiah’s other line.
Jesus takes out Isaiah’s prophesy about God’s vengeance.
He cuts it. Isaiah’s line about God’s vengeance- he cuts it out because it’s in him. It’s in his body, where he’ll carry it to a cross.
The prophet Isaiah was right. The salvation brought by the Messiah goes through wrath not around it. The salvation brought by the Messiah does not avoid God’s wrath; the Messiah saves us by assuming God’s wrath.
Christ doesn’t cancel out God’s wrath; he bears it on our behalf.
It’s not just that Christ’s faithfulness is reckoned to you as your own; it’s that your sin- all of it, your every sin- is reckoned to him as his own. His righteousness is imputed to you, and your every sin is ex-puted to him. In his faithfulness he has fulfilled all righteousness. And in his suffering he he has fulfilled all judgement.
His Mother Mary wasn’t wrong. The coming of Christ does mean God’s judgement on the unjust. The coming of Christ does mean the comeuppance for the rich and the proud and the powerful but that comeuppance comes on the cross. As the the Apostle Paul says in Colossians, God in Christ disarmed the powerful and the rich, ruling authorities by making a public spectacle of them and triumphing over them by the cross.
His Mother Mary wasn’t wrong because neither was his cousin John the Baptist wrong:
Mother Mary’s son is the Father’s Lamb who bears the sins of the world.
And if he bore the sins of unjust us, then when he died our sins died with him.
Once for all our sins: past, present, future.
There is no sin you have committed and, more importantly, there is no sin you have yet to commit that is not already covered by the blood of the lamb. His righteousness has been gifted to you. It’s yours and it’s free by faith. And your sin, it belongs to him now. Such that to worry about your sins, to hold onto the sins done to you- Martin Luther says it’s like stealing from Jesus Christ. They don’t belong to you anymore. They’re his possessions.
Luther also says the cross frees us not to pretend.
The cross frees us to name things for what they really are.
So let’s call it for what it is- You’re not the poor. You’re not the oppressed. You’re not the captive on whom God’s favor rests. Yes, you’re proud and, yes, you’re powerful and, yes, you do participate in and you perpetuate injustice. Yes, you do. And, yes— be honest— you deserve to be punished for your sins.
You have been.
You have been punished for your sins.
You were punished when God drowned you in your baptism into his death and resurrection so that his favor might be yours too.
Jesus didn’t eliminate Isaiah’s Day of Vengeance; he experienced it.
And when he comes again we can greet him, naked and unafraid, because we know that whatever sin he finds in us has already been born by his body.
The cross frees us to call things as they are so let’s just name it: if Christ had been born not into the 1st but the 21st century then, chances are, we’d be the bad guys in the story not the good guys. Not the ones on whom God’s favor rests. But, the Lord’s favor rests upon people like us NOT by us doing good works for those on whom his favor rests. The Lord’s favor rests upon people like us only by trusting that while we were yet enemies Christ the Judge was judged in our place.
Only a conscience free from the fear of judgement is truly free to make the poor and the oppressed the object of compassion instead of the object of your anxiety.
We are justified not by our place in this story but by faith in what Christ does at the end of this story at a place called Calvary.
If the analytics are correct dear reader, then it’s a safe bet that Jesus Christ came for people unlike you. But— hear the good news— Jesus Christ died for the ungodly like me.
That’s how Mary’s son makes his mother right.
Jason sat down with fan favorite, Reverend Fleming Rutledge, to talk about her latest book, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ. To dig more into her book and themes, go to http://www.adventbeginsinthedark.com to subscribe to C&GJ’s daily Advent devotional.
It’s tempting to suppose that the New Testament presents us with a choice— a contrast— between two ways.
The way of Pilate or the way of Jesus. The way of the kingdoms of this world versus the Kingdom not from this world. The way of the Principalities and Powers against the way of the Prince of Peace.
Every year during Passover week Jerusalem would be filled with approximately 200,000 Jewish pilgrims. Nearly all of them, like Jesus’ friends and family, would’ve been poor. Throughout that Holy Week these thousands of pilgrims would remember how they’d once suffered under a different empire and how God had heard their cries and sent someone to save them.
So every year at the beginning of Passover week, Pontius Pilate would journey from his seaport home in the west to Jerusalem, escorted by a military triumph: a parade of horses and chariots and armed troops and bound prisoners, all led by imperial banners that declared “Caesar is Lord.” A gaudy but unmistakeable display of the way of power.
At the beginning of that same week Jesus comes from the east.
His “parade” starts at the Mt of Olives, 2 miles outside the city, the place where the prophet Zechariah had promised God’s Messiah would one day usher in a victory of God’s People over their enemies. There are no palm branches in Luke’s Palm Sunday scene, no shouts of ‘Hosanna.’ Not even any crowds. It’s just the disciples and some naysaying Pharisees and this King who’s riding a colt instead of a chariot. And establish peace.
Two different parades.
From opposite directions.
One comes on a chariot and the other on a mangy colt.
It’s tempting to think what the Bible gives us is a choice between two contrasting ways in the world.
When Jesus and his entourage get to the Mt of Olives, this place that’s charged with prophetic meaning, it’s not his teaching they want to acclaim. It’s his deeds. The mighty deeds. The deeds of the power. The healings and the miracles. As if to say: if Jesus can do that just imagine what he can do to our enemies.
It would be easy to believe that what we’re supposed to see in this Holy Week story is a choice before us between two different ways, the way of his Kingdom or the way of the world.
Except for what comes next—
With the city in view and our excited shouts of mighty deeds ringing in the air, Jesus falls down and he cries. He weeps. Like he did before his dead friend’s grave, he weeps: “If you, even you, had only recognized the things that make for peace.” Because after every sermon, every beatitude and parable and teaching moment his disciples—we— still don’t get it. Having been given all the ingredients, we still don’t recognize the things that make for peace.
His raw grief makes it plain: whatever is wrong in our world will need to be made right by another other than us.
The way of the world can’t be left to the likes of us.
Cut the bullshit— you can’t even be relied upon to spend less at Christmas despite your resolutions to do so.
Fleming Rutledge notes that at Advent— the season of the Second Coming— Christians recall that what the New Testament presents us with is not, fundamentally, a choice between two contrasting ways in the world. If we were capable of such a choice, Christ need not have come at the First Advent. If we could be relied upon to make such a choice, we would not have required Christ’s cross— nor would we find ourselves again this season, in the darkness we have wrought, longing for his Second Advent.
So much of the redemptive drama is superfluous if it’s simply a matter of our choosing between the way of the world or the way of the one whom the world crucifies.
When we render the story as a study in contrasting ways in the world, we presume that we have a will sufficiently free and a capacity powerful enough to choose between them. The New Testament does not so grant us.
Advent is anathema to America and its illusions about free will. We are not free. We are freed. We are freed only by the Gospel of grace scripture teaches: “For freedom Christ has set you free…” Until then, we are slaves to the Pharoah of Sin and Death.
What psychology confirms (just ask Timothy Wilson at UVA— we make ‘free’ rational decisons only about 20% of the time), the 39 Articles of John Wesley’s prayerbook long ago asserted:
“The condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith, and calling upon God: Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will.”
What the New Testament presents us with is not a choice between two contrasting ways but a collision of two ages.
If it’s about choosing which of possible ways, we’re the subject of the sentences.
If it’s about ages colliding, God is the only possible subject of the sentence.
And we’re the objects desperately seeking a Subject with powerful verbs of his own.
As the Apostle Paul says in Galatians and Romans and Corinthians…the cross of Jesus Christ is God’s “invasion” (apocalypse) into “this present evil age.” I know lots of folks loathe to sing “Onward Christian Soldiers” but it’s martial language the New Testament uses. Creche and cross and the cracked, empty tomb are God’s invasion against the “Ruler of this Age” (Satan). This is why the Gospels— all four of them— begin by presenting John the Baptist as the “herald of the turning of the ages.” With John, Malachi— the prophet who concludes the Christian Old Testament— gets vindicated. Malachi foresaw another Elijah, one who would signal the end time by announcing the arrival of another who would lift the curse of Sin from the world.
If two ages, the old aeon and the new aeon, have collided in God’s invasion that is Christ Jesus, then Christians are not better people than non-Christians.
Rather, Christians are people who know better than non-Christians that we live in an in-between time, stuck between the already of the ages colliding in creche and cross and the not yet of that collision’s consummation, which Christians call the second coming.
The grammar of not yet necessitates waiting.
But waiting is nonsensical if it’s simply a matter of our choosing which of the ways in the world the Bible offers us.
Like Godot, you can only wait for Another.
Jesus is the reason for the season, the cliches carp.
But really, we’re the reason for the season.
As Fleming writes:
“Unlike today’s enthusiam for religious ‘journeys’ or ways, the New Testament was written against the backdrop of the two ages, each with its own cosmokrater, its ruling Power. Two world orders are opposed to one another (Paul calls them flesh and Spirit). This represents a break with any idea that human beings can make progress toward bringing the kingdom of God to pass. Only God can do that, by inaugurating a wholesale-change of regime. This is what he has done in the invasion of the old order by the new in Jesus Christ.”
On this side of creche and cross, during Advent we await the New Age begun in the New Adam to come to completion.
Therefore at Advent— this season of the Second Coming— Christians anticipate what we cannot on our own make come to pass. Advent begins in the dark because Advent awaits the arrival of what we cannot do on our own or for ourselves. Advent anticipates not a choosing of ways in the world but the commitment of the coming God who WILL have his way be done in his world.
I recently saw Jim Bakker (yes, that Jim Bakker) on TV hawking flood buckets filled with freeze-dried food so that lucky purchases could be prepped for the great and terrible tribulations that will ocassion the End Times.
Perhaps when we celebrate this season of the second coming with a theme like Advent Begins in the Dark it’s helpful to remember a basic theological maxim:
God is at least as nice as Jesus.
Of course the converse is just as true:
The Son is as confounding as the Father.
Nonetheless, with hucksters and charlatans forming assumptions about what the Bible forsees for the fulfillment of salvation, it’s important for Christians to recall that the God whose Second Coming we anticipate at Advent is the same God who came to us in Christ at the first Advent.
John the Baptist, who makes his appearance on stage every Advent to announce the turning of the ages, from old to new, isn’t the kind of preacher who puts his listeners to sleep. He makes it unmistakeable that Advent begins in the dark.
It’s true that in the season of Advent we hunker down and confess that the world is full of darkness and depravity (because the world is filled with people like you and me). It’s into such a world as this that the Son of God came and to such a world will he come again. And so, during Advent we Christians sing not about how Santa Claus is coming to town but about how Judgment is coming. Before we light candles on Christmas Eve, in Advent we grope through the dark.
We brace ourselves and read prophets like Isaiah who yearn for God to come down—now— and who gives the preacher John his frightening imagery of God’s hatchet raised and ready to lop off all the unfaithful. John’s lunch box full of locusts is meant to evoke the prophet Elijah, which his happy news only to those who don’t know their bibles, for the Old Testament ends with the prophet Malachi foreboding: “Behold I will send you Elijah before the great and terrible Day of the Lord arrives.”
The Medieval Church, Fleming Rutledge notes, took their cues from Malachi and spent the Sundays of Advent on the themes of Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Eternal Hell. No wonder we’ve always been in a rush to get to Christmas.
Advent, says Fleming, is a season that forbids denial.
Denial that we are sinners.
Just read through the Advent hymns the Church with a capital C has given us through the centuries, hymns like the Dies Irae– which means, the Day of Wrath.
Or take another scripture that’s a standby for the Advent season, where again it’s the prophet Isaiah who declares that we’re such rotten sinners that ‘…all our good deeds, to God, are like filthy rags.’
It’s a frightening indictment. Especially when you recall that the Pharisees and Sadducees, whom John the Baptist is threatening like the first TV preacher in history at the beginning of the Gospels, hoofed it some 20 miles from Jerusalem to the Judean wilderness to be baptized with his baptism of repentance.
To call them, as John does, a brood of vipers with hearts of stone seems unChristian. Certainly, it seems out of step with how we prefer to celebrate this season.
I know I’ve not sent anyone a Christmas card that says: “All your best deeds this year— they’re no better than menstrual rags.”
FYI: That’s how Isaiah puts it in the Hebrew.
And as a preacher, I’m reluctant to hit listeners over the head with John’s winnowing-fork or, like him, holler through a bullhorn, all sticky with honey, that unless you repent and start blooming some righteously good fruit, God’s gonna clear his threshing-floor and burn up chaff like you with unquenchable fire.
No wonder we anesthetize ourselves with presents and pumpkin spice lattes.
With hucksters on TV making God seem awful rather than awe-filling, it helps to remember at Advent that sin isn’t something you do that offends God. Sins are not errors that erode God’s grace. They’re not crimes that aggrieve God and arouse his anger against you. They’re not debits from your account that accumulate and must be reconciled before God can forgive you.
Advent is a season that forbids denial so let’s get this straight and clear.
Sin is about where your love lies. Advent can begin in the darkness, unafraid. Because sin has nothing to do with where God’s love lies.
God’s love, whether you’re a reprobate like King David, a traitor like Judas, a jackass like me, or a comfortably numb suburbanite- God’s love doesn’t change. Because God doesn’t change. There’s nothing you can do to make God love you more and there’s nothing you can do to make God love you less. The Father’s heart is no different when the prodigal returns than on the day he left his Father. God’s heart is no different whether you’re persuaded by John the Baptist’s street preaching or not.
So before you heed John the Baptist this Advent season, before you repent of your sin, do not think you need to repent in order for God to love you. Do not think your sin has anything to do with where God’s love lies. God’s love for you is unconditional— unchanging— because God is unchanging. Don’t think an Advent repentance keeps the winnowing fork at bay. Don’t think Advent penance in any way persuades God’s pathos in your favor. Don’t think that by confessing your sin this Advent you’ve somehow compelled God to change his mind about you.
When God forgives our sins, he is not changing his mind about us. He is changing our minds about him.
God does not change. God’s mind is never anything but loving because God just is Love.
Who the hell are you to think your mediocre, run of the mill sins could change God?
You could dive into the Jordan River and eat a feast’s worth of locusts, but it wouldn’t change God’s love. You see, we grope in the dark during Advent not to change God’s love but to change our love. To stoke not God’s affection for you but your affection.
Because that, says St. Thomas Aquinas, for most of us, is what our sins are. They’re affections. They’re not evil. They’re things we choose because we think they’re good for us: our booze and pills and toys, our forgive-but-not-forget grudges, our heart is in the right place gossip. Our politics. Most of our sins— they’re not evil. They’re affections, flirtations, that if we’re not careful can become lovers when we’re, by baptism, betrothed to only One.
And so we grope in the dark during Advent hoping to grab ahold of and kill our lovers.
Advent is a season that forbids denial because only by confronting our sins can we to die to them.
And die to them we must because Jesus said there’s no way to God except through him, and Jesus shows us there’s no way to God except through suffering and death. There is no other way to God. Jesus died to make it possible for us to die (to our sins) and rise again. And that isn’t easy because there’s no way to avoid the cross. Even boring, mediocre sinners like us. We have to crucify and die to our affections and our addictions, to our ideologies, and our ordinary resentments. Like Jesus, we have to suffer and die not so God can love us but so that we can love God and one another like Jesus.
A nativity is up already in the narthex, strewn with artful straw and friendly beasts, shepherds and the maker of the world, measuring in inches and ounces, laying in a manger.
It’s a testament to St. Luke’s skill that we know his story and its characters so well— the dumbfounded, dung-covered shepherds, the angels bearing their gospel tidings, the census levied by Caesar and the journey undertaken by Joseph and his self-possessed new wife. Perhaps it reveals St. Matthew’s dearth of narrative skill that we confuse his nativty with Luke’s own story, setting the magi at the manger weeks too early— the star the follow ocassions his birth.
And we fix a place for the monster, King Herod, nowhere near the manger at all.
Nor do set any of his innocent-slaughtering stormtroopers anywhere on the stage.
In some circles, the Christmas story is read on no other plane but the sentimental, from which we derive partial— possibly empty— principles.
See, we say, God knows what it’s like to be one of us, naked and vulnerable in world. Look, God loves us so much as to come down and become one of us.
It’s all true, of course.
It’s just not complete nor is it sufficient to the tale the entire New Testament— not just the nativity stories— want you to see.
In other circles, the costuming of the Christmas story is peeled back to reveal the “real,” socio-political, anti-imperial story going on behind the story.
To paraphrase Feuerbach:
The theological wrapping paper of the Christmas story becomes but a way for us to speak our politics in a God-sized voice.
Not only does the holy family become an asylum-seeking refugee family in Egypt, we note, their son becomes a New Moses who will deliver his people from a New Pharaoh, bringing down the proud and the powerful from their thrones.
Again, it’s all true.
It’s just not real enough, in terms of the New Testament’s witness, to be the real story behind the story.
What’s missing from our mangers isn’t Herod or his shock troops, a proper chronology or Caesar sitting off on a throne in the distance.
Both our modernist sentimentalized distillations of the nativity story and our (regressive) progressive political interpretations of the Christmas tale are too flat. They’re both insufficiently cosmic. Neither are three-dimensional enough to do justice to the why of Christ’s coming as the New Testament understands it.
What’s missing from our manger scenes is the Enemy.
And— this may be a helpful word in our current cultural moment— the Enemy is not Herod or Caesar or any of their stormtroopers or supporters.
As Fleming Rutledge notes again and again in her writing, the New Testament is unanimous on this point:
“When Christ comes in to our world, he enters occupied territory.”
When the Father’s Son enters the Far Country of Sin and Death, he comes to a realm under the reign of an Enemy.
It’s a Christmas story, it’s just not a nativity story. There’s a story later in Luke’s Gospel, chapter 13, where a daughter of Abraham has been bound by Satan for 18 long years, and we expect to discover that what’s really going on here is that Christ has healed her of an inexplicable paralysis. Even if demons and devils, spirits and Satan, are just myths to you, even if you don’t think they’re real, that doesn’t change the fact that Jesus did. “This woman is a daughter of Abraham whom Satan [with a capital S no less] has bound for 18 long years.” Go back and look at the text. That’s not the Pharisees attributing Satan to her paralysis. That’s not the Chief Priests saying she’s been bound by Satan. That’s not the disciples or Luke implying it. That’s red-letter.
That’s Jesus saying that whatever has ailed this woman is because Satan has bound her in his captivity, and you don’t need me to point out that Jesus wouldn’t have bothered to say that if it wasn’t also true, in less obvious ways, about all the rest of his listeners.
Which, includes us.
When you leave the Enemy missing from the manger, you leave off too much of the Gospel too.
Call it what you will:
Death, as Paul does in Romans
The Principalities and Powers or the Ruler of the Spirit of the Air, as Ephesians does
Satan, as Luke says here
Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness, or the Adversary, as Jesus does elsewhere
Call it what you will, the sheer array of names proves the point: the Devil— not the Herods and Caesars of any age— is the narrative glue that holds the New Testament together.
The language of Satan so thoroughly saturates the New Testament you can’t speak proper Christian without believing in him. Even the ancient Christmas carols most commonly describe the incarnation as the invasion by God of Satan’s territory while the most common nativity image in art is that of the Christ child wielding a cross in his hand— like its a weapon.
Whether you believe Satan is real is beside the point because Jesus did and the New Testament does. To pull off the Christmas costumes and insist that something else is going on behind the story is to ignore how Jesus, fundamentally, understood himself and his mission. It’s to ignore how his first followers- and, interestingly, his first critics- understood him. The Apostle John spells it out for us, spells out the reason for Jesus’ coming not in terms of our sin but in terms of Satan. John says: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the Devil’s work.” And when Peter explains who Jesus is to a curious Roman named Cornelius in Acts 10, Peter says: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power…to save all who were under the power of the Devil.” When his disciples ask him how to pray, Jesus teaches them to pray “…Deliver us from the Evil One…”
You can count up the verses.
More so than he was a teacher or a wonder worker. More so than a prophet, a preacher, or a revolutionary, Jesus was an exorcist. And he understood his ministry as being not just for us but against the One whom he called the Adversary. This is why our reductions of the Christmas story are true-ish but ultimately incomplete. Put baldly: if there’s no Devil, there’s no Gospel.
According to the New Testament, our salvation is not a 2-person drama.
It’s not a 2-character cast of God (in Christ) and us.
According to scripture, there is a third agency at work in this story— and in our world— against whom God-in-Christ contends. We’re not only sinners before God. We’re captives to Another. We’re unwitting accomplices and slaves and victims of Another. And even now, says scripture, the New Creation being brought into reality by Christ is constantly at war with, always contending against, the Old Creation ruled by Satan. And the battlefield runs through every human heart.
Obviously, I realize that likely sounds superstitious to many of you. If so, I’d encourage you to ask someone suffering an addiction if they think the Bible’s language for Sin-with-a- capital-S is fantastical. They’ll tell you what it’s like to be captive to some other Power, who is not God. What addicts experience is the same agency splayed out all over our news every day— the suffering and poverty and violence, the oppression, the hate, and the exploitation.
When the Enemy is missing from our mental mangers, what winds up missing from the Christian on our lips is mercy.
The problem with the partial political renderings of the Gospel story— the ones that make Herod or Caesar or empire the villains against whom Christ has come to contend— is that they fail to account for the New Testament’s witness that even a Herod or a Caesar is held in the grip of Sin and Death. Or rather, as people who know the Power of Sin and Death is not fake news, Christians are able to see themselves— there but for the grace of God— in Herod or Caesar’s shoes.
As Fleming Rutledge preaches:
“Evil is loose in the world and can take anyone, anywhere, at any time— but the proud and the self-righteous are especially vulnerable…Providence is ceaselessly working to defeat the Enemy…But here is the point: we are all just as susceptible to the Enemy as anyone else…The Enemy, you see, is too strong for us.”
All of us live in occupied territory.
The Pharoah called Sin and Death— Satan— can harden even the best heart. Not one of us is ‘evil’ or ‘good,’ ‘guilty’ or ‘innocent,’ ‘awful’ or saintly.’
Because we live in a contested realm, Fleming says, all of us are always hovering on the brink of both.
In a culture bent on drawing lines between us vs. them, where progressives and conservatives alike are determined to define the other as the enemy, the Bible’s belief in the Enemy should muster mercy from us as we set out our mangers. This season of the second coming should remind us, in other words, of what the Apostle Paul tells us of his first coming:
“Our struggle is not against flesh and blood…”
Every year I try to remind Christians that at Advent we do not mimic those believers between the testaments who waited for the Lord’s first coming. We wait— wearied by this world we’ve made in our own image, we long— for his second Advent. In this season we locate ourselves not at the top of the Apostles’ Creed (I believe in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary…) but towards the botton of our beliefs (…who will come again to judge the quick and the dead…).
During Advent, Christians anticipate not his incarnation but his imminent return.
“Until Christ comes back in final victory…” we pray during eucharist. Advent is the time when we anticipate his coming again with more than bread and wine; we look for his second Advent with the Word, with hymns, and with sober self-awareness that we’re a part of what’s wrong with the world. Every year I try to remind Christians what we’re actually doing during Advent, and every year I get accused that I’m a collared Eeyore deadset on ruining Christmas.
The bracing tone of Advent’s liturgy is so unmistakeable that our missing it must be willful. The popular Advent hymn Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus, for example, sings frankly about our fears and sins while the other favorite, Come, O Come, Emmanuel, is a lamentation, speaking of mouring and lonely exile— and lonely exile is exactly how it feels to be a Christian in America watching border officers shoot tear gas and rubber bullets into children and mothers seeking, like Jesus’ own family, asylum. Meanwhile, the assigned lectionary readings for the first Sunday of Advent are not about the nativity at all; in fact, the Gospel lection is from Palm Sunday and it’s scary as crap:
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
When Christ returns at the second Advent, he will not come as he come to us at the first Advent.
He will not come ignito in the flesh. He will not come in great humility. He will come with great glory.
Ricky Bobby isn’t the only one of us who prefers the baby Jesus in his golden fleece diapers. To face the prospect of Christ’s coming again is to reckon with the truth about ourselves. We are not blameless, as Thessalonians— another assigned Advent reading— leads us to conclude. There is no health in us, as the Book of Common Prayer confesses; such that, for the Lord to return and execute justice, as Jeremiah prophesies at Advent, is a frightening prospect. Measured against the Lord’s impending justice, we have no hope in our own righteousness.
Our only hope, as Jeremiah tells us at Advent, is that the Lord, Jesus Christ himself, is our righteousness. This “season of hope” has no content, therefore, apart from the honest acknowledgement of the hopelessness abounding in the world all around us and the conviction of our faith that, though none are righteous— not one— when he returns he will return already bearing in his risen body our every sin. He has absorbed the ultimate and final penalty for our every trespass. His coming again in judgement is not a coming for condemnation, for to those who’ve been clothed with him by baptism, he is our righteousness.
He is our righteousness.
His judgment is not condemnation; purgation is not perdition.
When Christians avoid the apocalyptic tenor of the Advent season and rush to the bright lights and to the manger and— let’s be honest— to sentimentiality, we forsake one of the key ways in which we imitate the incarnate Lord for the sake of the world.
In another assigned Advent text, the prophet Isaiah indicts his own religious community before casting judgment on the wider world for its sex-inflicted calamity:
“We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth…”
A frightening, frequently misunderstood word, “wrath” in the Bible but names means God’s fierce, relentlessly determined opposition to the enslaving Power of Sin, which Christ has already defeated but whose reign— mysteriously so—has not yet ended. By calling his people’s best good deeds worse than bad, the prophet Isaiah places himself and his community before God’s wrath before the wider world. Isaiah, in other words, puts himself at the front of the line leading to God’s judgment seat.
The Apostle Paul— the same Paul who earlier assured us that there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus— tells the Romans near the end of his letter that “We shall all stand before the judgment seat of God.” Paul doubles down on it in verse 12 of Romans 14: “…each of us will be held accountable before God’s tribunal…” In fact, Paul repeats it almost word-for-word to the Corinthians: “We must all appear before the judgment seat of God.”
That reckoning, says the prophet Malachi in yet another assigned Advent reading, will be a refining— a refining fire, where our sinful self- even if we’re justified- will come under God’s final judgement and the the Old Adam still in us will be burnt away. The corrupt and petty parts of our nature will be purged and destroyed. The greedy and the bigoted and the begrudging parts of our nature will be purged and destroyed. The vengeful and the violent parts of our selves will be purged and destroyed. The unforgiving and the unfaithful parts of us, the insincere and the self-righteous and the cynical- all of it from all of us will be judged and purged and forsaken forever by the God whose wrath against Sin and its symptons is a refining fire.
But, the good news of the Gospel never ceases to be good news for us.
There is no condemnation for those who are simulataneously sinners and saints-in-Christ; therefore, purgation is not damnation.
Yet, as Paul testifies, this can only be known by hearing.
Everyone in this culture of ours is sick with judging— judging and indicting, posturing and pouring contempt and pointing the finger at someone else.
At Advent, Christians mimic the prophet Isaiah, and we confess the chains we’ve chosen to a Pharoah called Sin and we put ourselves first under God’s judgment.
Because we’re the only ones who know— by faith— the Judge is not to be feared. As is said of Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, our God is not safe but he is good. Christians at Advent long for Christ to come back in final victory, vanquishing Sin once for all— even, the sin in us. Because we know the Judge who was judged in our place in the first Advent is not to be feared in the second Advent, Christians can, like Isaiah, bear the judgment of God on behalf of a sinful world. As Peter writes in (yet another Advent epistle): “Judgment begins with the household of God.”
Christians speak all the time about imitating Christ, about being his hands and feet, and doing the things Jesus did. Most of the time we’re talking about serving the poor, forgiving another, or speaking truth to power.
But if the most decisive thing Jesus did was become a curse for us, taking on the burden of judgement for the guilty, then the primary way Christians imitate Christ is by bearing judgment on behalf of the guilty.
The primary way Christians imitate God-for-us is by bearing judgement for others.
When everything else is given over to nostalgia and sentiementality, this is our discipline this season of the second coming.
In a world sin-sick with judging and judging and judging, indicting and scapegoating and recriminating and casting blame— at Advent, Christians bear the good news that the one who came in humility and incognito will come again in great glory and with great power.
And we who are baptized and believing, we who are saved and sanctified— we who should be last under God’s judgment thrust ourselves to the front of the line and, like Jesus Christ, say “Me first.” Rather than judge we put ourselves before the Judgement Seat. Rather than condemning and critiquing, we confess.
We bear judgment rather than cast it because know— by faith— that we will come before the refining fire of God’s Judgment Seat at the second advent hearing the same words which began the first advent: “Do not be afraid.”
– Jason Micheli