Between the Times

Week of Monday, December 3, 2001

First Sunday in Advent (2001)

Lectionary Readings
Isaiah 2:1–5
Romans 13:8–14
Matthew 24:37–44
Psalm 122

Advent, the liturgical season of preparation to celebrate the birth of Christ—his adventus (coming or arrival) into our world—is a period of waiting and expectation. In the western church Advent lasts four weeks, beginning with the Sunday nearest to Saint Andrew's day (November 30). In the words of Issac Watts's hymn “Joy to the World” (1719), it provides an opportunity for “every heart (to) prepare Him room.”

Advent prepares us to look backwards in history to the birth of Christ. At Christmas we celebrate the very essence of the Christian Gospel, the Incarnation, so succinctly described in the second verse of John Wade's classic hymn “O Come, All Ye Faithful” (1751):

God of God, and Light of Light begotten,
Lo, He abhors not the virgin's womb;
Very God, begotten, not created.
O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.
Jesus, wrote Wade, is “Word of the Father (who is) now in flesh appearing,” and so on this “happy morning we greet Him” to whom “all glory be given.”

The Christmas birth at Bethlehem is the assurance that we do not worship a distant or detached deity who cannot empathize with our many weaknesses. Rather, the Christian deity is Emmanuel, God with us. Born in a barn, Jesus's infant years were spent as a refugee in exile. His short life was full of controversy and tumult. His brutal death was preceded by government torture and then abandonment by his closest followers. In sum, Jesus fully shared our human condition, including all its temptations and sufferings.The birth of the vulnerable baby in Bethlehem reminds us that we can approach God with the full confidence that He is mindful that we are but frail children of dust, and that “we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Having shared in our many weaknesses, He deals with us gently (Psalm 103:14, Hebrews 4:16, 5:2).

Advent also propels us forward to think about future history, namely, the Second Advent of Christ. In the lectionary reading from the Old Testament for the first Sunday in Advent, the prophet Isaiah records his vision of the future:

This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:

In the last days,
The mountain of the Lord's temple
Will be established as chief among the mountains;
It will be raised above the hills,
And all nations will stream to it.
Many peoples will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
       to the house of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us His ways,
       so that we may walk in His paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
       the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He will judge between nations
       and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
       and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
       nor will they train for war anymore.
Come, O house of Jacob,
       let us walk in the light of the Lord.
This future history is the culmination of events put into motion by the past history at Bethlehem.

With our own nation now at war, and dozens of major conflicts simmering around the world, Isaiah's vision of the future fills us with poignant longing. In the future kingdom he envisions, weapons of death and destruction are transformed into instruments of peace and prosperity. Isaiah envisions “all the nations” seeking Yahweh's path of justice. All disputes will find resolution, all evils will be judged. The disconnect, of course, occurs when we contrast this future hope with our grim, present reality.

I am sure that Isaiah experienced the scorn and disbelief of his contemporary audience when he prophesied this future history. Just read the chapters that come before and after his vision, and contrast the disparity between their present evils and his future vision. By his own graphic account in Isaiah chapters 1 and 3, Judah experienced a social situation about as far removed from his vision of the future as one could imagine. It was a time of government corruption, religious fakery, economic oppression (“grinding the faces of the poor”) and political machinations. Jerusalem “staggered,” having “brought disaster upon themselves.” There was “no remedy” in sight (3:7–9).

As in Isaiah's day, early in the life of the church people mocked the followers of Jesus for their future hope: “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation” (2 Peter 3:4). Things are about the same for us today too. If we wanted a modern equivalent, there is Samuel Beckett's play from the theater of the absurd, Waiting for Godot (1948), whose characters Estragon and Vladimir pitifully wait for hope to arrive, and in its absence struggle to fill their boredom and avert ultimate despair. Marx, who espoused his own (discredited) vision of the future, ridiculed Christian hope as an opiate that made ignorant, suffering people forget about the present because they were “so heavenly minded they were no earthly good.”

As for the scorn of a Marx or a Beckett, imagine for a moment what our world would be like without people of hope, confidence and conviction that the God who shares our humanity and is with us in our sufferings providentially controls human history and some day will bring it to a glorious, peaceful fulfillment. Imagine a world in which the horizon of history extended no further than our present, predictable chaos chronicled in a document like the UN's State of the World Population 2001.

True, the Christian hope for a radically different future is an article of faith, but it should never result in a pious passivity or historical fatalism. Rather, our future hope should impinge upon the present. Thus Peter writes to the early believers that if we have this hope for a future history, “what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming” (2 Peter 3:11–12). So too the Apostle Paul. Knowing the certainty of our future history, he writes in the lectionary's Epistle reading (Romans 13:8–14), urges us to fulfill our perennially outstanding debt to “love our fellow man” and to put away all “deeds of darkness.” In so doing we hasten that day and in fact usher in a present reality of the future.

Even in management seminars today, secular gurus urge employees to envision their final future. Specifically, workers are often urged to imagine their funeral, who will attend and what one hopes they would say. The exercise, of course, intends for the impending certainty of the future (one's own death) to impact the present. Modern Christian prophets like William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa illustrate the present power of such a future hope. Sustained and compelled by a vision of the future, they radically transformed their present societies.

Today we live between the times, in a state of historical tension between our present realities and our future hope, between the two advents of Jesus. Our best Christmas hymns capture this ambiguity and the consequent human longing that results from it. Charles Wesley thus writes in “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” (1744):

Come, Thou long-expected Jesus, born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us; let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel's Strength and Consolation, hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear Desire of every nation, Joy of every longing heart.
Born Thy people to deliver, born a child and yet a king,
Born to reign in us forever, now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all-sufficient merit raise us to Thy glorious throne.

Advent thus looks back in celebration of the first coming of Christ when He inaugurated God's kingdom; but it also looks forward in expectation to His second advent when, as described by Isaiah, He will consummate that kingdom in human history. Which takes us to the next to the last verse in the Bible, Revelation 22:20: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.”

The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself Copyright ©2001 by Dan Clendenin. All Rights Reserved.