ONE OF THE BEDROCK assertions of the Christian faith is that the kingdom of God is coming.
Jesus announced God’s reign, and embodied it, and brought it among us, but it is not here yet in full. The world’s brokenness and our own selfishness are testament enough that the kingdom is not here in full. But it is coming. And there’s not a thing we can do to hurry it, or stop it, or even delay it. We can, however, join in with it. That’s the best recipe for how to be a human being.
Advent’s reliable annual return is like the kingdom in its future certainty. The blue or purple paraments, the hymns in minor key, the candlelight, the longer nights—they all return, annually, like an old friend. Advent is a season of longing. The church places herself in the position of Israel, crying out for a savior. The hymns express this longing (“O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lowly exile here”). Some churches have a “longest night” service on or around Dec. 21 for those who have experienced especially acute grief in the past year. Advent reminds us that life is not all cheerfulness, as if we needed reminding. It’s also sorrow, longing, waiting, and hoping.
Then Advent returns, ready or not. Just like Jesus and the reign he’ll soon bring in full. It’ll be here before you know it. And it’ll amplify the best parts of human life. It will shear off the worst parts. And it will make the world the one God dreams about.
[ December 6 ]
Competition for Advent
Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:68-79; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6
ADVENT IS A little Lent. As in the great Lent in the spring, here in Advent we deny ourselves, discipline ourselves, and repent of our sins as we prepare spiritually for a terrific joy when God erupts into the world in a howling baby and an empty tomb.
The problem with Advent is that it has competition. Chipper Christmas music—usually suitably cleansed of specific religious content and chock full of chestnuts roasting and wonderful time of the year—starts to pipe into stores in, like, October. Everybody seems to be waiting for something other than Jesus: for the end of the semester, family to come home, and vast holiday overconsumption.
These scriptures are like “refiner’s fire” or “fullers’ soap” for those of us who wait for the wrong thing. Malachi especially screeches into our complacency, demanding that we worship God the way God wants. The danger of focusing on Malachi is to become as frowny faced as we are in our worst selves, disapproving and judging above all (as I did a little in the last paragraph). Philippians is the perfect antidote. Paul absolutely delights in his Philippian friends. He slobbers all over them. No professional, arm’s-length, boundary-respecting distance here. He loves them, and longs for them to have a “harvest of righteousness” on the day of Christ’s coming (1:11).
The jewel in the crown of these texts is the Benedictus, as Zechariah’s song is traditionally called (Luke 1:68-79). Like all songs, it is best when sung. It announces with past-tense certainty that God has already kept God’s promises to Israel. Then it turns to the newly born John the Baptizer and promises God will bring a kingdom, a dawn, a way, full of the loving kindness of God’s own heart. That’s an awful big promise to hang on one so little. But not nearly as big as the promise about to hang on another little one, born in just a few weeks’ time.
What a collision of joy and sorrow this day: sorrow at the way things are; joy at the world God is bringing. That collision should happen every time we worship. Advent is a reminder to see that both are happening at the same time now and ever in our worship and in each of our hearts.
[ December 13 ]
By Ax or Fire
Zephaniah 3:14-20; Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18
DON'T LISTEN TO that music director. He or she may be right—people like happy Christmas songs. But hold off. Advent is about longing, not fulfillment. At least not yet. There are Sundays after Christmas, you know.
But then these texts seem to tug against me. Zephaniah commands Israel to cry out with joy: God will save the lame and gather the outcast and change all shame to praise. Paul commands the Philippians to rejoice. He would use a text message abbreviation: “srsly.” There is no option here—rejoice!—now!
But then John the Baptist’s sermon cuts back the other direction: “You brood of vipers!” (If you’ve ever felt the desire to say this in church, this Sunday gives you biblical sanction.) He promises an ax and fire, he takes away hope of having the right ancestral heritage, and by the end of the reading he is returning to the fire business. John is lunatic-on-the-corner crazy. So why did anybody listen to him?
Because he shows that God reverses everything. In John’s time there were big-deal rulers around (Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias) and serious religious authorities (Caiaphas and Annas), but the word of the Lord didn’t come to these guardians and representatives of conquest, political power, religion, and good order. The word came to this zealot in the desert who harangued people.
John’s altar call is remarkably gentle. What do we do? John gives tepid requirements indeed—share with those who have no coat or food, don’t collect too much tax or extort money, be satisfied with your wages. Really? That’s it? That’s it, John says. Share. Don’t coerce. Be content. Small as they may seem, these are specifically economic priorities that would indeed turn the world upside down—John’s and ours.
Try them. Go ahead. And you’ll soon find yourself rejoicing and sorrowing, with enemies as powerful as John’s and friends as powerful as God and God’s beloved poor. Rejoice! For the king of the world is a poor infant, and before him the idols fall and shatter.
[ December 20 ]
‘God Has a Mom’
Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:46b-55; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45
TOO MANY GREAT texts for one day! The Magnificat may have inspired more song than any other song in history. And Archbishop Rowan Williams calls Luke 1:39-45, the Visitation, a “conspiracy of hope.” Two women visit one another for comfort and joy. Neither is good for what the world says women are good for: having babies. One is too young, the other too old. And yet here they are, a preteen and a matriarch in the maternity ward. And no man was necessary for this. Here at the greatest meeting of all time, two women counted worthless in most cultures have their wombs honored not by any man’s presence, but by God’s. Martin Luther called this text a justification for infant baptism! That seems silly. Until you realize it’s not near as silly as a God who gets born.
And so scripture breaks into song. So should we. Micah does—you, Bethlehem, are not the least, for the greatest ruler will be born in you. Mary sings too—a song of victory, more suited to a conquering general than an unmarried Jewish teenager from the sticks facing an unintended pregnancy. Hebrews sings too—sacrifices, religion, these are not required now, but “a body you have prepared for me,” God says (Hebrew 10:5).
A body! You have to have a mom for one of those. And the most significant, distinctive, saving thing we Christians can say about God is this: God has a mom. No one should escape church today without that world-bending thought permanently lodged in their minds. Now, all who have a mom have a permanent claim on us. To have a mom, to be a body, is to need food, shelter, medicine, warmth, love. We have vast amounts of work to do. But we do it knowing that God has already come into the world as a helpless little one. So we can all dance like a foolish teenager or a pregnant grandmother as we take care of others’ bodies and give thanks that they take can care of ours too. The king is here. He’s God too. And he’s cooing from the manger at you.
[ December 27 ]
Losing and Finding
1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26; Psalm 148; Colossians 3:12-17; Luke 2:41-52
IT TAKES REAL saints to be in church the Sunday after Christmas. On such a “low” Sunday, the preacher’s not even here, usually. The throng of visitors is gone. Spirits may be low. The presents are opened, the guests are away—even most of the regulars are—and the ones there are planning the diet they’ll promise on Jan. 1 and break Jan. 2.
Joseph and Mary are missing someone important too. But they don’t recognize it for a while. Imagine the terror. Most parents have lost sight of their child for a few minutes. They lost theirs for days. And he’s the hope of the world. Lost because of them.
Maybe they should have put him in something bright to wear, something that would keep him from being able to hide. These texts have a lot of suggestions about clothes: Samuel wears a linen ephod as he ministers in the temple. It’s lovingly made by Hannah, the previously barren one who gave her child to God, who gets to see him once a year, give him a spectacular present and go home. Colossians suggests that we be clothed with kindness, compassion, humility, and especially with love. Maybe if Jesus had been clothed in bright neon or orange or Bono’s laser-emitting coat, they wouldn’t have lost him.
Oh—but they would have. We’re always losing sight of God. Even when he’s the long-promised one, when we’re told by an angel and a miraculous pregnancy that he’s God himself, when animals and kings and priests bear witness. Even then we lose him. And we’re out of our minds with grief and fear before we find him.
And then the nerve—imagine!—Jesus sasses his mom (I take this from my old parishioner Stephanie Allen, an experienced mom herself). I simply cannot imagine a tone other than a teenager’s eye-roll as he says, “Did you not know that I must be here?” Luke even tells us as much, since later Jesus was “obedient to them” (2:51). Yes, God, we lose you all the time. God, couldn’t you be a little more obvious and easy to spot?
The answer is no, God cannot. God’s way “is so unassuming in the world,” as Karl Barth put it. He’s hidden even among us, poor and few as we are on a day like today, sinners that we are every day. Ponder this, and stand amazed.
“Preaching the Word,” Sojourners’ online resource for sermon preparation and Bible study, is available at sojo.net/ptw.