Advent: Resurrection, Restoration, New Creation

The first advent season, we must imagine, was longer than four weeks. Probably, the season of waiting for Joseph was more like four months, or five. How long would it take before Mary knew she was pregnant? How long before Joseph was told–or noticed?

The first Advent was the waiting-out of a pregnancy. Waiting for the advent of the child that was mysteriously formed.

The beginning of the first Advent was not the announcement to Mary, or to Joseph, by the angel. It was the work of the Holy Spirit.

Our understanding of the work of the Spirit is often so personalized and internalized that we don’t stop to think about an actual physical form being created, taken, sparked to life, by this manifestation of God.

Spirit is what broods over the surface of the deep before the deep is beaten back and life brought forth out of chaos.

Spirit is what goes forth from God in the valley of dry bones, showing Ezekiel that the bones, in fact can live–showing Ezekiel that “dead” Israel can, in fact, be restored to newness of life.

Spirit is what comes upon Mary to bring Israel’s extended exile to an end in the creation of new life, new humanity, new Israel, in the man Jesus.

Spirit is what comes upon Mary to bring to fulfillment the promise God spoke to a people living in fear of the dominion of an opposing king: God has not left you, God has not forsaken you–behold! a virgin shall conceive and bear a son!

Advent is the formation of new life, a calling into being out of nothing, it is a calling into being of a new Israel; it is the promise of life for those who are dead.

Creation begins anew. Israel’s story will be fulfilled.

In righteous Joseph’s season of Advent is recapitulated Israel’s season of Exile. Only now, Israel’s valley of dry bones has already been breathed upon by the Spirit of the Lord, the wind has blown in the womb of the virgin, and the day of Salvation has begun to dawn.

The Stories of Jesus and Paul

Why write a book on Paul for Jesus people? Here’s the quick and dirty:

Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?

Advent and the End of Exile

Matthew begins his narrative with quite the gripping tale. If it takes well-meaning, would-be readers of the Old Testament several weeks before they get mired in seemingly jumbled laws and endless genealogies, it takes their New Testament counterparts all of ten seconds.

Jesus is the son of David, the son of Abraham–and we get 20+ generations of genealogy to prove it.

But entailed in this genealogy is a story: a story of God’s promises. God has promised a king from the line of David, and God has promised a full restoration of the people–an end to the age of exile.

There was an age of Abraham; there was an age of David; and there was an age of exile (Matthew 1:17). But now the age of the messiah is dawning.

What God had promised to Israel is coming to fruition in Christ. What exile was supposed to do, but didn’t, will now be realized.

“You will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21, CEB).

Of course, this is what the prophet had long ago declared, but which had not yet been realized:

Comfort, comfort my people!
says your God.
Speak compassionately to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her that her
compulsory service has ended,
that her penalty has been paid,
that she has received
from the LORD ’s hand
double for all her sins! (Isa 40:1-2, CEB)

The exile was insufficient to pay for the people’s sins. So not only did the exile endure, so did the sins which were its cause.

Advent is the beginning of the end, the beginning of the age of the Messiah, the beginning of the restoration from exile.

Israel’s story is coming to its culmination.

Or, if you prefer the words of hymnody:

O come, o come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here–
until the son of God appear.

Advent Love

If there’s one thing that everyone seems to agree about, it’s that ethics are rooted in love.

At a party this weekend at my parents’ house, I had a chance to talk with a man who is a self-described “seeker.” He loves to study religions, all religions. He loves Eastern and Western. He has seen that people in any tradition (and with no religious tradition) can be “good.”

We all know how to love, right?

Well, yes and no.

Love is a malleable category. To take one less-than-serious example, we used to joke in my college fellowship group that we were doing something “in Christian love,” when we were being a jerk about something. The truth behind the joke was that all too often we used “Christian love” as a thin veneer for not loving our neighbor as ourself.

Back to reality: our definitions of love are given their substance by the stories in which they are embedded. Family histories create tremendously powerful understandings of what love looks like–for both good and ill.

And, as Christians, we confess a story about Jesus that gives specific shape to the command to love one another.

Advent, and its remembrance of “love,” provides a black-and-white picture of what will come in full color on Good Friday.

Love in the Christian story is laying down our own life so that another might live. It is setting aside our own glory so that it might accrue to another.

“Remember the Lord Jesus Christ,” Paul admonishes, “that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor so that you, through his poverty, might become rich.”

To love as a Christian depends on two things.

One, it depends on the confidence that if we lay down our life, God is able to give it back again. The call to Christian love only makes sense in a story that resolves in resurrection. Otherwise, it is mere martyrdom.

Two, it depends on an unshakable conviction that the economy of the kingdom of God is an economy of abundance. It is an economy that brings forth riches out of poverty.

Of course, this is just another way of saying we believe in the God who gives life from the dead. But it’s a life from the dead, a something from nothing, that impinges also on the present. See, it’s not merely that our riches make other people rich, or Jesus’ riches that make us rich. On the contrary, it is through Jesus’ poverty that we are made rich, partakers of God’s heavenly inheritance.

Christian love is Advent love because it is Good Friday love. It is love that moves the story of God to its successful climax.

It is the story of the self-giving God who becomes the self-giving Christ so that all those who are Christs might live and reign with him forever.

On Separating Church and State

For all the ways that our country has moved toward separating church and state, one of the remaining points at which the two are bound is marriage.

Churches marry people in the name of the state. They are therefore bound to marry only those whom the state approves to be married.

This, of course, has some ramifications for the question of homosexual marriage (do ministers have to marry gay couples if their states allow it? must they not if their states forbid it?). But its ramifications reach further. For example, it leaves the church without a way to marry illegal immigrants.

Image: Sharron Goodyear / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I had a student whose ministry was in the Latino/a community. This entails ministering among undocumented residents.

So what do you do when a couple starts dating and wants to get married?

The state says they can’t. They don’t have the documents to get a marriage license. Must this couple choose to either not get married and thus remain apart or to give up on their conviction that joining of themselves in every way, including sexually, is to be reserved for marriage?

We have lived so long with pastors saying, “.. and through the power vested in me by the State of _____…” that we don’t even realize how weird that is.

Can you imagine Jesus performing a wedding and saying, “through the power invested in me by Caesar Augustus and his Governor Pontius Pilate…”?

My point is not to say that pastors should definitely marry people in either of the two situations above, my point is that the church should be free to make its decision in the sight of God irrespective of the rites one is allowed to perform in the sight of Uncle Sam.

The church can do one of three things here. It can continue to serve as the state’s emissary and thereby bind itself to marry only within the confines of secular law rather than the conscience of its people.

It can keep doing it, but attempt to raise up a change in state law so that civil ceremonies are for the state’s purposes and church weddings are for God’s purposes. (This is the way it worked in Holland when my grandparents got married: one set of paperwork and vows for the state, the other in the church.)

Or, pastors could just stop marrying people on the state’s behalf. Really. You can do this. Tell the couple that you maintain your religious freedom, in part, by not allowing the state to dictate whom you can and cannot join. The state is free to agree or disagree as it will, and Christian people are free, and encouraged, to join that debate as a state issue. But you, as a pastor, are free to perform a religious wedding ceremony that carries no civil approval or disapproval with it.

We don’t have to wait for the state(s) to separate itself from our work as the people of the church. We can say, “No, thank you” to the state’s offer to allow us to function as its proxy.

We can put asunder what the state has strangely joined.

Not Quite the New Moses

In John 6, Jesus feeds the 5,000. In the wilderness. What could this possibly mean?

The people seem to know: When the people saw that he had done a miraculous sign, they said, “This is truly the prophet who is coming into the world” (John 6:14, CEB).

“The prophet,” the prophet promised in Deut 18:15: “God will raise up a prophet like me,” says Moses. And YHWH agrees: “I’ll raise up a prophet for them… just like you” (Deut 18:18, CEB).

And what else are we to think of one who fed so many in the wilderness? Well, Jesus has a surprise in store. The people begin:

“Our ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, just as it is written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat.”

Jesus told them, “I assure you, it wasn’t Moses who gave the bread from heaven to you, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. The bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

They said, “Sir, give us this bread all the time!”

Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life…” (John 6:31-35, CEB)

Do you see what happens here? The people are pushing the notion that they are the desert people, and Jesus the new Moses who will feed them in the wilderness and even become their king. In fact, after they say, “This is truly the prophet!” Jesus has to withdraw to keep them from making him king.

Jesus is transforming their expectations. Yes, the Messiah, but no, not like that.

So if not the prophet like Moses, who? Or better, what?

Jesus reworks the story in two ways.

First: it wasn’t Moses who gave bread in the wilderness, but the Father. If you see food in the wilderness and think that you’re in the presence of the new Moses, you’ve mistaken the work of God for the work of a human.

God gave the bread in the wilderness.

But then, in another surprise move, tells them that the point of the bread was not that he was Moses, nor that he was even the sender in Heaven. Instead, Jesus is what the Sender has sent:

I am the bread of life.

Jesus is the bread sent by the Father into the wilderness. The feeding here does not say, “Behold, the prophet like Moses,” but, “Behold, the true bread of life that has come down into the world.”

Not the sending Father, not the leading Moses, not the sent mannah, but the Sent Son.”

Here is God’s provision for eternal life, the true bread that the Father has sent into the world. Not Moses, but the eternal Mannah.

“What is it?” the people asked in the OT, and so they called it “Mannah.” What is it? the people are asking in the wilderness, and Jesus tells them, “It is I, the bread of life, sent from heaven so that you might live.”

Spiritual Floundering in Seminary

The Duke Chronicle ran an article this past week on the struggles of Divinity School students. I confess, When I saw the title, “Students Flounder at Divinity School,” I was expecting something about the academic challenges being faced afresh by so many students who had pastoral ministry, rather than academics, as their vocation.

But I was wrong. (See? You didn’t think I could ever admit to such a thing–but there it is!)

The article was about the students’ perception that they were withering up spiritually. Their souls are being sucked dry by the intense academic environment that does not provide nourishment for the whole person.

I have a couple of responses to this, and would love to hear your take as well.

First, I have a great deal of sympathy for the students. I have known, far too often, the disappointment from experiencing a void in pastoral leadership in my own life. I can very much relate to the sense that I need more direction and pastoral care than I am receiving.

The students are right to be aware of this dynamic and it is good that they recognize the needs they have that aren’t being met. These feelings of not having spiritual needs met can create a great deal of frustration in a seminary environment where, if anything, there seems to be a plethora of wise, godly persons with pastoral inklings all around–none of whom are serving as your pastor.

My second, thought, however, is this: if you are going to be a pastor, you are embarking on a lifetime in which nobody is going to pastor you.

For the rest of your life, it will be your responsibility to find wise mentors to pastor and challenge you; for the rest of your life, and spiritual accountability and encouragement you receive from a peer group will come only from any group of your own making.

Is it good for div school students and pastors to be alone? No. And that is why, as a preparation for a lifetime of ministry, I encourage all such students and pastors to go out of your way to create the relationships you need for long term spiritual health.

It may very well be that the school should be doing a bit more for you than it currently is. But if this is the case, the best course of action you can take is probably not a campaign to change the system of the school, but one to change the relational systems in your own life so that they start helping prop you up for a lifetime of ministry that will otherwise likely unfold without anyone being in charge of pastoring you.

Telling the story of the story-bound God