Tag Archives: Advent

“Joy to the World”

Long time readers of my blogservations about the world will know that Joy to the World is one of the two approved Christmas carols.

It is a song that celebrates the arrival of the great king that the earth has needed, and lacked, since almost the very beginning. God creates humanity to rule the world on God’s behalf, and the remainder of the story unfolds the quest to find the king who will faithfully discharge this duty.

The advent of the king is not simply about the loyalty of human hearts—though it is about this in part: “let every heart prepare him room.”

The advent of the king is also about the entirety of the cosmos being restored to order. Not only human hearts, but also “heaven and nature sing.”

This holistic reign of the king we receive is nowhere captured with as much force and brevity as we sing in the words, “No more let sins and sorrows grow, or thorns infest the ground. He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.”

And, this song was not written for Christmas.

The song was originally penned as a song celebrating the anticipated second Advent, a looking forward to the return of the King who had once been born, died, risen, and ascended.

And this is precisely why it is the perfect Christmas song.

Our time of “waiting,” has not been, even through the season of “Advent,” a time of waiting for Christmas per se. Christmas happened two thousand years ago. But in that time of waiting for the arrival, we are reminded that the Christian life is always, at least in part, a looking forward to the time when the reign of Christ will be fulfilled.

God has placed all things in subjection under his feet, we confess alongside the church throughout the ages. And yet, Paul hastens to add (1 Cor 15), we do not yet see all things subjected to him.

We await the coming of the king. We await the time when every ear is wiped away, when the cursed ground produces abundance rather than thorns, when the cosmos is set in harmony from the dirt below to the heavens above and everything in between.

We live between the times. Christmas tells us that the reign of God has begun. The king is here.

And yet, the full restoration of the people of God, and the full restoration of the cosmos still awaits its consummation.

Joy the world is magnificent because, singing it at Christmas, we celebrate the reign that is rightfully that of the newborn king. It forces that vision of the glorious future for which we still long and wait back into our present, showing us what should be breaking through even now.

And, with such a vision of glory, we are driven back to the prayer we have prayed with the church for the past four weeks of Advent, the prayer for the Advent yet to come: “Come quickly, Lord Jesus.”

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.

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.

Peace

“When Jesus said, ‘Love your enemy,’ he probably meant don’t kill them.”

The bumper sticker puts things starkly. It undermines political pretensions to go to war in the name of Jesus.

But the question circles back around: to what extent can a Christian ethic such as, “Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you,” and “Do not be angry–much less kill!” guide a nation?

And yet, the question comes around again: is God’s plan for his beloved world simply that the various persons who may or may not be killing each other, biting and devouring one another, have “peace in their hearts,” or does the Prince of Peace intend to make peace known, truly, far as the curse is found?

We cannot escape the cosmic vision of peace that scripture holds out as creation’s future. Nor can we escape our calling to make that future a present reality.

The danger of the annual advent cycle through peace in my corner of the world is that we will look to inner peace as something on offer and, to a certain extent, attainable through the gospel. Turning our eyes to the world around we will see peace as an impossibility short of the second Advent, and so we will leave our musings on peace without being moved to participate in the peace- bringing mission of God.

Nation states will never be pacifist. They cannot be. They must operate in protection of their citizens, wielding the power of the sword when appropriate.

And this is why our commitment to peace is also a commitment to a power that is greater than the nation-state and is not confined to its channels. The great king over all kings has a different way to be at work, a different vision for how to establish peace–the reconciling work of self-giving love has conquered hostility between humanity and God, between God’s marked-out people and those beyond its pale.

And this power of peace is the power of the Spirit who empowers us to be at peace with one another and with all people, being not only peaceable but peacemaking people.

As we light our candles and celebrate the peace that we have already laid hold of, on this second Sunday of Advent, we should also find ourselves summoned to a peace that is the good work people might see and thereby glorify our Father in heaven.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.

Advent Reflections

Tomorrow, Advent begins.

We all love Advent. The kids, especially.

I can get into the candles and their themes, their light shining in our darkness. And, most of all, I can appreciate the way that a period of focused preparation makes the Christmas celebration itself much more rich. It is only on rare occasion that I can jump into something cold and fully appreciate everything that’s going on.

But I often worry that Advent carries with it an under-realized eschatology.

To put it differently: I worry that we too often slip into the language of “preparing for the arrival of the Christ child” rather than either preparing ourselves to celebrate the arrival that already happened or preparing for the future advent for which we actually await.

Frankly, my kids find Advent confusing. They know we’re celebrating Jesus, but the idea that we’re waiting for his birth too often takes center stage and so they go around shouting “Jesus is born!” as if it had actually just happened, as though the Messiah we’d been waiting for had finally come.

This underscores my ambivalence. Yes, it’s good to prepare ourselves for important celebrations. But in all the talk of “waiting” we too often slip into language that indicates a posture of waiting for the birth of the Messiah–something for which we are not waiting at all, and to say that we are is a denial of the good news itself.

And here, I know, we are dancing up along a line that marks off one boundary that will ever keep me from being Roman Catholic: I don’t find the cycle of a recurring church year to be as fruitful a way of making sense of the Christian story as recognizing where we are in the linear unfolding that awaits its final consummation.

I frankly wish we spent less time thinking about preparing ourselves for the first coming and more time crying out for the realization of the second. “Come quickly, Lord Jesus,” is the prayer of the church that knows itself living between the first and second Advents, it is the prayer of the church that confesses the world to stand under the reign of Jesus but still need to see that reign consummated far as the curse is found.

Maybe this is why I find that “Joy the world” is one of two carols worth singing at Christmas: because it was written to be a hymn of Christ’s return, not of his birth.

So what am I saying?

Yes, please, celebrate Advent. Yes, please, prepare your heart and mind for Christmas. But also, watch your phraseology.

We do not await the coming Christ child, we await the Christ’s return.

We do not await the Messiah’s birth, though we might participate in the labor pains that will see Christ fully formed in us.

Simeon’s Prayer, Eyes of Faith

The season of Advent called us to look in two directions at once: transporting ourselves into the ancient story, we entered the season of waiting for the first advent of the Messiah. But our own waiting is layered on top of it: we, too, wait for the coming of the Messiah.

The song of Simeon invites a parallel double-exposure.

As so often in Luke, the righteous person is someone who is waiting earnestly for the coming work of God. And so Simeon, directed by the Spirit, is waiting-knowing, it seems, that his own eyes will see the promised salvation of God.

Taking hold of the child Jesus, he says:

    “ Now, master, let your servant go in peace according to your word,
    because my eyes have seen your salvation.
    You prepared this salvation in the presence of all peoples.
    It’s a light for revelation to the Gentiles
    and a glory for your people Israel. ” (CEB)

Reading this, I think of adding a sixth candle to the advent wreath. I think we need a “faith” candle to go along with hope, joy, love, peace, and Christ.

Here we have a declaration of the arrival of salvation, an affirmation that in seeing Christ the salvation of Israel has arrived and the light of the nations has shone.

And all that, even though Simeon will not live to see the saving work Jesus enacts. Even though he will not see the ends of the earth enlightened.

The paradox for Christians even after the death and enthronement of Christ is that we, too, confess that our eyes have seen the salvation of our God–even as we live in the midst of an unredeemed world. We are an “advent” people, living in faith that the Messiah who came will come again. And yet even in full knowledge that what we hope for is not yet, we sing, with Simeon, in faith: “My eyes have seen your salvation, prepared in the presence of all people–on display for all with eyes to see, for all with eyes of faith.”

Behold the Incarnate God

Christmas marks one of the great mysteries of the Christian faith. Here we proclaim that God became flesh and dwelt among us. Though John has no birth narrative, his insight into the preexistence of Jesus adds a layer of depth to the stories of annunciation and birth we have surveyed this week.

The Christ child is not merely the Davidic king, not merely the son of Joseph, not merely new creation, but the Divine King, the preexistent son of God, God incarnate.

Here begins the humility that will reach its nadir in the humiliation of the cross. Here we begin to see that to love as God loves is to set aside power and embrace powerlessness; to give as God gives is to eschew paternalism and give ourselves.

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given and his name shall be called wonderful counselor, mighty God, the everlasting father, the prince of peace.

Happy incarnation day!

Ok, ok… Merry Christmas!

Luke’s Birth Christology: New Creation

What are we to make of the virgin birth in Luke? I’ve been pondering this quite a bit as I’ve wrestled with the question of the Gospels’ Christology. How do they understand the identity of Jesus, and what do these stories add?

For many of us, the text at first blush seems to obviously point toward some sort of divinity Christology: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the most high will overshadow you, therefore also that holy begotten one shall be called ‘son of God.”

There are numerous points of contact with other texts in Luke’s Gospel. One of those has to do with Jesus’ own later prediction of the coming Holy Spirit: “Stay in Jerusalem, until you are clothed with power from on high.” There’s a coming of the Spirit upon people that Mary seems to be the first-fruit of.

There is also the later baptism scene, where the Holy Spirit comes upon Jesus and the voice from heaven says, “You are my son, in you I am well pleased.”

There is a connection between possession of the Spirit and being a Son of God. And here my mind is drawn back to the narratives of Saul and David. Being king meant having the Spirit as an abiding presence, “Which I will not take away from you as I took away from Saul.” The Spirit signified Davidic kinship.

Later in Luke, especially at Jesus’ trial, we see the connection made explicit: Christ and Messiah are equivalent to son of God.

But might there be more here as well? I do think so.

When Luke gives his genealogy, he is concerned not merely with the story of Israel, but with the story of Israel as it is the story of humanity as a whole. He takes Jesus’ genealogy back to Adam, “the son of God.”

Adam was created in “the image and likeness of God,” we’re told in Genesis 1 and Genesis 5. Luke seems to read this as “sonship” language, perhaps because Genesis 5 also tells us that Adam had Seth in his own image and likeness. Adam was the first son of God–and if Genesis 1 and 2 are any indications, it may be that the spirit-breath of God is the signifier of this connection.

Jesus, as son of God, is Davidic king and new Adam. What was in the beginning is newly being restored. The disorder of the world with its tyrants in place is being undone by the imposition not only of a new David, but a second Adam, who will, as the first, rule the world on God’s behalf.

The virgin conceives, and from the womb there is one anointed by the Spirit for a task–he must fulfill the role of humanity, must be The Man that Adam, David, and Israel were to have been. Salvation is come for the ends of the earth.