Advent 1: God’s Hopeful Story
This is a season of the year in which many of us find ourselves teetering between nostalgia and cynicism. We feel the tug of Christmas past. At the grocery store the other day I was encouraged by the muzak to “have myself merry little Christmas”, but the only way to do that, the song said, was to evoke the “olden days, happy golden days of yore.” “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know.” Just like the ones I used to know, those are the operative words. I too get a little misty-eyed when some of those old Christmas tree decorations go up that carry so many fond memories, so much emotional freight. It’s a time of gladness, remembering, and good family traditions.
But for many of us here today, it may be a painful nostalgia at best or a biting cynicism at worst. Beloved friends and family members are gone, or families themselves are split apart by divorce, or lingering problems and deep worries remain that don’t easily give way to the holly jollies of the season. And we hear deep in our hearts a note of ambivalence, if not downright cynicism.
Advent is here! Advent is the church’s unique and important penitential season before Christmas. What is so very important about it is that it delivers us from both our nostalgia and our cynicism. Advent is not about nostalgia. It seems like it, I know. There are all those songs about waiting for the Messiah. “O come, O come Immanuel, and ransom captive Israel.” When we sing those words in the glow of Christmas lights we have the idea that we are singing about the coming of the baby Jesus. It’s as though we were pretending to be first century Jews still waiting for the Messiah.
But we’re not. Listen to some more verses:
O come, O key of David, come
And open wide our heavenly home.
Make safe for us the heavenward road
and bar the way to death’s abode.
O come, O King of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind
Bid all our sad divisions cease
And be yourself our King of peace.
You see, it’s not the baby Jesus we’re waiting for, but the Son of Man coming on the clouds of glory. We are not first century Jews, but God’s people in the year 2000, waiting and hoping for the final redemption of the world.
Advent isn’t about the past, it’s about the future; it’s not about nostalgia and its twin sister cynicism, it’s about hope. Not the easy shallow hope of the Christmas cards, but the deep down, inextinguishable hope that shines through the darkness of this present age to the glory that awaits us. It’s a hope that shines in the dark.
The first three gospels all report that near the end of his life on this earth Jesus talked about the future. It has a dark and foreboding texture to it. These are not our favorite Sunday readings, and they seem oddly out of place. We didn’t read the part of the passage, but this is the way Jesus starts out. “When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”” (21: 5,6) He’s talking about the temple, of course, but there’s a chilling tone to his words that could be applied across the board. “As for these things that you see”–this building, those cars, this city, the whole marvelous technologically brilliant scheme of things, it will all be thrown down. Not one stone will be left upon another, not one processor will be intact, not one fiber-optic cable network will be in place.
According to Jesus, this world, and the whole scheme of things on which we build our everyday lives, are not solid and lasting. They are ephemeral and fragile. His message is this: if you build your hopes and dreams on the bricks and bytes of this world you’re bound to be disappointed. It won’t last.
Deep down we know that. Eight months ago there was talk that this new economy had arrived. It was going to break the boom and bust business cycles of the past. Now there could be sustained growth, carefully steered by Alan Greenspan and the Federal Reserve and built on the never-ending need for new technology. Sounded good. But here we are in December, tightening our seatbelts, hoping for a soft landing.
After Jesus foresees the stones of the temple scattered on the ground (which actually happened within a generation), Jesus seems to reach out beyond the years into the coming millennia of history. Using that dramatic apocalyptic language familiar to his hearers, Jesus says, “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.” (21:25,26)
Catch the words Jesus uses: distress, confusion, fainting, fear, and foreboding. Sounds like the latest installment in the LaHaye / Jenkins “Left Behind” novel series. But you don’t have to be a dispensationalist to grasp Jesus’ tone. Just listen to the social scientists, environmentalists, AIDS researchers, and the swarm of journalists and commentators, that popularize their warnings. They are advising us every day that the earth’s fragile ecosystems are collapsing; that AIDS is claiming a whole generation in Africa, and threatens to do so in parts of Asia; that global warming may bring rising seas, virulent climate changes, and who knows what other unknown side-effects. And as these things begin to proliferate the overstressed social fabric will begin to pop like rivets on the Titanic.* You can hear the whispers of fainting, fear, and foreboding in the air.
You see why we can’t just skip over Luke 21 on our way to Christmas? This is Advent language. It’s is a hard-hitting reminder that our world is as shaky now as Jesus spoke about it 2000 years ago.
But is this all of the message for the first Sunday of Advent in the year 2000, that things are bad out there? It’s part of it, but certainly not all of it. “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (21:28)
The message of Advent is not just that everything is falling to pieces. We probably don’t need Jesus to tell us that. And the message is certainly not that God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world. The message of Advent is that when the earth is in upheaval, and every fixed star on the compass is wavering, when all hell is breaking loose, “Lift up your heads, your redemption is drawing near.”
According to Jesus, history is not just the predicable outcome of present trends. If that were the case, we should be overcome with despair. It’s not our projections; it’s God’s promises that sound like a trumpet call to raise our heads in hope.
On my vacation a few weeks ago I read a couple of novels. One was a forgettable mystery (that’s for the airplane), the other was “Disobedience” a fine meditation on marriage and family by Jane Hamilton. Some people seem to prefer non-fiction to fiction, but not me. They think that since novels are fiction, or “untrue”, they’re just an escape from reality. Somehow I don’t think that one can read a really good novel like Moby Dick or The Brothers Karamazov or Disobedience for that matter as a refuge from reality. I feel more that I have taken a journey into the depths of reality, not somehow escaped from it.
I’ve always thought that writing a good novel is one of the greatest things a person could aspire to do. There’s a godlike quality to it.* To me, anyone can gather and interpret facts and footnotes (apologies to the academic writers among us). But what a great thing it is to create a world of meaning which is what every really great novel does. Any great novel, any serious story is an effort to make sense out of an absurd world. That is, perhaps, why so many of the great western storytellers are Christians. They can tell a story because they believe in a meaningful universe. A great story isn’t just a meaningless conglomeration of characters and details. It’s a collection of the details and events of people’s lives in which we gradually come to see deep connections and overriding meanings.
In the sixth grade at West Side Christian School in Grand Rapids, I learned that history is “His-story”. Years later I cynically laughed at that simplistic understanding of human history. But like many of the things I that used to think were naïve and simplistic, I have come to see the truth in it. Ultimately human history, the history of the universe is God’s story.
That doesn’t mean that he controls everything that happens. There is such a thing as human freedom. I’ve heard interviews with novelists who have said things like, “this character just came along and began to assert herself into the story and go her own way.” That doesn’t mean the novelist was the slave of some imaginary character. It means that the character had his or her own reality and freedom. Still it is ultimately the novelist who makes sense out of the characters, out of their nobility or foolishness. It’s the novelist who brings meaning out of the threads of narrative, the twists and turns of the plot. At the end of a good novel we don’t say, “how absurd”, but “I see now, it all hangs together.”
It’s not that we as Christians will somehow be exempt from the struggles and tragedies of this disintegrating world. Craig Barnes says that Christians aren’t saved from a blessed thing in this world. Jesus doesn’t save us from grief or heartache or injustice. These are the kinds of things we better learn to expect. On any given day we may find ourselves in the middle of some nightmare of tragedy or loss, of betrayal or pain. It’s like being in the middle of the story, and we don’t know how it’s going to come out in the end. But the Bible assures that this world and its seemingly senseless events are ultimately God’s story.
When the Bible says, “All things must work together for good to those that love God and are called according to his purpose.” and “Nothing in all creation shall be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” that has to mean that ultimately this world is God’s world and history is God’s story. Somehow, out of the seemingly senseless, tragic absurdities of life in this world, God is writing his story of redemption. And this is not just a vague and groundless hope; it is written into the pages of human history itself. When we least expected it, God’s love came into this hopeless world in a way the world could never predict or foresee–a baby born in a stable. And then at the very center of God’s story is the biggest tragedy and absurdity of them all, the cross. But in God’s plot, even the cross is swallowed up into God’s story of redemption. Advent hope is the capacity to carry on our lives in the confidence that this story, and all the little personal stories of our lives, is being fashioned by a merciful and omnipotent God into the ultimate story, a story in which finally there are no dangling absurdities, no unresolved tragedies.
“Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” In the middle of a seemingly hopeless world, as the plot thickens and the absurdities mount, we know who’s writing the final chapter. We know who’s coming to bring his Kingdom of peace and joy, the very same one who has been here to bear our struggles and sins. “Then we will see the son of Man coming in a cloud with great power and glory.” (21: 27)
So, here at the beginning of Advent, we don’t just look for God back there in the distant past, we look for God out there in the future. God, who created this world in the beginning, is also bringing it to its triumphant end. God is working toward his goal. God is on the move, constantly active, constantly pressing forward to the time when his kingdom will come in all its fullness and his rule will be acknowledged by every creature. Our redemption is drawing near. This will be the end of the story of the rebellious creation, and the beginning of the story of the redeemed creation. And when that final chapter is revealed, all the tragic twists and turns of the plot of human history will be woven into a new tapestry of God’s kingdom of mercy and love.
So what do we do? Not spend our time in fear, wondering and calculating, but working and praying. God wants us to stand faithfully at our posts through all the ups and downs of human life, through all the fears and foreboding of the end time, working and worshipping, loving and serving, giving and building, and calling lost people to that shining hope we have in Christ.
We cannot deny that this passing age is filled with fear and foreboding. But we also trust that God is faithful to his promises, and that Christ’s future and ours are intertwined. Advent calls us to look up, confident and hopeful. In spite of whatever clouds we may see on the horizon of our immediate future, our redemption is drawing near, and God will bring us to see the promised face of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, whose nail-scarred hands will wipe away our tears. Then God’s story will be told and it will have a happy ending.
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