What is Advent? Part 4

What is Advent? Part 4

“We all long for Eden, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most human, is still soaked with the sense of exile.” –J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien

In our past posts in this series, we examined Jewish expectations around the coming Messiah in order to better understand Advent. We also included an Advent poem by Rowan Williams, and a meditation on the meaning of Advent by our friend Brice Johnson.

Today, we will end our Advent series by seeing how God’s entrance into Creation as Jesus Christ fulfilled not only the messianic expectations of Israel, but also the deepest longings and needs of every human heart. In this way, we will understand how Advent allows us to use Israel’s Story to better understand Our Story.

Human beings confront a loneliness so strong that it is best described as alienation. We all experience a melancholic, sometimes searing estrangement from our work, our families, our social circles, and even ourselves. Often, this sense of alienation is the ground note that hums beneath the rest of our lives. We drown out that note by surrounding ourselves with the din of daily activities, noisy career achievements and personal triumphs, or the background chatter of the Internet and television. But when we allow for a moment of quiet, we hear the ground note’s continued hum. Its presence disturbs our rest and alerts us to deep spiritual longing within us.

The Germans have a word for this feeling of bound-up alienation and longing that cannot be summed up easily in English—Sehnsucht. Sehnsucht is a word that describes something deeper than nostalgia. Nostalgia describes your sentimental attachment to the house you grew up in as a child. But Sehnsucht is the longing that recognizes that even if you reacquired the house you grew up in, you would still be unsatisfied, for what you long for is not actually the house, but your idealized memory of a home, a memory more perfect than the actual home you possessed.  Your longing is for something you never really had.

It is Sehnsucht that explains our persistent alienation. We long for something that we can barely express, and which we can never satisfy.

The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard believed that all our alienations—all manifestations of Sehnsuchtderive from the fundamental alienation of the individual from Absolute Being, or God. God is not simply the Supreme Being in the Universe. Rather, God is Absolute, the ground of being, Being Itself, upon whom the Universe and the possibility of existence rests. To be alienated from the Creator God who revealed Himself to Israel as Yahweh (“I AM THAT I AM”) is not just to be “breaking God’s Law,” but to be fundamentally out of step with the nature of ultimate Reality. It is our alienation from God that is responsible for our Sehnsucht.

Accordingly, Kierkegaard held that it is only contact with the Divine that will truly satisfy our existential longing. The longing for something we never had points to our longing for God.

We attempt to quiet this longing with our marriages, our children, our careers, or our wealth. But the whole point of Sehnsucht is that the fulfillment of these lesser longings will inevitably disappoint us. The marriage may be good, the children may be well-behaved, the career may prove worthwhile, and we may be prosperous in retirement, but it, IT, the rich meat and marrow of life, the center of love, the brightness of light, the thing we were really after all along, somehow continues to escape us.

And that frustrates us. We are even more frustrated because we cannot even articulate the reason for our frustration. We reach up grasping wildly for whatever we can take from the world, but the indescribable thing itself we were really reaching for slips through our fingers.

Christianity tells us that our longing for God can never actually be consummated, at least not on our own terms. No amount of philosophic contemplation, spiritual mantras, or ascetic purification can elevate us to contact the Divine by our own merits. No, in order to actually touch the Divine and satisfy our deepest longing, the Divine would have to somehow reach down and touch us. Bizarrely—perhaps even stupidly, to outside observers—we Christians believe that this is exactly what happened. God so loved the world that Heaven came down to Earth, and the infinite united to the finite when Jesus Christ was born, so that through Jesus’ life and work God could finally touch humankind.

It is God’s action, not our own, that brings final satisfaction. In Christ, the thing itself we were longing for but could never grasp took on flesh as an offering for humankind.

Advent is a time when Christians put a name to our Sehnsucht. The ground note humming disconcertingly reveals our need for God. In His providential ordering of history, God entered Creation as a first-century Jew, so that we may use the language of Israel’s exile to help us understand our feeling of alienation from God’s presence, and to help us understand the meaning of Christ’s Coming. It is because of our alienation from God that we remain alienated to one another, and cannot treat one another justly, and forever pollute God’s holy purposes with our own petty, selfish ambitions. It is because of our alienation from God that every good and desirable fruit turns to ashes in our mouths.

By breaking into history in flesh and blood, God offers us a way out of this alienation, and into reconciliation. Reconciliation is not cheap or easy—it costs God, as we find at the Cross, and it costs us, as we find ourselves invited by the Spirit to share in the wounded life of Christ. But in this reconciliation, we find the fulfillment of every embarrassing, fantastical human longing: to escape time and death, to know love without parting, to communicate with non-human beings, and to see evil defeated forever.

Perhaps, some may say, these longings reveal the fundamental childishness and immaturity of Christianity. It is nothing more than a fairy-tale, a balm for suffering, a beautiful Story that is too good to be true. I have to admit that in darker moods, I entertain that possibility. But in Advent, we Christians face up to the hold these foolish longings have on our hearts, and declare triumphantly—maybe even defiantly—that they will be and have been met in Jesus Christ.

And so, we involve ourselves for a season deeply in the Story of Jesus’ First Coming to understand our complete reliance on the action of God to make us whole and to heal our spiritual aches. By doing so, like little children, we learn to eagerly await and anticipate His Coming Again, when He will consummate the deepest longing of our hearts.

Come, thou long expected Jesus

Born to set they 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.

Come Thou Long Expected Jesus, words by Charles Wesley

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What is Advent? Part 3

What is Advent? Part 3

Last time, we talked about Advent in the context of first-century Jews awaiting a national Deliverer. This time, we will talk about Advent from the perspective of the priestly class, who were waiting for God to return to His Holy Temple.

To set the stage, consider Ezekiel 10-11. God has declared His judgment over Judah—because Judah has failed to keep God’s commands, like her rebellious sister Israel, she too will be conquered and sent into captivity. Then God’s glory, in vivid imagery, vertically takes-off from the Temple, and departs from Jerusalem. But God leaves the prophet with a promise. In Ezekiel 43, God promises that there will come a day when His people will repent of their idolatry, and He will return to His Temple, and dwell with His people forever.

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah report the return of the Jewish exiles to Jerusalem. But importantly, even after the Temple is rebuilt, there remains a dark, gloomy sense that God’s glory has still not returned to His Temple. For one thing, if God’s glory had returned, His people should no longer be under foreign occupation. For another, the prophets repeatedly speak of God’s promise to return, clearly implying that He has not returned yet. See Malachi 3:1.

In response, the Pharisees embarked on a program of social reform and fastidious ritual observance, hoping that devoted acts of self-purification would prompt God’s return. The Pharisees saw any collaboration with the Greeks or Romans as treasonous, an act of disloyalty and idolatry that would delay the return of God. The priests, Pharisees, and scribes longed for the return of God, because they believed that this would re-launch God’s project of ruling the world through Israel as a kingdom of priests.

With the arrival of Jesus, God truly did return to His people, and through the gift of the Spirit, He now dwells forever within the hearts of His people. As Jesus said in the Gospel of John, His body is the new Temple, and all those who participate in His life are joined to His body. We who believe are grafted into Israel, and truly become God’s kingdom of priests. But God’s return in Christ toppled the Jewish priestly class from their positions of self-righteous authority, and subverted their expectation of an Israelite empire that would rule the world.

There is a warning for us here. We may be as religiously intense as the Pharisees—following all the rules, condemning all the “right” people, and truly longing for the Second Coming of Our Savior. But unless we pay careful attention to Jesus, unless we submit every ounce of ourselves to His Lordship, we are at risk of distorting the One whose Coming we so eagerly await. It will not do to make the King of the Universe the personal assistant to our own smaller, petty ambitions and worldly desires. Jesus is not the magic name we invoke to receive a million-dollar house, or a jump up the career ladder, or the affections of an attractive woman. Jesus is not an Angry Zeus, who comes to smite our enemies with thunderbolts, and vindicate us as the only right, “good” people.

God will provide, and God will judge, but we must be careful to avoid the mistake of the priestly class, who trusted in their own righteousness and lost sight of the sovereign mercy of the God who invites sinners to His Table. An encounter with the real Jesus will leave us gasping at the scope of the Mission of the Kingdom of God, and eager to forsake worldly pleasure in order to participate in God’s Renewal of Creation. An encounter with the real Jesus will leave our hearts broken for the world, and willing to enter into pain to help spread God’s saving love. An encounter with the real Jesus reveals the muck and dross that still spoils our hearts, and helps us recognize that only the fire of His love can heal us.

Christians confess that “Jesus is Lord,” and we believe that the Spirit is knitting the hearts of Christ’s Church into a Temple for the Living God. But it is hard to believe that when we continue to see the selfishness, corruption, and idolatry that still plague the people of God, let alone the rest of the world. Advent reminds us that we are dependent on God’s action, not our own, to change this state of affairs. We wait patiently, faithfully, expectantly—but still, we wait. Like the apostles of the early church, we pray, “Maranatha!” Yes, Lord Jesus, come!

 

What is Advent? Part 2

What is Advent? Part 2

Last time, we talked about Advent in the context of the Church Calendar. This time, we will talk about Advent from the perspective of the first-century Jews, who were waiting for a Deliverer.

History is written by the victors. We learn of the Pilgrims founding settlements of liberty in the New World, of William the Conqueror establishing the English throne in 1066, and of Rome bringing order and civilization to the dark, barbarian world. Less prominently studied are the Pequot and Wampanoag tribes isolated and extinguished through American colonial expansion, or the various Saxon kingdoms plundered by William’s Norman armies, or the salted destruction of cities that dared resist Rome’s supremacy. Even less visible are accounts of the tribal wars before the colonists arrived, or the Saxon conquest of the Britons before William conquered, or the Etruscan desolation of Greek colonies in Italy before Rome rose. History is a never-ending cycle of violence, of dominance, subjugation, revenge, and death—but the victors are able to cast themselves as heroes. They create noble myths that elevate their nation and empire, while hiding the ugly violence that is the foundation of it all.

How interesting, then, that the Hebrew Scriptures tell the story of a people who are perpetually victimized. Ancient Israel was a nation of nomads and slaves, a nation consistently conquered by her bigger, more powerful neighbors. Even when Israel was at the height of her glory, under Solomon, she was merely a pale shadow of Assyria, a poor man’s copy of Egypt. And Israel’s God not only seemed indifferent to Israel’s imperial ambitions—at times, He seemed actively opposed to them. He reluctantly assented to Israel’s desire for a king. He opposed a Census that would enable Israel’s rulers to count its fighting strength. He even ordered that Israel refrain from building chariots or stables, which prevented the creation of horse-mounted cavalry—the jets and tanks of the ancient world.

And then, a people who began their national life as slaves liberated from Egypt found themselves living their worst nightmare when they were conquered and brought into slavery again. First the northern nation of Israel was conquered by Assyria, and scattered across the world. Next the southern nation of Judah was conquered by Babylon, and the Jewish people were sent as captives to that city. Eventually, some Jews were allowed to return to their homeland, but they were a sad remnant of a remnant of a proud people who believed themselves chosen by God. Even after their return, they remained under foreign occupation and frequently suffered national humiliation. After the Babylonians came the Persians, and after the Persians the Greeks, and after the Greeks the Romans. The Jews longed for God to raise up a Deliverer who would reestablish the throne of David.

It is in this context that we must understand Mary’s “Revolutionary Carol.” Consider Mary’s triumphant song in Luke 1. Here is a poor Jewish maiden, whose people have labored under Roman occupation and foreign humiliation. She has been promised that her son is the long-expected Messianic king who will liberate her people. Finally, justice for the poor! Finally, redemption for Israel!

46             My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

-Luke 1:46-55

With the arrival of Jesus, God fulfilled His promise to lift up the lowly, and bring down the powerful from their thrones. Through the Cross, He forged a new foundation for human civilization, one not based on the violence of brother against brother, but based on the co-suffering love of Christ for a world that hated Him. Through the Resurrection, we are given a promise that the Love of Christ will triumph, and that even if our radical acts of service lead to our deaths by the powers of this world, on the Last Day we will be raised as more than conquerors. Through the Spirit, we are given the patience to endure trials and hardships until the end, when God will complete the project launched in Christ and Reconcile All Things to Himself.

But until then, we wait. We wait in a world where we declare Jesus’ reign defiantly, even as the dark powers of the world continue to wreak havoc on God’s good Creation, and even as death continues to claim the ones we love dearest. We wait, longing for the Return of the King who will put a final end to death, and disease, and war, and all the strifes of this present age. We wait, like Mary, trusting in God’s promise that He will help His servants in remembrance of His mercy, and that God’s mercy is from generation to generation.

What is Advent? Part 1

What is Advent? Part 1

Traditionally, Advent has been understood as the first season of the Church’s new year, according to the Church Calendar.  Before we talk about Advent specifically, it may be helpful to consider the Church Calendar first.

The Church Calendar is an invitation to center the seasons of our lives on the seasons of Christ’s life. It is not commanded by Scripture—but it can form us into a people who see the world through biblical eyes by involving us deeply in Scripture. By patterning our lives on the key events of Jesus’ life, the Church Calendar allows us to contemplate the mysteries of the Incarnation of God, Epiphany, Jesus’ baptism and Kingdom Ministry, His “setting His face like flint toward Jerusalem” following His Transfiguration, His heralded entry into Jerusalem, His Last Supper, Crucifixion, Death and Burial, Resurrection, Ascension, and finally the sending of His Spirit upon His Church in Pentecost.

The trouble for those of us raised in liturgical traditions is that we too often approach observance of the Calendar as yet another empty ritual, devoid of meaning or sense. As so many liturgies remind us, unless the Lord opens our lips, our mouths cannot declare His Praise. Without the enlightening, inflaming work of the Spirit, observance of the Calendar is useless. Dead eyes, dead hands, and dead hearts cannot bring Christ’s Story to life. But through the Spirit, our hearts can be lit afire with love and desire for all the things of God, including a deep yearning to know who Jesus is, not just at an abstract intellectual level, but in a deep, personal, existential way.

The beauty of the Calendar is that once the Spirit fills our hearts with love, we don’t simply wrestle intellectually with the meaning of the events of Christ’s life—we become so deeply wrapped up in Christ’s Story, so involved in God’s reconciliation project, that we share and experience the events of Christ’s life. In Christmas, we rejoice that God has punched into our corrupted reality, enslaved by dark powers, to set us free, and we are overcome with awe that He has done so in the form of a little baby born in a humble manger. In Lent, we share Christ’s sufferings as He stares down the road that will lead Him to the Cross, knowing that where He was able to overcome every temptation, apart from Him we are helpless before the idols that continually tempt our hearts. In Easter, we triumphantly claim a share in Christ’s Resurrection, confident that neither death nor life, neither angels nor principalities, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Which brings us back to Advent, the first season of the Church’s new year. Advent is all about longing—the longing of zealous Jews for liberation from exile and foreign domination, the longing of poor peasants for a Davidic King who will bring good news to the poor, and the longing of the priests for the return of God to His Holy Temple. All of those longings are subversively fulfilled in an unexpected way, through the Incarnation of God, and we celebrate that amazing reality in Christmas.

But until Christmas comes, we wait. And by waiting, we share in the longing of Israel for priestly and kingly liberation. In this way, we come to more deeply understand our longing as the Church for Christ’s Second Coming, where He will Consummate the Kingdom and finally Reconcile All Things to Himself.

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.

-Come Thou Long Expected Jesus, Words by Charles Wesley

God Saves

“But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and  you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Matthew 1:20-21

Before we can rejoice over the birth of Jesus, we must recognize Him as savior. And to recognize him as savior means to put to light the sins of our own life. You see, the birth of Jesus is most compelling for the sinner! John Piper puts it like this, “Before Christmas can be a delight, it must first be an indictment.” Do we need Jesus this advent?

The word of God says

  • All have sinned and fell short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23)
  • Our hearts are deceitful and desperately sick (Jeremiah 17:9)
  • Our hearts are a wellspring of evil (Mark 7:21-23)
  • No one is righteous, “not even one” (Romans 3:10)
  • We are children of God’s wrath (Ephesians 2:3)
  • We are slaves to sin (Romans 6:16-17)
  • We are spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1)

What an indictment! And most of us walk around with the guilt that we are not perfect looming over us. We are constantly reminded of our imperfections and the evil deep within our hearts. If people only knew our lusts and addictions and neediness… What great shame we experience when settling on these thoughts! We find ourselves screaming the words of Paul, “Wretched man that I am! Who will save me from this body of death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25). The Word of God does not leave us to ourselves. The name “Jesus” literally means “God saves”. While we were yet sinners, God had mercy on us and gave us His son! What a gospel we have heard!

The practice of recognizing our own depravity is essential in celebrating the birth of Jesus. When we are ill, we must diagnose ourselves properly in order to treat our condition. Christmas is the celebration of the birth of a savior whom we are desperate for. Do you need Jesus this advent? Our prayer is that you might see and savor Jesus Christ as savior. Amen.

A People Prepared

16 “And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17 and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”   Luke 1:16-17 (ESV)

A word that has increasingly caught my attention over the past several weeks is the word “advent”. It means the arrival of a notable figure, thing, or event. In Christian jargon, it is the time set apart (usually the weeks leading up to christmas) for meditation and preparation for Christmas. Advent. In latin it literally says “ad-venire” or to come. Advent. I thought about how for months we have been repeating at our large group meetings that we are a “church between two advents”- how we are a kingdom in exile awaiting the return of our king! Advent.

And like a freight train it hit me- Jesus is coming.

This thought immediately evoked in me fear. Jesus is coming! The King of Kings, Lord of Lords, divine ruler and just judge of all creation is coming. I felt overwhelmingly unprepared. I still do.

Thank God for advent. We believe it is God’s purpose for us during the coming days to prepare our hearts and minds for His arrival. Isn’t that the essence of the entire christian life? To constantly be preparing for the day we meet our Lord? For His coming? I would like to contend then that Advent is not just a seasonal tradition to be remembered, but a lifelong practice to be exercised by the Christian.

As we are a part of so many discussions and debates in our community (culture vs. christianity, traditional vs. contemporary, older generation vs. second generation), we want to implore the 1F community to look to Jesus. He is our namesake. He is who we must submit ourselves under. And what better time to look to Jesus than Christmas! Over the course of the next few days our prayer is that through the word of God, the Spirit would prepare our hearts for the coming of our Lord. That we would not merely be consumers and “rememberers” of the Word, but worshippers in spirit and in truth. That when Jesus comes, we will recognize Him for who He really is.

Jesus is coming soon, and may He find a people ready and prepared.