In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent. It’s that period of time, marked by the four Sundays prior to Easter, where the church anticipates the coming of Christ. And we anticipate Jesus’ second coming by remembering his first coming – as a baby in a manger.
And in anticipation, there is also preparation. We can understand something about that. Whenever you have a house guest, you’re going to prepare by cleaning the house, doing some grocery shopping, maybe planning some fun activities that you can do together. If you’re anticipating a vacation, you prepare by choosing what to pack, maybe getting travel insurance, looking over or planning your itinerary. There’s lots of examples – generally the more important the thing you’re anticipating, the more you’re going to prepare. What we are anticipating is the coming, the second coming, of Jesus. We are anticipating the coming of the King. And we are anticipating the fullness of the kingdom that Jesus will bring. So we prepare.
Christmas is a strange time of year. I don’t mean that it’s inherently strange or necessarily strange. I simply mean that it’s strange – to me – because it’s a time of dichotomy. On the one hand, most of us feel pretty good at this time of year. Christmas is a season of peace on earth and goodwill toward humankind. It’s a time for family and friends, and it’s a time for love.
On the other hand, Christmas is also a time of stress. There’s expectations: of the kind that comes from all the work and preparations that come with celebrating; and there’s also the kind of expectations of how we’re supposed to feel about Christmas – and we simply don’t. So there’s the kind of stress that comes from knowing that we’re supposed to feel peace and joy and love – and we just don’t feel that way. So Christmas is hard for many of us. Many of us are probably aware that this time of year, depression and anxiety can hit people particularly hard.
A particularly vivid example of this dichotomy took place during WWI. According to the website for Veterans Affairs Canada, the following events unfolded:
The First World War had been raging on for only four months. The weather that December was cold and wet. Many of the trenches were continually flooded, soldiers were covered in mud and exposed to frostbite and trench foot that seemed impossible to get rid of. They were dreading having to spend Christmas away from their families. Then something incredible happened on December 24, 1914. Soldiers from both sides put down their weapons, stepped out of their trenches and enemy really did meet enemy between the trenches. For a short time, there was peace.
There were many truces along the Western Front that Christmas, but the truce was not total. Shelling and firing continued in some parts and there were deaths on Christmas Day. Some of the truces had been arranged on Christmas Eve while others were arranged on Christmas Day. There were even arrangements which included a ruling as to when the truce would end. Along many parts of the Front Line, the truce was brought about by the arrival of miniature Christmas trees in the German trenches. Jovial voices could be heard calling out from both friendly and enemy trenches, followed by requests not to fire, then shadows of soldiers could be seen gathering in no man’s land, laughing, joking and exchanging gifts. Amongst the joy, there was sadness to the truce as both sides used this opportunity to seek out the bodies of their dead comrades and give them a decent burial.
The Christmas Truce of 1914 was not a unique occasion in military history. It was a return of a long established tradition. It is common in conflicts with close quarters and prolonged periods of fighting for informal truces and generous gestures to take place between enemies. Similar events have occurred in other conflicts throughout history–and they continue to occur.
This event somehow illustrates the dichotomy of Christmas. The picture of the truce itself is, in a way, amazing. It’s amazing because in the midst of war, opposing factions (enemies) paused in their fighting because they acknowledged that this day, of all days, there should be peace on earth and goodwill towards one another.
But what makes this image amazing to me is that it happens in the midst of war. In other words, the peace is only amazing, the brotherhood is only significant, because immediately before and immediately after, these same people were trying to kill each other. It’s as if, in the midst of all this killing, there was a recognition that this (the killing) is not the way it was meant to be. The pause was, in some way (at least to my understanding), a recognition that something was wrong with the way things had been going. Something was out of joint with the world.
It’s pretty hard to ignore the fact that the world is out of joint. I think you have to be pretty committed to covering your eyes to miss the fact that all over the world, people are hurting. There’s something wrong with the fact that some people are committed to eliminating an entire population because of their ethnic or religious backgrounds. There’s something wrong with the fact that hundreds of millions of people around the world don’t have enough food to eat. There’s something wrong with the world that women and children are still sold into slavery. And that many others, though we may not call them slaves per se, are trapped into their social and economic positions by systems which claim freedom and equality, but are so skewed towards the rich and powerful that true freedom is impossible. And there’s something wrong with the fact that many of us, myself included, most of the time don’t know and don’t care.
Scripture tells us, quite directly, that this is not the way things are supposed to be. It tells us that this is not what we were made for or meant for. And it tells us that God sees our brokenness, our woundedness, and our sinfulness and has not and will not abandon us to our fates.
As we’ve done in previous years, we are following the lectionary readings and we’re following the Revised Common Lectionary. Just FYI, that we are using the Revised Common Lectionary as opposed to other available lectionaries is entirely arbitrary. Having said that, the Revised Common Lectionary shares a certain ecumenical usage, so it’s handy that way.
The book of Jeremiah records the prophecies of the prophet by the same name to the nation of Judah during the end of the rule of Assyria and the beginning of the Babylonian empire. In short, the people of God are still in exile.
We have been working through the Old Testament but there is quite a lot to go before we reach Jeremiah. And the prophets can be difficult to read if we don’t understand that the word of God to the prophets is rooted in history – rooted in the story. Here’s what we’ve seen so far:
In Genesis, we see that God’s good creation is broken because of the sin of human beings. In response, God chooses the family of Abraham and He tells Abraham that He will bless Abraham’s family so that they can be a blessing. In other words, this family, this people will be the means through which God will demonstrate and work out His redemptive purposes for creation.
In Exodus, we see God delivering Abraham’s people from slavery in Egypt through Moses. God brings them to the desert and gives them the law, the means through which He will form them as a people set apart. In other words, what makes this people unique among all other peoples on the earth is that they are chosen by God to have a special relationship with Him, and thus a special role in God’s work of redemption.
This is where we are in the story so far (with apologies to Leviticus – which can be seen as a part of the whole giving of the Law/making a people part of the story). What we have yet to see is Israel taking possession of the land that God has given them and trying to live out what it means to be a people. After that is the history of the nation, particularly kingship – and there’s a lot to discover about, I think, trying to make our own kingdom instead of allowing God to be king.
I don’t want to get too off-track – there’s much to be said about the history of Israel and how they got to where they are – but, in short, there’s a sense among the people of, “God, why haven’t we seen the promises that we were supposed to receive?” Or, more simply, “God, why aren’t things better?”
I think this is why Christmas is hard for some of us. And I think that this has a lot to do with what Advent is about. Because, even as we look forward to Christmas, and even as we anticipate the second coming of Christ, the full inauguration of His kingdom, there is the recognition that something is broken with the world. That creation has cracked.
But the word of God is promise and it’s hope. And it’s not just a distant, illusory hope. It’s not just a hope that will be fulfilled – it’s a hope that is being fulfilled. Because, with respect to the Israelites in exile, we sit on the other side of the revelation of Jesus Christ. The Israelites were waiting for the time when the Messiah would be revealed. They were waiting for the time when His kingdom would be established and when Israel would take their true place as the chosen people of God.
In Jesus, though it was not how anyone expected, the promise was fulfilled and it is fulfilled. And it is being fulfilled. Our circumstances have changed – the king sits on His throne and the powers of sin and death no longer have true power. We no longer have to follow the ways of the world and live according to its rules. Jesus Christ has made a better way – the true way, and the only way to life.
And when He comes again, with the fullness of His kingdom, sin and death will be completely done away with. All the things that are wrong with the world will be made right in Christ. All the woundedness will be healed and the brokenness redeemed.
So What Now…?
Until then, we wait. And not only do we wait, but we anticipate. The difference (in my head) between waiting and anticipating is that the one is passage and the other is participatory. In waiting, we kill time. But in anticipation, we prepare. In waiting, we merely try to get by. But in anticipation, we proclaim and we participate in the future kingdom as it has been made real in our lives today. We participate in the hope and peace and justice that is found in Jesus Christ. Because in how we live today, we have the opportunity to proclaim the future glory of the kingdom of God. In our lives today, we can declare that we are a people of promise.
So, as Christmas rapidly approaches, and as we worship together these next four Sundays – and in the in-between days – know that, even in the busy-ness and chaos of the season, I hope we don’t lose sight of why the season matters. And I invite all of us together to proclaim in the brokenness of the world, that God is coming; the Lord our righteous saviour, is coming.