In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
Today is the last Sunday of Advent – the last Sunday before Christmas. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, the last day of Advent. Over the past four weeks, we’ve been considering Advent and what it means as we anticipate Christmas.
By way of review, we’ve explored Advent mostly from the point of view of promise and kingdom. Firstly, we noted that the world is not as it was meant to be – not as God had created it to be. Sin is pervasive in our lives and in this world. But the promise of God is that the way things are is not the way things have to be. Further, the way things are is not the way we will be. The promise of Jesus Christ is that God’s kingdom is victorious.
A second element that we looked at was the ways in which God’s judgement comes especially to those who call themselves God’s people – that is, the church. In particular, we considered that inasmuch as God’s people fail to actually proclaim God’s kingdom (instead, for example, a religious system or establishment), then we are not living up to our calling – which is to proclaim the promise of God’s kingdom.
And last week, we looked at how God’s people are prone to miss the point the point of the kingdom. That the arrival of God’s kingdom is not about us, for example, getting what we want or think we deserve (because, for example, we knew Jesus before He was cool). But that it’s about the establishment of peace, mercy, and justice. And because that, in part, is what the kingdom is about, that is what we are called to proclaim as the promise of God.
Today we wrap up our Advent series for 2018. Reflecting on today’s passage reminds me that we live in the in-between time. It begins with a statement (a reminder) of the promise by which Israel is a people of the promise:
2 “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times.”
It’s a reminder that the king is coming, “one who will be ruler over Israel.” Remembering our Old Testament story, Israel is chosen and formed to be a blessing to the world – the means through which God will fulfill his redemptive purposes for the world. And the king of Israel is coming.
3 Therefore Israel will be abandoned
until the time when she who is in labor bears a son,
and the rest of his brothers return
to join the Israelites.
Until the time of the coming of the king, when the nation of Israel is restored, Israel will be abandoned. Another way to say that might be that until the king comes to establish his kingdom, Israel will – in some sense, though not completely, as we see throughout scripture – be subject to the kingdoms of this world.
Do you ever wonder what the world would be like, what life would be like, if there were no God? I realize that a lot of people believe that and already live as it that were true but, from the perspective of a Christian, I wonder what that would look like.
I think that one of the main characteristics of a world without God would be each person doing their best to live life in their own best interests. This is easy to picture when we think about things like finances or power. Every person would try to accumulate as much for themselves as possible. This could be because each person wants to have as much as possible; but it could equally be to keep others from having it. Fear and ambition become primary motivators for action.
Now one could argue that there’s no particular reason for not simply being happy with what one has (i.e. why wouldn’t we simply be happy with what we have?). But how would we even know what happy is? I suspect that ‘happy’ would be little more than getting something we didn’t have (or more of something we do have) and the feeling of being safe from harm. I think in a world where there is no God, in which each person primarily pursues their own interests, the desire or drive or necessity of accumulation becomes the primary expression of that.
In this circumstance, other people are essentially means to an end. Community becomes a matter of what group of people best benefits you. We would gather with other people so that we can have more than we could on our own and because there’s safety in numbers. Because, for each person, our community is inherently an extension of myself, anyone outside of my community would inherently be seen as a threat, or viewed with suspicion.
By the same token, from a converse point of view – the view of the community – each individual is essentially a possession of the community. One’s value or position is entirely determined by what they contribute. And the value of the contribution is determined by how it adds to safety, possession, or pleasure. And even pleasure is determined, often, by how it adds to or distracts from our other concerns.
The story of Scripture tells us that this is precisely where we find ourselves (told much more eloquently and completely). It tells us that a world without God – where we are our own gods – is precisely what humankind tried to do and continues to try to do.
The Bible also tells us, and I believe, that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, all this has changed. That the very nature of reality – the purpose for living and the meaning of life – has changed. It tells us that Jesus Christ makes it possible for us to live a life that’s not just about getting more and getting by. And that we’re able to live that life, not just as some kind of willful delusion, but as the only true life that can actually be lived. And that Jesus Christ, the author of life, will one day make the true life the only life.
But we live in the in-between time. We live in a time where we know the true life is a reality and is coming. We know a time is coming when every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord of all. But we also know that not everyone knows or recognizes this now. And that many are still living as if there is no God and as if the only god that matters is the one that I make up for myself – a reflection, an extension of myself.
And even though we know, sometimes we forget. Or sometimes we don’t know as well as we can or should that there is only one king and the king is coming. So we get caught up or distracted and live as if the king isn’t coming – or worse, as if there’s no king. And living for myself starts sounding pretty good. And it sounds pretty good until we realize that everyone else is doing the same thing. And when everyone is living only for themselves – when there are billions of little gods all throughout the world, each striving to be the only god, we realize quickly that this is not the way the world was meant to be.
And so, when we feel like we’re trapped in this world, when we feel like there’s no escape, and when we feel like there’s no hope, Jesus reminds us that we live according to the promise.
4 He will stand and shepherd his flock
in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they will live securely, for then his greatness
will reach to the ends of the earth.
5 And he will be our peace
when the Assyrians invade our land
and march through our fortresses.
We will raise against them seven shepherds,
even eight commanders,
So What Now…?
The promise of God and the hope of all history is that the King is coming. And with the coming of the King, there will be peace on earth and goodwill towards all people. There will be no more tears, no more sorrow, and no more mourning. The day is coming when who you are will no longer be defined by what you can produce or what you can accomplish. The day is coming when we no longer have to worry about how much you have or what you lack. When we no longer have to worry about who’s coming to take from us and instead we will be willing and eager to share in our abundance. The day is coming when we will know how to love and be loved without fear or apprehension. And when all the world will know that there is only one king.
Until then, we live as people of the king – as people of the kingdom. We live in anticipation of what will be – as if what will be true then matters even now. And we live in hope according to the promise that has been entrusted to us.