Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Come and Coming - Advent Meditation

(This is part of a set of daily Advent meditations I'll be posting. They're going up a day early so that you can use them, if you wish, for private reflection in this season of anticipation and preparation.)

The people walking in darkness
    have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
    a light has dawned.
You have enlarged the nation
    and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
    as people rejoice at the harvest,
as warriors rejoice
    when dividing the plunder.
For as in the day of Midian’s defeat,
    you have shattered
the yoke that burdens them,
    the bar across their shoulders,
    the rod of their oppressor.
Every warrior’s boot used in battle
    and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
    will be fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
    there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
    and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
    with justice and righteousness
    from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
    will accomplish this.
-Isaiah 9:2-7

This is, in abbreviated form, the mission statement of the Messiah according to these verses from Isaiah:
  1. Build up God's people and make their joy overflow, such that those moment of satisfation when the last of the harvest is in the barns or jubilation when the battle has been won characterize the whole of their lives. (Isaiah 9:3)
  2. Shatter the power of every oppressor, setting free the slave and downtrodden and destroying the power of those who would keep them under their thumb. (Isaiah 9:4)
  3. Put such an end to violence that our best use for soldiers' boots will be bonfires. (Isaiah 9:5)
  4. Be to us the revealer of God's awe-inspiring wisdom and righteousness, God Himself come heroically into our midst to deliver us, a tender Father who makes His subjects into His children, and the ruler of perfect peace. (Isaiah 9:6)
  5. Govern the nations and decide their disputes in perfect justice and righteousness, ending all that is wrong in the world and making its systems and structures sing together like the heavenly spheres. (Isaiah 9:7)
“Unto us a child has been born,” we say at Christmas. Yet this is not simply a birth announcement - to make that claim should include all of this.

Of course, this mission statement isn't yet completed. Throughout His ministry, Jesus encounters those who are impatient for the peace and justice to arrive. It is the subtext of His conversation with John's disciples in Luke 7. It is the cause of the disciples' impatient question in Matthew 24:3, “when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” It is probably part of why He got crucified – they wanted shattered yokes and burning boots, and they wanted them now. “Give us peace, or give us blood.”

Yet the simple fact that we are still waiting on the fullness of these promises doesn't mean they aren't a part of this season. Advent and Christmas have, properly speaking, always been about two things: Christ's incarnation and His return. His first and second comings, which as we have noted, we live between.

There are two mistakes you can make when you consider Christ's return. One is to treat it as so different from this age as to make the present essentially meaningless. This is the bunker-and-survival-rations mentality that sadly affects some Christians, leaving them to tremulously peer at newspapers and await the raptured drivers and bar code tattoos to come. This approach, this sense that nothing has changed or will change until Jesus returns, makes Christianity into a life raft we cling to until we escape. Which is quite simply nothing like the robust, life-affirming religion we find in Scripture.

Yet we can react to that mistake in problematic ways as well. The other mistake we can make is to treat Christ's return as largely superfluous. We're about His business in this age, and we fully expect that business to succeed. There is good that can be accomplished by such optimism, but also a great deal that is destructive. Every tyranny of this age has been grounded on a utopianism that says, “We don't need to wait for Jesus. We can make His perfect world ourselves.”

None of Isaiah's promises will be fulfilled in this age. Not fully. Jesus has come, though, which means that all of them are in the process of being fulfilled. Within the tension of those two truths, the already and the not yet, we learn how to live the Christian life.

Christianity should be a call to action. That picture of a world of peace and justice and love and worship should be the blueprint we seek to realize in our lives. Yet it is a call to restful action. It recognizes that blueprint will not be completed, not yet, but that our work is not in vain because Christ will return and that which we hope and work for now will on that day be fully realized. Jesus has come and Jesus is coming. It is only in believing both those truths that we can have the courage and the hope to live for Him.

Moonless darkness stands between.
Past, the Past, no more be seen!
But the Bethlehem-star may lead me
To the sight of Him Who freed me
From the self that I have been.
Make me pure, Lord: Thou art holy;
Make me meek, Lord: Thou wert lowly;
Now beginning, and alway:
Now begin, on Christmas day.
-Gerard Manley Hopkins, Moonless Darkness

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