Posted: 27 Nov 2018 02:10 PM PST
I confess that I have been unreasonably impatient to get Thanksgiving over and get on to Advent and Christmas. (I readily admit that one of my ongoing sins is a lack of patience.) The ancient words from the close of the Holy Scriptures have settled into my being. “The one who bears witness to these things says, ‘Yes, I’m coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20)
Sober reflection makes me face the reality that Jolynn and I are on the “every other year plan.” That is, the kids, kids-in-law, and grandkids come to visit for Christmas and/or Thanksgiving every other year. This year, we will be together here in Fort Worth for Christmas, and I can’t wait. The joy, excitement and preparation of Advent entices me forward with eager anticipation.
All this happens for me (and for us collectively) amid the chaos of our times – the shootings, fires, hurricanes, vexations and rampant uncertainty. I need Advent. (I confess that watching the news last night I got so upset at the trials and tribulations of immigrants fleeing violence around the word that Jolynn almost turned the TV off. She said if I didn’t calm down, I’d have a heart attack from high blood pressure right on the couch. In my defense, I can’t help but remember that the baby Jesus was part of an immigrant family fleeing violence.] I need time to catch my breath, think and pray about that which has happened and once again is about to happen. It is in the tumult of my being that the better side of me as a pastor and professing Christian pauses to behold in awe and wonder what is unfolding.
Like most of us, including those who are at best nominally Christian and even many who would profess not to be believers, I turn to the hymns and carols of the season. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” (No. 211 The United Methodist Hymnal) often is at the top of my Advent list of carols. The beauty of music sweeps over me bringing calm and the much-needed quiet and reflection. Behind the beauty of the melody are words of profound doctrinal depth and great spiritual power.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lowly exile here until the son of God appear.”
(Number 211: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” Verse 1, The United Methodist Hymnal)
A theology of sin and salvation begs to be offered by the faithful preacher at Advent. We are those in captive to sin. We so often and so easily find ourselves in exile from God. The exile is of our causing and our choosing. We are captive to sin, coming as it often does, in a myriad of forms – greed, indifference to suffering, pride, addiction to drugs, worship violence and adoration of false gods. Most of all we are captive to our mistaken self-rule. We fail to submit to Jesus Christ as Lord and king of our lives.
The First Sunday in Advent’s (December 2nd) Old Testament Lesson comes from Jeremiah 33:14-16. The passage is full of hope. “The time is coming, declares the LORD, when I will fulfill my gracious promise with the people of Israel and Judah. In those days and at that time, I will raise up a righteous branch from David’s line, who will do what is just and right in the land. In those days, Judah will be saved, and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is what he will be called: The LORD Is Our Righteousness.” (Jeremiah 33:14-16, CEB)
But wait! The hope is predicated on understanding the time and context which Jeremiah is living through. It is easy to forget that Jeremiah is written to a people in exile, a people suffering, a time of intense, devastating tragedy and deep struggle for survival. Jeremiah prophesies (speaks for God!) to people who have been deeply disobedient to the Lord. The prophet’s own life is symbolic of what is happening to the people. “He is arrested, imprisoned, and left in a cistern to die, narrowly escaping with his life. Like his companions, he loses everything, but he survives. He buys a plot of land to symbolize the renewal of life that will come.” (Kathleen M. O’Connor, Introduction to Jeremiah in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, NRSV, p. 1051)
Doctrinally the passage calls us to face, unflinchingly, issues of faithfulness and obedience in hard times and in suffering. There is no cheap grace found here; no rosy prescription but love God and be good. It is a call to repentance and faithfulness in the midst of chaos and change. I need Advent. I need to be reminded that this call is for me.
The great theological doctrine of sin cannot be fluffed up or skipped over if we are to move through Advent to the birth of a Savior. We are a people in bondage; often a bondage of our own making.
O come, thou Root of Jesse’s tree, an ensign of thy people be;
before thee rulers silent fall; all people on thy mercy call.”
(Number 211: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” Verse 4, The United Methodist Hymnal)
Significantly the lectionary New Testament lesson for the First Sunday in Advent links Luke 21:25-36 to Jeremiah. “There will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars. On the earth, there will be dismay among nations in their confusion over the roaring of the sea and surging waves. The planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken, causing people to faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world. Then they will see the Human One coming on a cloud with power and great splendor. Now when these things begin to happen, stand up straight and raise your heads, because your redemption is near.” (Luke 21:25-28, CEB)
Rescue comes then and now in the person of God in human flesh. “Redemption is drawing near.” It does come from human improvement and scientific progress (though both of those are good things and rightly to be sought). It comes from God. With all the dramas of superheroes parading through movie theaters, I remember a cartoon which appeared in Christian Century at least a quarter of a century ago. It showed a picture of Superman in his cape and trimming. The caption read something like this. “There is a man sent from God to save us. This is not that man.”
In the text for the First Sunday in Advent, we are introduced to a doctrine of salvation. To be redeemed means to be bought back from captivity. It involves freedom, but not freedom for selfish anarchy. We are set free for service to the Lord who comes and reigns (rules!) over us. As the Bible puts it, “Christ has set us free for freedom. Therefore, stand firm and don’t submit to the bondage of slavery again.” (Galatians 5:1)
As we step into Advent, I challenge us to inhale not just the songs but to grapple with the words of faith and deep doctrines of the church, that is the historic teachings of the Church. In this first Sunday embrace the opportunity to wrestle with the doctrines of sin and salvation. The two go together like Jeremiah and Luke in the Lectionary.
C. S. Lewis once challenge a group of Anglican priests and youth workers in a speech with the question, “Have I stood firm super monstratas vias) amid all these “winds of doctrine?” He went on to challenge them and us. “Our upbringing and the whole atmosphere of the world we live in make it certain that our main temptation will be that of yielding to winds of doctrine, not that of ignoring them. We are not at all likely to be hidebound; we are very likely to be the slaves of fashion.” I like the way my friend and co-worker Julian Hobdy puts it. “Freedom without boundaries is anarchy.”
Lewis continued, “The standard of permanent Christianity must be kept clear in our minds, and it is against that standard that we must test all contemporary thought. In fact, we must at all costs not move with the times. We serve One who said, ‘Heaven and Earth shall move with the times, but my words shall not move with the times.’” (C. S. Lewis, “Christian Apologetics,” an address to Anglican Priests and youth leaders delivered in 1945, https://virtueonline.org/christian-apologetics-cs-lewis-1945 )