Advent Week 2: The World Needs Advent

advent2We are currently in the middle of the Advent season.  This is what we do around here during the Advent season:  Pick an Advent-related topic and talk about it for four weeks.

Last week we asked the question which we will be coming around for the rest of the season:  Who needs Advent?  The short answer is that we all do.

As noted in the Greg Goebel piece I linked earlier this week, Advent takes us back in time to before the first coming of Christ and takes us through the whole story of the people of God all the way up to the coming of Christ, so that when it comes time to celebrate Christmas we can do so with the whole story in mind.

You see, the Christmas story does not begin where everybody thinks it does.  It does not begin with a couple trying to figure out how they got pregnant, but with a couple trying to figure out if they were ever going to get pregnant.  It does not begin with a couple trying to figure out where they would have their baby, but with a couple who was certain they would never have a baby.  It begins with a promise–a promise which made no sense whatsoever to the one who received it and for which there was no way it could possibly come true in the cultural context in which it was given.

This promise was given to a man named Abram, who would later be known as Abraham, who lived some 2,000 years before the birth of Christ.  His story is found in the book of Genesis, starting in chapter 12:

The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.

I will make you into a great nation
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”

When Abraham first heard this promise he had to have found it remarkably incoherent and nonsensical.  First of all, he had to have been thinking, “Great nation?  I would be happy just to be a great grandfather.”  In his day and age security came from family and tribe, much more so than it does today.  For him, leaving the only country and people he had ever known would have constituted a much more radical break than we can even begin to imagine in our day and age.  Finally, he lived in a day and age in which nations (and peoples) did not bless each other, they plundered each other and enslaved each other.  The idea that one day all nations and peoples on earth would be blessed, let alone through him, must surely have seemed unfathomable.  Yet there it was.

As we know, Abraham did not live to see any of what was promised come true, though he did have a son.  And that son had another son.  And that son had twelve sons.  And they ultimately grew into a nation, though they were a slave nation living in Egypt.  Anyone living in those days who heard this promise would have thought, “Great nation?  Hah!!!!!”  But in time, God raised up Moses as a deliverer.  The Israelites conquered Canaan and finally entered into the land that was their promised inheritance.  From there it was a rocky and messy ride as they grew from a loose federation of tribal states into a cohesive nation-state.  David, the warrior king, arose and in his time all of Israel’s enemies were subdued and their territory was enlarged to nearly the maximum of what was promised.  Solomon, the builder-king, was next, and his grandiose building projects raised the profile of Israel to heights heretofore unknown.  Kings and queens and leaders from all around the world were coming to see the splendor and hear Solomon’s wisdom.  Surely it must have seemed to anyone living then that everything God had promised was coming true.

But there were cracks in the foundation.  In Moses’ final charge to the Israelites before his death, recorded in the book of Deuteronomy, he foresaw that the Israelites would want a king and gave clear instructions on what sort of person that king was to be.  Solomon was the opposite of that.  His wealth led his heart astray while his grandiose building projects took a heavy toll on the people, and within days of his death the nation was divided, never to be reunited.

There were two kingdoms, a northern kingdom which retained the name Israel, and a southern kingdom which took the name Judah, after its preeminent tribe.  Judah, the southern kingdom, is where Jerusalem and the temple were located.  The northern kingdom had nothing but bad kings, and within a couple of centuries they were wiped out by the Assyrians.  The southern kingdom, Judah, fared only slightly better; they had a few good kings in the mix and managed to hang on for a couple of centuries longer until the Babylonians came and it was exile for seventy years.

The Persians conquered the Babylonians and allowed the surviving Israelites to return home and rebuild, though they would never again catch even a whiff of independence.  For the next several centuries they lived in a state of in-their-homeland-but-might-as-well-still-be-in-exile exile.  They recognized that it was their own sin, both individually and collectively in failing to keep the law given to them by Moses, that had gotten them into this state, and as a nation they buckled down and said “By God we’re going to finally get this Torah thing right even if it kills us!!!!!”  Somewhere along the line the Pharisees emerged as the vanguard of this effort.  The hope was that if Israel finally purified itself and got the Torah thing right, then the Messiah would come and deliver Israel from all her enemies so that God’s promises would be fulfilled.

Yet, as noted above, they would never again catch even a whiff of independence.  After the Persians came the Greeks, and after the Greeks came the Romans, and on an especially excruciating day in Israel’s history a Roman general named Pompey showed up at Jerusalem with his army, rode his horse right up onto the Temple mount, and entered the Temple.  Despite the Jewish priests’ insistence that he do no such thing–access to the Temple was forbidden for Gentiles except the outer courts–he went right in and went straight to the Holy of Holies, the innermost part of the Temple where the presence of God was believed to dwell.  No one was allowed to enter except the high priest, and that only once a year, with rope tied around his ankle so that in the event he was struck dead by the Lord his body could be dragged out without anyone else having to go in there to retrieve it.  The final indignity came just minutes later when Pompey emerged from the Holy of Holies, alive, unharmed, and unimpressed.

If you were living in that time and you remembered the promise which God made to Abraham, well, at least God got part of it right.  He had made Israel into a nation.  But what a nation.  Great nation?  Hah.  Rome is a great nation.  Greece was a great nation.  But Israel?  Not so much.  All peoples on earth will be blessed through you?  All peoples on earth have not even heard of us.  Funny, that.

Yet God was working behind the scenes, bringing this incredible story to pass on a stage as large as the whole world itself.  The story stretched all the way back to the time of Abraham and it continues even to this day, even though the thread is very difficult to see and at times appears to be lost altogether.  The story reaches its unexpected climax in Jesus Christ, whose coming we will celebrate in just a couple of weeks.

Greg Goebel: The War on Advent

Today I wish to direct your attention to a post by Greg Goebel entitled “The War on Advent“.  Goebel blogs at Anglican Pastor.

Every year at around this time of year, it seems that all of evangelicalism gets geeked up about the supposed War on Christmas.  The real war at this time of year, says Goebel, is not whether retail store clerks say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays”, but a crisis of misplaced priorities in our churches and homes.  In our observance of the Christmas season we jump right over Advent and go straight to the Christmas carols and decorations.  And though Advent is making something of a comeback in evangelicalism lately, in many places the emphasis is all wrong as those supposed Advent devotionals that are all over the place at Family and Lifeway are really Christmas devotionals in disguise.

Advent is a journey back in time to before the first coming of Christ.  Its themes are waiting and repentance, with a heavy focus on the Old Testament prophecies of the coming Messiah and the ministry of John the Baptist.  Advent takes us through the whole story of the people of God all the way up to the birth of Christ, so that when Christmas comes we have the whole story in mind.

It is human nature to want to lick all the icing off the cake before the birthday party even starts, to skip all the hard work of fasting and preparation, reflection and repentance, and go straight for the carols, decorations, gifts, eggnog and pumpkin-spice lattes.  But the season of Advent, as the Church has historically observed it, puts us in a mood of waiting and anticipation.  We do not celebrate Christmas prematurely like the rest of the world, even though we still go to all the Christmas parties and do all the Christmas shopping and enjoy all the Christmas lights and decorations.  Instead we are in a mood of waiting, reflecting and anticipating the coming of our long-promised savior Jesus Christ which we will celebrate on Christmas.  And when Christmas comes, we are ready to start celebrating Christmas–not all Christmas-ed out and wondering what the hell happened, like the rest of the world.

Read:  The War on Advent by Greg Goebel

Advent Week 1: Who Needs Advent?

starbucksIt’s that time of year again, time for all the Starbucks-haters to come flying out of the woodwork.

Starbucks came out with its holiday cups earlier this month:  a line-drawing montage of all different kinds of people on a green background.  Except that it was about a month early for the holiday cups, and the green background is not typical of Starbucks’ holiday cups.

Didn’t matter.  Conservatives and evangelicals took to Twitter to express their outrage–Starbucks was desecrating the Christmas season and using it to advance their fascist neo-liberal communist agenda.  Yawn.  Some people have WAY too much time on their hands.

But for now we will leave behind all the antics of the Starbucks-haters and others trying to push the so-called War on Christmas to the forefront of the public consciousness.  For now, and for the next four weeks, we will enter into a completely different universe.

Advent is the four weeks before Christmas.  More precisely, it is three full weeks plus whatever fraction of a week is needed to get us to Christmas.  If Christmas falls on a Sunday then Advent is four full weeks.

Advent is a season of darkness.  Not the special darkness of Lent, which results from the shadow of the Cross falling squarely across our path, but a more general, pervasive darkness, the darkness of a world in waiting for the coming of its long-promised Savior and Redeemer.  During this season, liturgical churches change the color and the decor and do some things differently.

So who needs Advent?  Why make such a big deal about it every year?  Why even talk about it?

Answer:  We all do.

Advent is not a Catholic thing or an Orthodox thing.  It is not for those godless liberal mainlines or those postmodern liturgy freaks or those overly highbrow, high-church types.

No, Advent is for all of us.  Advent is part of that broader, deeper, more ancient stream of Christian belief and practice which connects us with the countless generations of believers who have gone before us and served God faithfully long before we ever came on the scene.  Observing Advent does not tie us to the errors or unseemly aspects of other church traditions.  If we choose to ignore Advent, we do ourselves a huge disservice.

Advent is our time to be countercultural.  All around us the world is working itself into a frenzy of shopping, parties, decorations, gifts, travel, and all the other demands of the holiday season.  It all started on Black Friday and it will only grow even more insane as the weeks progress toward Christmas.  But this is our time to step back and say to the world, “Thanks but you can have all of that.  Our hope is in Christ whom we remember and expectantly await during this season.  We don’t need to chase after all the things you drive yourselves crazy chasing after.”  We do this by engaging in contemplation, spiritual practice, and simple works of love for our neighbors.

So who needs Advent?  Answer:  We all do.

Advent is not a time to say to the watching world, “You need a savior”, as if we already have a Savior and therefore do not need one.  Instead it is a time for us to say “We all need a Savior.”

That is the underlying theme of Advent:  We all need a Savior.

Advent is our time to reflect and remember the promises of God to send us a Savior.  To reflect upon the pervasive darkness and brokenness of our world and of ourselves.  To reflect upon the utter inability of our efforts to address this via religious striving and keeping up a strong outward impression of ourselves as holy people and people who have it all together.

The world is not divided into saved and unsaved people.  Instead the division is between those of us who are honest enough to acknowledge the obvious (that we all need a Savior), and those who attempt to ignore this, at their own peril.  Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”  (Mark 2:17).

Who needs Advent?  Answer:  We all do.

Evangelical Trump Supporters: Fix This

It is now almost two weeks since the election, and I am still trying to wrap my mind around the fact that 81 percent of you supported Donald Trump.

The easy way out would be to say that you are all hateful, bigoted racists.  But I don’t believe that at all.  At least I don’t want to.

I am sure you had your reasons for supporting Donald Trump.  I don’t understand them, but if I had lived your lives, if I had lived through what you have lived through and experienced what you have experienced, I would probably be able to understand or empathize.

In all honesty, this was a very difficult election–one of the worst we’ve ever had to live through.  Both candidates had very high unfavorables, and honestly I wish there was a way they both could have lost.  If the Republicans had nominated a candidate who was even remotely qualified to hold the office of president, Hillary would have been dead.  And if the Democrats had nominated someone who wasn’t a crook, he/she would have given Donald Trump the beatdown he oh so richly deserves.

In the end, we were left with a choice between the lesser of two evils, between the crook and the racist.

Whatever your reasons, you chose the racist.

Perhaps you were concerned about the attacks in Paris and Brussels this past year, concerned that lax immigration policies typically espoused by Democrats could lead to similar incidents here in America.

Perhaps you were concerned about the loss of American manufacturing jobs over the past few decades and the devastating impact that has had in certain parts of the country.

Perhaps you were concerned about the proliferation of government regulation which typically characterizes Democratic administrations, concerned about the impact on business and the economy.

Perhaps you were concerned about Hillary’s unwavering support of abortion.

Perhaps you were concerned about the Clinton scandals of the 90s and Hillary’s linkage with those scandals.  Perhaps you were concerned about Benghazi or the email thing or the Clinton Foundation thing or a whole host of other things.  You heard all the talk about Hillary (a mixture of truth, half-truths, and outright lies but that’s beside the point here), and you decided that if she was really that bad you couldn’t possibly support her.

Perhaps you were concerned about one or more of a whole host of other things that I could not list here.

But that is beside the point here.  What matters at this point is that, whatever your reasons, you voted for him.

You saw him encourage his supporters to exercise violence against protesters.

You saw him ridicule a man with a physical disability.

You saw him call for Muslims to be expelled and profiled.

You saw him label the Black Lives Matter movement as criminal and subversive.

You saw him call for American soldiers to commit war crimes against suspected terrorists.

You saw him accept without reservation the endorsements of the KKK and the Neo-Nazis.

You have seen the vile, degrading things he routinely says about women.

You have seen him traffic in the most absurd conspiracy theories, to the point of insisting that our current president is a foreigner with a forged birth certificate who is illegally holding an office.

You have seen him choose a vice-president who believes that gay people can just pray away their gayness (they can’t).

You had to weigh all of this and more in order to cast your vote, and by whatever method you used you arrived at the conclusion that this was not beyond the pale, that these were things you could live with in supporting Donald Trump.

In making your choice for what you believed to be the lesser of two evils, you declared all these things and more to be within your morally acceptable parameters.

So now here we are, and everything is unfolding almost exactly as we feared.

Donald Trump is stocking his cabinet with the worst of the worst of the alt-right lunatic fringe.  He has appointed a chief advisor who has made a career of spewing vile, incendiary hatred toward blacks, Jews, and Muslims.  He has nominated as attorney general someone who was deemed too racist to be a federal judge.

Emboldened by Donald Trump’s win, some of his supporters have perpetrated acts of violence against blacks, Muslims, Jews, and women.  Anti-Semitic graffiti is popping up all over the place, and attacks against the Muslim community are becoming commonplace.  People of these communities are now concerned and fearful of what the future holds for them–and with very good reason, given what Donald Trump has said during his campaign.

Evangelicals:  If you supported Donald Trump, you need to fix this.  You need to speak out.

If all of these things make you sick–SAY SO!!!!!!!!!  Let the world know that it is not okay with you.  Let the world know that this is not your heart, that this is not who you are or what you signed up for in supporting Donald Trump.

I desperately want to believe that you believe, as I do, that all people bear the image of God, that all people are people for whom Jesus Christ died, and therefore all people are worthy of our love and care and concern.

But you have to help me.  Speak out and let your voice be heard, or I will have no choice but to assume from your silence that you are okay with all of this.

I can forgive you if you voted for Donald Trump.  You had to make a very difficult choice between the lesser of two evils.

What I cannot and will not forgive is your continued silence in the face of all that is going on now–the antics perpetrated by the worst of Donald Trump’s supporters, the pain and anguish of those in minority communities who fear what the future of a Donald Trump administration holds for them.  By your continued silence you tell the world that you are okay with all of this, and that Jesus Christ whom you serve is okay with it too.

John Pavlovitz: The Kind of Christian I Refuse to Be

Today I direct your attention to a post by John Pavlovitz which is particularly timely these days.  It is increasingly hard to be, or to want to be, a Christian when one sees that name being ever-increasingly associated with hatred and bigotry directed towards those whom Jesus has clearly commanded us to love; when one sees that in this day and age so much that clearly runs contrary to Christian character is now accepted and even celebrated.

For far too many people, being a Christian no longer means you need to be humble or forgiving. It no longer means you need a heart to serve or bring healing. It no longer requires compassion or mercy or benevolence. It no longer requires you to turn the other cheek or to love your enemies or to take the lowest place or to love your neighbor as yourself.

It no longer requires Jesus.

And so the choices are to abandon the idea of claiming Christ altogether to avoid being deemed hateful by association in the eyes of so much of the watching world—or to reclaim the name Christian so that it once again replicates the love of Jesus in the world.

I am trying to do the latter.

Yes, I am a Christian, but there is a Christian I refuse to be.

I refuse to be a Christian who lives in fear of people who look or speak or worship differently than I do.

I refuse to be a Christian who believes that God blesses America more than God so loves the world.

I refuse to be a Christian who uses the Bible to perpetuate individual or systemic bigotry, racism, or sexism.

I refuse to be a Christian who treasures allegiance to a flag or a country or a political party, above emulating Jesus.

Read:  The Kind of Christian I Refuse to Be by John Pavlovitz

Even Skye Jethani Can’t Take It Anymore

Donald Trump is our president now, thanks to the support of 81 percent of evangelicals.  (I had it at 80 percent–it’s worse than I thought.)  This has prompted Skye Jethani to write a farewell letter to evangelicalism:

To the label “Evangelical”:

There is so much to admire about you, your history, and the theology you represent. You mean “good news,” and came to identify a movement birthed by a commitment to the gospel, the euangelion, of Jesus Christ. Seventy years ago, those called “evangelicals” rejected the angry, condemning rhetoric of the fundamentalists, and they saw the error of theological liberalism that abandoned orthodoxy. They sought a third way that was culturally engaged and biblically faithful. I love that heritage.

But look at what you have become—little more than a political identity with a pinch of impotent cultural Christianity. You’ve become a category for pollsters rather than pastors, a word of exclusion rather than embrace. Yes, there are still godly, admirable leaders under your banner, but many are fleeing your camp to find a more Christ-honoring tribe. When more people associate you with a politics of hate than a gospel of love something is terribly wrong. I take no joy in saying it, but like Esau you have sold your birthright for a bowl of soup. You have exchanged the eternal riches of Christ to satisfy a carnal appetite for power.

In the past I willingly accepted your name as my own. I even worked for your flagship magazine. More recently I have avoided you because of your political and cultural baggage, but I’ve not objected when others identified me with you because your heritage was worth retaining. That passive acceptance is over now. What was admirable about your name has been buried, crushed under the weight of 60 million votes. I am no less committed to Christ, his gospel, and his church, but I can no longer be called an evangelical. Farewell, evangelicalism.

With regret,

Skye

Read:  4 Open Letters to Trump’s America by Skye Jethani