Happy new year! What? It’s not January? I know, but the season of Advent is the start of the Christian calendar. We begin the year listening to God’s promises revealed through Jesus: the promise of a new heaven and new earth, promises of rebirth, promises of a new hope for all humanity.
Unfortunately, some people like Tim LeHaye and Jerry Jenkins and their now famous Left Behind series, that takes some serious poetic license with the eschatological (end times) visions in John’s Book of Revelation, have left many of us with a bad taste in our mouths when it comes to that “new heaven” and “new earth” concept. Then there are those gender-biased bumper stickers that were popular not too long ago:
But the Advent season promises something different. While I do agree with many scholars that our ancient sisters and brothers in faith basically got the timing wrong when it comes to Jesus’ return, I am wondering if they got the meaning of Jesus’ promise to return wrong as well, and maybe even the meaning of Jesus’ birth narratives—part of the argument I hear against the “validity” of the Christian faith.
For centuries pre-Christian Jewish people anticipated some sort of Messiah (Hebrew for “anointed”) that would rescue them from their occupiers (and that had many), re-establish the Davidic united kingdom of Israel, and usher in a new age of peace. In fact, King David, the second monarch of the kingdom of Israel, was labeled a “Messiah”—he was anointed by the prophet Samuel (1 Sam 16); unfortunately, Samuel also anointed the first King, Saul, but that didn’t work out so well (1 Sam 10, 15.10ff).
For Christians Jesus, however, was a unique messiah in the sense that he is the first incarnation of the divine—when the presence of God seems to have been fully present in a human being—in a way not before or since witnessed. While people seem to sweat over the facts of Jesus’ birth, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, in their unique way, offer a challenge to consider the meaning of the birth narratives recorded in the gospels of Matthew and Luke (John also has a birth narrative that I think gets to the crux of the meaning: the Word of God became flesh; that is, became embodied in the person of Jesus, both something to be praised and something to be studied and emulated).
Borg and Crossan are clear to talk about eschatology not as “the destruction of the earth, but . . . its transfiguration, not . . . the end of the world, but . . . the end of evil, injustice, violence—and imperialism.”1 The Advent (literally, “coming”) of Jesus into the world is a thing to be celebrated as it reminds us that God has not and will not give up on us, and is offering a way that offers fulfillment in a way the world cannot. The advent of Jesus is not just for those who follow in the Way of Jesus, but for all people regardless of what way they choose to walk their life journeys. The whole Advent and Christmas seasons are a time for us to consider how God is breaking into our lives in unexpected ways. It is a time to consider how, in the words of Jesus, “the kingdom of God has come near to you” (Luke 10.9, NRSV).
As we enter a new liturgical year with the season of Advent (the sister season to pre-Easter Lent), it is an opportunity to stop, listen, and consider how God has been walking with you all along—sometimes in the midst of mourning and grief, sometimes in the midst of joy and celebration, but more often in the midst of the mundane day-to-day happenings. And then consider how you have been changed by God’s presence—maybe you are recognizing a more peaceful attitude toward the world, or an increase in the amount of compassion you experience for those who are suffering, or even a desire to reconcile with those who have hurt you or you have hurt (more often than we would sometimes like to admit, it’s both). Or maybe you are noticing anxiety, anger, sadness, or frustration. How might God be inviting you into a new attitude? Like Moses going up Mount Sinai (Exod. 24ff, 34.29ff), we cannot experience the presence of God and walk away unchanged, even the most stubborn of us. We can, however, choose to shun these experiences and to not change our behavior.
So how is God breaking into your life these days? How is God re-newing your life? What hope are you hearing through the scripture stories? Are you paying attention? Are you allowing yourself to be changed by God’s presence? How? Or, as one of my mentors loves asking: So, how is God messing with your life? Happy new year, friends, and happy Advent-ing.
1Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Birth (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 65—a book I highly recommend that offers some great historical insights to the stories of Jesus’ birth and their connection with both the Hebrew scriptures and the contexts of the times in which the gospels of Jesus were written.