This is the fourth reflection in the “Missio Advent” series. Read the rest here.
Some days I have to steel myself just to read the morning paper. Today’s front page includes a story about reputable scientists suggesting global warming trends are worse than previously thought. They are predicting that one-third of the western Antarctic ice shelf may be gone within the next 100 to 200 years, raising global sea levels by 11 feet.
The civil war continues in Syria. More than 2 million people are displaced from their homes, and it’s winter again. ISIS militants control vast swaths of Iraqi and Syrian territory, and historic communities, including ancient Christian ones, are being uprooted and destroyed.
Here in my homeland, black and white Americans continue to experience a shared history in very different ways. Racism, that pernicious legacy of our national ‘original sin,’ continues to pass down in mutated forms from generation to generation. The death of black young men at the hands of law enforcement officers is, tragically, nothing new but has broken through into the national discourse, at least for the moment.
Laying my paper and the urgent crises of the day aside, I turn to an Advent reading. In this I begin to make the shift from the immediacy of time and place to a more cosmic and timeless view, to the God who came near to bring healing and redemption. If done properly, this is not escapism.
This yearly journey of Advent takes me into the dark world of first century Palestine, to a specific time and place not entirely unlike my own. A vast empire exacted both order and its own will on the Mediterranean world. Ruthless displays of empirical power were often used to frighten and intimidate. Religious leaders were doing what religious leaders often do, reducing God to a small container, and one of their own making, obscuring the view of the God of mercy and justice and human flourishing. Ethnic and tribal identities distorted the brotherhood and sisterhood of all humanity as image bearers of God. Old hatreds and prejudices went unquestioned.
Into the mud and muck of this specific time and place, the eternal God made himself known in the person of Jesus, the Christ. We were given the gift of the Divine coming, the beginning of our rescue.
The Word became flesh. As a consequence, we now know what it looks like to love and forgive enemies, to submit and serve, to identify with the marginalized and powerless, to put aside prejudices, to recognize our neighbor as anyone in need, and to live counter to the prevailing culture of the day.
This is the Gospel, and it is good news for the ages. None of this absolves me of my own implication in the front-page news of today. Advent reminds me that in every age, the brokenness and darkness threaten to overwhelm, yet there are also men and women who desperately want the world to be different, to be the way it was meant to be.
Advent stirs in us that holy desire for the world to be made new. To go through the Advent season with a sense of both longing and expectancy is to learn to live in the messiness of today with a sense of hopefulness.
A properly observed Advent does two important things. One, it prevents a descent into despair because we know that the God who came brought with him the announcement of a different way of doing business, a kingdom built on true shalom, one in which—to borrow from the Irish poet Seamus Heaney—hope and history will rhyme.
Second, a properly observed Advent helps us resist the temptation to skip fully ahead to the end with him, and by that I mean to that day when all things are made new. This is of course the day we all long for, the day when that which existed in the creation of the world is fully restored.
But the God we serve took on the form of a man and, standing somewhere outside the village of Bethany, wept over the death of Lazarus his friend, and then again on the Mount of Olives over the brokenness of Jerusalem. He spent his time with the poor in spirit and the outcasts. He healed diseases and afflictions.
Advent teaches us how to live as we wait. To know that because the world’s brokenness, as well as our own, breaks the heart of God, it must break our hearts, too. It implicates us in the way things turn out and teaches us to live differently, to fully embrace values of that kingdom which has come but not yet fully. It affirms our hearts’ longing for rescue, our cry, “O come, Emmanuel, and ransom us.”
But it also pushes us on into the Bethlehem stable, into Samaritan villages and over to Jacob’s Well, to the homes of tax collectors, to dark Gethsemane and beyond. It is into these places that Emmanuel came.
Advent compels us to go with Him to the enslaved and the captive, to the occupied and the terrorized, to the impoverished of body and spirit, to those without access to justice, to the sick and to the voiceless. To Ferguson and Appalachia. To the slums of Mumbai, the Nineveh Plain, and the Gaza Strip.
It pushes us to join with God in his redemption of the world, to bring renewal, restoration, and healing, to shine light in the darkness.
A day will come when Emmanuel will make hope and history rhyme at last. But Advent reminds us that we are not alone in our present troubles. God is with us this day, too, and he invites us to labor with him this day in his vineyard.
Todd Deatherage is Executive Director of The Telos Group, which exists to strengthen the capacity of American faith communities – and especially American evangelicals – to help positively transform the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Before co-founding the Telos Group, he spent sixteen years in senior positions in the legislative and executive branches of the U.S. government. From 2005 to 2009, he was Chief of Staff in the Secretary of State’s Office of Policy Planning at the U.S. State Department. He also spent two years as Senior Advisor in the Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, where he specialized in religious freedom in the Middle East. He and his family live in Fairfax County, Virginia.
Photo: The Door of Humility, Church of the Nativity; Gary Hardman