Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Advent is always a three-storied affair. We rehearse the ancient story of Christ’s coming—the angelic visitations, visions and John’s voice crying in the wilderness. We look ahead to Christ’s return when all our brokenness and pain will cease, and when He will wipe every tear from our eyes. But Advent is also now. To celebrate Advent is to inhabit the in-between, to remember and to hope, we wait, but our waiting isn’t passive. There is work to be done.

Too much is made about the not-yet-ness of the Kingdom of God. We may look around at all the violence, victimization, suffering, disease, racial hatred, and distrust and say “God’s Kingdom has not come in fullness.  When Jesus comes again, life will be different.” True enough, but to speak like this is to forget. We become passive fatalists and fail to re-member the One who declared to His beleaguered and downtrodden people that the Kingdom of God was at hand.  The Christian hope is that although the Kingdom of God is not yet, it is now.

The first Advent inaugurated the reign of Christ. To live in light of Christ’s coming means to be his agents of shalom, participating in all the ways Jesus’ flips the script of empire and challenges systemic injustice. But if we don’t also have a vision of the consummation of the Kingdom, when injustice and violence cease, we will succumb to despair.

Christmas is coming and if you believe in Jesus, you know his first coming matters. Jesus is coming again, one day. To believe this is to hope in the faithfulness of God to fulfill his promises. In 1923, Thomas Chisholm wrote the words to Great is Thy Faithfulness (reflecting on Lamentations 3:22-23). His fourth stanza reads:

Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today, and bright hope for tomorrow
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside.

Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow captures Advent hope. We have the strength to face the brokenness, pain, and injustice in our world, to become change agents and subversives because we trust what God has done in Christ, and what he will do again. We also have not been left as orphans (John 14:18). The Spirit of Christ indwells us, we have his presence to cheer and to guide as we strive to welcome Christ’s kingdom more and more.

Jesus is the Spirit of Advent Past, the Spirit of Advent Present, and the Spirit of the Advent Yet to Come.

Eager Anticipation

The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you see one more card
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part –Tom Petty

Every year some celebrity dies, and though we have no personal relationship with theses artists or actors, we feel a connection to them through their body of work. So, I was sad to hear of Tom Petty’s death this year. The Heartbreakers were integral to my life’s soundtrack. I went Freefallin’ from middle school into high school. I’ve tried to best my 10k time while Running Down a Dream. I have imagined vocational opportunities through Into the Great Wide Open, chided my kids with the chorus of Yer So Bad, sang along to Don’t Come Around Here No More in the face of a bad break-up, and celebrated my own identity and becoming with songs like Learning to Fly, and You Don’t Know How it Feels (to be me). And more. When I first picked up my guitar, in earnest, Tom Petty songs were among the first songs I learned to play.

It is Tom Petty’s The Waiting which captures, for me, the eager anticipation of Advent. The verses describe the happiness and elation of the moment, “Oh baby don’t it feel like heaven right now/ Don’t it feel like something from a dream/ Yeah I’ve never known nothing quite like this/ Don’t it feel like tonight might never be again,” and the chorus declares, “The waiting is the hardest part.”

As I read Petty’s lyrics, I think he is describing a longing to be reunited with the one you love, but certainly we have all experienced the existential angst of waiting. We feel this in pre-performance butterflies, on sleeplessness nights before our wedding days, hope for the birth of a child, or before job interviews. We are excited about what lies ahead, and find it hard to just be in the moment.

The Psalmist cry, “How long?” has something of The Waiting eagerness in it, even if it feels a little bit angstier. The Hebrew poets, lamented the state of things in their world, their personal experience and their nation.  They looked honestly at how hard things were, but dared to hope that God’s deliverance lay ahead. Psalm 13 captures this dissatisfaction with what is, but hopeful longing for God’s future action:

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”;
my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.

But I trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.

The Waiting is the hardest part, and this is especially true as we wait through feelings of alienation, sorrow, defeat and failure.

Other psalms decry ongoing injustices, the triumph of the wicked, and oppression of the poor and marginalized. All in the strong hope that God will act, God will be salvation, God will deliver, restore, heal. It is hard to wait, but Jesus is coming and there is hope.

Don’t let it kill you baby, don’t let it get to you
Don’t let ’em kill you baby, don’t let ’em get to you
I’ll be your breathing heart, I’ll be your crying fool
Don’t let this go to far, don’t let it get to you

The Waiting is the hardest part.

What are you waiting for? What are you waiting through? What brings you hope? 

Singing Advent

Advent is a time for singing a new song and for imagining new possibilities in the coming of Christ. We note the not-yet-ness of our experience, but we press in with anticipation and longing. We allow ourselves to hope, again.

The traditional Advent carols (e.g. O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and Come Thou Long Expected Jesus) describe this sense of longing.  But the wider culture presses past the waiting, directly to Christmas (but with less Jesus. Everywhere we go, there is Christmas. Walk into any coffee shop or mall, or turn the radio dial and you hear crooning of chestnuts roasting on an open fire, or how I’ll be home for Christmas (if only in our dreams). Rudolph dances the Jingle Bell Rock. Holiday cheer is in full swing. And beyond the music, there are colorful lights, Silver Bells, tree trimming, Christmas parties, and holiday classics on TV. Only eager seminarians, disgruntled ex-pastors, and cranky liturgists seek to deny people all their early celebrations, but there is something pathological about our inability to wait.

The gospel of Luke commends two songs for Advent that describe the hopes. The first comes from the lips of  a Palestinian teenager, Mary, as she considers who the child she carries, is:

“My soul magnifies the Lord,

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

for the Mighty One has done great things for me,

and holy is his name.

His mercy is for those who fear him

from generation to generation.

He has shown strength with his arm;

he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel,

in remembrance of his mercy,

according to the promise he made to our ancestors,

to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”  (Luke 1:46-55)

This is more than just a mother’s hope for a child. Mary senses God will do something new through her baby boy and it will change everything. Donald Kraybill notes:

Five types of people are startled and surprised in Mary’s vision. Those at the top of the social pyramid—the proud, the rich, and the mighty—topple. Stripped of their thrones, they are scattered and sent away empty. Meanwhile the poor and hungry, at the bottom of the pyramid, take a surprising ride to the top. Mary sings words of hope and judgment. Hope for the lowly, as she describes herself, and judgment for those who trample the helpless. (The Upside-Down Kingdom, Herald Press, 2011, 16).

The Advent of Jesus would mean a radical reversal of the way things are. No longer would the proud, powerful and prosperous oppress the poor. No longer would they assume they can do whatever they want to us (because they are a celebrity). God would depose leaders, impeach presidents and remove kings from their throne, and those on the bottom of the social order—minorities, the incarcerated, the alien and the poor—would find themselves elevated to places of prestige.

In short Mary’s song, the Magnificat, hopes. It envisions a day when all injustice will cease.

The second Advent song we hear is Zechariah’s song (Luke 1:67-79, the Benedictus). Zechariah speaks these words after receiving his comeuppance. Like Mary, he had an angelic visitation and the promise of a child, though he didn’t  trust the angel’s words. He and his wife were far too old. The angel prophesied that Zechariah would not speak until after his son is born (Luke1:20). Immediately his voice is gone and Zechariah is mute. When Zechariah’s voice returns, his son had been born and having scrawled the child’s name on his tablet, out of his mouth comes this song of praise:

 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,

for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.

He has raised up a mighty savior for us

in the house of his servant David,

as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,

that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.

Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,

and has remembered his holy covenant,

the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,

to grant us  that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,

might serve him without fear,  in holiness and righteousness

before him all our days.

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;

for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,

to give knowledge of salvation to his people

by the forgiveness of their sins.

By the tender mercy of our God,

the dawn from on high will break upon us,

to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,

to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Zechariah was a first century Palestinian Jew. Since the days when Babylon tore down Jerusalem’s walls and carried its inhabitants into captivity (586 BCE), the Jews were oppressed by powerful neighbors. They returned from their exile 70 years later, but never fully returned to the days of past greatness. Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome all dominated them. They were at the mercy of foreign leaders and their economy suffered by bad trade deals. Israel’s former glory did not return.

Knowing the singer, we know what key and what tune to apply to Zechariah’s song. He sensed, at last, God was acting to restore his people, rescue and heal them, and renew His covenant with them. God was about to act. Would this be the moment when God Makes Israel Great Again?

Hope and restoration have become political rhetoric. One leader comes promising hope and change. Another comes promising a restoration of past greatness. How easy it is to be cynical at the hollow din of such words.

But if only we can learn to sing again, the way Palestinian teenagers and old men once did, as they imagined the things God could do and was doing in their midst. What is the song God placed in you? What is your song of hope?

 

Waiting: Hope (Advent Week 1)

Hope deferred and heartsick,

the waiting begins

again.

How long this time?

 

How long will the wicked—

predators and abusers—

exult?

How long will we

dismiss the wounded?

Or will we ignore

as the chorus cries

#metoo?

 

How long will we

ignore the poor,

evading their gaze,

just in case

they ask for

handouts??

How long will

debits and credits

have more hold

on us than mercy?

Or Justice?

Or Compassion?

 

How long will the blood of Abel

cry from the ground?

Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.

We stop up our ears, offering

Prayers and platitudes.

How long will we describe

freedom as our right to hate,

to rage, and lock others in a cage?

 

O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here

 

Hope deferred and heartsick,

we wait.

How Long, O Lord?

 

How Long?

 

HOW LONG?

 

Image result for Advent Wreath 1st Week