For some time I’ve puzzled over the way we Christians (who observe Advent) engage the themes of this season. The puzzlement quickly turns to lament. In worship yesterday, the Old Testament reading came from Isaiah 7 – the famous vision of a young woman with child who will be nam
ed Emmanuel. We Christians love this text, but for King Ahaz, the word afflicts rather than comforts. How did we get from there to God-with-us meaning unambiguous comfort?
The Gospel of Matthew tells us of the angel’s word to Joseph, that the child born to Mary will fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy. Since Jesus is Savior, we take great comfort in God-with-us. But if you keep reading Matthew, God-with-us is definitely a two-edged Presence. Yes, Savior, but what kind?
What did God-with-us mean to King Herod? He understood that the Magi’s news to him threatened his power. John the Baptist’s words about God-with-us remind us to repent, not relax. God-with-us does say “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy-laden and I will give you rest.” But he says lots of other things, too. As a religious leader, I am particularly fond of Matthew’s description of Jesus speaking about and to the religious leaders: “Do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they preach.” “Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.” There is much more. Ouch!
I know it’s bad form to seem so gloomy during this season, but Advent gets neglected every year. We should be preparing for the coming of the King, who is the Prince of Peace, to be sure, but still his coming is ambivalent. It throws down the challenge to follow or not to follow. If we professed followers of Jesus practice the Lordship of Jesus, God-with-us is a comfort. If no
t, then God-with-us is a threat. This is especially true for religious leaders. Are we paying attention?
These Advent texts also remind us that history is not a forever thing. We mainline Protestants don’t think too much, it seems, about end-of-the-world scenarios, justifiably uneasy by Left Behind-esque distractions. But everyone must have some kind of eschatology, some vision of the end of all things. Consider non-religious visions, for example. Some people, deeply troubled by the ominous signs of climate change, predict a very troubling end for planet earth and are calling us to repentance. Last night on “60 Minutes,” I heard dire predictions about the financial futures of States like New Jersey and Illinois and what their defaulting would mean for the nation. The predictions ominously make the phrase “of biblical proportions” seem not so hyperbolic.
Hence the necessity of Advent. It reminds us of history’s trajectory and of the Lord of history, whose ends take precedence over all our ends. Advent calls us to watch and pray. Most importantly, it reminds us that we can get on the wrong side of God’s purposes. And that possibility is not to be taken lightly.