Setting our Course Toward Bethlehem.
Daily Advent Reflection.
Friday, December 23, 2011.
It might not be
The prettiest thing that you’ll ever see
But it’s a new day, oh baby it’s a new day
And it might not look like
A beautiful sunrise
But it’s a new day, oh baby, it’s a new day.
— Robbie Seay Band, “New Day”
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Walking around a cafeteria full of teenagers in an after-school study hall can be troubling. I’ve experienced this many times over the past four months. The dialogue is much less about the topic of study than about what the apostle Paul refers to as the works of darkness. Much talk centers around the jealousy and quarreling that accompanies a perverted vision of self and others. Incredibly, and not surprisingly, the helpfulness of Paul’s vision for the works of darkness need not remain sequestered in the first century.
Folks can learn much from Paul’s idea that many times “dark” behaviors arise from a line of thought that begins and ends with self-preservation. This line of thought and its consequential way of life permeates our culture. This way of life is a violent one, saturated with conflict and sexual exploitation. The version of justice we most often choose for this thinking and behavior is a slap on the wrist (with varying degrees of intensity based on how we value the crime) and the word no. I’ve seen this justice administered daily. I have administered it. After all, we must say no. Certainly the behavior is inappropriate and should be extinguished from society. People cannot live well in the midst of it. Paul says so himself.
Ok, so then how should this happen? Or to what end should this happen? Without a telos, a view of the end goal, where are we going? If we know all the ways not to be, does that point us to the appropriate way to be? I don’t think so. Although it may not seem this way, Americans have a pretty good grasp of what they shouldn’t do, even many of those raised in troubling circumstances. This is how we know how to do the opposite so well. Just watch an HBO television series. Or a cafeteria full of teenagers from my neighborhood. They’ve been told what not to do and what is bad. But what have they been shown?
Paul will not allow his readers to stop at no. Surely he tells us what is bad behavior. He cannot stop there though. For him to stop at no would have disqualified him as a follower and teacher of the person and ways of Jesus. A parable comes to mind; I’m not sure if Paul was familiar with it at the time he wrote this letter, but the parable syncs nicely with the way Paul teaches. Found in Luke 11 and Matthew 12, this parable of Jesus tells of a person who has been swept clean of an evil spirit. When the spirit leaves him, it wanders through lonely places until it finds seven of its buddies. Upon return to the person, the band of eight evil spirits finds a nice tidy place to torment. “And they enter and dwell there. And the last state of that person is worse than the first” (Lk. 11:26).
Paul goes to great lengths in his letter to the Roman church to display the perverse and awful way of a life lived in slavery to carnality.
But he moves on from there.
He gives a vision a new way.
Many times and in many versions he resolutely declares that we must make true the call to repentance. We are not to be satisfied with the consolation of forgiveness. We must strive forward, to an end. The end of the kingdom of God. Repentance is not forgiveness; it is a change, a new way. Paul does not leave us in the dark like a confused pluralistic society. He provides a solution. It’s not a quick fix. It’s a Way. It’s putting on the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s claiming a new thing. Robbie Seay Band calls it a new day. The world no is not the end. The love of God in Christ is. As close as we are to Christmas, let us not wane in our cry for newness. Without the Christ-child, we are left in the dark. The world must come to know another way. The kids from my neighborhood must come to know another way. Without a church setting its course toward Bethlehem as the Magi did or Jerusalem as Jesus did, there is only the same old way to live. It takes on many different costumes, but the old way still persists without a vision of Christ. Let us by the grace of God put on the armor of light. Let us set our faces toward Bethlehem and await the coming of the Beginning and the End—the one who can save us all. Come Lord Jesus!