Advent reminds us that we live in an in-between time. In between the historic coming of Jesus of Nazareth and the future coming of a new world of peace and righteousness. The prophet in Isaiah 40 is addressing a people in exile who are preparing to return home, but they are not home yet. And when you think about it, that’s where we all are isn’t it? The kingdom of God that Jesus announced and embodied is here, but not yet – not yet in any complete sense.
When Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God, according to the Gospels, he spoke of it both in present and future ways. In some passages the kingdom of God is clearly future. But in other passages it is clearly present. On one occasion, according to Luke, when Jesus was questioned by the Pharisees about when the kingdom of God was coming, Jesus said, “The kingdom is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!” or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you” (or we could read that as, “the kingdom of God is within you”). In another passage Jesus told the Jewish leaders that his works of healing and salvation – healing diseases, restoring the disabled and the mentally ill, and liberating people from the demonic were all signs that the kingdom/reign of God had come upon them.
This is why Jesus declared, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Matt. 12:30). In other words, one can’t be neutral in the presence of the reign of God embodied by Jesus. In this in-between time one either stands with Jesus and the things he stood for or one stands against Jesus and the things he stood for. In the Synoptic Gospels, it is never simply about belief, it is about what we do or fail to do. We stand with or against Jesus on the basis of what we do or do not do.
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In this in-between time we have to live with a lot of tensions, a lot of incompleteness. Our text in Isaiah reflects the tension between humankind’s experience of universal glory and universal frailty. On the one hand, the prophet points out that all people are like the grass that withers and fades. On the other hand, all people, says the prophet, will see and experience the glory of the Lord. On the one hand we are vulnerable, weak, subject to suffering and death. On the other hand, God acts redemptively on our behalf and bestows God’s glory upon us.
This tension between universal weakness and universal glory reflects something of the tension between original sin and original blessing. Original sin says that we are all sinners and that we need to be liberated from our sins – freed from our greed, pride, lust for power, and all the rest and healed from sin’s effects upon our lives and relationships. Original blessing says we have the potential for great good, that we are “God’s offspring” as Paul tells the Athenians in Acts 17 and that in God “we all live, move, and have our very existence.” Original sin says we all fail and come short of God’s glory; original blessing says that even in our imperfect state we reflect God’s glory, that we all have great potential, and will all eventually experience God’s glory. We are grass and we are glory, but no one is unworthy of God’s love.
When I was a junior in high school I recall a Saturday morning basketball practice. Coach called it a practice, but it really was punishment. We were beaten the night before by a team we should have easily defeated. So he called a mandatory practice for Saturday morning. We ran and ran and ran – never touched a basketball all morning. Finally, when we were all about to drop he called us over to the bleachers for a little talk. The only words I remember is coach telling us we were expendable. Well, he did make one exception. After he said to us, “You are all expendable,” he paused and added an exception clause, “well, maybe not Row.” David Row was our 6’ 6’’ center. He was absolutely necessary.
What we really needed to hear from our coach at that point in the season was: “You all are better than this. I know you are better than the way you have been playing.” We needed for him to believe in us. We needed practice, not punishment. We knew we had been playing poorly, we knew we were better than the way we had been playing, but we needed to hear that from our coach. Instead, what we got was: You are all expendable. Pitiful.
Unfortunately, this is the message many of us heard from our preachers and Sunday School teachers for years: “You are sinners. You are no good. You deserve to go to hell. You are unworthy. But God loves you anyway. Don’t know why God would love the likes of you but God does and that is why Jesus had to die. But you really are nothing.”
Sisters and brothers, I don’t believe for one minute that we are nothing – that we are expendable, or that Jesus had to die because we are no good or to satisfy God’s justice or to persuade God to forgive us. God loves us because God is love. God forgives us because God is a forgiving God. God does not need to be persuaded or be appeased or bought off. The reason Jesus died is because our sins (humankind’s sins) – our hate, greed, and pride had him crucified. He died because he confronted the injustices of the religious and political establishment of his people and he embodied the compassion and love of God that compelled him to care more for people than their rules. His commitment to God’s cause and his investment in the good of others got him killed. God didn’t kill him, we killed him, humankind killed him; more specifically the Romans and the religious leaders killed him, but they represented all of us. Jesus died because he was committed to our good, not because God required it.
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One evening at Christmas a pastor and his wife were called in by their four young children to be the audience for their living room Christmas play. Baby Jesus was a flashlight wrapped in a blanket. Joseph had on a bathrobe and had a mop-handle staff. Mary looked solemn with a sheet draped over her head. The angel had pillowcase wings. The youngest of them had a pillowcase full of gifts. His line was: I’m all three wise men and I bring precious gifts of gold, circumstance, and mud.
Well, that is pretty much what we are and what we bring. We are both gold and mud. We reflect God’s image, but yet we mar that image. We are God’s beloved daughters and sons, and yet how often have we failed to claim our identity and live out the reality. But God’s love remains constant. God’s word is a word of love and as the prophet says it stands forever, and no matter how much mud we accumulate, there is gold underneath.
The little boy said the precious gifts were gold, circumstance, and mud. So often the circumstances of our lives greatly impact whether or not we ever recognize the gold that we are. Those who have been trampled on like mud all their lives have no way of knowing that they possess gold. But God knows. And God cares. And somehow, I believe, that we all will discover it. The prophet suggests as much when he says, “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people (not some people, not just the good people, not just a certain kind of people, but all people) shall see it together.”
There will come a great leveling and equalizing. The prophet says, “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” The people of wealth and might and privilege will be brought down and the poor, disadvantaged, and most vulnerable will be lifted up.
According to Luke, Mary sang about this in her Magnificat: “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.”
Why does God do that? Why does God bring down the rich and powerful and send them out empty? I’m sure it’s for their own good. I’m sure it’s for their salvation. Perhaps we all have to know what it is like to be empty before we can be filled with God’s love and goodness. Perhaps we all have to know some humility before we can see God’s glory or even our own true glory. Perhaps we have to know that we are sick before we can be healed, broken before we can be restored, in bondage before we can be liberated.
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It is not by accident that the voice that cries out to make ready the way for the Lord is in the wilderness – “make straight in the desert a highway for our God” cries the voice. John the baptizer went out into the desert to call his people to repentance. He called them away from the temple, away from the power structures that favored the well-to-do and the privileged, away from the religion of the gatekeepers who were all about control and manipulation. He called them out into the desert away from all their kingdoms to get ready for a new kingdom.
In order for the kingdom of God to come in any significant way into our lives and into our world, our kingdoms have to go. We cannot continue to worship at the alters of success, money, power, and control and expect to meet God and see God’s glory.
John isn’t just speaking to anyone, he is speaking primarily to his people, the covenant people, the people chosen by God to share that sense of chosenness with everyone else. John apparently felt they had become a sore excuse as a witness for God and so he calls them to repent – to change their minds about what is important and to change the direction of their lives. It’s the same for us.
According to Mark this call to repentance by John is “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” It’s the beginning because this is the way that leads to the revelation and experience of God’s glory. There can be no sustained encounter with God without repentance, for all of us turn off the path. The baptism of repentance prepares the way for the baptism of the Spirit through the Messiah.
John shows us that the path that leads to God’s glory is through a spirituality of descent, rather than ascent. It is not through prosperity but rather poverty, not through pride but rather humility, not through fullness but rather emptiness. We have to decrease so that the increase can come, so that we can experience the abundance of kingdom life. Humility and repentance constitute the way that leads to the revelation and experience of the glory of God. So we have to let go – let go of our place and privilege, let go of our lust for position and power, let go of our need to grab and grasp stuff – whatever that stuff may be.
I wonder if we one of the reasons we give more attention to Christmas than we do Easter is because the baby Jesus does not require as much from us as the risen Christ, the cosmic Lord. The first disciples didn’t proclaim baby Jesus. Mark’s Gospel doesn’t even have a birth story. Paul never referenced Jesus’ birth at all in his letters. But they all proclaimed Jesus is Lord.
A number of years ago a large department store tried marketing a doll in the form of baby Jesus. The advertisement described it as being “washable, cuddly, and unbreakable” and it was neatly packaged in straw, satin, and plastic. Biblical texts were even added appropriate to the baby Jesus. Despite a large marketing campaign, it didn’t sell. So in a last ditch effort to unload the merchandise, they offered the baby Jesus at a discount price. They featured a prominent display that declared: Jesus Christ. Marked down 50%. Get him while you can.
Maybe I’m just being a humbug but it seems to me that there is a real temptation to preach at Christmas time a marked down Jesus, nothing much more than what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” I believe that God’s living word comes to us as a call, an invitation to go out into the desert, to turn away from the gods of this age, to go out in humility and repentance, to prepare our hearts and lives to see God’s glory and reflect that glory. One of the benefits of following the church calendar, of using the Lectionary, is that we cannot avoid passages like Mark 1 that calls us to renewal, to a cleansing baptism of repentance.
Because we are gold and not just mud, because the glory of God resides in these weak and vulnerable bodies and souls, this is a high calling, a noble calling. It is a calling to be baptized with the Spirit of the Messiah in order to be collaborators, to be partners with Christ in confronting injustice, liberating the oppressed, healing the wounded, and working for a better world.
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Our good God, forgive us whenever we think too high of ourselves and forgive us when we think too low of ourselves, help to realize that we are both nothing and everything, and though we have all fallen short of your glory, though we have all missed the mark, we are your children none-the-less and loved with an eternal love. Empower us to claim who we are – namely, your daughters and sons – and to live like it. May a bit of the glory that you are and that resides in us, be set free to shine through us. May your love and grace fill us and spill out in joy and gratitude. Amen.
Chuck Queen is a Baptist minister and the author of Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls): An Evolution of Faith. Chuck blogs at A Fresh Perspective, and is also a contributor to theUnfundamentalist Christians blog on this website.