With Advent now upon us, a season of preparation for the coming of the Lord, I have found myself wondering what Peace on Earth and good will toward men might look like on a global scale in a world more interconnected than ever before but still painfully disconnected on so many levels. In 2015 in the United States we can watch earthquake victims in Kathmandu valley dig out from under the rubble in real time. We can then send them aid even though many of the Americans who wire funds overseas to help said victims cannot place Nepal on a map. Flooding our social media newsfeeds are heartwarming videos about radical generosity (and kitty cats pawing at printers), uplifting us even if only for a few brief moments. We then scroll down a little further to see a flood of vituperative political memes and clickbait that appeals to our most carnal, depraved desires.
Advent is not just a time of preparation but a season of penitence. What does repentance, a truly penitent turning of the heart, and the ministry of reconciliation–that which the apostle Paul defines as “not counting their sins against them” (2 Cor. 5:18)–look like today? The very idea of repentance and reconciliation seems impossible given the grisly barbarism and nasty cultural divisions dominating the headlines, not least of which are the murderous rampages of ISIS and the cavalier disregard in the West for the most vulnerable among us. (I’m thinking of refugees and the unborn here).
But alas, the circumstances were not so different in the era in which the hinge of human history was born two thousand years ago.
Jesus came into our distressed world peacefully as a baby boy via a virgin’s womb, his parents refugees. Yet his entrance into planet Earth inspired some vicious warfare once he arrived. The birth of the King of Kings put so much fear in the heart of King Herod that he waged a Pharaoh-style genocide of baby boys in his jurisdiction in a cowardly assertion of his political power. Jesus was targeted for death from the very beginning and if you look closely, eerie signs of that death marked him from day one. The gospels tell us that his mother laid him in a manger, clothing him in ‘swaddlings.’ Swaddlings were the same strips of fabric used to wrap mummies, the same cloth used to cover dead people.
It seems to me that repentance and reconciliation looks like death. It starts there anyway. Jesus was the embodiment of repentance and reconciliation. He identified with sin so much that he became it even though he never willfully committed it. In so doing God was reconciling the world to himself and then commended to us an ambassadorship of that same reconciliation, as though He was making his appeal through us.
So let us now fast forward two thousand years. In that same margin of the earth, innocent children are being brutally slaughtered again. This time it is not a Roman client king carrying it out but an Islamist death cult hellbent on their perverse vision for a global caliphate, willing to employ the most violent of means to reach their despicable ends. If I allow myself to think about this for very long, waves of fury begin to rush over me and I can feel myself starting to hate them. So much for not counting their sins against them. That baby whose birth I am preparing to celebrate would grow up and intone during his ministry that hate is akin to murder (Matt 5:12).
Thanks be to God, such heroic ambassadors of this reconciliation exist today, people willing to love their enemies. And I am thinking in particular of one Canon Andrew White, the Vicar of Baghdad. He spoke at my church this past Sunday and it was the fourth time I have heard him preach. I always marvel at his ability to retell harrowing events and unimaginable horrors occurring in the Middle East, events and horrors he has personally experienced, with measured sobriety but with a joyful hope that can only be described as transcendent. He is also uproariously funny. I’m not even kidding, this man had the guts to invite ISIS to dinner.
It sounds unbearably cliché, but when Jesus is all you have, you realize that he is all you need. That is no trite, cheesy platitude for his parishioners in Iraq; it was a reality even foreign journalists attested to firsthand. Although the Canon is no longer based in Baghdad, last year I heard him recount how reporters would remark that when they visited his Anglican church in Iraq they had never been to a place so happy, and this is in the same region of the world where children were being hacked to death and bombs were exploding everywhere.
Jackie Pullinger, another heroic ambassador of reconciliation, once said that “the gospel always brings life to the receiver and death to the giver; if the gospel brought death to Jesus Christ why would we think that in preaching the gospel it would be any less for us?”
I hope and pray that this Advent followers of Jesus Christ would posture themselves in such a spirit, that we might die to the desire to hold on to past offenses, that we would truly repent and not count the sins of others against them. May we do so as God’s ambassadors, boldly proclaiming the good news of his coming.
Photo credit: Brandon Showalter