Advent is Here!

And so Advent begins! One Church year has ended, and a new one has begun. We approach the turning of the seasons, when the winter solstice marks the shortest day and the light begins its slow return, and at the same time we approach the fulfilment of prophecy in the birth of the Messiah and see afar off the fulfilment of future hope in the Messiah’s return. Advent is a season of contemplation, a time for meditating on the light of candles in the Advent wreath and the coming of spiritual light they signify. And above all it is a time of waiting, waiting to relive again the miraculous birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem of Judaea, waiting for the fulfilment of the ages in the Messiah’s sudden return.

In our modern day and age, our ability to contemplate, to meditate, and above all to wait, in Advent is compromised by the commercial machine that Christmas has become. The meaning of this birth and this second advent have been all but drowned out. We must work to carve out time for Advent, and not allow it to be hurried into Christmas, and Christmas busy-ness. We must learn expectant waiting.

This is hard. Our culture doesn’t teach us how to wait. We want rapid responses, to speed things up. And when we do have to wait for something, we want distractions from the annoyance or the tedium of the wait. Out comes the smartphone, and texting or social media or the like takes us away from the wait. We have not had an opportunity to develop expectant waiting. Perhaps this is why our Advent texts are full of reminders to stay alert and pay attention. After all, Jesus says, if the householder had known when the burgular was coming, they wouldn’t have gone to sleep and been robbed! If we are distracting ourselves with our smartphones, we’re in no better a situation than that householder, and just as likely to be surprised when the Day comes ‘like a thief in the night’.

But I’ll bet that when we were kids, we all knew what expectant waiting was, though we didn’t call it that. It was waiting for Christmas or birthdays to come. As adults, perhaps parents, we can still capture something of that sense of expectation, waiting for a loved one to receive a particular gift. But what if we try to focus on an Advent theme such as I’ve referred to above, the coming of light into a dark place, the promised birth, the return of Jesus? Wouldn’t that be worth waiting for, and waiting for in the same way that we wait for a child’s Christmas? Wouldn’t you be willing to wait for such a coming?

Think about that and what it might be like. Who might you wait for it with? Your friends? Your church family? What would it be like to wait for it? That is the experience of expectant waiting, Advent waiting. It’s our task as individuals, but also the task of the whole community, the whole Church, to enter into Advent in the spirit of expectant waiting. As you light your Advent candles, in your church or in your home, look for the light of Christ, coming into our lives and into our world, and wait.

Reconciliation vs Judgement?

 

A couple of weeks ago I led a Bible Study forum at Redeemer that focussed on the story of Joseph, his brothers, and the famine in Egypt. Sometimes I have had difficulty with getting discussion going in these forums, but that night people seemed engaged by the topics and eager to discuss them. Something that really pleased me was that participants had noticed one of the same features that I had in the story: the extent to which the story is a tale of reconciliation among the brothers.

It seems especially important to me that the last major event before the Israelites go down into Egypt and, in the end, into the darkness of slavery and loss is this act of reconciliation among brothers. Too often we hear discussions of the ministry of reconciliation in the New Testament framed as though the very concept of reconciliation – whether with God or with our neighbours – is unique to the New Testament and not visible in the First Testament.

This is part of an oversimplification, almost caricature, of the Bible that depicts the First Testament as legalistic, presided over by a God of wrath and judgement, and the New Testament as teaching about love, presided over by a God of mercy and compassion. On the contrary, it’s very easy to find moving examples of love and mercy in the First Testament and quite frightening texts about judgement and wrath in the New Testament. It’s not just the story of Joseph and his brothers. The Hebrew Bible also contains Ps 23 or prophetic texts such as the final chapter of Hosea (in which YHWH lovingly assures YHWH’s covenant people of forgiveness) or Isaiah 40 (which begins with the beautiful “Comfort, O comfort you, my people”), both full of tenderness and compassion. Looking at the Gospels alone, we can easily find texts such as the wrath and judgement of the Little Apocalypse in Mark 13 (and in the Matthew and Luke parallels as well). As well, in such texts as Matthew 5.17-20 (where Jesus disavows that he has come to abolish the Law and the Prophets), and Luke 16.19-31 (the story of the rich man and Lazarus, in which the law and the prophets are seen to be the teachers of compassion), we can see that in the New Testament itself, the Hebrew Bible is presented in a very positive light, as exactly the source of the love and compassion that is characteristic of Jesus and his Father.

The proper conclusion to draw would seem to be that both Testaments teach us about love and compassion, about wrath and judgement. But as we read and study the Bible ever more deeply we learn that in the heart of God love and compassion are always stronger than wrath and judgement. Hence Jesus’ comparison between earthly parents and his heavenly Father: “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7.9-11).

Why has this become such a wide-spread oversimplification when it is so easy to refute? Partly, I think, because it is an easy fall-back. In sermons and Bible studies we seize on to this oversimplification because it seems to present the difference between the First Testament and the New Testament in a nutshell. But instead it perpetuates a false way of thinking about the Bible and the Old and New Covenants and suggests thereby that one (the New) is superior to the other. It is a short step from teaching the superiority of one covenant to the other to teaching that the inferior one has been or should be replaced.

That is a very serious misunderstanding of the teaching of the New Testament. Jesus himself taught in the passage from the Sermon on the Mount to which I referred before (Matthew 5.17-20) that not one letter or diacritical mark would disappear from the Law until all was accomplished. Rather, he said that someone who broke one of the commandments or taught others to do the same would be called least in the kingdom of heaven. Now, we know there are some conflicts in the tradition about observance of the dietary laws and the sabbath in particular, but even taking that into account, Jesus clearly speaks of the Law with the greatest respect. The new covenant that he established was a fulfilment of the prophecy of Jer 31.31-4, so it derived its power and validity by its links with the Mosaic covenant and Israel’s covenant God.

All has not yet been accomplished: living in a time of suspense between the Resurrection and Ascension and the Second Coming, we wait in the tension between the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’ of which the New Testament writers are so conscious. What will happen when the fulfilment of which Jesus spoke has taken place we don’t now know, but in this in-between time we can be sure from Jesus’ words and actions that both the Old and New Covenants are valid. So we should be careful not to speak or act in ways that belittle either of God’s covenants or God’s covenant peoples.