Advent: hope for a broken, breaking world

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

Luke 2:13-14

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Luke 2:13-14; KJV

Advent on the Christian church calendar is a season of hope, remembering the anticipation of Christ’s first coming as we long for his second coming when at long last this weary world rejoices.

Most all of us are tired, weary and worn, even as we enjoy the gifts and blessings of this life. But we long for more, much more, and for good reason, considering all the world’s ills. We desire that promised “peace on earth, good will toward men.” According to what’s considered a better textual reading, “peace among those whom he favors!”

Given the evil found all over the world, it seems sadly that the only way shalom, or peace is possible is through final judgment. Judgment comes from grace and precedes salvation. We have to be saved from something threatening or hanging over us, victimizing us and others, to be saved to something better, the full restoration of humanity and creation as God intends.

This is at the heart of the hope of Advent. We know the best that can be accomplished in this world can’t measure up to that. Though part of this Advent hope includes a willingness to try to find God’s light in this darkness to address issues such as war, famine and starvation, climate change, the disparity between the rich and the poor, etc. That is if we follow the concern and passion found in the Bible. Otherwise we might settle for a Platonic salvation in which heaven is what ultimately matters since this world is to be burned anyhow.

Instead we need to see that God’s care is for all creation, indeed that God loves all that God has made. And that followers of Christ along with the rest of humanity should work towards a better world. And that what we do now somehow in God’s will makes a difference that ends up being eternal since matter is just as much a part of the world to come as is spirit.

We who are followers of Christ bear witness to the hope promised, that the God who made all things in the first place, has promised to remake all things in Christ, which actually is beginning even now. Advent a wonderful season to reflect on that.

a Christ-centered faith

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Colossians 1:15-20

…in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them…

2 Corinthians 5:19a

Yes, the Trinity and the Incarnation all enshrouded in mystery as God is. But what God has revealed is the point. And the center of that revelation is Christ himself. Apart from Christ there is ultimately no revelation from God, at least not in any saving way. And it is a salvation inclusive of all humankind, yet standing in judgment of all humankind as well. Judgment is needed before salvation, indeed shows the need for salvation. Collectively as well as individually we have failed to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind, and we have failed to love our neighbor as ourselves. Thus the judgment rendered, and God’s salvation from that judgment in Christ.

Christ might not always be invoked or explicit in our thinking. But if faith is according to the gospel, then Christ is always the light, life and power in creation to bring about the new creation, in this brokenness to bring about the needed reconciliation of all things.

This is the truth and reality on which we as Christ followers and Christ’s church stand. From which we live as witnesses.

how does true shalom (שָׁלוֹם) come?

So then, remember that at one time you gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”—a circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us, abolishing the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near, for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then, you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone; in him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

Ephesians 2:11-22

Shalom (שָׁלוֹם) ordinarily translated “peace” in the Hebrew Bible/ Old Testament is a great study in itself. It certainly is the absence of conflict and violence, but means so much more. It includes all that contributes to and is involved in human flourishing along with the flourishing of all creation.

There is what continues to be, the settled belief that peace comes through strength, meaning military might, and that might (somehow) makes right. That’s a given not just in ancient times, but in the present. The Roman empire is among those who imposed their will in that way. And that is just as alive and well today, with the idea that what the world power does can change reality supposedly for the good, though given the makeup of the world in all its many diverse expressions along with inevitable problems, that indeed is impossible and always backfires.

When all is said and done, true, lasting, forever peace which brings the salvation and healing needed comes only through Christ. Of all people in the world, those who name that name ought to know better than to think anything else. Somehow in the brush heap of history God does use nations and kingdoms in ways that are well beyond our understanding even if we might be able to note some of the possibilities and even good coming out of that, along with what is questionable and not good.

In Christ alone comes the peace and good that the world needs. Not in any nation state, not in one. Through his reconciling death which is meant to put an end to all conflict. Christ took the final blow of humanity to end the chain and stop the endless cycle of violence and to bring about the shalom which only God can bring. Meant to be seen today yes in a humble way, but totally real, in Christ through Christ’s body in the world.

a revision to my earlier thought about problems in the Hebrew Bible (“Old Testament”) narrative

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.

Romans 15:4

For whatever reason, I can’t find a previous post I did which questioned whether or not God really commanded the extermination of peoples in Canaan, etc. If you read nothing else here, you will do well to read this essay by Melissa Florer-Bixler entitled “Christocentric hermeneutics without violence.”

In the essay, the difference between Greg Boyd’s fairly recent work (as in Cross Vision) and Karl Barth’s work is explained, though I’ll have to keep thinking about it, and will do well to reread it. Boyd’s thought certainly has received a significantly positive reception, and not surprisingly as Florer-Bixler points out, among Anabaptist Mennonites.

But what Barth is doing seems to me to be more in keeping with what scripture itself seems to be doing. What seems contradictory and indeed actually at least on some level is, is not set aside, but remains in place. It is there as part of an indirect witness of God’s revelation, the indirectness according to Barth continuing right through to all that is written about Christ.

It rings true as Barth puts it, that we can’t stand in judgment of scripture. We have to let it stand as is, learn from every part of it, but at the same time, especially as community in Jesus not at all minus our scholars (like Barth, Boyd, etc.) seek to discern what all of this means for us today, what God is telling us now.

Jesus is the fulfillment of all, not the replacement. As Florer-Bixler points out, we need the whole because the witness of scripture is one witness. This is not about some inerrant as in completely harmonious word. Rather each part is to be taken seriously in ways that avoid not only an easy explanation, but at times any explanation at all from us.

Supersessionism, the teaching that Jesus and what Jesus brings replaces Israel is refuted. Again, instead Jesus fulfills, and we can only understand what Jesus did in light of the Hebrew Bible/ Old Testament.

And so God makes God’s self known through all of scripture, finding its culmination and completion in Jesus Christ. With all of its divergence and at times confounding twists and turns, yes contradictions. God’s word in grace coming to us in the necessary judgment and salvation that follows, meeting us in the present where we live, redeeming the past, a glorious future in which all is well, to come. In and through Jesus.

This is not to be taken as a valid interpretation of Florer-Bixler, of her essay. This is my current understanding of it as I’m trying to think through all of this since for me scripture is essential along with experience and tradition in seeking with others to hear and understand the voice of God.

God is sovereign? What in the world does that mean??

The LORD has established his throne in the heavens,
and his kingdom rules over all.

Psalm 103:19

Call me a skeptic, or whatever, but the last thing that I believe is that God controls everything. Yes, if God exists and I believe God does, God is in control. How that is is likely getting into a realm beyond us. But looking at the world of nations and the political mess all over, I don’t believe myself that God is determining this and that and every other detail. It seems instead that God lets nations and peoples have their way with all the consequences that come with that.

I also think we’re pulling the plug on wisdom if we just look for God’s plan to unfold, as if we as humans are not to be engaged in what’s going on in the world, as if we’re passive bystanders. Of course we do well and much better when we look to God in prayers. But God’s answer won’t be to drop something out of heaven onto our lap or give us the easy answer. When we’re looking for that, we’re no longer in the realm of wisdom, but set up for deception. And that’s exactly what’s going on in the world today.

Yes, God is in control, but God rarely controls in the sense of determining precisely what will happen. Don’t we see in the biblical witness that time and time and time again God lets people have their way, not without warning, and that God lets people suffer the consequences, maybe cushioning it somewhat. When I think of the world and all the disasters and injustice, I have to think that surely much more is coming since I take the witness of scripture seriously.

God’s promise of making all things right and new stands. But in the meantime, we humans and especially followers of Jesus need to become fully engaged in the pursuit of wisdom (Proverbs 2). Not that we’ll ever have all the answers in this life, or that we’ll ever arrive to a time when we no longer need to do this. But aren’t humans meant to rule as stewards under God (Genesis 1:26-27)? And Christians really ought to be at the forefront of this. And as church in some sense already are. In and through Jesus.

confidence in a mere human, or God?

Thus says the LORD:
Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals
and make mere flesh their strength,
whose hearts turn away from the LORD.
They shall be like a shrub in the desert
and shall not see when relief comes.
They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness,
in an uninhabited salt land.

Blessed are those who trust in the LORD,
whose trust is the LORD.
They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream.
It shall not fear when heat comes,
and its leaves shall stay green;
in the year of drought it is not anxious,
and it does not cease to bear fruit.

The heart is devious above all else;
it is perverse—
who can understand it?
I the LORD test the mind
and search the heart,
to give to all according to their ways,
according to the fruit of their doings.

Jeremiah 17:5-10

We see it over and over again in scripture and right up to the present day: God’s people putting their trust in a human being, usually a man instead of God.

God lets them have their way along with the consequences. Why should we think today will be any different?

a nation coming apart

The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORDStand in the gate of the LORD’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the LORD, all you people of Judah, you who enter these gates to worship the LORDThus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.”

For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave to your ancestors forever and ever.

Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail.

Jeremiah 7:1-8

We certainly live in a different day and nation. But I think, considering the Christian nationalization taking root and the fruit we’re seeing, I would suggest that judgment is practically on us already, and the worst of that is up ahead.

The false prophets of Israel were all too ready to pronounce their amen and blessing on the religious, civil leaders who maintained a status quo which favored the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor, the orphans and widows. You clearly see the same thing today, those celebrating political leaders and even guns in contrast to the true prophetic vision which clearly sees through them.

Violence is not only tolerated in our society, but even celebrated. Genesis 6 said God had had enough with humans because the earth was filled with violence. The way of Christ is completely the opposite, but frankly you would never know that with the “Christian” presence in America.

It’s alright because of the gospel and Jesus, they think. But God looks at the fruit, the heart, and the actions and inaction. What good is our profession of faith in Christ if we’re not living in the way of Christ? The gospel is reduced to empty words.

None of us are off the hook. We’re all accountable, yes to an entirely loving God who is love, a love which will not look past whatever violates that love.

We can’t do this by ourselves. We need to band with others, for us Christ-followers with other Christ-followers to better understand our times and what God’s people are called to do. God will help us. In and through Jesus.

mercy follows judgment

So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.

James 2:12-13

All of us make judgments about things all the time. Mostly over more or less obvious things, and always subject to our level of understanding and maturity. But judgments are necessary, and especially important together with others who are seriously wrestling to understand what is good and right, even what God’s will is in general and particular matters.

When we read the prophets in the Hebrew Bible (“Old Testament”) we often see God’s judgments, and nearly always followed by God’s mercy. And in the grand narrative of scripture, certainly so.

That suggest an important pattern for us. We need to take seriously what is wrong, what might be evil, to look that in the face and call it what it is. Not that that’s a clearcut easy endeavor. All kinds of things have to be taken in consideration. We could be misunderstanding what is going on, in fact that often is the case as I’ve found out the hard way myself. Then we might be finding out something not so good about ourselves in our propensity to judge others and think the worst of them.

But carefully and prayerfully with mercy, we need to consider something which may be wrong, hopefully with eyes to see, a heart and mind to discern, and the will to be present in love. Some things are obviously wrong. The point here is that there is a place for judgment, that it is necessary. Even if we come to the conclusion in our judgment that we don’t know, or that it’s likely okay.

What always must emerge and prevail after any degree of proper judgment is out and out mercy. Mercy not to sweep the wrong under the rug, but to be present in love to help what is good and just prevail, to see what is wrong made right, to help the one who is in the wrong always remembering that we are often wrong ourselves. To befriend them if possible. Love and wisdom helping them over time with prayers. Mercy must prevail and it will in the end. We’re called to be part of that together as well as in our individual life, in and through Jesus.

calling fear’s bluff

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us, and his love is perfected in us.

By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate a brother or sister are liars, for those who do not love a brother or sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

1 John 4:7-21

Fear is no stranger to the human race collectively or individually. And often in history as well as in too many places today, and really to some extent understandably, everywhere. We can fear a whole host of things, and a nagging fear can grip us, causing us to lose sleep until its grip is gone for the time, or until the issue is resolved.

The fear spoken of in the passage is the fear of God’s judgment. And the setting is to place that concern within the context and reality of God’s love demonstrated in giving the Son, Jesus and all that is involved and follows from that.

At the heart of this within the passage is not only God’s love for us, but our love for God and for one another. The prevailing idea seems to be of God’s love, that love manifested, and we living in that love. When we do so, we realize that we should and therefore can give the lie to the bluff of fear. As the passage says, if we reach perfection in love, we will not fear. What might perfection in love mean?

It certainly doesn’t have anything to do with sinless perfection as this relatively short letter (1 John) makes clear. It is all about living in and in accordance with God’s love. There is certainly a mystical quality to that, as well as the intellectual and volitional. On the mystical side, we look for the sense and feeling of a love which casts out fear. Something which may make no sense in our own minds with our lack of understanding and many misunderstandings or wrong, even harmful lies we’ve somehow imbibed and accepted.

John’s writings are thematic on love and hate, light and darkness, truth and lies. If it’s not one we live in, then it’s the other, though often in our experience there seems to be some experience of both at the same time. But John seems to want us to learn to live solely in the experience, yes the experience of God’s love in contrast to the experience of fear. Fear can certainly be a wrong notion in our head about God or reality, but it is also certainly a lived-out experience.

Regardless of what we’re feeling, because we know we can’t live according to feelings, we’re to love one another, our neighbor, as part of living in the love God has for us and for them. In that way we can learn to call fear’s bluff, not just through an individual head knowledge, but through acting in faith in love for each other.

We know that because of God’s act of love in Christ that God’s love is active by the Spirit for the world, and manifestly among those who are believers in God’s word concerning Christ. This is not just an individual matter, but collective, the love of God meant for all of us to live in together.

God’s light, love and truth will break through all the darkness, hate, and lies. And we get to experience that love ourselves in communion with each other, as well as in expression of love for all. In and through Jesus.

Paul’s citizenship and ours as Christ-followers

But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Philippians 3:20

My explanation as to why I don’t pledge allegiance at the few meetings I go that require it is that the first time I was born I became an American citizen because my mother was an American, but then in 1971 I was born again and I am now a Kingdom of God citizen. Please think of me as a foreigner, or resident alien.

Lynn Miller

Paul though a Jew was a citizen of Rome and used his Roman citizenship to procure whatever rights had been violated to fulfill his calling as an apostle to the gentiles through the gospel of Christ. He was also an Israelite through and through as is attested at the beginning of the passage above (click link).

Most everyone and every professing Christian and follower of Christ has some kind of earthly citizenship or tribal belonging. Paul makes it clear here that followers of Christ strictly speaking have only one citizenship, that of “heaven.” And that Jesus’s followers await his return, the time when all the promises of God and blessings that come with that will be fully realized.

There are perhaps Christ-followers attached to a Christendom which ties church and state together so that part of their faith is more or less tied to a national entity such as the United States, or whatever other nation. But is that the faith or gospel that Jesus brought, or Paul or others taught? Would Paul have fought for Rome or advised gentile Roman citizen Christ-followers to do so? From what we read in his letters and in Acts along with church history, the answer from the first three centuries is plain. No!

Christ-followers should always hope and pray, advocate and work for the good of whatever nation-state they live in (see Jeremiah 29). But their allegiance is to one Lord only, and their hope for themselves and for the world is in one Savior only. But in a salvation active in the world now by the Spirit of God in Christ’s body, the church. The life to come present now through this body shown in good works for the true good of all with an emphasis on justice for the poor and oppressed, the bereaved and the marginalized. Works very much down to earth like serving on a public-school board perhaps in the inner city and advocating for needed systemic change such as addressing underlying causes of poverty and the problems that come with it.

The source of all of that from where true life lies: the reconciling love of God present in Jesus. A life to restore our full humanity and all of creation in the new creation in Jesus, beginning even now. As we Christ followers in our works together anticipate and await Christ’s return which will bring God’s good final judgment and universal salvation. In and through Jesus.